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Who’s bidding on your app project?

Like any responsible business, we spend a fair amount of time keeping up with the competition.  This is especially important in a business like ours, where the same project can receive wildly different bids.  It’s important for us to know who’s bidding on your project, so we can help you tell them apart.

As I’ve previously discussed, there are a few types of app developers who will be responding to your RFP:

  • Established studios with an impressive portfolio and client list
  • Experienced freelancers
  • Onshore agencies that outsource offshore
  • Offshore agencies
  • Freelancers who have no idea what they’re doing whatsoever

Not coincidentally, I’ve listed these from best to worst, highest priced to lowest priced, and lowest risk to highest risk.  To be quite frank, you really don’t want to waste time and money with the last three options — even if the difference in cost is in the tens of thousands (which is typically is), your risk positively skyrockets when you opt for one of these options.  I’ve posted in detail about this in the past, so I won’t rehash the reasons why.  Suffice to say, if you’re going to make the investment in app development, go with a trusted option.

A few years ago, we were offered a simple web application that was a little too small for us, but we wanted to help the client out and offered to find and vet a freelance web developer for them.  After putting out a call for developers, my inbox nearly collapsed under the weight of the responses — nearly 400 responses.  Not surprising, however, as web development is on the simpler side of application development, and has been around for ages in technology terms.  Still, out of those hundreds of responses, I found two — yes, two — who were worth pursuing.

Mobile development is quite a bit different from web.  The difficulty is much higher and thus requires a much more skilled developer to properly complete a project.  I was curious what the market looks like today, and so as an experiment, I put out a call for iOS and/or Android developers to see what sort of responses I would get.  I thought it might be interesting for someone on this side of the table to break apart the responses and interpret them in hopes it helps those on the other side of the table make sense of it all.

My informal RFP was fairly simple and based off a lot of the first emails or calls we get here at Glowdot every day: a little vague, but with enough information to make a pretty rough time and cost estimate.  I was looking for:

  • A social app leveraging the Facebook and/or Twitter API
  • Something “sort of like Uber but for a different service”
  • iOS and/or Android
  • Backend development including a database and a simple API for future client apps
  • UI/UX design and asset creation

Funny aside: that really does describe about 80% of the RFPs we get these days.  Uber is the new Yelp (which was the new Facebook).

Two things to note up front before I start to describe the responses.  One of the motivations for this was a client we had in our office a while ago who expressed surprise that many, if not most, of the developers he had talked to in the past either didn’t respond to him at all, cut off communication suddenly and seemingly without reason, or for some other reason just dropped off the grid.  I theorized it might be because of the “I have no idea how much this costs” problem — waves of clients that really have no frame of reference as to what an app costs to develop, which results in developers spending those first few conversations trying to figure out if they are talking to a legitimate client or someone with a $1000 budget.  Since there are so many clients out there, it makes some sense for some developers to just move on to the next one when they get a whiff of “no budget”.

Second, and I guess I might as well get this out of the way up front, out of 23 responses to my call for developers, I found zero that were worth pursuing.  The fact that I only received 23 responses was surprising enough, even though I know there are few options these days (more on this later), but to find not one decent developer in the bunch really did surprise me.  A few years ago, there was always a couple talented freelancers out there looking for work.  In 2014, it seems, they’ve all been picked up by the big technology companies or are booked into the next decade.  This is really important for clients to understand, and I can’t stress this enough: the talent is taken.  The demand is incredibly high for talented developers right now — I have literally never seen anything like it in my 20 years developing software.  Finding a qualified partner to work on your software is harder now than ever.

So that out of the way, what kind of responses did I receive?  Note that many of the responses fell into multiple categories.  Here I’m looking at the most interesting characteristics of the responses I received and listing the number of responses that fit.

Offshore developers: 9

Far less than I expected, especially considering that I get at least 5 unsolicited emails and/or calls from offshore developers every single day.  I really thought my inbox would explode, but it seems that these development shops are targeting companies like Glowdot, rather than try to go to the source.  I suppose this makes sense.  We are very aware that about 80% of our competition is basically just an office here in the US managing a team in India.  80% might even be a ridiculously low estimate.  On the occasions I’ve looked into these companies, their portfolios are… well, strange, to say the least.  Usually they send me a couple really horrible apps that don’t even make sense — not only are they broken and buggy in various ways, I often can’t even tell what they are supposed to do.  One agency that tried to sell me on their game development department reluctantly sent me a link to some sort of a boat game.  After 5 minutes, I still couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do.  Tapping the screen made a little guy row the boat, but the boat never went anywhere.  I’m not even sure what the point of the game was, or why the sales guy thought it would be a good idea to show it to me.  When I asked, he just kept insisting that his developers were extremely low cost, which, I guess, is the point.

