The Lighthouse Blog

A Confession and 3 Words to Consider Before Outsourcing Abroad

A Confession and 3 Words to Consider Before Outsourcing Abroad
There are many reasons to outsource web development projects to countries like India, the Philippines, Mexico and China. They have large technical and professional talent pools, you can get work done quickly and online collaboration has never been easier.
But let’s be honest. It really all boils down to one overarching advantage — and it’s a huge one: Flexible pricing options.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to save money. And outsourcing abroad is more common than you might think. While many North American web development companies pride themselves on “never outsourcing to India,” every single web shop I’ve worked with has done it at least once.

I’ll say it: We’re no different. Urban Lighthouse has hired India-based freelance developers exactly twice, though never for client work. And we learned some things.

Three words — and I don’t mean “flexible pricing options”

We’ve all heard the saying: “Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick two.”

If you’re outsourcing to a country on the other side of the world to save money, I recommend you align your expectations with fast and cheap. This is not to say all web projects and applications developed abroad are not well done. They can be. But in my personal experience, if you got a smoking deal and the work was completed in the blink of an eye, the build will suffer in two departments: functionality and longevity. In other words, it will pass the sniff test only if it remains in a static state and doesn’t need to grow or evolve.

The good news is, of you can get on board with fast and cheap, the rest is fairly easy. With the rise of platforms like Odesk, Elance and countless others, it has become simple to engage all types of freelance workers. For only a couple of dollars an-hour, it’s possible to hire virtual assistants, writers, designers and developers of every skill and background imaginable. One thing’s for sure: making a few important decisions before leaping into a contract is your key to minimizing risk.

Hiring a developer versus hiring a development company

The first question you really need to ask yourself is, do you want a developer or are you looking to hire a company to deliver a project? Each requires its own approach.

Outsourcing a developer is like hiring an employee. You have to outline key project milestones, monitor work performance and be able to judge his/her quality of work and effectiveness. You are the project manager and have to know how to test and evaluate the quality of development being done.

Here’s the challenge: It’s exceedingly difficult, even for people in the industry, to vet the ability of the prospective freelancer. That means companies that outsource overseas because they don’t have in-house IT fluency face a higher risk of ending up with a less-than-satisfactory result. This problem is compounded by the fact it’s often harder (more expensive) to fix something that’s broken than create anew.

Often, the candidate’s primary objective is to do as little work as possible to get paid as quickly as possible. It is not in their interest to over-deliver, suggest improvements to make your project better or to consult on potential problems. Cash is often the primary goal and that is precisely why so many developers want high percentages of the project price up front. The risk is that you will lose this initial deposit and never come close to having any meaningful work completed.

The other option is to hire a company to develop for you. The difference is substantial. Every good development company will spend considerable time understanding the exact scope of the project long before they ask for your money. They will have a structured process and be able to provide accurate time lines. They will have demonstrable experience in the technologies you require and they will help improve and adjust your project to maximize its effectiveness.

Make no mistake, this extra quality and oversight will cost you more money. However, you are also much more likely to get a quality site or application developed that actually works and is able to grow with your organization.

Our experience

The two projects Urban Lighthouse outsourced were very different. One was a simple HTML website code up, which set us back $1,000, as we had provided the design. The other was an 800-hour, web-app development project that cost $16,000 — oh, and an additional $12,000 in redevelopment (in-house fixing) on top of that. So glean from that what you will.

Will we do it again? Not likely.

Advice for outsourcing abroad

That being said, you can still do it successfully. Here are some tips to minimize your hassles and risk:

  • You definitely don’t want to start with any complex or business-critical projects. Give a test project first to test communication. Don’t gamble with an unproven team. Start small and see how they deliver before you give larger projects.
  • Clearly define your project scope and requirements. If possible, provide wireframes and explain all functionality in advance. If you are not a technical person it is important to have your IT staff (or a generous, nerdy friend) involved in the process to make sure you get what you need.
  • Immediately cut out all the lowball bids on your project, no matter how tempting they might be.
  • Try not to deal with affiliate companies because you won’t have direct communication with developers. Affiliate companies bid on dozens of projects every day without a thorough evaluation of what is required. It is generally better to work directly with the person you hire.
  • Keep in regular contact. It is your responsibility to make sure the project is progressing. If you are not actively managing your project, it will likely not get much attention from the developer.
  • Be nice in your communications. Be sensitive and polite, especially when bridging a language barrier. You are the boss, but it is not in your interest to have unhappy developers.
  • Have the developer make comments in the code. You will most certainly have to edit and make changes to the application in the future. This will ensure that new developers can understand what was done before.
  • If you find someone good, give bonuses. Great talent is hard to find. Do everything you can to keep them happy. Less than 20% of outsourced developers consistently deliver on their promises.

Did I miss anything? Add your tips and feedback below.

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