No-Code October 27, 2020

How I lost 10k developing a no-code app

MikkMa

Hey guys.

I wanted to quickly share a story of mine developing a no-code app.

It's going to be a bit longer than you're used to reading here on Indie Hackers.

But sometimes, details matter.

I've been an entrepreneur since I was 19 years old. In one month, I will turn 32. So there's more than a decade of experience.

For the last 7 years, my main business has been a consultancy office. I have a small team of 6 people working with me. It's a healthy business.

But I've always been interested in developing software products. I would like to build something where I don't have to provide a manual service.

And this ambition has taken me into a journey of starting several side hustles and startups.

In the last 1,5 years alone, I've spent around $100k on different projects.

None which have economically paid off.

And my pockets aren't too deep to take too many shots that miss.

So the decision to start another project wasn't easy. Especially, as I have become a financial security nest for my whole family.

But I've had this idea in my head for almost two years.

And if something wants to get out, it has to get out. Otherwise, it will keep knocking.

"Ok, so TELL us about the project!"

Sure!

I had a vision for a proposal app for freelancers and SMEs.

I know there are tons of different options on the market. I've used many of them. Most of them suck, and the majority of them suck hard.

After doing a bit of research, I decided to use Bubble no-code platform.

And then I looked for an agency because the app requires custom code.

The team left a good impression. They have great reviews on forums. I even contacted people on LinkedIn who had left reviews for them.

They all said that it was a good experience.

That was enough proof for me to hire this remote team. For the first time in my life.

The onboarding experience was great. I think they did total 3 calls with me - introduction, scoping call, and some other call.

I agreed to terms and signed the agreement. They asked $25 000 to develop the app.

The first payment had to be done fast - I think the due date was 2 or 3 days. They sent daily reminders, even on the same day they sent an invoice.

It was a bit weird as in Europe, I am used to at least 7-day deadlines, but doesn't matter. I sent $10k on their way.

And then the surprises started to happen. They asked for wireframes, which I did not know I had to send, as no one ever mentioned this. Not like I had 3 calls with them or anything...

I didn't argue, I paid a designer to make them ready. Spent around $1k on that. It took two weeks. If I knew it before, I could have made the wireframes earlier to save time.

But then nothing happened for another 2-3 weeks. No development started. We're now almost 5 weeks in after signing & sending the money.

Finally, they said that with god's grace and mercy (they really didn't use that phrase), they have found me a project manager - a COO of the whole company.

Because all PMs were busy.

If you have ever been a COO or know what COO has to do in a company, you can already assume it's going to be a shitshow.

"This guy has a shitload of other things to do" - was my thought. And it was the first time I said to them that perhaps we'll cancel the project and they refund me my money. The gut feeling was off, and I don't think you're surprised about that.

The COO guy said to me that let's do it, we're gonna do a great job. And we even "managed to shuffle some projects to find developers to start working on your app".

I don't know why he thought this will somehow give me peace of mind. But I thought well I already paid, let's do it.

In the next 2 months, the PM had ZERO calls with me. And before starting managing the project, he had ZERO calls with me to understand what I want to achieve with this proposal app. I did ask for a call to communicate what I want to achieve, as he was relying on the information given by people that I had talked to in his team.

No calls happened.

Two months went by ( the development time in the agreement was 4-5 weeks) with managing the project on Slack & Asana. And we had almost finished the UX/UI. Like 70% of it.

And then they asked for the second payment.

I said wait a minute, the UI/UX was agreed to be finalised within the scope of the first payment.

He said, "well if the budget runs out, we can't continue work".

This is the moment when I said it's enough. This thing can drag on forever. Next time they ask for $10k more to finalise the project, etc.

You see, I was fine if it took longer as long as we can build a great product AND we stay within the budget and what we had agreed to because the features etc hadn't changed.

They said they won't refund me the initial payment, but I get to keep all the work/code.

Of course, if you have developed anything or you're a developer, you already know it's mostly useless. No agency will continue their work. They want to start from scratch.

(And this is exactly what the new development agency said, btw.)

They did promise to refund me the remaining budget I had left (around 20%), but it hasn't hit my bank account yet. I guess the refund policy isn't to make the payment in 2 days time.

And that, ladies and gents, is how you spend $10k and 3 months with no results.

So, what's next?

Today, I have returned to development with another agency, and I am hopefully launching in around 4-5 weeks.