Suspicious developers: 6

Three of the responses I received basically flat out said “you need to prove to me you are a legitimate client”.  One asked me to lay out my minimum and maximum budget before he would have any more communication with me, and the other two mentioned exhaustion from dealing with clients with bizarre budget expectations, and that they would not even have a phone call with me unless I could prove I was not out of my element.  Strangely, one of these responses sent me the same response four times over three days.  He just kept poking me asking for proof of funding.

Three responses consisted of little more than the following message: “Your app will cost at least $100,000 to build.  Email me if you understand this and want to proceed”.  One quoted me somewhere around $250k for iOS, Android and backend development.  Honestly, these quotes weren’t too far off for a client asking for Uber.

Onshore but really offshore: 5

Of the few responses that seemed worth pursuing, a couple quick emails and in one case a phone call revealed that I was dealing with a local project manager outsourcing work to India or China.  It is relatively easy for someone like me to figure this out — I am a programmer, after all, and it takes a few seconds for me to realize I’m talking to someone who doesn’t code.  It concerns me that a client who doesn’t code (and after all, isn’t that the reason they are hiring a coder in the first place?) has almost no way of determining the ability or legitimacy of the person on the other end of the phone.

I know next to nothing about cars.  I hire a mechanic to fix my car for me.  But I’m aware I’m at his mercy if he tells me I need a new Flumberg Generator.

One interesting thing about this category of responses: I actually know one of the guys who responded.  He’s right down the street from me here, and he’s been doing this for years — lowball bidding on client projects and outsourcing to India.  As far as I know he’s never finished a project to the client’s satisfaction, but because his bids are so low, he always seems to have work.

Freelancers with no idea what they are doing: 9

This was the category of response that really surprised me.  I know these guys are out there, but I didn’t know that they would make up the vast majority of responses.  Of these 9 responders, 5 of them didn’t even do mobile development.  Four were web developers who either misinterpreted my request, or thought they could figure it out as they went, as long as they had a contract and a paying client.  Risk level: 5000%.

One was a graphic designer who said he could design the app and then subcontract with one of his buddies to build the app.  I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

Of the remaining 4, it took a very brief exchange to determine that their skill level was woefully low — so low I don’t know what possessed them to put themselves out there to clients.  One of these responders showed me a demo app that I recognized as a learning project from a book I recommended to a friend on app development a couple years ago.  The other demo projects from the other responders were not much better. Buggy, broken, confusing — just bad.  Anyone who looks over these portfolios and still hires the developer because the price is right deserves what they get.  Honestly, these guys aren’t even hiding the fact that they don’t know what they are doing.

Conclusion: man, oh man

This turned out to be a depressing experiment.  I had really hoped to find at least one competent developer out there, and I just couldn’t.

We hear something often here when we talk with smaller clients (and sometimes even the bigger ones): “I’ve been burned in the past, and I want some sort of guarantee that won’t happen again”.  We understand, of course, for all the reasons I blog about here all the time.  There are really only a few ways to minimize your risk on a development contract:

  1. Be prepared to spend a realistic amount of time and money on development.  If you want the cheapest and fastest option, you’re probably going to also end up with the worst experience imaginable.
  2. Look at the developer’s recent apps and use them.  Do they make sense?  Are they well built and well designed?  Are they intuitive?  If not, why would you want them making your app?
  3. Most importantly: look at the developers client list.  Big, well funded companies don’t hire cheap, inexperienced people to work for them.  Successful companies hire the best.  If a developer’s client list consists of mom and pop shops and strange little niche startups and things like this, they’ve probably never been trusted by a client with the resources to hire the best.

One thing to realize here is that all of the responses I received were of very low quality because the most competent and reliable developers in mobile right now are in extremely high demand.  If you want to secure the best team for your project, the burden is really on you to seek them out and entice them to work with you.  My absolute best suggestion is to find a company that has made an app you found to be well made, or who has worked with a company you trust to only hire the best, and approach them to see if they are available for new clients.

I hope this was helpful, and I’d be glad to help prospective clients make sense of any responses or proposals they received.  This is a huge and growing problem in our industry, and Glowdot feels it is our duty as responsible developers to help clear the muddy water in any way we can.

As always, be careful out there!

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