Avoiding Digital Back Alleys

Star Mountain Design
15 min readJul 15, 2020


In a world that is increasingly moving online, and exponentially more so with the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have been forced to jump by leaps and bounds into the virtual world, creating a lot more uncertainty in the products we buy.

Written by Lauren Sternberg

In a world that is increasingly moving online, and exponentially more so with the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have been forced to jump by leaps and bounds into the virtual world, creating a lot more uncertainty in the products we buy.

While many of us have had that experience with Amazon where we buy something that ends up being a lot different than it looked in the photo, we also have the ability to easily make a return, minus the drama.

But what about when the product is a digital service?

About two years ago, a couple of months after I launched Star Mountain, I was chatting with a friend who told me that a great selling point to our business is that you know who and what you’re getting.

I must have seemed puzzled, so he explained further.

Someone he knew had started a web design agency. But this person didn’t know anything about web design. Instead, this person based the company in the UK, had a full front to the business online, but outsourced the work to Southeast Asia, where the labor was cheaper.

Surely this must be the exception, rather than the norm, I told him. It happens, he told me. You’ll see.

A few months later, an acquaintance of mine came to us in the hopes that as an agency now, we could complete a project that had turned into every entrepreneur’s nightmare; the agency that had been building his business’s website had been held up — the project had been in development for several months with no sign of completion. It was nearly impossible to speak to someone working on the project. Various important parts of the site, including its e-commerce, were not working.

We inspected the code on the development site from our end and were met with a hall of horrors. Although the company claimed it created unique themes, this was an off-the-shelf WordPress theme that had been badly hacksawed, for lack of a better expression. We had never seen anything like it in our experience working on the web.

We looked up the agency. It advertised on its website that it was physically in London (as well as New York). But we learned from the client that the operation was completely based in India and simply utilized addresses in major cities for their website, which explained why getting answers about the progress of the site came at non-working hours in the UK — and hence why the agency was reluctant to speak to any of its clients on the phone.

The site could not be salvaged in its current form. There was too much conflicting code, which undoubtedly was a result of a disorganised operation where a lot of people were working remotely on it and not communicating with each other. To clean up that code would have cost the client more hourly than simply rebuilding it in the same style. And we did — we rebuilt the entire site for the client — but not without major challenges along the way trying to get back passwords and vital information.

In the end, he paid for the same project twice.

But again, it had to be a rarity, right?

I still refused to believe there were a lot of agencies out there that were hiding behind a façade.

I wasn’t even fully convinced when a client came to us last year stating that her website was still in the process of being built, a year and a half from its start. It wasn’t a complicated site by any means; basic information, a booking system and a small e-commerce shop. She said the agency building it was a UK-based agency, and when we looked at the agency’s website, we couldn’t immediately see evidence of the contrary. There was a London address in the footer of the site. The prices were very modest — you could easily be tempted in with the promise of lots of bells and whistles at a cost that anyone would find appealing. The catch? You had to pay the cost of the entire site upfront.

However, she said, a lot of things didn’t add up as time went on. The e-mails came at off-hours. The site had nothing done to it for long periods of time with no explanations. When she asked to speak to someone by phone several times, she would be turned down. When she threatened to leave/report them, she would get a call, but she said the accent of the person on the phone never stayed consistent- “John Smith” had a few different accents, though she wasn’t sure where from and said as the conversation progressed, “John Smith” found it harder to stay in one character.

The agency promised to work on her site and get it done, but then they lapsed again and often were slow to reply to her queries. When the client came back to us, we went to the original company’s website again — and found they had rebranded under a new name and new logo. No hint of the previous company; the only evidence of its past life was that the old domain forwarded to the new one.

Since the company had a chat bot, I decided to do a little digging. I simply inquired about building a website. After some small talk, I asked where the company was based- they now said they were in the United States. I said I like to do everything above-board and since we wouldn’t be able to meet in person, I wanted to know that they were a legitimate business. I was told they were registered in California, but surprise! I found no evidence of this company in the state’s business registration system.

I asked for the company’s exact name/registration number. They refused to give me anything. They said they would send me all of the information I requested, if I provided my exact details and e-mail addresses of everyone involved.

I replied that if they’re legally registered, that would all be public record anyway. And then came a wave of insults and personal attacks, out of nowhere. The written English which had been impeccable, Queen’s English, at the start, became extremely hard to understand. Which said to me that the people who were on the other side of the chat bots, had a script and I posed questions they were unprepared for.

Back here in London, the client told the agency that she intended to take her site to another developer, to which they said if she wanted her site files, it would be a £200 ($252 USD) cancellation charge (interesting to note the currency, as this company was now fronting as an American company).

