As one of the partners of a Ruby on Rails software development agency, I speak with dozens of non-technical startup founders every week who are in various stages of building their first web or mobile application. The range of technical acumen, willingness to learn, and time and resources varies widely among the group.
As a firm, we’re not just competing with other NYC-based agencies for their business, but also offshore devshops, freelancers, and in some cases, the prospective client who may want to execute internally.
At the end of the day, a non-technical founder who has decided that they must build something has two options: pay someone else, or partner with people. Below are the pros and cons.
Obviously, every situation is different: there is no rulebook, and the most important factor for success in any type of arrangement is transparency and communication between the two parties.
Pros: If you find someone local, you might be able to meet with the developer in person. Finding someone from your network is also advisable, since there is some accountability. Freelancers are typically cheaper than a full-service shop since there isn’t much administrative overhead, and it’s a great option for more technical founders- if you’re a front-end UX/UI expert, a savvy freelancer can really drive home the look & feel you like. This is also a good choice for founders who are working on their startup part-time. There are plenty of good platforms out there like Elance to find freelancers. Also note that a good freelancer will help you understand going forward costs, maintenance, hosting, etc.
Cons: In most cases, freelancers take much longer than a full service shop since they have to make a living by doing multiple jobs at the same time. Freelancers from other states may speak your language, but you’ll always be communicating via Skype and chat. You’re always at their whim, if they stop communicating with you, or they get a job, or something personal comes up in their lives, you’re probably screwed. Even if they’re coding in the language you prefer, you’re relying on their personal coding style, and if you cease working with them, it might be extremely costly to have someone else work on it – most likely more expensive than starting all over again.
Bottom line: For startup founders with limited budgets and longer timelines who feel more comfortable dealing with someone in the U.S., this can be a good option for getting out a cheap MVP to test. For founders with a reasonable budget who have technical skills and know exactly what they want, using trusted freelancers could also be a solid choice.
Pros: Cheaper than hiring onshore. If you speak the native language of developer, you’ll have an easier time and eliminate some roadblocks.
Cons: Communication can be an issue. You’re limited to Skype and chats, and the look and feel of your product may suffer due to language barriers. Coding styles will probably be even less scalable than with U.S. freelancers. Not to mention, it’s very risky for the protection of your IP.
Bottom Line: This is the riskiest option, but one way to build really cheap MVPs ($5,000) when time isn’t of the essence.
Pros: They move quickly, have project management, front-end/designers on staff, practice good communication and client service, and if you pick local, you can have in person meetings often with their team. Good local devshops will help you make connections in the community, they’ll help you get hosted, and have a warranty that covers errors. This is the best option for full-time founders.
Cons: More expensive than hiring freelancers. Development moves quickly, so changes to the product can be costly. Some shops need constant feedback and QAing, which can be difficult for part-time founders. Devshops have backlogs so you might not be able to start immediately. Finding them can be hard, but check out platforms like VenturePact and Matchist, which can help you find good fits.
Bottom Line: Really good for dedicated/full-time first time or repeat founders with a decent budget ($10,000+).
Pros: Cheaper than onshore. If you speak the language of the firm you’re using, you’re likely to have a better time communicating.
Cons: Tough to find a dependable agency since you must rely on word of mouth. Less accountability and sometimes scarce legal protection to IP. If you’re dealing with healthcare, privacy issues or personal/financial data, it may be better to stay closer to home for best practices.
Bottom Line: A riskier version than the U.S. devshop. Note that many U.S.-based “digital agencies” often ship some or all of the coding work offshore. May be a good option if you’re very hands on, or have ties to the country in which the coding is being done.
Pros: Depending on your budget, you can recruit someone great and with the salary you’re going to pay, you don’t have to give up very much equity.
Cons: Hiring employees is a huge administrative undertaking for something that doesn’t make money yet. Plus, you’ve really got to know how to make technical hires.
Bottom line: Great for people who have access to funding or have extensive personal savings themselves and know how to run a real company. Also good for people who have already proved their concept with an MVP.
Pros: Technical cash out of pocket limited to hosting costs, Github, app store accounts, etc. (which you presumably share). You’re not alone, you have a business partner now who can hopefully architect the technical future of your firm.
Cons: If you’re not technical, you’re probably going on gut alone for their aptitude, unless you have a solid technical advisor or two. You’re giving up early equity. You might end up not getting along and that will lead to some legal issues down the road. Not advisable for part-time founders.
Bottom Line: This can be a reality for founders who have already worked at a successful startup, or have deep product or technical knowledge.
Pros: You’re learning a tangible skill, taking a shot with an idea, and you’ll understand what really goes into building something. You’ll be able to move quickly if you’d like to change direction of your product, pivot, experiment, and best of all it doesn’t cost you a dime (unless you want to invest in your education).
Cons: Very few people have the patience to learn to how to code and try to develop a product at the same time. If you’re going to learn at a bootcamp, you will barely have time to breathe let alone think about forming a business during that time. Most likely, you’re not going to have the most complex or breathtaking MVP out there, but as the expression goes: “If you like the way your MVP looks, you’ve waited too long to launch it.”
Bottom Line: If you think you’ve got the aptitude and patience to learn app development, you have enough saved up to keep food on the table and pay the bills, and have several months to commit to the journey, building your own MVP is a great idea. You can always get architects and engineers to come along after you’ve validated your business, except this time you’re giving away far less equity. No matter what, if you fail, you’re going to be much a better-informed and well-rounded entrepreneur for your next project, and not just another non-technical startup co-founder.
A Guide for Non-Technical Startup Founders in Need of Web Development was originally published on General Assembly.
About the Author, Jesse Podell
Co-Founder of TechDay (largest startup event series in USA). Previously over a dozen years in finserv. Fintech startup community builder, mentor and investor.