7 Steps to Pick the Right Developer for Your Custom Website Build

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So it’s time to take your online business to the next level. Regardless of whether you are launching your first site or revamping an existing one, it is equally important you approach your new development project the right way early on in the process.

There are four paths in front of you for completing this project:

  • Hire an internal team of developers.
  • Build the site yourself.
  • Hire a freelancer.
  • Hire a development agency.

There are pros and cons to each of these types and the method that’s right for you will vary depending on your time and resources. For most, the best path is going to be to hire a development agency. We will get to this shortly, but here’s a sneak peak on the reasons for that. [Editorial note: Dustin inserted a smiley face here, but the marketing manager wouldn’t let him keep it.]

  • Agencies demand fewer internal resources.
  • Agencies provide a highly skilled team ready to build your vision exactly as you see it.
  • Agencies come with a lot of experience.
  • Agencies are vetted by trusted companies.

Finding the right fit for your business’ goals and needs is not easy. In fact, for many of you, this will be the first time you have had to go through the process of evaluating agencies and finding the one that can perfectly execute your vision. This process does not have to be a complicated one, but it will require care. Let’s take a look at how to select the right development agency to work with.

Step 1: Determine Your Vision Internally.


The first step to finding your perfect development agency is actually an internal one. You first need to sit down with all your key stakeholders in this project and determine your wants, needs, and goals for this project. This is a key step that many people overlook, causing many unnecessary problems for them down the road. That said, here’s exactly what you need to consider:

A. What do you want and/or need?

This one is not too hard, and honestly, most people have a pretty good idea of this. It’s important to go beyond a “pretty good idea” here, though, and get something a bit more concrete down so that you don’t have any surprises along the way.  It’s also important to determine what things are needs and what things are wants.

Ask yourself: what do you want/need - this is likely the reason you are even having this conversation right now. “I want/need a new website.” “I want/need to make some changes to my current site.” “I want/need an application that will do x,y, and/or z.” “I want/need to move my site from [insert a competing shopping cart like Magento] to Shopify.” This list can go on for, well, eternity - the point is to have a basic idea of what you want/need ready to go when you start seeking out development agencies.

B. What are your goals for this project?

This one should be fairly easy. You’ve likely even determined your wants and needs from some goals you already have. But generally I have found that most people come to the evaluation process with extremely high-level goals and ultimately, high-level goals are not great for measuring the success of your new website. It’s important to develop specific goals that can clearly and easily measure the success of your new site, so you can truly understand the ROI of your project (and so that development agencies can help you optimize your new site for these goals). Here are some example goals to consider:

  • Increase online revenue by 15%
  • Increase conversion rates from 20% to 25%
  • Increase sells of a certain product from $20K to $50K
  • Increase site traffic by 30%

The key here is to develop goals that are measurable and actionable.

Step 2. Decide What Type of Developer You Want to Work With.

You are going to run into three types of developers in your search: freelance, general agencies, and premium agencies. There are pros and cons to all three.

  • Freelancers are great for smaller projects that can be completed alone or with a very small team quickly. They are often cheaper and willing to take on smaller, quicker projects that agencies may stay away from. The downside to freelancers is that they are often unproven, with less experience, more limited skill sets, and resources. Simply put, freelancers are generally a hit or miss. There are some fantastic freelancers out there and there are some really terrible ones. You won’t necessarily know which you’ve chosen until after they deliver.  
  • General agencies are in a pretty sweet spot. They are attractive because they carry decent experience, a stronger skill set, and have more resources than the freelance developers. The downside with a general agency is that they are more expensive than a freelancer and often unable to deliver on anything highly technical. General agencies are a great option for those who want a somewhat basic website build and want to work with someone proven.
  • Premium agencies are going to be the ones with tons of highly-technical experience, including experience with top logos. They have well-known reputations, and the ability to deliver incredible bespoke websites that will do precisely what you need in a way that sets your brand apart in your industry.  The downside? Premium agencies do have a premium price tag. If you can swing the premium price tag these agencies generally do not disappoint and can generate a very strong ROI. If you have a highly technical project, you may not even have a choice between a premium or general agency.

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Do some research and develop a rough budget  detailing what you would be willing to pay each type of agency. Keep in mind that even within these categories, you may not be comparing apples to apples. There is a spectrum of cost and quality at each level. Meaning, you should set a flexible budget that can be adjusted as you learn more about the different agencies. Sometimes one premium agency is a better fit than another and may be worth spending a little more than you planned for a premium agency.

Step 3. Determine Your Budget and Timeline.

Many companies go into this process without a clear budget or timeline, which makes it extremely difficult for them to evaluate developers. Simply put, you need to be able to specify a timeline and budget for both yourself and the developers so that you can determine if a developer is in your price range and if they can complete the project by the time that you need it. Although budget and timeline can be flexible and change with research, you should have a good idea of what’s preferable for you and what the ceilings are for both as these are key details that will help you rule out developers.

When developing a budget, I recommend you have a few budgets in mind - one for each type of developer you’re interested in working with (freelance, general, premium). Again, these can be flexible and subject to change as you learn more through the research and evaluation process if you’d like.

When it comes to timeline, you’ll want to keep two timelines in mind. You should have an “if I could wave a magic wand goal” for timeline and an “I could live with it if it was done by this date” timeline. Both should be realistic in nature and the “I could live with it” timeline should take precedence over anything else you are thinking, given that quality development work typically takes quite a bit of time. Let the developers surprise you by (fingers crossed) exceeding your expectations.

Pro tip for developing a good timeline: Do not rush it.

