That is a question for the ages…quite literally.
Like just about everything in life, the cost of a Drupal site (should a Drupal developer be required… and one usually is) increases with time. Let's face it. Few things decrease in cost as the years pass. Now, I am being a bit facetious here… as there certainly are more concrete ways to arrive at an answer to (what is actually) a very general question. I suppose, one could argue the cost and/or price of a Drupal site is zero dollars. After all, Drupal is an open source platform – freely available to all. Therein, however, lies the rub.
As with so many things in life, "free" is a relative term. While it is certainly possible for one who is skilled in the ways of Drupal development to download the file, perform the installation and configuration and "voilà!" you have your Drupal site. Of course (at the risk of being repetitive), as with so many things in life, it's not quite as easy as that. There are a number of steps in the process with which one must be familiar in order to bring a Drupal installation into existence and make it available to the world.
That's where putting a price on a Drupal site can become…shall we say…less than simple.
First and foremost, the question to be answered – even before the question of how much a Drupal site costs – is whether Drupal is the appropriate platform for your organization's needs.
Until you've answered that question, the rest of this article is moot. Once you have evaluated whether Drupal is the appropriate platform for your organization (and if it turns out it is), the rest of this article should provide some invaluable advice.
If you're like most people, one question which runs through your mind on a regular basis (if you are the one tasked with finding potential candidates to develop your Drupal project) is why such significant pricing differences between agencies exist. There are concrete answers to that question. So, let's start with a list you can use to help evaluate the different agencies which you must evaluate for your organization's project.
In-house skill sets vary… significantly. It is expensive to keep highly skilled, full-time staff in multiple disciplines under one roof. Many (if not most) agencies tend to either utilize contractors they work with on a regular basis or (more common and much, much more concerning) they outsource the work they cannot complete in-house to overseas companies. The problem with both of those solutions are they are unreliable – on multiple levels. We could get into an entire article based simply on this subject. However, we are trying to keep this list simple. So, we'll leave the answer there for now.
The level of developers vary (nearly immeasurably) between agencies. What one agency considers a senior developer, another agency may very well consider a junior developer. The following may seem like bravado but it's merely a fact: 1 in 18 developers interviewed by Thinkbean for a position as a senior developer within the agency actually passes muster. What certain agencies consider "senior" Drupal developers versus what Thinkbean considers "senior" Drupal developers… versus what the developers, themselves, consider their skill level to be are all very different.
Following this point just a bit further…it can be a very difficult concept for non-technical personnel to comprehend/sort out. How does one, who is not a programmer, determine which agency has the best staff? Price, alone, is not a reliable indicator. Certainly, an agency would not last very long in its field if it marketed its developers as "senior" level when they were, in fact, much lower (in terms of their level of knowledge). It wouldn't take long for a client to determine the quality and quantity, among other aspects, of the level of work they were receiving was not worth the price they were paying the agency.
The only way to discover the true cost of a project is to conduct a Discovery Phase. Whether all hypothetical and on paper or contained in a given codebase, the only way to ascertain a significant level of accuracy in terms of budget and timeline given the goals of a given project is to get into the guts of a project (again, whether through documentation or codebase evaluation). Only then may an accurate estimate be issued on which the client may heavily rely to accomplish their goals.
The answer to that question is, actually, easier and (in a number of ways) less intuitive than one might expect.
Time and materials may seem like a ticket to an indeterminable budget, whereas fixed-price may seem to be a fair (not to mention easy) way to determine what the cost of the total project will be. Nearly the exact opposite is true.
Any agency worth its salt will insist on a Discovery Phase before a project is taken on (be that an existing project which must be taken over the finish line or a hypothetical project, existing only conceptually).
Again, only via a properly-conducted Discovery Phase can a project's true value (in terms of timeline and budget) be determined. All other things being equal (that is, as long as the project does not stray significantly from the project outlined in the Discovery Phase), a time and materials-based company will be able to provide an extremely accurate estimate of what the total cost and timeline of a given project will be.,
Conversely, agencies which tend to offer a fixed-price model will be wildly inaccurate with their pricing due to the fact there are so many unknowns. Often, fixed-price model agencies don't bother go through a Discovery Phase because the price they offer nearly invariably represents an MVP (minimum viable product). Fixed-price model agencies tend to focus on saying what is necessary to get a client to "sign on the dotted line". After that, such agencies feel as though the client is now "invested" in working with that particular agency… and for good reason. Often, a client does not want to go through the process of re-finding another potential development agency to complete the project. That's when the fixed-price model agencies have the clients over a barrel, so to speak. It becomes a trade-off between which is worse… going about locating a new, more reliable agency with which to bring the project to fruition or withstanding the barrage of "well, our price didn't include X, Y and/or Z. Those features will add an additional amount of X dollars to the originally-quoted price". It is generally about that time when the price from the time and materials model agency is not only met but exceeded… unfortunately, sometimes by a multiple of the initially-quoted price.
Finding a professional Drupal development agency to bring your project to fruition does not have to incorporate the onerous aspects described above. The more honest and capable Drupal development agencies will offer to conduct a Discovery Phase which will, ultimately, produce a report (as well as, potentially, other items) which will provide a highly accurate assessment of the project at-hand… resulting in a timeline and budget on which a client may heavily rely. Such agencies may even offer an option to conduct a Discovery Phase separate from the remainder of the project – even if that means they are disqualified from performing the remainder of the project. That is a big "tell", as it tends to show the given agency is more concerned with arriving at an accurate price than simply gaining a job at any cost.
The results of that Discovery Phase may then be "shopped around" and (as long as the Discovery was performed properly) clients will be able to present the results of such a Discovery to alternate agencies for a true apples-to-apples comparison. Thereby, obtaining the most accurate budget and timeline for the job at-hand.