You’ve got a big idea for the next best app, and want to get a piece of the 2016 tech economy pie: The problem is, you’re not a developer, and you lack the financial resources to hire someone full-time to build your app. As someone already involved in the startup world, you turn to your contacts.
But their three pieces of advice don't work out: 1) None of your friends are developers. 2) You search for a technical co-founder, without finding a good fit.
And, 3) when you investigate their third piece of advice, Fiverr, the marketplace for professional services, that doesn't turn out well, either.
Not that things don't seem promising, initially. “Get the next Zuckerberg to work for you,” touts the marketing copy on the website's Programming & Tech landing page. And, indeed, you believe you’ve found the silver bullet to app development for non-technical founders. After all, the prices are dirt cheap. The developers on the site claim to have deep expertise. And you're convinced you can get a minimum viable product (MVP) delivered to you within days. What could be better?
But hiring a contractor for all of your initial app development isn't that easy. I've run an app development firm for years, so no one is a bigger proponent than I am of startups working with remote technical teams. The problem is that contract developers work best when they augment, not replace, internal employees.
Entrepreneurs who hire someone from a gig marketplace to build their app very simply put themselves at risk of a series of issues associated with intellectual property, product quality and developer continuity that can significantly hurt their ability to grow their businesses. Here are those issues:
1. Intellectual property complications
Many of the developers available on gig marketplaces are based outside the United States, which can add complications to ensuring the safety of intellectual property. Even if you ask a contract developer to sign an NDA, agreements with freelancers in foreign countries can be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.
Relying solely on contractors can also add complications to the process of raising money. If you plan to look for outside funding after building an MVP, angel investors or VCs will look into who built your product, as part of their due diligence. Any investor will want assurance that there won’t be intellectual property issues down the road, and NDAs that seem minimally enforceable at best may well scare them off.
2. Lack of continuity for ongoing development and maintenance
Even if a contractor does a good job building the MVP, you can run into a variety of issues related to updating and maintaining the app, in the event the contractor doesn’t wish to continue working with you. Hopefully, the code is clean, and the person you hired to build the app has kept thorough documentation of the development process.
Otherwise, transitioning the work to another developer will likely be incredibly inefficient, with a new engineer taking days or weeks to fully understand the app depending on its complexity. In a worst-case scenario, your new developer may suggest rebuilding the app from scratch.
Development-continuity issues can also occur if you decide to scale your technical team. Even if the original contractor is still working with you, there’s no guarantee that this person has done a sufficiently good job maintaining development documentation to help ramp-up additional developers on the project.
3. Technical issue management
While many non-technical founders are great communicators, and can give developers a clear idea of what they’re looking for in an app, difficulties can arise when it comes to managing the project. Without at least some knowledge of code structure, it’s hard to know whether the developer is doing a good job, and even harder to address issues in the event something goes wrong.
For instance, if you don’t feel that the app is as fast as you’d like it to be, a contract developer might say, “There’s very little I can do to make this app faster because of the nature of your project.” If the app seems unstable, the engineer could respond, “This is good enough for the MVP. It would take me weeks or months to build a more stable app.”
Since you can’t evaluate the code, and the person you’re trusting to see the project through is someone who is not directly invested in the company, the way a technical co-founder or friend would be, it can be hard to push back effectively on technical issues.
Founders often hire outside developers to build their MVP, not because it’s the only option but because it seems like the fastest, easiest and cheapest way forward. But before you rely solely on contractors to build your app, leave no stone unturned in your network looking for someone you trust who is not only willing to build your MVP at a reduced rate or in exchange for equity, but excited about what you’re trying to accomplish.
Beyond alleviating concerns associated with intellectual property, continuity in development and technical issue management, a person who shares your vision for success will do a much better job developing the app than someone who is just doing it for the paycheck.