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Rhiannon Monks
Rhiannon Monks

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What it's like to be a technical female founder of a mobile app.

I bet you know of someone who had an app or website idea and got screwed over by their developer. That is, the developer agreed to take a job, promised they could actually do the work, started it…and then just did not follow through, or even worse, when the project started going well, stole the code.
I’ve been appalled over the last 2 weeks how many times I’ve been told ‘yeah that type of stuff happens all the time, just move on.’
WHY IS THAT OK?!!! If I said, I paid a builder to build a house, and they stopped half way through, or that they actually stole the keys to my house at the end, would you just tell me, ‘ahh that stuff happens all the time, find somewhere else to live’. I DON’T THINK SO.
Yet, for those of us brave enough to quit our jobs with the belief we could actually grow a business with that killer app idea, we have to put our faith in a developer. Thankfully the idea you have to actually be a coder to be an entrepreneur is getting old. But the fact remains, if you even manage to get to a place where someone will invest in your idea, your success comes down to the honesty and integrity of the developer or agency you pick to build your product.
Therefore I hope the following advice helps anyone else out there, about to embark on a similar journey, and also prevents you from getting dangerously close to disaster and losing your entire business to developers that use your dependency on them to control you — or god forbid, claim ownership of your IP and business idea, simply because you paid them to build it.
Take a coding course
I want to start out by saying, I am a developer. I don’t code my own app, but I do wade through a lot of back end tech. I also need to meaningfully understand the relationship between data schemas, a production and staging database, server, code repositories, domain hosting and the key differences between web and mobile applications. Unless you have more money than most — which is the only way here you can otherwise get away with it, to build your app on any type of shoestring budget and retain control of your app at the end, you do have to be technical. Having said that, I was, and I still got tricked by my developers. The reality is, if they think your app could make money, that’s the moment they will really start to exert their control over you and do all they can to get rid of you.

