In today's episode, I interview Andi Graham, CMO and managing partner at Big Sea Design.
Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey everyone and welcome to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and in today's episode I have the chance to interview Andi Graham. Andi started Big Sea design and she was at Squares Conference and she had a fantastic presentation. This particular episode is going to be great for those of you who work in an agency environment or if you're interested in working in an agency environment. Today's episode is sponsored by Rollbar. With Rollbar you get the context, the insights and the control you need to find and fix bugs faster. We'll talk about a special deal that Rollbar is offering to Developer Tea listeners to get up and running today for free. And we'll talk about that later on in the episode. But for now I want to jump straight into this interview with Andi Graham. And once again this was a live interview so if you hear any chatter in the background it's because we were in a lobby with a bunch of people. So here we go with the interview with Andi Graham. So I'm here at Squares Conference with Andi Graham. Andi spoke yesterday and I'm talking to her on Friday the last day of the event. We're actually sitting outside of the last talk which is Camry Mall. Andi, can you tell us just kind of first of all what you spoke about here at Squares. Also maybe go into how you got to where you are today owning a business. Sure. Doing all the things that you do. Yeah. So I talked about my rise to meteoric success as a business owner just kidding but I call myself an accidental owner because I started as a freelancer and working by myself and grew to owning now an agency with 22, 23 employees and growing. And so I talked about yesterday I talked about the decisions and things that I've learned that have transitioned me from running a successful freelancing sort of business to running an actual business and an agency and cuddling my employees. So when I started doing this I've always designed things for people and then marketing and communications and I started messing with websites using homestead builder in 1995 or so. I'd start writing, realizing if I changed something to color red or color black I could alter how things looked and so I really used HTML and learned CSS as a design tool because I wanted things to look prettier and nicer and influence how they affected the communication strategy. And so I started freelancing outside my day gigs for small businesses, realtors, spas, et cetera. And at one point about seven years ago I was afforded the opportunity to sort of quit my job and actually start hiring people and starting an agency. I had a lot of projects where I'd already been bringing in freelance developers and so I had to make it a formal situation and we were just so busy I needed to bring in an extra designer, bring in another full time developer and take the plunge so that's what I did. That's a huge step for a lot of people who are listening to this show but pretty much in the development world in general there's a lot of people who are either freelancing or maybe they're working at night and they're starting to take up more and more of their time. And you took that final step to say, okay, I'm going to make this a more official thing and actually make this my job rather than making this my side job. Yep. It's a huge step. Takes a lot of courage. Well, first of all tell us about your company and then tell us how many people are working there and what you're doing now. Our company is Big Sea and we're in St. Petersburg, Florida. We have 23 right now. We are hiring for two positions. We have a team, a development team with six. We have a marketing team with six and then I've got designers, a couple designers and then project managers as well and then two partners. We do a range of projects that come from really hardcore, intense software development with major sales force integration and app components and all kinds of things. We have one app that we support that runs about 3,000 people spin it up every single day and use it for retailers like L'Oreal and CBS pharmacies and things like that. Coca-Cola and then we also have marketing contracts where we do inbound marketing. We're hub swap partners and so we do blogging and email marketing and things like that. We work with Stetson University's College of Law. We do admissions marketing which we adore. We do a local chain of bowling alleys. We do a lot of B to B stuff because that stuff is really successful. But we have even a very high end florist in San Francisco. We've got just a strange range of people all over the country. One of the things I loved about your talk and at these conferences a lot of the time is probably an 80 or 90 to 2010 split of product people versus agency style. And obviously I come from an agency. When I listen to product discussions, I have to take that with a grain of salt that's really says, okay, I only have so much time to spend on a given client and I have to balance my clients out. So it's nice to hear from someone who comes from that agency mindset where you have to create like a portfolio of clients and you have to consider how much one client has control over your business versus the person. Because if you have product then it's all in, right? It's 100% kind of thing. Whereas with an agency, the style of work that you do this year may be totally different than the style of the work that you do next year. And so the building that you mentioned working on the business, working on the business looks very different for an agency than it does for a product development team. Yes, very much. Yeah, definitely. There's a huge difference there that I think a lot of Developer Take for granted because in an agency environment, being agile and being agile is probably not the right word, but flexible. Flexible. Yeah, being able to wear many different hats and understand different things in completely different areas, unrelated areas is a really valuable trait to have. And that may not necessarily be as valuable in product space. Yeah, exactly. I mean, my developers have built everything from learning management systems to crazy events calendars to, you know, it's across the board. And if we could just do one thing over and over and over again, it'd be a different story, but we're not. And the last talk that was just here, Josh Topolsky I think was his name. I think he was Josh Sortino. Sortino. That's what it was. And sweating the details in design. And as much as I adore that it's something that we don't get to do very much in agency world, right? So we put as much time as we can in, but the sort of focusing on the one icon and how perfect it might be is not the luxury that we often have. So there's definitely a lot different constraints that we work with in the agency world. The art for the agency is the balance as much as it is actually the quality of the