The Ultimate Guide To Choosing A Small Business Software Development Service

Brendan Egan

The Ultimate Guide To Choosing A Small Business Software Development Service

Web development, software development, application development.  To a small business owner, these can be scary terms because finding the right development group at the right price point on the right timeline with the right level of experience can seem like finding a needle in a haystack.
This article will help solve all those challenges with real-world examples and suggestions from us — a company that has been doing custom software and web development for nearly 15 years.  During this time, we have seen nearly everything there is to see in development.  From good to bad, from ugly to down right awful.
While we hope we’re a good fit for your project — even we know that not every small business is a fit for us.  This article isn’t meant to sell you on our services.  If we’re the right fight for one another, then we would love to work with you on your project, but if we’re not then we at least hope by the end of reading this you will be able to find the perfect company for your needs and understand what to look for.

What Is A Software Development Service?

This is a fairly broad term.  Back when I started Simple SEO Group nearly 15 years ago, custom software development was the term applied to companies building desktop based software for computers.  These programs would do everything from basic to advanced tasks, including things like ERP systems, CRM systems, and much more.
Fast forward to 2020 and beyond, and nearly every piece of software now lives in the cloud.  It’s rare these days to install desktop based software.  You’re either downloading an application on your phone or accessing a piece of software from a URL in your web browser.
Software development has changed dramatically over the years, and today it is more complex than ever.  There are a myriad of considerations to take in when developing a piece of software, from security to speed, hosting to usability, mobile friendliness to 3rd party integrations.  We’ve worked with literally hundreds of businesses over the years navigating these challenges to find the right software mix for their business needs.
In 2020, and for the rest of this decade, a software development service simply refers to a company offering development services of cloud based software.  We’re going to go out and say cloud based because chances are if you are a small business, whatever piece of software you are considering replacing or building should be cloud based.

Finding The Right Development Group

There are a variety of philosophies when it comes to custom software development.  Software development is kind of like the wild west.  There are no true certifications, licenses, accreditations, or anything that ensures things are being done in a uniform way.
Unlike doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants, and many other professional services, web development is not a highly regulated industry in terms of having standards for things to be done a specific way.
There absolutely are organizations trying to change this — but candidly, they are trying to move mountains — and for the foreseeable future, the world of web development will continue to be somewhat like the wild west.
Why does this matter to you as a business owner?  It matters more than anything because it’s important for you to be able to cut through the sales b/s and get down to understanding if a firm can really do what you need and do it properly.

Why Does The Size Of My Business Determine The Type Of Software Development Service I Need?

Your company size along with your revenue is the first step in choosing the right software development company for your needs.
We’re a small business software development and marketing firm.  We are a small business ourselves with a fantastic team of around 20 individuals, but we know our place in the market.
What does this mean for your business?  It means you need to evaluate the size of your company, your revenue, and your software goals.  Based on these, you can find the right size company to match what you are looking for.

The “Big Firm” Software Development Projects

As a company, we aren’t out there trying to win 8 figure web development projects, simply because that isn’t who we are as a company.  Those projects need to go to the right company, which typically will be a 250+ employee software development company designed to put 15-20 team members on a single project at a time.  As a business, we couldn’t put our entire team on one project.
If this is you, our recommendation would be to find an appropriate sized development company who can handle your project.  These companies often will be very well known, have large marketing budgets, and quite honestly you shouldn’t have too much trouble putting together a list of them.  But be careful and do your homework — sadly, we have been called in to help pickup the pieces even when people hire the “big firms” to do their projects.  More often than not, this happens because you have too small of a project for the big firm to give you the right amount of attention.

The “Freelancer” Software Development Projects

Likewise as a company, we also aren’t out there trying to win the bottom of the barrel companies looking for e-commerce, custom software solutions, and quality website work for low 4 figures.  Those projects also need to go to the right company, which typically will be a freelancer.  As a business, we can’t afford to deliver our quality of work and experience for such a low price.
If this is you, there are literally tens of thousands of freelancers on the web who can help you.  Just be careful to find someone reliable as we have countless times picked up the broken pieces of freelancer projects gone wrong.

