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How to pick a software development agency for your MVP launch?

by Vitaliy Podoba
Vitaliy Podoba avatar

Hire Agency for MVP

I’ve heard tons of stories about founders been screwed by dev agencies and having to start the project over two or even three times. From scratch.

Actually, these stories are much closer. Every second client of ours came to us from the previous teams with unfinished software.

So how do you find and hire a software development agency that will help you successfully build and launch your initial software version (MVP)?

Over the last ten years under the CEO role in our agency, I successfully hired more than 60 developers.

For this, I conducted about 1900 interviews. That is one interview every second day. Non-stop. For ten years.

Our Candidates Spreadsheet since 2011

During these years, our hiring process transformed from a simple 1-hour interview to a pretty exhaustive 16 hours process with five steps.

We assess candidates against a cultural fit and shared values. We test technical and soft skills. We check code and ask for references. We do psychology tests and many more things…

I learned it the hard way: hire slow, fire fast.

All this makes sense when you want to hire in-house developers for your agency or software startup for the long-term. 

But you don’t need that complex process while picking software development agency to build quick MVP for your tech idea.

You don’t want to assess agency for cultural fit on multiple levels.

Also, the developer’s code is the last thing you want to check while looking for a proper agency.

Instead, I want to share with you my six steps process that I use while vetting sub-contractors.

Go over it with each shortlisted agency in this specific order and don’t proceed to the next step if the previous one gave you negative results.

1. Portfolio

Ideally, I want to find a dev agency with a very similar project in the portfolio to what I want to build. That means my project will be completed much faster and cost-effective.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to find the right provider with a similar product done before.

If there is no same project in their portfolio, see if they did a similar type of software product before. E.g., online marketplace, social network, booking software, SaaS app, marketing tool, business automation system, etc.

No similar type?

Then, check whether they have any kind of software for the same industry you’re in — healthcare, finances, software for service agencies, education, etc.

No same industry?

Then, make sure they built software for the same platform and medium you need.

E.g., if you want to build a mobile app – make sure they built some before. If you’re going to develop web-based software, check for it in their portfolio.

The closer project to your idea you can find in their portfolio, the better.

While a similar project is not the most important criterion to pick an agency, it’s vital to know that agency can build software for the platform/medium you need.

2. References

When we interview Python developers, we check their code and ask for references.

You will be surprised, but we don’t review their code to understand whether they produce well-structured, maintainable and scalable software 🙂

We do this to put a label on new employees within our agency. Is our new candidate Junior, Middle or Senior level?

To know how good are their results, we call their previous colleagues, mentors, and clients.

We talk to these referenced people and ask four simple questions:

  • What kind of projects candidate was working on?
  • How happy were you with the results?
  • Are these projects still running?
  • How easy is it to support and scale these projects?

These four questions give me a full picture of the candidates, without ever needing to look into any codebase.

These four questions are a game-changer for non-technical founders!

Simply go over each shortlisted agency and ask for 2-3 references. Then contact their previous or existing clients with these four questions.

You’ll quickly differentiate good from the bad.

3. Business Savvy

When building a software product, be it for sale or just a tool for your existing business, it’s good to have a technical partner that can understand your business objectives.

In our agency, when we delegate tasks to developers, we try to give as much context information as possible.

We found that more information in proper developer’s hands results in faster, more cost-effective, and higher quality results.

So I encourage you to be open with your selected agency and share as much information as you can.

Run away from teams that are over-motivated with technology but don’t express any interest in your business goals.

4. Free Work

This one is easy.

Don’t work with a company that is willing to do any kind of free work for you. Be it a small discovery workshop or 2 hours consultation.

You want to work with a high-quality company with happy clients.

An agency with happy clients is always short on time and over-booked. Developer’s hour costs a lot of money. 

Another good sign that there is a process in place and a good bunch of happy clients – agency works only via prepayments.

Willingness to spend time with your business idea for free is a bad sign.

They probably don’t have enough work to do and are desperate for revenue.

It’s better to wait a few weeks for your project to be started with a proper agency than to begin immediately and fall short a few weeks later. Avoid “I need this ASAP” mentality.

How to check?

Ask for a preliminary discovery workshop. If they send you an invoice – great. If they do it for free, skip to the next agency on your shortlist.

5. High-Level Fit

Have you ever had a situation when you called plumber recommended by your friend, but somehow you ended up disappointed with results?

Or, have you ever noticed that for every great hotel on booking.com with 9.8 reviews, there are 2-3 loud complaints?

What does it tell you?

What worked for your friend might not work for you.

Even the best agency can’t satisfy every customer.

Apart from having excellent service, happy clients, great developers, an impressive portfolio, and being sincerely interested in your success, it’s super important that both sides align on MINDSET, VALUES, and PROCESS.

If you own a small business with ten employees and would like to build a small software to help you automate your inventory, would you hire the biggest US software development company?

Probably no.

Firstly, they’ll not consider you due to a relatively small request. Secondly, you’ll not feel the added value from the premium prices they’d charge you.

On the other side, you’ll probably avoid working with freelancers. You want to have a process and be sure you have a team supporting you.

Small business owners buy from small agencies of similar size.

Enterprises buy from bigger well-established agencies with a long history.

Market leaders buy from market leaders.

Venture-backed startups buy from popular tech agencies that served VC startups before.

You want to cooperate with the agency with similar values and approaches.

So before hiring agency and making the final decision, make sure you check their process.

Talk to multiple people within the selected agency, and try to get a feeling of the overall atmosphere.

If you like it and it is similar to how you grow your own business, that’s a great sign!

6. Start Small

A final recommendation from me. But one of the most important.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to starting any kind of new relationship – start small.

Don’t make the first money transaction too big. 

It’s much easier to stop small engagement in the middle when things don’t work as you expected.

On the previous step, you probably got to know how they kickoff dev projects.

Is this short half-day planning discovery phase or full-featured multi-days startup workshop?

Or maybe they have something more evolved like clickable prototype…

Whatever it is, make sure it’s not longer than 1-3 weeks and with a price tag that won’t break a bank if things go wrong.

After you do this small engagement, you’ll feel the process, the people, and get first quick results.

You’ll be much more confident if the agency can deliver, and whether the next big step, custom software development, makes sense.

Oppositely, if there is no any kind of small engagement provided by the agency and the only first financial transaction is to sign fat agreement on full project scope, skip to the next provider in your list.

In Conclusion

To summarise, here are six criteria you need to follow with every agency you shortlisted:

  • Find a similar project in the portfolio
  • Talk to 2-3 references
  • Are they genuinely interested in your marketing plan?
  • Are they willing to do free work? (bad sign)
  • Are you on the same wavelength when it comes to mindset, values, and process?
  • Do they have smaller paid kickoff engagement?

Below you can also download this checklist in the PDF format.

Use it and don’t get screwed by dev agencies! We love building stuff from scratch, finishing previous teams work is not that much fun 😉

Do you have your own story about hiring a software development agency? Share in the comments below!

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