Joomla Project Costing

By Justin Kerr
July 01, 2010

Table of Contents

On Monday, June 28, 2010, members of the CMS Agencies group of JoomlaChicago.com met at Simone's bar and grill in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago to discuss the issue of Joomla Project Costing and to listen to a presentation from Justin Kerr. Due to the intimate size of the group and the cozy environs, the presentation turned into a moderated discussion, with members chiming in with their ideas and personal experiences. This article includes materials from Justin Kerr's presentation and observations taken from this first CMS Agencies meeting.

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Joomla is a popular solution for all kinds of Web sites. Even though it's one of the easiest content management systems to use, setup of a well-running and successful Joomla site requires time and expertise.

An accurate cost estimate is essential to the success of a Joomla project. This applies equally to solo site developers who want to make the most of their efforts, as well as to businesses that offer Joomla implementation services.

Pick Your Market

When offering Joomla services commercially, one of the first project costing elements to consider is the target market.  Different sizes of clients – and the specific business niches they occupy – call for different methods of estimating costs, as well as specific approaches for selling a client on a project at that price. A nuanced and well-balanced costing methodology tailored to the target market will absolutely help to support sales, no matter whether this takes place in the enterprise, in the small- to medium-sized business marketplace, or for a targeted vertical market.


The Enterprise

The enterprise market contains potentially the biggest contract opportunities for Joomla service providers. Large companies typically budget projects at significantly higher amounts than smaller companies: They have the funds to do so, and their needs are often much more expansive and specific than those of smaller organizations. These large budgets allow for more flexibility in project estimating, as it's easier to balance less-profitable areas of the estimate with more profitable ones.

Still, though, selling Joomla into the enterprise remains a big challenge. The No. 1 reason is the presence of existing content management platforms, most of which consist of commercial, proprietary software that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Large enterprises shot their wads several years to a decade ago on these expensive, proprietary solutions, and they'll be darned if they're going to drop their investment (as well as get executives to admit they might have been wrong). Meanwhile, proprietary CMS vendors do everything they can to keep their hooks into the enterprise client, even giving away their product and making it as difficult as possible to migrate to a different solution. Unfortunately, a bias against open source still lingers in certain corners of the enterprise, even though that enterprise is almost certainly running or relying upon open source somewhere. Many corporate managers who control purse strings want to be able to point the finger if a project goes south: With open source, it's no longer possible to offload blame to the software vendor.

Enterprises have had some legitimate arguments against open source CMS solutions, but these are disappearing rapidly. In the case of Joomla, third-party providers have started to step in and implement solutions that deliver missing enterprise-level features. (For example, Jentla is a product that brings multi-site capabilities to Joomla.) That old bugbear of no support is also fading fast, with always-on providers like Open Source Support Desk delivering expert open source support contracts for corporations with specific support requirements.

Joomla's move into the enterprise is slowly starting to gain steam, with extremely large companies like Tesco (third-largest retailer in the world) moving entirely to Joomla. Also, lots of Joomla adoption is occurring internationally and in the not-for-profit and government sectors. Watch the Joomla.org home page and also the brand-new Joomla Community Magazine for news about enterprise Joomla implementations.


The SMB Market

The small- to medium-sized business (or SMB) market is one of the "sweet spots" for Joomla implementations, and indeed, it probably represents the most active market for Joomla services. Joomla fits in especially well at an SMB because Joomla delivers a lot of value, an SMB's needs are more likely to be general in nature, and the SMB will be able to tolerate some compromises or less specificity with its Web site implementation.

Web site project budgets in the SMB marketplace can vary widely: from the low-four to mid-five figures. (This is actually as much due to the range of SMBs – from mom-and-pop shops to well-established B2B firms – as anything else.) However, all SMB prospects tend to share some common characteristics:

  • They have a poor or under-performing Web site (or even no Web site at all).
  • They often have neither an internal IT/Webmaster resource nor or an internal marketing resource.
  • They typically want one-stop shopping for a discrete project solution.
  • Their needs often encompass a range of disciplines (not just technical expertise with Joomla).

For a generalist agency or service provider, successfully selling a Joomla project will require a client-specific pricing methodology. The smallest clients may require a phased-in approach to spread costs out over time. (In this scenario, it's best to first aim for any low-hanging fruit that will demonstrate an early return on investment, then move to Joomla, leveraging as many earlier project elements as possible.) Medium-sized clients will have more generous budgets that can easily include Joomla as part of the solution from the get-go.

