Finding the right firm for an outsourced project is different than how you hire developers when building an in-house team. In the latter, for example, you’ll care less about the technologies they know, and more about their overall quality. For the latter, you’ll follow the process taught by Joel Spolksy (creator of Stack Overflow and Fogbugz) in his book Smart & Gets Things Done: http://www.amazon.com/Smart-Gets-Things-Done-Technical/dp/1590598385, which we also cover in Hiring 5 - Building a Team. That book says you look for 2 things in a developer: A) that they’re the smart, and B) that they have a get things done attitude. The programming languages and frameworks they are skilled in is secondary since they are sharp and get things done and will learn the tools you learn quickly, and they’ll have time to do so since it’s a long-term hire. For an outsourced project, they need to be proven masters of the technologies you need. If you’re building an iPhone app, you’re looking for developers that do primarily iPhone apps. If you’re a coder and you use the Yii Framework, they need to work almost exclusively in Yii.
The next thing to note is you really want a firm that’s already a firm, not just one guy that brings on another one or two guys. You want to hire a firm with a web presence and reputation to maintain. You need to be able to pinpoint where their reputation specifically is kept: i.e. on Stack Overflow, Elance, oDesk, and with past important clients. You’re a small new company with X amount of dollars under $150k. You need to know that the firm you’re going to hire will take your project extremely seriously. They need to be looking forward to adding your completed project to their portfolio.
The next thing you do is you produce as big of a list as you can of all the prospective firms you would like to possibly hire. For one of our projects, ThirstyVIP, we found a list of thousands of iPhone developers on twitter, i.e. we found their twitter URLs. We visited them all, and compiled a list of all the URLs to their sites/blogs. And then continued to narrow the list down based on what we liked on their site. We also found lists on the web of a bunch of iPhone developers. Lists do exist for all sorts of programming specialities. Find them all, and filter them down to your own list. This process could end up taking a few weeks. Just do it. Don’t even bother contacting them all until you have the list.
Once you have your filtered list, build a little micro-site to represent your RFP (“Request For Proposal”). If you don’t know what an RFP is, learn now: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Request_for_proposal . It’s basically a document to potential developers describing what you want and describing your individual hiring process. For ThirstyVIP, we built an entire site with our entire project’s spec on it. Yes, we publicly put it out there because we knew how important finding the right team was and that if we didn’t we would never get a project completed anyway--i.e. we weren’t worried about the project concept being stolen because we realized there would be nothing to steal if we didn’t get the right team to take it to completion. We added a form to the site through which firms could supply their bid, and information about themselves, and emailed out a link to this site to hundreds of potential firms. That’s how serious you have to be. We even made the first page of the site have a video showing all the pages of the app (which we got designed first), with a voice-over explaining the functionality. And of course the product and tech specs were on point to the T. What this did was 2 things: A) help us get the lowest price, and B) insure the developers themselves don’t put themselves in a bad situation because they underestimated the project and therefore can’t complete it.
Basically, there are tons of firms out there. You need to put your mind to finding the best one. Take your time. Take 2 months if you have to. Take more. You only have $50-150k to get your one shot of making your dream come true. You’re not a coder. You need to bank on the skills you do have, which is communicating with people. Talk to as many of these firms as you can, feel them all out. Don’t settle. Don’t go for the first one that works. Also since you have an RFP on a public site, they know you have a lot of options. As a result you’ll get the best price and the firm most serious about taking on your project. There are a lot of great firms out there that are just not in a good place at the time to take on a project of your size. You need a firm that just completed a large project, and really needs a new one, for example. The timing must be correct. Bad timing with a great firm equals a bad firm for you. You need a great firm with great timing to take on your project. After talking to tons of firms, you’ll feel out a lot of these nuances, and have a lot more criteria to fuel your judgement.