How to Hire a Digital Vendor for Your Web and Mobile Projects

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You have this amazing concept for a new web or mobile business; at least your Mom thinks so. Now all that stands between you and launching your website or app are, minimally, the same four questions every product owner before you has faced.

  1. What size shop is right for me?
  2. Where do I find these shops?
  3. What should I ask to make sure they’re a good match for me and my project?
  4. How do I eventually pick the right one?

One at a time.

Freelancers vs. Agencies

The first challenge is the type of “team” you can and should solicit to build your website. Each team fit has its pros and cons.

Freelancers
  • Pros
    • Typically only take on 1 to 2 projects at a time, so they’re readily available and focused on your needs.
    • Because of their low overhead, costs are typically less than what an agency may charge.
  • Cons
    • Websites require varying talents: business strategy & analysis, user experience design, branding & interface design, web development, testing / QA, infrastructure, database modeling – expecting one person to have a good handle on all of this is impractical (read: impossible).
    • Attempting to contract with several developers will mean managing down and across, as well as being responsible for paying several recurring invoices.
    • Some of the best creatives aren’t always the most organized, so you run the risk of unforeseen communication, timeline & budget fiascos.
    • Websites are marketing tools. Unfortunately, one-man/woman operations are not necessarily skilled marketers. This means they may not have the head for strategy and marketing, which will leave you searching for someone that can.
    • Once projects wrap up, many freelancers tend to move on to the next gig. They don’t tend to stick around to support the business’ growth.
Agencies (<100-person agencies)
  • Pros
    • Agencies offer the variety of skills that the one-person shop is not capable of.
    • Even if agencies are lacking in one service (e.g. SEO or video production) they often have partners they work closely with, who can facilitate the work.
    • Smaller agencies are often cost competitive vs. larger agencies.
    • The better agencies have a track record for establishing long relationships with their clients, which means they’ll help you maintain and build your web stuff, along with your growing business.
    • Because agencies juggle many projects and client accounts, they can offer various financing options to help cash-starved business get up and running; e.g. equity, convertible debt, revenue sharing, payment terms.
  • Cons
    • The cost of running an agency often means their pricing will be higher than that of a freelancer’s.
    • Since you are likely one of several clients, you may sometimes find yourself competing for the agency’s resources.

In short, it may be in your best interest to go with a freelancer for a small brochure (informational) site that needs minimal effort, and where project budget is of utmost importance. However, consider an agency for sites or apps that will require various talents and last more than a few days.

Regardless of which option you go with, one thing you’ll want to consider is physical proximity you’ll have with your team. Technology has enabled teams to work together across oceans and time zones, but some will always prefer working with people in their backyard. Think about your preferences for team locale when beginning your search.

Where to Look for Digital Teams

So now that you’ve decided upon freelancer vs. agency, you need to find candidates and evaluate. Because technology is one of the hottest industries to be in today, your company will be in a resource war with players like Facebook, Google, Amazon and the thousands of other tech companies continuing to pop up. How can you compete with these titans, and where do you begin looking?

For freelancers or offshore outsourcing, consider Craigslist, Elance or Odesk. There are pitfalls with the quality of talent you’ll find on any of these sites, however as we discussed above, for smaller projects where cost is of primary importance, this is a good starting point.

If you’re looking for an agency, there are sites like Sortfolio, BehanceDribble and The Creative Finder. These are third party portfolio sites that creatives will use to showcase their work. Of course they should offer an updated portfolio on their own website, too.

Reviewing their work is a necessary first step. It will help set a good baseline of the types of resources out there, what services they offer and the various ranges in quality you can expect to see. You might elect to take it a step further and request recommendations from a trusted friend, peer or family member. Reach out to your network on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to see whom your trusted circles recommend. Post a question on Quora about your business and show interest in hiring the right team. Whatever your tactic, once you have some solid leads and before you contact them, reach out to their clients and inquire about the experience they had.

Next step from here is to set up a meeting with them to learn more about what they offer and if there’s a match.

Preparing to Interview Digital Vendors

At this point, you’ve found a handful of viable candidates. Now it’s time to meet; preferably in person. Otherwise, a video call or plain old phone call will do.

Below is a list of questions to have ready when meeting with each vendor, along with what you should be prepared to hear. Take notes and ‘keep score’ of the type of shop that seems to work best for the type of person you are and the product you’re building.

