Brant McNaughton: Surviving three recessions and finding your agency niche

November 30, 2021
Brant McNaughton

Nick Ellison sat down with Brant McNaughton of ecce, a development agency based in Kent as part of his new podcast, Exploring Digital. If you prefer audio, you can listen to the podcast in full here.

Nick Ellison:

Brant, do you want to just kick us off by explaining a little bit about who you are and do I say, is ecce the right way to say it?

Brant:

ecce. No way, it’s the way we pronounce it, whether it’s the right way or not. I don’t know, but

Yeah. Actually, well, it’s Latin for look. It’s way too clever for me, but anyway. So yeah, we’re a web development studio based just outside of Sevenoaks, North Kent. We’re 21 years old, just gone and we do a lot of similar things to you guys at Purr. Where we do a lot of integration stuff, custom platform development. We don’t really do any sort of re-platforming, we do a bit of technical consultancy. So we’re a team of eight, all sorts of shapes and sizes, which makes life interesting.

How has your business eveloved with technology?

Nick Ellison:

Well, it’s nice to be doing one of these for once with someone that hopefully speaks the same language. That way we’re both tech-focused and have presumably very similar approaches to things, which should be fun to compare notes on. So I guess, one of the differentiators is that if you guys have been around 21 years, as opposed to our eight, I think it is. How much has the business evolved to get to this space? Is it radically different to how it started or have you always had that setup? And how have you seen the tech you’re working with evolving and the way in which the program has worked with it evolved?

Brant:

Good question. So I had a previous career in the city, and so I left in 2000 and set up this agency. I’d never worked for an agency before, didn’t even really know I was setting up an agency. I was setting up a business to build websites for people and so built a couple of websites for a few locals, and then we built our first e-commerce website in 2002. We would’ve, I suppose be called a full-service agency, just me in the spare room because I did everything. So whether it be the content population of SEO branding, all that sort of thing. And so we built our first e-commerce website in 2002, which was for a company in Boston and we went on to build several other websites. So the other e-commerce websites were built in classic ASP. That’s the only thing I can code really. I can probably read PHP, but classic ASP. I mean, that’s one thing that’s fundamentally changed. I don’t do any development anymore and we definitely don’t do any classic ASP, but which is a bit of a shame.

Nick Ellison:

That’s a good thing. Yeah. Well, if you did, they’d ask you how it worked.

Brant:

Yeah. That’s true and I’d still have to put my hands on the tool. So yeah, I think it’s changed dramatically because we’re now sort of, rather than a full-service agency or a full-service business, we are primarily web development. Helping out other agencies very much like yourselves, to get the technical job done, doing stuff that integrates into legacy systems. So we now rely on PHP Laravel, react and view node. And when we started, we had a load of PC’s, now we’re all on Mac’s. So I mean, we’re a proper agency. Right?

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. I always thought if you got a load of Mac’s in, then designers would have fewer issues with you.

Brant:

They just fall through the door. 

How to find your agency niche

Nick Ellison:

Yeah, exactly. So alright,  there was a definite change then. So you were Windows-based, classic ASP and full service. Was it a single change to go ‘we’re now specifically dev PHP stack’ or was that a gradual thing? I’m guessing you stepped away from full service first?

Brant:

Yeah. So I mean, we built an email marketing platform, a text messaging platform, we built our own content management solution and all this sort of stuff. And it was a case of, well, I compete with Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor. They’ve got loads of developers and we’ve got Carl sitting in the corner and me. So sort of, we turned away from launching products like that and then… I mean, search engine optimization, if you don’t keep up with what’s going on, then you’re going to get left behind. And we were busy working on development projects and couldn’t spread ourselves so thin, so we just focused on what we were good at.

Brant:

And then we still did a bit of design and stuff like that, but more and more, we were getting to work on larger projects. Whether they be platform development, supporting other agencies. And so there was no sort of, we very much, we never did any content population or creation. SEO went out the window, design, we did some design. We had a designer for a while, but with a lot of the stuff, we were supporting other creative agencies. So they would come with their own designs or we were working with other clients who had a design, a marketing company build the design for them.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. So easy to simplify it. I mean, it was a good point you made earlier, about how historically dev agencies in particular, but all sorts of agencies, had to build so much more, all of these supporting systems, people did build their own email platform or their own SMS platform. All of these different things. Now the idea of getting every bit of functionality Twilio offers to you, would’ve taken you a year to put together the things you needed before. So there are so many more tools available that speed up development. And I guess, in a similar vein, how you’ve ended up with the tech stacks you’ve used, it’s the same evolution.

