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Startups: How To Create A Great Product When You Can’t Afford Great Developers

How can a startup create a quality software product without the funding to pay for quality developers?
Adobe Stock / ijeab
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

In spite of the many stories we hear of tech startups attaining the status of financial ‘unicorns’, most entrepreneurs with an idea for a software product and limited funds are likely to run into a common problem.

Programmers are in demand these days, which means they can expect high salaries when working for a big firm. If you aren’t able to match those salaries, how can you persuade a talented programmer to join a small startup like yours and help you develop your idea?

Almost nothing is easy about the early stages of founding a startup, and solving this problem won’t be either. But it’s certainly not impossible. Here are a few guidelines that will help you bring a great software developer to your side in your mission to become the next unicorn.

#1 Make the developer your co-founder

If you know you will need advanced technical expertise yet cannot afford to hire an expert, then don’t hire her. Instead, ask her to join you in the company as your co-founder and equal; not only will you not have to pay her, if you’re really lucky she may even contribute money of her own into the project (this is not intended as some sleazy ‘trick’ to get free labour, as in the long run it means your expert will make half of everything your product ever makes).

Getting a senior developer to commit to your startup is not an easy task, but you can do it if you bear two things in mind. Firstly, you must be really good at selling your idea to her. This is the same skill you will later need to find investors, and it’s not optional for startup founders, so this is simply a case of getting started earlier on something you’ll have to do anyway. If you want your developer to lend you her time and expertise, you must really convince her that by joining you, she’s getting in on the opportunity of a lifetime.

Secondly, try and request a minimal, part-time commitment at first. Unless your product is a real bomb, you won’t lure in a qualified co-founder by asking them to put in 40 hours a week. Instead, consider asking for their help only one or two days a week, and compensate with your own hard work the rest of the time. Once your product starts raking in money, your co-founder will probably ramp up the volume of work anyway for the simple reason that it will be in her interest.

#2 Offer equity instead of cash

This is, of course, a watered-down version of Guideline #1, but it has the advantage of greater flexibility. You can choose to give away not half of your company but a smaller share, like 10% or 30%, and thereby retain control of it. You also have more options in terms of how you build your team, for instance by first hiring one developer and giving her 20% of the company’s ownership, seeing how that goes, and then recruit one more developer for another 20% equity only if you deem it necessary.

The downside is that offering a smaller share of equity than 50% makes for a harder sell. It’s no longer enough to just sell your great idea conceptually (if it ever was), you must also be able to back up your growth forecasts with numbers, and integrate those numbers into whatever deal you strike with your would-be developers. You must really know your stuff when it comes to marketing, sales and accounting. Not only is this data necessary to attract them, it’s also mandatory to keep you afloat as your financial conditions change.

#3 Make cheap work pay for good work

If you can’t or won’t share ownership of your company with your developers, then you will have to resort to cheap, lower-quality work by the more inexperienced freelancers. This is not as bad as it sounds, because all you’re looking for at first is to complete a minimum viable product, or an MVP.

An MVP does not have to work perfectly, and there’s certainly no need for it to be coded super elegantly. Even web giants like PayPal or Twitter were full of issues in their early phases. But the purpose of the MVP is primarily if not exclusively to attract early investment. So as long as it gives a sense of what your product can do and demonstrates its potential, then it has done its job. This shouldn’t require advanced expertise, unless your product is technologically very innovative.

You won’t be able to make a quality software product without quality developers, but in this case the strategy is to use your budget to create a low-quality product (an effective MVP), use that to attract funding, and then use that funding to pay for the high-quality developers who will turn it into a high-quality product. It’s not a risk-free strategy, but then nothing is risk-free about founding a startup, and you should expect it to work if your idea is solid and your vision realistic – and, as always, if you know how to sell it.

#4 Hire for targeted stretches of time

Perhaps you can’t afford to have a developer on your team permanently, but you can scrape together enough to get one to work for you for a week, maybe even a month.

That may very well be enough. As mentioned above, putting together an MVP is normally not an extremely sophisticated task from a technical point of view. So focus on getting all the groundwork done before hiring a senior developer, along with as much technical progress as your ability and budget permits (there are tools that can help with that), and then bring in the developer only for as long as she is absolutely necessary. The tech industry is full of freelancers who will charge by the hour, so you can plan your work as flexibly as you like.

Freelance developers don’t just offer project-building, but also consultation. Consider hiring someone for just one or two days of work – long enough to take a look at your project and tell you what’s right and wrong with it.

#5 Be the expert

Many startup founders don’t need to splash cash on hiring people who know what they’re doing, because they already know what they’re doing.

There is no reason why that can’t be you. Learning to code takes hard work, sure, but if you’re thinking of founding a startup, then my guess is that you aren’t scared of hard work. Some people believe they do not have the ‘mathematical mind’ to learn programming, but that invariably proves to be a myth. And it will make you a better manager too, one who is able to direct junior developers more efficiently in their tasks.

There are, of course, hundreds of ways of getting anything done when you want to get it done. But the best way, as the original punk rockers used to sing, is to do it yourself.

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