Of course, building a Web site is a multidisciplinary process that also calls for marketing, communications, creative and support services: Indeed, the SMB client is going to look to the Web site solution provider to help meet these needs, even if the provider does not conduct this work directly. These are all additional opportunities for a generalist service provider to deliver more services and realize greater revenue.

Vertical Markets

One area of tremendous opportunity lies in employing Joomla as the solution for Web sites tailored to specific vertical markets, including using Joomla as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform. Joomla delivers a tremendous amount of value, especially if it can be tweaked to accommodate a business's specific functional needs. Companies in the same vertical market will tend to share the same type of needs, and there is much appeal in building a standardized Joomla solution once, and then selling it multiple times. (Of course, this type of business model would undoubtedly include service tiers, additional one-off services, and other elements of a SaaS business model.)

Rafi Arbel, vice president of Online Video Concepts and a participant in the June 28, 2010, CMS Agencies meeting, told us about his successful use of Joomla as the CMS platform that delivers Web sites specifically for his law firm clients. Other examples of Joomla-based SaaS businesses are starting to crop up, and it seems highly likely that Joomla will become a popular CMS solution for many of these market spaces.


Project Pricing Methodology

Most every CMS solution provider will be able to quote an hourly rate (or a sliding scale) for as-needed or ongoing work. However, many Joomla Web sites begin as discrete projects, with specific client expectations for cost, deliverables and schedule. A flat-rate quote for a Joomla project must be both palatable to the client and profitable for the service provider. Using a specific pricing methodology for flat-rate projects will help to both track results and ensure profit.

Many service agencies will structure flat-rate projects by first setting an "internal" hourly rate. This rate is most often higher than the hourly rate quoted to customers, sometimes significantly so. It needs to be, as this internal rate must cover many extra or intangible elements related to executing the project (for example, business development costs, unexpected technical issues, client factors which increase project hours, etc.). It is not at all uncommon for small- to medium-sized agencies to set their internal hourly rate at well above U.S. $100/hour – the largest and most successful advertising agencies may set their internal project rates at hundreds of dollars an hour.

Once an internal rate is set, the project should be broken down into its various components and tasks, resulting in an estimate of the total hours for the project. The project cost can then be estimated using this formula:

Final Project Cost = Internal Rate x Estimated Hours

Naturally, there are many nuances to accurately estimating what it will take to accomplish a project. Thorough up-front discovery is critical, as it's essential to know about all aspects of the project environment (technical, creative, personnel, etc.) and be able to anticipate any issues.


Hosting Setup

Qualification of a Web host and/or configuration of the Web hosting environment is a common task for Joomla projects, especially when working with SMB clients who may not have a Web hosting environment appropriate for Joomla. Depending on the project, the hosting vendor and the client, prepping the environment for Joomla can take from a few minutes to hours of time. No matter what, it is best practice to make sure all hosting environment variables are optimized early on in the project: If they aren't, it's almost inevitable that the issue will have to be addressed at some point during the life of the Web site, and fixing it later will almost always be more costly than working with a proper configuration from the start.

Do not forget to accommodate tasks that might not be part of the "Web hosting" setup per se, but in the client's mind, they'll expect you to assist anyway. For example, many SMB clients will need help with domain registration or DNS configuration; a larger client may have project requirements that necessitate a development server. Anything to do with e-mail should be broken out as a sub-project and priced to accommodate the hassles of spam and dealing with users and their accounts.

Joomla Installation

Let's face it: Installing the basic Joomla CMS is a breeze, especially when working in a properly configured Web hosting environment and pulling from previous Joomla installation experience. This process should take well under an hour: even just 10-15 minutes or less for experienced admins.

However, most Joomla service providers will augment every core installation with a set of extensions that provide commonly needed functionality. (For example, almost everyone will replace Joomla's default WYSIWYG editor with a more feature-rich editor such as JCE.) Each provider should establish their own set of "must-have" extensions for their clients' sites, and calculate the cost of installation and configuration. One way to mitigate some of this extra cost is to use a Joomla extension like Akeeba Backup or XCloner to clone and migrate a "default" starting setup from a development area to a new Joomla installation.