Nick Ellison:

So much more is done for you, the frameworks have evolved. And the open-source market of people who are developing packages to talk to these platforms, have so much influence over what becomes predominant. And the success of Laravel, and Vue, and React, and these things. It’s not that the tech is necessarily better than the alternative. It’s that the market has gone with these things, has adopted them and the community of people who are developing extensions and add-ons is so populous and busy. And that gives you the confidence to stick with that as a stack.

Brant:

Absolutely. Yeah.

How have project sizes changed through the years?

Nick Ellison:

But yeah, it’s not that long ago that you had to build so much more for yourselves, and the onus on each project to create so much more of its own ecosystem was such a bigger demand. I mean, as a result, have you seen project sizes overall decrease, would you say, in that 20 years? Or is it just now that people are able to do more with the same money, the budgets stay the same, but you’re trying to achieve more for them?

Brant:

Well, just circling back to our own code stack. I mean, we have sort of homogenized our code stack. I think we had 25 different versions of everything running at the same time, you just can’t do that. So we’ve got our own core codes, but our projects have got bigger. I think our clients have sort of, we are now working with people who recognize that the investment they’re making, is going get some return. It wasn’t a case of, when you were building 1,500 quid websites, 15 years ago, you weren’t delivering the same sort of end results. So now we’re integrating into sort of ERPs and building warehouse management systems.

Brant:

So these are sort of seasoned companies, we’re not working with startups who are making a sizable capital investment. Onto a lot of it may be extending longevity of their existing or the ERP system that they’re wedded to. Maybe it was never built to be connected to the outside world. So I mean, these are people, we’re building things that the projects are larger. And I think what we bring to the party is they’ll say, “Well, you can do that. Can we do this? And can we do this? Can we do this?” So there’s sort of, I mean, it’s like a stone gathering moss. I mean, is that right? No, it’s like a snowball effect, forget the moss.

Nick Ellison:

I get the point. Yeah. Gathers no moss.

Brant:

Yeah. That sort of thing. So yeah, it’s like a snowball effect really. I mean, we build some middleware and it connects us. So the projects, I mean, over the last four or five years have grown dramatically.

Nick Ellison:

How has ecce survived three recessions?

Nick Ellison:

And again, kind of coming back to that point over the last four or five years. And again, in your 21 years, you are now on what, three recessions? How many big dips has the business been through and has-

Brant:

I think this is our third.

Nick Ellison:

The last 18 months, has that been about as difficult as it’s been?

Brant:

Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely been challenging. We had a lot of conversations with people looking at digital transformation, and how we can sort of automate as many business processes for them as possible and the conversations. I mean, lots and lots of conversations, and we entered into lockdown and the sort of appetite was still there, but the uncertainty of what’s ahead, no one wanted to invest. And then when we are coming out the other side, they go, “Well, you know what? We’ll just go back to the way it was. We don’t need to sort of automate this process because I’ve got 25 guys in the warehouse doing nothing.” Something like that. I mean, that’s a bit simplistic, but yeah, it has been challenging. I think we’ve been relatively lucky though with the clients we’ve got, that we had some large projects that are ongoing and they’re still ongoing. So we’re not starving, we’re not dying out.

How have the challenges you’ve faced as an agency owner changed over the years?

Nick Ellison:

Yeah, certainly. I remember talking to various tech-focused agencies at the time, and we seemed to be more insulated than others, to a certain extent. Because the length of projects tends to be longer, therefore people had less opportunity to cancel everything, than agencies where they were on a purely monthly basis. So yeah, that was a good situation to be in hopefully. Out of interest, where we are now, summer of 2021 or end of summer of 2021. How are the challenges that you’re facing now? Are they totally different to where you were a year ago? I’m guessing like us, it’s more, how do you scale quickly enough or higher, in a totally different market, right?

