User Experience Design · Design

Would you use an agency to design and build your MVP?


May 22nd, 2014

Would you outsource to an agency (like to design your MVP over trying to find FT talent.  I keep seeing the struggle for good designers and wonder if people are willing to use agencies to get through the first iteration of their product.  
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Rob G

May 23rd, 2014

some form of MVP is better than none. I would outsource and work on product/market fit while looking for FT resources in parallel.  

Steve Owens

May 23rd, 2014

Outsourcing is no different in hiring someone full time in that if you pick the wrong person/company, or you do not manage them correctly, they will perform poorly.   

The choice to outsource has little to do with quality - they both can, and do produce the same average quality.  The choice to outsource has more to do with what type of company you are.  

If you are small company with product turns every 5+ years, you can not afford to have a bunch of engineers sitting around eating up the fixed cost line - you hire a firm like ours for the 6 months it takes to develop the product.

If you are pre-funded start up, you have no choice but to work with a company that will accept "in kind" payment - again a company, not full time employees.

If you are a funded company, you have no time to put a team together with CAD, lab, processes, etc - you hire a company, and they start the next day - likely they already started with "in kind" work.

If your a big company, you already have a big team, with a LAB, lots of CAD and plenty of mature procedures.  You do not need a product development company.

To answer the original question, yes company do hire product development companies.  We have been in business for 12 years, done more than 1,000 project for over 200 customers.  There are plenty of other companies just like us.


May 23rd, 2014

Yes for a few reasons:

a) good designers are extremely difficult to find so if you like their work then that's a strong start -- it seems significantly more difficult finding great designers than finding engineers for most web startups

b) right now, the best designers are very secure in their jobs or are very secure in their freelancing arrangements. more than almost any other discipline that would be valuable in a startup, I don't see that many designers keen to get in on early stage startup action.

c) if the design firm is doing design + front-end, it's 2x the vote. Communication from designer to front-end to backend can be really challenging -- so getting a design shop that can do more than deliver PSDs is very desirable. If the design firm is just doing designs, make sure their process is tight -- i.e. they need to hand over everything perfect for developers to work from (great grids, style guides, icon-fonts, clear interaction guidelines, responsive designs if you need them... the list is long). 

d) design work comes in ebbs and flows -- it'd be nice to have an FT designer on the team but do you NEED one at day 1? usually, one doesn't (there are exceptions of course)

Twice, I had designer cofounders and that was great -- in one case, that extended to front-end coding, and made the difference between success and failure. In most recent project, I reviewed literally hundreds of designers and tested 12 or more designers. Eventually found one who has freelanced. It only works because his process is great and even then, it's a struggle. 

Monica Zent Founder, CEO, Investor; Board Member, Advisor

May 23rd, 2014

I did and it was the biggest mistake of my life. (Feel free to reach out to me for the details, names to avoid). It was an absolute disaster with those guys. I have had to hire other developers (and was fortunate to find great ones). In retrospect, I would not have gone that route and never will in the future. Good luck to you!

Kirsten Minshall Founder of UVD and CTO at Limpid Markets

August 7th, 2014

You know what the hardest thing about running a technology business is? Getting the right people, with the right experience and the commitment to make it happen. Doesn't matter if you're looking to outsource or to build a full-time team. We work with several startups on some pretty innovative products and they wouldn't have dared to build their own team because you know what? Not all entrepreneurs know where to start or how to recruit the right people and quite frankly, getting a team to work together - self organising being the holy grail of Agile and Lean - is hard, takes time and costs A LOT of money. So why not choose a company who are there already, one with a successful history of working with startups and product development, one that's learnt many of the hard lessons along the way and can help the same mistakes been made over and over again?

It's not for everyone but if you get the right team, you could save a lot of pain.

