As Netgen approaches its teenage years (we are 13 years old this month!), it feels like a good time to look back at these formative years, and to recheck the things we have done and possibly done well. This blog post is a short review of some of the things we have learned along the way (coupled with a few stolen quotes) that could be useful for someone else bringing up a company.
Of course, there are a lot of ways companies can operate - this is just how we decided to do it.
Find a niche
The history of learning amounts to a history of specialization.
Netgen does web consulting, design, and development. But so do thousands of other companies. In order to differentiate and find our own place under the sun, we decided to excel in the complex CMS implementations, and we chose eZ Publish CMS as our primary weapon. This does not mean that we do not offer services in the other digital segments, but if you are building a complex content-driven site and want to do it with eZ, we want to be the experts you will come to.
In a global market today, there are countless niches that need to be filled. They can be horizontal, like Drupal development services, or vertical, like building e-learning solutions or designing hotel sites. Both companies and professionals should aim to develop the T-shaped skill set to cover a wide enough range of clients’ needs while choosing a few specific skills to be really good in. This way you can really stand out from the crowd.
Don't be a jack of all trades (and master of none).
Pivot (but find your path)
It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.
Someone once said that only fools and dead men do not change their mind. The chances are that, when choosing your strategies for building a company, you will not get it right the first time.
We started, more than a decade ago, with very limited knowledge of what the clients want, need, and are ready to pay for. During the past years, we have changed course a couple of times as web industry matured and have followed the opportunities that appeared before us. Each new project is an opportunity to learn and adapt, and tweak your business a bit. On the other hand, be ready to stay patient and develop perseverance, seeing as developing any strategy is a waste of time if you are not ready to put in some real hard work in order to implement it.
Sharing is sometimes more demanding than giving.
Once it was considered wise to hide your secrets and cloak your offering from the competitors trying to push you out of business. It is a buyers market today, and for most products and services you are offering there are probably many alternatives a client can choose from. But the one thing that is hard to copy and build is reputation, so you should consider working on creating one. And there are plenty of opportunities to consider:
Open sourcing parts of your code, especially the ones that are hard to sell, but could be useful to a lot of people. TagsBundle, eZ Publish and Sylius integration, and Vagrant / Ansible setup for eZ Publish are examples of the hard work Netgen shared with the community. This earned us a lot of reputation points that converted a lot of possible clients.
Educating your clients (and possible competitors and partners - sometimes both) through sharing your knowledge on the blogs, forums, conferences, and other communication channels. We all reap the benefits of the other people’s expertise, especially in the open-source world, and it is only fair (and a good business policy in my opinion) to give back to the community. At Netgen, we have gone a step further by organizing (for the 4th consecutive year) eZ Publish & PHP Summer Camp where we all learn from each other, and make a few business deals along the way.
Sponsorships and student internships are other examples of the things you can do to both promote your business and help worthy causes and people. Netgen organizes internships for students and also sponsors events such as Zagreb WebCamp, BEST Code Challenge, and Shift Conference.
So, go work on your karma.
Collaboration divides the task and multiplies the success.
There is a known concept of red and blue ocean markets, and web design and development are surely not a non-competitive environment described by the latter. But still, we think there is a big opportunity in working together and partnership with the compatible companies in the manner that benefits all the parties included, foremost the client.
Since the early days of Netgen, we have been collaborating with the other companies, some of which have become our trusted friends and partners. We may have lost some opportunities to earn a bit more cash, but we have been able to successfully finish other, much bigger projects and realize the opportunities that would be inaccessible otherwise. All while making friends along the way.
Of course, in any relationship things can go sour, but our experience in collaborating with the other companies is by large a positive one.
Build a great team
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.
In the end, it all falls back to the people. Even the most ingenious strategy would be just a wasted digital ink if there was nobody to implement it. In Netgen we believe we have managed to assemble an exceptional crew of problem solvers, but maybe even more importantly, a group of really great people that enjoy working together.
With such team, it is easy to handle even the most difficult projects.
Summing it up
So, did we "make it"? Well, we do not drive Porsches and our work week is still about 45 hours long (and some extra).
But we do work for great clients with great people and partners every day. And we love coming to work on Monday.
I would say this sums up to a success :-)