Brant:

Yeah. I mean, there’s a couple of challenges. So yeah, when we were talking about this before we came on air. Is that the right thing to say on a podcast? I don’t know. It sounded pretty.

Nick Ellison:

Let’s work with that. Yeah.

Brant:

Yeah. Sorry. Okay. So we’ve had enough work for the team we had, almost too much work for the team we had, but not quite enough work for more guys. But we’ve made the jump and we’ve taken on some more talent. I mean, finding talent in this sort of market, where everyone’s quite happy to work from home, has been challenging. But in terms of the road ahead, I think that again, the conversations have started where there are people looking to exit their businesses and they need to get their house in order. Looking at their systems or what they’ve got, and how can they make it better and future proof it for the new purchases.

Brant:

I mean, we’re having those sorts of conversations. Yeah. I think it’s pretty good. The challenge has always been sort of new client acquisition, people do they know that they need a company like us? I mean, do they know that people like us exist? They’ve got some challenges, but how do they go and find people that can solve these process? How can they connect to this dusty silver box in the corner of the office? I mean, where do they find people like us? So that’s always been the challenge.

Nick Ellison:

I think it’s an interesting point, because that we share this interest in doing work within businesses, and building tools, and unlocking data from old systems, or making things talk together in a better way. I think there must be such a volume of businesses that don’t necessarily get that. Maybe it’s not their IT firm they go to solve that problem. Or they’re thinking, do I need to go and bring in some new enterprise system? Or do I talk to a robotic process automation firm or whatever it is? I suppose the message I’m always trying to sort of hammer home with people is, you can do so much with such a smaller budget when you come and you use web technology for stuff. Traditionally a web technology.

Brant:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Nick Ellison:

The possibilities are so endless now. You replace so much of what traditionally you needed, full-on software development and enterprise software, you can do with a bag of tricks.

Brant:

Yeah. Definitely.

Nick Ellison:

And that’s a great opportunity that we can address.

Brant:

I think some of these things are maybe hampered by a sort of traditional IT department that, “It should be all right. We’ve got this.” And they may not. I don’t want to alienate everyone who’s listening, but there are people that sort of want to play their cards close to their chest. And we can’t do this, we can’t do this, or we’ve always done it this way, I’ve always done it this way. Whereas you said, there’s low-cost technologies and opportunities to sort of save money, left, right, and centre. That either they should be bringing to the management team or not. But I think sometimes, maybe they don’t know it’s there or they don’t understand it. So maybe I’ve upset a load of people now.

Nick Ellison:

Traditional IT departments like to have stuff under their control.

Brant:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Nick Ellison:

They don’t want to have stuff where there’s a risk of it being under a small firm’s control. In a way you want to say the opposite, you say, “Well, we built it with a technology that is now so popular, that you can find a guy on Upwork or any platform who can sort it.” If you want to take it away from that agency, you can move it a million times, because the approach is and the frameworks and all these things are so standardized. What if it’s built in the proper way, it’s now more resilient than it would be if it was just built with an enterprise kit, which has a shelf life. Right?

Brant:

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, the enterprise software, it all tends to be sort of locked down. You can’t do anything and it may go out of favour. But I mean, what we do is there’s no smoke and mirrors, it’s all pretty sort of available to the next developer that comes along. I mean, it’s well documented and it’s well built, as you said.

Nick Ellison:

So what about, well, within your own business? Have you built any cool things that you run internally or anything you particularly like using that’s off the shelf? Anything that makes your life, running it day-to-day easier?

Brant:

Well, we’re our own worst customers. So no, we’ve built four different versions of our website, which still haven’t been launched.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. Sounds about right.

Brant:

We’ve built a time management system, which is great, but no one fills it out until they’re chased. I mean, but that’s 15 years old. So no, we are sort of, again, why reinvent the wheel when there are these solutions out there?

Nick Ellison:

Totally.

Brant:

We were talking about building our own VoIP system and why?

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. No one uses the phone now anyway.

Brant:

Yeah. But it’ll never get done or we’ll be working on that, rather working on client stuff. I mean, we do have a hack day.

