There are so many different ways to build an app— agencies, freelancers, offshore developers, no-code app creators and so much more!
Here, we aim to help you find the best solution for your business, and guide you in deciding between the most common development options:
- The Development Shop or Digital Agency: A full-service agency that handles the full spectrum of design and development.
- The Individual Contractor: A freelance developer who you might find through a friend, colleague, or listing site.
- The In-House Development Team: There’s always the option to hire full-time employees, especially if you know that you will have ongoing development needs.
- The Offshore Developer: Many companies decide to hire offshore teams to capitalize on specialized technical abilities at a lower price point.
- The No-Code Tool: Leverage a no-code platform to build your app yourself, without coding (or breaking the bank).
- Learn to code: And build your app yourself!
There’s an awful lot to consider when deciding what development option to go with; different projects with different teams lend themselves to different development options, and every situation is unique. Here, we’ll first help you identify your priorities, and armed with that information, help you narrow in on which app development options could make the most sense for your business.
What are your priorities when selecting an app development service?
If you’re only willing to spend $10,000, your options are incredibly limited. If you need it launched by next Tuesday, they’re even more limited. Once you recognize your needs and priorities, you’ll be able to start narrowing in on a smart option for your particular situation.
What will it cost to build an app?
Building an app can cost anywhere from $10,000 to over a million dollars. Yes, it’s insane.
Clearly many of us don’t have a million dollars, but in order to start identifying the best development solution, first solidify how much you want to spend, as well as your non-negotiable maximum.
If, for example, you’re not willing to spend more than $15,000, you should seriously consider a no-code app builder or a freelancer. If you have a budget of $50,000, you’ll have more options.
If you’d like to learn more about app pricing, use our calculator to better understand how much it costs to build an app.
How long it will take to build an app?
Building a quality app can take several months (or more!) but some development options take more time than others. If time is of the essence and you have some extra coins clanging in your pockets, you might be able to hasten development with an agency or freelancer by paying a 20-50% premium.
Otherwise, no-code app development platforms are often the best solution, as most deploy near-instantly.
How important is code quality?
If your app is laying the bedrock for a large, long-lasting project, code quality will be critical. A low-quality app might work and look perfect, but it will likely start to break as developers add on new features or try to integrate with other parts of your stack.
Although there are exceptions, offshore development is associated with lower-quality code. When you hire an individual contractor, code quality remains an issue; it’s unlikely that they have someone reviewing their code regularly and helping them refine their work. Like with most arts, feedback and peer-review are very important.
Reputable development firms often ship quality product, as do exceptional, well-managed, diverse in-house teams (again, it’s tough to make this happen with a one-person development team, or a junior development team).
Are you willing to make sacrifices for reliability?
Would your whole world end if your developer didn’t deliver on their promises? If that’s the case, you’ll need to tread very lightly when it comes to hiring an offshore firm or an untried freelancer. We’ve heard dozens of horror stories featuring small development shops that have taken a customer’s money and run. Clearly, that’s never ideal, but there are different shades of unreliability to look out for. When working with an offshore firm, for example, you might have limited legal recourse if your firm doesn’t deliver precisely on what they promised. And if you hire a freelancer who then switches jobs or takes on a larger client, you might be stuck with a lengthened timeline. These issues can be partially mediated by thorough reference checks— but reference checks are never perfect and you don’t want to be stuck with an unpleasant surprise.
If reliability and stability is critical to your app development plans, consider working with an established software development firm (which is often quite expensive) or a stable no-code development tool (which is less costly, but may be slightly less flexible to your needs).
Are you looking for a developer who will work with you long term?
Are you envisioning happily ever after with your dev team? If so, you should consider the likelihood that they will still be available to you in a few months. An individual contractor, for example, might take a full-time job, move, switch careers, or succumb to a host of other availability-altering events. An offshore team might up and disappear.
Learning to code is a strategy worth considering in these situations; nobody will ever be as committed to your baby as you are. You might also consider a no-code platform that you’ll be able to continue logging into and from which you can regularly make changes or updates. An established development firm is also a strong option. And, if you have the budget, hiring an in-house development team is an awesome option for long-term projects that will require continuous development, in which case you’ll retain control and build greater buy-in with benefits such as equity compensation.
If continuous development is important to you, it’s also important to have conversations about what your long-term relationship (and payment plan) might look like— and to start these conversations as early as possible. As you’re shopping your options, pricing for maintenance or continued development after the initial engagement should play a huge role in your decision-making process.
Do you need to connect to integrate your app with existing technologies?
For some, integrations— or connectivity to other technologies such as an existing payments platform or hardware— might be a huge factor for your development. If, for example, you’re building an app that will connect to a hardware device (like a robot or an appliance) you will likely need to hire developers that have experience integrating with hardware which will limit your options. The same goes for complicated or uncommon APIs. Do you use a really obscure point of sale system? If so, you’ll need to ensure that your developers are equipped to integrate with it.
