(The following is my translation of my blog post "KMUnverstand" which originally was published in German and seemed to resonate with quite a few people in my web dev bubble. It surely is full of grammar- and spelling-errors, but I hope the gist of it will come across anyway)

In our small web-studio we have our problems with advertising "hey, we've launched a new web site, look here, it's awesome!".

Because the launch is only a part of the ongoing process, the real work starts after the launch, even if many think that it is the finish line. But, especially with CMS-driven web sites, it needs some time and work by the editors to see if the ideas for the designed components really work as desired. Plus, even right after the launch one is already smarter than before and has many new ideas how to better solve some details than before. Despite the seemingly average life-span of web projects, our clients work with their sites way longer than five years. With the dynamic changes in the "web technology" field over the last five to ten years, this means that there needs to be constant team-work and a regulary exchange between us and our clients over possibilities and new or changed requirements.

Unfortunately, especially in the SME environment that we often deal with, "websites" are still seen as a fixed product. One "buys" this once, expecting it to work "as is" from that moment on until an internal decision in the distant future. So there is a great deal of ignorance and non-comprehension if ongoing maintenance and service shoud be considered and paid. The feeling of unwanted dependence is strong, especially because often open-source solutions seem to be initially "free". Because web packages for 5-10 EUR a month seem to work fine on first glance. If then a monthly support and maintenance package with at least 20 times the price is offered (a budget allowing for only 1-2 hours a month for work on the site), this totally seems over top and something that can be economized and saved. Why bother, the site works as is, right?

From the customer's point of view the perfidious dependence on "invisible" technology changes seems to many to be artificial only. Customers who share their login passworts (CompanyName123SpecialChar) in plain e-mail in CC with all their IT-service partners (no kidding, this really happened here), they mean well, but to those people "because of security" is never a convincing argument when it comes to explaining why PHP5.6 is to be switched off on their web package and then their CMS will not work anymore and that there needs to be done something about that. Which will cost.

Actually, it is quite amazing that as a company with many SME customers and mostly without SLA agreements or maintenance contracts, we manage to keep our customers' websites running for many years without having to go through the "complete relaunch after 3 years" cycle*.

However, reflecting on the problem described above, it gets clearer to me why, compared to the necessary effort, we earn less with each passing year. We actually give away a lot of passion and knowledge without being understood and therefore rewarded. This realization is not really new either, but this gap is getting more and more aggravated, because in order for a site to "work", you have to know and consider more and more exponentially, while the situation with budgets and what a "website" is worth to the SMEs, are not changing accordingly.

*) The exception from this is unfortunately and increasingly the TYPO3 projects: Due to the dynamics presented by the developers, and the sometimes massive changes that are made from LTS to LTS version, we, or a part of our customers, have quite a problem. This is in parts due to the fact that we, or more precisly, an earlier iteration of our company, have implemented TYPO3 projects far too favorably at that time, and that of course the update investments are always compared to the initial costs, at least unconsciously.
On the other hand, however, the technical change that comes with a new LTS version, or the effort that needs to be done to get the site running again, can not be brokered under "what does the customer actually do with his website" aspects in many small / mid-sized companies. This is not a criticism of TYPO3, it's simply the realization that these customers may have the wrong CMS for their purposes.

The result is: We still -- in December 2018 -- are discussing with some clients urgent and way overdue updates to their installations, some of those discussions going on for more than three years without any result, and that some of those clients still running a TYPO3 4.5 version in production. With each new LTS version and the sunsetting of security support for older LTS versions these discussions get uglier, because the effort and thus the investment needed are rising and have surpassed the initial budgets by far in some cases. Now try to explain this to a client whose web site is still working fine, seemingly, and doing what he expects. Like it did for the last eight years. What? PHP is outdated? New shiny TYPO3 version with loads of better features? So what?!