If you're interested in joining the waitlist, supporting my efforts with your attention, and hear the updates of the developments ( and whether I actually get that 20% back), don't hesitate to join the waitlist here:

https://www.sendqu.com/

  1. 19

    Yes that agency didn't do a good job but I hope you also learned some lessons here. A lot of clients looking for web/app development have no idea how it all works. You absolutely need wireframes for any UI/UX work and make sure that the cost and time factor those in. If an agency or developer tells you otherwise or worse, forgets to tell you, it will always bite you later. Always. Some things to keep in mind when working with any web developers:

    • UI/UX always requires wireframes. Someone has to do them. This could take weeks/months depending on the scope. Relatively expensive and time consuming process.
    • Someone has to create actual design/mockups from those wireframes. Could be a designer you may need to hire. Some developers can do it as well but for any real design work, you need specialist designers.
    • Finally the developer will code those designs and flow. A lot could change while this is actually being developed so don't be surprised if you yourself end up changing the scope/design a bit but try not to do that because that adds tons of extra overhead/work for the developers.
    • Do you need graphics for the project ? Don't expect developers to do those. Make sure you have a designer do those as well (logo etc).
    • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Before you sign any agreement, ask for confirmed calendar meetings with the agency/developer and agree on frequency before signing the contract. For example "The client and developer will meet every friday of the week for confirming the week's deliverables".
    • If something feels weird, don't wait to address it. Bring it up immediately.
    • Setup payment terms based on specific milestones/deliverables.
    • Don't change the scope last min. If you do need to change, be ready to be charged additional for that.
    • Never agree on an hourly rate for large projects. It can sometimes take a developer 3 hours to change a button styling. and Sometimes they can do an important code change in 5 mins. Pay based on value and ask the developer to quote fixed project price. But again, don't change the scope on them later.
    • Understand that developers need time and flexibility and don't blame for all project related failures. It is also your responsibility as a client to be upfront and ask tons of questions before the project starts. DON'T ASSUME ANYTHING.
    1. 2

      Thank you for the input, awesome reply. And yes, there are tons of stuff that I've learned in this process. I do think that the agency should give all the details of what is required and what is not required, including information about providing the wireframes (they said they will do the design, so I assumed it's all covered). And I agreed a fixed price with them, not an hourly price, but they paid developers an hourly wage, that's why they said the budget is almost up (if that's what you referred to). Either way, thanks again, appreciate it.

    2. 1

      It can sometimes take a developer 3 hours to change a button styling

      Sometimes it does take a long time to do a small thing.

      Pay based on value...

      The value is determined by the time it takes. If you think button style fix is not valuable but it takes 3 hours to do then you have to pay for 3 hours of work, not value it has to you.

      1. 1

        I think it depends on the angle you take here and whether you're the seller or the buyer. If the hourly count is how the seller prices and sells the product, and you agree to pay by the hour, then I agree. On the other hand, if the seller gives me a fixed price, then I pay the fixed price. I don't care how much time you spend on that, it's your job to price the work and I either accept or decline.

        It's not the buyer who says that I value this button change with a monetary value of 10usd. It's the seller who says that it's going to cost X. If the buyer says ok, it's ok. If the buyer doesn't see the value, he says no.

        And I fundamentally disagree that value is determined by the time it takes. A great designer can do that button for example in 15 minutes and say it costs 500usd. I know he does a good job and I agree. On the other hand, someone inexperienced can say that his hourly rate is 50usd and it takes 4 hours and as a result of this 4-hour work, I get an average button. For me, 15 minutes of this great designer has greater value than 4 hours of the average designer.

        So no, value is not determined by the time it takes. Price is if you price your services based on time. But price doesn't equal value.

    3. 1

      Agree on most things here, but User Experience (UX) is actually the process of interviewing users, making wireframes and validating user interaction.

      1. 2

        No, that is not User Experience. That is User Research. User Experience is how the client interacts with your entire ecosystem and User Interface, how your interface looks like.

  2. 6

    I am amazed at some of the comments here. Full disclosure: I own a digital agency. We don't do no-code, but we do design and development and we do so for entrepreneurs as well as bigger corporations.

    Trying to spin this into being the OPs fault is insane. It doesn't matter if 25k is a lot or not. It doesn't matter if wireframes are needed or not. Apparently - and unless there's more to the story - the agency promised to deliver something. The agency charged upfront for something. The agency didn't deliver that something and was trying to scam the OP out of more money. How is this acceptable? Either it's time and materials or is fixed price. Unless the OP onmitted the scope change then this should have been delivered within initial cost or a more reasonable agreement should have been reached (8k wasted isn't fair)

    Do the original terms outline they would do the wireframing exercise ? They would do design ? If they would do the design is fair game to assume they'd do whatever is needed to accomplish that design, including wireframes.