There are development shops that specialize in hardware, and no-code systems that have built in integrations. But the more specialized the integration, the more limited you’ll be. In some cases, you might need to hire a specialist or someone who can dedicate time to learn about your specific technology.
Understanding what you need here will be critical to identifying which development options will be the best fit for you.
The Development Shop or Digital Agency
Hiring a development shop (or “dev shop,” as they’re often called) is a very compelling option for many small companies. You can hire awesome developers without any of the risk or headache of bringing on salaried employees.
The main drawback of working with a dev shop, or at least with working with a really good one, is cost. They still have to pay for salaried employees (and they’re going to yank a hefty profit off of you on top of that) so you’ll need to prepare for some pretty significant expenses.
You’ll also need to ensure that you do your due diligence to make sure that they’re as good as they say they are. We’ve heard too many horror stories from folks who have trusted the wrong agency with their hard-earned money. Don’t let that be you.
When to consider hiring a development shop or digital agency:
- You have budget, and you’re ready to spend some money.
- You need a diverse or specialized skill set. With digital agencies, you can shop for a firm that has designers, developers, and marketers all on the same staff, or for a firm with domain-specific expertise.
- You care deeply about writing maintainable code. Most development shops (especially the bigger ones) tend to have established code review and quality assurance policies in place to ensure that the final product features only high-quality, scalable code.
Development shops and digital agencies are an awesome option for companies that can afford to splurge. If you pick the right one and manage them well, they’ll deliver exceptional software. Note that a small dev shop (as many of the more affordable ones are) share many of the same drawbacks as working with an individual contractor, as outlined below.
The Individual Contractor
Your uncle Joe knows a guy that builds apps for people. You like him, and he’s a whole lot cheaper than the dev firm you’ve been talking to. He’s even willing to discount his services by 20% in exchange for equity in your company. Sounds great, right?
Working with an individual can be a lot more flexible than other development options. He or she might be more able to go with the flow as you build your product, and maybe even go full-time if things work out really well.
Hiring an individual contractor can be one of the riskiest ways to build your software. It’s entirely possible that they don’t have all the requisite technical skills (it’s hard to find a freelancer who’s comfortable with both iOS and Android, for example), aren’t writing readable code (making it hard for future developers to work with your product), or disappear altogether. Even with the best intentions, life happens— they get their dream job or they hit a wall when trying to make some piece of technology work. Sometimes hiring a hard-working guy or gal to build everything works out great, but sometimes it ends with a depleted bank account and very little to show for it.
When to consider hiring an individual contractor or freelancer:
- You have a trusted developer in your immediate network who is really passionate about what you’re building.
- You’ll consider giving up equity (in addition to cash) to incentivize performance.
A quick side note on equity compensation: There are many founders who try to entice developers to build their product for free, paying them only in equity. Regardless of how great your idea is, it’s really tough to make this relationship work. When bills come a-calling, your developer will need to prioritize their job or their paying clients, potentially leaving you in a lurch.
Hiring an independent contractor comes with risks, but can be a great option if you know someone who you’d be really excited to work with. Check to make sure they have all the skills needed to build your product, and make sure that you’re comfortable working on their schedule (and putting up with any changes to their schedule as they hit) before you start, and you should be able to limit surprises down the line.
The In-House Development Team
If you have the budget and management capacity, hiring an in-house developer can be a great option for your company. Figure out what skills you’ll need (backend, frontend, Android, iOS, etc) and hire accordingly. Talented developers can easily cost you six-figures each (and that’s before benefits) but are worth it when they deliver top-notch product.
Notice that I didn’t mention hiring a CTO. Many early stage companies look to hire a CTO when really they need a bonafide developer; a developer writes code, whereas a CTO is more of a management and technical leadership role. What most companies are looking for is handful of developers, and potentially a designer or a project manager.
Bringing on an in-house development team is especially valuable if you imagine that you’re going to have continuous development needs, and will need folks to continue writing code for you after the first version of your product is live.
If you’re not technical, hiring engineers can be really challenging— vetting them and managing them well can be taxing, as you’ll need to engage advisors or trusted consultants to ensure that they can ship high-quality product. You’ll also be taking on all the challenges associated with any hire: How will you support their professional development, ensure that their HR needs are met, and build a high-performance workplace for them? All the above are questions you’ll need to answer before bringing on developers, or you risk losing them to a more supportive work environment.
When to consider bringing on an in-house development team:
- You’ll have ongoing development needs. Once the first version of the product is built, you’ll still need developers on board to build the next iteration, or flesh it out with new features.
- You have the budget to hire for all the various skills you’ll need. You might need a few different types of developers in order to make your product a reality.
- You are ready to manage developers. Do you know how you’re going to hold them accountable? Ensure they are writing quality code? It’s harder than it sounds.
An in-house development team is an exciting prospect for a lot of companies. It’s fun to imagine yourself working side-by-side with a team of all-star developers. But, it’s expensive, and it requires a lot of managerial work. Consider whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks before you start posting those job descriptions.