Site Planning

Web site planning is an essential part of project costing, and the planning process may span from initial client contact through the final provision of planning documents as specified as a contract deliverable. Depending on the client and the project, planning materials can range from simple outlines to detailed request-for-proposal responses to packages of use-case models and wireframes.

No matter the size of the client, at least a couple hours will be required to define site content and features, and to draw up a written document that establishes the site plan. Prototaph Interactive accomplishes this by working with clients to create a "Web site taxonomy" that details common page elements, Web site features and a list of all pages comprising the content of the Web site. For flat-rate projects, clients must sign off on a finalized Web site taxonomy before any dependent work will be conducted. In this scenario, it is understood that any changes made to the taxonomy following final approval may result in cost overruns.

Web Site Visual Design

A Web site's visual design consists of the shapes, colors, branding elements and other graphic components that make up the visual packaging for Web site information and features. It is most often created using tools like Photoshop, Illustrator and Fireworks, and the result is a flat, graphical preview of how the Web site will look.

The visual design process is a minefield for costing concerns. Everyone at the client will have an opinion about the design, even though they may not be able to articulate why they do or do not like something. A peanut gallery full of third-party opinions may cascade into the design discussion, as the client queries outside sources for additional opinions (whether they are qualified or not). Clients may also try to micro-manage the design process, requesting endless permutations of minor revisions.

Establishing a methodology for design and taking a leading role in the design discussion are two ways to control the costs of this process. Prototaph Interactive requires a finalized Web site taxonomy and a defined brand identity (including logo, fonts, colors, etc.) to be present before any visual design work begins. Querying clients about their market, their message and design ideas they like will result in initial Web site design conceptions that are well-received.

Revisions should focus on specific elements and the reasons behind a design change, and resolve issues one by one until the design is complete. Prototaph Interactive requires a final sign-off on the visual design before Joomla templating begins, and it is understood that any changes to the design following final approval may result in cost overruns.

Sometimes it is helpful to contractually establish how many initial design conceptions will be provided, and how many revisions will be conducted. Assuming the presence of a well-managed process and a talented art director, a Web site's visual design should take no more than 12 hours of time, and this includes as many initial conceptions and design revisions as will commonly be required.


Joomla Templating

There's a big difference in cost between implementing a third-party Joomla template and launching a Joomla site with a completely bespoke design. With third-party templates, most of the visual design is dictated by the chosen template, and the customization work usually just involves swapping out the site logo and making some other small tweaks.

For a completely custom design, a bespoke Joomla template will be required, and this will take significantly more time to develop and deploy. Joomla templating work can include image slicing-and-dicing, page layout (and layout logic), CSS styling for all Joomla components, module chrome styles, WYSIWYG editor styles integration, and cross-browser testing. This process can easily take 10 hours or more.

Of course, experienced Joomla developers (and Web developers and designers in general) will probably have a toolbox of existing site design frameworks and code which can serve as a starting point for Joomla templating, resulting in significant cost savings. Also, new tools like the Gantry Framework for Joomla have the potential to really save time when deploying completely bespoke designs into Joomla templates.

Content Production

Do not forget to establish the volume of content to be produced as part of a flat-rate Joomla project. This can have a tremendous effect on cost, and it should encompass all types of content elements to be published into Joomla, whether that's com_content article pages, content construction kit-driven listings, documents in a document management system, products in a catalog, etc.

A good benchmark for regular com_content article production is 15 minutes per page (or Article). This includes content layout, text styling, and image prep, uploading and layout. Many pages will take less time, but some will take significantly more (for example, a Web page that contains a complex table, or a bunch of images).

Joomla Chicago Core Team member Miles Baltrusaitis and a couple other folks at the CMS Agencies meeting on June 28, 2010, mentioned the idea of offloading some content production to the client as part of their training process, and as a way to control costs. It may be more desirable for the client to take on some production work internally than to have this entirely outsourced: After all, Joomla is made for this sort of thing.


Third-Party Extensions

A single Joomla extension may be just one small element of a Joomla Web site, or it may power most of the functionality that the site delivers. Thus, costs for implementing a Joomla extension can range from being negligible to consuming the bulk of the budget for an entire project.

