Freelancer or Web Dev Firm for Your Next Web App Project?

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Though NuRelm is an 18-year-old veteran web app development firm – we’ve been around since before the term “web app” existed – most of our production staff has, at some point, dabbled in the freelance world. Many of us took on work to help pay for school, volunteered to build apps for free to beef up our resumes, or took on side projects for friends and family while working full time. Some of us worked as full-time freelancers before working for NuRelm.

In addition, NuRelm itself has hired well-vetted freelancers in the past when we had a sudden uptick in business and needed the extra help. That’s how we found Kenny (hi Kenny!).

Since our production staff has lived in both worlds, and NuRelm has been an occasional consumer of freelance talent, I decided to gather our team’s honest insights on the pros and cons of each choice, with you, the consumer, in mind.

With so many choices out there, and in a largely unregulated industry, not to mention a staggering range of rates that don’t necessarily match up with the skills needed or the budget available, it’s hard to know what path to take.

This article is not a crucifixion of freelancers or a blindly self-serving nod to web app development firms like ours. I have attempted to create a non-biased resource for consumers of web app dev services so that you can decide which path is best suited for you, your goals, and your budget, while taking into account your tolerance for risk.

It’s no secret that an established web app firm is, generally but not always, going to cost you more than a freelancer. Successful, reputable web app firms employ full-time developers with a wide range of both front end and back end skills. Their staff must be paid on a regular basis, and well, regardless of workload.

There is little doubt that in most cases, a freelancer is going to offer you a lower hourly rate than an established firm. That said, there are good freelancers out there, but the more reputable and established they are the more they cost, and for the most talented ones you are probably approaching the hourly rate of many established companies.

See below for a simple bulleted list of the pros and cons of hiring a freelancer versus a web app development firm:

Freelancers:

Pros:

  • If you have a very limited budget you may get a lower hourly rate/total cost (usually, but not always).
  • They are more likely to be able to start immediately, whereas a firm may need to book out by a few weeks to a month, depending on their level of work at the time.
  • They are sometimes (but not always) easier to reach for an impromptu phone call, whereas a firm may expect you to schedule a call/meeting.
  • You’re dealing with one person and, if it’s someone who is hungry for the work, you may get more hours out of them than you actually have to pay for. A freelancer who’s just starting out may be more flexible, and is often less experienced at negotiating than an established firm is that may have strict “out-of-scope” standards for unexpected issues that pop up during development. This isn’t always the case, and there are definitely freelancers who charge you for every minute of their time, but the general perception is that freelancers tend to be more flexible.
  • If you have time to thoroughly vet a freelancer (references, background check, extensive snooping online) and if you have the project management experience to work closely with him/her, step in and help manage the project if needed, are flexible with regard to timeline, and have more time than money, then you may decide to minimize your risk as much as possible and then go for it.  It could work out well, but be sure to have a back up plan in the event of unforeseen circumstances that may, and often do, arise.

Cons:

  • A freelancer, even a highly reputable one with great references, means that you are relying on one individual to do all of your web app dev work/ongoing support/maintenance. This can quickly turn into a nightmare if the freelancer overextends himself and doesn’t have time to address your issues, becomes ill, takes a vacation, or needs to sleep (don’t expect full time tech support). Freelancers may only be working on their own temporarily. Even a well-established freelancer may, after 5 years or so, go to work for a company, retire, or pursue other interests.
  • Not all freelancers carry liability insurance (most don’t). Even if they do carry it, they may not carry the more expensive “professional liability” rider, which gives you recourse in the event of a catastrophic software failure that puts your business at risk.
  • Not all freelancers are good project managers, so your project could take a lot longer than your freelancer promises. We frequently hear of scenarios where a project has gone on for years, with no end in sight, before the consumer finally realizes that the freelancer is in over his head, cuts his losses, and then chooses to hire a firm. That’s how we’ve gotten many loyal clients over the years.
  • Which brings us to the next con; What if the freelancer takes your money and disappears, or finishes half of the project and then just stops responding? In a lot of cases, you are out of luck, with no established entity to hold accountable. There are online services that attempt to help vet freelancers, with varying degrees of success. If you decide to go with a freelancer, I would recommend using one so that you have some level of accountability.
  • If you hire someone over the web, how do you know that you are hiring a real person? Freelancer cons abound, especially with out-of-the-country freelancers. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it often is.

Hiring a Web App Development Firm:

Pros:

  • You have a signed contract with a known legal entity that can be held accountable to complete the work you requested. They are bound by the terms of the agreement (and their firm’s reputation) to complete the project in a satisfactory fashion and within a specified timeline,  and have the resources required to fulfill their commitments.
  • Even if we hire freelancers to help us with your project, we have experienced knowledgeable project managers to vet and manage them and to assure that the project goes forward as planned and attains optimal results. We have regular freelancers that we use that we know are reliable and great at what they do, and they generally (when we use them) work exclusively for us. If they ever do drop off, we have a whole team that is familiar with the app and can support it seamlessly. We make sure of it.
  • A web app dev firm can actually end up costing you less in time and money (see all of the bullets in the freelancer cons section above).
  • Most reputable web app de firms carry liability insurance which includes the professional liability rider.
  • Established/reputable web app firms have individual staff members that specialize in all aspects of web app development, including front-end work like designing user interfaces, which means you may get a more user-friendly product that is easier for your clients to navigate and is, therefore, more marketable and requires less tech support.

Cons:

  • You are, in most cases, going to pay a higher hourly rate – sometimes significantly higher.
  • You are generally dealing with a longer services agreement with more legalese and more stringent out-of-scope verbiage.
  • Successful firms often tend to “book out” a month or so, meaning that you may not be able to have your project start immediately. Like with any successful firm, if you hire a busy one that is usually (but not always) a good indication that they are worth waiting for.
  • Although you are generally dealing with one primary contact person, there are a lot of “cooks in the kitchen” and the process may be more cumbersome if you decide to change course/scope, but the final product may be worth the extra hands on deck.

 

Would you like to know what you can afford to do within your budget? NuRelm staff members are available to price out your web app projects and to help guide you based on what you have to spend versus timeline and level of risk.

Mona McGraw writes articles dissecting the various topics that a consumer should understand prior to hiring a web developer. Her series for business professionals is especially useful if you plan to hire a company to build a web-based app, or if you are in need of integration services to help automate your office. She deconstructs the mysterious “backend” of the Web world so that you have the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.

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