Joe Tuan
Joe Tuan
Founder, Topflight Apps
January 23, 2018
So you’ve decided to create your MVP or outsource some of your web or mobile app development projects? By now, you may be wondering whether to hire a digital agency or a freelancer. Traditionally, due to the rash of terrible experiences with outsourcing, this decision was based on recommendations of peers you trust. Nowadays, marketplaces have driven up the quality of services and independent rating systems have drawn a line between bad apples and good ones, giving you increasingly better guarantees of talent. Now, the decision to hire a digital agency versus a freelancer should be driven more by a specific need.
Here are 3 questions that will help you decide which is a better fit for you:

1. Do You Need More Than One Resource?

If you have ambitious growth goals, the scalability of hiring will be a challenge. Do you have someone in-house that can vet new developers when you need more? If so, freelancers can be a great option. But let’s say your entire technical team is overloaded or you would just rather have a scalable process in place? Then a digital marketing agency can be a better option. Good digital agencies have an extremely high bar when hiring their own developers, so they can essentially take on significant hiring costs for you.

Besides the cost of recruiting, there’s also the cost of knowledge transfer, which means the cost of getting a new developer up to speed on the existing product, codebase, and workflow. This can take anywhere from days to weeks, depending on complexity. If you’re expecting to need only one developer, then a freelancer or a digital agency have the same cost of knowledge transfer. But if you’re expecting to need more than one developer at any point, you’ll need to entrust that existing developer with knowledge transfer, which can sometimes be an uncomfortable and risky process if that developer thinks their job is on the line and they want to protect it. Also, while that developer handles transfers knowledge to another developer, their own work has to stop. From the standpoint of protecting your IP and minimizing work stoppage, an agency that has project managers, designers, and pair programming on your project will have a larger braintrust that can help with knowledge transfer to new developers without needing to stop work each time.

2. What Type Of Person Do You Need: Employee or Partner?

Even the best freelance developers will admit they do best when they can focus on coding. This is obviously the desired outcome that comes to mind when hiring a developer, but for some companies, they could use help in other areas like UI/UX design, validation, metrics, SEO, and other “business-y” things always add up to more importance than just code. Because of intense competition between agencies, it’s often not enough anymore for a digital agency to specialize in development. The very well-known Pivotal Labs now takes on more of a consulting model where they teach their processes to companies. Other successful app development companies like Appsitude started out doing app development but later diversified into app marketing as well.

So the question to ask yourself is, are you looking for a company that has diverse resources to help improve your entire product, or are you confident you only need a developer?

3. Do You Need More Accountability?

First, there’s legal accountability. The most frequent feedback I get from our clients on why they ultimately choose us is that we’re based in the U.S., they can talk to us face-to-face if need be, and there’s a single point of legal accountability if the project goes south. Shafted clients also have recourse with the Better Business Bureau and Small Claims Courts.

Second, there’s anti-ghosting accountability. Ghosting is when you get ditched in the middle of a project without any explanation. I’ve hired freelancers from “Did you just graduate from Udemy?” to “God you’re amazing — never leave,” and I came to a sad realization that there is no correlation between talent and commitment. The best developers left me hanging just as often as the less talented ones. So the question you should be asking yourself is, can you afford to get ghosted?

Some clients are well-equipped to deal with ghosting by freelancers. They’re working with freelancers every day, demand frequent github commits, and know exactly what they’re doing. If something unfortunate were to happen with a freelancer, they could pick up the slack without much of a hitch. Other clients outsource a larger portion of their development, and getting ghosted in the middle would incur a huge cost of picking up where the freelancer left off, to the extent that it often makes more sense to just start over.

Remember that a digital agency that ghosts you has way more to lose than a freelancer that ghosts you. Say a freelancer on Upwork has 100 reviews. If you tear them a new one with a poor 101st review, that doesn’t affect them much. Digital agencies are businesses with visible reputations on Yelp, Google, and Facebook. In other words, a digital agency has a lot more to think about before they pull a fast one on you.


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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