Joe Tuan
Joe Tuan
Founder, Topflight Apps
December 24, 2023

So you have an idea for making an app.  Should you outsource mobile app development or hire an app developer internally? For starters, finding the right developer for your custom mobile application development project is nothing like finding a great restaurant on Yelp, where even if it ends up not being exactly what you wanted, you still got well-fed and you probably won’t get burned by a 4.5 star restaurant.  Compared to that, the map to finding a great app developer is full of landmines. Before you know it, you hear the tell-tale “click” and you’re in a $50k hole (like I was.)

Part of the difficulty in 2021 is that well-meaning, otherwise-intelligent entrepreneurs oftentimes don’t know what to look for. The second part is that, once you know what to look for, the services meant to help you find the right fit for you haven’t evolved to legitimately do so.  

You may be asking yourself, why am I taking advice from this guy?  

I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I’ve been the buyer and the seller, the client and the developer – I can at least attempt to speak objectively from either view.  Here’s a bit of my history:

  • In 2012 I was an entrepreneur with no technical background;  
  • In 2013 I was a WordPress developer who lost $50k hiring the wrong app developers;  
  • In 2015 I became a full-stack developer out of necessity, just to keep my own startup alive;  
  • In 2016 I started a development agency. That agency is Topflight Apps.  

At each of these phases in my tech career, my answer to the question, “How do you find the right app developer?” has continued to evolve: I’ve gained a more complicated view of the truth, but have also developed a working list of “must haves” to help someone like you avoid the same mistakes.  So, without further ado, here’s my hold-nothing-back tell-all, and, hopefully, you’ll walk away with the knowledge of how to outsource app development:

  1. Enter With Clear Scope
  2. Validate The Design Before Coding
  3. The Tech Must Make Sense for You
  4. Understand Software Estimates
  5. Understand the Tradeoff Between Hourly and Fixed Price
  6. Should I Pick An Agency, Technical Cofounder, or Freelancer?
  7. Overseas or Local? Wrong Question
  8. Should I Look On Upwork or Clutch?
  9. Conduct An Interpersonal Interview

Enter With Clear Scope

In plain English, scope is everything that your app contains and how it functions.  Why start with this very unsexy topic? Because without a clear scope, the rest of this piece is moot.  Many first-time app entrepreneurs ask for an estimate on “a game like angry birds” or “an app with payment processing, member profiles, direct messaging, and some other basic features”.  In the first case, you have a supposed clone where it never ends up being a clone. In the second case, you’re not accounting for the full list of features and how everything fits together.  

outsource app development in 2021

Please understand: Every little thing changes the estimates.  If you think the app developer should just “get it”, that’s basically asking them to read your mind.  Talented software developers are masters of precision, not mind reading. These types of asks not only set you up for failure but also scream “I’m a first timer” to seasoned developers. Remember: talented developers want to be attached to ideas and entrepreneurs that have longevity and won’t be sold purely on how “cool and innovative” your idea is.   

If you don’t have a clear scope for your, let’s say, custom iOS app development project, I’d recommend you stop thinking about how you outsource iPhone app development and invest in a design phase to put your idea into a visual prototype.  A completed prototype leads to the validation of your idea, and then to solid development estimates that end up leaving you in the happiest outcome possible when hiring a developer: getting a winning product without overpaying.

“Scope.  Got it. Now what the heck is a visual prototype?”

Validate The Design Before Coding

A visual prototype is pretty much the closest thing to getting what you want to build, without writing a single line of code.  First off, it’s worth stating that this isn’t to make you feel better about your decision by having something “visual” to support your idea.   A visual prototype is in reality the cheapest way to get your idea into the hands of real users, and it offers a way to both test out and validate your assumptions.  Based on how users respond to and interact with your prototype, the designer can iterate the design and try to flesh out a winning product. Even though a small investment is required to come up with a prototype (let alone change it multiple times), this initial sum will always be far cheaper (as in 80-90% cheaper) than the coding part.  

For more on this, we recently published a separate guide for entrepreneurs on how to iterate design toward improving KPIs.

