9 Questions Every Non Technical Startup Founder Should Ask Web Developers Before Hiring

Or, “So you have a startup idea and you’re ready to start building, but you aren’t a programmer. What now?”

We’re in a unique position and have an interesting perspective. For the past 13 years, we’ve run a web development and design company. For the past 2 years, we’ve also been the founders of wedOcracy, a virtual wedding planning website for couples and guests.

We know both the web development agency world and the tech startup entrepreneurship world. We’ve been lucky to enter the startup world with technical and design skills to build our product and launch our MVP.

Over the last year, we’ve been reminded that not everyone is in that position. Last year, we participated in a New Orleans based accelerator program for startups, and found that there were very few technical founders amongst the 10 accepted companies. Initially, we thought there was nothing wrong with that. And in fact, this is true. Anyone with a great idea can begin to build a company and even scale. But how do you get to your MVP without the skills to prototype and create it yourself? And, as many startups know, how do you maximize the money you do have so you don’t end up running out of cash before you get your product launched?

We’ve had several conversations with local founders who really wanted to know how to get started, what to ask web developers and how to make the most of their bootstrapping funds. We also wanted to share those answers more publicly so we could help more people.

9 Questions To Ask Web Developers Before You Hire Them To Build Your MVP

1. Are you a full-service agency?

Some web dev agencies focus on web development (coding apps and websites) while others focus more on design and marketing. Find out what they focus on so you’ll know if you need to find more than one agency to handle your development needs. Be wary of engaging marketing firms – they’re super at the sell, but their actual development teams can be an afterthought. Do your research. And be very clear: interactive design is VERY different than static (e.g. print) design. Look at their portfolio – do they understand apps? Or do they just make slick-looking products?

A company doesn’t have to offer every part of the process, but you need to know which parts you can hold them accountable for and which you shouldn’t. If they don’t care about SEO, it’s on you, not them, when nobody can find your product.

2. What do you love about your work?

A web dev agency doesn’t have to love everything they do, but it’s good to know what gets them up in the morning and inspires them to do this work. What inspires us? We love understanding your business, and bringing all of our expertise in the digital world to support it. Do customers love your store because of how well designed it is? We want to give all of your customers (not just the ones who live close enough to visit) that same experience online. Your website and/or mobile app is is your online home.

Choosing a company to work with is not a short-term decision, it’s more like a long-term relationship. Your developers will shape your product, and for both better and worse you will be living with the results of their work for years to come. Make sure you’re simpatico.

3. How do you approach the question of optimizing for mobile?

It’s 2015 and this one might seem obvious, but that’s not always the case. We’ve all seen websites that aren’t optimized for mobile and that affects the experience of your clients on mobile products, as well as your ranking on mobile search engines.

Beyond this you also want to know if they consider what’s appropriate for you,. A mobile responsive, twitter bootstrap website may be appropriate for your needs or it may not. You might do better with custom-coded CSS/HTML rather than a framework. You might benefit more from having a mobile app. If so, should it be native iOS/Android or another solution like React Native or PhoneGap? Can they explain these options to you and help you make a wise decision?

4. Have you worked with tech startups before?

This is key! Building a great website is one thing, but working with startups is on another level. Most tech startups are or should be using agile development methods to iterate quickly towards finding a product-market fit. Make sure your prospective web developer or development team has this experience, or at least has a strong opinion about it. “Agile” is a huge buzzword these days but there are specific practices that go along with it which can make or break you. Learn what it means. Two key concepts you must know about are user stories and sprints.

5. Do you have a sample portfolio?

Again, this seems obvious but you should always ask to see their work. Even more specifically, ask to see the work they’ve done for other tech startups. A really experienced web development company should have their portfolio prominently displayed on their site. If they don’t, that can often be a big red flag!

6. How about some references?

Once again, obvious. But necessary. And make sure those references are for web or mobile applications, not just sites. They are not the same thing.

7. How is your team structured?

This will require some knowledge on your part. The short version is, there’s a huge variety of roles to play. A “lone wolf coder” will assume all of them, with varying degrees of success, but will presumably be fast and cheap. An “enterprise team” will provide you with any or all of the following (sometimes more than one in a category):

  • A backend developer
  • A front-end developer
  • A UX designer
  • A graphic/UI designer
  • A Project Manager
  • A Product Manager
  • An SEO analyst
  • A marketing consultant
  • A “content” person (copywriter, etc)
  • A sales associate (for better or worse)

This varies wildly, so assess what you want or need to succeed as well as what you can afford. If you go with the lone wolf, make sure you have some experienced people you can go to for advice regarding all of the areas of expertise listed above, because you will be filling any of the roles your developer is not focused on or fabulous at.

8. What’s your fee structure, and why?

This is always a tough one, and every firm or developer has their preference. Fixed price bid or hourly? Are they interested in equity?

We used to work mostly on fixed-price jobs. It’s good for the client since you can plan for a budget. It’s good for us because we can plan for a budget. In theory anyway. In reality, application development is simply too complex for fixed bids, and when things go over budget as they invariably do (because estimating for software is HARD), it ends up being a war between us to manage costs, and the client to get what they were promised for the money. It can work but rarely does, since the nature of bidding for fixed-price work is a race to the bottom.

The ideal situation for developers is to work hourly. This can work equally well for you, if you keep a close eye on your weekly burn rate (e.g. how many people for how many hours at what rate). This is understandably scary to an entrepreneur who doesn’t have “dumb money.” It can work well – but you have to be very clear about what burn rate you can afford for how long, and at least work with the team to establish some milestones the developers can hit so there is accountability, and so everyone can see relative progress.

We now work on retainer. This way a client pays a certain amount, we work against it. We don’t have to do work that we will have to chase anybody around to pay for, and they have a clear budget we can work against. When the retainer is empty, we re-bill and when that is paid we keep on going. We feel that this approach combined with the accountability of milestones is win-win, and our clients do too.

Rule of thumb: assume your costs will be double, or even triple, what you expect. No, that’s not what you want to hear. But remember you do not even know yet what you are building! You are trying to find a product-market fit, and then a business model, and that takes experimentation. Which does not come free.

The question of equity is beyond the scope of what we can go into here. Short answer: developers rarely want equity in a company that really is just an idea, unless they come on board as CTO or technical co-founder. But if you can find a technical co-founder, you have a huge leg up on everything.

9. What happens after MVP?

Your Minimum Viable Product is just that – the minimum. That’s your starting point, the absolute least you can do to get something out there and test in the real world. Now you can begin getting feedback. Which means now you will have concrete things you want to do to refine, improve, reshape, and yes even pivot your product or service. Which means more development.

You will also, 100% guaranteed, have bugs and unfinished business. It’s not like making a table – it ain’t done when it’s done.

So… you need to be aware of this from the outset. You must have a strategy to fix the “OMG PEOPLE ARE DYING” bugs, immediately, as well as implementing critical changes. Are the developers going to be available for this? Are they the type of company who support clients in the longer term, or do they like to drop off a deliverable and say goodbye? Find out early, or suffer the consequences!

Finding the right web development agency to help bring your startup from idea stage to MVP is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Be prepared with the right questions is key! General web development is very different from web development for tech startups. You want to really take the time to interview potential agencies and ask the right questions to see if they have the experience your project needs.

Looking for a full-service web dev agency focused on helping entrepreneurs and tech startups? Contact us! Start here!

Linking Arts is a full-service web design and development agency that helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses via creative mobile and web services.  Let’s start something!

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