Just to make a further point, not every agency is a gun for hire, we ( get a lot of enquiries and turn 90% away. We take on projects that fit our model, that we can buy into and the team can nurture as if they were their own. Our clients become part of our team, fully integrated and quite frankly, a lot of them are pleased that I'm taking on the costly, sometimes draining , sometimes risky job of finding and hiring the right people.

Nikhil Gupta Product Management & Business Leader

May 22nd, 2014

Interesting topic... two questions 1. Will investors be interested to give you money when you go to a 3rd party company like this instead of FT 2. How do you trust 3rd party for intellectual property... anyone who has done this and can share experience.. i know more companies like this.. just curious applicability to a new venture..

Daniel Weisman Head of Office at The Weisman Family Foundation

May 22nd, 2014

It's definitely worth consideration, but the devil is always in the details.

Apple chose IDEO for a reason. And yet, they also have Jony Ive... having at least one person with good design experience in house is essential IMO, even if you outsource for MVP.

Mehrad Karamlou User Experience Architect at Focal Healthcare

May 26th, 2014

Great topic. I  am working with a 3rd party team of designers and developers in Toronto that do exactly what you mentioned. I have not started my own start up this way, but I can see how I could have benefited from such development strategy. If you cannot get your hands on good designers and developers (and that's what you need) leaving that bit to others and focusing on business and marketing is the way to go.  

John Arroyo Delivering ecommerce and cloud applications, CEO of Arroyo Labs

August 6th, 2014

Like Alper, I also run an consulting agency (  A dev shop in our case.  We have plenty of cases where the start up benefited by our experience and expertise, but we also have others where they really needed an in house set of folks to iterate on ideas 24x7.  It often comes down to the type of product you are trying to build, what kind of budget you are trying to keep to and how you want to collaborate with the external team.  

Where I see start ups fail is when they dump a set of requirements docs with the team and expect their wildest dreams to come true.  It never does, there are too many constraints and factors to ever make that work for a start-up (it can for a large company though...with deep pockets).  It must be a collaboration!  You have to account for iteration time/budget as well.

We tell our start up clients, especially the early stage ones, that the end goal is to take it in house at some point.  Weather thats 2 months or 12 months in, at some point the design and development efforts need to be in house and shops like ours should be used to augment and assist on special projects.  As a start up you can't leave the agency in the driving seat forever.  It's important to have that in house accountability and talent to really grow.

Devin Lyttle

May 23rd, 2014

I feel like most of these answers, as well as the question itself, is a bit off the mark. If you're heavily invested in the design of your MVP, then you've missed the point of an MVP (and I say this as a designer myself). As they say, if you're not embarrassed by it then it's likely not an MVP. That's not to say that you ignore the design process altogether-in fact, if you're going to invest in anything at this stage I would focus on getting to know your users and figuring out how to design for them-but, I would resist the urge to spend too much time polishing your UI and figure out ways to utilize the countless frameworks/themes/components/services/APIs/etc. that are at an entrepreneur's disposal to mitigate upfront tech debt. 

However, if you're dead set on investing in design upfront (whereas the UI/UX of your product is your unique offering), then I would advise against outsourcing your MVP - especially when it comes to development, but is also applicable to design, to a lesser degree. This is something I've debated with several of my own companies and ultimately determined that, due to the iterative nature of the MVP process, having a contractor on retainer throughout that process is not only expensive but you sacrifice the agility of having an in-house team. You need to move quickly through the MVP process, and unless you have someone by your side who is as invested in the success of the company as you are, then the outcome is likely to be less than stellar. 

I would also echo Nikhil's comment from above; if at some point you're planning to pursue a seed round, it's often more attractive to investors to have all of the work being done under one roof. Investors are betting on your team, so it's easier for them to take that gamble when they know who they're dealing with up front rather than you bringing on someone in the future (after closing the round) that may rock the boat. It also shows investors that you're capable of selling yourself, and your business, when you're able to attract cofounders to rally around you and get excited about your idea - rather than just paying someone to churn out some work. 

Something to think about, at least.