  1. Get your IP and Ownership Assigned on Day 1 The minute you sign any type of contract, for service or delivery — ensure you get an IP ownership contract signed. Often agencies, especially dodgy ones, will send you a Service Level Agreement very quickly which may or may not contain iron clad IP ownership clauses, in favour of their client. The bad agencies will leave it out, or not mention it all together. To avoid any misunderstanding, Google online and find a well recognised boiler plate IP template that best suits. I use SeedLegals for this type of stuff, as they have worked out what founders need to protect themselves. I got my IP ownership in writing, signed and confirmed over email before any work started, and in fact that was one of the reasons I didn’t lose my app to my dodgy ex dev team — they had absolutely no way of refuting what was agreed in plain writing — at the time neither of us knew how much money the app would make.
  2. Don’t Give an Agency or External Developer ANY Equity at the Beginning My ex developers THANK GOD, own none of my business. Funnily enough, I actually didn’t work out they were trying to steal my business until just before we had launched successfully and were getting pretty good traction with the money I had raised. So over that time, as I began to plan my pitch deck for Series A, and of course wanted to name check my developer, I actually offered them on several occasions the option of equity, from May 2019 — June 2019. They declined. In fact I offered them equity long after I knew they were not supporting me (and hiding something from me, I couldn’t work out at the time). Offering equity at that stage of the game is a good way to work out if your developers are on your side or want you gone — if they don’t have equity and decline it at the time you are really flying, they are planning to take it all and cut you out. Besides 1% equity is nothing when you could own 100% right, and also get all the credit and control. But from day 1, keeping the agreement a cut and dry service fee, means you also don’t end up having to give away half your business, and most importantly keeps developers working hard, if you’ve already given then even 1–5%, they know they can take another job, and you’ll keep working to make the app a success, and they’ll get 2 pay days, both from their new clients and all that hard work you do, to get an ROI for not just your new investors, but also them.
  3. Beware of Agency Pimps I give them this name, because in fact an agency pimp, works in a similar way to a real pimp (at least if you go by the movies portrayal of a pimp). A pimp is someone who doesn’t want to work hard themselves, but finds someone to control that needs them — and given developers are known to be introverted, that need usually relates to belonging, or handling the client facing stuff — basically the pimp gets the client. The developer works hard in their room, pushing out code all day, while the pimp runs around in a nice jacket showing off about all the things the coder is doing. They don’t help the client, rather they are thinking about how many more clients they can sell the coder’s services to (of course to increase their bank balance), and will be the first to screw you over when your app is going well — remember, they control the developer and even if the developer wanted to keep working with you, the pimp will jump in and say no. Without the developer the pimp is nothing, which is why, the pimp will fight until the end to keep your app, should there be a moment you are doing well. The reality is, if as a client and founder you leave them, the developer built the code and will always get credit, you are the visionary and founder, but the pimp did nothing. They don’t like to be left with nothing — and this is perhaps the main reason I almost lost my business — pure greed from the ‘pimp’. It might sound like a nasty way of describing someone. But this person did all they could to destroy my reputation so he could have my entire business, yet did none of the fund raising, resourcing, wireframing, cash flow management, legal compliance, sprint planning (yep I did that too) and therefore had none of the pressure. In no way is that fair, and sadly in a world where white males are never questioned, but a founder’s motivation is, the pimp can end up winning your business. Also, if you are a female founder, be particularly careful of this one, because sadly the white male usually is the one believed in a witch hunt when it comes down to your word against them, especially when (white male) investors get involved :-)
  4. Pick a Real Agency — Not One That Got Started Yesterday There’s this weird thing happening where instead of going to Uni, rich kids with family backing, will open an agency and happily take clients money to deliver things, they actually have no experience doing previously. This can be a continuation from the ‘pimp problem’, except, in this instance, it’s even worse, because the point of an agency (and of course their marked up fees) is to deliver a decent level of service, so as a founder, you can actually sleep occasionally, versus manage everything yourself. So if you are going to pay an agency through the nose to develop your app, you need to make sure they actually understand what an agency’s responsibilities are. I worked in media and creative agencies for 7 years. I learned on day one, the client was King (or Queen). I found it hard to stomach at first, but then I realised, an agency wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the client. As mentioned above, it is the client’s money that makes that agency run, and their ultimate role is to tell an agency what to do. If they get it wrong, they end up with nothing. However an agency gets