With 2020 coming to a close I’ve been thinking about how to sum up the year and the ups and downs that went with it. My hope whenever I write something like this is that I can provide some value or meaningful takeaways for anyone else looking to grow a business or overcome similar challenges.
Some background on me, I run a digital agency based in Dublin, Ireland called Mawla. I’ve run Mawla since April 2016, it has been my passion and its success has been a huge source of pride for me.
At the start of 2020 we followed quite a simple business model. We operated as a mobile app consultancy depending on one client. Our model was essentially based around selling time. I knew there were places we could improve, for example we had high wage costs, our contracts weren’t as robust as I would have liked, and our dependence upon one client caused high levels of risk.
I went from a MRR of roughly €30,000 to €0.
My success to date primarily came from a single client. I was involved with the day to day, I was the face of my business, and I had no time for anything else. It was an incredible way to start, but I was itchy to grow further. I led an engineering team for a SAAS company in Dublin, I worked as a consultant managing their existing and upcoming mobile deliveries. I learnt a lot doing this, but one of the biggest takeaways was that I had bigger ambitions. I knew there was a larger market opportunity, I knew my future lay elsewhere. I’ll always be immensely grateful to the people who took a bet on me and my team, and I’m proud of the work we did, but I was glad for the chance for a new challenge.
It's very hard mixing things up when things are going grand. Sometimes you need to be pushed.
At the end of 2019 I was burnt out. The product we were delivering with our client had me at absolute breaking point. The goalposts for the product my team was shipping kept changing - features being added, taken away, timelines changing. On top of that the teams we depended upon kept moving their deliverables. Stress within the team was at breaking point.
I remember sitting down with a colleague, early in December 2019 and laying out what was going on. I told him how I felt burnt out, and I wanted to step away from the project. For me this meant a huge financial loss, I was responsible for a third of our MRR(€10,000~) worse still I was the face of our team, so without me this would likely lead to us losing the client. Which it did.
Ultimately I had to let my two long term engineering staff go. The financial and emotional impact of that was heavy. The consolation was that I made the choice, I knew I wasn’t happy working that way.
So I went from a MRR of roughly €30,000 to €0. Now that being said my monthly spend on wages also went down from roughly €13,500 to €3,500, which .. is good I guess? I wasn’t clear on where I wanted to bring the business. I did have some initial thoughts however. I never really intended to become a consultancy, I always wanted to operate a product company or a more diverse product agency.
My main focus at the beginning of 2020 was on keeping the lights on.
I took a few riskier and less straight forward gigs to keep cashflow moving, and I tried hiring around operations to see if I could reduce the amount of noise these smaller gigs generated. The smaller gigs helped by keeping money moving but they took up a lot of time, and despite my efforts, they generated a lot of distraction and noise.
One benefit of this however is that it forced me to rethink how I was working, it forced me to look at my business and try understand where I want to bring it, and what I want to be doing.
I knew things weren’t moving in the direction I wanted. I knew I was only going to get out of this if I dug myself out. So I decided to go into research mode. Time to be introspective and do some deep thinking. The areas I thought worth considering were:
Initially I felt my success came from being involved in the day to day at a micro level, writing code, reviewing PRs, being involved in every meeting, retro, standup.
I’m quite good at architecting solutions and working between the business, product and engineering functions. I feel like that is where my USP is, however this doesn’t scale great when I’m a ‘do-er’.
I’ve felt I can’t see the forest from the trees.
Again we come back to the problem of scale. I’m seeing the same sort of theme repeated in the yearly retros of other people in similar positions.
I think this really boils down to leadership, empowerment and looking at the macro vs micro picture.
I’ve begun to find a balance.
By training and empowering people I trust, my ability to affect change is magnified significantly. By instilling and encouraging a culture of respect, engineering excellence and practical thinking I can trust that my team will behave how I would, even when I’m not there.
It just comes down to engineering best practises, processes, and regular interaction and feedback.
However it's not all ☀️ and 🌹, when I’m not directly engineering I’m constantly battling with imposter syndrome. I think at the end of the day it's just a bit of a character flaw. When I’m engineering I’m itchy because I know I can be doing more, when I’m doing more I’m itchy because I feel I’m not in the detail. 🤷🏻♂️
Selling design and research creates a clear value proposition for the entire service. Through research you aim to uncover how to improve a client's processes, unblock their sales funnels, increase their earnings, bring them closer to their customers.
I like to think of projects as a funnel:
Without 1 & 2 you can't easily move to 3 & 4, and if you've done a good job with the initial steps the ROI makes the entire project spend achievable.
I thought a lot about why a client goes to the market for an agency partner. I considered the questions I have in my head when I seek partners - Team setup, what work have you done, pricing, reliability, how do you work.
I believe clients want an expert they can trust. They want guidance, support and confidence.
That is my north star, when developing any messaging from pitch decks to websites. I obsess about the mind-set of potential clients, and the problem they want to solve.
For example in the below pitch deck for our services we try to follow that format.
A phrase I've coined recently is that we go for the fishermen, not the fish. We specialise in fulfilment for digital agencies, and those agencies are the best at finding the right clients.
I was in a good position in that I had experience from partnering with other agencies and had a strong network. This gave me a lot of insight into what was happening locally. To get an idea of the overseas market I spent a lot of time combing blogs and going through the sites and work of overseas agencies.
One continued theme I kept coming across was the way agencies pushed websites.
Many agencies lead with the CMS they use behind the scenes. To me this feels like an implementation detail.
People don’t want quarter-inch drill bits. They want quarter-inch holes.
Clients are here for the user experience as seen from their customers eyes, but the CMS is user experience for them.
I noticed some recurring themes, around CMS tooling and resourcing:
We've overhauled our business model, updated our offerings and hugely improved our revenue and reduced our risk.
We’ve now split our offerings more equally between mobile and web development. We’ve completely overhauled how we offer our services to include cross platform tools like Flutter and Static Site Generators like GatsbyJS and NextJS.
2020 our turnover will be lower than the previous year as a result of the big reinvestments we’ve made, and the shakeup at the beginning of the year. However we’re in a great place to make 2021 our year, we've exceeded last year's avg MRR by almost 50% with roughly €60,000 MRR. We've diversified our project and client portfolio, with 9 projects this year and orders up to Q2 of next year.
I've been joined by a few new team members:
What i’d say to close off is that seeing short term dips in profits can be hard, especially when you’re looking to buy a house 😅 but sometimes you’ve to speculate to accumulate. If you’re cautious and plan you should always try to take risks, try new things, but have an escape hatch if they don’t work out... and then try again!