10 Things We've Learned After 10 Years Running A Tech Agency

Xmartlabs Team
Xmartlabs Team
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Choosing to pursue a business in technology is often a difficult road with many changes and challenges. And if you think about it, startups have a flop rate of 90%; getting discouraged can be easy. Yet, the tech industry continues to grow yearly, and entrepreneurs worldwide overlook failure to pursue their ideas.

Xmartlabs began ten years ago under similar circumstances. Several factors influenced our decision: cloud computing lowered costs, the lean startup methodology was rising in popularity, globalization and massive adoption of high-speed internet, mobile as a new tech platform, and a pool of undiscovered talent in Uruguay. Ultimately though, we were young and had nothing to lose, so we went for it.

These past weeks of insight that inevitably come with each poignant date, such as birthdays and anniversaries, led us to come up with some lessons learned during the past decade. With all honesty, when we set out to do this back in 2012, we never thought we'd make it this far. So if anything, we're not trying to give out advice from a high horse, but a place of humility and appreciation. With any luck, you too will find some of them helpful :)

These are the lessons that stand out the most as we look back at our 10-year journey.

1. Work Among Friends

Since the beginning, the company needed to be people and relationship-oriented. It was not about a business transaction but an interpersonal relationship. And this approach had a lot to do with why we set out to build our own company. Although today it might be the norm, back in 2012, Uruguayan companies weren't that much people-oriented. We felt there was a lot to do in the employment sector. At the time, it was not flexible in terms of hours, which also touched on subjects like trust, responsibility, and autonomy. With Xmartlabs, we wanted to change that. Staying close to your team, listening and being with them, not asking for things you wouldn't do; are all key to creating a horizontal work environment. Being intentional about it and bringing it up constantly, so it was on the team's top of mind, made it easier to maintain a good working environment. This approach made Xmartlabs what we believe is a great place to work. Our turnover rate pre-pandemic was less than 5-1% (on an industry that then had a 13+% turnover rate). This is also reflected in the longevity of some of our team. Many of the old Xmartlabers themselves recommend new people for us to hire.

working among friends

2. First team members set the company culture

We always aimed to create the best innovative team in South America, but we never compromised our team's human qualities. Milestones are accomplished by teams and not by individuals on their own. With that in mind, we began recruiting (1 to 1) talented acquaintances and friends in the industry who shared our values and principles. This way we hoped they'd support Xmartlabs' vision and help lay the foundations of the culture we wanted in Xmartlabs.

Different key roles were essential to put the company on its feet during those early stages:

  • A designer that dusted off our services (especially on our website) and added value and differentiation.
  • Accounting roles helped us organize our finance and allowed us to leverage our growth without external investment.
  • HR specialists that helped us shape the recruiting and internal process.

However, we did have to cover a considerable amount of roles simultaneously. We had no background whatsoever in legal, marketing, sales, or business management, which presented a huge opportunity for learning on the go.

3. Learn From Your Clients

Anyone who started a company knows how much first clients teach you and how valuable those lessons are. They especially point you in the right direction by helping you understand what they value, pain points, and drivers they have.

Negative feedback it's also crucial as it will eventually help you improve. Those first reviews and bits of advice have an enormous impact on you (even if they're small tips like "Buy noise-canceling headsets").

Clients also helped us to adopt a modus operandi and a work ethic based on empathy and, just like with teammates, interpersonal bonds. They're also good to test yourself. In our case, we proved (to clients and ourselves) that we were up to any challenge and that being an offshore company was not a disadvantage or obstacle.

Learn From Your Clients
Soccer match along with client

4. Follow The Golden Rule

"Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you." As you may have noticed, empathy is a big thing for us, and it rules our clients' and team's relationships. We aim towards a relationship and lasting bonds (lasting in terms of years, not just a couple of months).

Showing empathy and integrity when things don't turn out as best as they could or as you expected them to will surely gain trust and cement those bonds. It's also amazing how clients and other collaborators can immediately perceive within the first few weeks despite not even starting a project. Transmitting empathy within the team and having people that shows it and promotes it is critical.

5. Hard work and consistency pay off (and beats being first)

First mover advantage (if someone did something first, then it must be successful) is widely accepted. But sometimes, slow and steady wins the race. Google was not the first search engine, just like MySpace came before Facebook (we are not implying we are like Google or Facebook 😅).

When we launched our OSS library (XL Form), there was already one doing the same thing and being adopted by the community. However, we saw how its numbers grew, and when the time came, we were the first ones to improve it by migrating it to Swift. So, if not from us, learn from Google, Facebook, and other big players; sometimes second is best.

6. We are always in beta

There’s always time for improvements. Our first website was honestly a bit embarrassing, but we needed to put it out there because there's always time to improve. If, in this case, the website was nice or not was not going to break it or make it, we needed it out, and that was it. Since the beginning, we were exposed to problems we needed to solve by yesterday, and being expedited became necessary. For us, perfect is late, most of the time!

Xmartlabs’ website during those first years.
Xmartlabs’ website during those first years.

7. We're never alone

Since our very beginning, we were made aware of the importance of weaving bonds with our surrounding community, this was mainly thanks to the accelerator we began in. Our first commercial mission and first move to an independent office was made together with other entrepreneurs we met there.

We also got involved by giving several talks in main events, even when our team was small. OSS was also a big part of this because, although we didn’t have that many success stories, we had some type of value to give back to the community, and they were always open to receiving it.

8. Know who you don’t want to become

We didn't have a completely clear vision of what we wanted to be. However, we did know what we didn't want to become: a colder, more transactional, and corporative business. Perhaps it's not the easiest way of carrying out a company because some things are left to chance, but it worked for us, especially at the outset. We always bet on organic growth and set up objectives based on the opportunities that came up or on aspects we need to improve.

Whether you prefer a more quantitative approach or not, it's equally as important to know where you don't want to be than where you do.

9. Embrace the mess

Problems will come, it's inevitable, it will come a time (or several) where all will be too  much. In those instances, we found it's better not only to put the fire out and look for solutions but to dig deep and understand why the problem came to be and get to the cause.

10. Don’t lose your essence

When we were looking to expand Xmartlabs, we found some internal reticence, especially because there was fear of becoming into that we didn't want to (pure, raw, corporate enterprise). We avoided this by making sure we maintained our essence and stayed true to ourselves. Every six months, the company changes, and that's ok, especially in the tech industry. What's important is to stay "the same" with a 10, 20, or 100 people team.

How do we try every day to stay ourselves? We are willing to listen to each other and maintain integrity throughout the years, not thinking purely in economic terms (even if companies' ultimate goals are always to make a profit), prioritizing relationships and happiness, and building quality products with ethics.

XL team
XL team at the 2019 year-end retreat

We hope our top learned lessons help you in your tech business. We would love to know about yours, please share in the comments section below.

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