rich on your ideas, your successes. It is therefore logical the agency should somewhat bow to the client, or at least respect them in the equation. More often than not, if someone has never never worked in an agency, but is selling agency services, at some point they will forget they are being paid to build the app (aka what their business as an agency is designed to do). Because they think they are on the front line, they forget the are only looking after one thing. They are NOT the app owner. I remember thinking I did everything for one of my clients at OMD UK, and that the clients just swanned around doing nothing at HQ. When I went client side I realised how wrong I was. Don’t let your agency confuse their unique selling proposition with yours. A good agency understands those boundaries, a ‘new’ agency, will be most likely to steal your idea, because if they inherit your business and app, they don’t have to find another client. The worst thing about this, is it gives the good development agencies a bad rap. There are many honest agencies out there, who want to build their reputation. But, I bet over half of the cases where the app does get stolen from the founder, it’s via a young agency, which was started by a group of friends that have a lot to gain if they get paid to develop the app, and then choose to keep it, least of all because they don’t have to work hard on building their own reputation or finding another client. They can just squat in your business, until it’s impossible for you to get ownership back of something that was always yours and never theirs in the first place.
  5. Don’t Let Them Block You Out of Tech Decisions and Product Testing One month in to 2019, 6 months after my app had been released, and 3 months after I had personally raised £150,000 with no assistance, I returned to the agency I had left, which had originally built my app, for £36,000 including VAT. I left them because, I had come to them with an existing Ionic app live in both App Stores (with the exact same data schema as our current one) and the React Native wireframes all ready for the new one. I took my time selecting the right developer — and had to find one that fit my budget and was brave enough to build an app from scratch — but once the initial build was done, I found they were not interested in things like client management, nor did they respect the importance of bug free releases and testing (or so they wanted me to believe). Yet when I tried to move on, I realised I was still a small client. It was indeed hard to find another agency, especially when you were leaving your current developer. In this case, people gossip and developers stick together. Usually the founder is blamed for the failure, rarely do the developers get questioned, even if it was their shoddy work, lack of client care, or worse still, deception that led to the derailment. Also developers rarely like picking up other people’s work. I returned to the developer / agency that built my app, because I knew that work would be done faster by the original coder. I also figured together, we had learned a lot, and since leaving them I raised £150,000 of seed. Having run the development in house for a few months, I decided to see if my original developer / ‘agency’ would want another go. After all, failing fast is part of being a Startup, and to be honest — as a female founder it seemed to be impossible to get a good developer to want to actually work for you. I was wary they might not do a good job again, but I wanted to give them a second chance with the idea we could all succeed together. When I went back, I did my best to not be a difficult client — after all founders can get worked up at times, and I also respected the fact I couldn’t keep ‘adding’ small bits in, now the MVP was completed. It does disrupt a well planned sprint. However, it seemed they had a bug bear from our past relations, in fact their idea in this new scenario was to block me out of the very tech I had created — a plan that had been hatched in fact before I had even launched the app, I can prove now. I had quit my well paid job, to be a Product Manager of my own app, and suddenly I was not just paying a agency to do the best bits, they wrote me an email in the second month of my return, firmly stating for them to do their job properly, I must be kept out of all tech, sprint testing and overall day to day delivery and product management and under NO circumstances was I ever to move around delivery or add to the sprint — if I did, they told me it would derail everything and they couldn’t guarantee the sprints would be completed. At this point I was paying for only 4 days dev time a month — at a cost of £5,400. Because of that, I understood their position. They were trying to build an agency, I had to respect that. So here, I was suddenly forced out of my tech, by the very agency I was paying with my precious investor money to build the app I had designed from scratch and pegged my entire life on. On top of that, they started to say dev time was going over and I was getting bills on top of the £5,400 retainer, in February 2019. In March, to solve this, I even started paying them £10,500 p/mth from April 2019 — August 2019 — this covered 8 days of dev work and the rest was the cost for ‘product management’. Worse still — I often asked if I could work in alongside them, or even get an office hot desk in their same WeWork — which we all know is focused on that very idea. They made it clear, they did not want that. Further, they blocked me out of all app testing. They didn’t give me access or make me aware of their new staging database, the Beta tracks of my app in their own Google Play accounts EVER — and for those that are technical — they installed Apollo Server in