Almost everyone wants to have an app these days. But how do you go about finding the right designers, programmers, and marketers to take your app from an idea to millions of downloads in the app store?

  1. Validate your idea. Not all ideas are as great as you my think, and no one wants to call their baby ugly. Validation can be done quickly and cheaply by creating a simple “Pros and Cons” spreadsheet of your competitors, and running online surveys. But you got to do it.
  2. The planning stage is the last time your have total control – You can save a lot of money in development costs if you have drawn the entire app drawn out on paper. I’m not talking about just the main screens; I mean EVERYTHING. Each pop-up message, every menu option. It seems like overkill, but you’re really designing an architectural blueprint here. Designers and engineer have to follow these “wireframes” so they know what to build, and even so that they can give you accurate estimates. You wouldn’t give a build a blueprint for your house with a downstairs bathroom missing, and expect them to just fill in the blanks would you? If you don’t want to do this, expect to pay your developer team to do the wireframes for you, and never use a company who doesn’t offer this step.
  3. Find the right team for you. In any technical endeavor, it’s hard to pick a good team, especially if you are not very technical yourself. You can be techno-babbled to death, or won over by shinny demos. There are a few simple questions you can ask to make sure the team you’re picking is a good one:
    1. Where is the actual development done (in the US? Or is it outsourced to India?)
    2. How does the team manage their source code? You want to hear them say that they use a version control system like GIT (This is like the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word, but for software code).
    3. How is the team going to help you through the planning process? Are they going to build you a functional wireframe you can play with? How about a basic prototype? The more steps they have early on, the more likely you are to succeed.
    4. Ask to touch and play with real life examples of systems the team has worked with.
    5. Find our if they’ve worked on similar products or in similar industries. A little bit of previous experience goes a long way. Find a team who has already made their mistakes on someone else’s dime, so that you don’t have to pay for it.
  4. Understand the process – You don’t have to become a programmer yourself, but spend sometime educating yourself on the technologies and jargon you will encounter. Unlike building a house, you probably have never seen a software project being worked on as you drive down the road. So your frame of reference is very difficult. The process can be extremely opaque as a result. It’s your money; learn a little about how the sausage is made. I’d suggest learning at least a little bit about how databases work, and how source control works – these two topics alone will allow you to have much honest conversations with your developers.
  5. Don’t launch it and leave it – When your app is all done, getting it in the app store can be tricky. Start finding out what you need to do to get into the Apple store early on – this includes reading their terms of use, which isn’t as bad as you think. Make sure you have a business entity set up, and a registered Dunn and Bradstreet number if you’re going to charge money for you app, include ads, or in-app purchases. And finally, learn about how to promote your app in the stores and on the web. You’ve all heard about SEO, but there is such a thing as App Store Optimization as well.
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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Software Development Teams: Build vs. Contract

Almost every business is technology-enabled in some way these days. Hair salons do their scheduling online, powerline workers train in VR, and pharmacists use AI systems to check for contraindications. There are very few businesses out there that could not be made more efficient and profitable — or provide better services for their customers — through technology.

In most situations, buying software and customizing it makes the best sense. You need a word processor and an accounting system, but it would show boldness to the point of lunacy to build one yourself. Quickbooks and Microsoft Word are worth the few hundred dollars a year. They might not be perfect, but the cost to build and maintain your dream accounting software could run into the millions.

However, in many situations, businesses invent new ways to improve their internal operations or their customer experience. While a comparable off-the-shelf solutions may exist to fit those needs, a custom built product is likely the only way to deliver the required features and processes the company is looking for. Features like these become competitive advantages. Organizations want to own the intellectual property behind their competitive advantages. You don’t want to license these types of systems if your competitors can license them just as easily.

That leaves companies with one choice: Build your own custom software. But the question is whether you should try and build your business-changing application in-house or outsource it to a development agency.

Cost vs. Time

Most decisions in the professional space come down to the project management triangle. If you want to build software of any decent quality, you can pick two of the three corners to move: cost, time, and scope (the number and robustness of features the project has). If you want fast and cheap, you have to shrink the scope. If you want robust and cheap, you’ll have to wait a long time.

The decision to hire an agency or build a team hinges on these three corners. In business applications, scope is usually the non-negotiable — the requirements are the requirements. Building a team takes a lot of time and costs money. Hiring an agency will drastically reduce the ramp up time by comparison, but potentially cost more. If you are worried about quality, remember that you get what you pay for.

Management Structure

Deciding to build out your own development team is not for the faint of heart, but it can have serious benefits.

To build a basic, but healthy and functioning, software team you will need the following:

  • A CTO or CIO to handle strategy and management.
  • A Director of Engineering to manage the team, build out processes, etc.
  • A Software Architect to design the system. (This can be a senior developer for small teams.)
  • A couple of DevOps engineers to manage the environments.
  • At least one QA expert. (No, developers can’t check the work themselves, I’ve tried.)
  • Developers, including full-stack, frontend, and backend developers if you’re building out a product. A good mix of senior, mid-level, and junior developers would be my recommendation to make the team robust.
  • A product owner. Preferably someone with management experience
  • A scrum master (if you’re following Scrum/Agile).
  • UX expert. I cannot understate this role enough! (They can be outsourced if you have to, but are much better to have on the team.)
  • A visual designer. Depending on the product you are building, this is the one optional role.

This is the biggest reason to hire an agency. If you want something built well, you really need a team that looks like something similar to this. Depending on your budget and experience, it could take years to put a team like this together.

However, if you have highly technical and experienced upper management there are benefits to in-house teams.

But We Are a Lean Startup

That’s great! Then you don’t need any of the stuff I listed above. But if you are purely a technology startup, then you (I’m guessing you’re a founder), need to be building the tech yourself, or at least have a co-founder building the tech. As the company scales, you can bring on additional help and you will almost certainly start looking like the organize above.

How Long Does It Take To Build a Team?

It depends on if you’re talking about a good team, or just any team. Building an organization from scratch takes time. You need to recruit, hire people, onboard them, manage them, weed out the good, let go of the bad, hire replacements for those let go, etc. You also need to invent, document, and enforce the systems and processes that will lead to the best outcomes. You will need to build a culture of caring, accountability, and quality. So, basically it will take a long, long time. This is a lot easier to do if you have a top rated CTO or a Director of Engineering in place already. Someone who has gone through this process before will be able to get you up and running much more quickly. They will also be able to oversee all stages of the team building from recruiting to delivery.

Recuiting may be the hardest piece of all of this. Good developers don’t want to join companies without histories of good development practices. So if you don’t have someone for new hires to look up to, you’re going to be stuck with coders who are just looking for a job, and they don’t write good code.

In-House vs Outsourced — Conclusion

Unless you are going to go with the lowest bidder, there probably isn’t that much difference between a good internal team and a good agency. Well-run development studios partner closely with their clients and eventually start to act as part of the same company. The developers in agencies like this feel as much ownership in what they are building as full-time employees would — sometimes more.

Price is not going to be dissimilar either. Once you count things like benefits, office space, management scaffolding, training, hardware and software tools, payroll, HR, etc., etc., etc., it’s unlikely that in-house could be done cheaper than even the large agencies.

The real difference comes down to the level of control you want over the team and the type of product you’re building. If you are a small technology startup you would be crazy to hire a big agency unless your product needed to be really good from day one. If you plan on becoming a technology company, you might want try a hybrid of agency and in-house. Finally, if you are a small- to medium-sized company whose existing products or services are not predominantly tech-focused or delivered, I would suggest not doing development in-house.