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10 Years & 10 Lessons: What We’ve Learned Since Starting Our Product Development Agency

Tony Scherba
October 10, 2020

It’s hard to believe that this month marks 10 years since my business partner Rudy and I began the adventure of running our product development agency, Yeti.

In many ways it feels like just yesterday that I walked into Boston City Hall to officially register the company - but considering everything we’ve learned in the past 10 years, it honestly could have been a lifetime ago.

These are some of the biggest lessons Rudy and I have learned in our first 10 years in business.

Learning How To Delegate Work is Critical

When Tony and I first started Yeti we wore every hat imaginable - from design and development to HR and accounting - but over the years it became obvious that running a successful company meant being able to pass many of those hats on to others.

Delegating responsibility isn’t always easy. Sure, there were plenty of tasks that we were more than happy to hand off to others, but oftentimes we found ourselves reluctant to let go of our responsibilities.

It’s easy to feel anxious about delegating work to the wrong person, or to feel as if you can do the task more efficiently than anyone else - but trusting that you’ve assembled a skilled team is crucial.

A book that really describes our transition over the years is “The E Myth”. It’s central principle is that business owners who begin their business as “technicians” (the ones doing the work), are in for quite a ride as they transition first to “manager” - no longer doing the technical work of the company but managing those that do - and then once again transitioning to “entrepreneur”, in which their role becomes working on their company, rather than for their company.

As the book describes, we started Yeti because we enjoyed product development and were skilled at it - but in order to continue growing the company it was necessary for us to hand off many of our initial product development tasks so we could focus on growing a successful company.

Delegating work appropriately and efficiently as a developer turned agency owner requires a dedication to learning management and business ownership skills and growing a solid team that can take on the responsibilities that you no longer want on your plate.

The Art of Finding Clients

There are a multitude of ways you can use marketing to find clients - advertising, SEO, attending conferences, and so much more - but in our experience, referrals and repeat business are the most effective means of attracting projects.

While other methods work we’ve found that the time and effort necessary to find and sell to clients coming in through any other marketing channels require 20 times the effort of those received through referrals and repeat business.

All our marketing efforts support our referral pipeline - we send out monthly newsletters, consistently update our blog, host events, send out holiday gifts and keep up with past clients.

Other things that you can do include joining networking and industry groups. The more people that know your name the better - being a nice, sociable person definitely helps.

Most importantly, we’ve learned that it's crucial to always do good work and communicate effectively. This makes for happy clients who will want to work with you again will tell their friends about what great work you do.

Carefully Choosing Who You Work With Is Important

When we started Yeti our client list was at square one. Without a significant portfolio of work we didn’t have a huge amount of say in what kinds of projects we did or didn’t take, and our first clients didn’t necessarily provide use with our dream projects.

But, as we began to build out our portfolio and references, opportunities for higher level projects started rolling in - and it became important for us to carefully consider the projects we took on.

As an established agency, we often encounter potential projects that we know, for a variety of reasons, aren’t ideal for our team. Sometimes the project requires a tech stack that isn’t in our wheelhouse and would require an investment. Other times it’s clear that the client will be difficult to manage and there will be a lot of scope creep. We’ve also encountered situations where the client is promising a lot of ongoing work but the initial project’s profit will actually be a loss.

Taking on one of these projects in the moment, especially during slow times, can be extremely tempting, but we’ve learned that doing so can be detrimental in the long run.

Bad projects can really hurt the company’s morale or put you in a difficult financial position that forces you to make more tough decisions. More commonly, they can take up your team’s bandwidth to work on any other better projects that may come along.

Speaking from experience, being deliberate about the clients you work with - even if it means dealing with the occasional lull in work- is far more beneficial than remaining consistently busy with projects that aren’t ideal.

A Good Attitude is Key

This one might be a no brainer, but working with nice people that have a great attitude makes everything easier. Building a community of good people that want to work hard and not take advantage of others for their own selfish goals will make your life easier and less stressful.

In my experience I’ve found that an employees attitude is far more important than their skillset, and a client's attitude is far more important than money.

Building Rapport is Easy!

It might go without saying, but people want to work with a team that they actually like, so learning to build rapport with clients and potential clients is incredibly important.

We’ve found that a lot of the “technique” of building rapport just involves being genuinely nice. Make sure to smile. Remember names. Listen well and make sure to ask questions. These simple gestures go a long way. Being authentic and showing humility are also important.

Everyone likes to hear little anecdotes and industry talk, so I’ve learned that being able to bring that into conversations is helpful - people will feel like they are learning something and will enjoy talking to you.

Finally, when first meeting a client, always smile and make the assumption that you are going to have a good relationship. So often people are so preprogrammed to be “business like” and transactional - if you can break that mold and be friendly it goes a long way

You Have To Be A Leader

When we started our company, we got really excited about the idea of keeping our organization completely flat, where everybody had the initiative and self organized to hit company goals. This works when your company is 6 people, as it grows it becomes impossible.

