As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, hiring a web development firm is a complicated process that has many unknowns.
Unlike most other industries, there are not many global certification organizations for web developers. Likewise, there are no licenses required to practice web design or development. Add the confusion between onshore, offshore, and freelance resources and you have very muddy waters for those looking to procure these services.
In the past, we’ve written extensively about specific areas of concern when hiring a development partner (which we’ll link at the bottom of this post). This includes how to minimize your risks, how to plan for your project, and the different types of web developers offering their services in the market.
Today, we’ll be taking a 30,000-foot look at the major factors you need to consider when choosing a team to complete your project.
They’re Conservative With Trendy Technologies
This is a problem we see all too often in the web development world. The technologies available to web developers are much more plentiful now than they were 15 years ago. But the vast majority of tools that developers can choose from are less than proven in the actual market.
Unfortunately, developers typically have one quality in common which also can be their most detrimental flaw: They are early adopters.
Most people are conservative with their technology choices, often eschewing the first model of a new device or car, for example, until the kinks have been worked out and an improved model comes around. Developers, on the other hand, wait on line to be the first to play with the latest technology as soon as it’s released.
While this is a low-risk endeavor when buying a phone or perhaps even a vehicle, a web development project is an expensive investment that is typically built for one reason: ROI. Developers who are too trendy in their technology choices risk your chances of a decent return on investment because they are building you solutions that need to last for years with technology that is still new to the market and thus unproven.
The best developer will have in-depth reasons for choosing particular technologies based on your requirements. This means that unless you hire a specialist, they’ll have different technologies they may choose from to accomplish your mission, not just a single tool that they rely on for everything.
Not all projects are the same. As such, there must be different, proven approaches that can be taken to ensure success. The developer should also be able to show you past examples of the technology in action, preferably within projects they have worked on (more on that later). And if they do propose a new technology, there should be a sound reason why and some level of established or proven longevity that the solution can provide. The only exception is when the potential cost savings outweigh the risk of making the choice.
It’s important to remember that the core technology your project is built on will serve as the foundation for (hopefully) many years to come. It’s your job as the client to ask the difficult questions and gain a level of comfort with the recommended solutions before pulling the trigger. While the trendy choices often sound great or exciting, having a look under the hood may prove otherwise.
They Have a Proven Track Record
As I mentioned above, it’s important when choosing a technology that the potential partner in question can point to examples of the solution in action. But beyond that, the partner must also have examples of their capabilities currently in use in the market.
The web development industry suffers from many flaws that other client services markets don’t. Namely, there is a plethora of companies that simply can’t accomplish what they say they can.
There are a few reasons for that. Some developers are just so engrained in off-the-shelf solutions that they aren’t really developers at all, just platform modifiers. Another reason is company structure. Development firms often suffer from unclear timelines, workflows that are hard to plan and prepare for, and high employee turnover. And on top of those problems, there is a laundry list of other issues that can pop up unexpectedly, preventing projects from ever going live.
In looking at a web portfolio or sales presentation, it’s important to have a clear view into solutions that are live and being used in real-world applications. This is the most important judgment that you can make about a developer. This research, in conjunction with reference checks, is a great way to mitigate your risk and know you are making a good procurement decision.
They Are the Expert Practitioner
Something that shocks me every day is how few agencies actually understand a project before they propose a solution. It’s like going to the doctor with a pain in your toe and being prescribed an enema—not a great plan!
If you take nothing else from this post, remember one thing: Your job is to find the expert practitioner in the area that your project requires. It isn’t to find the quickest and cheapest bidder.
Luckily, it’s easy to find the expert practitioner in a given field. They are the folks who contribute content to the community, have a proven track record, and have staked a claim to their expertise. They go through the procurement process differently than most—instead of just sending out proposals after a simple call, they work on a diagnosis.
Oftentimes, this is a paid discovery or similar process, which enables them to study your project in depth and provide insight into how they would accomplish the task. In this way, expert practitioners focus heavily on diagnosis before prescribing a solution. This means they may just toss your RFP out the window, but it also means they are committed to understanding your project at a deep and detailed level.
As I said, it’s shocking how many development and design firms—easily 99% of them—don’t focus on an in-depth discovery and architecture engagement first. They simply send out large amounts of proposals, hoping to catch a fish every once in a while.
That is never going to work out well.
Also, as a side note, don’t be surprised if you find expert practitioners who actually don’t take on your project. That is a sign that you are on the right track to finding a team that you can truly rely on. An early divergence of your requirements from the expert’s abilities is a quick way to move on and find the proper partner that your project requires.