A good approach for estimating extension costs is to treat a specific third-party extension as a mini-project inside the larger Joomla Web site project. Try to estimate the time it will take for extension installation and configuration, visual styling and functional integration, integration with outside services or resources, cross-browser and usability testing, and content production inside the extension.

It's a good idea to keep track of specific extension implementation costs from project to project in order to establish some benchmarks. Also, as most Joomla extensions are either free or of nominal cost, it's quite practical to set up a test case scenario to evaluate the project costs of implementing any particular extension.

Other Tasks

A successful Joomla project will benefit from (and probably require) any number of other services as part of the total Web site implementation. These may include:

Training and Documentation
It is important to ensure that the client is able to take advantage of Joomla's excellent content management capabilities, and provision of documentation and training can go a long way toward supporting this activity. A custom documentation package is a reassuring reference for many clients, and most of it can be reused from project to project. Two to three hours of on-site training should be enough to get a client comfortable with logging in, managing content, and approaching some of the more specific or technical areas of Joomla (for instance, managing menu items or modules).

Creative and Communications Services
Especially for SMB clients, a range of creative and communications services may be required as part of launching the Web site project. Small businesses typically won't have internal marketing resources to leverage, and they will turn to the Joomla service provider for answers. These "soft" services represent significant revenue opportunities.

Ongoing Services
Most clients will be interested in some level of ongoing provision of service or general availability to troubleshoot if something goes wrong. In addition, many smaller clients may wish to outsource ongoing marketing and communications tasks, as they don't have an internal resource to which this can be assigned. Recurring business from existing clients is a great way to build a revenue base. Contracts for this type of work frequently succeed a flat-rate project contract, and it is often helpful to tell clients up-front that this is an option.


Certain elements should be a part of every Joomla project with a flat-rate price. These include:

A Contract

A written contract that both covers legal issues and that specifies a work agreement is absolutely critical for any Joomla project. At the end of the day, it will be what is specified in the signed contract that defines project deliverables, payments, responsibilities, scheduling and all other issues. A good, flat-rate Joomla contract should precisely specify the deliverables to which the service provider commits, and it should also specify any elements that the client is responsible for providing (for example, content). It may also be useful to address scheduling in the contract, although this is sometimes difficult to specify since completion of project milestones may rely upon client decision-making that will not accommodate rigid deadlines.

An Up-Front Payment

For a flat-rate Joomla contract, an up-front payment from the client is essential. It establishes the payment process, confirms the availability of a project budget, and helps prevent losing money due to abandoned projects or unscrupulous clients. Smaller projects may be divided into two payments: an up-front fee, and a payment upon completion of deliverables. Larger projects benefit from installment payments tied to the successful completion of project milestones. One consultant at the CMS Agencies meeting on June 28, 2010, said he won't publish the public Joomla site or turn over access credentials to the client until after the final project payment has been received.

Well-Managed Client Expectations

It is incumbent upon the service provider to communicate clearly with the client and keep them appraised of project updates and problems. A well-informed, engaged client is much more likely to be accepting of cost overages, project delays, and other unexpected surprises than a client who does not understand project process or stay in tune with work progress.


Additional Cost Factors

Other things may affect one's approach to flat-rate project costing. Clients who lack certain competencies can really put a drag on a project, whether this stems from specific personnel, outside resources, lack of marketing savviness, internal politics, or poor organizational skills. It may be worthwhile to consider whether a particular client seems problematic in these areas: If so, it might be a good idea to pad that quote a little bit more.

Of course, more efficiency at the Joomla service provider means more profit at the end of the day, since more gets done in less time. These efficiencies may originate anywhere, from streamlined client management processes to a better starting base of templates and code. Even things like taking the time to memorize keyboard shortcuts or upgrading a workstation with a solid-state disk drive can have a measurable impact on productivity. Efficiencies like this should be considered and implemented at every opportunity.

Final Thoughts

One thing is for certain: Content management system pricing models will continue to change over time. Improvements to and commoditization of CMS technologies will continue to reduce platform and implementation costs. Just as the value of yesterday's enterprise content management systems is being eclipsed by new, open source solutions that are cheap and offer 98 percent of any desired feature set, so will tomorrow's CMS market look completely different from today's.

In a world of CMS commoditization and falling prices, what may end up being the most valuable services are the high-touch creative, marketing and communications disciplines which can't be easily automated or effectively outsourced to the lowest possible bidder.