What are my options in building my digital product team?

We share our thoughts on building product teams to execute on the digital product vision.

S01E03 - What are my options in building my digital product team? Transcript

Drew: Welcome to the Differential Product Conversations podcast where we try to demystify how great digital products are made by answering questions product owners have but are too afraid to ask.

Colin: Last episode we talked a lot about how building digital products is like a journey, kind of climbing a mountain, and that having a trusted team is super important.

The setup of this discussion is, let's talk through some of those different options of finding that trusted team. How do I build this thing? But I need people with me! “What are my options available?” is a very common question that people have when they're starting to build a digital product.

They have this vision. They kind of know what some of the challenges are but they're like, “I need to start building and I need people with me.” So I'll kick it over to you first, Drew. I think you're probably a better person on this topic. 

What are my different options? I want to go build a digital product. What are the options available to me? And what are some of the considerations I need to take into account with looking at those different things.

Drew: I think obviously this is a huge challenge, and like we said previously in the last episode, probably one of the most important ones is to figure out the right team.

There are lots of options in front of you: 

  • You can do this yourself: are you capable enough to build this digital product where you know how to code and design and you can do the craft but also figure out all the business components to it? I think that's a hard thing to do, but lots of people do it. Hats off to them, those that can do it by themselves. 
  • Close friends: people that you know around you that maybe have these skills that you can bring in and help.
  • Freelancers: you can find people that are specialized consultants in different areas. So if you need a back-end developer, you could go find somebody that does that in a specific technology. There's lots of tools. Haha. There are lots of digital products out there that will let you find these people in different specializations. So that's one other route you can go to piece those together. 
  • You have traditional agencies or development shops that do this. So you meet, define what you want to build, and they - in conjunction working with you (more like you’re dictating it because you're paying for them to build your vision) - have people that are capable of doing this and can actually deliver the work. 
  • There's offshore development: you can hire labor that's in different parts of the world to do the development for you, which is usually a lower cost and sometimes quality level and communication issues because time zone differences can be tricky there.
  • You have internal teams at the company that you're working at, and you can set up different teams. This happens a lot at larger companies that build an incubator where they have a smaller team that's kind of off to the side that builds some new product for them. 
  • And then, a sort of specialized digital product agency would probably be the largest thing, where you're operating with more of a remote product team that you can work closely with. They want to understand your product and work with you to build this thing, but they have experience and knowledge about how to do all these different phases within steps and challenges and all of that.

I think those are some of the ones I can think of. I don't know if you have other ones that you can think of as well.

Colin: No, I think these are the bigger buckets of this stuff. And so, as a product owner and the things I think about, maybe we can talk about some of these groups and which ones are better for which of these considerations. 

Obviously a big thing is cost. I only have so much money or I only have so many resources to do that. That's typically a big consideration. Then you're worried about time or speed. Sometimes you’re tasked as a product owner with “We need to launch by Q4! We need to do this thing in 30 days!” And you’re like, “Ahh! That's not even possible.”

Okay, but how do we do this as quickly as possible? And then there's the skills or expertise. So, who knows this stuff well, and what skills can I bring to the thing? Am I a really good manager as a product owner so I can deal with some of the project management tasks more? Or, I don't really know technology and development that well; I need somebody I can trust in those categories. And then there's this whole thing of overhead load: how much oversight, how much project management will I need to bring to that? So that may be a skill you bring. 

And then there's also the high-level kind of quality. What is the output I'm expecting? Does it just need to meet the bare minimum or am I looking for something more polished? Something that I'm looking at, some of the bigger companies that have great digital products already and it’s like oh, that's the bar that we need to meet. And they spent lots and lots of money and time building out those products.

A question to you, Drew, is if I'm really concerned about speed and time, what options help me get those the quickest? Or even across, we could dive into each one of them separately. Let's do that. Let's dive into each one separately.

Drew: Ok

Colin: I gotta know, if you're doing this yourself and you have those skills, you have other things, to me it seems like, oh that's cheapest because you're not paying yourself really. You just need to be able to feed yourself. So that's good. That's an option. That's probably your cheapest way: you control the thing, you control the quality. So that's easy, but I bet most people out there aren't able to do that. And like you said, congrats to the people who can do that. Please do that. We need more great digital products and close friends. 

So those people are the ones where you're like, “Hey, I went to grade school with you and you went to that technology stuff and this other person did these cool design things. I went to business school. And how about we get back together? Let's get the band back together!” You probably don't pay them in as much you're probably sharing some of those things. But what you're risking with that is some of those close relationships, in my mind. How much do you want to weigh into the relational thing and working together with somebody you haven't worked with for a long time? You do trust them. But then at the same time, it’s their skills and there is tension that's going to be in building a digital product.That could be pretty inexpensive depending on speed and what skills people have. I think that one's fine. 