Nick Ellison:

There’s a good balance, right? Because developers, it’s good to have side projects. It’s good to have stuff that’s totally outside of your comfort zone and I totally get you. I mean, I’ve built a VoIP system before, got really into it and got heavily into asterisk config. It’s just something that’s going to go wrong and you’re not going to have time to fix it.

Brant:

Yeah. And then no one can help you.

Nick Ellison:

I felt, the more we moved away from being dependent on stuff that we’d custom-built or we’re desperately trying to support, and just gone, just buy the thing off the shelf, it’s not that expensive. You’ll sink a tonne of developer time into it and then consider that an investment. Yes, conceivably, it could be an investment. It’s an asset that’s capitalized. It could be a worthwhile R&D activity, but it’s not crucial. And in a world where we’ve got such limited resources and access to developer time, we’ve got to put it into client work. There are better ways to train and progress developers, than internal projects, a lot of the time.

Brant:

Yeah, I agree. As I said, we did have our own content management system. We opted for Craft, because it’s there and it’s ready and it’s accessible, and we don’t have to start from scratch.

Nick Ellison:

So we’ve sort of touched on building your own stuff. Is that something that you do with your 5% Fridays? Is that how the developers work on their own bits?

Brant:

I mean, the guys are sort of, they’re dictated to during the week or during the month, through client deadlines and stuff that needs to be delivered. Whereas, I mean, 5% Friday is one day a month, which is just a chance to play with new stuff. Whether it be, we were scanning photos, getting sentimentality out of photos and stuff like that. How could we use that? I mean, we built an email listening tool, that we’re listening to a mailbox and interrogating the emails, and trying and working out what the… I mean, these were e-commerce requests or order requests from clients, to try and work out what they’re actually trying to order. Initially through attachments and purchase orders, but also now in the body of the email, we can and say, “Right. Well, I’ll have five of the same of yesterday or last month or whatever.”

Nick Ellison:

That’s pretty cool.

Brant:

Okay. That sort of thing that we can revisit and then come back to and say, “Right. This is something that possibly, we can deliver to our clients.”

Nick Ellison:

That’s pretty cool. Any success stories, any stuff that you play with that’s later kind of gone on to be embedded into a project?

Brant:

I think, yeah. I mean, that purchase order reading. So we had a client that-

Nick Ellison:

Natural language processing, is that?

Brant:

No. What we were doing, this natural language processing came after that. I mean, what we’ve actually launched to our clients is, that we were reading attached purchase orders from clients. So I’ve got an enterprise client that distributes products to manufacturers. And so the manufacturers would email in purchase order and say, “We want blah, blah, blah.” Whatever and this is the purchase order number, and this is the delivery address. So we can read the purchase order, we can get the purchase order number, the delivery address. We go through and look at the SKU codes, the quantities and all that sort of stuff, and build up basically a virtual shopping basket. We know that it’s coming from a certain email address, so we know the client has applied to. So we can apply the discount to the pricing and then push that straight through into their ERP system.

Brant:

So we’ve sort of, I mean, it started off as a 5% Friday exercise, and now we rolled it out and we call it invisible e-commerce. Because effectively people are creating shopping carts, and baskets, and processing orders without actually hitting a website or anything like that. So it’s business as usual for their clients. So basically we’ve just automated a business process and their clients know no different, and it sort of freed the sales team up to go out and sell.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. That’s a perfect example of a nice hack day project that grows, right and turns into something.

Brant:

Yeah.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. And we’ve been doing something, not totally dissimilar. I mean, processing PDFs and extracting information from it. And the scenario we’ve been doing this in is something where the rate of processing before was in the region of, they’d get through one or two of these files per day. We’re hoping that we can get them more up to solidly 50 a day. It’s incredible what you can do with a relatively small kind of project and turn that into something, scaling it.

Brant:

Yeah. I mean, a tangible return on investments. I mean, for example, the way that they were processing these orders previously, was that someone would print out the PDF, go to the printer, come back, pick it up and then manually key it in. I mean, why? So even if it’s 10 minutes per order, 20 orders, it’s 200 minutes. Right? What else could they be doing? It’s three hours that they’ve just wasted when we’ve done it automatically.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. So we worked with another organization where, and this is three years ago, and they’re still physically moving stacks of order forms. Physical order forms around an office and couldn’t be processed until they’d left and gone to another desk. There’s plenty of businesses out there apparently that is still like this, these entrenched ways of doing things, and staff, and reluctant to change.

