Ghosted! Why that potential developer stopped responding…

By Featured, News

I usually like to keep my posts more positive-focused — here’s what you should do vs. here’s what you shouldn’t do. But this week alone I had three potential clients relay to me a very common experience:

I thought I finally found a good developer, but then they suddenly just disappeared!

I’ll admit its hard to explain to entrepreneurs sometimes why that developer ghosted them — usually the explanation feels personal, or accusatory. But in my experience its just a matter of communication! Often its something that comes up in the initial conversations that seems innocuous to the person looking for a developer, but to that developer, its a huge red flag.

In this post, I’ll try to give a few of the reasons that developer may have disappeared into thin air.

I think possibly the best way to explain what’s going on here is to break down a few common statements, and look at what the entrepreneur probably meant to express, and how the candidate developer interpreted it.

However, its important to note that sometimes what was said was exactly what was intended, and what was heard was exactly what was intended! In those cases, I think typically the problem is that the entrepreneur just doesn’t quite understand the market they are entering. You’ll see what I mean when we get to one of those cases.

I also think its important to state a few very important facts right out of the gate.

Most important among these is that contract software developers are still hugely in demand, and hugely in short supply. This may not seem to be evident when you put out an RFP and get snowed with replies. Its important to keep in mind that the vast, vast majority of those replies are from incompetent or just junior developers, non-technical middleman project managers who are going to outsource your project, or direct offshore dev shops staffed by ludicrously unqualified programmers.

When you strip away the worthless proposals and just look at the qualified, experienced developers who are actually capable of building your app, you quickly realize there is a tiny handful of qualified, experienced freelancers out there compared to the massive number of RFPs put up daily.

It’s important, then, to understand that when you do finally zero in on that great developer you should convey an understanding and respect for his or her talent, time and attention. Far too often, good developers get spoken down to by potential clients as if they are in that same pool of dreck that I mentioned above. And in fairness, from the client’s perspective, that might as well be true for the initial portion of the conversation. But it’s still not an encouraging attitude to take with someone you are about to entrust with the technology powering your business!

Another reason for the apparent discrepancy is that to date there still hasn’t been anyone to come along and crack the problem of pairing quality projects with quality developers. Some companies like Upwork have taken great strides in improving the way they match candidates to jobs, but it is still pretty far from perfect, and I’ve found that far too many decent jobs are getting 50+ responses from horrifying developers. That’s not to mention the insane number of very low quality jobs from completely unfunded clients that get posted daily.

Why is this important? Because some potential clients are initially confused why a developer would aggressively pursue them, only to vanish into thin air. After all, if you needed the work bad enough to contact me, the thinking may go, then you must need me more than I need you.

However, that’s seldom true. Instead, because that matching has not been solved, developers often need to cast a wide net to find quality clients, just as clients need to cast a wide net to find a quality developer. So in the end, both parties have been sifting through enormous piles of potential candidates and clients to find the one good one in the bunch.

And for that reason, incidentally, I plan to do a follow up post to this one about why that client ghosted the developer! Believe me, this situation goes both ways.

So anyway, there is still a lot of work to do. But the most important takeaway here, and something I must absolutely stress in the extreme is: there are very few good developers out there, and very many jobs. Once a developer connects with a potential client, it becomes an immediate game of filtering the good from the bad, and trying to determine which employers will be a pleasure to work with, and which will be a nightmare.

Remember: its not just you interviewing a developer. They are also interviewing you!

Ok let’s run through a few of the things you might say that will scare that developer away.

This project is easy, it should only take you a couple hours

What you probably meant to say: I’m not trying to build a nuclear submarine here.

Oof. Gotta get the most common and possibly the worst one out of the way first.

Here’s the deal. If you aren’t a developer, then you most likely don’t really know how long anything takes. That’s one of your developer’s jobs, in fact — to help you estimate time and cost.

But the big problem with a client who doesn’t know how long things take but thinks they do is that those clients will never be happy. Everything will feel like it is taking too long and costing too much money if they think it’s “easy” and “should only take a couple hours” but is in fact hard and takes a long time. And the developer can expect a constant stream of frustrated emails to that effect.

Secondly: almost nothing takes “a couple hours”. Maybe a quick little bug fix — assuming you know where and what the bug is. But otherwise, no.

So this is a bad assumption to make right out of the gate. And although you probably mean this to say “hey, I’m not trying to make your life tough with this!” what the developer hears is “I’m going to make your life a living hell”.


