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How to Select the Right Custom Software Development Partner for Your Business

How to Select the Right Custom Software Development Partner for Your Business

69% of custom software projects experience challenges or fail completely, according to the 2021 Standish Chaos Report.

The report is released every 5 years, analyzing the state of software project management and software project success.

A ‘challenged’ project is defined as not delivered on-time, on-budget, or with all the original specified features/functionality.

Failure is defined as, well, just that. Either the project was canceled, or the product was never used.

It’s unfortunate, we know. What’s more unfortunate is that these projects tend to experience challenges or fail for preventable reasons, and the cost of failure and rework far exceeds the cost of doing things right the first time.

Whether you’re just beginning your search related to a new project or seeking to replace a vendor that has led your existing project astray, this blog will provide insights into important topics for discussion with potential partners.

While these conversations might be difficult and cumbersome, they’re vital to identifying the right partner for your project. When overlooked, it can result in frustration, stalled projects, and underdelivered, over-budget work.

The reality is that selecting the right custom software development partner for your needs is the most important decision you’ll make along this journey.

The Feeling Should Be Mutual

It’s important to understand that the partner selection process should never be a one-way street. Both parties have equal right of refusal when it comes to working together, and each should be seeking to “disqualify” each other as much as they’re trying to find the right partner for collaboration.

No different than any other successful relationship, the time you both spend up front to ensure a solid fit will have everything to do with how happy you are with the partnership moving forward.

In the end, it is both people and the technologies built that you’ll be tied to, and it will pay dividends to make sure you like each other, share mutual goals, and are committed to seeing things through in both the good times and the bad.

A Guide to Your Initial Conversation

Let’s dive into some important things to have in mind when going into discussions with potential software development partners that will yield more meaningful conversations.

Please note that you do not need to have all these things figured out before reaching out to potential partners, but the right partner will have a process to help you fill in any gaps on these topics. Consider it a good thing if you feel challenged by a potential partner on some of the information you provide related to these topics.

Define what you’re looking for in a software partner.

What are 3-5 attributes that are most important to you? These could be things like trust, communication, geographic location, reputation, process, core values, etc.

If you are looking for partners on behalf of another person, such as a supervisor, CEO, etc., be sure you know what is most important to them and be able to articulate that to the potential vendor.

  • Note: If there are others involved in the decision-making process for this partner, bring them into the conversation earlier than later, usually in the second or third meeting with potential partners. Waiting too long to bring other stakeholders into the mix can inadvertently create confusion and misalignment across all parties involved in this process.

Identify your problems and/or goals, rather than starting with possible solutions.

Identifying the problems you want to solve or the goals you want to achieve first will ensure that any solution developed directly addresses the issue or goal. By beginning with a solution in mind, there’s a risk of creating a product that doesn’t effectively solve the real problem or meet your goals, leading to wasted resources and time.

For problems, consider the following questions:

  • Is what you’re trying to address the root cause of the issue?
  • What is this problem costing your organization in terms of time, money, lost opportunity, etc.?
  • What will be gained from implementing the right solution and how will it be measured?

For goals or opportunities:

  • What is the driving motivation?
  • How will value and ROI be created and measured?
  • How does this make you different from/better than your competitors?

Don’t rush to build an RFP (Request for Proposal)

With the understanding that an RFP process may be required by your procurement policies, many companies use this process to define and design a solution too early, often missing critical steps needed to validate a problem/solution fit.

Remember that a product should be defined by users and business needs, not by a list of desired features and functions.

Define and articulate the needs of both your business and the users of the product you wish to build.

These needs are too often prioritized below what might sound like great ideas for the product itself; however, the needs of the user and your business should be the primary driver of what the product will become.

The technical elements of the product will become much more important and clearer once these needs are both understood and properly validated.

Know your budget tolerance.

While there could be an entire article written about the standoff that occurs when the topic of budget comes up during the selection process, let’s keep it brief.

Think of it this way: for a custom shop that can build you a Pinto or a Ferrari; they need to know what you need and how much you have allocated to spend to best serve you.

The key here is trust. The right partner won’t try to take every dime you have just because you have it; rather, they’ll help you understand what is realistic within your budget and help you make important tradeoff decisions if expectations are higher than what budget can realistically accomplish.

Know your project timelines, and don’t delay your partner search.

Don’t underestimate the timeline. This includes the time you plan on taking to evaluate and select a vendor, the timeline for procurement & onboarding, when you can commit resources to begin the project, and when you need the first version of the project delivered.

As you’re able, start the search process early so that your chosen partner can fit you into their schedule and deliver their best work.

In a world where there are many software vendors happy to overpromise and underdeliver on costs and deadlines just to land a contract, it will serve you well to anticipate your needs ahead of time and find the right partner who will deliver results on time and on budget.

Be upfront about any known or anticipated obstacles or challenges.

Don’t wait until late in the process to address any known issues that may impact the project along the way.

A solid partner may be able to help navigate those challenges much easier when communicated up front and help prevent a costly delay or change in scope later.

Communicate your priorities & commitment to the project.

Open communication in these first few conversations is so important. Consider reflecting on the following questions to make your intentions and commitment known up front for a more productive, meaningful conversation.

