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From freelancer to agency, introspection from a founder

By DEREK NEUTS, MS

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It’s been a long time since my last article if you’d count somewhere around mid-2018 as a “long time.” A lot has changed since then, not only in the dev world but also with the small freelance agency I started. I had no idea that it would grow beyond myself, that wasn’t my original plan, but opportunities fell in my lap. I had to adapt to survive, much like how everyone operates now amid the continued story of COVID-19 worldwide. Before we get into some controversial development topics, I’d like to share some thoughts about the past few years that led me to where I am now with IronGlove Studio.

You're either "all in" or you're not

Sometimes I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” After reflecting on that for a bit, it always comes down to the love of the work I do. It’s not just the work, but it’s helping other organizations reach their goals through strategic and structured technology use. Development is both an art and a science but is unfortunately still an unregulated Wild West of sorts. One can have an immense amount of passion for their work, yet that passion can be eroded over time when you watch the antics of other individuals and agencies that claim to be your peers. For example, those that take unethical shortcuts and swindle their clients by providing templated solutions while charging for full custom work. Then we have the ever-popular feigning of competency with entire back-ends of websites copied from someone else, complete with malware. It’s just tiring to clean this up and disheartening to hear the stories from clients who are now hesitant to trust anything an agency has to say.

I had those moments when my passion diminished out of sheer frustration, there were many times that I questioned if it was viable to remain in this industry, but I’ve stayed the course. But it hasn’t been easy while performing many roles over the past several years. I’ve seen a lot of great moments, as well as my share of dumpster fires. I realize there’s still so much more to see and understand as both a project manager and an evolving developer. The most challenging transition for me has been working as a full-on developer to sliding into a project manager and agency owner role. You’ll always have that itch to dive back into a project and code it out, you may even feel disconnected at times from your own business, but that’s what you hired others to do. It’s about duplication of efforts and exponentially increasing growth. There’s also a mental shift from being a solopreneur to having a team and meeting their needs while maintaining the client’s project integrity.

Sometimes you just have to jump in the pool and swim

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work and network with numerous professionals and agencies in both the Portland and the Seattle areas. While I had prior training and experience in development and project management, I learned so much more than any class setting could provide to me. This was an opportunity for me to push myself, accomplish things I’ve never tried, grow in my ability to manage complex projects, and deal with professionally tricky situations. I still remember my internship in this field, interviews for other similar positions, and actual work experiences as a developer before going out on my own. Breaking into the profession the “right way” was one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do (aside from military service). Pro tip: it doesn’t happen overnight.

When I went out on my own as a larger entity and made that decision to commit, the initial hiring was difficult. Due to time constraints, I had the typical trial-and-error approach (yes, I know that’s not the best way), but I also knew what to look for in a candidate and eventually standardized the process. Having freelanced for a while, I came to meet people online, in mutual groups, and formed professional relationships. It became more natural over time to see not only key differences between qualified and unqualified candidates, but to have the courage to determine that a potential hire (despite the need) was not the right fit. That’s never easy, but at the end of the day, I have a fiduciary responsibility to protect my company and reputation. That meant enforcing standards, ensuring policies were adhered to, and also safeguarding the client against negligence.

Just as it's important to recognize when an internal hire isn't the right fit, I think it's vital to understand the long-term ramifications of taking on an abusive or deceptive client.

Derek Neuts, MS

Developing culture can take time

Unfortunately, this also meant safeguarding myself and my agency against bad clients. This includes not just direct clients, but prime agencies that I’ve subcontracted with in the past, those that shouldn’t even be in business, honestly. I’ve written extensively on this subject, and I’ll probably continue to do so, but I won’t allow myself or my team to be cut down, belittled, or bullied, it’s simply not worth it. Just as it’s important to recognize when an internal hire isn’t the right fit, I think it’s vital to understand the long-term ramifications of taking on an abusive or deceptive client. I’ve had to learn (sometimes the hard way) to walk away and listen to my gut instinct. It’s impossible to screen them all, and sometimes you’re already engaged in a contract with them. However, there’s still the choice to terminate the agreement and walk away for your own safety and sanity.

I have a team now that I don’t need to worry about, and they’ve inherited my continuous improvement culture. While we’re all very close, I maintain the organizational hierarchy and provide leadership and improvement opportunities. Training is essential, and continuous education is a must for any small agency to compete and survive. Inconvenient to the busy schedule? Yes, very much so. Without it, we’re going to miss significant development and marketplace trends. Feeling comfortable in this field isn’t an option, and I can’t overemphasize that enough. Of course, we also need to translate that into action for clients, so I want my team to think outside the box to iterate multiple solutions to any given problem. It’s about owning up to the long-term investment the client is making in their chosen technology stacks, and I want them to feel as though they can trust me to make the right decisions on their behalf. That also may mean collaborative analyses and decision-making about whether to stay or depart from a chosen technology for their own benefit.

Being better at what we do, but scale it down a bit

For 2020 and beyond, I’m facing new choices as an agency owner and taking us in some new directions. First and foremost, we’re leaning down our scope to only a handful of client industries to help us focus, including industry trades, manufacturers, and government. Secondly, I’m going to be more critical of what client “fitness” looks like, whether it’s by way of technology, leadership, or attitude; we need to trust clients and their intentions, and they need to trust our expertise. This leads me to the third point, which is choosing projects that provide longevity and relationship-building. If you want a one-and-done, then we’re not for you. But if you want a long-term relationship that will benefit from both parties growing over time, within the mainstream view of what a “healthy” relationship looks like, then we can meet those needs.

I’ve come out of my development cave long enough to re-evaluate my own agency’s standing in the Northwest, along with where my company sits on a national level. Now is the time to work on growth, and with the COVID crisis, I can take some space to work internally on introspection, strategy, and new opportunities. This work includes not only policy shifts but rethinking our core beliefs and even additional website revisions to unify our message and offering. I’m looking forward to this new phase of growth and adding new layers to our design and development stacks to allow us to better compete in the marketplace.

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