The second benefit is that going through this process will be a learning experience, especially if you’ve never done it before. This method teaches you how to talk about your product in precise terms (see “Scope” above), and to see how your words translate precisely into visual consequence without spending a ton of money to find out where that communication fell apart.  In short, this process is ultimately as much about showing your idea’s merit to the world, as it is about you gaining fluency in the language of app development. Visual prototyping is the closest thing to an “app development 101” crash course as it comes, a truly rare, guaranteed win-win situation if there ever was one.

team looking at computer screen

So to summarize:

  1. Going through the design process will teach you how to communicate what you want in a way that’s clear to the people building it;
  2. Going through the rapid prototyping design process with user testing to validate your idea will help you iterate toward a winning product.  This is oftentimes the main thing that many experienced entrepreneurs, let alone first time entrepreneurs, skip over.

Reference: Betmingo is an example of a client who came to us with a basic idea for an app that helps casino-goers find tables with the best odds.  He hadn’t developed an app before, didn’t have a clear idea of what it would look like, and was on the fence about whether some features belonged in the MVP.  Instead of jumping into a development estimate, we wireframed it here and then added high-fidelity designs here, and validated these prototypes with potential users before we moved onto development.

The Tech Must Make Sense For You

As much as I wish we could say “You have a non-technical role, so you don’t need to care about the technology,” not knowing what’s under the hood can have very dire consequences.  Think about when you’re buying a car:

Do you need your car to shave off 0-60 time by 0.5 seconds, be capable of operating in snowy weather conditions, or last for 10 years under normal driving conditions?  

No matter your level of car savvy, every car buyer is expected to know the advantages and disadvantages of a car before buying it. If you’re buying a car, being an informed car consumer will lead you to become a happier car owner. The same goes for doing your research on technology when buying app development services.  

Related: Choosing the right platform for your app 

Caveat alert: There is a lot of pizzazz these days being spouted about the latest greatest technologies.  You may have friends in tech circles that will tell you to use Docker, Aurora, VueJS, Flutter or whatever else the Valley is enthused about that day.  But don’t get distracted: the focus of your project plan should be on the reasons for the technology, not the names.  Here are the questions you must ask your mobile app outsourcing company:

  1. How will your chosen technology scale to what the product needs 6 months from now?
  2. How will your chosen technology mesh with your in-house talent (if any?)

top programming languages data

How do you solve this in-house app development vs outsourcing dilemma? Let’s say you don’t have any techies on your team. If you outsource app developers overseas to handle the whole build, you may (as many have) end up with a developer who recommends Java (especially in India).  They may build a fine MVP, but is your business plan to continue onward with those foreign developers 6 months from now, or will you be moving development stateside? I can tell you now that Java developers are becoming a rarity in the US-based talent market making the hiring of stateside talent for take over purposes both difficult and expensive.

Related: MVP App Development: The Ultimate Guide 

Similarly, you may have a developer that’s trying to get your MVP done on a lower budget and thus recommends WordPress to reduce development hours. That may be fine initially, but WordPress can be notoriously unscalable for certain dynamic applications, such as a building social network.

Now let’s assume you crossed off task #1 and made sure your technologies make sense for the long run (let’s say you decided on a custom PHP + MySQL stack).  But on the flipside, let’s say you have an in-house backend developer, and they specialize in one type of database development (NoSQL). This isn’t going to make sense, because you have to pick one, and you won’t be maximizing the skillset of your in-house app development team by going with the external recommendation.  Similarly, if you have an in-house Swift or Java expert, you probably won’t want to hire a React Native developer, as there will be skill redundancy, leading to one very unhappy, underutilized in-house developer.*

Related article: React Native vs. iOS Swift

*There is a caveat to this: I personally would rather hire someone that is honest about what makes sense for you and also admits they’re not as comfortable in that language, but has demonstrated an ability to pick up a similar language. Yes, the upfront cost of outsourcing mobile app development in this scenario will be higher because of the learning curve, but investing in character can be a high-ROI investment (more on this later in “Conduct An Interpersonal Interview”.)

Also Read: A Founder’s Guide to Fundraising 

Understand Software Estimates

As a business person, I need to know the cost to establish ROI.  This is absolutely true. The problem is, even for the best app developers, estimates can be part science and part art.  Having been on both sides of app development, I’ve learned that building something that hasn’t been built before comes with a level of risk for even the best developers.

Let’s think about a custom home: when you’re building a custom home that hasn’t been built before, it’s basically still a redesign.  Under the novel-looking surface, a custom home has the same components underneath as any other home. Sorry to bash your million dollar home, but it’s barely more than a rearrangement.  

