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Full-stack developers starting a software agency?

Hey guys,

I have been flip-flopping back and forth on this idea for a while, and would love some feedback on whether peeps would find this valuable

Although I still call my self a "software developer" (and try to code daily), for the last 8 years I have ran a small 5-person agency that I started from the ground up, so my role was really CEO/CTO/CFO/Everything-O. My company focused on delivering high-quality custom software. Not brochure websites, and not Wordpress - our niche was internal business software (or as I like to call it "boring software for boring businesses") - and for a client service company we got very high margins of return.

This year my business was acquired by a larger company which was an amazing result after the time and effort I had poured into it. I have realised I now want to help other developers who want to start their own software agency, or maybe they already have and are looking for hints or advice on certain topics.

So I have started Dev to Agency - a part blog part guidebook for how a full-stack developer can start and successfully run a software development agency, the things to pay attention too (and the things to ignore), and the key-values that I feel helped my business go from nothing, to 7 figures per year, and then to being acquired (if that is a path people would want to take).

I have published my first two posts today, the first is about My small custom software development agency - which gives an overview of what I built and where I think my articles will add value, and also About Dev To Agency that is a rundown of what I hope to achieve.

I have never written a blog before, so it would be fantastic to get some feedback from the IH community, and if there are any developers that this could interest then please subscribe on the website.

Cheers,

  1. 1

    Great idea for some posts - I've subscribed. Maybe it'll persuade me to have a second stab at starting up on my own again at some stage in the future!

    1. 1

      Awesome, thanks for signing up. I hope I can at least give you some insights.. it wasn’t easy, but running an agency can totally be worthwhile if you focus on the right area, and you know how and when to switch off :)

  2. 1

    Hi Chris,

    This post is coming at an excellent time, so thank you for writing.

    I went over to your new blog to read the posts, and have some feedback:

    • Actionable posts would work better than philosophical
    • What tools/resources would help a small agency to work efficiently and effectively
    • Insights and strategies into closing clients
    • Overview of pricing and contract strategies (how do agencies monetize?)

    Hopefully these can help out, because I think this would be an excellent resource.

    1. 1

      Awesome - thanks John. I have gotten a lot of feedback re: actionable posts, so am definitely trying to integrate more of that. Thanks for following and hoping you find some value. Please always (continue) to give me feedback :)

  3. 1

    Thanks Chris, really great post and topic!

    1. 1

      Thanks Marko, I'm have a list a mile long of topics I want to cover, so really hoping you keep finding them useful!

      I actually just published another post a few minutes ago You are the gold standard which presents my thoughts on how I feel a founder should shape the standards and practises of their business based on their own beliefs and values.

      1. 1

        Thanks for replying Chris!

        I've read it and I can say I agree 100% with your thoughts.

        I pay a lot attention to software quality and would never deliver a half-working buggy app too.

        For me a big deal is also an honest relationship with clients in both ways. I don't think one can have a successful business without it.

        You described the exact way how I see a dev agency!

  4. 1

    Saw this thread and thought of you, do you agree with these reasons consultants are hired to do a job? https://twitter.com/mike_julian/status/1345903307328405506

    1. 2

      Thanks Chris, I love Mikes post - and SO very much agree with this:

      few things are more valuable than understanding and internalizing what the client really, truly needs from you but is unable to articulate

      I think most (if not all) of the large projects my agency won, were won to help the organization do something it perceives as risky without specialist talent

      Many had internal technical teams - but we were viewed as the specialised vendor that had experience delivering custom business software, so they did not want to risk not doing it right.

  5. 1

    Hey Chris, great post, I've subscribed and shared it on twitter.

    I have started an agency and about to leave my full-time job to properly focus on it.

    Thanks for starting this blog, it'll be helpful for me as this is my first time building a company on my own.

    1. 1

      Awesome, thanks for subscribing and looking forward to sending some new articles your way soon 🚀

  6. 1

    Very interesting, I have (or rather, am) a software company, but never managed to turn it into more than work for hire despite years of trying. It's a good living but not what I set out to do. Looking forward to reading!

    1. 1

      I hear ya, I will be brutally honest - and this may be imposter syndrome - but I still kinda think my initial success in the early days of my company (to get out of "work for hire" type relationships) was based on luck. I have been thinking a lot about this for my first couple of posts - as I also do agree you make your own luck, but i'm still hoping I have some insights that help you out. Thanks mate.