Brant:

Yeah. We’ve always done it this way, so this is the way we do it. Yeah.

Nick Ellison:

Totally. And the savings aren’t insignificant, you can do so much more. And it’s an opportunity to think creatively and kind of go, “Well, I’ve done this. I’ve built this using this bit of tech or I’ve heard about this way of doing it. It can be a fun way to play with it.”

How agencies can stand out from the crowd.

Nick Ellison:

So obviously, we’ve both got a similar approach, we’ve got similar tech stacks. Both businesses are based in the Southeast of England and we’re not the only ones. Right? There are lots of firms out there like us of similar scales, using similar technologies, approaching similar end clients and doing comparable work. Do you find it a challenge differentiating yourselves or giving ecce enough of a brand, a voice of its own, to get inbound leads? Obviously, I’m guessing a lot of the time you are selling your services to agencies, rather than end clients as well. Do you feel agencies understand the tech agency market and are able to work out who they’re best partnered with?

Brant:

I think so. I think that some agencies don’t have requirements for talent, I suppose. We’ve got a, I wouldn’t say a relatively high profile. I mean we sort of, we’re not a cookie-cutter agency. We don’t do marketing, we don’t do this, we don’t do that. There’s a lot of things that we don’t do and that’s sort of, I mean, that’s a very weird, negative way of doing things, of advertising yourself. But I mean, what we do, I think we are pretty good at it. We’ve been doing it for long enough and we’re small and agile enough to move with the times. I think a lot of it is, it’s out… I think we are different enough and I mean, everyone’s talking about personal branding and stuff. I think it all comes down to sort of, you’ve just got to get out there really, and don’t know. I’m a bit sweary, I’m probably not the best ambassador, but I’ve done very well thus far. So yeah, I think it sort of, we’re not cookie cutter-

Nick Ellison:

Swearing’s an interesting one because you can put people at ease by swearing, and you can upset them by swearing.

Brant:

Well, I mean, it’s interesting that I’m on this thing called Lunchclub. Are you on Lunchclub?

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. I’ve been on Lunchclub a bit.

Brant:

You’re sort of sizing each other up, and then you say f*ck or something and then it all comes out. Right? And it’s just a free-for-all, it’s just expletives left, right, and centre. By the end of the conversation, you think, well, I wonder if that would have actually gone that way if I hadn’t said something? I think I’m an enabler, to be honest. I think that’s my gift to the world.

Nick Ellison:

So new business tactic, swear more.

Brant:

Yeah, I think so. Just be genuine, just be the way I am and this is the way I am.

Nick Ellison:

Well, it’s a good way of defining your niche, sweary agencies.

Brant:

Well, there’s a few out there. There’s a company, I’ll give a shout out to Mellor and Smith. Have you ever heard of Mellor and Smith? They’re an advertising agency in London, they used to run these events called Take Fucking Risks.

Nick Ellison:

Right. Yeah.

Brant:

Brilliant. And Paul Mellor is just, swear it out. He was a good lad.

Nick Ellison:

Very good. Yeah. We’ll have to do some more swearing off one of these recordings.

Brant:

Yeah. We had one thing we built on our 5% Friday, one of the young guys here, we built a swear jar.

Nick Ellison:

A virtual swear jar.

Brant:

A virtual swear jar. So we were using Google voice processing and it was listening out to the conversations in the office and basically stripping out. And if it was finding a profanity, creating a counter.

Nick Ellison:

Yep. Right.

Brant:

And it was using the Monzo API. So it was moving money, moving into another, because they’ve got different cards and they’ve different pots, moving it into a different pot. It was interesting. I mean, I won by far, I was excellent. I made the most money or lost the most money, but yeah. So there’s another thing that’s just, I think the guys develop their talents and things by creating and having a bit of a play, creating unique and interesting things. I mean, I don’t think I could go out and sell a swear jar to anyone.