Such website builds or changes are an investment and fundamental to the success of your business. In the same way that you would not demand a safe, beautiful brick-and-mortar storefront be built for you in a matter of weeks, so too should you not expect a beautiful, scalable, user-friendly online storefront be built in a matter of weeks. For the amount of money you will certainly drop into this project, quality should be your number one concern (you don’t want to be redoing this project in two years). If you don’t have the time for a developer to create you the perfect website, you need to wait on this project until you do.

Step 4. Start the Discovery Process.

After you have taken the time to understand your wants, needs, budget, timeline, etc. you need to take some time to research who you want to work with. If you are building a website, it’s likely you will start with a referral from a representative with the cart you are evaluating or have chosen. If you have not spoken with a representative yet, then consider checking out the company’s approved list of vendors. For instance, Shopify has taken great care in developing a rich list of partners for a merchant's various needs. (Check out there approved list of developers here.)

Cart aside, the discovery process is a time to research who makes the most sense to work with. Some agencies are going to be exclusive to certain carts while others will work with many carts. Both approaches have pros and cons. Developers who work exclusively with one cart will have a very high level of expertise with that cart that no agency who works with multiple carts can match. Obviously, though, if your favorite developer doesn’t work with your cart, that’s a pretty big con. (Though many of these exclusive agencies can also help you easily migrate to the cart they work with.)

Your research process should include checking out the chosen developer’s website and checking out any resources they have on the site. Developer sites will do their best to provide you with a good chunk of information about themselves up front, and you may be able to weed out a few agencies or freelancers just from the information on their site alone. Time savings for you and the agency!

However, eventually, you will need to talk to a person, starting with a high-level discovery call.

Discovery calls allow you to invest a few minutes to determine if there is a reason to continue your conversations with them. It’s the time to vet the qualifications of the agency you are talking to. You should ask them about things such as past work, experience, expertise, what the process looks like with them, how will they interact with you, handoff process, etc. Here is where you can truly gauge the quality of the development agency. If they are good, they will have well-established processes, and be able to guide you through them. Some things to look for:

  • Dedicated project manager
  • Regular touch points
  • Does your project fit their expertise
  • Does your budget make sense at a high-level for them
  • Are they potentially able to work within your timeline

I think the biggest mistakes people make at this stage are assuming all development agencies are the same, giving little effort to decipher the right fit and selecting based off of things like pricing and timeline. This is a quick way to end your project with a sour taste in your mouth and weaken your ROI. Don’t do it! Make sure you’re taking into account each developer’s particular strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a developer can’t deliver your ideal timeline on your ideal budget, but they can give you the perfect website in every other respect. At the end of the day, that’s the developer you should go with if no one else can deliver your perfect website, because the quality is so much more important than anything else in this case.

Step 5. Develop a Scope of Work (SOW)

Developing a detailed scope of requirements for the developers to work with is possibly the single most important piece of the evaluation. If you are comparing multiple agencies, then you want to make sure everyone is working with the same information. On top of that, you want to make sure the developers know exactly what they need to be doing so they can accurately estimate your total cost and timeline. It does you no good in an evaluation to be comparing apples to oranges. An SOW is not easy to build if you are not 100% sure of all the parts involved in the project so you may have to lean on the development agency for some help here. Many experienced developers can give you a skeleton scope to fill out. The key here is details, the more detailed a SOW is the more accurate your proposal will be, and the more predictable your outcome will be.

Step 6. Evaluating Bids

This is where things get exciting and interesting. If you came into this process prepared then hopefully you are looking at a few accurate proposals. Here are some things to consider:

  • Confirm everything you are looking for is considered in the proposal.
  • What are the things they are accounting for in the proposal?
  • Do they account for potential work needed after the project is handed over?
  • Is the proposal easy to understand?
  • Are the costs broken down: ex - design, development, Q&A, Project Management, etc.?

Watch out for: Bidding to Win

This may or may not come as a surprise, but there are agencies out there that bid to win your business by bidding quickly, with limited information and usually promising quick turnarounds. Bidding like this is dangerous for both the client and the agency. There are too many horror stories of people falling for these bids and they either get nickeled and dimed through the project or end up with an agency that realizes they didn't account for time and money appropriately and they produce rushed, sloppy, and/or sub-par work. Who wants that?

Step 7: The Handoff

While that’s the end of the evaluation process, your relationship with this agency will typically extend through the end of the project. It’s always important to consider how the handoff of the new development work will occur and determine the internal resources needed at the end of the project. How the agency you select handles this process may make or break the experience in the long run. Here are some things you want to consider before you pull the trigger with an agency.

  • What kind of documentation will the agency provide you with on the work they did?
  • How easy is it for you to take this project work to another agency to work within the future?
  • Are there any meetings or trainings after the project has been handed off?
  • What happens if you need additional work done after the project has been completed and handed off?
  • Do they offer support for any ongoing services?

Wrapping it all up

Evaluating agencies for development work is no easy task. As we learned here, there is a lot to consider, and if you are dealing with good agencies, you will likely learn about other things to consider as they go through their discovery process. The hard part is every business, project, and agency is different. By following these tips you can overcome the complexity of the evaluation and bring some consistency to the table as well!

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Dustin D. Thede

Dustin is an Account Executive at ShopPad. He loves eCommerce and has worked with merchants LARGE and small. He knows that in an environment controlled by the likes of Amazon there has never been a better time to optimize your retail strategy and get the online piece right. When he is not working, Dustin is probably enjoying all the fine dining in San Francisco!