Now compare that with custom mobile app development process.  Real tech innovation, as the name suggests, can come from building something that hasn’t been done before, or putting together existing parts in innovative ways.  The field is always evolving, and the mark of a talented developer is not the ability to know everything, but to be able to pick it up quickly and add new technologies to the toolset.

In cases where an app developer has already built an app that you enjoy, and you find yourself wanting something extremely similar to it, then the estimate can be (and should be) rock solid.  For example, after we built, there were multiple prospects that wanted a similar version of that, and we always delivered on time and on budget.  

symptom checker app

But in cases where there were more unknowns, like adding new machine learning algorithms, working with new APIs, or working with a piece of firmware that wasn’t built by us, we readily admit that we don’t always meet our mark the first time.  

Based on my experience, here is what you can do to get the most realistic estimates possible when outsourcing an app idea:

  1. Best case: they already have something very similar in their portfolio.  Second best case: they haven’t built exactly what you’re looking for, but they’re experts in your niche (for us it would be healthcare and fintech), and have built multiple projects that overlap with your scope.
  2. If it turns out there are unknowns, be open to a paid, exploratory discovery phase to turn the unknowns into knowns first–it’s a foolproof way to come up with solid estimates.  This ask will oftentimes turn entrepreneurs off, as they think it’s considered “financing a developer’s learning” when in truth, this mitigates risk for both parties. It invites better developers through the door, while tightening up overall estimates.  (And developers do not profit from a few hours of discovery – they only ask for this to land and increase the chances of success on the larger project).
  3. Dig up their track record from references or reviews to see if they didn’t disappoint on schedule and budget.  In other words, if a developer has a 4-to-5 star rating on schedule and budget across multiple types of apps, that’s a great sign that they adapt quickly to new frontiers.
  4. Request an agreement to proactively communicate as soon as signs appear that initial estimates may be off.  Accountability and proactive communication are more effective than you might think at reducing costs, because it allows you to make informed decisions together to resolve the “numbers creep” before any material damage is done.

Understand The Trade-off of Hourly versus Fixed Price

hourly vs fixed rates

From an untrained eye, it would seem like there are basically 2 opposing forces: fixed price being better for you, and hourly as being better for the developer. But if you’ve been through iPhone app development outsourcing or outsource app creation regularly, you already know it’s not nearly that simple.

To understand why, you first have to acknowledge the complexity and risk of app development estimates (see “Understand Software Estimates”).  Because of this risk, fixed price projects are oftentimes portfolio-builders for new app developers willing to eat that risk to gain some traction.  In a competitive market for phone app developers, there will always be app developers that operate on fixed-price to get your business, and there will be talented and established developers with a track record who will prefer to work with clients that pay for their time.  And that’s because they can, and not because it feels totally fair.

But is it fair?  In reality, it may very well be.  Just because you’re paying hourly absolutely does not mean you’ll be paying more.  By attracting better talent with hourly contracts, you may lower the overall cost with efficiency and quality of work.   One other benefit of paying hourly, is that fixed price also means fixed scope. Fixed scope is nice in theory (making sure what you specify upfront is a 100% match with what you develop 6 months from now), but it contradicts what clients usually end up wanting.  Hourly contracts allow room for re-interpretation and further clarification on requirements as we see the product come to life, thus keeping everyone principally motivated toward building the best product possible. In a fixed-price setting, this time would instead be directed toward negotiations on new scope versus old scope, and how to reconcile payment–not the best possible outcome for either party.

Now, if you absolutely can’t risk exceeding your budget (you simply don’t have the funds) then by all means your best play is to get a fixed price, with the understanding that timelines and quality will probably take a hit. That’s the tradeoff.  

Remember, hourly does not equal a free pass for a developer to work without oversight.  It is your right and your responsibility as a business owner to ask the developer for estimates and to expect accountability and proactive communication if they’re likely to be exceeded!

Should I Pick An Agency, Technical Cofounder, or Freelancer?

One of the sexier questions that every app entrepreneur faces is “Do I hire a mobile app development outsourcing company with a team in place, or build my own team of freelancers?”  A little background refresher: I’ve been a freelancer and have hired freelancers. I’ve run an app making agency and have hired agencies. I have so much personal data on this age-old question, it hurts.

