10 tips for Successfully Hiring a Web Designer/Developer Online
By: Whilly Bermudez
As the owner operator of a full scale web development company (circa 2001), I am always asked about the industry and more specifically about the best way to hire contractors and freelancers for web development from the internet. There is a lot of ‘gray area’ that exists and some clarity may help you to make wise choices.
The most popular sites for hiring quality freelance developers are Elance, Odesk, Freelancer, Guru, and People Per Hour. These sites feature a simple process where you list your project and potential contractors try to win you over with their portfolio samples and sales pitch. The main reasons why consumers turn to these sites are because they have had difficulty finding a local contractor or they have found out that historically, it is a lot more cost-efficient than working with a local contractor.
1. Be prepared
The first thing you need to do is to create a very clear and precise overview of your job requirements, the skills that the freelancers must have and any job related information along with any relevant images in a Word Document. This should be the detailed spec sheet or as we say in the industry, the RFP which stands for ‘Request for Proposal’.
The reason why you want to be as descriptive and accurate as possible is to ensure that the quotes from potential freelancers are accurate and fair. Beyond that, it’s a way to keep expectations in check. The contractor will know exactly what they have to do, and you know exactly what they are going to do for you in order to receive payment. This also protects the web developer from clients that may demand additional work that was never a part of the original scope of the project.
This initial documentation will also serve as evidence that keeps any gray area clear in the event that a legal dispute should arise.
2. Have Realistic Expectations and a Realistic Budget
Your budget can be one of the main reasons that you are not receiving bids from high quality developers. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people go on these sites and post their project with a very low and unrealistic budget. For example, I have seen people ask to have a social networking website like Facebook built, and state their budget to be $250. Yes, unbelievable but true. Does that mean that they don’t know any better or that there are there developers who are willing to work for peanuts?
Well, some people don’t know any better and others try to take advantage of developers from third world countries that do, in fact, work for peanuts because they’re trying to survive. Some of these developers work for as little as $5 per hour.
This can be a good thing for the developers from third world countries because they put food on the table, but it has created a culture that comes with a dark side. That culture also lends itself to dishonest foreign developers who make a habit of collecting an initial payment for a project then either doesn’t work on the project and vanish OR who leave it on the back burner without any sense of urgency and work on it periodically, which of course, results in missed deadlines.
One online marketplace that has lent to this culture is Freelancer.com. They have created a price structure that is conducive to very unrealistic budgets. For example, it shows that for a “Large Project” the range is $3,000-$5,000 when in reality, a large project is typically $10,000 to $15,000. As a result of this flawed structure, the site experiences a huge amount of turnover of projects, where the customers can’t quite find a suitable contractor for the work and they cancel the projects or let them expire.
I always tell our clients the old saying “You get what you pay for” and if it seems "Too good to be true" - it is! You may be tempted to pay very low wages, but when the project is not done correctly, you will have to absorb new costs to actually have it redone. The money you tried to save at the beginning will still need to been spent at the end; only this time, it comes with aggravation and a loss of time.
Therefore, the advice for this is that it’s better to save until you have the right amount of money to hire a better developer who can ensure quality when bringing your idea into fruition, than hiring someone based on how low his or her bids are. Always remember that quality is never cheap. See the next image which shows someone who just had a bad experience having to post their project (again) to get it done right:
3. Understand Quality verses Quantity
Quality always goes hand in hand with cost. Unfortunately, there are developers out there that are only concerned with bringing in as much business as humanly possible and don’t know a thing about quality. In the web development industry, quality means that a developer takes the time to actually read and analyze the project requirements and only then make the proper recommendations that are in your best interests.
Quality also means that all backend code is clearly defined and there is no use of sloppy coding or copying & pasting of snippets or cheap scripts from the internet. In addition, it’s important that your web developer refrain from recycling code from previous projects. They shouldn’t do it to previous clients and they shouldn’t do it to you.
Professional web development businesses usually have a “Quality Assurance” person on staff that does extensive quality checks before any work is deemed ‘complete’. The fly-by-night freelancers and groups are very pleasant and will court you at first and then a bad experience can follow.
4. How to select the right web developer
Now that you know the basics of quality in web development, what should you look for in developers when making your selection? In the marketplace websites that I have already mentioned, a rating system exists that ranks the developer using a 5–star system and a combined score that is based on client satisfaction and feedback. You can always use this as an indicator but don’t make it your only means of making a selection. In fairness, a developer can have 10 clients that were easy to work with until that got that one client that was just impossible to please or just unreasonable. This difficult client surely wasn’t going to give a good score anyway. You need to weigh all of the reviews and ratings instead of basing it on solely on bad or questionable feedback from a client.
