why we chose Drupal as our agency standard and what it’s done for us – part 2

part 1 | part 2

n this second post I continue the story of how miggle transformed from a company that predominantly provided out of hours editorial content and content management services to one which pivoted and grew to become a successful web development agency by virtue of embracing open source via Drupal. You can see the related podcast for it here.

The work we did for ITV in 2011 was our first Drupal engagement.  We were asked to maintain a bunch of Drupal 6 sites, as well as build a new site, called ITV Food and given a retainer to staff up appropriately to do this.

Up until that point, the miggle business, which had never before billed for web development work accounting for more than 24% of its annual revenues completely pivoted.  In 2011 web development was responsible for 72% of our turnover.  The downside was that ITV was responsible for over 50% of the turnover of the entire business - which is never a good position for a small business to be in - although it was fortunate for us because by 2011, both AOL and Yahoo! who had been responsible for a massive share of revenues previously had reduced their spend with us significantly as their business and resourcing models changed. What the business needed to be sustainable was 20 or so clients each responsible for about 5% of our turnover, thus giving us a more diversified income stream.  But how were we to do that?

The upside of the ITV job was that it gave us a significant opportunity to focus on building up our Drupal skills in general while looking to being more Drupal talent into the business. 

Also, because ITV had engaged us to find Drupal developers we needed to make it obvious that we were involved in the Drupal project.  At the start we didn’t feel as if we had the skills and knowledge to contribute back in terms of code, but we did have the means to sponsor events - and being Silver Sponsors at DrupalCon London was money well spent in showing we were serious about the technology. This helped with finding new team members.

How Drupal helped us diversify income

I think the trick for any services business like miggle is to work out how you productise those services.  

People, Product, Price and Positioning. My take on the 4 Ps.

Product

I see Drupal as a product.  Products are often easier to sell than services because it’s easier to talk about features and benefits.

Any product has its limitations, but working within constraints is not always a bad thing.  The better your knowledge of a product the more you'll know what is achievable. It's then a case of working out how to bridge the gap between the achievable and the required, the ‘nice to haves’ and ‘must haves’, the custom and the contributed and making the trade-offs required.

As a product manager by trade I find working with a product like Drupal provides me with a range of repeat learnings.  Importantly I find it cuts the time required from the dev team in contributing to RFPs/Briefs/ITTs or in closing sales.

Price

When there's a demand for a product the market helps set price and that price is transparent. Marketplaces for development services like G-Cloud make this even more so. Often, when we were chasing WordPress work it felt like we were in a race to the bottom price wise. It's not just price transparency that solves this as a problem. I think there's a clearer way in Drupal to demonstrate best practice and that creates less downward pressure on price.

Positioning

Working with an open source product that we all buy into has also helped us at miggle determine and unify what our business 'why' is. That has given us a real sense of togetherness.  Drupal helps us continue to deliver self-sufficiency which is what miggle has always been about. And has helped us position ourselves as experts at building content management solutions, which deliver operational freedom.

At this moment in time most of the Drupal work we do finds us. Our website makes it obvious what we do, we are on G-Cloud, Acquia Partner Finder, Drupal.Org and a range of other sites and word of mouth is increasing. Those that find us have generally already made, or are very close to making, a decision on Drupal. This is handy for two reasons. One, it shows that there is someone client side who 'gets it' and two, it means we don't have to sell it in, which is great. Right now I'm really the only BDM, but as MD of a small agency I wear many hats. I don't have a sales team and I don't really see myself as a salesman. There is a challenge with the work finding us and that is that we are reactive. I'll cover that in my summary.

People: Consistency in staffing and skills

The more we scratched the surface of Drupal the clearer it became apparent how powerful it was and then how much more there was to learn. So internally we found that more and more of our day-to-day conversations were being had around Drupal and less around other technologies we were still using, like Mod-X and WordPress. And of course everything we could build in Mod-X and WordPress we could build in Drupal anyway. The more Drupal people we hired the more those left who knew WordPress and Mod-X became bottlenecks for those technologies. As a small business you can only focus on so much, so over the course of 2012 and 2013 we stopped doing any other sort of development work. Clients were either migrated to Drupal or recommended other developers and agencies. Now that our team is so Drupal centric it has become much easier to start to contribute back to the community. It's clear to all of our team members how they can self-direct their own learning and DrupalCons and DrupalCamps are an obvious and cost-effective way of doing this. They are also a lot of fun and a great way to meet other professionals. What binds the Drupal community is that no one needs to own the technology they just need to be able to use it, share it and contribute to it. 

As a business owner I have a very clear idea of what skills I need to maintain and grow my team.  This is also great from a business continuity perspective.  When we lost our lead developer on miggleCMS in 2009 it wasn’t possible to go out into the market and look for other miggleCMS developers.  I don’t have that problem with Drupal so much.

In the last year we have focussed on getting our team certified via the Acquia Certification initiative. This is an important step in demonstrating that we have competent professionals who can manipulate the technology. 

We have also seen more briefs asking for evidence of how we contribute to the project. Keeping our miggle drupal.org profile up to date and the profiles of all our team members, which highlights their contributions is the best way of demonstrating this. The fact that Drupal provide the means for this to happen provides prospective clients with a means to independently evaluate our business.

Because the barriers to entry in terms of learning open source are low, having tangibles like Drupal.org and Acquia Certified we can validate our skills against is key.

In summary

As I mentioned earlier the fact that the Drupal work tends to find us that means we really have a very reactive business. Over the last year I've been thinking a lot about whether I can flick the switch from being reactive to proactive.  I've come to the conclusion that it isn't really a flick of a switch because there will always be part of running of services agency which is reactive. I do think that there are things we can do to become more proactive and the analogy I've often used is one of being a caveman that goes out, bags a mammoth, drags it back to the cave, feed on it until we are down to the last leg, by which point it's time to go out and look for another big beast. What I really want to be running is a farm where I can harvest opportunities all year long, but to do that I need all the equipment and machinery of farming; advertising, marketing, social CRM etc. And as I pointed out earlier our presence in the community can also help with that. Over the last four years the specialist area has been Drupal but I'm also wondering to what extent I should become a sector specialist; to become a vineyard for example rather than an all-round farm, where we might focus on, say, the travel sector. 

We've recently become enterprise customers with Acquia whereby we bought a cloud product which will then resell to a number of our clients. We already have a number of clients on Acquia and one of the advantages we get from that is that we are able to reduce the amount of time we spend on sys admin so that we can focus more of our time on developing solutions for our clients. That helps us focus. Finally the extent to which we can work with Acquia to find customers we can partner on in providing solutions for clients might help us become more sector specific. We shall see!

How do my experiences with growing and transitioning my agency compare with yours? Or, if you are a site owner, how have you found it transitioning between technologies. I'd be really interested to hear your stories. Thanks for reading these posts.

part 1 | part 2

If you want to take back control of your web sites and applications then get in touch with miggle to see how we can deliver operational freedom for you in Drupal.