I only need a developer for a few hours to work on something small.

What you probably meant to say: I only need a developer for a few hours to work on something small.

Here is one of those examples of the client saying exactly what they mean. Absolutely nothing wrong with that! And yes, this looks a lot like the last one. It is! Just without the accidental insults.

But the fact is, all you need is a couple hours of that developer’s time! However there are a few considerations to keep in mind

First, that gig that takes just a few hours also requires a few hours to set up and tear down. In development, there is a time cost to jumping into something new that is often hard to explain to a client.

It can take an hour or two just to discuss the requirements of the job. It can take a couple hours to download the current project, open it up, poke around, get everything set up in the dev environment, etc. Then, finally, there is a cost to getting out of the project — delivery, invoicing, debrief meeting, etc.

Are you ok with being billed for those hours? A 2 hour quick in-and-out project could actually take 4-5 hours given the above. Some developers I know who would otherwise take on small quick gigs like this actually end up passing because they find it really hard to explain those extra hours to clients, and it ends up not being worth it.

Second, most freelancers are looking for something long term, not very short term. They’re looking for the weeks-long or months-long project that will sustain them for a while. It would be incredibly brutal to put in all the legwork involved in pairing up with a client a hundred times a month to gather 80 or so 2-hour gigs a month just to earn a sustainable living. In fact, its not even humanly possible — this is a subject for another post, but you might be very surprised to learn the actual cost in time and money involved in securing a client. Suffice to say it is much too high to allow for too many extremely short term clients in the “couple hours of work” range.

And so, unfortunately, these projects often get dropped — even though they very well may turn into more work in the future!

I don’t have any good suggestions for this one. Unfortunately this just is what is is. I can say that eventually you will find someone willing to help you out for that short term. It just might take longer than you expect!

I need someone to come in and take over for the last developer do some bug fixes.

What you probably meant to say: Help!

Ok this one is interesting. From your perspective, “taking over” a project probably seems like a pretty normal thing. However, from a developer’s perspective, a whole lot of alarm signals go up right away.

Here are the first questions that immediately pop into my head:

What happened to the last developer?

Did they quit? Why? Did they get frustrated? Did the project go to hell? Did the client start making unreasonable demands or developer unrealistic expectations? Did the client start demanding a lot of free work?

It is important for the developer to have an understanding of what working with a new client might be like, and you are providing a piece of potentially valuable information here: someone was working for you, and now they aren’t. Something, surely, went wrong.

In order to mitigate against this, be upfront about what happened! Get ahead of this question, and let the prospective developer know what happened to the last one.

How bad is the situation?

No one wants to walk into a project that already has problems. In the best case, software doesn’t have bugs. It isn’t riddled with problems and unknown issues that need to be tracked down.

Now, in the real world, of course there are bugs to be squashed, almost always. But in my experience, the kind of project that starts with “I want to hire you to fix some bugs” is utterly rife with bugs and faults. And walking into that scenario is simply not appealing to any developer.

Mitigate this question by being transparent about the situation. Is the app functional, but there are just some small usability issues? Or is the app crashing constantly and losing data like crazy?

What sort of headspace is this client in?

Are you completely frustrated? Are you now convinced all freelance developers are as incompetent as the offshore developers you just hired for $20 an hour?

If you just had your money lit on fire by a worthless team of offshore developers, and you are now looking for a local developer to fix the situation, its important that you understand the vast difference between the two.

A good local developer is college educated, possibly at the graduate level, and has real experience, has shipped highly rated apps and earns a real living doing this.

The offshore developers you just worked with barely have a highschool education in some instances, and took a 3 week coding crash course before being shoved in a room and told to write code for projects they barely understand. I’m not kidding about this.

So make sure you don’t treat the developer who is potentially going to save your product the same way you want to treat the people who just burned it to the ground.

I have had potential clients straight up tell me they don’t value developers at all and see us all as incompetent wastes of space. And while I really, truly do understand their frustration, having lost it all by going with the hilariously bad cheap option — do you think I had any interest in taking on that job?


No thanks! I’m here to help, not to be insulted. I have a MS in Computer Science and left the Ph.D. program at UCLA to do the work I do now. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I am not on the same planet as the $20/hour developer you just hired with 3 weeks of bootcamp training.

Please keep this in mind when you are interviewing prospective onshore developers!