More importantly and arguably the first thing you should look at, is their own website. Clients always miss this because they are so distracted by the low-budget proposals.
The concept is simple. No web developer or designer can give you what they don’t have themselves. If they don’t have a very modern and attractive website, chances are they aren’t going to give you one. So, you first have to look at their website and see for yourself if the quality and craftsmanship is up to par, and in line with the standards you are looking for.
The second thing to look at is their portfolio; their body of work. Here you can get sense of their design style as well as their completed projects. Here is where it gets tricky because clients sometimes want to see the name of the web developer at the bottom corner of the websites they claim to have done; however, that is a thing of the past. These days, most clients don’t want their new website to be “tagged” with their developer’s company name or logo. It can be due to confidentiality issues or because they simply don’t like how it looks. As a result of this, most web developers don’t add their tag or even bother to ask if they can. That being said, looking for the tag is not really an accurate identifier for past work. The web developer could have also been hired as a sub contractor by the person or company that the client hired initially, so looking to verify tags is pretty useless.
Another smart practice is to ask a web developer for a couple of references. Reputable web developers usually have a few clients that have agreed to share their experience with potential clients using a referral email.
You should also search for their names on Google and see what hits you get. If nothing else, you may get a better idea of whom the person or company may be. You should also create some interview questions that focus on how the developer works, their process, and of course any technical specifications that may apply to the project.
5. Know the importance of Milestones
The term ‘Milestones’ is one of the most common words in Web Development. It refers to the schedule of payments and deliverables. So as part of the agreement and terms, you set the milestones where you agree on what you will receive or what will be done, at what stage of the project. Every contractor and company has their own company policy so the milestone schedule will vary from provider to provider.
a. Option one
Some only want to have three milestones, which are defined as Initial, Middle, and Completion. The “Initial” milestone refers to the acceptance of the project and beginning of the work, or in layman’s terms “a down payment”. The “Middle” milestone usually applies to the middle of the coding/programming phase, which is once most of the core functionality has been implemented. The “Completion” milestone, of course, means that everything has been thoroughly tested and is ready for the public’s viewing or use. This system requires that the payments be made in 3 phases: when work starts, in the middle of the coding phase, and when the project is completed.
b. Option 2
There are others who prefer it even more simply and use only “Initial and Completion” milestones. This system indicated that 50% is the initial payment and the remainder will be paid upon completion.
c. Option 3
Last but not least, you have the ones that like to make things a little more complicated and may have 6 to 10 milestones. This option may make sense with long and complex projects but for the most part, it’s overkill.
One distinct characteristic of foreign developers is they usually try to accelerate or attempt to have the client advance an upcoming milestone payment. The reason is because the developers that work for them are on a salary and they want to pay the developers as soon as possible. There is no particular milestone system that is safer or less safe because if you pick the wrong contractor they will find a way to cheat you. If you do manage to find an honest, quality developer, they will honor their commitment despite the amount milestones that are at play.
6. What are the best payment terms?
Payment terms are the second most important element right under the project itself. This often causes a lot of confusion, which is followed by mistrust. In fact, agreeing on payment terms sometimes becomes so difficult that both parties may end up walking away from each other because they can’t agree.
The most known item of contention is the ‘initial payment’ not to be confused with a ‘deposit’. This is non-refundable because the money will be exhausted by the developer through the work done on the project. Sometimes clients don’t see the logic or understand why web developers may require an initial payment; so allow me to make sense of it all. As I’ve covered so far, clients do face a certain risk when seeking to hire contractors online; however, web developers also face risks of their own. I myself have experienced it first hand. Here are some of those risks we in web development may face.
If a web developer does not collect any initial payment at all, the risk factor is at 100%. This means that the web developer will begin to do work with the “hopes” of being paid upon completion of the project. They end up actually working for free, because they are working on a ‘promise;’ the promise of being paid. At the end of the project, if the client decides not to pay and doesn’t want the project, the contractor just did all of that work for nothing. Therefore, the loss is all one sided- the web developers’ loss.
If an initial payment is made the risk factor is decreased to 75%. This is because, if the client walks away from the project and doesn’t pay the final payment/s, at least the web developer was paid ‘something’. Well yes, something is something, but it’s still a loss for the web developer because costs for projects are calculated based on work hours and those resources are allocated specifically for that client and their project. From personal experience, I can tell you that clients walking away from projects happens more often than you may expect. Sometimes they may lose interest in the project, get frustrated at the process, or simply can’t afford the remaining payments, or their funding efforts hit a wall.
That’s why it’s very important that all of the funding be secured before going to hire a developer because the hard working developers are the ones that take a hit. Lately, companies like mine have added a legal clause to their agreements that protects them in the event that clients go “AWOL” or take long breaks away from projects. It may impose penalties, which are fees, as well as stating that no further work needs to be done without those new charges being paid.
