App development · Apps

Source Code being held to ransom. What do you do?

Leo J Barnett Mobile App & Platform Designer @

September 26th, 2018

Hey Guys,

So about 11 months ago I went on a mission to find the perfect developer for my live video editing App MVP. I found him, with excellent experience in IOS video, which was just what I needed.

After a 3-4 hour meeting in London and emails and Skypes and so on I decided to move forward with him. Great!

Work started in December and was looking excellent. With regular updates (viewable on Testflight) with payments being made alongside these throughout Christmas and the New Year.

By January we were around 60% finished and then by the end of Feb about 85% finished. So close!

Then communication stops....and slows down.....then endless false promises of things being finished happened until around June where I had been led on for too long. Turns out he had moved out of London to work full time on a different startup with many extra "illegal hours" but still kept promising to finish things.

(I managed to get better responses via WhatsApp as opposed to email eventually).

So I decided it was best to cut my losses with this developer and asked to pay for the work which had been finished amounting to about £300 max, and then take the source code to a new developer to finish the job.

He then demanded a figure way beyond the amount at 1.5K to have the source code. Claiming many hours had been worked on. Bearing in mind there's nothing to show for it.

Now stuck in a position where this is the price that he's set and isn't budging, though the value of work actually completed is at around £300 or under.

What to do?

Lessons learnt:

- Always have a contract in place.

- Always have access to the code.

- Work on weekly/bi-weekly deliverables.

- Anything else?

Incredibly frustrating but you just have to move on sometimes and i'm looking to start from square one on a new and improved MVP with a Co-Founder.

Would love to hear people's thoughts or if they've had any similar experiences on this.

Thank you so much!

Dane Madsen Organizational and Operational Strategy Consultant

Last updated on September 26th, 2018

When I began reading, I expected to see the demand to be in the 5 or 6 figure range. You are ₤1,200 apart. Retaining legal counsel will be multiples of that and actually engaging in a litigation will be 10 x that to start. I agree with your conclusions, and the contract is key, but requires enforcement. If you had access to the code, would you even know what to do with it or that it was the actual code? Does a ₤ 300 engagement actually take more than a week? If so, what will you pay per hour to fulfill this part. I charge the same regardless if I am working on a client project or in a meeting telling them what I am doing.

You are best off paying the money and adding this to your cost of your education. There is zero upside to not. We have all done similar in our past, learned lessons, and paid, as I called it, "the stupid tax".

Aleksey Malyshev Software Engineer at iTouch Biometrics, LLC

September 28th, 2018

Software development is an risky work. Not often one can estimate hours in advance. And how would one classify hours spent thinking about a solution? Trying and failing? A work that looks impressive may be cheap and vice versa. Software Development is not like laying bricks where you can calculate how much work can be done a in a certain number of hours.

Also keep in mind that freelancing is often race to the bottom. Many freelancers are not good businessmen. Otherwise they would start their own consulting companies. Many of them do not have negotiation skills. Therefore you can easily push them quite low on price which they may be ready to accept without other options. That's why most outsourcing Software Developers are paid by the hour. If you want value based pricing, then the price may appear to be much higher, which is expected since they need to ensure the project will be profitable even if they need to put extra hours.

Anyway, when working with a freelancer, you are his/her manager. It's your responsibility to plan ahead. From what you wrote, it looks like you do not have that experience. Then getting technical co-founder is a good idea. I do not remember where I heard this - when working on a startup, expect a task to take twice the time and cost three times as planned.

Aji Abraham Proven Tech Cofounder, open to new ventures

Last updated on December 3rd, 2018

Sorry to hear about your predicament. Unfortunately its not very uncommon, especially when are working with freelancers who are in between jobs.

But I am somewhat confused about the situation, though. The developer worked on the project for 4 months approximately and its almost ready. Then the developer took another fulltime job. And the total payment is only 300? That sounds way too low for a 4 month project for a professional developer.

Did you agree on an hour rate or fixed cost? How did you reach the 300 and how did he reach the bill of 1500. Anyway at this point hiring a lawyer and might not be worth the hassle as you are arguing about 1200. It would cost more to go that route.

Even if you decide to pay, make sure to get the full code in your hands and get them to sign over the full rights. Especially if you believe your developer is not living upto his/her word.

Victor Sergienko VP of software @mybranto (fizzled), SWE, new in Valley, want to create future tech and make money.

September 27th, 2018


1. I don't see the exact terms you agreed on. If the payment was unconditionally by-hour, then the dev should be the right one. If the project is fixed-price, with well-spelt criteria of completeness, you're in the right.

When I make an informal agreement, I share it with the other party in Google Docs and ask them to type something there whenever it's updated. Google Docs maintain a complete history of editions, so you can always know what the agreement was at every moment. IANAL, and it's not a legal contract.

2. Don't listen to claims like "80% ready", unless you absolutely can test it yourself. Even then, don't. The reversed Pareto rule of software projects is: "First 80% of project take 80% of the time. The second 80% of the project take another 80% of the time. Corollary: you're yet to see the third 80% of the project."

