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I think you’ll agree with me when I say that building a startup is hard.
The people steering the ship have to wear multiple hats and must constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to get further ahead. As the world of startups gets more and more competitive, the search for great talent becomes more of a challenge too.
As a result, startups are looking anywhere and everywhere to build their teams. The early team dynamic is definitely one of the most important indicators of future success. That’s why so many founders ask a simple question when they start planning their hiring roadmap:
It’s a debate that has been raging in the startup community for years, especially among companies launching mobile apps. There are clear examples of successful startups who have outsourced the design of their mobile apps and examples of startups who’ve had success with an in-house design team. So how can a startup decide whether to hire or outsource design?
We’ve seen both strategies work. So in this blog post, we’re going to talk about the scenarios in which it makes sense to outsource your mobile app design and the scenarios where you might be better off hiring a design team.
Let’s get to it.
The biggest mistake that first-time founders make when looking to bring in a designer is not knowing the role that a designer plays in their team. As a result, we see plenty of founders hiring people with expertise that doesn’t match the startup’s needs. A graphic designer and a UX (user experience) designer are not the same thing. A designer with 10 years of experience in print may not be the best fit for your mobile app.
Before you decide whether to outsource design, you need to identify exactly what type of designer you need. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for when hiring a designer, don’t be afraid to reach out to peers or ask questions in forums like Hacker News or /r/Startups on Reddit. Another great place to gain insight around what to look for is the Job Search on AngelList. To leverage AngelList, sign up and type “Designer” in the search bar:
From there, you will be met with a list of jobs related to design roles at startups. Look for startups in a similar position as you and look at the kinds of skills they’re hiring for. Use this information to get a better sense of the skills you need right now vs. the type of skills you might need down the road.
As you consider whether to outsource design or bring a designer in house, there are three major factors that will influence your choice: cost, time and industry. Let’s talk about each and the impact they have on your decision.
In startups, keeping your costs low is one of the most important factors. If you have already raised a seed round of capital or have an angel investor, you might be able to hire a designer to be part of your founding team. Plenty of startups—including Airbnb and Twitter—have taken this approach, but not every startup can afford to.
Startups often consider outsourcing design because they see it as a more cost-efficient approach and that doesn’t carry long-term expenses like salaries or equity. If capital is tight, it might be better to bring in a hired gun or an agency with startup expertise to help you bring your ideas to life.
Remember: If your budget is forcing you to hire talent that is untested or inexperienced, you’re putting your startup at risk. This is a reality whether you decide to outsource or hire a designer to join your team. You’re risking the possibility of receiving designs that don’t do the job or wasting time with talent that gives you headaches instead of quality work. Which takes me to our next point…
Hiring a new designer to bring your app to life can be a huge time commitment. If the new designer doesn’t have experience in startups or doesn’t meet your initial expectations, things can quickly turn ugly—and the project will likely be delayed due to the designer’s inability to execute your idea.
This is a scenario that could also be an issue if you outsource design to someone who isn’t an expert. You wouldn’t believe how many times we’ve had to help startups fix a mess that was created because they hired their best friend’s cousin to design their app instead of hiring an expert to begin with. You know what they say:
“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”
If you want to reduce your risk of hiring someone without experience, download this free checklist of questions that you should ask a potential partner before hiring them.
If you’re able to hire a company or designer who has deep experience working on projects like yours, this relationship can be gold. Besides bringing great experience to the table, an outside agency or designer can move from the initial meeting to actual designs and prototypes within weeks. Our blueprint process takes an accelerated approach, and as a result we’ve helped plenty of clients go from scribbles to a prototype in a matter of days.
As you make this decision the final element worth considering is the competitive landscape. An industry like advertising is going to place more value on design than an industry like academia. If you’re entering an industry where design doesn’t matter that much, it’s possible that your technical team will be able to put together a successful interface. If you’re going into an industry where quality design is the standard, you will obviously have to bring in design talent to have successful launch.
The key isn’t finding someone who can make your product pretty; the key is finding a designer or design team who can take a problem and find a solution. The biggest differentiator between a good designer and a great one is their ability to add value beyond what you’re asking them to do. The best design teams will see an issue with your onboarding process before you see it and show you a better approach that can set you apart from the competition.
Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of startups take different avenues for finding the right design solution. Some companies like Medium.com have hired agencies and found great success while others like Facebook have kept the work in-house. It all depends on your situation, but the conclusion to the debate is simple:
Startups can and should outsource design when it makes sense. In some cases, you might not need to hire a third party to take you the entire way. For example, we worked closely with the Proposify design team on their mobile app, but after we helped them create high-fidelity prototypes, it was on their team to bring the final product to life.
If you’re in the thick of the debate and want to learn whether outsourcing is the right move for you, get in touch! We’d love to chat.
Want more information on whether or not you should build an app in-house or outsource it to an agency?
Check out our in-depth resources that dives into everything you need to know.