January 1, 2022

2021 Year In Review

2021 Year in review
2021 Year in review

2021 Year in Review

Dan Malone Director @Mawla Digital Agency I’m an engineer by trade, passionate about creating and growing businesses and products.

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Intro

It is really hard to recall exactly where your head was 1 year ago. I’ve spent some time reading through emails, last years post, and looking at slack messages, so here we go.

For those new to me and my business Mawla - we’re an Irish HQ’d digital agency, with staff sprinkled about Europe.

We deliver ambitious technical and design projects, bringing businesses closer to their customers - by crafting zippy user experiences and hyper optimised web and mobile websites.

We’re passionate about building catered content management systems. Speed, fluidity and content are key to great customer experiences. Empowering content creators is core to our process.

Why should you read this?

We’re focused on scale and growth, our ambition is to grow globally. We’re not just focused on the here and now, we’re process and efficiency oriented, we’re going for growth. This is a core theme of this post, and it lives rent free in my head.

I started my career with a short stint in Intercom. What I learnt there was a growth and scale mindset. Though I’ve gone in another direction, a lot of the core themes I learnt there have shaped my thought process.

Business can be absolute chaos, the market can lead you in all sorts of directions. It can abruptly swerve and leave you holding the wheel as you careen off a cliff — if you let it.

Many agencies are happy to live month to month, reacting. Reacting to time thieves and the random business that comes in the door. I’ve felt that tug, I’ve followed it a little, but what I’ve realised is that reacting is dangerous. You can wind up invested in processes, technologies and communities that become obsolete.

We’ve operated an open door policy up until now, where any joe soap can walk in off the street, one day it’s Wordpress another day its React, the next day it’ Python, and now it’s Salesforce — Chaos.

We need to be deliberate, which means choosing niches and being prescriptive about what services we offer. Closing some of those doors, pulling down the blinds, and pretending we can’t see the people waving their cheque-books at us through the letterbox - those small wins win you the battle but lose you the war.

So the core themes of 2022, which I started lining up in 2021 are: scale, repeatability, process and growth.

Highlights

💸Numbers

✅ 2020 €466k end of year (March)

✅⬆️ 2021 €415k on track for 500~ (YTD)

📚16 projects this year - Glenveagh Customer website and Corporate, Harmon.ie, BurgerKing, MyMilkMan, Kingspan, and more, I try not to do white-label NDA’d work but sometimes you get cornered.

⬆️ The Ups

👴6 Years of Mawla

👨‍💻Side project ready to ship Q1

🏡Bought a house

💒Getting married

🫂Added a new team member @Aratramba through boundless (Invested 2019)

Managed to keep somewhat involved in engineering while also leading the business

⬇️ The Downs

👋Failed to retain a really valuable team member

📊Risky months of cashflow

😨Risky project estimates

🔥Serious experiences of burnout being the primary eng, business and strategy point of contact for multiple projects at the same time

↔️ Plans - Mawla 2.1

💶 650K

👔 Be Deliberate.

📦Productise our services

🔎Define our niches

🪠Set up business funnels for these niches

🧾Create and use our repeatable processes and standards.

🚂 Only use new Mawla Engine for web projects This Engine is built using NextJS, Sanity, TailwindCSS and more. It allows us to hugely accelerate website development and raise our quality bar in doing so. Here is a sample of the new Mawla site built on it. There is more to do from a styling point of view, but getting to this point took one engineer a handful of hours.

Mawla Engine

  • We’re looking for customers in the e-commerce and SaaS space interested in using the engine, get in touch.
  • We’re looking to speak to agencies interested in licensing our engine

How 2020 ended

Reading back on the 2020 post I’m reminded that 2020 was a particularly turbulent year, between Covid just beginning and my recent pivot to Mawla 2.0 there was a lot of change personally and globally — What a shit show. 💩✨

2020 was a year of discovery, trying to find our feet, so as part of Mawla 2.0 the larger part of our business model for 2020 was being an agency for agencies.

For the last year or two I've been feeling out the market a bit, trying to stay pretty agile - limiting hiring, not going too deep on process; because once you put process in place you somewhat commit to this business plan and it's a little difficult to change.

So we spent the year working with other agencies and taking a lot of different work across mobile apps, web sites, web apps just to see where the market is. Just to see where the pain points are and to understand costs, team requirements, etc.

That's important in any business you never want to commit before you really know that people will be there on opening day.

