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We Don't Need a CEO (Lessons Learnt in Two Years Running a Development Consultancy)

Captain's log, stardate d577.y36/AB

This is a follow-up to last year's Lessons Learnt: One Year Running Our Own Business, in which we shared all we had learnt in our first year operating as a development consultancy in Barcelona.

After two years, we're stronger than ever. Alive and kicking.

Road Running a company is like driving. Don't go too fast, keep your eyes on the road, and enjoy the ride.

We Don't Need a CEO

Strange as it might seem, after two years operating we still do not have an appointed CEO. While some might argue that this might be counterproductive to our credibility among more corporate clients, we don't really find our C-level titles very useful.

We are three founding partners and seven employees. That means that the founding partners are almost half the company in number. That does not earn us much credibility: we are still a small company which would rather invest time in providing the best service possible while keeping our employees happy, not in choosing job titles.

The job of a CEO is to do 80% stuff he has to do and only 20% things he likes to do. Besides that, a CEO is the public face of the company.

We split this between the three partners. Xavi is our CTO and therefore has the last word on technologies. Jordi, our COO, has the last word on operational & numbers stuff, while I, as CMO, I have the last word on marketing & sales. Everything else outside of these categories, we get a vote per person, so there's never a draw.

Believe it or not, but we're super efficient. One would not expect this from a three-headed boss, but we deal with every decision in the company in our founders meeting on Friday afternoon. Every. Single. One. And if one is really really urgent, we deal with it the very same day the problem/opportunity arises.

We have done it for two years already and we think it works like a charm. We won't be changing this anytime soon.

Lesson learnt: Investors would never allow this in a startup, but since we're a fully bootstrapped services company, we can do as we please and act with common sense.

We Don't Kick the Can Down the Road

We don't only enforce fast decision taking at founder's level, but we really advise our employees to do it as well.

To understand this, you would probably do well to read this article: Don't Kick the Can Down the Road. It basically describes this nocive tendency that busy people have to postpone important decisions. Be done with it and move onto the next thing.

What is the purpose of delaying decisions? We understand that big companies cannot change overnight, but we actually can. We need to take advantage of this situation while we are still able.

Lesson learnt: Move fast while you can. It might be your competitive advantage.

Sometimes we are able to correct and/or improve stuff in the weekly project meetings, some others we just suggest it on Slack, and some others we review it all together in our Martian Days.

Which brings us to…

Investment Time

Every two months maximum we get all together to work on non-client projects. We call this the Martian Day.

We fly our remote workers to Barcelona and spend one whole day in our coworking space of choice to get some facetime, work on cool stuff and review the status of the company.

We have been hosting Martian Days for a year and a half already, and it's usually the best time of the month. These are just some things we can do on Martian Days:

  • Share and review the company status & strategy
  • Do keynotes to talk about cool stuff you've been working on/with
  • Do workshops
  • Review company culture
  • Review internal workflows
  • Build & improve internal tools
  • Brainstorm new initiatives to give more exposure to what we do

Every Martian Day is better than the previous one. We prepare it accordingly and give voice to everyone in the company.

Lesson learnt: Investment time doesn't pay off in the short term, but gives morale boosts and rallies the troops. Plus, usually, the best ideas will happen during this relaxed time out of client work.

People

In our second year operating, we grew the team's size from 4 to 9 to be able to satisfy our clients' demands & compensate the fact that the founding members should be focusing more on strategy & sales than on doing client work.

First of all, in March 2015, we incorporated Xavier Simó, who was working at IronHack, teaching Rails. We saw a huge potential in Xavier and were especially charmed by his obsession with clean code and best practices. Although he had never worked in consulting before, we're really happy with what he's brought to the company.

Barely a month after, we incorporated David Gómez, with whom I had worked previously at VASS. David was the intern everybody wanted in his project, and while I had never worked directly with him, everyone spoke so highly of him. He then quit VASS for some months to become an entrepreneur with a videogames portal, which he built in Ruby. Bonus points for him, he's been helping us massively maintaining and upgrading the Naiz portal from a monolithic and outdated solution to the latest versions of Ruby and Rails.

During the summer, we landed two new clients, which forced us to hire more people. Strangely enough, holiday months seem to be when we land more contracts: we're the only company to answer the phone & email, or so it seems.

We then hired Pedro Pimenta, with whom we had previously worked at his former company, Mortensen and then as a freelancer. Pedro knew our tools, methodologies and we needed to strengthen our frontend development area, so that was a perfect match.