I need a HIPAA compliant app for the public education sector funded by the federal government leveraging military grade encryption for export to 66 countries

What you probably meant to say: this is going to be tough, so I’m willing to pay top dollar.

This one comes up a lot. There are certain types of software development that are just hard work out of the gate. Anything that requires compliance with government regulations, opens up clients or companies to liability of any kind, apps dealing with copyrighted material, etc.

Some of the absolutely best ideas I’ve heard over the years involve the healthcare industry or the public education sector. However, in my experience these projects are brutal and come with huge obstacles right out of the gate!

Sometimes the client just doesn’t know what they are getting themselves into. That happens. But more often than not, they do.

The bigger issue here is that there are other jobs out there that simply don’t come with the headaches of compliance and liability. In order to make these jobs appealing, they just have to come at a higher price, unfortunately.

Sadly, I have known some good clients in the past that did not bring their budgets up to the level required for the quality work required for a project like this, and eventually went offshort for low-quality, low-cost work. In literally every single case, they either ended up with no app at all, or an app that utterly and completely failed to comply with the regulations.

Let me just stress again: these apps are tough. Not only are they stressful for the developer, they require a lot of experience, and that experience, unfortunately, is expensive.

I’m looking for a developer with 8-10 years of experience building apps for the vegan hula hoop industry

What you probably meant to say: my industry is important to me, and I want it to be important to you too.

This one is more humorous to me than anything. But I know a few developers that use this to screen out potential clients.

Here’s the thing: you may be an expert in the sneaker flipping industry, but I’m an expert at software development. You are massively unlikely to find a good software developer who has focused on your particular industry. It just doesn’t work like that.

We jump from project to project by the very nature of what we do. Sometimes we make social apps, sometimes B2B apps, sometimes fintech, sometimes e-commerce. I literally don’t know a single freelance software developer who has built a career focusing on only one industry.

Oh and that sneaker example? That’s one I just saw recently. They wanted a developer who was a sneaker fanatic. And you know what? They may find one, because at least that exists and there may be some overlap. But generally speaking, you really shouldn’t limit the pool of candidates you are interviewing by insisting that they have particular expertise in your field.

And furthermore, it almost never actually matters! Unless you are building a complex AI driven system, in which case experience with AI would be mandatory, or if you are building an image processing app, in which case image manipulation experience would be important.

But the key is: unless you are specifically seeking someone with experience in the particular technology you are developing, then the experience really is unlikely to matter much.

If you are building an e-commerce platform for buying and selling medical equipment, then experience building storefronts, taking payments, managing invoices, etc would be a huge plus. Experience in the medical industry would not.

Please put (some random text) in the subject line. Don’t bother responding unless you are (some random quality)

What you probably meant to say: last time I posted this I got a bunch of weird responses from Indian developers and wasted a whole bunch of time.

I am very sympathetic about this one. However, it is generally not a good idea to treat potential hires like peons just because you had to deal with a bunch of jokers the last time you tried this.

I completely get it though — you will get flooded with responses from low quality developers. However, it is a very, very bad idea to let the one good developer think you have been soured and now consider all developers to be annoying garbage.

I think this one sort of speaks for itself. If I’m deciding whether or not I want to take this project, the last thing I want to risk is working with someone who has a chip on their shoulder!

I want to add a dozen AR filters like Instagram and Facebook have to my app, and I need it done at a fixed price in the next couple weeks!

What you probably meant to say: is this feasable?

The short take on this is simple: the apps you are trying to replicate didn’t start out as complex as you see them now. And unless you want to spend the time and money they did to get there, you should probably rethink this plan.

Instagram, for example, didn’t have video and stories and IGTV, or even gallery posts. It was a dead simple feed of square images bundled with a couple very simple filters.

I replicated the core functionality for two apps i built for Warner Bros. to promote two films several years ago (Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises). And I built the first of those apps in 3 weeks on iOS — and this was before Apple released the CoreImage library.

How? Well because Instagram was pretty simple back then! It took me a couple hours to reverse engineer how the filters were assembled, build a little framework for configuring these filters and applying them to an image, and voila!

However, if you asked me to replicate Instagram now, I’d probably run for the hills. Instagram is complex now! But they got there after many years, many millions of dollars, and an acquisition by Facebook.