  • Is this a funded, high priority initiative for the organization, or are you seeking quotes for a project that may never materialize?
  • Where does this project fall on your list of priorities this year?
  • Are you able to commit the time and resources required for project success?

Important Questions to Ask A Potential Software Development Partner

Aside from important questions for you to have in mind before you go into the initial conversation, below is a list of questions and topics for discussion that you may want to bring up in conversations with potential software partners.

1. Are they full service, a single source provider, or do they only focus on certain parts of the software development process?

Some custom software development companies only focus on development, design, product strategy, or maintenance & support; whereas others (like Frogslayer) provide them all.

Important to know what you’re looking for in a partner ahead of the vetting process. Asking this question can sometimes help make the decision for you.

2. What is their reputation for actual delivery, and do they have referenceable clients?

If they don’t, it’s likely they might have a history of overpromising or under-delivering on projects that they’d rather keep to themselves.

To be fair, no firm – ours included, is perfect. Software development is a risky business, but it is how the business reacts to challenges that will tell you who they really are.

For example, here at Frogslayer we offer a guarantee: If we ever fail to deliver or meet any agreed-upon expectations, then we commit our own resources to make it right. We stay engaged and committed to delivering the result you need regardless of what it takes. Our job isn’t done when we “flip the switch” on your product.

3. What are they looking for in a client or partner?

Just as you should try to define and express what you’re looking for in a partner, so should any partner you’re considering.

Remember, this needs to be a mutual agreement to ensure confidence in your ability to work together. If it turns out you’re not a good fit for them, they might be able to point you in the direction of resources or another partner that’s better suited to fit your needs.

4. Are they questioning, pushing back, or challenging you?

If you find them simply nodding their heads in agreement with everything you say, consider it a red flag.

As mentioned before, the right types of partners should always be asking questions, challenging assumptions, and seeking to understand more than just the technical nature of the product you’re envisioning.

5. What’s their process from beginning to end?

Pretty straight forward question, but some things to keep in mind:

  • Are they well-documented and refined over time?
  • Are they followed dogmatically or tailored to fit the needs of each client?
  • What are their software design and development methodologies?

6. Do they retain the rights to your product’s IP or will you?

A question that should not be overlooked is one regarding IP ownership. After the initial version of the product is completed, who will retain IP rights; is this documented in their contracts?

Another question to consider is: will you maintain ownership and have unrestricted, remote access to the product’s source code and documentation?

7. Where are their employees located?

Is this company using US-based, near-shore, or overseas developers and designers? Although it’s not a universal truth, you typically get what you pay for in software development.

While the US typically has much higher salary rates for developers, they also have much more quality controls in place.

Also, it might be worth considering – are they full-time employees or contractors? Companies typically have more control over the hiring, training, and output of their own full-time employees vs. using contractors that work for themselves or a third party.

8. Ask them about their experience.

The trick here is not to get too hung up on whether they have extremely specific experience in your industry or with the type of product you wish to build.

Instead, focus your questioning and attention here on understanding how the organization approached new challenges. It may be the case that they are more likely to bring fresh new ideas to the table from outside your industry and product scope, whereas ‘specialists’ may have a myopic vision that can stifle innovation early in the process.

Red Flags

Given everything above, it’s fair to say there’s a ton to consider in the selection process. To wrap up, here are software development vendor red flags that might indicate they’re not the kind of partner you’re looking for.

  • You only get to meet with a salesperson during the initial conversations
  • They don’t ask a lot of questions, are pushy, and try to rush the process
  • They are trying to push you towards a ‘solution’ before fully understanding the problem/challenge/goal that you’re trying to address
  • They give you a quote for the project before fulling understanding needs
  • Proper project scoping and estimation takes time, and vendors that don’t take the time to do this properly are almost certain to overpromise and under-deliver.
  • They focus largely on the technical elements of your products, and not on the needs of your business and the users you’ll be serving.
  • There are no well-defined processes or methodologies to reference
  • They don’t have or provide access to referenceable clients
  • They passively ‘agree’ with everything you say and/or don’t pose challenging questions or alternative ideas
  • They focus more on transactional projects instead of long-term relationships
  • They don’t offer a guarantee or otherwise stand behind their work
  • Their pricing and promises seem too good to be true

The Proof is in the Pudding (On Our End, at Least)

Why are we so adamant about finding the right software development partner? Because over the past 15 years, we’ve rescued many projects that have failed or gone off the rails due to other firms over-promising and under-delivering. While the average software project success rate is 31%, we have been able to achieve 96.4%. I believe this success is due to us actively selecting the right client partners and being committed to building software products right the first time.

Software development and innovation services are not a commodity. In this business, you most certainly get what you pay for. What might look like ‘saving’ money upfront can be an illusion of debt that you’ll have to pay when it comes time to find and onboard a new partner to right the ship and bring your product to life.

While yes, the stakes are high and there’s much to consider; the pay-off of finding the right partner will result in you being excluded from that 69% of challenged or failed new projects.

You deserve a development partner deeply committed to your success; that will minimize your time-to-value while never compromising on quality. As we always say, relationships matter, results count.

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