Do you enjoy watching The Walking Dead or Mad Men on AMC's website?
Do you play games like Ragdoll Blaster & DragonVale from Backflip Studios? Do you remember this national ad campaign from Domino's Pizza, or have you visited National Geographic & AllThingsD?
You can thank Crowd Favorite, a Denver-based design & development firm, for these sites, and many more.
I first met Alex King (founder of Crowd Favorite), and his team at the time, about two years ago. They build web & mobile applications, and their specialization is world class WordPress development. As I learned about the specific projects that he and his team were involved with, I knew that Crowd Favorite would be "one to watch" in Denver over the coming years.
We don't often hear about the amazing design & development work that's being done by agencies in Colorado. I suppose that to an extent, that's just part of the business. After all, major brands don't typically divulge who does their design & development work. Nonetheless, it's just jaw-dropping to think that a small team in downtown Denver was able to build a site like AllThingsD in just 6 weeks.
But how does one launch the kind of design & development firm that can do this level of work? What are some of the unique challenges faced by these entrepreneurs & their teams?
I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Alex & find out...
Dan: When (and why) did you start Crowd Favorite?
Alex: When I moved to Denver at the end of 2003 I decided not to look for a job and instead started building a commercial version of my free task management software. For several years I supported myself as an independent developer; building my own products and contributing to Open Source projects like WordPress.
In 2007 I was coming out of a feed reader startup I'd co-founded and WordPress had really started to take off. I worked with a friend to build the allthingsd.com
site for Dow Jones, one of the first publishers to embrace WordPress on a large scale. On the heels of that launch, I started getting lots of project inquiries, many for interesting projects that I'd love to be a part of. Since it was too much for me to handle on my own, I decided I'd hire someone and Crowd Favorite was born. By the end of the year we were at 4 people and have continued slow, intentional growth to the team of 18 we are today.
Dan: What Crowd Favorite project are you most proud of?
Alex: The project I'm most proud of is actually our team itself.
We've been fortunate to work with some great clients (National Geographic, DirecTV, AMCtv to name a few) and have built some great web applications and WordPress websites; but it's the quality and capabilities of our team that allows these to be successful. I wrote a little about this recently.
When you have a group of people that work together without ego to build the best products and solutions they can, good things happen.
Dan: Are there any unique challenges when dealing with large corporate clients (communication, process, decisions made by committee, etc.)?
Alex: I'd say the most important is to understand how the client's expectations. This means understanding which aspects of the project are most important, who the decision makers are, what kind of information and updates they want to receive from us (and in what format), etc.
When you understand your client's expectations, you are in a good position to meet or exceed them. Those expectations are more complex and tricky to navigate the more people that are involved in the project.
Dan: How do you build, or add to a team? What makes a great hire?
Alex: We try to constantly look critically at what we are doing and identify ways to do things better. Sometimes the next step involves bringing on a new team member.
We've grown slowly and intentionally for the last 6 and a half years. It's really important to me that we are able to bring people on in a way that maintains our values and culture. We give each of our makers a lot of autonomy and in return we expect them to work within and without the team to find the best solution to a problem, suggest new technologies that the client may not have considered, and coordinate well with the other members of the team.
We hire for fit with our culture and values, which means we're bringing in someone who embraces the craftsman approach to software. Then it's a matter of giving them the right support so that they can be successful with our tools, platforms and frameworks.
Dan: What do you wish you would have known before you started your business?
Alex: I actually think it's a good thing I was somewhat ignorant of much of the business minutia before I dove in. That blissful ignorance allowed me to approach the business with idealistic goals in mind rather than a focus on the general support stuff necessary to run a successful business.
The biggest change for me was when my primary role shifted from architecting and coding to supporting my team. That happened when we were around 6-8 people, and I wasn't really expecting it. I think that was probably my biggest initial failing, and (in turn) the biggest area of growth and improvement.
Dan: You moved to Denver almost 10 years ago now. Do you have any advice for people looking to launch, or join a startup in Colorado, as opposed to elsewhere (such as the Valley, etc.)?
Alex: I enjoyed my ten years in the Bay Area but I was definitely ready to leave when I came to Colorado. You hear the stories of the small percentage of startups that make it, but the overwhelming majority of developers never see their hard work result in more than a talent acquisition.
I wanted to build things, not set myself up for an "exit". I love the tech community in Denver because it's a place where you can still go big, but choosing to do interesting work over the long term or having a "lifestyle business" is more comfortable and respected here.
We live in a big small town. Get out and get involved in the tech community; before you know it you will be surrounded by smart, supportive friends at every event you attend.