  7. 1

    Great topic! Subscribed!

  8. 1

    Hey Chris,

    Your post couldn't have come at a better time for me.

    I've just started my own custom software development company (CodeTailor), with very similar goals, custom software (internal or client-facing) for companies, no wordpress, small highly skilled team, etc.

    I've been freelancing for almost 20 years, doing exactly this kind of work, have a few nice clients in my roster with ongoing work (my 2021 is almost full already), and I finally took the plunge to incorporate (even wrote about it here in IH), starting Jan 1st 2021.

    I would love to learn more from your experience as I want to follow a very similar path, start from nothing, grow to X figures per year, and exit if the opportunity arises.

    Cheers,
    Ricardo

    1. 2

      Hey mate, that's awesome news, good for you! I just read your post about starting CodeTailor and I think we share a lot of similarities with the business I started, so really hoping I can help you out 👍
      What are some areas of starting your software agency you think you would like some insights on?

      1. 1

        Hey Chris,

        Thank you for replying.

        I also hope to learn from your journey and get some insights to apply in my own business.

        I guess the biggest concerns now would be getting a solid base of initial clients (sales) and balancing building a team while growing revenue (keeping expenses below income to avoid incurring debt). I think both will be organic as things move along, but there are still many doubts and unknowns.

        Did you build your business entirely on services, or did you sell products/productized services also?

        Cheers,
        Ricardo

        1. 2

          Hey mate, great feedback - and both are super important points. My business was all client service work - whilst I always love the idea of products (and still do) for me it was a matter of focus. Not that they are necessarily mutually exclusive- but I chose to double down on quality and client relationships over experimenting with products.

          1. 1

            I agree, 100%, especially with the focus aspect. Quality work and customer satisfaction are my top priorities. And I'm really happy with the services I provide for my clients.

            It's reassuring to learn that you were able to grow from nothing to 7 figures and exited successfully, with a similar business to the one I'm starting. Makes me believe that I can do it too.

            Thank you for your insight, I would love to pick your brain someday.

            1. 2

              Awesome - feel free to DM me on Twitter if you have any specific questions 👍

  9. 1

    Hey Chris
    Great first article! Thx for sharing. I subscribed 😁
    How is your approach to acquire new customers?
    I'm trying to make the shift next year from delivering websites to business softwares and in the same time trying to build own SaaS Companies with my small team.

    1. 1

      Thanks so much Tunç, I am going to focus my first articles on sales and customer acquisition - but to be brutally honest (which is how I roll), I scored one great project via word of mouth, that then paved the way for the next, and the next - and so on. Each gave me more confidence on the next, but also acted as amazing examples of the work we could do.
      I think its a very smart move to focus on business software, especially in these times where every old school business worldwide that still has a manual process using paper forms just realised they need to get the fuck online :)
      Thanks for subscribing man, I hope I can provide some insights which help you with your success.

      1. 1

        Hey Chris
        Same thoughts here 😂 met a lot of business which still work with excel and paper 🙃
        Ok thx for your honesty. I had the same experience when I started.. word of mouth and cold calling.
        Another interesting topic could be how u make the pricing of your services.
        Excited to read new articles 😁 good luck!

  10. 1

    Thank for sharing the article I really enjoyed the read. What I'm most curious about is, how you would go about acquiring new customers if you are just starting out.

    1. 1

      Perfect, exactly what I'm focusing on in an article i'm sending out next week 👍 Thanks so much for following - and hoping I can add value!

  11. 1

    I am a dev and I've been thinking about starting an agency recently. The main reason is I want more flexibility to be able to do my own projects on the side plus coding the way I want to code is also a great win - it brings back the passion I've always had for my profession. Your website is interesting, especially that you've done it all yourself.
    I've signed up and looking forward to your next article :)

    1. 1

      That's great Jake, i'm looking forward to sending out some more articles soon and hoping they are on some subjects you are interested in hearing about.

      Can I ask what type of work you are doing now, and what topics you are interested in the most? (I have a pretty big list of the articles I want to work on, but thought it would be good to get some real feedback from interested peeps!)

