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Hiring an Agency vs. Freelancer for Magento Development

Your Magento / Adobe Commerce website needs updating — and you have a laundry list of things to improve. Should you hire an agency/service provider? What about a freelancer? Or what about hiring a developer internally?

The easy answer to these questions for most e-commerce companies is, of course, “it depends.” Your company’s size, number of sales and other factors all contribute to how you should approach web improvements, but there’s more to it than that. If you’re analytical like me, you want to know the nitty-gritty details of choosing one or the other. Below, I consider multiple factors that will help you decide — agency, freelancer or internal developer?

Consider Your E-commerce Website Needs

There are generally two types of website projects that both agency providers and freelancers address — new builds and ongoing maintenance.

I’ll say this right up front, for new builds, you should definitely work with a reputable agency. Back in the Magento 1 days, it was quite possible for someone to build a site from scratch. Magento 2 / Adobe Commerce is a different story. A developer must master the Magento 2 way for both the frontend, backend and delivery of the application. I have encountered plenty of homebrewed projects where the developer clearly did not have mastery. Bugs plagued the project and upgrades were very expensive. In almost every case, the fault is not the application, but rather the need for highly-experienced talent.

While only some readers may need a new build, all websites need maintenance. Therefore, this article will discuss ongoing maintenance. Maintenance covers all aspects of keeping a website up and running. But more importantly, it encompasses the features that improve customer experience and admin efficiency. Having a consistent budget in this latter category is critical. The question is how this is put into effect. Let’s explore.

Top Benefits of Agency Support

In my opinion, agencies are ideal for mid to large-sized companies. Their benefits include a buffer for supply and demand and a wealth of talent: architects (who oversee a project), developers (the boots on the ground) and perhaps junior developers in training. They split up responsibilities according to their clients' needs.

The agency may also have specialists like user/customer experience designers, search engine optimizers, business analysts and project managers. The idea is these all come together to build a dream platform.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way, so it is critical that you properly investigate the team you wish to hire. Another downside of a good agency is their expense.

5 Considerations When Choosing an Agency

  1. Certifications
    When looking for a Magento-specialist agency, ask what ratio of certified developers make up their team. If you wish to dig deeper, ask about the percentage of Expert-certified developers. You can’t base everything on these statistics, but it's a good metric.
  2. Budget
    I highly recommend establishing a budget. This will help determine if there is a fit between you and your agency. If your budget is “too small”, don’t be disappointed. They will have processes built around larger projects and you will see them as inefficient. Your agency should use this to avoid overspending if they have availability and you have work. 

    Transparency on the budget also helps the agency decide whether there's a good fit between the agency's offering and client's budget. It saves everyone time if you can cut conversations about a collaboration short when it's clear that the budget wouldn't even be sufficient to cover the setup costs / initial project costs.

    You will know what a good number is, but I suggest somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20% of your net profit (produced through your website and other valuable sales channels) if your website is actively maintained. This number is a basic guide and can easily be moved in one direction or the other. One factor that could influence it is if the company’s profit is only generated through the website or if it has other, more valuable channels as well.
  3. Value
    How do you gauge why some companies charge $20 an hour while others charge $200? The question of value is complicated to answer. One option is to start sending small projects their way to see how long it takes them and how much work from your side they require, e.g. do their project managers and quality assurance teams have everything covered, or do you as the website owner need to make sure everything is running as expected before it's launched?

    Keep in mind that you can affect the overall burn rate by how much your team handles project management and quality assurance. Especially for quality assurance, the more you do here (and the more detailed work tickets you produce), the more you save.
  4. Timing
    How long until the agency can fit you in? If you have an urgent need just before the holiday season and the agency can’t fit you in, you need to keep looking.
  5. Location
    Being close geographically is nice, but few leverage this value add. In my experience, meeting in person solves a multitude of problems and miscommunications. Additionally, if your development team is halfway around the world, you are likely to get one response per day. This may be a worthy tradeoff.

Why Consider a Freelancer?

Generally speaking, small, up-and-coming e-commerce companies are looking for something to be built quickly and, therefore, might find they like working with a freelancer best. If you’re one of these companies, you are probably in a high-risk category and concerned about the legal atmosphere surrounding your site on Software-as-a-Service. Or, you have long-term goals involving a very complicated website and want to start creating the platform you will consider home.

It’s up to you to find a good freelancer. I am very well aware of a few that are nothing short of excellent. However, plenty out there don’t have the experience it takes to successfully launch a website. And with the associated financial savings comes risk. If you are good with accepting this risk, then, by all means, work with a freelancer.

The main risk is that you may have to rebuild the website later on Magento again. However, this could ultimately be cheaper than starting your website on another platform and then migrating to Magento. Even if the original code is abandoned, your database will have few changes.

I’m not throwing freelancers under the bus in any way. But one other consideration is you’re working with a one-person team. If they get sick, you don’t have anyone to fix an urgent problem.

When To Choose an Internal Developer or Team

In my experience, you could consider bringing on a developer when you are making $40 million. Once you hit $80 million, you are in fair territory for such an acquisition. Here are a few considerations for choosing this option:

  1. Consistent Workload
    Most businesses are cyclical. You don’t want to hire a developer in March only to let them go the following January. This is one reason why I recommend hiring at hiring revenue amounts.
  2. Project Management
    You will likely have an unhappy developer if you don’t have someone to help manage the task list. Most developers are goal-oriented, and having everyone from management each throwing work at them is a way to drive someone crazy. Developers build and fix. Project managers help prioritize.
  3. Challenges
    Working on the same project all this time is likely not challenging. It can be mind-numbing. Once you hire a developer, you are responsible for keeping them motivated and happy. Thus, before making this step, you must get to the point of allowing this person to experiment with new technologies or methodologies. You must be willing to give them the equivalent of 80/20 time, so they can build their own skillset. After all, if you use a good agency, they are doing this for their developers.

Even if you choose to hire an internal developer, I highly recommend having an agency on call that can back you up. They will help if you have a critical problem to resolve, need a second pair of eyes or need to get a feature built quicker.

Whatever It Is, You’ll Make the Right Decision

In my 10+ years as a consultant, I have repeatedly seen that a merchant’s satisfaction on a platform is directly related to their satisfaction with who is writing the code.

Find a sound system and stick with it (or them). Communication is key — speak up about what isn't working out to give an opportunity to learn and improve. If neither happens, look out for a new agency or freelance, and test if they are a better fit. You will come to see just how powerful the Adobe Commerce / Magento Open Source platform is.