    Ive eaten losses on some projects. I can't imagine being this level of ***hole and rather be poorer. 🤷‍♂️

    1. 1

      Thank you for the reply Ricardo, and for the support. Btw, I don't think they deliberately tried to scam me. I had a very honest conversation with the COO, and he said they fu*ked up. That the project wasn't assessed correctly, executed poorly, etc, etc. I think they simply onboarded TOO many projects and weren't able to handle my project anymore. However, what they should have done, was refund the money and recommend other agencies, NOT keep the money I paid.

      As for your questions: yes, they would do the design, it was part of the scoping file we did with them and annex to the agreement I later signed.

  3. 3

    How bizarre.
    I can usually give a ballpark of what something is going to cost based on all my years of experience. However, first part of any project like this should be the agency collaborating to create the wireframe / official spec for the initial version. Something you can walk through on paper / slides talking through and setting a scope for how the money is going to get used and the give and take of features. I've only once ever had a client show up with wireframes and it was a great help for understanding their idea, but new wireframes still had to be made to translate to standards, conventions, and a workable product.

    Sorry you had such an expensive learning lesson. Good for you to not fall for sunk-cost fallacy and keep throwing good money after bad and cut your losses with that company.

    1. 2

      Yeah that's the normal process. A client doesn't know anything about wireframes. And that is extra billable hours for an agency. Why would they not provide this service.

      Even as a solo dev, you can create rough wireframes for your client, most clients don't need pixel perfect wireframes anyways.

    2. 1

      Thank you, Ryan. With the new agency I hired, with them I went through the exact process you describe.

  4. 2

    That story needed to be told. HUGE problem right now in the industry and totally unacceptable. I’m sorry that happened to you but thank you for sharing with the world. Important topic that needs to be talked about more.

  5. 2

    I’m sorry to hear about your bad experience. This happens a lot with outsourcing setups. I went through several before I figured out the right way to work with them. And even then, huge risks remain, esp when you don’t have a dedicated dev at the agency. Agencies in typical outsourcing countries work on multiple projects at a time and typically wing in contractors depending on project load. This means the PM has a bunch of projects in the works as do devs, on top of high turnover.

    Also, you cannot underestimate the importance of communication and culture: things that seem obvious to you might not at all be obvious to the agency. For a while, I worked with startups in the US, helping them with one single thing: creating spec for outsourcing setups. I’ve seen CTOs provide a single page of text to agencies, thinking that that would suffice. I’ve seen CPOs provide a mishmash of wireframes and text docs. I’ve seen companies pay $200k for mobile apps that would’ve typically cost $10k.

    The biggest advice I can give: outsource only the doing, never the thinking. This means that everything that requires thought about the product (UX, Workflows, UI) and making decisions that aren’t technology related should be done by you.

    I usually don’t even start looking for an agency until I have annotated UX in addition to very detailed written specs, featuring as many stepwise bullets got any process. You need to be very detailed. For example, you might think that showing **** instead of a user password in the respective form field goes without saying. Don’t! This one item I have seen agencies big and small get wrong. Ditto the fact that you not only need to “design” in excruciating detail the application, but also the admin side of the technology (or the fact that you want an admin side).

    And even if you do all of the above, expect that they will miss 30-40% or so of your spec, so you need to budget double the time for bug fixing. You need to test daily (you’d be surprised by how little even large company employees use their own products to test; your testing everything yourself multiple times is super important), write tickets, etc. Btw. this is one area where you can expect seeing a real difference between a higher and a lower priced shop.

    This is where most of your detailed specs will pay off. At that stage, agencies usually will start to argue about what was part of the initial spec (= already paid for) and what wasn’t (= add’l cost). For example: you realize during testing that users cannot reset their passwords. If you didn’t spec it, adding it at this stage now will cost you extra with many agencies (larger agencies will charge you the kitchen sink to account for their clients’ lack of detail in specs).

    Lastly, in all your specs and communication be succinct and use as simple language as possible, as the reader may not be as fluent in English. Don’t assume that PMs will communicate everything sufficiently well (expect to communicate mostly in writing throughout the project - you really only talk during the sakes process abs when there are disputes). Similarly, insist on writing your own tickets when testing and when you do write tickets be succinct and use annotated screenshots or screen recordings whenever possible (e.g. don’t write “the login button should be green”; take a screenshot of the button, point an arrow at it and write GREEN).

    Tl;dr:

    1. only outsource the doing, never the thinking
    2. be excruciatingly detailed
    3. use annotated imagery/wireframes whenever possible
    4. avoid blocks of text in specs - break everything down into bulleted processes whenever possible
    5. use simple language and short sentences
    6. insist on writing your own tickets; use screenshots/recordings whenever possible

    I hope this helps!

