30 Pounds in 30 Days

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In the past month or so, I met with a handful of groups who sought guidance on putting together an iOS minimum viable product with a fully functioning backend. These groups consisted of non-technical people: a journalist, a wall-street type, a management consultant, a CPA, and even a fashion model. They all have one thing in common: they want to make an iPhone app but don’t know where to begin. The conversations were mostly the same with the exception of the app idea. Otherwise, I spent one to two hours explaining the following concepts:

1) What is a back-end
2) Popular frameworks: Rails, Django, Node.js, etc
3) Deployment options: EC2, Heroku, Linode, Rackspace, App Engine
4) Key questiosn to ask back-end developers
5) Key questions to ask mobile devs
6) Approximate timeframe
7) Approximate costs
8) Misc: legal, graphic designers, etc

In each meeting, my diagnosis was fairly similar. Developing an MVP with two qualified engineers working full time should cost around $5,000 per week and take about three months (these numbers varied widely based on the complexity of the idea. The values I cite here are conservative). At 12 weeks, that comes out to about $60,000. In every meeting, this is where it got interesting. Everyone had sticker shock and none of the groups could initially comprehend how costs could be so substantial. I tried explaining that those cost estimates actually aren’t that bad. Every group I worked with in the past six months spent several times more than that on their iOS products.

The interesting part was learning about the alternatives. Every group seemed to know of vastly cheaper alternatives. One group said they were quoted $5,000 for their app by a development firm in Pakistan who said they could do it in four weeks. Another group said they had a friend who willing to do it for no upfront cost and a portion of revenue as compensation. Lastly, another group simply had an advisor who seems to think finding and engineer to develop their MVP for free in three weeks is completely reasonable. I have no doubt that they were telling the truth. It would be no different if I said I heard on TV somewhere that by taking certain pills, I can lose 30 pounds in 30 days. I heard it. It’s gotta be true. That sounds better than exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and watching my stress level.

My impression is that these groups did not want to believe my numbers. That’s okay. I have no vested interest in the outcomes of any of the projects and I wish them best of luck. But I have no reason to lie or distort the numbers – I wasn’t vying for a contract. If I was, the incentive would be to drastically reduce those estimates. Four weeks and $6,000? Sure, why not. IF I was shooting for a contract. Therein lies the key. I didn’t care what happened after each of those meetings. My plate is pretty full right now. My hunch is that the people who quoted much lower estimates and timeframes were shooting for the development work.

If you have a great app idea but no technical skills, feel free to scoff at my numbers and get your buddy to do it for free or go on Craiglist and offer the gig for equity. It’s all the same to me. Meanwhile, I’ll describe some of the gigs I took on in the last year or so:

– A group contracted a company in Egypt to make their iOS app. It was way over budget, terribly organized, and far past their time estimate – they were on month 9 of what was supposed to be less than half of that. They finally gave up on the Egyptian crew and hired to me to start a whole new one from scratch. All that money & time on the Egyptian team was just wasted.
– A three-man team hired a developer to code their iOS mvp and actually got it done within budget and on time. Unfortunately, the developer used Phone Gap and when they needed to access more complicated native API’s in an upgrade, the developer couldn’t get past that barrier with the PhoneGap SDK. So, they hired me to re-build the app into native code which took four weeks and cost them $15,000. Silly rabbits.
– I am currently working with an individual who contracted out a lot of development to a group in Pakistan. Surprisingly, the code is okay but their communication is poor and the language barrier has led to several costly mis-haps.

There’s more but you get the idea. In all of us, there is a strong urge to believe what we want to believe and disregard the rest. Do you think you’re smart? Do you think you are an above-average driver or better looking than the average person? I answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions (maybe not the good-looking part) and yet, it can’t be true for everyone. Maybe I’m not that smart and my driving sucks. But my internal nature forces me to believe otherwise. This visceral optimism compels people to go with their desires even when experienced people strongly advise otherwise. It’s why we ignored the Simpson-Bowles committee suggestions and it’s why non-technical people to ignore the advice of a seasoned programmer and chart their own path. Only, it’s not the road less traveled. It’s actually a pretty busy road with a ton of traffic jams, accidents, detour signs.

So if you want to shoot for losing 30 pounds in 30 days, go right ahead. I’m sure there are success stories out there somewhere. More importantly, a lot of my business comes from these situations after they explode and the customer has to get in shape the old-fashion way – long, grueling, no short-cuts. Think about it: if it was that easy, anyone would be able to do it.