And then the third category that I’ll stop on and then get your perspective on is Freelancers.In a bad way of just being like, oh, they're kind of mercenaries. You’re bringing them in for this specific thing to say, “hey, come and do that.” These are one person and two people kind of shops and that are like, hey, I can build this, I can do this. I think they're decent on speed. But they also, I think the big consideration there is, they also have a lot of other projects that they're trying to take on, so unless you’re paying for their full time just expect delays in the project management. They have to keep a bunch of things juggling at the same time so their focus in the context switching that they may have is a trade-off that you have to make. It doesn't mean it's right or wrong. It just means expect that they're going to be taking on other projects.

Anything on those first three?

Drew: Yeah, I would say one interesting thing is that you can kind of combine a couple of these and say, “I want to do it myself. I have the skills. I know how to design. But I don't know how to develop, so I find a freelancer that I can develop with.”

Then you're pairing a couple of those things, and you are mitigating costs at some level because then you're really only paying one freelancer to offer some of the skills that you don't have or maybe you do product management or somebody who knows how to launch products or however you want to go about it. So there's different ways you could also combine here.

I think another interesting one is further down the list you go, offshore development can also give you really good costs, but I think you're sacrificing quality and like I said, communication issues. And it's just a very different structure. 

I think if you're approaching this as “I want to build a great digital product; I have this vision,” that's something near and dear to your heart. You don't want to have to just relinquish that control, you know.

Colin: And I've worked with some great offshore development companies. The thing I'd say if you're looking at that option is, you have to be really, really strong at project management and communication. You have to know that there's going to be challenges there and you have to be good at dealing with them and being able to do that. 

This is not, if you're going to offshore, you cannot feel like you can just be like, “hey, here's the general idea of what I want and can you guys just go and take and build it?” It's not helpful for them. They want specifics. If you can give that to them you, can definitely save on cost and they will work a lot. So I think that's probably a pro of looking at some offshore development, but they're not going to push back. They're not going to necessarily help you think about a better way of doing it. They will give you exactly what you're asking for.

I think along similar lines are traditional agencies, development shops. I think there's nothing wrong with those there. They typically have a higher overhead in terms of cost. These would be higher cost. They're going to give you the higher level of communication that you're looking for to help you guide you along the path. They probably all have their own processes just like we have our own process. 

I think the risk that we've seen with people who have chosen that kind of option is they build to spec. So you come to them, send them an RFP, give them a stack, and it's like, “okay, we'll just go build that because that's what you're asking for.” It’s a kind of client-vendor relationship. Which is nothing wrong with that. You can dictate the terms of that and if you're good at project management and you know what exactly you're asking for, that's great. So if you're knowledgeable about digital products, you can do that.

That'd be fine. The cost will be there. You're going to get the higher-level communication. But the trade-off is if you don't really know exactly what you're doing and you want to kind of be in the weeds with somebody and look for a partner, they may not be the best kind of person or group of people in that thing.

Drew: Yeah. Last thought I'll give on this so we can wrap it up, but is one other thing I was thinking, too, is if you have a good product mind or know about building digital products - even if you can't do the work you understand how it happens and the lifecycle and strategy and the business behind it - I feel like you can do well on costs with freelancers, close friends, offshore development. Maybe even look at a smaller development shop. You can deal with cost there. 

I think the struggle that will come for you is if you are not really understanding holistically how digital products are built, how they work, strategy, and how to do it the right way. I think that's when you have to start looking towards digital product agencies that really can bring a lot of that product strategy thinking. I think that's where you probably will struggle on your own.

Colin: Yeah, and I'll add one more consideration before we wrap up. Who's going to be with you through all the challenges or give you consistency through each one of the challenges? Because if you think you're just it, I would bring people in.

This is one challenge that we're facing: building the first version. Okay, that is one challenge, but then going to the next version and the next version and product iterations, who do you want to stay with you? Do you need people along with you or is it just like, “Nope, I'm going to keep going and bring people in.” It’s definitely a consideration.

I think we can summarize it by saying building a team is one of the first challenges you're going to face in building a digital product. There are a lot of options out there. There are pros and cons to each one. Depending on your appetite and your personal skills, some are going to be better than others and it may depend on for this digital product here's a better option for me. And for that digital product here's the better option.

Your time, your resources, your skills play a huge role in that. There's no perfect answer. We have some biases that we think we have some good ideas. But we also know that we are fit for certain things and we'll tell people when we're not a fit for other ones.

I think that's the big thing. So lots of options, probably the first challenge you're going to be thinking about. And that's our perspective on how to think about building a team.

Drew: Yep. It depends.

Colin: It depends.

Thanks for listening. As always, we want to hear from you. So please reach out and give us your questions and challenges. We will try to address them on a future episode. You can reach us at podcast@differential.com or you can find us on Twitter at @BeDifferential.

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