Should I hire an internal Shopify developer for my ecommerce site instead of paying an agency on retainer?

This is an important question for founders and COOs of ecommerce brands—especially when hiring technical roles for the first time.

As with most business questions, the short answer is: it depends. (Actually, the short answer is: probably no.) Read on for my reasoning—and for how I might be able to support you if you do decide to hire.

While agencies might seem more expensive at face value, even if you work mostly with one person, you are typically getting the benefit of a team’s breadth and depth of knowledge, perspective, and expertise.

How likely are you to find a jack of all trades; master of many?

If you hire an internal developer, you are likely hiring for one role at a time—and will need to find someone who is a “jack of all trades; master of many”. Not only do they need to be a solid developer, they need to be good at a lot of different things while also being hungry to continually learn and hone their skills.

This means your new hire will need to come with experience—which is costly and which drastically reduces the size of your hiring pool!

It’s highly likely you will not have a lot of candidates or that you will be able to pay enough to attract the right talent—or offer them the kind of experience they are looking for to grow their career. Finding good, reliable, experienced developers who are capable of working in a team-of-one is really hard—and now, more than ever.

Do not underestimate the value of an independent perspective

A good agency will bring strong strategic direction, leadership, and guidance. They bring an independent perspective that is tough to maintain with internal teams.

You might believe that you have a good, clear vision for your brand (and, you probably do!); but do you also have a clear vision for how you will nurture and grow a development team? Unless you find an exceptionally rare individual, it is highly likely they will work hard to please you and do what you ask—lacking the wisdom and experience required to push back on your requests.

Your new internal hire will likely get quickly overwhelmed with a backlog of tasks (that are all high-priority). Without a good project manager or strategic director to guide them, they will likely fall into a cycle of working increasingly long hours doing increasingly less impactful work.

This will lead lead to eventual burnout. It will also probably cost you more money than you would have saved working with an agency—through the distraction of needing to develop internal processes, and onboard and ramp up your new hire—and the potential short-term impact on the growth of the business.

How can you get more out of your agency relationships?

Perhaps instead of exploring whether you should hire internally, it might be worth exploring how you can develop a better relationship with your agency—leaning more on their shared knowledge and expertise.

I talk a lot about foundational first-principles in growing successful ecommerce brands. The more you can understand around the fundamentals of what is going to move the needle, and the less in-the-weeds you are with the actual implementation, the more impact you are likely to get out of the people doing the work.

With your requests, try framing them more around the problems you are looking to solve and less around the outcomes or solutions.

Regardless of whether you are leading your internal team(s) or working with external agencies and vendors, how you frame your requests, the questions you ask, and how you set goals and objectives will have a significant impact on the success of the work you do together.  

If you do decide to hire internally, how can you maintain an independent perspective?

In many ways, the same advice goes for how to work better with an agency—but it’s significantly more important with internal teams! The more you can frame your requests around the objects and the “whys” of the problems you are hoping to solve, the more you will empower your team to do the research and discovery themselves in order to draw the most appropriate conclusions.

There is a real risk when running internal teams that you over-prescribe the solutions and that your team doesn’t have the experience or wisdom to ensure they are given the freedom and leeway to undertake their own diagnosis before implementing a solution.

If you really do want to hire internally, I might be able to help

If you plan to grow rapidly and build your internal capabilities, I might be able to help bring an independent external perspective to your team.

I can support you as a sounding board for new ideas—to protect your team so they can stay focused on implementation.

I can also help you gut-check the decisions that are being made to hold you and your team accountable as you push out an rapidly-growing list of must-have, nice-to-have, and maybe-later tasks.

Or, we can just connect a couple times a month to shoot-the-breeze and help you talk through the challenges of being the founder of a fast-growing brand—because, we all know, the journey can be lonely at the top.

(For what it’s worth, even if you are working with an agency, I may still be able to help—as sometimes an independent sounding board will help you lead your agency better, too.) Happy to chat, regardless.

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