    1. 1

      Hey, that's an awesome reply. Do you happen to have a template for this and how you approach it? I think you'd be able to create a newsletter based on your experience and providing a template to outsource with your commentary on what to do and how. I would even pay few hundred bucks for an e-mail crash course with loom recordings and templates :) I know that one SEO agency has a template when you're outsourcing content writing, and how detailed you have to be. It had immense value for me.

  6. 2

    It seems like so many people have issues with outsourcing. I'm a technical dev myself, and even I have issues with outsourcing talent. I think there should be a platform, where you don't just hire an "agency" or a dev, but you can hire 3 different people - a PM, a designer, and a dev. Then, once you've selected your team, the team can start your project.

    1. 1

      Something like this you mean:

      https://youteam.io/

      Backed by YC.

      1. 2

        Kind of but not really. Youteam.io seems like another outsourcing platform. A vetted platform, so the talent has been triaged (which is nice), but it is an outsourcing platform nonetheless.
        What I'm suggesting is a platform where you don't just hire engineers, but you also select a project manager and designer, so the project is managed, and you don't have to directly oversee the dev team.

  7. 2

    Amazing landing page! Who designed this? Can I hire your designer?

    1. 1

      The landing page is pretty standard, but it's pretty good considering I did use landen.co, which is a website builder. It was very easy - I did have some custom colours there, but it's just a template provided by landen.co. Check it out if you are looking to make one.

    2. 1

      What did you like about the landing page? I mean, it's good, but I haven't noticed anything extraordinary. I'm honestly curious why do you think it's amazing.

  8. 2

    Sorry to hear this happened!

    Definitely don't listen to everywhere here saying it's your fault in anyway. Unless there were items of info you left out, this is clearly a communication issue on their part. They should've made clear in the proposal and contract what was included in the project price. And certainly should've delivered what was in the contract if it was a fixed-price project.

    As someone who owns an agency and does freelance work, specifically for no-code development, this is not a great look for the visual dev industry as it's growing. If you ever need to hire a freelancer, we're building a community of visual dev freelancers/agencies and vetting ourselves. Happy to connect you to someone trustworthy for your next project if needed.

    1. 1

      Thanks, where can I find this community to learn more?

  9. 2

    He Mikka,
    As we previously talked, I'm really sorry you had to go through this.
    The blame is 100% on the agency's side.. If they don't feel comfortable charging per project, because they don't know the scope, they should charge by the hour!

    Hope the next agency is the right one!
    Talk soon,

  10. 2

    @MikkMa thank you for sharing this story. It’s Extremely helpful for us to read stories like this. I take so much more away from a post like this (and the following comments) than many of the success stories here. Best of luck 🤙🤙

    1. 1

      Thanks, glad it helps!

  11. 2

    I know that there are some great agencies out there but the truth is most of them don't care, they get paid regardless and there's always work.

    I've seen countless startups fail trying to outsource the development to remote teams. Delays, subpar work, miscommunication, more delays...

    On those early days it's important to keep a tight ship. You want quick feedback, quick iterations, a sense of joined purpose and ownership.

    1. 1

      Yeah, that's true. What I've done in the past is that I build the MVP, and then talk to people to join the team when I have something tangible, and having a functional product doesn't hurt when you discuss the terms with people joining. For another startup that I've done, few Google employees joined, etc, so it has worked in the past. This time it somehow went sideways.

  12. 2

    Did you do enough market research? You should've made that waitlist way before hiring anyone.

    1. 1

      Thank you! Difficult to say whether I did enough, but we have around 150 clients in my consulting firm to who we talked (not all, but to a majority of them) and gathered feedback from.. the waitlist I should've done earlier for sure!

  13. 1

    Thank you for sharing your story in such detail and transparency. As someone who is interested in building online products, this provides many insights! All the best on your journey. Hope this loss and learnings from the experience provides a ROI in the future!

  14. 1

    All I can really say is, this is ironic, you want to build a platform for freelancer but you get duped by freelancer/agency.

    I think what you should do now is trust the platforms that have done their best to provide something that works like Upwork.com.

    Some advice for you: never just think of an idea in your heard and go on to getting someone to build it for you without a mockup. Infact, you need to design the mockup, sleep on it, do the UI, then UX. Use clarity.fm to get expert opinion on strategy for building your application and also an estimate from atleast 2-3 freelancers/agencies before proceeding.

    I prefer to work with a freelancers instead of an agency due to past bad experiences but I have had 1 good experience with an agency that has lasted till today. Not that I have never had bad experiences with freelancers but the effect of the bad experience with agency is more costly than a freelancers.