Nick Ellison:

No, but it works in a few ways, right? Because one, it’s a story of your guys, well, not using their time, but the business using its time and resources to help train its staff. The staff has the opportunity to build something that’s genuinely different and that they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to make, or the inspiration to make otherwise. It’s reflective of a team culture that’s quite relaxed and everyone has a bit of fun doing it. So hopefully helps with hiring.

Nick Ellison:

So much of the positioning we have to do as agencies nowadays isn’t to position us for clients, is to position us to somewhere where people should come and work. And the more you do to kind of say, “Well, look, you might actually not have a horrible time working here.” Yes, it’s an agency and that’s all horrible. But apart from that, hopefully, it’s an incentive for people to come and go, “No, they’re cool guys. We’ll spend some time together.”

Brant:

I mean, it’s all about the culture and stuff. I think agencies are organized chaos. I mean, if you’re doing it right, I think.

Nick Ellison:

There’s a level, I think you have to accept and then rise above. Right?

Brant:

Yeah.

Nick Ellison:

You probably have achieved this far more than I, in your 21 years in the game. But I’d say five years on from where you begin, you’ve learned, you’ve seen all these problems before. You’ve realized the way that certain things are going to go wrong and you’re able to relax more, and develop personalities in general. I don’t know that they’re by and large inclined to worry more, but certainly, there’s a lot of ownership of the work. And the concern that if it’s not going to go well, and you have to be the guy who’s going to be relaxed about it, and finds a way of keeping it all moving.

Brant:

Well, I mean, if you worry about everything, I’d have no hair.

Nick Ellison:

Very good.

Brant:

So I think, yeah, you learn to manage it. You learn to manage your people, you learn to manage your clients and your projects, but it doesn’t… By coming into running an agency business from nowhere, I think these are things that you learn by trial and error, rather than being taught. Excuse me.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. I don’t know about you, but certainly reading things like Agencynomics and reading them so late on, and you go, “I wish I’d known that when I began. Not now, it’s a bit late. I’ve made those mistakes. I learned that the hard way.”

Brant:

Yeah. Ah sh*t, really. Is that the way I should be doing it? Okay. Oh, well.

How development will evolve in the future.

Nick Ellison:

Well, you don’t have to listen to all of this, I guess and it’s to be interpreted. So yeah. We’ve talked about how things have shifted in your time, doing it and the way the technology has evolved. And we’ve also talked about cool tech that you’ve played with and experimented with. Have you got any kind of prediction or projection about how things are going to evolve? Do you see the way your business works or our businesses work, and people have the opportunity to make things? Is that going to change significantly in a world where everyone is clamouring for development services, and development work is becoming a more desirable career, and people are changing careers to it? How do you see it coming together?

Brant:

I think more and more sort of development and programming is being taught in schools, which is good. I mean, all the guys that work with me have predominantly self-taught. So coming into it a little bit, I think one of the challenges for people coming into the industry, is during the lockdown, we had an intern that was supposed to come and spend some time with us, and obviously, we were shut down. So I said to the university they’re coming from, the university said to me, “Well, can they do it from home?” And I went, “Well, what’s the f*cking point?” This is, it’s not about learning how to code because they can learn that at school or anything like that. It’s sitting in an environment and I got shot down on, not shot down, but on LinkedIn for saying that, I think that coming into a space with other developers and the rest of your team is important. Because it’s not the stuff that you learn coding or whatever, it’s the conversations you overhear, it’s the conversations, making a coffee or out of the barbecue on a Friday. That sort of help to progress your career.

Brant:

I think, so although everyone’s working remotely and this is great. I think there will be a return to sort of clubhouse environments, where creative agencies and people get together, and having a creative space will be a drawcard to some people. Because some people do want to get out of the spare room or away from the kids or out to meet other creators. So I think that’s going to be the sort of, we’ve gone full remote and everyone’s loving it and it’s great. But I think there’s going to be some sort of U-turn in terms of if you’ve got a space where people can come and hang out and do great stuff, and have a laugh and learn something new every day. Then you are going to attract the talent. So that’s my, I mean, new technology, I don’t know-

The future of working from home for developers.

Nick Ellison:

Your plan as a business for the time being is, well, new tech will come back to. So your plan as a business, you mentioned was, it’s going to be Thursdays, Fridays in the office for the time being. Do you think it will go more than that? Do you think it’ll be the majority of the week or it could be flexible past that?

