Choose the right software developer, or suffer...

Tuesday 5th May 2020 Dave Sharp Start Ups!

Opening Summary

One of the most frequent calls/emails I get is someone getting in touch because something has gone wrong with their web developer or their hosting provider. It can be a nightmare when this happens and creates stress and unnecessary pressure when all you want is to concentrate on the more important issues of running your company.

Typically the problems as I would describe them are:

  • Everyone wants to know what it will cost;

  • Requirements are not clearly defined (making costing difficult);

  • Requirements need to be not 100% defined for business reason;

  • It takes forever (or seems to) get a new site up and running;

  • A site is never really finished even when launched;

  • Content Management System (CMS) doesn't do what the client wants;

  • Client needs changes and doesn't have a support contract;

  • Client cannot afford all the costs up front;

The information below is not a conclusive set of answers to all these problems but if you're new to this it should give you a starting point.

Where to start?

In theory getting a developer and the hosting is easy - but only really if you come from a certain background and speak the lingo. Not knowing your HTML from your JavaScript is not a good starting point.

What would you do if you wanted to buy a new car but didn't know anything about them?

Well the obvious answer is to read up on the latest models and ask someone you trust for help, right? Well in the first instance I don't see choosing a web developer as being any different. Undoubtedly there will be someone you know who will help you get a grip on the basics, and the same principles apply, do your homework and talk to people who are already at the point you want to get to.

There are some basic points I think create the right base to move forward:

  • try and put a list of local developers together as a short-list. Its still better to have a developer that's close by that you can visit and meet face to face than not.

  • from the short-list look for a developer that has created previous sites within the same business sector as you. Some familiarity with your sector is always going to help.

  • email the developers you like the look of and ask for a couple of references, people you can speak to about their experiences of working with that developer.

  • visit the developer in their office, not yours. Look around. Is their office the kind of place you would work in personally?

  • ask for an overview of their development process. Who will do what at each stage? How long does each stage last? What provision do they make for your input and feedback etc?

  • ask for a quote AND ask for a copy of their business terms and conditions. Give these to a lawyer for a quick read over and any potential changes to avoid any sticky clauses.

  • make sure that the payment schedule is back end loaded. Do not pay any more than 30% of the total value of the contract as a deposit. Make sure the final payment is based around you signing the work off as being complete and that the percentage is around 40% of the value. The other 30% should be paid in small lumps as the developer completes each interim point.

  • ask the developer to tell you specifically who is going to be working on your website and add them to the contract under a key-man clause. If the developer takes them off to work on something else then you have some right of redress with them over it.

  • make sure you have a contract to cover all this. Its the single biggest mistake. No contract means that it will become a he said / she said if there is a disagreement. This really is the crux of the matter.
  • Specification

    It really really helps if you have spent some time deciding what you want and don't want. You don't need to be able to describe the sites functions in a technical way, but you do need to be able to describe the activities on the site in as much detail as possible. If you go to the web developer with only a vague idea of what you want then expect to get a bill for the design time it takes to come up with something for you to look at and critique.

    I would say that lists are enough. Let's take customer service as an example. Your list for the developer might be:

    • You want a button on the top right and at the bottom of each page for any customer to click in the event they need help. The button should have "get help" written on it.

    • when the customer clicks the button they should be asked to choose between "Question" and "Complaint".

    • If the customer clicks "Question" display list of FAQ's with the option to write a new question into a form at the bottom.

    • If the customer clicks "Complaint" then ask them to fill in a complaint form and display that a member of staff will be in touch in the next 48 hours.

    • If a question or complaint is submitted to the site then inform staff member x by email.

    This is enough information for the developer to create a web based system to replicate these steps and indicate other requirements (like the storage and retrieval of FAQ's). If this isn't something that you can manage then it really will be a case of having to pay the developer to work all this out for you.

    How do I know if I'm paying too much?

    I get asked this a lot as well. There is no real answer to this as its really dependent on the content and design of the site. I did a piece of client work during 2018 to establish the average web developer rates which concluded with .php development coming in at around £300 per developer per day (average) and with development around £330 per developer per day. Jump forward to 2020 and the costs are higher not surprisingly. A .php developer can come in at around £400 a day with a developer now hitting £500-£550 a day. Any quote given to you by a web developer should clearly state the daily rate.


    Quite often the developer will offer to organise the hosting for you as part of the development. They will have a hosting company that they use and will deploy your site to that host. Again, there is no hard and fast rule for the costs relating to the hosting as some kinds of sites require bespoke plug-ins to allow them to work and any kind of e-commerce capacity will definitely increase the price. A standard brochure site is going to cost £25 per month (approx) to host. If you site streams any form of media (videos etc.) then the bandwidth bill for streaming will come in on top of this. Relevant advertising streamed with the video can offset this cost.


    The support provision by the developer is vital to you in the event of problems. Make sure that the developer has an out of hours/weekend number for you to call if you have issues. Try it out, call it and make sure someone answers. This could cost you money if the developer cannot follow through on its customer support issues.


    Ninety-nine percent of the time this is when problems between you and the web developer occur. You call up thinking that you can get a quick change done and the web developer asks for what appears to be a disproportionate amount of money for the change. I need to come down on the side of the developer here. Small changes can still take time to do and then test and then do the site update and then test again etc. Two or three hours can quickly rack up just checking everything is right after the updates. There are two different ways to deal with this to reduce (not remove) the potential problem:

    • pay your web developer a small amount monthly in exchange for a set number of hours worth of work on your site, either changes that you need or new features if the time is not taken up with changes.

    • ask your web developer to commit to a fixed fee per change over a longer period (say 2 years). Sometimes they will win because the change is quick and easy and other times you will win because the developer has a more time consuming change to deal with.

    In either event make sure that the change process/costs are detailed in the contract.

    Resolving conflicts

    If this is where you end up then there are a couple of potential solutions. Ultimately the contract that you have is the starting point, what is the nature of the disagreement and what does the contract say in relation to that point. Here are some general ideas in the event that this is where you end up:

    • Meet with the developer face to face, don't harangue each other via email. Email is too open to interpretation by both parties. A lot of the time this is enough to get things moving again.

    • Try arbitration. Bring in a 3rd party that knows something about web development and ask them to adjudicate. This is best off being a clause in the contract and it will need to be someone who is truly independent of you and the developer. Even if you have to pay a small fee for this it still will be better than weeks and months of disagreement.

    • Organise the divorce before you get married. Its quite feasible to have an organised separation as part of the initial contractual agreement.
    • Closing Summary

      My parting comments are fairly straight forward. Either spend the time learning the things you need to learn to manage this or hire a professional to do it for you. There is a lot to lose by getting this stuff wrong - thousands can be lost very quickly if basic assumptions are not tested and certain criteria is not met.

      Do NOT skimp on the contract. Lawyers are a necessary evil and I would not advise anyone to go into a relationship with a web developer or hosting company without some legal advice.

      Expect to pay a reasonable sum of money. Cheap things are cheap and as the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

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