February 2019 and didn’t even mention it to me, and set up an entire Travltalk account without my knowledge to do AB and live product testing that I was never told about or invited to be part of. The worst part about the above was, no one else in the world knew I didn’t know about their ‘replica’ testing app. In fact the agency even encouraged people to believe I didn’t care about testing and forwarded emails where I would get frustrated about testing (they had a unique environment, set up just for me, that they could play around with and point to different staging databases). In my opinion this is one of the worst examples of gaslighting in modern history, on a Global scale. This is the NUMBER ONE way you can lose your app. If Google or Apple, or the big players in Silicon Valley can see an active development account, with your Startup name, only linked to an account that doesn’t belong to you, rarely will an IP ownership contract have much effect. So stay close to your agency, insist on working with them through every test, deployment and certainly any decisions to do with adding or amending your tech stack. If they push you out, leave them IMMEDIATELY. I wish I had done that. That cost me approximately £100,000 of dead investment money, when 4 months after returning to my agency, I had to find a new developer and manage a 6 week handover, right at the moment, during July 2019, had they supported me, I would have closed an early Series A.
  6. Don’t Pay Additional Costs for Product Management Unless You Can See They Have Experience Right after signing a Service Agreement, I was suddenly introduced to my new ‘Product Manager’. That had not been discussed with me prior. My money went to them hiring a mate which they nominated as PM. Looking at the PM’s LinkedIn profile, I was really concerned. They had never worked in a production agency, had experience totally unrelated to PM, coding or digital attribution media and quite frankly had half the career experience I had. Given I had quit my own well paid job, after years of working hard in my industry, to become a PM for a company I owned, this didn’t sit well with me. It also proved to be a major downfall for me, as suddenly despite being the founder, I was outnumbered, with 3 guys mates against 1 of me. Despite not agreeing with the choice, I chose to support it, even offering 1% equity to the PM in the first month, figuring this could help align our goals and show I did respect him. That was a rookie error, they took the offer, but never once acted like a PM. If they did do any testing, product strategy, or had any growth ideas, I NEVER saw them. Not even one report, analysis or presentation. Despite paying £10,000 p/mth for both development and PM. If they did produce anything — to this day, I have still never seen any of that work. Of course their plan was to end up with my app, so why would they show it to me?
  7. When You Pay a Developer to Set up Your App ask for all the API Keys Back Immediately When you pay an agency to build an app, that very agreement implies they do not own the code base or the right to ANY of your app private keys, required to authenticate users or run your application. Yet the job of a developer and a founder means, the only way you can create an app is to have them create those keys. I did nothing wrong in allowing this, in fact there is no other option, but there is NEVER a reason your paid developer or agency have ANY right to keep those keys and not make you aware of them. It’s even worse if they create them, and pretend half of them don’t exist. For the record, the keys I am talking about are JWT tokens, Google API keys, and other API keys needed to perform your app functions and also any image API keys such as Cloudinary. This is even more important if you are non technical. All I can say is the week after they create your app, get them to explain those keys, immediately take control of them, and change the key variables, to ones only you have knowledge of. This was again my big mistake. I trusted my developers to understand the importance of those keys and their role as an agency. The fact is, if they don’t understand their role as an agency (and not owner) in the equation, you could be fighting a difficult battle from day 1. Above all — NEVER let an agency put their name in your mobile app package. It’s immutable. I was never given a choice about this, which is actually completely out of order. Sadly now, I can never change my Google app package name, and it will always contain the name of the agency that built my code, despite the fact they had no approval to use their name in my product. They were paid to perform a service. They had no naming rights to my app. The plan to take over my app began the week they created the Google app package. This recommendation is my strongest one, I only got control of these back because the giants of the 3rd party platforms agreed, based on their first hand data, that I was beyond all reasonable doubt the owner of my code base and API keys. However despite owning these keys from day one it was much harder than it should have been to prove ownership, when it turned out I’d been hacked by the very developer I was forced to place my trust in.