I asked her about the contract she had with them — surely, as in the case with standard digital development contracts, once the site is paid for, the client owns all of the design and content contained in it. It’s pretty standard. She had paid everything up front, therefore, she was entitled to her files.

She went through her emails and found an estimate. But there was no contract or signed agreement. She had never signed one, and she didn’t know she was supposed to.

We actually found her site files in the directory of the company’s site — along with every other site they were building. No passwords or dirty tricks required — they were all out there for the taking. We could have downloaded her whole site (and anyone else’s) and uploaded it elsewhere. We don’t need to tell you how that could turn out, so you can only imagine how careful they were with passwords and credit card details. We did inspect the code of what was currently in development online. The structure of the site and the hatchet-job taken to the theme (see a pattern here?) could not be fixed cheaply without hours of rebuilding. It was literally cheaper for her to allow us to build her site again with an altered design — and since the other company had not provided her a domain or hosting, there was nothing she needed from them. We advised her to just walk away instead of paying the “cancellation fee.”

In the end… she did just that. She too, paid for the same project twice.

It’s extremely unfortunate that the general public has no real awareness that these scam agencies exist. If these “companies” produced the products requested resulting in happy clients, it would be one thing. But clients often get ripped off and chances are, the agency owner is getting rich while exploiting cheaper labor abroad.

And then, the plot twist. It happened to us. From another angle.

We had decided to check out a popular digital jobs forum several months and register as an agency. We had left it for a while, because business was going well for us. However, COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on businesses and we knew everything could change pretty quickly — we wanted to have backup options if we needed them, so we decided to explore the platform more seriously. One of the quirks of this platform is that you have to take a few ridiculously underpaid jobs to prove yourself, before the well-paid ones come your way.

We took one that seemed a little “off” to begin with — the person who hired us would not say what their connection to the business was, and there were several other things that didn’t add up as we built the site — including being able to tag that the site was built by us. Immediately after the site was built, the person asked us to build another site for an unrelated business for the same, ridiculously cheap price. We produced a counter offer that was inexpensive, but not even remotely close to the bargain that was the previous job. It was denied, naturally. Something seemed off and I needed answers.

I called up the business whose website we built — we had never had any communication with them directly. I asked the owner if they knew who built their website. The owner did not know.

I later learned that the person who had hired us had started a digital agency and did not build websites themselves but advertised it as a service. That agency was not even registered and still isn’t, at the time of the publication of this article. When I questioned if the agency was being fair to the clients by not telling them who was actually creating their digital products, I was met with a “No, but it’s not illegal.”

And that’s the truth, my friends. None of this is illegal. Is it immoral? Yes.*

I put an asterisk there, because there is nothing wrong with having an agency and choosing to outsource additional developers and designers to complement a set staff. Lots of bona fide agencies do it, especially when they cannot manage the volume of work they have during a particular period, but are not in a financial position to take on another hire.

There is something wrong with not being upfront about it to your clients, especially if they think they are getting a product fully produced in the country of the agency. Especially if they expect they’ll be able to call during normal business hours to discuss the development or bits of the project, but are unable to because all of the people working on the project are abroad, and in different time zones.

Now here’s the real point of this post — to tell you how you can avoid it happening to you on a client side and why it’s important.

Why it’s important to research who is building your digital product:

1. As an industry, web design, web development and the rest of the digital design shebang are not industry-regulated. Anyone can call themselves a web or graphic designer as long as they have the right tools. There are no accreditations, organizations or anything else that monitors people who work in this field.

2. If it’s a website, they’re going to know a lot of your passwords if you’re not tech-proficient enough to provide the information they need — for example, the FTP server information, DNS information, etc. They’ll know the password to your domain provider, your hosting provider, and your WordPress (or other content management system) if you want them to be able to monitor your site for updates and crashes, after the site is built. If you have an Instagram feed in your website, they’ll know the password to that too, and it can’t be changed after the build without changing the API key in the site’s dashboard as well — which the average person won’t know how to do.

(I will note here that there are clients who are digitally proficient enough to handle this, but the majority will not be — chances are, if they knew how this stuff worked already, they would have chosen to build their website themselves).

3. A digital company you can have a good rapport with results in a better outcome. We live in a world where (especially in a time of a pandemic) face-to-face interactions are becoming a relic of the past. Find a company who you can at least have Zoom / Skype / Facetime sessions with. Get to know the company you’re working with. Developing a mutual respect means that they will make it a top priority to give you a product that you don’t just like, but you love.