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re a bootstrapped entrepreneur, of course you want to build your own team.  Agencies were not created because they think you’d rather pick them than “own” your personnel. Agencies, and tens of thousands of them to be specific, exist because it’s extremely time-consuming and expensive to build an in-house team and then grow it up.  

team looking at computer screen

And that’s why most entrepreneurs at this stage start out by looking for a technical cofounder: your unicorn 50% equity owner that can code.  They think it’s the cure to all their ills, to pass off the technical side to their cofounder. And it could be! This strategy is the backbone of most successful startups.   

Related: On-demand App Development Guide 

In fact it was when my roommate in college started travbuddy with his brother, a site that ended up being a pretty successful niche social networking platform, that I decided to go on the same search for my significant other in 0’s and 1’s.  Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way about how difficult it is to find someone trustworthy. And when you finally find them, how difficult it can be to keep them.

Remember that point earlier about talented developers having their pick of hourly projects?  To that point, your talented cofounder and in-house team members will also get presented with other lucrative opportunities.  Once the excitement of building an unprecedented product on equity dies down, you better get traction and funding right away, otherwise you’ll likely see your cofounder running to someone else. And all the power to them, but as an employer, I want to be the place that people are running to.

Entrepreneurs who understand this risk and want to avoid it have tried a slightly different path: taking small gambles by hiring a bunch of freelancers and seeing what sticks.  There’s good and bad to this. This is a very good way of identifying junior talent when they’re just starting out. But it’s a huge time suck because 9 out of 10 will probably fail.  But even when you land good freelancers, similar to the cofounder situation, you have to be wary of that imminent competition and raise your rates. If you’re looking specifically at someone in the states, that competition becomes much stiffer.  Cheaper talent in the USA doesn’t stay cheap on the market. As someone that’s hiring pretty prolifically in the states, I’ve seen market rates jump up 2x over the course of weeks once developers have a portfolio.

The story I just painted with freelancers may seem extreme, but it’s not an exaggeration.  You can achieve great results and hire a great team, so long as you understand that it will come at the cost of your time.  But if you have the time, and building a team is something that excites you, by all means, do it. I chose to build my own team up at Topflight, and even though I’ve gone through the exact turbulence described of fighting hand-over-fist for my team, it’s been worth it to me because I love team-building and because hiring is a challenge that excites me.   

Still, not all clients feel the same way.  Those that are more interested in building and launching a functional product than investing their time into building a team may opt to go with an agency.  A carefully-vetted agency would be able to offer the same development quality with 2 additional costs: the overhead of it being a company, and the loss from you not getting to put your name on it to show to angel investors as “yours”. The benefits are that they remove the pain point of hiring entirely from your plate because they’ve (presumably) invested years and huge money into solving this exact problem.  In a nutshell, working with an agency means a higher hourly rate but freeing up your time to focus on other aspects of the business.

More: App Development Costs: How to Budget for Your App

Among other benefits of outsourcing mobile app development to an agency is that an agency is more likely to fill multiple needs (design, development, marketing), and may already have the in-house skills to scale as your needs evolve.  From a tech standpoint, as you gain more traffic you may need more digital marketing talent to optimize your funnels and find your most effective paid advertising channels. Or you may need to make changes to your existing technology to scale with (and perform well under) the increasing traffic.  You may instead choose to add machine learning to turn the data you’ve collected into more insights and find that your agency already offers this service. Again, the agency may save you time here from having to find additional expertise in the open market.

P.S. One important caveat to remember when you hire an agency is to never make a decision after talking to only the founder (hello!)  Think of an agency like a company you’re acquiring. Would you acquire it after speaking with only the person selling? Nope, you’d do a deep dive into the company, probably go undercover and to find out the dirty secrets at every level.  Similarly, if you work with an agency, get to know the team members at every level. There are a lot of agencies out there that have a founder based in the states, sending all the work to an outsourcing firm overseas. You have the right to ask to speak with everyone who will be touching your product, and I highly recommend you use it.  

Local or Overseas? Wrong Question.

This is another provocative question that many ask, with many tropes.  The conventional wisdom goes: you’ll get a cheaper hourly rate overseas compared to the rates in the United States.  It leaves out the part where you may have to tell them everything they need to code down to even the most minute details, that communication will be a huge pain in the butt, and that shortcuts in programming may be taken to meet deadlines at a huge long-term cost.  And if you’re one of those people who say “if it doesn’t work out, I only lost X thousand dollars!” then you simply don’t value your time.  Have ye so little faith in what you bring to the table?