  8. If You Are a Female Founder Pick a Developer or Agency That Genuinely Respects It Is Harder For a Female Tech Founder Than a Man This final point is for all the female leaders that are brave enough to go out and face the glass ceiling we all accept is there. For the record, I feel pretty privileged. I grew up in Adelaide, where as a young female, I never felt less than equal. In fact, I was pretty used to beating the boys every time, whether that was poker, pool, table tennis, backgammon, darts, tennis, running, drinking someone under the table — you name it, I just got used to being stronger. I wasn’t proud about this, it was just a fact. Men that have played me in those games, I believe would smile and agree they not only had a worthy opponent, but I beat them hands down. Those are the guys that remain my best friends to this day. We had a fair fight and they didn’t mind that I beat them, even though I was a woman. Yet I entered the world of entrepreneurship and it was the first time in my life (as a Western, white woman, which I acknowledge still means my life was easier than most), that I faced the truth of marginalisation — with the reality most of the investors out there are white, male, rich men and quite simply they tend to invest in people that remind them of themselves. A free spirited, opinionated woman is not what reminds them of themselves. And here in lies the challenge. Therefore, you HAVE to pick a developer or agency that understands how hard it is to be a female entrepreneur. It’s funny, at first I actually openly said, my agency had never treated me differently. It was in fact because initially, when I mentioned the adversity I faced, my product manager even looked me smugly in the eye and said ‘Really? I’ve never even noticed you were a woman’. I realise now that was a back handed compliment and the sign of pure misogyny. You need people supporting you that have empathy for your position and not only openly see you and recognise you as a female tech leader, but acknowledge the fact, that’s a damn hard path to take and even a harder one to succeed in. You want them shouting that from the rooftops. If they fail to mention you as the founder at all, let alone the name of the company you work for on LinkedIn, least of all to promote the great agency work they are doing, leave them ASAP. Give it a maximum of 2 months, and if you don’t get support, stop and leave. It will only get harder to prove yourself as a woman the longer you stay with them. That just happens to be the way of the current world, and rather than fight it, I just accept it, but also try my best now, to protect myself from it.
  9. Never Stop Believing in Yourself. Ever. That might be the only reason I am still standing. Because I never stopped believing in what I set out to do originally. It took a lot for me to ‘retire’ from a fantastic career, just as I’d hit the top. I’d travelled to 80 countries, had an 8 year marriage, directed the world’s largest tech brands and through my time, thanks to living and working in 10 different countries, felt blessed that I had accrued phenomenal friends in every corner of the world. I started Travltalk, simply because I believed I had what it took to bring a household mobile application to life. I’d done Global and National mobile app and product launches for Intel, Nokia, Canon, Universal Pictures and Peugeot. I decided it was time to put my name behind my own business. I think that’s the part my ex agency missed. Perhaps they saw a woman who was lonely, and had been left behind by her friends at age 36. Had they taken one second to get to know me, have a drink with me, invite me to a client event, or even allowed me to work with them, I would have not only helped them grow, but I would have happily given them equity in my business. Instead they took £120,000 of my money, while mocking me, humiliating me, all the while keeping me out of my entire staging environment, as well as holding back the keys to the app I was rightful owner of, and to the last moments did all they could to make me fail. They even got access to the business modelling I 100% authored (yes I did that myself too), via the Kiwi guy I paid at the time £300 a month to do my bookkeeping, while he worked at Credit Suisse (#brotopia) and they convinced him to share the final numbers with them, 3 hours before I went out with my own Series A materials in June 2019, so they could send a version out first and pretend they built the numbers. As a result that Kiwi guy may eventually have to face a scenario where he loses his CA. To this day I will never understand why. I’m just grateful I’m still standing to tell the tale. I simply provide the above words of advice, so no person ever has to go through what I had to, simply to get recognised for taking the biggest risk of their life, and trying to build an app, not for money, but in all honesty, because you wanted to make the world a better place. Final note: Investors don’t be alarmed! The Slack channel I own, where all the private messages were that they kept off the main dev channel, the What’s App answers to my questions about databases and tech, and the emails, where they ignore things like me asking about the 64 bit Android update in early July, which they ignored — I have 2 years of evidence in writing showing each time they either lied to me or were intentionally obtuse. I have iron clad IP agreements, agency contracts, hundreds of witnesses (and people that worked on my side, that will testify how hard I worked on this). And best of all, as admin owner of all the back end tech — activity logs that when pieced together tell the story in literally an itemised account of what they did and when. The movie would be sensational, and give The Social Network a run for its money!! I chose not to mention anyone’s name above, simply to be polite. I emailed them the above just before publishing this to inform them, and have kept them informed all along. They just kept hoping I would go away. For the record they are called Planes Agency (although interestingly they changed their email addresses and name to Planes Studio, right before they tried to stage the takeover). After all, by having the word ‘agency’ in your own email address, it’s quite hard to pretend you are not an agency, but the app owner!

