Selecting a Web Development Firm: Part 1

We’ve spelled out our needs with enough detail that we at least have a starting point for negotiations with a web development firm. The next big question is: How do we pick one?

There are really five criteria to determine which developer is best for you:

  1. Size of Firm

    Think you are going to waltz into the offices of a top-shelf developer like Red Sky Interactive and get them to talk to you? Think again. Unless you have a million bucks to spend (literally), you won’t even make it into the waiting room. Firms like these just don’t deal with small projects, so don’t even waste your time.

    Instead, look for companies that have 20 people or less. Generally, these are the firms that will tackle projects with the budget a small business is going to have.

    And don’t think that you are necessarily getting any less going with a smaller firm. In fact, you are probably going to get more. Here is a back-room story.

    I have a friend who did have a million-dollar budget. He solicited a bid from a pretty well-known firm (not Red Sky). When he read through the final proposal, he noticed that, occasionally, instead of his company’s name there was a reference to another company’s name. He quickly realized that this particular firm had, in fact, cut and pasted his company’s name into a proposal they had written for another company. Now you might expect that sort of treatment if you had a five-figure budget but not if you had a seven-figure one.

    Just because you have a well-known name doesn’t always mean you know what you are doing.

  2. Location

    They say that because the Internet is everywhere, physical location is irrelevant. That isn’t always true.

    First off, you’ll see a big difference in price for the exact same work from a firm in Manhattan versus a firm, say, in Philadelphia. In fact, a friend of mine who runs an agency in Philadelphia has lots of Manhattan clients because he can do the same, or better, quality work as a fancy New York City agency for a lot less. And he is only a two-hour train ride away when he needs to meet with them, which leads into my second point: There is a certain comfort level with being able to walk into the offices of your web development firm without getting on a plane. Things just seem to get done faster when the client can walk in the door at any minute.

    So if it comes down to a tie on all sides, go with the firm that is local.

  3. Client List

    Ever wonder how five different firms can claim Nike as a client? There are two explanations for this:

    1. Nike was a client at some point in time, but it is no longer a client.
    2. The firm does work for Nike, but it is a small piece of the pie. The firm is not the agency that handles the major stuff (known as the agency of record, or AOR, if you like acronyms).

    So when evaluating a firm’s client list, keep these things in mind:

    • Are these current clients, or were they clients at some point in time? (Firms with a good list of current clients should score higher points.)
    • What did they do for these clients? Is it similar in scope to what you want the firm to do for you?
    • Are any of these clients related to your industry? If so, the firm probably has a good perspective of what your unique needs are.
    • Don’t write off a firm just because a client or two dropped them. Sometimes it isn’t the firm’s fault. Clients are fickle folks, especially big clients. Changes in management, philosophy, business direction, or even just plain old corporate politics can force a change in web development firms.

Guess what? I’m out of space for this week. ClickZ is kicking me off my soapbox. Tune in next week when we’ll talk about criteria numbers 4 and 5 (Depth of Skill and Organizational Compatibility, respectively). Then we’ll finish up with how to compare the proposals you get back. And what to ask for when negotiating the final contract.

See you then!

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