A short while back, Fitness SF’s website design looked noticeably different. Embarrassingly, it appeared as if whoever the fitness chain hired to design and build their website had a little too much control over the site and was clearly disgruntled about not being paid for their services. The result was a homepage that looked like this:

The site has since returned to normal, but this little hiccup did not go unnoticed across the web. Not only did the “hacked” website get submitted to reddit’s /r/funny section, it got covered in AdWeek as well. And Fitness SF had to do some serious damage control after a mix of amusing and critical comments and reviews got posted on their Facebook page and their Yelp listing. They denied they were stiffing the web designer but ultimately settled with him. Meanwhile, the designer gave details of the “takeover” to Social Times — it’s a handy timeline of events if you’re curious.

To be clear, the website designer hired by Fitness SF did not “hack” into the website. He accessed it using the login credentials he was given for the project. Where Fitness SF stumbled was in trusting a contractor to have full reign of their website and then not paying him or providing him with necessary materials to perform the tasks he was hired to tackle. This is a risk for any business, but especially for small businesses who can’t afford to staff a full-time web designer or developer.

Small business owners can’t afford to have their web presence negatively compromised or held hostage. They’re likely a tiny operation with few resources at their disposal. They’re operating not only as the owners of their business, but the accountant, the customer service representative, the marketer, and the websmaster. And a lot of small business owners don’t know a ton about how to successfully maintain a website, which is why they entrust a third party to help them build or design something for them.

If you’re a small business owner, or even a larger, successful business, and you want to hire a contractor to perform services for your website, you need to take extreme caution to ensure you’re protecting your company in case things go south:

  • Get a referral from a trusted colleague or try to make sure the person you’re hiring has a trusted, positive track record with clients.
  • Don’t bring anyone on without drafting up a contract first.
  • Clearly outline expectations, deadlines, and contingencies in your contract.
  • Clearly outline the pay structure — don’t pay everything up front! Offer a small but fair amount to start and then divide the rest into chunks as different deliverables get accomplished.
  • Don’t provide access to your website’s back end until a wireframe or mockup has been delivered and approved.
  • If you have an internal dev team to incorporate your contractor’s design, deploy in-house. Otherwise, make sure you’re all paid up, your contracted web designer/developer knows what he’s doing, and have the new site built on a test server so you can try and work out any major kinks or bugs before it goes live.
  • Try to deploy at a quiet business time so you can deal with any emergencies that arise with a new site launch.
  • Make sure each step and each payment stage has been completed to both parties’ satisfaction before moving along or before handing over any logins.

I’m not saying you can’t trust contractors with your website, but you need to protect your assets as much as possible so you don’t run into the situation Fitness SF encountered. Don’t give someone the keys to your kingdom and then be surprised when the gates are promptly slammed shut in your face.