So you’ve got a new project to manage. Maybe you’re a digital producer at a creative agency that just won a pitch. Or perhaps you lead an internal marketing team and leadership just approved your plan for a website redesign. This is a great opportunity for you and the business. You want to get organized and get things rolling. Ok, so the first decision is a big one. You've got to decide who you'll be working with. Ultimately, you’ve got to decide if you’re going to outsource this web design project or do it internally.
What is the one thing we all learned learned in elementary school gym class? Yep, it all boils down to who you pick for your team. (For the record, hand-eye coordination was never my strong suit, so those memories still haunt me...but I digress.) You know that this decision is often the one that determines whether any project will be a success or not. You want to be smart and make an informed choice. If you’re like me you start with a list. The first few items probably look something like this…
- Confirm the budget and the deadline.
- Meet with our internal developers. Can we do this in-house?
- Ask around for possible partners. How much would it cost to outsource?
Often the choice is solely based on cost. But there are a lot of other factors at play too, like the hassle of putting together an RFP, getting an outside vendor approved, or the uncertainty of whether the project is really something your internal team can handle.
This post is a deep dive into all the factors that should be considered in that choice. My perspective comes from experience in internal marketing departments, traditional creative agencies, and now as part of a digital team that builds websites for a living. So let’s explore what can make insourcing a good fit for your company, and what situations should keep you firmly in the outsourcing camp.
In a perfect world, the primary factor in your decision would be based on project needs and skillset. Often an internal team has deep experience on one platform, like Drupal or WordPress, so these are used by default. An outsourced team should be well versed across multiple platforms, and will work with you to identify the the right toolkit based on your project goals and requirements. On the other hand, your internal team will have a keen understanding of your existing systems and IT requirements which may require more time for an outsourced partner to get up to speed on.
Your internal team knows your business. An in-house designer doesn’t need to guess on how to interpret your style guide, because they created it. Your internal developers know the technical capabilities of the people who will be maintaining the site after the launch. Working with an internal team can sometimes keep details from being lost in translation.
Sometimes a new translation is exactly what you need though. If your project requires rethinking the front end user experience, or if there’s no real true precedent for what you are looking to build, an outsourced team will bring that new thinking to the table.
Ah, the root of all evil and usually the primary driver of these decisions. If you have web developers on staff, putting them to work is typically most cost effective route. If the team is short on bandwidth, hiring a freelancer to temporarily grow the team is an affordable plan B. Having good developers on your team isn’t cheap. But even factoring in benefits for a full time hire, the effective hourly rate for your in-house developer is usually less than what you can score on the streets.
An outsourced team may be more costly. Fees do vary from one firm to the next - often relative to the size, location and experience of the web development company. On the other hand, if the project requires an expertise your internal team does not have, there may be additional hours on the project compared to an experienced outsourced team. So at the end of the day, it could be a wash.
The clock starts ticking as soon as your project gets the green light. If you immediately decide to work with an internal team, and they have bandwidth that’s ready to go, you may save some time working with your internal group right off the bat. It does take time to develop an RFP, identify and meet with potential firms, and complete the process of selecting a final partner. The new partner then needs some time to get to know you. You’ve got to schedule meetings when they are free and you’re free and your boss is free….and hope there’s a conference room available. At the start, there is no doubt that working with your internal team wins for speed.
But then there’s the process of designing and building the website. I’ve found that when working with internal teams, the process tends to drawn out. Maybe it’s because that umpteenth “oh...one last change...” doesn’t feel like it cost anything. Or maybe the internal team isn’t as effective at taking charge. For some reason, with internal projects there are often just too many cooks and it’s hard to make and stick to a decision. A strong external partner that specializes in the work they are hired to do can sometimes do what seems impossible–get consensus.
There is also the opportunity cost of other projects your internal team won’t be working on. If something comes up and the opportunity cost of that other project is high, what happens? Your project is put on hold. An outsourced vendor should provide you with a comprehensive schedule up front. They are incentivised to get the job done on time so they can send that final bill.
It’s important to consider how critical this project is to your business. For instance, if you run a company that generates more than half of its revenue through ecommerce sales, this decision is an important one. Selecting a true ecommerce expert to design and develop your website could be the decision that leads to double digit growth.
On the other hand, there are times when making an investment just doesn’t make sense. If this project is just testing the waters, will only be live for a short time, or the audience just isn’t a critical one - keep it in house.
App and website security is a critical issue these days. High profile breaches and data losses are causing an untold amount of grief for companies, as well as significant financial losses. You’ve got to make sure that everything you do on the web is secure. To do this effectively, you’ve got to have institutional best practices, peer code review, process-driven development including robust source control, code and site scanning, the list goes on. While it’s possible for one developer to handle this, the best results are obtained in a team environment. If you have a good sized internal group or hire one, most likely they are savvy in keeping a site secure. On the other hand, an internal team of one (full time or freelancing) could result in issues down the road.
Like so many things, deciding whether or not to outsource web development isn't always an easy choice. In addition to all the business related points above, there’s also office politics that sometimes become the biggest factor of all. You know how it goes...you have to outsource because your boss knows a guy. Or you have to use someone internally because it sends a bad message if you don’t. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and go through the steps to fully understand your internal capabilities and outsourced options - because you never know when the political tide will quickly change and you’re back to your initial to do list.