Brant:

It sort of depends on the clients. So I mean, we’ve got clients in New Zealand and we don’t have to be in the office to talk to them, we speak to them at nine o’clock at night. I mean, I don’t think it’s, I’m not going to enforce anything and everyone say, “We’ve all got to come in five days a week or anything like that.” It’s sort of, if a project demands it and I’ve got three guys working on a project and it’s easier for them to sit around the desk and do it, they can do it. If they want to do it via Slack or Zoom, then they can do it. I mean, there’s no hard and fast rules. I just think that sometimes you get better stuff done when you’re sort of sitting over a pizza on a Friday afternoon going “Sh*t. Yeah. That’s why it’s f*cked.”

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. No, it’s a good point. Because I mean, we are fully remote for the time being and yet we are still getting people together. We get people together for two reasons. One is, it’s good to get people together for social purposes and to get the team, just working more cohesively in that way if they know each other better. And the other is, when it’s sort of for an organised purpose of work, an issue to deal with or something that’s going to be easier to discuss in person, or develop in a person, and you get people together, you get a meeting room and they do it. But what you flagged and what is missed by that approach, and we’re still really yet to see the impact of that in the longer term is. What about all those points where it wasn’t an organised, structured discussion. Where it wasn’t scheduled and you came to a realisation, or you overheard something. And it’s that stuff you can’t replace unless you’re physically together.

Nick Ellison:

And it’s going to be interesting to see, for us and organisations in general, how that evolves. Particularly with hiring developers, it feels so many firms have just gone, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll hire from wherever.” So you’re hiring from around the world and then once you’ve done that, and you’ve embedded that, you’ve probably lost it forever. You can’t get the team ever kind of meeting in the same way and as frequently, and you’ll never get those opportunities back. We’re still going, we’re hiring with London as a base. Everyone needs to be able to get to London because we want to be able to explore that and see how that goes, and it’s going to be interesting to see. We were discussing earlier how it’s a really difficult time to hire for developers right now, presumably because to everyone the pool is open to working anywhere within reason. And we’ve got to see 6 months, 12 months from now how that beds in, and if people have changed their minds about what they want from work.

Brant:

I mean, definitely, but also the problem is, that once you start going offshore and hiring developers where it’s cheaper, and that can be done with no loss of quality. Then it’s going to erode the cost of local developers or developers onshore. I mean, I don’t know. Sort of as soon as people start outsourcing stuff to-

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. I think the important point was if it can be done with no loss of quality. I mean-

Brant:

If it can be done. Absolutely.

Nick Ellison:

Normally it’s not necessarily the quality that goes, but the communication that goes. The more barriers you put between the client and the person who’s doing the work, including a language barrier, and a geographic barrier and all of those things, and then barriers between the team delivering them. It’s almost guaranteed not to be what they wanted, in my experience. And certainly, that’s why we’ve never used overseas developers and that’s been part of the philosophy. I think most agencies who do what we do have a similar approach. Yes, there are plenty of overseas agencies who’d have a different take on it and certainly, we’ve got a similar philosophy, I guess.

Brant:

Yeah. I mean, the opportunities are there to sort of hire developers from the Far East for a lot cheaper. I’m not saying they’re going to do any less of a job but It all comes down to communication, it comes down to those conversations over the coffee, or over the barbecue, or over a beer, or over a pizza or whatever, that they’re not involved in. That diminishes their experience of working for us and also what goes out the door, I think.

Future tech changes in the developement space.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. And certainly, for a lot of the agencies we work with, I think it would be harder for them. The more creative the agency, the more they need a UK partner in a way because they need someone who’s got a similar understanding of the culture, and the ability to kind of support them, and be around them, and be embedded into their process. It’s the further you are away, it’s the less it works. Going back to the tech side then, is there any tech that you are kind of keeping an eye on? Or things that you’ve seen, the way the things are converging, any difference in what might change the industry overall?

