Building a 5-Star App with an Offshore Team

July 8, 2015

10:00 am

Small tech startups sink or swim based on their ability to do a lot with a little. We have to get a fledgling business off the ground with limited resources and beat out larger, stronger and better-resourced competitors. Great developers are absolutely essential to bringing an amazing product to the market and fueling its growth. However, great developers are expensive. The cost of developers in Silicon Valley has skyrocketed in recent years, and this often leaves young startups with no choice but to outsource projects to offshore developers.

This article was written in full and contributed by Steve Xie, a Columbia Business School PhD candidate, entrepreneur, and founder of Wagtail.

Many startups, including my own, have seen the powerful impact that overseas developers can have on a company. That said, there are also a number of barriers that can deter entrepreneurs from investing time and money into an employee they have never met. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that employers can take to hire offshore developers that will help, rather than hurt, their company.

1) Don’t look for the cheapest; look for the best

First, entrepreneurs have to get past the veil of generalizations that shrouds the process of hiring offshore developers. This means diving deeply into the vetting process, looking beyond cost (such as expecting an overseas developer to make a great product for a tenth of the price), and putting aside fears of communication constraints, cultural barriers, and slow turnaround.

Yes, cost should be a factor, but if you prioritize cheapness, that will be reflected in the quality of the product. Your overarching goal should be to produce a high quality product, which means cutting corners and looking for the most economical option is not a smart strategy.

I find that using project management and team communication tools, such as, Skype, and Slack, help overcome many of the potential communication barriers and management concerns that every employer inevitably worries about. These tools can even help navigate cultural differences, which means entrepreneurs don’t need to view them as a check in the “con” column when weighing the offshore option.

2) Utilize all your resources on finding the best developer

Now that we’ve put these stereotypical perceptions to the side, what’s next? To avoid constant doubt about the person on the other side of the screen (and the world) try to tap into as many sources of information as you can before you start the hiring process.

Talk to your network of fellow founders, any international contacts you have, and even other local developers to gain valuable insights into the outsourcing workforce. These people can help you understand a specific country’s work culture or recommend individual developers. If these options aren’t available to you, then online tools like are useful for finding public forums and networking spaces that can expose you and your startup to new people in your industry.

If your need is more immediate, then online platforms like (formerly oDesk) and other offshore freelance platforms are great. On these sites, you can browse a huge range of freelance developers, whose profiles include reviews for past clients, portfolios, rates, experience and much more. Again, remember not to go for the cheapest developer you can find. Start at the top and work your way down, as many of the highest rates may still be reasonable.

I’ve found that more expensive developers have more work hours under their belt and have more experience working on international projects. As a result, they are more likely to have strong communication skills and the ability to deliver a product to an overseas client on time. You will save money by saving time spent going back-and-forth, and won’t have to carve out additional resources to fix mistakes. I normally select developers with at least 1,000 hours of experience.

Once you have found the developer profile you like, research him or her extensively via Github, Twitter, Facebook, and other easily accessible online portals. Additionally, find out how active the developer is in their industry and if they contribute to open source or tech language communities. Don’t hire through an agency, as it will only create barriers in the communication process and can hinder your personal management of the project later on.

3) Hire someone you can trust

One of the challenges of hiring overseas developers is a lack of trust. You are hiring people you have never met, which means that there are a lot of “unknowns.” Most employers will send standard tech questions or set up a one-week trial project to vet potential developers, but performing well in those situations is no guarantee that a project will be executed properly and on-time. Moreover, you are managing these projects from a long-distance, so there is no guaranteed way to monitor working hours, quality, and even intellectual property.

In order for that type of relationship to work, there has to be a sense of honesty and trust. Tech skills are not enough — you want to hire developers with integrity who you know will get the job done. How do you assess someone’s integrity and cultivate trust from the other side of the world? It is tricky, but interviews are key.

The best option is a video interview, where you can talk face-to-face. If that won’t work for some reason, phone is OK too. Actually using your voices to speak will establish an open flow of communication and establish a stronger connection than email ever could. It is harder to lie to someone when you are talking face-to-face, or to lag on a project when you know you will be held accountable. Video or phone calls allow both sides to get to know each other better, and will create a mutual understanding that will inevitably contribute to the success of the project.

4) Sell your vision & create a team environment

If a developer believes in the vision of your company, they will work their best to deliver a great product—it’s as simple as that. Passing on your company’s vision takes time and is mainly influenced by how you treat your developer before and during the duration of the project. I’ve seen plenty of teams that pass on work to overseas developers, who don’t even know what the product they’re building will look like. If you give your offshore developers a narrow perspective on the project, they will be less engaged and you won’t get their best work.

The fact is that teams that work well together are more productive. In order to keep your team productive, you must encourage communication, collaboration, and teamwork by holding DAILY meetings (no matter the time zone). This gives everyone on the team a chance to interact, share ideas, and provide feedback on your own management of the project, which can help you become a better leader.

5) Give them your respect

In my experience, many entrepreneurs are surprised by how little cultural differences come into play when hiring best offshore developers. I think it’s because the best developers actively involve themselves into the international open source community. However, this does not mean that you should not be mindful of factors like national or religious holidays that may affect the normal workflow. Make sure you have a communication system set up so these days off do not come as a surprise and be prepared to respect those dates. Try to work around them and agree on a management plan directly with the developers before hiring them.

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Previously the Managing Editor at Tech.Co, Ann Diab has a background of launching and nurturing of startups and tech companies. Empowering and educating entrepreneurs and startups to better productivity and culture is her passion. Growth Manager at WorkingOn to enable folks all over the world to enjoy work and improve communication. Follow me on Twitter.

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