4. You’ll want to make sure the people you hire to build your product are sufficiently trained in their area of expertise. In a time where anyone can build a website on any of the popular commercial website builders — you know which ones they are because they have strong advertising campaigns — it’s important to make sure the people you hire actually know how to code. Why? Because those particular website builders can be limited in the scope of what they can do, and most are “Freemium” — meaning you can have a certain amount of features for free before you start paying monthly for upgrades. In addition, designers who code know how to change certain parts of a website without constantly upping the price on the commercial website builder’s end. If it seems like these people want to charge you a lot for a website — ask where and how it’s getting built — and find out what their experience is. Ask for a cost breakdown. People who are proficient in code know how to produce a great, mobile-responsive, well-built website efficiently without bloated, exorbitant costs to the client.

One thing worth pointing out — if you build your website on WordPress (which is free) the only basic, barebones, monthly fees you would incur would be your hosting provider. This is basically the “rent” you pay for your site to live on the internet. If you’re a small business with a fairly uncomplicated website this is usually under $10/month.

Your domain (ex: www.yoursite.com) would be considered a yearly (or every 2, 5, etc. year) cost.

Any other costs would be associated with plugins your site uses (certain booking system plugins, form plugins, SEO plugins, and so on incur costs, but you can decide for yourself if that’s right for you).

5. This is the most important. People or fronting agencies that know they are doing something wrong will get defensive, make threats and deliver personal attacks. They will stop at nothing to cover their own asses (sorry for the language!) even if it means locking you out of your site, refusing to deliver content that belongs to you (such as logos, graphics, site files) and changing passwords.

So, what can you do?

1. Do your homework. Don’t go with the first agency that pops up on your Google search and assume because they’re in a high spot, that they’re the best for the job. There are many dirty SEO (search engine optimization) tricks, better known as Black Hat SEO, known in the web development world that are employed by businesses to make them show up higher in searches. Google has tried to crack down on these practices in recent years, but they still exist and new tricks can be found.

2. If you know someone who has used an agency/sole proprietor for graphic design, advertising or web design and YOU like the work you’ve seen, ask who they are and how the experience was. Look up their website/portfolio and make sure they will fit your needs and vision. Then, reach out. In a day and age where we live and breathe digital information, oftentimes the best (and most trustworthy!) recommendations are from the good old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

3. If you don’t have that option, look at a suggested agency/sole proprietor’s website. See if they tell you who works for them. If everyone’s photo looks like stock photos and all the names are very generic, they might not be the people creating your project. You will want to know who is building your site or designing your brand. You will want to know who you are going to be talking to and who is going to be creating something that will be your business’s online, social media and in some cases, graphic presence.

4. Remember that testimonials on an agency’s (or any business’s) front page reflect their best reviews. Look at reviews on Google, Trustpilot, and so on — just remember that sometimes it goes the other way too, and it’s impossible to make some customers happy.

5. Look for a company registration. This is not a make-or-break as some don’t list them on their websites, but if other things don’t add up, look to take this step by searching public records. In the US, business registrations are usually available on an individual state’s Department of State (or the equivalent’s) website. In the UK, businesses are registered on Companies House. Other countries will have similar business registration systems and usually a simple web search will point you in the right direction.

The reason I say that locating the company registration is not a make-or-break requirement is that some companies are registered under a different name to the one their website and merchandise displays. For example, a restaurant called “Burrito Bonanza” might be registered under “So-and-So Foods.” Usually an agency website will tell you they’re registered, at the very least, in their footer. Even if they don’t, you have every right to ask — and should!

6. MAKE SURE YOU SIGN A CONTRACT. I cannot stress this enough and I am putting it last because if nothing else, walk away with this. Contracts are legally binding and can save you a whole lot of heartache. Even if your friend Bob tells you he can do a quick website for a hundred bucks, put everything in writing. It saves aggravation and friendships. Remember that legitimate agencies/businesses will want to protect themselves (especially if the client is only paying a deposit upfront) and will want you to feel protected too. Read all the fine print. Look for a section that clearly states that the rights, particularly the copyright, in the website and all of its content are assigned to you. Make sure that the contract states that when you’ve paid the final payment in full, you will receive access to all of your site files, content, and graphics zipped into a file sent by the agency at no extra cost and that you are its rightful owner. Register the domain you’re using yourself to ensure it is in your name only. Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT settle for client/agency relationship that does not involve a contract. You can thank me later.

And that is really about it when it comes to shopping around for a digital agency. While we would love for you to check us out at Star Mountain, my real reason for writing this article is to save businesses and other unsuspecting clients from getting caught up in one of these scenarios — as well as shout out the other great digital agencies out there that do their work efficiently, honestly and with pride!

If you have any questions, always feel free to e-mail me at lauren@starmountain.co.uk.

Originally published at https://starmountaindesign.com on July 15, 2020.



Star Mountain Design

We are a UK-based WordPress web design agency with a presence in London, Liverpool & New York. We create bespoke websites and digital products for your business