  1. What services do you specialize in? – You want to avoid shops that simply don’t offer the expertise you’re looking for; e.g. if you’re building a tablet app, make sure they’ve been around the mobile block, a couple times. However, also beware of the shops that promise everything under the sun – they’ll either be a large agency with a hefty budget or trying to be everything to everyone, with no specific area of expertise.
  2. Do they focus on any specific market? – These days, technology providers tend to be spread all over the place. They work on consumer and business apps. They have experience with eCommerce and Social. And they’ve had niche experience building platforms for specifically-defined industries. But if you’re building a site for foodies and that vendor has a focus on the restaurant industry, +1 for them.
  3. What are your typical budgets? – Most will tell you it’s a broad range, but every shop has an average most of their projects fall within. You obviously want to avoid anything that’s way outside your budget – plus or minus.
  4. What kind of process do you follow? – What you’re looking to hear are words like Agile, iterative, Scrum and/or Kanban. This means they employ a process that involves early and often updates of sketches and working code that they share with you for feedback. Stay clear of shops that work in a bubble and come back weeks later, or follow antiquated Waterfall practices (heavy documentation with long, finish-to-start dev cycles).
  5. Which version control system do you use? – Version control systems allows developers to check in, back up and version their code, which keeps your site safe. You don’t need to be an expert on this stuff, you just want to make sure they’re using something (but better if that something is Git or SVN). They may have a reason they’re using MS Team Foundation Server. That’s not as important, so long as they can justify their selection.
  6. What kind of testing do you perform? – Again, you don’t need to take a Computer Science course to know ‘right from wrong’ here. Just make sure they mention things like unit tests, functional QA and user acceptance testing (or some combo, thereof). There are varying names for these kinds of tests, but the important thing here is to make sure that there is ongoing testing occurring at various stages, including your testing & feedback. +1 if they have tools and process in place to automate their regression testing. +2 if they mention test-driven development.
  7. How are your contracts structured? – To be blunt, avoid fixed-price contracts for anything that will take more than a couple days. Software is ever-evolving. Whatever you decide today, will change tomorrow, which will only cause delays and continuous scope & budget adjustments. Per-hour contracts may initially scare you as they’ll seem open-ended, but any agency worth their salt will track the health and status of a project (and accompanying client relationship) on a routine basis to make sure things stay on track. And in the end, you’ll only be responsible for what the team actually delivered on.

At the end of the meeting, ask them to share whatever else they feel is relevant to your business, along with some references that don’t appear on their portfolio or own website.

Tying it All Together

You’ve done your homework. Now it’s time to pick a winner based on what’s most important to you and your soon-to-be-burgeoning business. Below are the final items you want to check off your list before giving the green light to your new vendor of choice.

  • Budget: You will probably never see larger swings in quotes from vendors than with software. Be prepared. Every shop assesses projects differently. In the end, you want your choice to consider cost, but not be the overall deciding factor. Some will even suggest you throw out the lowest and highest bids and work with the rest. Just remember, the saying “you get what you pay for.”
  • A Partner: Any shop that’s looking to leave an impression will come back with a proposal that shows they not only understand your business, but have ideas to take it few levels further than you ever imagined. Pretty proposals with impressive partner brands are nice to look at, but make sure you have the feeling that they’ve not only taken the time to internalize your vision, but that they will partner with you to really push the limits of where your business can go.
  • Detailed Quote/Estimate: Whether fixed-price or hourly, you want to see a detailed breakdown of the work they plan to do. If they ‘get it’, their proposal should confirm their understanding. If the final numbers are high-level ballparks or single-line item estimates, it shows that they didn’t care to spend the time to consider you or your business.
  • Are they Stoked? Have they actually told you that they’re excited to work with you? Did they mean it? Did they follow up and assure you they can provide whatever other information you require to help make your decision? You’re marrying this team, at least for a little while. You want to make sure they’re ready to go.

Conclusion

Selecting a technology partner is not a walk in the park. Many technology projects cost thousands or millions of dollars. Your website or mobile app will be the first impression of you, your brand and the type of product or service you’re offering to your customers. So don’t take it lightly.

Do your homework. Reach out to your network for help. Ask the right questions. And in the end, make sure the team you select is right for you.

Good luck!