7 lessons learned from outsourcing my app development

21 May 2015

For those of you reading that have not yet had an opportunity to meet me around the labs I have recently founded my own social enterprise dedicated to generating funds for special needs education in the Latin America through the sale of smart phone games. Tech and the digital economy as a whole is dynamic and full of creative and lateral thinkers, and that’s why I think it is the perfect space for new types of ideas and business models to emerge to address old problems around the world.

However, if you have had an opportunity to speak with me you will already know that I possess but a rudimentary knowledge of gaming related programming, and have opted to leave it to the professionals and outsource via the freelancer and outsourcing platform Upwork (formerly ODesk) over the past four months. ODesk, which merged with Elance in late 2013 and was subsequently rebranded is one of a number of platforms operating in the online ‘e-lancer economy’ space, but is regarded as the largest specialized tech and programming platforms with some 8 million users. These users include programmers, designers, data entry operators and workers from just about every other type of IT related profession imaginable from all over the world competing with one another to win jobs posted on the site. It really is a great platform for someone in a similar position to myself. My first game for example, Piñata Mirage, has ended up costing me a fifth of what I was being quoted by a couple of local businesses, not to mention I had the opportunity to scan through hundreds of applications to choose designers, musicians and programmers who were just right for what I had in mind.

I would highly recommend using Upwork not only for any fellow novices out there, but for experienced programmers, designers or musicians seeking to build their portfolio or perhaps even collaborate with other artists on some project they have in mind. Overall it is a great platform which is set to further decentralize gaming and app development in the coming years. However, my endorsement is not without a few provisos, and I strongly recommend you are mindful of the following suggestions if you do choose the e-lancer path. These are seven pieces of advice I would give anyone ready to give online outsourcing a go:

Be mindful of exchange rate to US Dollars.

Jobs on Upwork are funded in US Dollars. It is very important to keep a close eye on the exchange rate if you intend to pay your contractors at an hourly rate rather than a fixed price. Weekly costs can fluctuate significantly as a result, but there are a couple of recommendations I would make to manage this- firstly, once you have a budget in mind for the job, transfer that exact amount into US Dollars via a foreign exchange account. This will protect your budget blowing out as a result of depreciations. Obviously in the event of an Aussie Dollar surge you can just sell the US Dollars once you surpass your initial buying price. Make sure you protect your currency!

Secondly, you can set a limit on the weekly contractor hours to better manage the expense if it is becoming an issue.

Break down the entire project into individual jobs

Breaking the app down into individual jobs is worth the effort. More often than not jobs on Upwork are undertaken by individual freelancers rather than businesses, and with individuals you will possess a greater ability to carefully choose between bidders based on their individual ability- design feedback score for example. A designer/programmer’s Upwork feedback score and portfolio will be easily visible prior to hire.

If you do choose to hire a business for the entire project it will save you the effort of posting multiple jobs, but the overall project will probably be more expensive, harder to manage, and of a lower overall standard. Break the project into jobs.

Post jobs before you know what they might cost

Posting a job does not cost anything, you will only be required to fund the job once the contract begins.

You set a hypothetical price you are willing to pay, hypothetical timeframe, and what you expect of the contractor. Be as detailed as you like without giving away your idea.

It is only once prospective contractors bid for the job that you will get an idea of what it is going to cost you and what is a good price. If you post a job and find that you have 50 applicants in 5 minutes you are probably offering too much! I’d even suggest halving the original figure you have in mind and then posting the job at that price. There is nothing to lose from doing this, and taking a look at the comments of experienced contractors in their cover letters will give you an idea of some of the issues you are going to encounter during the job which you may not have considered.

Make ownership of intellectual property extremely clear

This is the biggest initial concern for most people: are these freelancers just going to steal my idea? While the risk will always be there as it would be with traditional outsourcing, Upwork makes ownership of intellectual property clear in their terms and conditions. Given they are based in the United States as are the major app distribution channels of the App Store and Google Play, you can remain reasonably confident that anyone seeking to selling your stolen intellectual property would be unable to do so once Apple and Google were notified, and potentially face prosecution.  Even so, I’d recommend having the artist or developer sign an agreement (and send a scanned copy) prior to beginning the contract. This will guarantee that the idea and/or design that you are paying them for will be your intellectual property and is not to be used or reproduced for any purpose without your consent. For design/music this will apply to the art, and for programming this will apply to the code. Whatever it is you are paying for, you will own forever in the form that you receive it, so make the contract exhaustively clear. If your app is going to run on some innovative type of code then it is particularly important to get right before funding the contract. You own that intellectual property, make sure you protect it.

I am not sure what this kind of form is called legally, but from experience the most important thing is that the prospective contractor acknowledges that you are the owner of what they will be producing beforehand. (It may be worth asking a lawyer or one of the Upwork guys at RCL.) This needs to be implicit and explicit in the wording of the contract.

Furthermore, the option of breaking a project into a number of smaller jobs works to further reduce the probability of a contractor stealing your idea. The first job I posted was for character and logo design for an iPhone game. There was no need for me to specify details regarding the project I had in mind beyond how I wanted it to look, they could not have stolen my idea. And even if there was, a designer working in the Philippines or India is most likely already making an above average wage doing design work. There is very little reason for them to run off with an idea and risk this.

Overseas outsourcing adds other factors to managing

You are probably going to end up hiring someone from overseas. Be aware that language is likely to be an issue and that time zones will almost definitely be a big issue. I have found, in my experience with Eastern European developers for example, that even though they are based in Ukraine, they work to US hours to expand their customer base. It can be hard to contact them quickly to resolve issues unless you are prepared to stay up very late on Skype etc.

Conduct Interviews via Skype

Skype is the best way to get an impression online for whether the person or business are going to be worth the money, or try to take you for a ride. I’d recommend it if you’re hiring anyone without an extensive portfolio and Upwork work history.

Credit your contractors

Once your game or app is ready, from your perspective you will most likely want the biggest spread of publicity possible to promote it. From your contractors’ perspective they want to promote the hard work they have undertaken for you and tell their friends, family and future employers all about it. A credits screen within your game or app is a cheap and simple way to publicise it in geographic or cultural areas which may be isolated from your marketing strategy, and from a source that your potential customers trust. Plus it gives everyone that has worked on it the recognition you all deserve to improve your future prospects.

And that just about wraps up my list of things I wish I knew before I began and what I’ve learnt since! I will mention quickly though, that if you are worried about funding a project and being completely underwhelmed by what you receive in return, you needn’t be. When you fund a project it enters Upwork’s intermediary account. The funds will not be released to the contractor until you are absolutely satisfied with the service provided, otherwise they will be refunded in full to you. I can confirm this as I have already had this experience with one designer whose work was not up to the standard I requested or on time.

Anyway, I wish you all the best of luck with your IT ventures and I’m looking forward to meeting you in person at RCL!

Paul Moffatt, Founder and Director of PhilanthroPlay Pty Ltd.

For more information on the PhilanthroPlay visit philanthroplay.co