Ok.  You may think I have a one-sided view of hiring overseas developers, but lo and behold, the complete opposite is true. I said you shouldn’t ship development overseas because it’s cheaper, not that you shouldn’t do it at all.  There are absolutely good developers overseas that deliver quality products and communicate well.  In fact, I used to outsource iOS app development in this fashion and found luck with Android app development outsourcing too. I do eat my own medicine!

The key for me is to look for the same criteria overseas as I would locallyWhether you work with a local team or an overseas team, you should have a standardized and unforgiving set of criteria.  If you’re looking for a local developer because of communication and trust the ability to build a relationship, figure out what sort of interview questions and trials you need to run with an overseas developer to find those same traits.

There will be some differences that you shouldn’t expect to overcome entirely, such as time zones, language, and cultural differences. But a developer’s character and skills will shine irrespective of those differences if you ask the right questions (More on this in “Conduct An Interpersonal Interview” below).

Meet Eugene our UI designer in Ukraine.

Meet Eugene, our UI designer in Ukraine.

Should I Look On Upwork or Clutch?

Now that you have a much better idea of the criteria that make sense for you, it’s time to talk about where to actually look.


I will be forthright in telling you that even though I hire primarily on the referral of existing team members (great developers will know great developers), when I need to hire someone I can’t find within my existing network, I do use Upwork.  Not because it serves my needs every time, but because nothing better is out there yet for finding freelancers. The truth is, it’s been a mixed bag and Upwork is basically a landmine that does not serve the interests of someone using it for the first time.  But if you know how to avoid these “gotchas”, it can be a great resource.

First, let me start with the great part about Upwork: you can reach people all over the world and the search function is a scalpel allowing you to cut through, right to the people that have the exact skills you’re looking for.  The job success rating and “Top Rated” badges make for easy identification of the wheat from the chaff. You can see someone’s portfolio. They also make it really easy for you to start projects without worrying about payment and contractual obligations (granted they take a 10-20% commission that gets deducted only from the contractor side).  All of these are great on paper.

Now, the absolute worst part of Upwork is so bad it can turn the above into a vanity metric: the lack of identity verification.  

If a candidate says they’re based in the U.S., the first thing to do is to proceed with caution and insist on a video call. I guarantee this will rule out most of your candidates.  Upwork does provide identity verification now, but they also allow people to be on the platform without it, and that’s most important to note. By insisting on a phone call before you talk shop, you can save yourself a lot of time.   

The second thing I ask is whether they would do all of the work themselves for my project or if they have a team.  There are a ton of people masquerading as the former (in reality acting as a project manager) when it’s actually the latter. (I make it clear on my Upwork profile that I’m part of a team but this isn’t common practice).  In the latter case, what you’re basically working with is an app making firm.

But hey, maybe you’re looking for an agency, in which case, haaaave you met…


Clutch is a directory of top-rated digital agencies.  I’m a huge advocate for them because I believe in my heart of hearts that they do things right.  They’re methodical in their approach and with their algorithm for rankings:  I dream of a future where Upwork applies the same due diligence.  

Disclaimer: My firm is on Clutch and is pretty visible on it, but the same is true on Upwork and yet I litter my recommendation of them with caveats as well.

outsource mobile app development clutch reviews

Example: When our physical presence in Las Vegas dropped, I saw our rankings there reflect that drop by changing from #1 to #4.  Meanwhile our main presence in Orange County was reflected in us sustaining our ranking there. Geography is far from everything, and that’s the point: they caught it anyway!  

Similarly, our firm focuses on two areas, but while we are ranked nationally on healthcare apps, we’re not leaders for fintech (yet!) where we don’t have as much experience as in healthcare.  

Thus, I believe Clutch is particularly great for finding teams that have a physical presence in the geographical area where you’re looking, and/or if you are looking for specialists in a certain niche.   

The only “gotcha” I would point out here is that you should know about sponsored listings.  This is how they make their money so I don’t begrudge them this, just buyer beware. Look for the barely visible “sponsor” highlighted in this screenshot:

Reality Check: Upwork or Clutch Beats Nothing At All

Despite the “gotchas” on both platforms, and despite the many more gotchas on Upwork, there’s one very good reason to hire someone at the top of either platform: Visibility.  If you’re going with someone at the top, that means they have more to lose.  Although Upwork’s rating system is less methodical and transparent than Clutch’s, a dissatisfied customer can cause material damage to rankings on either platform.  A top-rated developer on Upwork and Clutch is incentivized to continue their track record of delivery and not leave you hanging when things get hard. Protecting that badge can be a strong motivator.  Honestly, it is for us too when the projects become difficult.

