Five mistakes to avoid when choosing a digital partner

Finding the right digital partner for your project can be a lengthy and nuanced process. Spoiler alert: it’s not always Dynamo. Based on the emails and calls that we field, it seems that founders looking for a digital studio often lead with the wrong questions, or approach the search ineffectively. Throughout our seventeen years in the business, we’ve identified some key mistakes that we see companies make again and again:

1. Starting at the wrong time
2. Overlooking process and approach
3. Underplaying budget
4. Soliciting competition based on RFPs
5. Prioritizing industry-specific experience over adaptability

Below, we’ll outline how you can avoid these common mistakes and make sure you choose a studio that works best for you.

1. Bad Timing

Starting the search too late

For studios like ours to operate effectively, we need to be forward thinking when planning our resourcing. Approaching us four to six months before you plan to start a project is ideal for all parties involved, because it means you don’t have to rush through the selection process — we generally spend a month or two talking to a prospective client to determine whether we are a good fit. It also means that the studio can ensure that the most qualified people are available to start working on your project when it’s time to get started. To ensure that everyone is well prepared and to give you the best possible value for your end product, our general policy is to have a contract signed sixty days before kickoff.

We’ve had quite a few clients approach us with urgent requests, and in these cases we do our best to help, but sometimes we just don’t have the availability. It’s always best to be proactive in your planning to ensure that you’re not scrambling to sign a contract and compromising on quality to reach an imminent deadline.

Approaching a studio too early

On occasion, we’ve also found that some prospects will reach out to us before they’re ready. In many cases, a founder has a great idea, but simply hasn’t taken the time to nail down the details of their business plan or talk to users, and they’re unsure what their goals are. A good way to determine whether you’re ready to start looking for a digital partner is to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the highest priority “big picture” goal that you want to achieve with this project?
2. How will you measure success?
3. Can you clearly articulate the challenges that your target audiences are facing, and how the site or app will help them address these?

If you don’t have clear answers to these questions, you may not be ready to bring on a digital partner just yet. As a general rule of thumb if you’re unsure about timing, reaching out too early is always preferable than too late!

2. Overlooking Process and Approach

In your search for a studio, you should have a good general understanding of the different digital project management methodologies. For instance, do you know the difference between Agile and Waterfall? Which of these approaches would fit best with your team’s current workflow? Don’t be afraid to ask a potential digital partner questions about how they work and what tools they use. Be open about your expectations for things like working hours, and your availability for ongoing input. Some great questions to ask yourself before starting your search are:

1. What kind of relationship do you expect between a studio and your team?
2. Who will be the product owner in your company?
3. What is your team’s level of technical expertise, and how much will you depend on a studio to guide you through important technical decisions?

In our case, we know that much of what we think we know at the outset of a project is likely to change, especially when working with startups. So our process is built to embrace volatility through the use of short, focused iterations and regular, open communication. We avoid projects with a fixed scope and fixed budget for this very reason. We are also highly opinionated and happy to share our knowledge when it comes to technology, which makes us a complementary partner for those who are still working on building out their team’s internal technical expertise. It’s very important for us to be upfront about these things, because sometimes all a startup really wants is a freelancer or agency that will execute a detailed list of specifications and bill them at an hourly rate, which is not a service that we provide.

Your digital studio is going to be a trusted partner and advisor for several months, if not longer. Thinking through the above-mentioned points will help to ensure that our teams are compatible and poised for a successful ongoing partnership.

3. Underplaying Budget

We’ve found that one of the most common reasons that a startup and a digital studio are a bad fit is a misalignment between the client’s realistic budget and the studio’s fees. We highly recommend starting your search for a digital partner when you have a reasonable understanding of your budget, and seeking out options that fall within this range. If pricing is not clear from a studio’s website, set up a call or send an email to outline your needs and be sure to spend time asking many questions about how they estimate pricing.

We try to be as upfront as possible about our pricing model from the get-go, and really appreciate when clients do the same so that we can map out a plan and budget that works for everyone. This article gives some valuable insight into why companies may want to avoid divulging their budget to a new potential digital partner. It’s completely understandable that you might worry about being taken advantage of if you divulge your maximum budget. Alternately, you may not know what to expect to spend if you’ve never made this kind of investment before. From the studio’s perspective, however, we know that there are many different ways of approaching a project, and our goal is to provide the best possible service that meets a client’s budget and needs. Naturally, this is only possible if we know what your needs and budget are.

4. Soliciting competition based on RFPs

On the other end of the spectrum when it comes to budgeting, there are founders whose choice of a digital partner depends entirely on pricing. We sometimes receive what the industry calls requests for proposals (RFPs), consisting of a document outlining a set list of specifications and other deliverables. This list is sent to prospective agencies, who are then expected to address pricing for each item individually. From the client’s point of view, we understand why this method may seem like a good solution for getting the best value for your money and determining which studio is qualified to deliver the best work.