work. Today's episode is sponsored by Rollbar. With Rollbar, you get the context, the insights and the control you need to find in fixed bugs faster. Now, dealing with errors really, truly sucks. I mean, there's so many different ways that we deal with errors that are really bad. We do a lot of horrible exception monitoring. And ultimately we end up doing the wrong thing if we're trying to track errors through logs, for example, or trying to trace back from a user report. These are really difficult ways of handling errors. Rollbar works with all major languages and frameworks, and you can start tracking production errors and deployments in eight minutes or less. For me, it was much less than eight minutes. And Rollbar does things the right way. You can sign up for alerts when these errors occur. They also have a way of looking at errors in terms of how many times it's happened. So maybe it's just one very extremely fringe error that you don't really need to put a ton of energy into. Or it could be very much so at front and center. The users may be experiencing this error every single time they hit a particular part of your application. So you can integrate Rollbar into existing development workflows. You could send alerts to places like Slack, for example, or HIP Chad. Or maybe even create issues in GitHub or Jira, Asana, Pivotal, Tracker, all these things that you're used to using, you can integrate Rollbar with. So some of Rollbar's customers include Heroku, Twilio, Kayak, InstaCart, Zendesk, Twitch, tons of people that you have heard of being leaders in the tech industry. They are using Rollbar. And here's the thing. You can start using Rollbar for free today. For 90 days, that's 300,000 errors that you get to track for free. All you have to do, it's called the Bootstrap plan. All you have to do is go to rollbar.com slash Developer Tea. Of course, that link will be found in the show notes at spec.fm. Put errors in their place with Rollbar. So you shared 15 lessons, right? And you said that you paired that down from 85. Ultimately, I can imagine you have hundreds of videos probably in your back pocket. I'd love for you to share maybe two or three of these lessons with developers who are looking to start their own kind of work. Two or three of you're probably your most, I don't know, maybe revolutionary for you. If you could share just two or three, like a preview of that. Okay, so when I didn't even talk about yesterday, but I think that is very relevant for developers specifically, I actually went to lunch today with a couple guys who own a small agency with five developers. And I said, well, who's doing your project management? And they said, we are. I said, are you guys project managers? No. Are you good account managers? Not really. Okay, so the one thing I would tell you is that as soon as you possibly can, you bring in somebody who's really good at sweating the scope, understanding when things can get blown out of proportion that can help write proposals really well and that can manage projects. Because I think a great project manager helps you scale in the right ways and helps you take your focus off sort of managing the client relationships as much as you are. So that one I think is really important, especially for developers. Number two, the one. Yeah, absolutely agree with that. Yeah. The one I talked about yesterday that I think I left to the end was, or a second to the last, which is being true to yourself when you run your business. That I have a lot of conversations at conferences and places that I go with people who run their businesses or work for businesses that are very different than mine. They've always almost made me feel bad about the types of work that we take on and what we're doing and how we're doing it. But we're making money and we're doing good work and we're proud of it and we love our lives. And so I had to kind of have a mental reset about two years ago when I was really struggling with where am I going with this and how is this working? And I had to look at my books and I had to look at my people and I had to say, why am I trying to compare myself to all these people? And it's funny because some of the champions in our industry that I was worshiping and how they were running their agencies have actually tanked in the past two, three years. And so that actually just solidified my, you know what? Sometimes these small projects, they'd fill gaps for you. They make really happy clients and if you can do it right, those clients will grow with you and they'll keep coming back to you for version two and version three and version four as their companies grow. We just rebuilt a site for a client that was probably a $15 or $20,000 job three, four, five years ago and we just rebuilt a site for them for hundreds of thousands of dollars that was, you know, and we're helping with all their marketing and things like that. So if you're a good partner to a client, they'll stick with you and stay there. So that's a really, really important, important point, particularly working not to the standard of the industry, but to the standard of your own definition, right? Exactly. A lot of times people think that they have to have a, you know, a pathway into the future that puts them at a better living standard. Yeah. And that they have to reach a certain number of people that they hire. And the truth is there's plenty of very successful agencies that are at the same level of income and the same number of employees for many years. And a lot of people would consider that stagnation, but just to keep that business running, they're continuing to do work, right? They're continuing to better themselves. Yep. Sometimes growth comes along with that, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's, it is simply sustaining and sustaining well. And sometimes it's intentionally not coming, right? So some people want to stay in that small thing and that's okay and be really picky and choosy about the projects that they bring in. And that's great too. So whether you want growth or not, it's up to you. So. Yeah, it could mean making your work days a little bit shorter. It's exactly. So you spend more time with each. Yeah, yeah, exactly, which I don't do enough so at all. But, and then the other one you know that is exactly what you just said is that you can't, you can't start a business for the money. You have to have ulterior motives. You have to have another reason that you're trying to do it because you know, I've been offered positions doing what I do for my own business at large agencies at large companies. I could be making three times what I'm making in a salary, you know, in a professional position somewhere else. But I don't want that. You know, I'm doing this because I have this freedom because I enjoy what we're doing because I love our mission because I believe in the values that we have. I love the people we work with and all those things. So. Yeah, no one you're doing something