    The main issue with alot of the agencies is that, they take on too many tasks and abandon yours once they get one that pays them more. Sometimes they will put yours on hold and look for a cheap freelancers on upwork and hand it off to them. A lot of them prey on newbies (like the one you hired).

    Before I choose to work with a freelancer, I develop work and personal experience with them no matter how far they are. I do this by getting to know them, sometimes their family (if they have one), I tell them a little about my self. I check on them when I hear something bad happened in the country or city they live in (im a news junkie). I wish them happy holidays (Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali etc). Just be a person and try to know the person behind the computer. If I can't get past this, I won't get you in to the project.

    You have to put in a lot of work to hire a freelancers or team to build your project because this will make or break your project and emotions.

  15. 1

    I am yet to be convinced on the merits of no-code. It may get there eventually but I feel not yet.

  16. 1

    Joined the waitlist - looks interesting for we're maintaining a word template for our proposals currently.

    Sorry for your bad experience. Quite an expensive lesson learnt - thank you for sharing. As a team of developers, we empathise with the potential client if they don't know what they are getting into. Mostly, our guidance ends up in us loosing the client - but it keeps our repute intact!

    1. 1

      That's cool that you have that approach. I think it helps to deliver better results and will pay off in the long-term.

  17. 1

    That's rough to read. What a shitty company.

  18. 1

    I did my wireframe in Powerpoint and Word. I chose a design that was relatively simple based on some generic skins. The app looks good as far as I can tell. I am wondering did I have an unusual experience? My dev team in a non-code code experience was great, they worked very well and were very communicative.

    1. 1

      Can you share your app? :)

  19. 1

    I can relate to your issue, it's hard to find the right partner and especially an agency that does deliver as promised.

    1. 1

      It's a challenge, yes.

  20. 1

    Thanks for sharing your story. Your story shows up in time for me to be aware and do tons of research. I'm also considering between hiring a developer and using low to no-code builders for my latest project Doesign.co (a design directory that needs a huge CMS).

    1. 1

      Glad it helped, that's why I wrote it :)

  21. 1

    That soudns awful.

    But I disagree with some comments here that $25k is a small budget.

    For an agency, maybe.

    But I think a freelancer could mock up an MVP for $10k-$15k.

    Why did you decide on an agency instead of a freelancer for an MVP?

    1. 2

      I just researched no-code platforms, and Bubble came up as the most flexible one, and then I researched who can help me with it. Somehow stumbled upon agencies..no other particular reason.

  22. 1

    I'm sorry this happened. I don't know the prices agencies usually set, but as a software engineer, $25K for 4-5 weeks of an entire team sounds too cheap, I wouldn't expect anything good to come out from that price. I think it'd be better to hire a single good engineer than an agency.

    1. 2

      No-code platforms are fairly new, and they do promise to reduce costs and time-to-market, etc, etc. The agencies told me that most of the functions I need are already built in some share or form, and they just need to be put together. I have other offers in a similar range.

  23. 1

    I think this is pretty common. Prototyping UI/UX is time consuming and by its nature it's an interactive process which takes time. To be honest if you were working with a full-time designer over an outsourced firm it would have cost more.

    1. 1

      Thanks - I did get a lot higher offers from software development companies, but no-code agencies were pretty much in the same ballpark. Either way, appreciate your comment!

  24. 1

    Ah man I feel for you. That's a shitty experience. But have you validated this idea? I think it might be worth your time to just see what users think of this before building the whole thing. You can use the landing page / or a video to show them the concept, run some ads, see how many sign up etc.

    1. 1

      Yeah, I did talk to a bunch of clients from my consulting firm (we have about 150 clients), but only now I set up the landing page at sendqu.com.

      Appreciate your input!

      1. 2

        Nice. Landing page is good. I'd not make the header sticky as it kinda just blocks the view unnecessarily as you scroll. I would also add more to highlight your value prop. Adding a video demo, more screenshots to showcase your product will make a huge difference. Check out my article on a landing page for more details :)

        https://www.indiehackers.com/post/the-10-minute-no-nonsense-guide-on-building-the-perfect-landing-page-88cd50d839

        1. 2

          Thanks, I will definitely add more stuff once I have more stuff to showcase. Appreciate your input!

  25. 1

    That sounds horrible. But glad to see you're back on track now.

    At least you have a relatable story to tell your potential customers of freelancers and small businesses. might serve well in building rapport and early traction.

    1. 1

      Thank you! Yes, that's pretty much what I am trying to do as well :)

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