See its not just the time requirement. Some of these features are just not feasible when you are still trying to break your development into bite-sized fixed price chunks and having a freelancer build them piecemeal. At a certain point, you need to actually start to structure your company like a company — and that means raising capital to build these functions, hiring full-time engineers instead of bouncing from freelancer to freelancer, and organizing and coalescing your team — engineers, project managers, designers, et al — under one roof, so that they can effectively work as a unit to build the project according to the bigger vision and roadmap you have.

This is a much longer post as well, but to keep it brief: it’s just not realistic to work the way you did at the beginning all the way through this complexity, as your requirements become more and more complex. The first version of Instagram can be built by a freelancer. The modern day version of Instagram requires Facebook.

Now, why is this a problem for a developer? Because by simply asking for this feature in this timeline, they can tell right away that you have unrealistic expectations — not only in terms of the time required to develop these features, but the company structure and funding required to do so. There is a good chance that you don’t have a real solid grasp of what exactly you are asking for, and just how big a task it is, and that can make your project tough to work on!

A lot of developers have come to learn that clients with unrealistic expectations often can’t be talked out of those expectations. And, so, they typically just move on.

I need a scalable backend, an iOS app, and Android app, and a custom algorithm, and I need them all at very high quality in 6 months. And my budget is $3000.

What you probably meant to say: I have no money

It’s ok to take a shot at bringing your vision to life, even if you don’t have enough money to do it exactly the way you’d like. It really is! I am in this business because I love working with visionary people with big, outrageous dreams. The tech industry is a thrilling, vibrant and lucrative place to work because those people exist.

What’s a little far out though is the client who is not doing the math at all.

I had a meeting this morning that went exactly like this. The client needed an iOS app, Android app, web app, backend REST API and custom web-based admin panel. The client understood it would take anywhere from 3-6 months to do this in the best case, and even seemed to understand I would need to bring in help to do it in that timeline. Then told me with a straight face that the budget was $3000 firm.

So I did the math. Two developers working around the clock to get this done in an extremely optimistic 3 months works out to about $3 an hour each. Considering the 3 months was, as I said, very optimistic in this case, I would project closer to $1-2 an hour.

And they were specifically looking for a developer based in Southern California. Well, I’m in Southern California, and I can tell you if I made $3000 a week I’d be living a dumpster next week. I don’t even see how I could make it past week three if I was earning $1000 or less a month. Its expensive here. And even if it wasn’t, that is a ludicrous amount of money for anyone, anywhere.

But not only that, you are hiring highly skilled, highly trained, in demand people to do this work. Or, at least you should be if you care at all about what you’re building! But you are expecting them to leap at a job that pays about 5% of the local minimum wage.

I don’t even know what else to say.

Looking for a technical co-founder!

What you probably meant to say: I have no money

Let’s finish with the big deal breaker. This, too is a post all on its own, but its a big one and it comes up all the time.

There are a few other common and related statements I can throw in with this one:

  • I want someone who is in this for the long haul
  • I’m looking for someone who really believes in our idea, and isn’t just looking for a paycheck
  • This is the next billion dollar idea!

Really quickly, let me break down a few things.

First, this is our job. We aren’t a charity giving up our time to help you strike it big. We have bills to pay and loved ones to take care of, and reality just doesn’t permit us to take on projects pro-bono. It just doesn’t, and I don’t know anyone who knows what they are doing who ever jumps on board on an equity basis at the early stage.

Again, there are a lot of reasons for this, and hopefully I’ll get to post about them one day. But for now, the simple version is: you just aren’t there yet.

The time to ask a developer to come on for equity is after you have a product, and you have some traction in the market. NOT when all you have is an idea, or some awful prototype you had build overseas that barely works.

While I’m absolutely sure that you are super excited about your idea, you’re asking a developer to be just as excited as you are, when in reality all you have is an idea. And to someone who listens to ideas all day long, an idea alone just isn’t that exciting. What is exciting is when that idea starts to work. When users start to react positively to the released product. When the non-technical team starts to put together those critical deals and build those incredibly important relationships that take that humble idea and turn it into a viable company. That’s when you should ask someone to come on for equity, not before!

And typically, equity offers come along with pay, not in lieu of pay. In fact, its your primary job as an entrepreneur at the earliest stages to raise money for your company! I know its hard — believe me, I’ve been through it many times. But it’s a crucial part of launching a company, and it’s critical to building a competent team that will be able to build the technical foundation for your company.

But until I write that big post explaining this in more depth, let’s just keep it short and simple: you get what you pay for.

Last modified: May 12, 2020

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