The Offshore Developer
Plenty of budget-strapped companies turn to development firms in India or other far-flung regions of the world to build their apps. This is a cost-effective way to build software for companies— often you can hire an entire team of developers for the same cost of hiring just one domestically— but it comes with unique risks, and a lot of them.
First off, communication can be very challenging. Oftentimes you’ll face language barriers and time zone differences that might slow you down, or even unintentionally misdirect your team. Culture issues can also be a problem; in some countries, for example, asking for clarification might be considered rude, so when they don’t understand something they might waste time by trying to do it anyway.
Quality can also be an issue, as many offshore development firms are more concerned with finishing the project quickly than building maintainable product, and they might not have all the quality assurance systems in place to ensure that everything will work well (and last!). And although you might be quoted a lower price at the onset, hidden costs are very common; inaccurate costing, inaccurate time estimates, and hard-to-determine maintenance costs all contribute to unforeseen expenses.
Finally, you’ll have limited recourse if they underdeliver (or don’t deliver) on your product. Unless you fully understand the laws of their land, and are ready to fly out to go to court, you might be out of luck and out of money when the curtain falls. Clearly a lot of this can be addressed with thoughtful research, past client interviews, and other due diligence, but all of the above are quite challenging when your firm is halfway across the world.
When to consider hiring an offshore development firm:
- You’ve done it before, or you have friends and trusted colleagues who are there to advise you on which firms to use and how to best manage them.
- You have limited budget, and aren’t able to use a no-code tool or other more reliable option.
Working with an offshore firm can be very risky if you’re unable to work with a reputable, established firm, or one that a trusted friend recommends. But, if you can mediate the challenges listed above, it can be much more affordable than hiring a domestic firm.
Learn to code
Millions of people do it every year, and it’s totally possible to teach yourself how to build great things. (And if you’re already great at it, we’re always hiring!)
Building your own product is always rewarding— whether you code it yourself or build it using a no-code development tool. Before you get started, try to understand what skills you’d need to develop in order to engineer your product into existence. If it’s a simple website, the skills you’ll need are much less extensive than if you want to build a mobile app, for example.
When to consider learning how to code:
- You have no budget for development. You may be able to use free online learning resources to learn the basic skills you need to build your MVP.
- You think it sounds like fun. (And for the record, coding is super fun!) Coding is a really valuable skill, and if you love the idea of learning it, you should absolutely go for it.
- You have a lot of time. Learning how to code (like learning any other skill) takes time. Depending on the complexity of your product, it could take months or even years to learn all the skills you’ll need to build your vision.
Learning to code is a great option for appreneurs who are looking at their build as more of a side-project, and have few time restrictions. It certainly takes time to learn, but it’s extremely rewarding. Worst case, you’ll be able to engage in more informed conversations with other developers you work with on this or future projects.
The No-Code Tool
These days, anybody can create an app without coding. With no-code app development tools, appreneurs and business leaders can launch apps for less time and less cash than ever before.
No-code tools allow you to design your app yourself, deploy it to multiple platforms, and update it on-the go. With these platforms, you’re able to retain control over your software, changing things around at your leisure with simple-to-use, drag-and-drop editors. No waiting for developers required. Most platforms also include analytics, hosting, updates, and more in their subscription fee, so you won’t have to track, maintain, and pay for multiple different costs; they’re all lumped into one predictable monthly expense.
Because development is automated, these platforms tend to cost a fraction of the time and money of other development options. And, since quality is standardized, you can trust that your final product will meet the quality standards of their previously-deployed apps (making it easy for you to do your due diligence).
As with any option, there are some limitations to consider. First off, you may not own your code, and your export options might be limited. This might cause problems if you’re planning to hire a developer down the road. Look at the terms and conditions for the no-code software development service your considering, and decide for yourself whether they align with your overall business goals. And, since oftentimes features and templates are pre-built, available functionalities might be limited. Be sure to investigate the possibilities and limitations with any no-code tool before committing to it.
When to consider building your app with a no-code tool:
- You have limited budget. This is often the most affordable way to build and deploy software.
- You’re on a tight timeline. With many no-code software development services, you can build and submit your app in a matter of minutes.
- You don’t have the technical know-how to most effectively lead or manage developers. (This is an oft-overlooked pitfall— if you don’t know how to code and don’t have a trusted advisor to help you negotiate with developers or an agency, they can easily overcharge or underdeliver.)
It’s often worth starting your search by looking into no-code app development services. For many projects, it’s the most budget-friendly form of development, without the risk of offshore firms or other development alternatives. If you pick the right no-code app development service, you can deploy high-quality software at a fraction of the price.
Picking the right app development service for your project
There are many options to consider when building software, and different development services are better for different companies. Figure out what will work best for you, and then do your due diligence on whatever firm or tool you choose to use.
If you do your research ahead of time and know your requirements, you’re sure to build a great app for your business.
Learn more about the different development options in our ebook, “How to Choose the Best Software Development Solution for Your Business.”