I’m reminded of the goals I set in last years post:

  1. I don’t want to be my companies service. I don’t scale. I can’t be personally involved in the details of each project, it doesn’t work. This is going a lot better now, I still dip my toes in engineering but I’m mainly a strategic contact for clients now — There is still a lot more to do here to enable scale, I want to coach my teams but make them independent and self sufficient.
  2. Expand further into consumer websites, static site generation and cross platform apps. We worked on loads of consumer websites — Burgerking, Kingspan, Glenveagh, We spent almost all our time working on NextJS, leaning heavily into the Jamstack. We had the opportunity to ship two Flutter apps this year, one for Glanbia’s MyMilkman service, and another for an overseas real estate investing company.
  3. Design and research. I'd like to expand further into design and research, at the moment we partner with the very best in that area. Our most recent project for Harmon.ie was entirely designed in-house from Brand to UX workshops all the way through to wireframes and final UI designs. This was a big win for us because we’ve primarily partnered on our design projects. This gives us a lot more control over the process and the outputs which is critical for our flywheel effect.
  4. Figure out how to productise some of our services. Take something we do, put a bow on it and make it so it can be sold independently. This is central to our plans this year - more on this later.
  5. Want to develop a network of excellent partners and agencies I can rely on to help manage spikes in work. Same ^
  6. Empower and define a clear account manager per client and project. I've found that clients are mainly interested in the account managers and high level owners, they want a champion. We’ve been in something of a holding pattern here, my gut feeling is that this will be our next hire. You don’t want to hand the reigns of client relationships to a transient freelancer, you want to keep that close to home. It is also really difficult to find people with the ability to manage clients from a strategic, technical, and project perspective.
  7. Process. We need amazing process for this to scale. If I was to have concurrent projects with multiple teams, across multiple time zones I needed a way to standardise processes and guarantee quality. We needed to reduce noise. We found creating play books for all our projects helped. We brief our teams on code standards, communication expectations, tools we use, timelines and delivery cadences. We set expectations with clients, draft up communications and reports that can be repeated across all our projects. Answer questions before they’re asked. It creates trust. We’re still working hard on this piece, process can be added to so many parts of the business. More on this later as Quality Standards. Elfie is currently trying to add automation to Operations, through Monday.com and a hodge podge of a few other tools, a few examples of what she is working on:
  8. We’ve multiple steps in our sales funnel from Prospect to Proposal Expected to Closed Won etc, One example automation: When I enter a client as a prospect we’ve a structured form I can fill in during our sales calls — Depending on the outcome of the call I can flag this a client as Proposal Expected which will trigger multiple automations - generating NDAs, SOWs, Spreadsheets for resourcing estimates, and all the other previously manual jobs. It’ll even create the Jira tasks for the other team members to read the form input and enter their estimations.

2021 begins

2021 was a crazy busy year for us. 16 projects, €400,000+ in turnover and our financial year doesn’t end until March. While it has been a really successful business year it has also been very challenging, I haven’t nailed the process yet around making teams fully self managed, and I wound up owning the sales, strategy, technical solution, and client relations on a lot of those projects, while Elfie had to juggle the project management and operations for them. I need to get better at this, and am very willing for any suggestions on how to do so I’m currently running through a few courses and speaking with Mentors to get better here. It is very hard to change the engine of a car while also driving it!

Introspection

2021 was also an introspective year for me, the stress and pressure made me really think about what we do and if it makes me happy and fulfilled. The ultimate answer I came to was - Sometimes.

I don’t love the grind, the hamster wheel, the deadlines of being 100% attached to a project, if I’m personally delivering a solution I’m not managing the overall business, which is a bad use of my time and that frustrates me because I can feel the opportunities racing away every time I put my head down.

I live for the engineering, the design, and the strategy, especially when it is applied to the bigger picture. I decided this year and for 2022 to make my role more about what I love, and less about what I don’t love.

I like meeting new clients, hearing their problems, envisaging solutions and winning new business. I like putting teams together based on my solutions but most importantly I like handing off those solutions to a team to put the meat on the bones and actually bring it across the line. I like being involved to coach, steer and make sure our KPIs are being met and the solution meets what I imagined, and more importantly what the client needs and paid for.

I try to look at our services and projects through the lens of:

Can this apply to multiple clients Is this repeatable Can we put a process around this Does this contribute to our overall goals

It is always nice to be able to put personal touches into projects, I fear of becoming an impersonal assembly line but I also fear providing services too bespoke aka not repeatable I want all clients to have a similar experience.

One of the reasons I originally started the company was as a way to gather a war chest so I could go for a product play — in the back of my mind was also the idea that investors probably look favourably upon founders with agency experience.