Top comments (4)

andrejsstep profile image
Andrejs Stepanovs

First, I don't really understand how all this is related to your gender.
Second, if your biggest asset is your idea of course you should guard it as much as possible. Its like knowing where the gold mine is and needing manpower to dig it out. You will hire people to do the digging but what is stopping them to take some (or all) to them selves if land (idea) is not officially yours.
To be clear I do not approve stealing other people ideas. Especially if you are hired to do the job. But we all are people and greed is part of us all. I can clearly see multiple ways how new startup can be destroyed or stolen by anyone involved in the project actually. I guess its more about choosing who is around you and being honest with them. If you don`t openly talk your fears and find solution from both sides to it, you will just keep guarding your precious and go insane doing it.

So good luck to you and your en-devours and keep doing what works I guess. Thank You for sharing!

daradedesign profile image
Dallas DeGrendel

As a freelance dev, I think it's just the freelance market. There is only thief, and everyone is just trying to break even lol.

This really reads how to be a founder, with a bonus section that wasn't for me. I can relate to most and agree with most, but on the internet, we don't post unless we disagree.

Project Management is important with 1 programmer. With more than 5, not having one is asking for everything to balloon out of control. Recently I have worked with 2 clints stacked with good devs and no management for the repos, assets, etc. I'm spending so much time cleaning due to the system no being set up for different .env files, naming conventions, fixing their model factories to adapt to the migrations they made. Not only does each task chip at my time, it prevent me from getting into the zone.

Really good advice all in all. I have ideas but they are cheap. I would to commit more into my personal projects, but my clients are time sucking my hours.

I also just caught your motto. It matches your nicely.

lastly, the site is either resizing the images to 400px or that's how they were uploaded, but a single 400px column looks silly on a 2k monitor. Are the 3rd party forms just for testing?

Great luck going forward!

rhiannonmonks profile image
Rhiannon Monks

Thanks for the advice. And for sure I agree about Project / Product Management. I guess my point was, my intention was to be that person, but by being blocked out of my code base, it prevented me from doing the housekeeping and admin, which I promise as a founder, is something I take really seriously. It's ok to over charge and even reuse code to some degree anonymously, it's not ok to sabotage your own client, while charging them, so you can keep the code and IP, and claim it was their poor management that got them there!

As for the site - your mean Is your window currently on a small size, as it is responsive. Can you screenshot for me?

And by motto - what do you mean btw? Just so I am sure.

It's easy to have ideas, but even easier to point holes in the leaders who take all the pressure, while you criticise their ideas and have better ones without any pressures. Clients come to you with a defined task, which makes your life easier. I bet you only take work that is clear and implicit. It's easy to optimise within that, harder to have the vision from a blank canvas. I've always found the best freelancers / agencies share goals, because you both win in the end, not just one party.

daradedesign profile image
Dallas DeGrendel

I should have mentioned. I have a 2k monitor. Kind of odd size. Viewport should register under XL. That page was the only one with the issue.
It turns out my ad blocker is on and it's an uncaught exception. Ad blockers rarely block anything on your local, so I find a 3rd party error logger saves me from myself. I use UBlock btw if you wanted to see for yourself.

A big mistake I see a lot is founders saving money by using basic git plans rather than setting unique users for everything. They also love to make me get a email and a new account on everything. It takes longer for everyone, and says they lack that foundation. Most of them have APIs so you can automate their access as well as dump them off the repo the second they aren't working for you anymore.

Daily Migrations required. No exceptions. "You logged 9 hours yesterday. Let's look at your work"... There is no excuse for them not being able to commit and push within 2 minutes. On my side, I do it because backend work is phantom work to a all money / no code founder. If they can't see the change on the site, they accuse you of not doing anything. I can show them the commits, and they are off my back.

Poking holes is the easy part. I try not to poke them without filling them with something. I hope that the second half of that is providing some value. These are the holes I had in my game and paid for them in time and money. Some were mentored out of my routine, and everyone wins when best practices are shared. I take all kinds of work, and every client has a knowledge gap or they wouldn't need me. I regularly start from nothing and build out. I would say I've done so many blank canvases that I now have 'connect the dots' canvases lol.

And the Motto I mentioned was "You can go your own way" with your name being Rhiannon I just followed 'The Chain'. If this was a coincidence, it will go down as an all time great.

You're doing great. It's worth it. You will have a trusted crew that you can rely on for the work or recommendation of someone that will do the job right, but people of integrity in this biz is easier to keep than find on both sides of the transaction.