Almost at the same time, we needed more workforce in Rails. The day we decided to hire a new Rails developer, we received a job application from Fran López, a Rails developer based in Murcia, so we sat down with him and decided that Martians and Murcians mix well, and hired him. He would be our first 100% remote employee before Pedro set out to travel Mexico.

Last, but not least, we learnt that one of our close-friend startups, Dineyo, had to close. We had been friends with their CTO Oriol Collell for a long time. Oriol always wanted to be a Martian and he was one of the fiercest & most committed members of the late Startup Circle. Oriol is one of the most skilled developers we know, which has been perfect to compensate the new clients we have gotten since 2016 started.

Lesson learnt: In any company, your employees are your best asset. Cherrypick them very carefully and hire slow, especially in small companies.

Technologies & Services

During our second year operating, we have consolidated our techstack built on Ruby on Rails and AngularJS. We have built great projects and, as a result, we have now a client base ranging from the USA to Germany.

Hiring MarsBased is more than just a development team. We offer end-to-end solution to your projects. Therefore, we have incorporated design & mobile development (based on Ionic framework, which runs on AngularJS) to our services sheet.

As our company grows, so do our clients, which come to us more often asking for new services. If we can meet their needs within our team, we do it, but if we feel we can't deliver the MarsBased quality, we will look for the best company/individual to help them.

We are very happy to explore new technologies, but we don't foresee any techstack change for now.

Lesson learnt: There's a trade-off between being a specialised company and meeting the market's demands. The sooner you find out what you are best at, the better.

From Ninjas to Samurais

2015 was our growth year, no doubt about that. It was the time to go out, test stuff and learn fast to get new clients and gain foothold within the market.

Somewhere down the road, we noticed we were doing something wrong: our proactive "can do" attitude was somehow holding us back. Why?

As a dev shop, we can develop everything you can imagine.

Sometimes, when our clients approached us to develop new features or projects, we jumped immediately in to say we could do that, thus betraying one of our core principles: quality, not quantity.

Jordi approached us at the end of 2015 with a paradigm shift. We had been ninjas, hacking stuff and developing fast solutions for our clients, at the expense of our own training. We needed to be known for being an experienced and expert consultancy, not a company that chops fast. We needed to learn the samurai ways.

We decided we needed to take a step forward in quality, even if it took a little bit longer to deliver. We also shifted from being a dev shop to a consultancy, to complement that decision.

We're not hired to execute. We're hired to execute sensibly.

Lesson learnt: Take some time to review your company culture. Practice what you preach, lest you lose credibility.

Marketing

Between March and August 2015 we didn't land any new client. In normal circumstances, that could've killed the company, but we were doing fine and our clients are in for long-term relationships, so we weren't forced to get new contracts so often.

We started reviewing our sales processes and found we're more effective in getting people to find us.

As a niche technology service provider, it's not very likely that we will create the necessity of switching to AngularJS or Rails in already established companies. So we turned the situation upside down and we based our sales plan to be like a mechanic's.

You only go to the mechanic when your car is broken, and you will never trust the first one you find in the street: you ask your friends for recommendations.

Therefore, we ditched outbound sales and focused on inbound: a new website, more blog frequency, more talks in events, a boost to SEO and we enlarged our already broad network. We need to be top of the mind if we are to become every CEO/CTO's go-to company for Rails or AngularJS development.

Lesson learnt: As your company evolves, so does your sales plan. Make sure to review it every time you change your services.

Entrepreneurs, Startups and Community

Since the very beginning of MarsBased, we have been very committed to bringing Barcelona's entrepreneurial scene to the next level with initiatives like Startup Grind Barcelona, the Barcelona Startup Map or the Slack community we launched for entrepreneurs and startups in Barcelona.

Following our plan to switch from outbound sales to purely inbound, we decided to go full throttle with Startup Grind. We have upped our role as organisers and have assumed almost all the expenses. We've gone from an average attendance of 80 people to over 100 in barely four months. This has also attracted bigger sponsors which will give us the possibility of doing grander things.

Now, at least half our team has given keynotes or mentored at business schools, universities, startup accelerators or developer bootcamps such as Toulouse Business School, Conector or IronHack.

We still haven't had time to explore contributing to open source yet, but it feels natural that during this year we will start doing it.

Lesson learnt: Test LOTS of ideas to give back to the community as a long-term investment, see what sticks, and then commit 100% to it.


Wow, that was a long post! Thank you for having read it all!

We are always eager to share everything we learn running MarsBased, and that is the purpose of this blog.

Feel free to ask us any question in the comments section below and we will get back to you with our best answer!

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