Running an agency is an awful lot like running an accelerator, you get a lot of exposure to a lot of ideas, talent and challenges.

Another big learning I've come to understand over the last year or so is that a product play or idea doesn't need to change the world. It just needs to solve a small problem for enough people to make it worth your while. I don't have ambitions to become Elon musk or a multi billionaire, but I do have ambitions to become financially comfortable and support my family and life.

I think Twitter and the the startup race in general ignore this and always focus and give the most attention to the big winners, but it's the quiet successful businesses that you really need to focus on. People who make enough to live comfortably, provide for their families and are happy while doing it.

Mawla 2.1

When I first decided to make more of an agency play, I could see two roads ahead of me: one more focused on products. Creating new apps, web sites, web apps and business logic centric products.

The other was more of a digital agency, more focused on marketing websites, e-commerce, branding, etc.

Product

I originally tried the product road but kept being pulled back into more of a contracting style of business where I was selling human time. It's really hard to scale a product agency because the builds are big, The deliveries are complex, and the teams require a lot of skill sets and experience. The biggest problem of all is that each product or problem is significantly different to the last and there's very little reusability between each project, both at a code level and a skill set level. This means a team member for one project won't easily transition to another project and the code we've written for one project won't apply to another one. So we are starting from square one for each project.

Digital agency

When I first decided to pivot the agency to look more as the digital world websites e-commerce, that's sort of thing. One of the reasons I was most interested in it was I could see an opportunity to create reusable tooling and scale our services a lot easier than going down the product agency road.

One of the primary services of a digital agency is offering website development websites share so much in common and I saw this as a big opportunity to create a reusable process that we use as the basis for all of our website projects. This process has multiple steps and requires each step to be somewhat productized and have clear interfaces and deliverables and most importantly needs to lead seamlessly to the next.

When selling my services. A product agency customers were always really concerned and interested in knowing exactly who was going to be on their team. How many hours they were going to be spending and their experience.

Clients we're way more focused on the time we were selling and not as focused on the outcome we were selling. Moving to the digital agency world. Most clients don't care who's on the team. They don't care how long it takes. What they do care about is how long it'll take, how good it'll be and who their points of contact will be.

For a simplified example, imagine Mawla provides four services:

  1. Discovery & Strategy
  2. Branding
  3. UI/UX
  4. Website development

It begins at the business funnels and sales level where you need to identify the problems that the customer is having. You need to line the services you sell up with the problems the customer is having. And the services you sell then need to directly link into what you can actually provide. A pitfall here is: it is hard to say no to work. But if you’re not setup for the work and it is once off, it can sometimes be a net loss to take on work that doesn’t fit into your service list.

The big spends on Digital Projects tend to in design and development. So that's where I spend most of my time focusing on cost, process and time savings.

The question then is:

How can we create a design and development process that can make sense and engage the customer?

We need to bring them along the whole design process. Make the client feel like they have been involved in the creation of their product, but also provide the development team with a standardised design input that will plug into an engine that can be reused between projects

The solution we’re working on is: a reusable process both on design and development that standardises our workflow for big website projects.

Every design project starts by using the same set of figma and miro boards, along with the same terms and expected outputs. This is all described in docs. So we can onboard new team members.

Every development project then begins expecting those standardised outputs from design. We expect a sitemap, a set of modules (Hero, Navbar, Footer etc), and a design for each page using strictly using only these modules.

From a development perspective, since we know that we are going to receive those inputs, we can create an engine that expects a set of website building modules but already has everything else needed for a website configured - Security, hosting, modular page builders, analytics, forms etc.

One of the gotchas of the division between the digital and product agency is that the marketing websites projects are usually the spearhead into an organisation. Once you deliver once and deliver well you suddenly become a trusted and preferred vendor and a whole lot of new work becomes available with that organisation.

What I suspect is that the next year might see us begin to make something of a split of effort, where we set aside a Mawla Labs style business which will be solely focused on the product based work that comes in through these orgs, and other avenues, and then Mawla Digital which focuses on new business. Mawla Labs will likely be the entity responsible for crafting and maintaining our quality systems and website engine, so Mawla Digital will be a customer of Mawla Labs in a way.

That means the labs staff will be hiring to service strategic customers based on long term contracts and retainers, rather than ad-hoc once off projects, which is a lot safer for the business, the staff, and the client.

When we get a new client, we want to focus on what unique to that project and that client's problem. We don't want to have to recreate the wheel every time.