Reflecting back, I think it was because I was scared of doing the work necessary to be a leader. I had one business coach eventually tell me, “so, it sounds like you are trying to operate a pirate ship.” That might sound fun, but in actuality pirate crews don’t perform very well.

Leadership is an art form that is important to study and practice - you can often give people more freedom and job satisfaction by providing them with a structure to do their best work.

Networking with other business owners is incredibly valuable

At Yeti one of our long time mantras has been “don’t reinvent the wheel”. In the 10 years we’ve been running the company we’ve learned that nearly every single issue that we’ve faced has been encountered by many other people.

Over the years we’ve joined a variety of networking organizations that have allowed us to meet and learn from others who’ve dealt with the same growing pains and business woes that we inevitably found ourselves facing.

Looking back, one of our biggest mistakes as a young company was not joining these organizations much earlier. I honestly believe that, had we done more networking in the earlier years of Yeti, many of the issues we faced would have been much easier to deal with - and our business would likely be at least a couple of years ahead of where it is currently.

Organizations that bring together business and agency owners to share experiences, learn, socialize, and help one another are incredibly valuable tools that I’d recommend any business owner take advantage of. Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), Vistage, and Bureau of Digital are a few of the groups that we regularly attend.

You Have To Be Deliberate About The Way You Run Your Business

Spending time understanding the vision and goals of your company, and considering the work it will take to get you there, is a crucial step in building a successful business. .

We’ve read a lot of business self-help books over the years but the two that have most significantly impacted the way we operate our company at a higher scale are Traction and Meetings Suck, and many of the processes we continue to follow today were pulled directly from them.

Rocks are quarterly company goals that are brainstormed, prioritized and completed by all members of the Yeti team. The general idea behind them is ensuring that we are carving out time to work on larger initiatives that will forward.

One recent Rock was setting up 401ks as a benefit for Yetis. The goal was decided on during a quarterly team day and a team was chosen to work on the project throughout the quarter.

Because work on Rocks goals can often fall outside of team members normal day to day responsibilities, we designate “Rock Days” to encourage people to set aside time to meet with their Teams and get some work accomplished.

Council Of Yeti
Every month we hold an hour long all hands meeting that we call “Council of Yeti”. The agenda includes reviewing the company's work and finances over the previous month, checking in on Rocks progress, and opening up the floor for discussion.

In the case that no discussion topics are brought up by team members, we have an activity or exercise planned. Examples run the gamut from brainstorming creative marketing ideas to re-imagining our sales process.

At Yeti we have a daily huddle meeting that we call “Adrenaline”. This meeting is 6 minutes long and is designed to keep the team aligned.

Our Adrenaline meeting generally follows the same agenda every meeting and includes 2 minutes of good news, 2 minutes of updating goals and two minutes for a rotating team update.

If you’d like to learn more about Adrenaline, check out “Align Your Team in Six Minutes a Day With a Daily Huddle

If you’d like to learn more about some of our internal operations and processes, take a look at our article “Effectively Optimize Your Business Operations - Even While Remote”.

Choosing A Tech Stack Can Be Complicated

As a product development agency we are afforded a lot of unique opportunities with regards to our tech stack and technologies. We believe that sometimes there’s one right tool for the job, but oftentimes there are many right tools for the job.

When we’re starting on a new, green field project, we have a core tech stack that we typically use to spin up a version of our templated codebases based on whether we’re building out a backend, web, or mobile application.

We’re able to make small tweaks to the architecture, libraries, or frameworks in the case that a new version of a library has been released or we’ve recently learned something on a project we’re working on or from a meetup we’ve attended. In this sense, we are able to very quickly iterate on our core stack and stay up to date with the latest versions of libraries we use.

Of course, we need to be careful not to iterate too much, or just try something for the sake of trying it, because our team, or our client’s team, will need to maintain the codebase after the first version has been built. We always make sure we’re making deliberate changes that will benefit our team, the project, and our client.

When we’re working on a project that involves an existing product, we benefit by having the opportunity to see an existing codebase, the technologies being used, and the product's architecture.

These projects take us more time to ramp up because someone has to read and understand existing code, and because the existing product most likely doesn’t match up to the way we typically create a new product from scratch.

As we work on these types of projects we can often clean up and evolve the codebase as we work on issues and features, taking what is necessary from our core tech stack to improve the codebase.

When it comes to choosing your tech stack, there are tons of modern and effective programming languages and frameworks available to use.

At Yeti our tech stack has evolved to be full stack javascript. This has made the most sense for us as far as growing talent on the team, and for ensuring that developers are able to read and understand code across the stack.

We’ve learned a lot in the past 10 years of running Yeti, and as we continue to grow I’m certain the lessons will keep coming.

If you’re beginning the journey of starting a business, remember to never underestimate the value of your failures - every mistake made and every lesson learned has become a brick in Yeti’s road to success.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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