Back-End vs. Front-End Development: Which Should You Prioritize?

Back-end and front-end development are essential parts of a startup, but it’s not always easy to know how much you should be investing into each one.
Headshot of James Zhao.
James Zhao
Expert Contributor
April 1, 2021
Updated: April 2, 2021
Headshot of James Zhao.
James Zhao
Expert Contributor
April 1, 2021
Updated: April 2, 2021

Understanding the importance of front-end and back-end development is vital for any tech startup founder. But not every product needs the same balance, and knowing where to focus your resources and what will return the most value isn’t always clear.

When initial funding is limited, the last thing you want to do is make the mistake of investing too much in developing the wrong area. That’s why I’ve put together this quick and easy guide to help you understand the relationship between back-end and front-end development, and what’s right for your product.

 

Back End vs. Front End

Let’s start at the beginning and clear up exactly what front-end and back-end development mean. In the simplest terms, the front end is everything your customer sees when they use your product — the user interface, the buttons they press. The back end is what goes on behind the interface, the mega brain orchestrating the data to make everything work the way it should.

Back End vs. Front End

  • The front end — everything your customer sees when they use your product.
  • The back end — what goes on behind the interface.

When a user presses a button on the front end, the back end receives the instruction or request attached to it. It makes sure you’re taken to the right page, your download is sent to the correct folder, or your booking is made successfully.

Think of it a bit like a supermarket. The front end is everything you see when you enter the shop, while the back end is everything going on behind the scenes to make that shop operate — the head office, logistics and deliveries, the production chain, and so on.

But a supermarket doesn’t just have its own back end to deal with. While a lot is achieved in-house, keeping a supermarket stocked also involves third-party production and delivery chains, all of which have their own back ends that the supermarket needs to communicate with.

The same is true in tech. For example, an airline website will have its back end that enables you to book its flights, but that can also communicate with the back ends of hotel and taxi websites so that you can book your accommodation and airport transfers at the same time.

It’s also possible to have multiple front ends attached to one central back end, such as on an online food delivery platform (like Deliveroo or Seamless). In this case, the customer placing the order, the restaurant receiving it, and the rider picking up the order will all see a different front end, even though they’re coordinated by the same back end.

Read More From James ZhaoHere’s How to Get to an MVP Faster

 

Which Is More Important?

When you’re ready to start building your minimum viable product (MVP), the question of whether you should prioritize front-end or back-end development is inevitable. But unfortunately, there isn’t one straight answer to that.

As with most things, the answer depends on your product, what it needs, and where you are in your product journey.

If you’re still right at the start and aiming for a proof of concept, you might get more value out of investing in making the front end a more attractive user experience (UX) for potential customers, while keeping the back end fairly simple to begin with. This allows you to test whether there’s a market for your idea by giving it to customers to use, without committing to the budget of full back-end development.

However, this approach will only work with products that don’t require an extensive technical framework to operate. The more complex your idea, the more likely it is you’ll have to build the back end first as a prototype to validate that it’s possible before you present the idea to customers. If you think of a robot, there’s no point showing people how great it would look if ultimately you don’t have the capability to bring it to life.

When you’re at the start of your project and budgets are tight, it can be a good idea to look at hiring a full-stack developer rather than dedicated front-end and back-end developers. A full-stack developer does both so they’re particularly useful early on to keep all your bases covered.

 

Planning Your Development as You Scale Up

However you prioritize the front end and back end of your MVP, you’re also going to need to plan how you balance that development as your business scales up.

While initial development might be more focused on the front end, generally speaking, as your product grows in complexity and number of users, back-end development will become a much bigger focus.

If you hired a full-stack developer to get your MVP off the ground, then going forward you might need to work with dedicated back-end developers who are better equipped to handle the specific challenges of increasing back-end complexity.

That won’t necessarily be the case for every product. For example, a matchmaking app like Tinder inherently has a very simple back end. Once its algorithm has presented the user with potential matches to swipe through, there isn’t a lot else for the back end to do. There will still be a need to continue developing the back end so that it can handle an increasing number of users, but when it comes to improving the product for users, there’s more value to be found in focusing on the front-end experience.

This doesn’t just stop at hiring front-end developers. Running a UX audit, producing animations, creating infographics, and simply adding more polish can set you apart from competitors and enable you to appear more established than you currently are.

You can get around some of the difficulty of keeping up with back-end development by paying for third-party solutions — a lot of online retailers use e-commerce platforms like Shopify or Magento, for instance. These off-the-shelf options can often help speed things up at the beginning of a product’s life.

But as you gain more insight into what your customers need, you will need to develop bespoke experiences. At that point, usually in the scaling phase, it may become much more costly to build on top of these off-the-shelf solutions, if not impossible. That’s when you may have to opt for a rebuild.

So you need to weigh up your options and take into account your constraints. If you have a good indication of market demand and have a decent budget available, I would recommend going bespoke. Then you can test one assumption at a time, following lean principles.

Grasping the ins and outs of front-end and back-end development before you get started is crucial. But it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it first appears, and thinking carefully about where to spend your resources before you get started can save you a lot of headaches down the line.

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