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Founder Feedback gives you insights from the startup trenches. In a story originally posted to the Cinecandy Blog, Fernando Pizarro, founder of Cinecandy, shares his lessons learned from outsourcing the development of his MVP.

"Startup founders have a million different variables to fix in place in order to turn their vision into reality. Most of those variables have no single best optimized answer, rather you just have to put a stake in the ground and move on. Deciding whether or not to use outsourced development is just one of these variables, but it can have tremendous consequences for your business so it is a variable worth considering carefully.

While things may change with the current stockmarket downturn and likely cooling of the early stage funding market, the past year has been a hard time to find highly talented technical founders. I spent about six months recruiting (including what I thought was a fairly successful Hacker News campaign, which I talk about here) but failed to find someone that had both the skills and personal fit I was looking for... so I hired outsourced developers to code the first version early on.  Boy, am I glad I did.

Here are six questions you should ask yourself before taking the plunge:

1.  Can I build an MVP myself?

This seems obvious, but given much of the lore out there about business founders learning to code so that they can build their own product, it’s worth considering.  I do not know how to code, and my personal take is that while there is great value in learning enough to have an intelligent conversation in which I recuse myself at the right point, it’s not the best use of my time to learn enough programming to produce an MVP.  Opinions differ, clearly.  I thought a nice treatment of the subject was done by Tom Eisenmann at HBS.

2)  Do I have sufficient money, not only to get to an MVP, but a couple of iteration cycles beyond it?

This is an important one.  How much you spend on your outsourced development will NOT equal the agreed upon price for your initial set of deliverables.  Remember that the pattern for managing an outsource vendor is:  Define Requirements > Build > Change Order, rather than:  Prototype > Feedback > Iterate. You will want to change things. It will cost you money.  And given that the rules about finding product market fit still apply – the ones that say that you have to tailor your MVP to the market, not the other way around – it will cost you much more to outsource than the initial price tag. This isn’t a bad thing. Just a thing.

3)  Do I know any developers personally whom I trust, or am I going to be picking one from scratch?

I was lucky enough to get a fantastic referral from a friend for a dev shop whose owner is based here in the Bay Area, but whose team is based in Russia. I was familiar with their work and had a good sense for likely outcomes. This confidence made it much easier for me to take the plunge.  In the time we’ve worked together, the relationship has been maintained personally here in the US, which has allowed us to get through the unavoidable rough patches. If you are starting from scratch – don’t.  Get a referral. Even better – get a referral from an existing customer whose business will be imperiled in addition to yours if the relationship goes south.

4)  Is my vision of my MVP clear?

I royally screwed this up. I had two competing visions of what my product should be and ended up spending all kinds of time and money on design. If you plan to use outsourced development, indecision is your enemy. While this isn’t necessarily something I could have avoided by using a good mockup tool, I was certainly aware of the two options because I had to mock them up directly.  Here’s a good comparison of the tools you can use to get to your vision – but I think the larger lesson is:  settle on a very definite path to your first deliverable.  You’ll get to iterate – later.

5)  Do I have a clear sense of where I stand on the Speed/Quality/Cost tradeoff?

More money buys you a better product faster.  You can make a crappy product quickly and cheaply.  We all live these tradeoffs – but knowing where you stand is hugely important in determining whether to go with outsourced development.  For instance, I have had several bad experiences with developers when I chose the cheapest option, so I was happy to pay more for peace of mind regarding quality this time around.

6)  What are my prospects for finding a technical co-founder?

Finding someone qualified with whom you click is very hard.  But having gone through the process – if you can sell a co-founder you like and respect on your vision, you should.  Ironically I don’t think you should do this because of the drawbacks of using outsourced development, but rather because of the benefits of having someone to rely on through the tough times – an intellectual partner. I quickly figured out that anyone worth talking to would want to see traction and that I would be very picky about who I jump into bed with. Because I was new to the Bay Area, I didn’t have any friends who might have been game to join me on my quest.  My prospects, in other words, were bleak.

Of course – the upside to the way things played out is that a year later I do know people, and I’ve taken lots of risk out of the project by building an MVP.  Couldn’t have gotten here without the help of my friendly neighborhood outsourced developer!"

Cinecandy is a website and suite of mobile applications that enable socially collaborative video, using the capture power of smartphones and webcams connected through social networks. They are a Graduate of the Silicon Valley Founder Institute. Follow Fernando Pizarro on Twitter at @fapi1974

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