Start-up advice: Choosing the right app developer

Should start-ups keep web and app development in house and how do they choose the right partner if they decide to outsource?
Should start-ups keep web and app development in house and how do they choose the right partner if they decide to outsource?
By Staff writer
Wed 05 Jul 2017 03:56 PM

You’re a start-up with a viable business plan, but you need a strong digital presence before you can fully go to market. A website is obviously a must, but more and more companies are embracing apps and e-commerce capability. The question many start-ups will be asking themselves is whether they should try to take on any or all of this software development burden for themselves, or seek the expertise of a third party.

The array of skills needed to get these things right is diverse. Front-end web development,  the bit that focusses on what the user sees, requires knowledge of the three layers of structure, style and behaviour. These require expertise in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Server-side or backend development requires skill in a programming language, such as Ruby, Python or PHP. Every modern website needs search engine optimisation (SEO) to achieve a higher position in search engine rankings.

High smartphone penetration is prompting many regional organisations to develop dedicated apps, often with e-commerce capability. For companies selling to consumers, this is essential as electronic transactions are increasingly executed from smartphones. Successful app development requires expertise in Swift for iOS and Java and XML for Android.

Building such a formidable skillset in house is going to be challenging for any start-up. Outsourcing at least part of your software development needs is likely to be an attractive proposition, especially in the start-up phase.

Cyber Gear is a UAE-based developer of websites and apps for such organisations as Abu Dhabi National Hotels, Aster DM Healthcare and Emirates Development Bank. According to Sharad Agarwal, the company’s founder, it is, “cost effective to outsource your web requirements to a professional company”.

If you do choose to go the development outsourcing route, you can choose to pay as little as $10 per hour for offshore development in Asia (or anywhere between $30 to 150 for Eastern European, Western European or North American developers). Faced with such differences in price, choosing a software development partner must be a doubly daunting prospect.

Piotr Majchrzak is CEO at Xsolve, a Poland-based software outsourcing company with clients in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. He says that three main facts are common to most of the customers he has spoken to in the region.

“Firstly, shortage of tech talents in the UAE pushes companies in the region to outsource abroad,” he says. “Secondly, outsourcing experiences are not good: delays, lack of communication, cultural differences, product quality and overspending are all major issues. Finally, when you get the product, it turns out that this is not what your end users want.”

Majchrzak says it is always preferable for an organisation to hire its own staff and develop a suitable work culture, but admits that setting up an in-house software development team may be unrealistic for most companies. In such cases, experience does matter.

“First of all, look for organisations with more than 10 years of experience, with a portfolio of international clients. The probability of them delivering exceptional work is much higher than the companies who’ve been on the market for a couple of years,” he says.

“Secondly, find companies who have worked with their clients for prolonged periods of time. This means the clients are happy with the work delivered and are willing to continue the projects.”

Find out also who those clients are and assess the quality of their web sites, look at their sites’ position in search rankings and download and check their apps. Search for customer references and write-ups and be wary of reviews that are all too glowing as these may be planted.

You are also entitled to ask about the potential development partner’s team. As well as finding about their specific skillsets, ask how long teams have been working together and how many projects they have delivered as a group in the past. Demand also that the same people stay on your account and are not rotated onto other projects within the development company. The people you deal with must be good communicators, who express themselves clearly and respond quickly to any messages or calls.

“It takes a long time to form a well performing group so if the core members of your team have been working successfully in the past you will save a lot of time, hassle and money,” Majchrzak says. “Additionally, look only for dedicated development teams, meaning the same set of people will be working with you throughout the duration of the project and only on your project. You definitely don’t want half of your dev team being taken out of the project every month or so.”

Agarwal at Cyber Gear also urges start-ups and SMEs to really know their partner. “First, look at the industry experience of the company when you select a vendor,” he says. “Second, see if they can offer you all services – web, mobile, apps, digital marketing, SEO, social – all under one roof.

“Finally, speak to some of their clients to check on service levels. Companies that have their team in house are likely to offer quicker turnaround compared to outsourcing outfits.”

Majchrzak says you should also demand frequent updates on the progress of your project and are entitled to see a roadmap for delivery. He proposes adopting Scrum as an approach to product development. This methodology allows customers to test products regularly and quickly feed changes to the scope of the project back to the development team. “Although, Scrum may seem a bit flamboyant and uncontrollable at the beginning, it turns out to be the most precise and useful method for developing products that work for the users and developing them in a predictable manner,” Majchrzak says.

Sound advice, but the first big question a start-up has to answer is whether to stay in house or outsource development. Compareit4me.com is a UAE-based financial comparison site. In its early days, it outsourced website development, but brought the capability in house once finances allowed.

“If your business is in any way web- or tech-related, our advice would be to build as much of it in-house as possible,” says Jon Richards, CEO of compareit4me.com. “When we first started compareit4me, most of the website development was outsourced to freelancers, and while we managed to move things along, it wasn’t exactly ideal. You’re subject to your freelancers’ schedules, and that can be tiresome if, like we did, you’re using developers in other countries. In the early stages of your business, you want things to move quickly.

“That’s why, when we got our first round of angel investment and we were in a position to hire people, our first employee was a developer. We needed someone in-house who could really get our vision for the company onto the web page. Fast-forward to today, and we still stick to that in-house mantra. We’ve developed some seriously advanced financial technology completely off our own backs, and integrated that seamlessly into the website. I have no doubt in my mind that the user experience would have been worse if we’d outsourced all or part of the development.”

Regardless of which way you decide to go, Agarwal urges every start-up to prioritise investment in a professional web presence. In particular, get the basics right, he says.

“The website needs to be mobile friendly and the copy needs to be user friendly and, more importantly, Google friendly,” he says. “It is important to embed the right keywords that help in search engine optimisation. Instead of focusing on bells and whistles, the site should be quick to download and easy to navigate.”

He emphasises how essential a strong social media presence is for companies and suggests outsourcing that too along with development duties. “Social media is not part of the internet, it is the internet,” Agarwal says.

Adding e-commerce functionality to a website or app should be straightforward, he says. “The Middle East region is now abuzz with e-commerce, after the recent acquisition of Souq by Amazon,” Agarwal says. “Shopping carts are easy to set-up and payment gateway options like PayPal and 2Checkout are extremely popular.

“A mobile app is almost a necessity considering that you can establish two-way communication with your prospects and clients. Push notification services help you engage with your clients on an ongoing basis.”

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