Ten Inspiring Software Consultancies
Consultancies that inspired Computer Lab in 2016, and what makes them special.
One big thing I learned this year is that there’s no one right way to run a software consulting business. I’ve tried to become a student of the industry, and in reading the blogs of successful companies, I’ve often found that the best practices of one consultancy are considered anti-patterns at another. For example, some companies proudly call themselves Agile or Scrum teams, while others are defined by their rejection of Agile practices. Some groups care a lot about accounting and finance, while other companies outsource those concerns and focus on code or relationships.
I think the rapidly changing software ecosystem makes a lot of different approaches possible. Ultimately, it’s personal. Each of the following companies represents a worldview, a coherent idea of how a group of people can happily write software and make money.
“Let’s create something that your users will love.”
thoughtbot is the canonical example of a good software consulting company. They set the standard for how a consultancy can contribute to open source, externalize business processes, launch products, and do good client work. The company’s simple designer/developer organization structure is evidence that a consultancy doesn’t need to become a bureaucracy to scale, and the quality of the company’s engineering and design culture is evidence that a consultancy can work at the level of Facebook, Google, and other ‘top tech companies’.
Standard Library is probably the smallest company on this list, but they’re a great example of a consultancy that has found a well-defined market niche and created a development philosophy to match it. Their promise of ‘design-driven software’ must appeal to institutional clients like the Harvard Design Magazine, the Whitney Museum, and RISD.
Standard Library’s landing page also lists many collaborations with other agencies and shops, highlighting the (perhaps under-appreciated) fact that many projects are a joint effort between multiple companies or freelancers. A company that can work well with a network of other contractors can potentially do more valuable, strategic work.
“Innovate like a startup. Even if you aren’t one.”
Citrusbyte helped me realize that the culture of a consultancy doesn’t have to perfectly match the culture of its clients. Sometimes, enterprises will look for consultants that can work seamlessly with their teams, often on-site. Other times, enterprises will hire consultants to accomplish tasks that are ill-suited for their own teams. It’s possible to build a great business using either model, but there are often advantages to building your own culture, owning your own process, and just focusing on the deliverables that your clients care about.
Focusing on outcomes also makes the sales process more repeatable, because you’re selling an outcome, not trying to be a matchmaker. Repeatable sales and hiring processes allow a business like Citrusbyte to forecast and plan effectively.
“We build extraordinary user experiences.”
Dockyard is a devshop headquarted in Boston with a Ember specialization, and seem to have many of the good features of thoughtbot. I discovered the company through the founder’s blog posts, which are surprisingly candid. In periodic posts going back to the first months of the company, he talks about the more emotional, raw aspects of running a business: firing, acquiring, running out of money, paying oneself, etc. He shares the exact annual revenue of the company, and writes down his expectations for the coming year.
All of this gave me a good feel for the subjective experience of a founder, and how it changes as a company evolves and grows.
“ConsenSys is a venture production studio building decentralized applications and various developer and end-user tools for blockchain ecosystems, primarily focused on Ethereum.”
ConsenSys is interesting because it’s a company built around an experimental technology with a highly uncertain fate: Ethereum. In 2016, Computer Lab had a fun and profitable time following the emergent cryptocurrency, and we were amazed to find that an Ethereum consultancy/incubator already existed in Bushwick, New York, and that it had almost one hundred employees. Assuming that the company is venture-backed, it’s a very different model from other consultancies, which typically focus on a relatively well-established technology in wide production use by a large number of enterprises and small companies. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens to ConsenSys.
For me, 2016 was the year of ReactJS. ReactJS (and the tools it is associated with, like Babel, Webpack, Redux, etc) fundamentally changed how I do web development, and the demand for ReactJS development helped to get Computer Lab off to a fast start. In my mind, Seattle-based Formidable is the primere React consultancy, mostly because of their open source projects and compelling work with enterprise clients like Walmart and Starbucks. A lot of the open source work is driven by the indomitable Ken Wheeler, who seems to look at things in the world and think ‘there should be a React renderer for that!’.
“We are your foundation.”
Math and Pencil, based in New York, with a design office in Buffalo, is on this list for two reasons: the fact that they have an office in my hometown, and because they’re a successful small data science consultancy. I think there’s a lot of potential in the area of data science and data engineering consulting. While not all companies have a need for custom software development, the need to move and understand data is pretty universal, and serviceable by individuals and small teams.
“Hello Velocity experiments with branding and marketing to provoke conversation.”
Our friends at Hello Velocity understand that there’s very little difference between marketing and trolling. Their experimental ‘vaporware’ projects are entertaining and effective at getting media attention, and they bring this same thought process to client work.
“Software on demand.”
Gigster is less inspiring, and more terrifying. The venture-backed company is focused on fixed-price MVPs built by teams of engineers looking to make money moonlighting on the side. Their landing page talks about modelling the development process using finite-state machines, health scores, and AI. Gigster, and some other companies like Hired, are less intereted in building a consulting company, and more interested in building an Uber-like platform that fulfills the same needs. It’s unclear how well that approach will work, but the fact that the company is willing to execute projects at a loss while they build the platform could potentially poison the MVP market, and eventually become an existential threat to the “lifestyle” companies they deride.
“Experiments in refactored perception.”
Not so much a software development company, blogger Venkatesh Rao’s consulting practice looks at large and small organizations as refactorable spaces. Most software consultancies typically avoid issues that are traditionally the domain of management consulting companies. But in the future, more and more enterprises will probably want organizational transformations and comparative best practices along with their software deliverables. Pivotal’s landing page already talks about “adopting the Silicon Valley state of mind”. It’ll be interesting to see which software consultancy will be the first to reach the dizzying multinational heights of McKinsey or Bain.