Demand A Portfolio

Before you speak with a candidate, always ask to see a portfolio of similar projects.  Many will tell you their work is under NDA. This is a pretty easy way to weed out subpar developers.  I’m not saying NDAs don’t matter – I actually have to sign them for just about every project. But when you’re a good developer and you do good work, once the fully finished product is done, good entrepreneurs have no qualms about releasing that NDA to the wind because they’re proud of their work and their relationship with a talented developer and it’s also free marketing for them (who doesn’t want the SEO?)

Topflight Apps portfolio screenshot

The caveat: in cases where the work is for enterprises (Fortune 500), there can be too much bureaucracy getting in the way of approving permissions, and too much liability for contractors to break the NDA.  

Related: Machine Learning App Development: Everything You Need to Know 

When you do get to see a product, grill the developer on exactly what aspects of it they created.  Were they a solo developer or did they work on the frontend only or backend only, or even just some parts?  Then ask for a reference to cross reference. If they only worked on parts, don’t be afraid to ask for excerpts to review. Ideally, you would have the capability or resource to review it, but if not, at least it shows a willingness to reveal the extent of their work.  You should only make a judgment based on the actual parts of the project that they worked on: a backend developer should not be judged on a beautiful UI. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to outsource app design to someone who built an Android app, using someone else’s sketches.

Conduct An Interpersonal Interview

If you’ve interviewed for a job in a business sector before, you know what I’m talking about.  There’s usually an interpersonal interview as well as a technical interview, with the former focusing entirely on the person behind the skills.  This is nothing new. The reason why I’m giving this an entire section is that many entrepreneurs think that because you’re hiring a developer, the bottom line is whether they can code.  The complete opposite is true.

The same mentality should be taken whether you’re looking for a technical cofounder, hiring freelancers, or hiring an agency.  When you’re looking for a technical founder, the first thing most people will tell you is that it’s like a marriage. Things will get hairy inevitably in a startup, and you should have a strong interpersonal dynamic that can weather the storm, and a strong interpersonal bond that keeps you invested in each other and not just the pay or the product.  You also don’t pick a technical cofounder just to tell them what to do right? You expect them to not be yes-men or yes-women, to be proactive and bring up innovative ideas, and to be undaunted by those inevitable unprecedented technical roadblocks.

If you take this exact same mentality to hiring freelancers or agencies, you’ll have a lot more success.  I guarantee it.

outsource app development

Don’t believe me?  Think about this. From a great freelancer’s perspective, are you offering the best pay they can possibly get?  Probably not. There has to be something besides pay to keep them retained. As someone that’s probably hired 100+ app designers and developers in my lifetime I can tell you there are far more people that are technically proficient than there are people that are great fits.  (I’m sure you’ll find that’s generally true in any profession). The ones that are just technically proficient but not great fits never last long. The ones that hit that sweet spot of the venn diagram by being both technical and people fits are the ones that are likeliest to stick with you the longest, long after the pay is negotiated.  

A confession: Until a year into my current company, I straight up ignored the importance of interpersonal fit.  I didn’t think we were large enough to care when we were so busy just delivering products and finding developers that could build in the stack that clients needed.  But I wasted so much time on hiring because even when I found strong developers, they didn’t last long. These days, if I can’t find a developer that’s a strong interpersonal but fits our technical needs, I would rather turn down a project to avoid the imminent churn.

Remember: fit is about longevity and saving yourself from wasting time hiring and re-hiring, and no matter your budget, you should always be thinking about this from day one.  

Now, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the actual interview.  I’m not going to go through the full list of questions that you should ask, because fit is about what fits with you and not me.  Instead, I’ll offer a framework and some examples that I believe can set you on a good path:


If you’ve been reading closely, you probably realize that “communication” has been the most omnipresent keyword and theme so far (SEO fail!). Think of it:   

    • Validate The Design Before Coding
    • Understand Software Estimates
    • Understand The Tradeoff of Hourly versus Fixed Price
    • Local or Overseas? Wrong Question
    • Should I Look On Upwork or Clutch?  

