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Build, Borrow Or Buy — Three Ways To Work With Developers To Build A Tech MVP

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by James Zhao, co-founder of Thought&Function

As a startup founder, you’ve got all the vision and business acumen you need to make your brand successful. But when it comes to finding the right technical expertise to bring your product to life, what’s the best way to go? Is it better to take the time to train up in-house developers, or should you call on external help to get things up and running sooner? And what about off-the-shelf solutions?

There are pros and cons for each, so let’s take a look at your options and how to get the best out of the resources at your disposal.

Build within an existing team.

The first route is to build up the technical skills within your existing team. After all, you’ve got a team of people who share your values and are excited about your brand’s mission, so why not use them?

There are a lot of benefits to developing your in-house expertise, especially in the long run. Your team will naturally have a deep understanding of your product, which means they’ll be able to develop it with a clear sense of where it’s going, who its users are and how best to add value. In these early days of a product’s life, that understanding is super valuable.

But perhaps the biggest pro is that as your team acquires more skills, the company will continue to reap the rewards for as long as those people stay with you. By the time you start scaling, they’ll know your brand inside-out and will be great advocates for your product.

The flip-side is that training your existing team is a long term investment, and you might not be starting out with all the skills you need. That’s going to make the ramp up time much slower, and might mean your MVP takes longer to develop.

Also bear in mind that while your team might be excited about your shared vision, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to self-motivate. That’s why hiring people who share the same vision is so important, so that you don’t spend all of your time motivating them. If you want team members who will be with you for a while, finding someone who aligns perfectly with your culture and values is just as important as finding someone with stellar tech skills.

Borrow from the outside.

If building your existing team doesn’t fit with your MVP timescale, then you might need to look at bringing in freelancers or agency developers.

While your team will take time to develop, borrowing skills from external resources means you’ll be able to get the expert tech knowledge you need right away. You’ll also have someone who is able to self manage and deliver — you can easily check this by looking at references from past clients or reviews on freelancer platforms.

The biggest drawback here is that agency contracts and day rates for freelancers are definitely more expensive than salaries for your existing team. But as well as getting the essential tech skills, you’ll also get a greater deal of flexibility. It’s worth pointing out that agencies will cost more than freelancers, but this extra expense comes with a value add: The quality is vetted and managed on their end, so you’re less likely to waste time on poor resources or hiring. 

As a startup you’re meant to grow rapidly, and that means you might find yourself needing different skills in six months than you do right now. By borrowing from outside, you’ll have access to expertise as you need it rather than relying on your in-house team to respond to every new challenge. Startups need to scale and contract quickly in response to the market, and external resources allow you to do that much better than training from within or hiring more full-time employees.

At Thought&Function, we offer mixed resources with that in mind. With five experts in their field on hand, we can adapt the support we offer based on where you’re at. If you need more project management one month and tech the next, we can provide that flexibility.

Bypass the process and buy a solution.

Alternatively, you might be able to find a ready-made solution to your MVP’s tech needs. These come in many forms. It might mean paying for an off-the-shelf service like Shopify, using free open source code, or buying a “white labelled” solution you can rebrand as your own. They all give you a starting point that’s already been developed, so you don’t have to build everything from scratch.

Using a ready-to-go solution can give you a lot of certainty, as you’re using software that’s already proven to work and has its own support, security and maintenance in place. It will also cost less up front and take less time to go to market, so you can test your assumptions and business model earlier.

You’re taking a gamble here though. Depending on the platform, you usually will not have granular control or ownership of the underlying code to customise it, which may restrict you going forward. You’ll also be completely dependent on the service — if it goes down, so does your product.

Also, while buying an off-the-shelf solution might be cheaper initially, many will come with ongoing costs like subscription fees and commissions taken on sales. Make sure you factor in how much those will build up in the long run before making your decision.

Hold up a minute. What about hiring a technical lead?

Ultimately, whether you choose to build in-house or draw from outside, there’s one person you’ll always need on your team, and that’s a technical co-founder. If you’re not technically-minded your product can become a bit of a black box, so you need someone with the right expertise to navigate the tech and look after your developers.

The ideal technical co-founder will be someone who’s aligned with your goals and values, and who’s going to be incentivised to keep bringing value to your company long term. But most importantly, they also need to be someone who can grow with the business — someone who has the technical skills at the start, and can lead your tech department in the future.

 

James Zhao began his career as a software engineer. Four years ago he co-founded Thought&Function where he brings commercial and product expertise together – along with an understanding of the start-up process – to give start-up founders the start they need: advising on strategy, handling marketing and sales, all while still dabbling in the build process.