Chris Jordan Work horse full stack engineer with a background in ML and lives on AWS

October 1st, 2018

I would be really cautious about buying the code. It isn’t just able functionality but quality too. You could end up buying some victim code that the next tech guy you work with won’t be able to extend very easily. Even if the code is reasonably good, there is no one there to hand off to the next guy. These are nightmare scenarios that waste time and money. All the contracts in the world won’t lead to good tech happening and while having access to the source is a good idea, if you can’t make sense of the commits, it’s value is really muted. When screening your next tech partner, look harder at their past work. Do they have a history of seeing things through? It is really less about the skill and more about the attitude of getting things done done done.

martin webb Founder Tudodesk (Looking for a marketer, sales, content builder)

October 4th, 2018

This does not surprise me. The problem with tech products or should I say tech entrepreneurs with tech ideas that don't have the skill set to build them, is they are going to be on a back foot from day 1. I think a perfect example of this is the facebook story and yours sounded very similar to that story up and till the point he wants 1200$, not has run off with your idea and app.

You can have all the legal work in the world but it will not get you out of a bind in a hurry unless your a huge corp. And by the sounds of it this year has flown by and your stuck in limbo.

You have two choices. Pay him or start again.

You need to consider wisely what choice you take as if the product is not finished, requires continued builds as these products do, your next developer may find the source in need of a re-write.

Anyone with a tech idea who can not build the product needs to move forward knowing these risks and that it's all too easy for any developer to do a u-turn at any stage.

It takes thousands of hours to build decent products and a decent product is in constant development. I spend an enormous amount of time doing it and if i had a team of 3 or 5 I could have them working round the clock. Most successful apps have a large team behind them.

If your building an app or tech product for hundreds of dollars with a freelancer you need to be well aware of the huge risks and understand if they finish it and get you live, they are probably very very lucky.

Good Luck!


September 26th, 2018

**Disclaimer- I am not a lawyer and you should always contact a professional if you're unsure (regarding a matter of this severity)**

Hey mate,

Wow. This is one of those situations that is all too common for both entrepreneurs and intrepreneurs, especially when it comes to coding (or grey areas of intellectual property).

Now, if you go to a lawyer they can have this individual provide detailed records of the hours dedicated to your project (every professional 'should' have full breakdowns for billing). If you were billed for these hours and no milestones or work was done, you can always move to 'Small Claims Court'. About 99% of the time this scares the dude into agreeing on the original price and it will never come to this.

They'll just wipe their hands of it and walk away.

Now I'm posting anonymously because I'm going to suggest an ethical grey area that might escalate this uncomfortable process. If the individual is doing this as a business you can always 'review' him (either through sites such as Trust pilot or even the BBB [Better Business Bureau]) This will bring the situation to light and create unwanted attention for both him [assuming] and the company he's recently joined.

When the matter is brought to the fore light, must freelancers DO NOT want that kind of publicity.

This is all fine because you're reviewing the individual for their current services. Something that can be retracted at the earliest conveniences one the source code is provided.

Hope this gives you something to think about,


Ed Sahakian Co-Founder & CTO @

October 2nd, 2018

Just like anything else in the world you have to evaluate the value of the source code to you. For example: If you were to redo the project from scratch using another developer, then how much would it cost you? There is your value of the source code in question.

Mohamed Nassar iOS Developer, Mobile PM, Growth Hacker, Team Leader, Amateur Racer, Founder of Porsche Club Egypt

Last updated on October 12th, 2018


First try to find another developer that is willing to continue the work. It'll be a real mess if you get another one and he refuses to continue the old work.

Assuming the work done is really 300 quid, then comes your negotiation skills. Here are some notes:

  • The developer knows you are in need of your code.
  • Don't forget that you are his only buyer. He may seem/think he is in power, but he isn't really. Because you can always elect to have someone else redo the work.
  • What you're really negotiating for is the time to find another dev and redo the work. But since you'll need another dev anyway, then its only the time to do the work. You mentioned he started in December, and last update was in Jan, so that's a 1-2 months job tops.

My suggestion on how to negotiate with him:

  1. Make sure he knows that you are his only buyer. If you don't buy, no one will and he will have wasted his dev time.
  2. Make sure he knows that you are not looking to scam him, but are looking for a fair deal. Do not say compromise. And do say Fair.
  3. Offer him ₤350, say you appreciate his time, and to save you both the trouble, you will increase his pay by ₤50.
  4. Never say no to his requests, say something along the lines of "I'm not sure how I can do that", or even better "How can I do that".

Good luck. Hope this helps.

Best Regards,
Mohamed Nassar

Andrew Chalk Co-Founder of a startup. CEO of a startup. CTO of a Hedge Fund. Quantitative Researcher. Superb COO.

Last updated on October 1st, 2018

300GBP of work? That is less than a day at current market rates. Easy to replicate but a contract won't help in the case of so small an amount. I understand your frustration but the legal profession has seen so little productivity improvement that it would cost more that 1200GBP just to engage a lawyer and have him file papers.

An alternative solution would be to judiciously publicize the facts and include his name. That will be searchable by his future potential clients.