But clients with WordPress sites (who often had even less initial costs than the TYPO3 clients) have similar problems. The majority is left with a multi-purpose themed site with integrated site-builder that was sold to them by a "Design" agency for a seemingly affordable price. Then after launch they are left alone with the site (maybe following their own wish, see above), and they have better things to do than updating the WordPress core, the plugins, or the themes. Sometimes they couldn't even update if they wanted to, because the themes and their integrated plugins need license keys and they don't have them or they have expired and nobody took care to keep them up to date. Sooner or later those site are either inoperable, broken, or hacked. Some of those clients then knock at our door and seek our help and assistance -- and sooner than later the same discussions about budgets and neccessities and why suddenly all of this seems so expensive appear.

I mentioned TYPO3 and WordPress because those systems drive many of our "problem" clients' sites. The update/security problems however are true for most CMS. In past times, our clients with unattended Joomla sites were those with the most hacks. But luckily those days/sites are gone (at least for us).

Clients who we could convince of ProcessWire and Kirby for example, don't have those problems. But in part that is because we were also able to establish that ongoing and iterative work process that I described in the first part. But even there, sometimes things happen that cannot be seen in the wildest dreams, because sometimes it has to be going quick somewhere, or a collegue called in sick, or sometimes people just want to tinker themselves for hours instead of calling and asking wether a feature X for problem Z is possible. This maybe need some additional money, and with some organisations this can pose a problem or at least a considerable delay - which is a problem when you're just about to finish the assigned job. So soon work-around stacked above work-around can appear even in the best of scenarios, even when a constant exchange and maintenance is established. This is the beauty of CMS. Or, people.

Question is, why do I see myself in some form of responsibility for this? It really isn't my problem if a client decides against investing in a healthy web site, and possibly ends up with a hacked or broken one. The answer: Many of those clients are overwhelmed. They have way different problems and priorities, and have no capacities to think about the "worth" and value of their site. At the same time, many owner-managed enterprises are very bad in honouring or even allowing external competences, and of course everyone's money is tight. It is no different for us, really. And I know that we could help these people. But unfortunatly I have nothing to give away for free anymore. Yes, of course there are other companies as well, those how spend on big cars for the management or shelve out medium sized 5-figure sums for a conference table, but whail if they are confronted with a 5.000 EUR investment after 8 years of investing zero -- here clearly the appreciation and priorites are different to what we see. But luckily, we are not doing business with those anymore. It was a bad fit.

It often fails even at the very beginning: How does a SME get to a website?

Either there is already an agency that already cares about the means of communication. Usually these are more print-oriented design agencies. They make a concept with and for the client, both discuss in length the often visual-only aspects and usually only at the end they are looking for a partner or contractor who "just builds" the thing they deviced. Most times at that time they already have decided that a CMS is needed (of course), and very often this CMS shall be WordPress, because everyone is using WordPress and it seems affordable (the first big surprise waits when suddenly individual designer's wishes collide with the purchased theme, but this is another story). What I mean is: It is very rare that someone who is able to convey the differences and pros and cons of possible solutions is present at that early stage. Usually this is only possible for very small customers - but those usually also have no budget at all. As soon as it gets larger, an agency is involved, and if they have no real online / digital experts, but think that "web" is just another form of or an add-on to the traditional communications like brochures et al, it will be problematic later on. Especially because those agencies tend to leave the project once it is "handed over", when things get "too technical" and/or "just need to be programmed".

Second scenario: a web site, that is something in the domain of IT, hence the IT-contractor is the one in lead. This *can* lead to better starting situations, but it also go very wrong if the IT-company thinks that CMS X and schema F is the right thing for the new client Z.

Third scenario: The client already has a site, which should be overhauled and is in need of some fundamental changes. Very often the internal problems of the SME can be seen in those web sites. And often those pain points are the same that triggered this "we need to do something about our site". And as long as there is no internal change, the new team just puts on new paint on the old problems. But, usually nobody wants to hear that, either.

The crucial question -- what does the client actually need and what he is willing and able to afford even after the launch of the site -- is often not asked. And the SME, which actually has better things to do than to take care of the website, relies on recommendations and decisions that ultimately bite it in the rear.

And so… "Making the Web better, one Site after the other" is a honorable deed, but quite unthankful, at times.

Photo by: Janita Top on Unsplash