Even though communication isn’t explicitly mentioned in these titles, it provides the foundation for each.  I truly believe communication is really at the heart of every successful hire I’ve made. Without this solid base, I don’t move forward.  And with this solid base, a lot of so-called deficiencies can be overcome. I’ve seen junior developers that are great communicators quickly rise up to be leaders.  So what I try to do in an interview is to assess how well they articulate, as well as their actual approach toward communication in times of stress.  

What type of response time can I expect to my questions?

If they say “asap”, you can pretty much discount them now.  It’s either a lie or means that the developer is not focused enough on the actual work.  A strong communicator will set reasonable expectations such as “within 2 hours” (This is an example, not a hard number).  

How do you communicate when you run into estimate overruns?  

If they say “I don’t exceed estimates” or “I will honor my estimates so don’t worry,” I would also remove them from contention.  Even the best developers run into unforeseen difficulties, and how they approach communicating these should be a multi-layered answer.  Even if they nobly honor the cost estimates, they should communicate about the impact of overruns in terms of timelines. They should be open to collaborating and asking other experts when they run into difficulties (which also shows that they’re ego-less), and they should voice a willingness to discuss proactively with you about estimate overruns before they exceed the estimates.  

a/b testing


After you find the right communicator, it’s about finding the right fit in terms of values and motivation.  First, clearly define what your values are. Do not make up this exercise or fluff your way through. Think about what matters most to you as a person as well as why you chose to do this thing (your startup) and not that thing.  Do you value collaboration, strong communication, dropping egos at the door, and contributing ideas for growth regardless of specific role on the team?  Then don’t be afraid to seek people that fit this mold.

Tell me about a time when you made a difference in your previous job besides programming. 

What I’m usually looking for are stories about ideas contributed to ways to improve a product, contributions they made to rapid prototyping processes, leadership of a team through willing mentorship of other developers, contributions to the designing process, and overall project management.  All of these demonstrate that they care and that they step up in ways that exceed their obligations.

So why you want to work with us?

Do they want to work on your healthcare app because they want to improve patient care?  Do they want to use your company as a stepping stone to somewhere else? Do they want to learn more and improve their skills?  In my experience, all of these are worthy and believable motivations. The key here is not to find the perfect motivation – don’t use your personal moral compass.  It’s about finding out whether they have a believable motivation that will lead to them investing in your company for at least 2 years.

Lastly, understand that the interview is meant to set expectations.  If someone passes your smell test during an interview, the next step is always to start with a trial period with a small number of tasks and aggressively test out these expectations in a real-world setting.  You don’t know this person yet – all you have now is some data to form an educated guess that they’ll be great. So it’s ok to try to throw curveballs by changing up the scope and asking them questions when they’re in the middle of a sprint.  Finally, if they pass your trial work period, then pat yourself on the back. You’ve done all your homework and you’ve followed a systematic approach to finding the right app developer. By no means does this mean things will always work out forever, but chances are, things will work out more often than they don’t.  And that’s nothing short of a coup in the wild west of app development.

Looking to get started today? At Topflight Apps we are ready to help you streamline an existing app, or even elevate an idea that’s been floating in your head for a while. We’re an excellent team of developer-founders who boast a record for superior customer service, and a 100% product launch success rate, and we’re always looking for inspiration for new projects.

Request a proposal, and we can get the ball rolling before tomorrow’s emails start pouring in.

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[This blog was originally published in Feb 2020 and updated for more recent data]

Frequently Asked Questions


What other platforms for outsourcing app development besides Upwork and Clutch do you know?

Toptal is another alternative, marketing as a service with exclusively high-quality coders, but I suggest you tread with care.

Would you recommend an HR service that would help with the interviewing process?

If you’re an early-stage startup, you should absolutely interview for interpersonal skills yourself because the price of a mistake can be too high. As you scale, consider services like eTeki and HireVue.

Is there a way I can merge the hourly and fixed-time approaches into one?

Yes, you can use the fixed-price cap as the absolute budget limit on your project and then negotiate an hourly rate with a team. The team’s responsibility is to warn you of any budget overheads should you choose to introduce any changes midway through the project.

Joe Tuan

Founder, Topflight Apps
Founder of Topflight Apps. We built apps that raised $165M+ till date. On a mission to fast-forward human progress by decentralizing healthcare and fintech.
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