We respectfully disagree, and have a practice of not responding to these types of requests. Here’s why. The RFP is both expensive and time consuming for the client to put together and for the studio to respond to. As Cal Harrison points out in his TED Talk “Five billion reasons to change the RFP”, RFPs have their place in a commodities market. When you’re hiring experts, however, the solution is complex, has a high dollar value, and is customized. Beyond the fact that you cannot commoditize creative solutions devised by a team of experts, RFPs are especially inefficient in the digital industry because pricing estimation for software is incredibly complex. We’re not alone in rejecting the RFP process. The No RFP movement declares:

“An industry that thrives on innovation surely can work on a better process — a process that focuses on building fruitful client-vendor relationships.”

In Cal’s TED talk, he goes on to explain that the buyer stands to benefit the most from changing this process because companies that respond to RFPs factor the cost of putting together multiple proposals per year into their annual budget, which ultimately translates to higher rates.

As an alternative to the RFP process, we like Cal’s recommendation to treat your search for a digital partner as you would search for a new staff recruit. In chronological order, you would:

1. Define the required qualifications for the job
2. Share your budget
3. Shortlist your top three agencies
4. Interview all three to assess qualifications
5. Check their references
6. Negotiate a fair price with the qualified candidates

This process saves both parties valuable time and money. The only thing we added to Cal’s list is point no. 5 — speaking with a studio’s current or former clients for referrals is key!

5. Prioritizing industry-specific experience over adaptability

You want to find a team that can properly understand your challenges and know how to address them, both technically and in terms of user experience. Beware of the way you look at these qualifications, however, because the answer to the question “what have you done in my industry?” should not be a primary indicator of ability.

We work a lot in branded e-commerce — so having the experience of building and launching a store means we also have experience learning about customers, researching buying habits, and creating user-flows. The approach we take in studying and experimenting with each of these things means we can translate what we learn from one domain to another. Here are a couple of examples of projects that we’ve worked on where experience in one industry translated nicely to another.

From T-Shirts to Coffee

Blue Bottle Coffee is a California-based coffee roaster and retailer and a major player in the third wave of coffee movement. Our mission was to work with GV (formerly Google Ventures) to redesign their online store to help customers find their ideal coffee blend. Before working with Blue Bottle, our e-commerce ventures were mostly in the clothing space. So we drew parallels between the importance of ‘product ‘fit’ for two very different kinds of products. For clothing, fit comes down to cut and design, whereas for coffee, it’s all about taste and brew method. What we’re doing in either case is creating an experience so that customers can find the right product with a minimal amount of thinking.

A great e-commerce experience should feel like you have a concierge by your side, learning about your tastes and only serving up products that you care about, i.e. the stuff that ‘fits’.
The redesigned Blue Bottle Coffee online experience

From coffee to tampons

For another project, LOLA, a feminine care brand out of New York City, wanted to apply a subscription-based e-commerce model to an obviously recurring need for half of the world’s population that had not yet been covered — feminine hygiene. While working with LOLA, we applied our experience in building subscription models with Blue Bottle Coffee and tailored it to tampon buyers. We developed a unique subscription flow that enables women to customize their assortment, frequency and delivery preferences for tampons in 3 easy steps.

The LOLA subscription process allows women to customize tampon purchases according to their flow
Experience with this kind of user-centric approach means that we’re highly adaptable. If a digital studio has a solid approach to understanding users’ needs, they can apply it in any number of ways. This adaptability is key, because while tailoring the experience to your audience is essential, replicating a prior project is not.

So when you’re looking for a great digital studio, instead of asking, “have they done this for someone else already?” you should really be wondering, “have they successfully demonstrated an ability to adapt to different industries and customers?”

Bottom line: Treat a studio as a partner instead of as a vendor

The next time you find yourself in the position of seeking a new digital partner, from the outset, try to avoid thinking of a studio as a vendor of commoditized services. Instead, approach your search from the perspective of hiring creative and technical experts; treating the process with the same time and attention that you would when hiring a new team member.

Start by getting your team to define what you’re looking for in a studio, and ask lots of questions when you connect with the candidates. Likewise, you should expect the studio to have plenty of questions for you. If they say yes to everything (including responding to your RFP), this should raise some red flags. At a bare minimum, just like a potential staff recruit, they should make it their goal to truly understand your unique challenges and needs from the outset, and demonstrate that they are qualified to do the work. Ideally, they will also demonstrate a keen interest in your company’s mission and be well-positioned to work closely with your team and contribute to your longterm success.

If you narrow your choices down to a couple of agencies for a particularly big project, and are having trouble choosing one, why not ask if the candidates would be willing to engage in a paid sample project as the final stage in the selection process? We’re all-for week-long design sprints as a test run. You’ll end up with a prototype covering one aspect of your project brief that is particularly high risk/high value, feedback from real users, a road map to move forward, and the option to continue the rest of the project with Dynamo if you liked your experience working with us.

We hope you’ll find this advice helpful the next time you’re on the hunt for a digital partner. For more information about any of the above, hit us up in the comments section or tell us about your project!