How to turn an agency into one of the fastest-growing companies in America
A couple of weeks ago, MojoTech appeared on Inc.com as the 42nd fastest-growing software company in America.
Without a doubt, it’s an honor, and certainly not a goal we set out to reach; we’ve always just wanted to make awesome products—our way—for a living.
But with growth comes attention, and I’ve been getting more and more emails from those who want to grow their own shops. And since trying to grow MojoTech takes up, well, all of my working time, I can’t coach everyone. But I thought it would be helpful to share my thoughts, if only to have a place to point those seeking help to.
App development is an interesting business. It’s part product, and part service. The challenges of scaling such a model are unlike those most other companies face. And while I’m by no means an expert on what will work for you, I’ve been tackling these challenges for the last six years, and I can tell you what worked for us. Hopefully it helps you overcome your own hurdles.
The Four Ps of Agency Growth
There are four things I tell every agency that asks me for advice to focus on: People (who’s on your team), Process (how you approach your work), Performance (how you execute), and Pitch (how you find and win new business). One or two of these can be your strongest points, but if you want to grow, you must focus on getting all four right.
For MojoTech, this is by far the most important piece of the puzzle. If you make great products, but people don’t enjoy working with you, you probably won’t achieve the growth you want.
We decided early on the kinds of values we wanted our team to share. I shared those values in my post about culture:
Working for MojoTech is a tough job. It starts hard, and it doesn’t get any easier. The better you get, the tougher the problems we assign to you are. Everyone here has a burning desire to keep getting better, and that influences every aspect of our business. We turn away a lot of easy work (and money) in favor of projects that call on us to solve hard problems, and nobody on our team would have it any other way. That makes this an amazing place to work for the right people, but for those who would rather coast or do the same things over and over, we’re not the right fit.
Failure is always an option, but never taking risks is not. We expect our team to try new things, even when we’re not sure how they’ll turn out, because that’s how breakthroughs happen. This is a foreign concept to many new hires coming from larger companies where risk-taking is punished, but we can’t afford to operate that way. At MojoTech, permission to try creative experiments is implied, and while those experiments have failed occasionally, many have succeeded spectacularly.
Teams are organized by the client they’re assigned to, not by title or department. Ideas, pushback, leadership, and mentorship are everyone’s responsibilities. Each team has a head coach, but it’s up to all of the players to lead, motivate, and inspire each other and our clients.
We don’t goldplate anything, and we don’t build crap. We all know the tradeoffs between speed and quality, and hitting the right balance is the key to MojoTech’s success. It’s up to everyone to consider that balance in their work. Any of us can quickly hack up something crude or spend months polishing trivial elements, but neither approach delivers products that win, and that’s the only result we care about.
Your agency needs to have values, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have these values. Think about exactly what kind of work you want to do, and build your values from that.
In hiring, adhere to these values without compromise. A bad hire isn’t just an HR mistake; on a small team, it can slow down the growth of your entire business.
And while your new hires should share the same values, that doesn’t mean that they must share the same perspective. Find employees with varied backgrounds and strengths—the skills (even soft skills) of a successful product manager are quite different from the skills of a great developer.
One question I’m often asked is whether an agency should focus on hiring the best remote employees they can find, or on trying to build an onsite team. The answer, as with most things: it depends on your circumstances.
When we started, we had an unknown name and a single office in Providence, RI. If we wanted to compete for the best developers and designers in the market, we had no choice but to recruit remote employees from all over the world. As we grew and became more successful, recruiting became easier, and we now have access to the best local talent, as well as a compelling case for top performers to relocate to one of our offices in Providence or New York.
Great products don’t start with a line of code; they start with a deep understanding of your clients, their customers, and what they need. As an agency, you’re not simply providing a product. You’re providing a solution to a client’s problem, and that perspective should inform your process.
We ask a lot of questions. We do a lot of research. We find out as much as we can about everything we can related to the project, because that’s the only way to truly solve problems. And for MojoTech, solving problems is the biggest reason companies hire us.