      1. 1

        Right now I'm freelancing for 2 small startups. One is more or less finished website taken over after previous dev agency, other one is greenfield web based system. Another one that I'm looking at is automating existing woo commerce store, although I didn't get it officially yet.
        What I've been dreaming of doing since university is writing bespoke IT systems for businesses (not pretty websites).
        And what I would be interested in the most are marketing aspects and how to find customers early on (there is a lot about that online, but I'm obviously specifically interested in this in context of software agency). A big one is how do you compete with the flood of eastern devs whose cost of living are fractions of mine. How do you get customers who are willing to pay more for quality work instead of incredible mess that just happens to 'work'. I've always treated coding as craftsmanship and paid a lot of attention to quality of my work. How do I convince them that this is something worth paying for and that in the end they're going to pay more should they choose to go with low quality code. How do I convince them that I am an experienced developer who does just that and thus justify my rates?
        Also, the type of work I want to ideally do are already mentioned bespoke systems. This is hardly ever something that small companies need or have the budget for. How do I approach big companies as a one-man-band?

        1. 2

          Dude, you are going to be happy to know learnings I want to share will target pretty much exactly the concerns you just expressed. "Software craftsmanship" was the tagline of my agency, and I worked hard to show that our quality was worth the extra money (and we charged a lot more than a "dev shop" you could find in a Facebook ad).
          I'm actually really grateful you shared your reply, as even though I had a lot of success with my agency - I wasn't sure if I would find like minded developers that value the craftsmanship AND want to start an agency - so I am really looking forward to giving some advice and tips on how a small agency can make quality custom software, and more importantly - that your clients will realise you are just as good as the 150 person company down the street. 🤘 Cheers Jake.

  12. 1

    Hey @chrisrickard - custom software development will never go out of fashion, even with no-code. I now see some software development companies that specialize in no-code and doing very well.
    Having built and sold one 15 years ago, I would not start again but there are thousands of folks aspiring to build a software development business. I am sure you many IHers will find your blog useful if you walk them through the journey.
    What developers fear most is how to get new clients because most have never done any sales. So if you focus on that part, it may be more useful to the entrepreneurs.

    1. 1

      Thanks for your reply Vishal, and I agree with your thoughts on nocode - and I actually find the custom software/nocode crossover quite an interesting area to follow.

      100% correct with the Sales advice - and that is definitely an area I had little experience with before I started my agency, but now comes second nature to me. Thanks again.

  13. 1

    Very interested in this topic, subscribed!

    1. 1

      Awesome, can I ask if you are interested in starting your own agency, or already have? (and are you currently freelancing or work full time for someone else?). Cheers.

      1. 1

        I'm working full time, but I've always been interested in small, sustainable, balanced businesses and how they come into being. From this side, the other perspective feels mysterious and unknown.

        1. 1

          Great, that helps me think of how to structure my writing - so not just targeting those that have started an agency, but also those that are "agency interested" :)
          Heres hoping I can demystify some of this for you, and you find what I have to say interesting!

  14. 1

    ugh. agency work...!

    i did that for the beginning of my career. i made a ton of money but hated the lifestyle.

    so, the idea of encouraging others to pursue it is like... blargh.

    but, i know that many have really liked it!! so, it's just not my cup-of-tea.

    what i saw looks good. not many pictures. that would be helpful. graphs are pretty.

    1. 2

      Yeah I do understand IH may be the wrong forum (as it's somewhat polar opposite to product development!), but I thought if anyone is interested in it then i'm going to write the type of "guide" I wish I had 8 years ago when starting out :)

      1. 2

        Just curious @8bit - what was it that you hated the most about the lifestyle - and how big was your team?

        Would be interested in hearing about your experience, as I have been thinking a lot about this after selling my agency, as I worked hard to have a good lifestyle (and work-life-balance), but it definitely took a few years of learning to really get into a groove.

        1. 1

          we got to about 13 folks strong. 4 founders. long-time friends for some.

          i don't like trading hours for dollars.

          i like making money when i sleep.

      2. 1

        no, i actually think you'll find a lot of folks here!

        glad you're here!

        1. 2

          Thanks man. And look, I will be 💯% honest (and I will reiterate this to anyone who is interested in starting a custom software agency), the work is hard, it can be fucked trying to find a balance - and yeah, ultimately you are selling your time to someone else - who is for all intents and purposes your new boss!. I don't want anyone to get into this game thinking it's easy &&|| a sit-back-and-relax type venture, so I definitely appreciate your point 🤘

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