Brant:

Apparently, we’re all getting tester robots. Is that right? I mean, it’s going to get rid of manual labour and all that sort of stuff and we’re all going to have one.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. Testing will go forever. I’m sceptical, but…

Brant:

Yeah. I think there have been loads of memes of Will Smith staring it down and stuff like that, you think. I don’t know. I mean, in terms of new tech, I don’t know. We sort of know a new version of PHP maybe. I don’t know.

Nick Ellison:

Well, we get those and that’s almost inevitable.

Brant:

Yeah.

Nick Ellison:

I mean, certainly, a big change that you and I have seen in the past five years, is sort of the splitting up a front end and the back end and having separate front end frameworks and libraries. Yeah, that has improved lots of interfaces. It’s not necessarily that you could do things you couldn’t do before, but things have got a lot simpler. Specifically around multiple platforms and hybrid development, and these approaches give you a lot more boom. In a way, I think the tech is normally driven by the application. Right? And if we’re all, it’s not like there’s some great new form factor or device that we need to invent a way of working with. Everyone seems pretty happy with smartphones and tablets and laptops and it’s what works for those, isn’t radically different to what it’s been for a while. But it’s the next kind of cool feature that is introduced to the tech, that normally drives then the development for it.

Brant:

Yes. They’re all monosyllabic answers, but I think we don’t go out looking for new tech. I mean, we build on what we know for the client, what best fits their application and their requirements. But it’s something we’ll always do, and this is what the 5% Friday does, is that we sit and play with new tech. And if something comes along and we decide to use Tailwind instead of Twig or something like that, then we’ll have a play with it. We’ll evaluate it and we’ll embed it into our processes, if not, we’ll move on and find something else. If you spread your eye outside, looking to the next thing, you’ll never get what you’re doing do.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah. Because I think a lot of the ways in which development has changed in the past few years, aren’t necessarily about the functionality, or the experience of the end-user. It’s maybe security-driven, or performance-driven, or reducing repetition, and efficiency of the actual writing of it. So much of the drive towards frameworks or these tools for Twig and Tailwind and this sort of thing. It’s improving the experience, it’s expediting it, it’s tools to speed it up or make it a better process, but it’s not like the end product is any different necessarily.

Brant:

No. I think it’s a better user experience at the end, but also, it’s a better development tool to get where we needed to get sooner and quicker and more efficiently.

Nick Ellison:

Yeah.

Brant:

Yeah. But then it’s not going to set the world on fire. These new frameworks are just, I think everything needs to be quicker. Everyone wants something yesterday, whether it be a development build, or loading something on your browser, and these efficiencies help deliver a better user experience at the end of the day.

How does an agency owner spend his time?

Nick Ellison:

So right. One final question then. So what do you do with your 5% Fridays, if you’re not coding anymore? How do you spend your time?

Brant:

Covering support, answering phones, cooking the barbecue, actually, cooking the barbecue. So that’s my 5% Friday, cooking the barbecue, answering the phones.

Nick Ellison:

What normally goes on the barbecue at ecce?

Brant:

Meat.

Nick Ellison:

So it’s not a vegetarian?

Brant:

No, we’ve had vegetarians in the past and they’re invited along to the barbecues as well. But I mean, at the moment we’re a full set of carnivores.

Nick Ellison:

Maybe put that in the job specs?

Brant:

Yes. I mean, I think during the winter, when it’s too cold to barbecue, you’ve got to like curry as well.

Nick Ellison:

Yes. Very good point.

Brant:

Yeah. So our 5% Friday, generally I’m fielding and 5% Friday, I don’t know what it is about clients, but everyone loves to call up on a Friday. I mean, we don’t put anything live on a Friday. I mean, that’s our mantra. Nothing goes live on a Friday.

Nick Ellison:

No, that’s a big rule. Wednesday’s a good day. Wednesday. Monday, Tuesday build up and then Thursday, Friday for it to go wrong.

Brant:

Yeah. So I mean, it’s bank holiday weekend this weekend. Guess how many calls we’re going to get?

Nick Ellison:

Well, plenty. Yeah.

Brant:

So that’s the thing.

Nick Ellison:

Maybe if you could build a tool to monitor the support inbox and then just to deal with it automatically, some testing robots perhaps.

Brant:

Well, I mean, we’ve got that automated into our Mondays. So I mean, they come in and I’ll get to it eventually, it’ll be fine.