You’ve probably been hired because you’re expert at what you do, not because you say yes and push pixels. If your client wanted the latter, they would’ve hired a designer or developer, not an agency. Don’t be afraid to push back when you know your client is asking for features that don’t add to the solution.
Product management is critical and should be addressed early on. It was a huge failure point for us. My business partner and I kept control of the management process for far too long before hiring dedicated product managers, and this was a crippling obstacle to our growth.
Workflow was another challenge: MojoTech started as a development-only shop. Our clients would hire a designer separately, and then pass the designs to us. When we hired a Creative Director, brought designers in-house, and transitioned to become a full-service agency, we underestimated the difficulty of managing the two services in unison. We treated development and design as siloed departments; when the design was finished, the project was handed off to the developers.
It became clear pretty quickly that this transactional approach wasn’t optimal. We made the decision to bring the design and development teams together, and change our process from a hand-off model to a much more fluid, iterative one that sees both teams working side by side through every step. It’s not just more efficient; it results in better, more thoughtfully-built products.
This one seems as though it should be obvious.
Build great products, do it fast, and do it under budget. Easy enough, right?
Well, it’s actually a bit more complicated.
The “fast, cheap, and good (pick two)” cliché is more than just a cute way for jaded clients to express their frustration at working with service providers.
There are very real trade-offs involved in product development.
Decide what you want your differentiating value to be, and focus on becoming the best you can at it. Do you want to build the most beautiful iOS apps? The most robust big data solutions? The cheapest MVPs?
There’s room in the marketplace for all of these, and you can’t be the best at everything. But being the best in your niche will help ensure that there’s always someone for whom there’s no better choice than working with you.
Early on, we aggressively fought to get the clients we knew we could make an impact on. We still do that, but before we had results to show, we would make financial sacrifices to win those accounts. We were rewarded with case studies that illustrated unquestionable results, which in turn led to new clients that were more than willing to pay well for the opportunity to work with us. It’s a strategy that many disagree with, but as with everything laid out here, all I can say is that it worked for us.
The best and most cost-effective way for most businesses to get new clients is through referrals from existing clients. And the best way to get referrals is to get the first three Ps right.
As long as your clients are happy, nurture those relationships long after your project is complete, and don’t stop creating value for their businesses, even if they’re not paying you. We stay in touch and frequently refer projects and hires to current and former clients. In return, many of them have referred new clients to us. Having an army of loyal connections has been far more valuable, and infinitely more efficient, than knocking on doors to sell your services.
When it comes to actually making the sale, many agencies struggle. We certainly did. Those of us with development and design backgrounds don’t come with marketing and sales skills built-in. Work on developing those. The single biggest reason you lose sales is a failure to convince a prospect of the value of what you provide. As I wrote in The Next Web:
Your prospects aren’t stupid, and if they had all of the facts necessary to make the decision, far more of them would choose the option that sets them up for success over the bargain that will cost them more in the long term. As the salesperson (whether you call yourself that or not), it’s your responsibility to respect your prospect’s intelligence enough to help them understand their choices and make an educated decision.
Educate your prospects, not just on what you provide, but on what their options are—with you, and with the rest of the market. If you’re doing everything else right, you’ll make their choice easy.
With That Said…
The above holds a lot of examples of things that MojoTech did to grow. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them. That doesn’t mean that they’re the best strategies for your agency, but I’d suggest them as a great place to start.
One final piece of advice: many entrepreneurs ask for this sort of guidance in the hope of avoiding mistakes. It’s important to learn from others, but don’t be afraid to make your own mistakes. It helps you find out what your business is, and what it isn’t. Feel free to copy every single strategy in this post, but don’t do it with the goal of replicating our path. Do it to find your own way.
P.S. We’re hiring awesome People. Check out MojoTech’s open positions.
(This post first appeared on Medium. To be among the first to hear about new MojoTech content, sign up below. We’ll never spam or share your email.)