because the why everybody needs money. That's not a good enough why. Yep. And there's plenty of things that you can do other than owning a business that you're likely to make money faster. It's there are plenty of ways to make more money. Mm-hmm. Sure. There's certainly better ways to make money than a podcast. But with that said, you know, there's something to be said for fulfillment. You know, they've done plenty of studies regarding income. And while, you know, 60 or $70,000 is certainly not a very trivial amount of money for most of the world, you can reach 60 or $70,000 as an average developer in the United States. Yeah, absolutely. Within your first 10 years. Right. Oh, yeah. And hopefully. And a lot of people, you know, once you reach that, like the studies basically show that anything beyond that doesn't greatly increase your happiness. That there's a leveling off point where in fact, more money makes you less happy, right? Yep. Now granted, that number is significantly higher. Not reach that number yet. Not near yet. But there is a leveling off point. So knowing, okay, what is the next piece of this for the why? Like what's going to keep me waking up tomorrow and getting excited to get dressed and go into work? Mm-hmm. And I think you mentioned last night when we were at the after party for yesterday's event, you mentioned that you have people who don't want to leave the office, even though you encourage them to, right? We're like, oh, no. Yeah, like don't answer emails after six o'clock, but they're staying around and you're out of the office. Yeah, they're playing ping pong. And that's an important piece. And it's not about the ping pong table. Yeah. And it's not about the Netflix. It's about the people and the people that you've cultivated to work together and to be, you know, in communication and in community with each other. Yeah. Incredibly important. I love that piece of your talk in the art discussion last night. Absolutely incredible. Yeah, we really focus hard on bringing in people who are culture fit and not necessarily a talent fit because most of the things that we do are things we can train for. You know, obviously I don't want to teach somebody how to code, but you know, I'm going to choose, always choose somebody who I know that my team wants to spend time with over somebody that's a rock star and whatever it is they're doing. So. That's a big part of it. So. Yeah, every rock star eventually leaves the stage, right? Yeah. It's true. They have their final show and then who are they? Yeah. Right. Yeah. If you were a rock star in Flash 10 years ago, hopefully, you're no longer that, right? Like, eventually that runs out. And there has to be something left that if you want a career at a place, right? So making a commitment, a professional commitment to someone who is a rock star in one area, simply because of that, well, you may have a rude awakening later when that thing is no longer relevant, right? Yeah, definitely. So that, yeah, that's, I totally agree with you there. Yeah. And I truly enjoy working now on the business aspect of it. So I work on the business and I get to talk about the challenges of the business and I'm not as mired in the challenges of a particular client or a particular project. You know, I'm really thinking about like, how can we position this differently? How can we grow this line or how can we change our delivery so that we can get a job? We can make it more profitable. You know, those sorts of, such of problems are fun problems to solve and get me excited to do it. So that brings me to the office every day. You know, we work with developers and the other thing about me starting my business was I recognized really early that I was not the best designer and I'm not a great developer at all. I'm an okay writer and I'm good marketer, but I'm really good at putting all those things together in a really effective way. And so when I recognized that, I realized I could bring in people around me who supported those quote-unquote weaknesses, but then we could produce greater work together as a team. We work with plenty of freelance designers, developers, whatever and they would be terrible at running a business. Sure. But they're great freelancers and they make great money doing it because they're reliable because they don't take on more work than they can handle. They know when to say no as much as what they know when to say yes. They're reasonable and you know, they're requests, they ask of us and when we ask them to do something, they act like a team member more than a sort of an outsourcer in that type of an approach. So it's a tough thing. You know, most developers can't manage clients very well in my experience. So I think there's a rare unicorn out there who does a really good job of it, but I think that's a tough one. That's one of the things that I have to talk about on the show to hopefully help because this field is only growing and there's going to be more and more developers working for themselves. So my hope is that we can help train developers over time because developers are not helpless. We have a certain set of skills and some of those skills are maybe not necessarily naturally to be good with client relationships. So that's one of the things that I talk about quite a bit on the show because I think it's so important for that next generation of Developer To learn. This is how you talk to a client. There are ways that are good and ways that are bad. You can burn or greatly increase the value of a relationship simply with a single email can change the course of your entire relationship. So paying attention to that communication is such an important fundamental part of your job as a developer. Yeah, absolutely. We have pretty high standards around that. We actually have a process documentation around how we communicate with clients and I jump on people immediately. So one of our core values is to elevate and educate everyone around us. So it's not just each other but it's also our clients. So our response is to emails. Even when the question is a name and here's what we're doing, here's why we're doing it and here's what the benefit is to you. I like to deal with that core value. That's a great core value to have. Thanks. Consta education. I mean, there's always something to learn. Definitely. Oh, God. It's number ends. Especially in this industry. Yeah, Nukin. Well, Andi, thank you so much for your time for coming on the show for a few minutes. We talked last night and today and I've convinced you hopefully to start your own podcast for people who want to follow you. It's Andi Graham BSD, right? Yep. Big Sea. What is the D4? Design. Design. There we go. Andi Graham BSD and of course that link will be in the show notes at spec.fm. Thank you, Andi. Thank you. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea and thank you again to squares for having me out to the conference. 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