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25 thoughts on “30 Pounds in 30 Days

  1. Having just gone through this with a firm that charged me $10,000 and said 10 weeks, It took much more than 10 weeks and the product was shit. I completely agree with the author. The astounding thing isn’t that the contract bidders lie to you, its that the lie at such extreme magnitudes.

  2. So true. Quoted values vs. Actual values. I make this same gross miscalculations when offering my own services, with no knowledge of the difficulties ahead with new, untested customers. They expect instant 30lb losses in the first month? They obviously never actually tried to lose weight…

  3. I plan on using Backbone + Django for my Phonegap app. I am doing all the front-end development and handing the back-end off to a contracter. I think by doing some of the work reduced the dev costs by at least 70%. Good article, hope you keep writing!

  4. Well said.

    The interesting part is that in both cases – 30 pounds in 30 days or crazy fast app development – the problem is the same. That is, what happens _after_ the weight loss, or _after the app is developed, ie. durability, is the crux of the matter.

    In the weight loss case, you may very well find yourself with long-term health problems that are _serious_. In the app development case, your app will have long-term health problems that come in the form of technical debt: bugs, complexity, and, as you point out with phone gap, architectural problems.

    I’ve found the concept of technical debt useful to explain these problems to non-technical stakeholders. But that still doesn’t seem to change their expectations – an app that spans the globe and has sensor integration that ten years ago would have bordered on a DARPA robotics project – should be commoditized.

  5. Very nice article ! You’ve nailed down human nature very well. I started my engineering career 30 years ago. The only thing that’s changed is outsourcing overseas. They’re always looking for that magic pill. Something for nothing. 🙂

  6. “$60,000 … spent several orders of magnitude more than that on their iOS products.”

    Really? Two orders of magnitude (100x) more than $60,000 would be $6,000,000, wouldn’t it? Several usually means more than two, which puts it at $60,000,000 minimum. Sounds dubious.

    • Evidently I misunderstood the definition of “orders of magnitude.” I thought in included single-digit multiples when clearly it does not because you are not the first to point this out. I re-wrote the statement to read “…spent several times more than that on their iOS products” which is an accurate statement. The past two companies I worked with spent well over 300k on their iOS development.

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  9. I was a carpenter for 10 years before I got into building for the web. I can testify that sticker shock and cheap alternatives are nothing new to the building industry. When ‘Trading Spaces’ (and the plethora of duplicate shows) hit the mainstream, consumer expectations were driven into the ground. It seemed like every client responded with “What do you mean you can’t remodel an entire room for $1000 in three days, I just saw someone do it on TLC last saturday” when viewing a quote or bid. Then came an influx of “handy men” that had recently lost their tech jobs and assumed they knew their stuff just because they built a cabinet or changed out a toilet once or twice. It became a bidding war and prices were driven into the ground (while becoming a building block for the entire housing collapse) for anyone not secure enough to turn down ridiculous consumer expectations.

    At the end of the day, development is a member of the service industry, just like the building trades. Most of the issues we face aren’t anything new, even though we treat them like they are. As with everything in life, if you want to move forward, you have to look to the past. The lessons have been repeated throughout history, you just have to be open to applying them to your current situations. Look to the building trades as well as other service industry fields for solutions before struggling to build your own. Often they’ve been solved before.

    As for managing consumer expectations, it all comes down to being open and honest about the process and taking the time to educate perspective clients. Not all of them will come to terms with the truth (and it’ll feel like a lot of wasted time and effort because of that), but for the ones that do, you saving yourself and every other developer they hire a lot of headaches. Often times they’ll become our evangelists, educating their own friends and family and even bringing in new work, and that’s always worth the effort.

  10. Quick copyedit: change

    and engineer to develop a their MVP


    an engineer to develop their MVP

    (Note that there are two changes above.)

  11. I have 23 iPhone games in the App Store, but none programmed by me. I’m a Producer. I get stopped once a week by someone who has a great game idea, and they’ll gladly give me 40% of the cut, since their game is better than Angry Birds, I would be a fool to say no.

    I always say no.

    If these people applied themselves, THEY could make a demo of the game, and cut their costs down. But they don’t think about actually paying people for work. If I suggest to them that they do THEIR job for free, but get a cut of the profits, they laugh and again call me a fool.

    Still saying no.

  12. Pingback: 30 Pounds in 30 Days | Saturngod

  13. Pingback: Issue #56 | Freelancing Weekly

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