The “Goldilocks” Small Business Software Development Projects

For example, if you’re a 8 person company doing $1.5 million a year in revenue and have a 10 year old piece of custom software that you utilize to run your business which is critically in need of modernization and you realistically understand this will be a 5 to potentially low 6 figure project, you absolutely would be a perfect fit for us.
In terms of software development projects, while we often take on smaller and more simplistic website projects like a simple WordPress website in the 4 figure range, nearly all of our custom software development services for small businesses are in the 5 to sometimes 6 figure range.
The size of the project is the first determining factor you should evaluate when choosing a software development partner.

What Does Timeline Have To Do With Picking The Right Development Firm?

Timeline is an interesting topic in custom development.  It directly ties into experience, firm size, and budget.  As you are likely starting to realize, finding the right software development firm is a complicated and intertwined matrix of these factors, and no single factor can easily be isolated.
An experienced firm will generally offer a more accurate timeline.  Budget, however, I have found has little to do with timeline — as I have seen 7 figure projects get derailed just as much as 4 figure ones and visa versa.  Company size can also impact the timeline — on both sides of the spectrum — as large companies can often have too many layers to stay on track, and small companies can often not have enough resources to stay on the timeline.
This is yet another case of the Goldilocks zone where finding the right mid-sized company for your development needs will often yield the most accurate timeline.
Projects that go over on the projected timeline are one of my biggest pet peeves.  More often than not, the timeline is blown due to the client.  There are obligations in a software development projects from the client — such as providing timely responses and information, approvals, and joint beta testing — and this is often where timelines get derailed the most.
There are, however, also plenty of development firms that are just not good at project management and keeping a project on the proposed timeline.
When it comes to your project’s timeline, it’s important that be spelled out during the proposal process.  When evaluating a software development partner, as them how many of their projects finish on the timeline proposed, what happens if you go over the timeline, and how they manage their resources to keep things on track.
Additionally, your project timeline will help you choose the right partner for your project.  Similar to the size of the company,  the timeline will help you find the right firm for your needs.  If you have a 5 month long project, this probably shouldn’t go to a freelancer as they won’t be able to give it enough attention.  Likewise if you have a 3 month long project, a large firm likely won’t even want to touch it.  Finding the right firm based on the size of your project and timeline is absolutely critical to the overall success of the software.

What Does My Budget Have To Do With Picking The Right Development Firm?

Your budget has a tremendous amount to do with picking the right firm for your project.  And it isn’t just about how big or small your budget is.  While that is part of it, there is more to your budget than what meets the eye.
When it comes to budget and your project, in our experiences, there are tons of software developers out there who will promise a low price to get you in the door and started with the project, only to hit you with change order after change order once you get started.  The old adage holds true, if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
When setting a budget for your project, it’s important to divide the project into phases.  Select what the most critical functionality is for your software project and make that your phase 1 deliverables.  Clearly define what those are and ensure your software development partner is on the same page as you so they can accurately map out the piece of software and provide you with an accurate quote.

Evaluating Competing Quotes

We recently quoted a custom e-commerce website for a new client.  With all the various features and bells and whistles, our quote came in right around $39,000.  We knew we weren’t the only ones bidding on the project, but when we spoke with the client a second time and they had received all their quotes, we were quite surprised.
Their quotes looked like this:

  • Company A: $107,000
  • Company B: $68,000
  • Us: $39,000
  • Company C: $5,000

As a business owner, you might be asking yourself, how in the world can the same project have a price range from $5,000 up to $107,000?  We were afforded the opportunity to unmask company A, B, and C and understand how they execute projects, and here is how:

  • Company A: This was a large development firm with over 100 employees that custom builds their software.  They assign a longer than necessarily timeline to the project to make it seem bigger than it is, and in reality their name and brand helps them justify charging a big price tag.
  • Company B: This was an interesting one — it was a company that specializes in photography but does software development as well.   They didn’t have the experience needed to do this project, but were willing to learn if the price was right.  Their proposal outlined a similar approach and software to what we were going to utilize, but at almost twice the cost.  And their portfolio was lacking because they don’t have experience in this area of development.
  • Company C: I’ll reveal this one — it was GoDaddy.  GoDaddy doesn’t build custom websites, they have a website builder template that they were going to plug this site into.  This site is far too complex and custom for GoDaddy’s website builders (which in my opinion are only designed for small, local ma and pa type businesses).

Our proposal in my opinion was the most cost effective and we were the right size company for this project, at the right price, the right timeline, and had the right amount of experience.  As such, we were able to offer an identical (or possibly even better) solution than companies A and B at a fraction of the cost.  I won’t even compare us to company C because their solution flat out wouldn’t work for this application.
Price is important, but choosing the lowest or highest price quote doesn’t mean you are making the right choice.  I have seen countless projects where we have lost the bid to companies bidding 5-10x more than us because they are big name software companies, and the final product is awful.  Don’t just choose the highest priced thinking it will be the best, or the lowest price thinking you are getting a bargain.  Make sure you understand the proposals and choose the right option for you — whether that be the highest, lowest, or mid priced option.

Choosing A Company With The Right Service Offerings

Development is development.  But does the company you are choosing to work with offer the right complimentary service offerings?
There is far more to a development project than just writing of code, and there are several additional services you may need both during the project as well as after.
It’s important that your software development company be able to offer end to end solutions for your needs.  This starts with planning and wire frames, moves onto graphical design mockups and branding, progresses into responsive HTML coding and software development, moves into QA and beta testing, and finishes with launch, server support, and on-going support of the software.
Following this, you may need to market the software through SEO, paid advertising, or email marketing, may want to A/B test different functionality in the software to make sure it is as effective as possible, or perhaps you want to continue to add-on to the software based on feedback and market research.
There are several components to a project beyond just the development, and it’s important you pick a software development firm who can support all of your needs.  We’ve worked on plenty of projects where the design is done elsewhere, the SEO is done by another firm, and you end up with a jumbled up mess.  Having one company with the proper resources who can properly orchestrate your entire project is going to provide the best end results.

Things To Evaluate Once You Have Your Finalists

Once you have a few proposals and are ready to really dig in and evaluate who you want to work with, here is our recommend list of 10 things you should consider when making your choice.  We suggest taking these 10 points and giving each firm a score from 1-5 for each area, then adding them up and seeing how the firms compare numerically.

  1. Budget: Is the project within my budget?
  2. Timeline: Is the timeline acceptable to our company’s goals?
  3. Experience: Is the firm experienced, both the company itself, but also the project manager and development team?
  4. Complimentary Services: Does the firm offer all the services you need, from design to testing, marketing to deployment?
  5. Support: Does the company offer on-going support?  What if there is an emergency or outage?
  6. Hosting: Does the company offer hosting or work with a host to be able to provide a comprehensive solution for your needs?
  7. Relationship: Do you get along well with the company?  Do you feel a strong working relationship?  Does their work style fit yours?
  8. Responsiveness: How responsive is the company to your questions, emails, and phone calls?
  9. Portfolio: Does the company have a portfolio or case studies demonstrating they are an expert in the areas you need them to be?
  10. Intangibles: Sometimes your gut is everything.  What do the intangibles say about your choice and what is your gut feeling?

There are countless other areas to evaluate a software development partner, but these are the ones where we typically see small to medium sized businesses have the most struggles and ultimately the most success if they evaluate based on this criteria.
If you have a software development project and are in need of speaking with an experienced firm, drop us a note at the form below or give us a call, we would love the opportunity to show you how our experience can help keep you on time, budget, and deliver a quality software for your business’ needs!