In agency land an average website built is 3 to 6 months. We don't want to waste 2 to 3 months of that time spinning wheels on common work that's being common between all of our projects.

If our client is an e-commerce sites, We want to spend that time. Optimising sales funnels creating incredible abandoned carts experiences, optimising the UX and customer journeys, and really nailing down the problems that are unique to that customer. The reason that they came out looking to buy our service.

A big realisation of the last year for me as well is that when it comes down to finding my niche or the people I want to reach, The way to narrow that niche isn't by industry or by persona. It's more about problems.

For example - I'm not just focused on real estate companies who want web sites, I'm more focused on companies of a certain size with the need to be more flexible in their digital communication with the customers, It might happen that that problem is more common in the real estate industry and we market to that through campaigns or landing pages, but we don't narrow our focus to only speak to that industry.

Quality Systems & Project Teams

A big learning moving from the product focused consultancy to this digital agency approach is teams and fixed costs. Agency life moves in ebbs and flows. Some months you're out the door busy other months the phone never rings. This is especially problematic when you have a team with a niche skill set.

I originally thought the path to success was around building a big team getting loads of customers and becoming hugely busy, but that's not how the market works and it's not a safe way to build a business.

The approach I've decided to take now is keeping a core team employed - people necessary for orchestrating the overall business and supporting project teams.

Project teams are then spun up from contractors as projects come in. Ideally they are people I've worked with repeatedly in the past so I can vouch for their quality.

However, multiple cases, these project teams are composites of new people and veterans, so the challenge is getting the new people up to scratch with the veterans so that they can understand our process. Understand our values and get familiar with our tooling. We do this by having quality standards, onboarding docs and repeatable processes.

A designer knows how to spin up a project with the Figma and Miro boards, run workshops, and most importantly, what output is expected.

A developer knows what inputs the engine expects, where to focus the time and how to ask for help from the engine maintenance team when it's needed so they stay focused on the client's core problems. Using the engine we can get the productivity of a lead engineer or better out of a mid-level engineer.

You can't plan for everything or put process in place for everything, but when you have the majority of the repeatable questions answered expectation set for clients and the team, It means that when unusual things do happen you have the bandwidth to deal with them.

I'm constantly thinking about problems that come up with in my day today and figuring out if they're one offs or things that we should be considering putting process in place for.

Goals for 2022

Enough talking Dan, what’re your goals, how do you measure success?!

↔️ Plans - Mawla 2.1

💶 650 - 750K Turnover, hopefully at a margin of 15-20%

🛩️ Overseas expansions

👔 Be Deliberate. This means putting process in place, specifically choosing what services we sell, being deliberate about what customers we work with - too much of our business is random, we need a way to turn a dial and increase or decrease our lead flow.

📦Productise our services This is way harder said than done, as it means choosing a limited set of services, it is always scary when you make a bet like this. However we’ll work off the services we’re already selling. The really hard part here is fulfilment and making sure we nail resourcing and quality.

🔎Define our niches Choosing problems to solve, who to solve for, personas. This is actually harder said than done. Looking at our current customer base doesn’t overly help either. The decision makers tend to be sales or marketing executives, with buy in from technical stake holders. However these people likely won’t be using our CMS or website day in day out so a lot of the features we sell are really aimed at their content marketing team who are generally out of the loop at this stage. We’ll figure it out!

🪠Set up business funnels for these niches We need to find the watering holes these creatures congregate at 🐘 🐒 Slack groups, events, linkedin, twitter etc. We need to speak to their problems there.

We need to take them from:

  1. First touch point e.g a blog article or post on linkedin
  2. Some value add like a free video speaking to their problems which genuinely helps them
  3. Book a free call with me or my team to speak about their problems, and match them up with our services
  4. Sell something
  5. Organise our team
  6. Deliver the thing
  7. Potentially lead the delivery of thing 1 into thing 2. 3. 4

🧾Create and use our repeatable processes and standards. ^ 5, 6, 7

🚂 Only use new Mawla Engine for web projects

This is very hard to commit to, as a lot of customers still want boring old Wordpress, and we’ve got a good flow there right now. However it is just busy work, it isn’t contributing to a long term business goal, and ultimately Wordpress is a race to the bottom technology market!

Our engine is a technical thing of beauty, it slingshots us way further ahead in the development process, adds a help of awesome features like:

  • Landing pages
  • Onetrust Cookie & GDPR consent auto configured
  • Marketing Forms
  • No code page builders
  • An extendible framework to customise to each client
  • A theming system

Big things to come.

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