They Understand Entrepreneurship
Have I beaten up developers enough? Let me beat up some sales people too…
The best development firms have the ability to actually understand at a deep level how your business works. Then they look for areas of opportunity where technology can solve problems or drive increased revenue or efficiencies.
In other words, they actually care.
The problem with sales people is that they aren’t incentivized to actually care about how you use the product. They are paid to make it seem like they care and cultivate a desire in you, the buyer, for their product. Likewise, developers don’t necessarily need to have an understanding of how to make your life easier, nor do they usually need to drive additional revenue. They can architect solutions, but not necessarily drive those efficiencies you are looking for.
All in all, neither a developer nor a sales person are the best contact people to deal with directly when acquiring development services.
As I mentioned before, the expert practitioner is the best person to deal with. They not only understand the challenges at hand, but they also understand how to address them. And even better, the agency that has an expert practitioner in a position of ownership or at a high level in the organization will always be more capable of translating both your spoken requirements and the unspoken, less-than-tangible items that need to be addressed.
Again, the best way to determine if you have found the right people is to dig into the factors I outlined above. Look for a proven track record. You should also feel as though they are vetting you as much as you are vetting them, and find out what process they use to discover more about your particular situation.
In going through these steps, you will be able to get a feel for their understanding of your business and, furthermore, how they can help you take your business to the next level.
You Have Access to Senior Leadership
You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but for many clients, it’s an afterthought.
One of the most frustrating things we see too often are the clients who hire large agencies in New York or San Francisco thinking they’re going to get a premium experience, only to be delegated down to junior-level employees who, in addition to leaving for greener pastures at the first chance they get, have no real, proven experience in the task at hand.
Obviously, I’m biased—we are a boutique agency and every client has access to myself and our other senior leadership whenever necessary. None the less, many customers don’t even think that the senior person they met in the first or second meeting with a large agency would be hands-off once the deal is closed.
It’s important to know that the expert in the conversation, the senior staffer, is going to be not only engaged during the sale, but also during the ongoing project, if even from an overseer perspective. Projects that are left solely in the hands of junior staffers suffer from more delays, cost overruns, and quality issues than those overseen by experienced senior resources. And that isn’t something you should have to pay a large premium for!
There is a Post-Launch Capability
I’m going to start this point by reinforcing a universal truth of web development:
There is no such thing as a finished project.
Almost 100% of the time, we see clients invariably come back with follow-up work, quick new features/additions, or ongoing maintenance. The problem is that most agencies are not interested in providing maintenance services. Often, they’re only interested in the large one-off projects, after which they unload the ongoing maintenance to the client to figure out.
Unfortunately, that leaves clients in a difficult spot. Unsure of how to maintain their properties themselves, they are forced to procure maintenance services elsewhere, which in and of itself is a frustrating experience.
Web development companies rarely take on clients who did the build with another agency. And when they do, they often will begin by recommending a massive redevelopment project just to adhere to how they like to do business.
Yes, this could happen even if you just completed your project few months prior.
The best way to ensure that you have a reliable long-term solution is to find a partner who can provide that level of ongoing support post-launch. Otherwise, moving from one company to another can open you up to a variety of risk factors. First, you again have to procure a reliable partner, which is time-consuming at best and mind-numbing at worst. Secondly, as I’ve mentioned, almost all developers will want to have an in-depth understanding of the software, which means lots of (probably billable) time will be spent learning how your system works or making changes to fit within the mold of how they do business.
Both of these risk factors can cost you both money up front and frustration down the road. Ensuring that your original developer can handle you in an ongoing capacity mitigates those risks and ensures that you can have a long-term relationship with them. That’s why we use the word “partner” in the first place!
Hiring a web development team is difficult. It’s an unlicensed industry full of a lot of players, some of which are brilliant and others that are simply incapable. It’s a business whose only units of commodity are insight and experience, and where pricing is all over the place.
Procuring these services can make you lose your mind! But by focusing on the above factors, hopefully you will enter the procurement process with a clearer idea of where the risks lie and how you can avoid them.
Here are some blog posts that touch on the points above in a bit more detail:
- How To Be Sure Your Web Design or Development Project Will Fail: Part 1
- How To Be Sure Your Web Design or Development Project Will Fail: Part 2
- How to Minimize Your Risk When Hiring a Web Development Team
- 4 Reasons Average Agencies Love WordPress
- Hidden Costs: Predicting Budgets & Preparing for Ongoing Website Maintenance
- The 4 Different Types Of Web Developers (And How Much They Cost)
- 5 Wrong Reasons For Picking An Agency For Your Project
- 4 Reasons A Boutique Agency Is Better Than A Big Agency