The best way to think of web developers is like if you were hiring a contractor to work on your home or build you a pool. There will be a payment upfront and then the work begins. If you were to tell a pool contractor to give you 3 months of work and you’d pay them at the end of the three months, then they would probably shake your hand, leave their business card and walk away. All in all, initial payments are the industry standard and are perfectly fair for both parties.
7. The web development process
Earlier I mentioned that sometimes a client might grow frustrated with the process of web development. Allow me to shed light on that. The web development process is very much a joint effort between client and contractor. It’s a marriage, at least for a little while. No web development project can be realized without the input and guidance of the client.
The client’s responsibility is to provide the right content, images, check the updates often and provide their valuable feedback. When clients take breaks from the project for multiple days that may span into weeks, it causes serious problems for the web developers and their operations. It causes a slowdown in the work cycle, which in turn, translates to financial losses. Because again, those resources are allocated for the project and the work cycle should only go on for the range of time previously calculated, which is acceptance to completion. The involvement of the client is the key to success from the beginning to the end.
I have found that a lot of the issues or disputes between clients and developers are often the understanding of the process. Web developers usually have to educate clients on how it all works and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to a client right way, and that learning curve can create problems. There are many variables to web development that the average consumer wouldn’t be aware of so it’s the web developers’ role to guide the clients through some of the things. Specifically, the flow of work, the updates, how to give proper feedback, and managing expectations.
8. Do web developers offer warranty or refunds?
All web developers and their businesses operate differently; however, almost all developers offer some kind of warranty after the project is complete. Most web developers offer a 30-day warranty against their programming code. This means that if something in their code causes the site or application to stop working correctly, they will fix it at no cost. Others may offer a longer warranty period. At my firm for example, we offer a 3-month warranty period for all clients.
One thing to note about web development warranties, a warranty can be voided if any other developer or person changes code or does any web development work within that time period. So it’s best to keep clear from the backend of a website to prevent damage or accidents.
The topic of refunds is also very interesting. The truth is that because work goes into web development immediately, there are no real grounds for a refund. I have researched various legal case laws specifically in suits between consumers and web developers and the remedy is usually that the web developer can lawfully retain the monies earned and the client takes possession and ownership of all of the files created. So, because of the nature of the business, you may hear most web developers state that they do not offer refunds.
If you follow all of this advice, you won’t find yourself in a position to need a refund.
9. Web developers working remotely
I can think back to old days when I needed a business card or flyer designed and I would drive to my local printer and place the order. Well, I would also sit next to him and tell him exactly how I want the art to be … color by color, letter by letter. I could see the frustration in his face sometimes, but I just thought it was a rough day. Today, I learned that almost no one really likes to be supervised while they work. At least not artists, writers, and web developers are no different.
The days of coming into the office for in-person instruction or feedback is a thing of the past. Even local contractors don’t allow it anymore. Coming into the office to make a deal is allowed, but supervision and micro-management isn’t. With that said, working remotely has been the norm for some time. Even doctors are now giving medical diagnosis online with telemed practices. But for the web development process it’s mainly emails. Of course, some like to use Skype or Teamviewer to share screens and the occasional phone call, but for the most part, it’s an email-based world. In addition, there is a great benefit to recording or logging all requests and replies, which include all emails, and Skype typing chats.
So there is really not much of a difference between hiring a local contractor or an online based one, except for the cost. Typically, local contractors are up to 40% more expensive than those who bid online. The reason is simple; it is because they are not actually competing with other contractors, at least not in terms of a bidding war. They are more comfortable and only paying attention to the requirements of the project and of course their profit margin. Nevertheless, they are not concerned that a contractor from Bangladesh is bidding barely a fraction of what he/she would normally charge.
10. Should I hire domestic or foreign?
There are two main factors to consider when hiring a domestic contractor. The first one is the language barrier- there is none. Communication is clear and fluent. This makes the process a lot easier because you speak the same language in more ways than one.
The other factor is the legal factor. Should something go wrong, you have recourse to turn to, which is your local or national judicial system. If a foreign client executed a Non-Disclosure agreement or project agreement, there is a chance that it has no legal standing to be enforced because the other party is in a faraway land and out of the jurisdiction. Therefore, the safer option is to work with someone from at least the same country.
With that said, there are good foreign web developers out there as well. Some are honest, hardworking, and go the extra mile. But they are really difficult to find. But like all things in life, you have to do your due diligence. In any country, there are good contractors and there are bad ones.
In closing, if you following these 10 simple steps you should be safe and on your way to getting your great new project completed!