Ballpark Estimates Without Detailed Requirements

Ballpark Software Development Costs With Minimal Requirements

Brett MillerRequest for Proposal, RFP

Believe me: there’s nothing I enjoy more than helping out a client and giving them what they need. It’s why I do what I do. If I didn’t enjoy that moment where the client’s eyes light up and they start nodding and saying, “that’s exactly what I was looking for,” I’d be sitting in a cubicle doing what I love for a steady (and pretty hefty) paycheck instead of running my own firm.

That being said, sometimes clients come to me with requests that are simply beyond my abilities.

Not web development requests, mind you. My team and I can pretty much handle any development request that crosses my desk. These requests are different.

Here’s an example of a client request I can’t handle:

“Can you tell me what it would cost to build an app like Yelp?”

Yes, that was a real email I received just the other day. And yes, that was all there was to it.

What it Takes to Provide Even a Ballpark Software Development Costs Estimate.

It’s become obvious to me that many people underestimate the amount of time and effort that goes into estimating web development work.

Here at CSPreston, we build custom software applications and websites. We have no cookie-cutter templates where we can just copy and paste your logo and content into a pre-made shell and publish it. You wouldn’t want to pay for that anyway.

But the fact that everything we do is customized means that all the web and mobile development project we take on start from scratch: We begin with a tremendous amount of analysis in order to determine exactly what needs to be done to accomplish the goals of the project.  We identify the precise actions users can take within the system to accomplish a task.  And of course, we determine the look, feel and personality that dictate whether it will be enjoyable experience to use the software or an inconvenient hassle to accomplish even the simplest thing.

What many people don’t seem to realize is the effort involved in interviewing, analyzing and considering potential solutions so that we can provide  a reasonable estimate and/or quote on the project.

How I Respond to These Requests

That’s why, when I receive an email like the one above, I’m pretty much at a loss. I mean, the easiest way to answer this person’s question (if it were even possible for me to get this information,) would be to say, “Well, thus far, Yelp has spent $X millions of dollars on research and development for their application, so that’s about what it would cost.” But even that (admittedly sarcastic) response doesn’t provide any valuable insight for the client.

So, instead, I need to respond with a series of questions to help me clarify all the necessary details of what the client is actually looking for, specifically.

Although responding to an RFP is quite a bit more involved than asking for a ballpark figure, this list of questions would serve well as a checklist for any client looking to flesh out their concept enough for me to be able to give them a reliable estimate.

Sometimes, it’s a little frustrating to the prospect to have their seemingly simple question replied to with an extensive list of other questions. But I feel like it serves two very important purposes:

  1. It provides me the information I need to offer a reliable estimate and to give any expert advice they could use at this stage of fleshing out their ideas.
  2. It allows me to gauge the seriousness of the client: if they’re willing and able to fill out answers to all those questions up front while seeking an estimate, I can be fairly confident they’re serious about the project and are going to see it through.

So, if you’re interested in knowing how much it would cost for us to turn your software vision into a reality, don’t be surprised if I have a several questions for you in return.