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53: Vetting a Tech Partner’s Posture with George Brooks of Crema

Published November 24, 2020
Run time: 00:53:07
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When looking for a technical team for your project, you’re not asking for a product. You are asking for a relationship that results in a product. You’re not asking for lines of code. You’re asking for solutions that produce meaningful outcomes. Founder & CEO George Brooks of digital product agency Crema joins the show to discuss how to find the passion and posture of a digital agency, the no-win situation that is RFPs and why it’s important to go outside the RFP process to have a conversation, why his digital agency vets clients in return by finding out if they’re ready to be a tech company and whether they want a relationship or a transaction, and how he didn’t name his company after a Mexican sour cream.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to sift through the noise of Clutch reviews and Google searches and find a warm introduction to a digital team
  • Why it’s important to find a team that values collaboration
  • How to take a step back from the RFP process to get down to the principle of how people work
  • What questions to ask when meeting with an agency and what red flags to look out for
  • Why a small team can accomplish 10x what a large, siloed team typically can
  • Why you want an agency that’s paying attention more than the agency next to it and understands the impact tech will have on your business

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded November 11, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today we are chatting with George Brooks of Crema, a digital product agency that serves enterprise level companies in building world class digital experiences. Seeing as how we both run tech agencies, we figured we'd get into the weeds of how to choose a tech partner for your project. So without further ado, here is my interview with George Brooks.

George, welcome to the show.

George Brooks 0:46
Thank you, happy to be here.

Tim Bornholdt 0:48
I feel like we just wasted the last like eight minutes of audio gold just shooting the breeze here. This is I think gonna be a really fun episode. I'm really excited to have you here.

George Brooks 0:57
I'm so excited. We could just clip in some of the stuff we talked about, just only the embarrassing parts for sure.

Tim Bornholdt 1:04
Well, yeah, and I mean, the first question that we're obviously gonna have to hit is, you know, who was Crema? And what do you do? But I think part of that too is, now you have to explain the name because I was definitely afraid of mispronouncing it. So just origin story wise, where are you at? How did you guys come about? And did you name your business after a Mexican sour cream?

George Brooks 1:29
Oh, you would pull it out. I appreciate it. Yeah, so Crema. So actually, my wife and I were baristas in college, and we were coffee nerds so the technical term comes from effectively like the carbonation that comes from an espresso shot. So when you brew an espresso shot, there's this beautiful kind of golden layer that rests at the top of an espresso shot. And we jokingly, when we first were kind of playing around with names, we said, Man, it's gotta be coffee theme. We're coffee nerds. And the agency started first as a user experience agency, a UX design shop. And we were like, Oh, well, we'll be the golden layer on top of people's, you know, products and designs and stuff. We got rid of that corny term pretty quickly. But it still holds true. It's still definitely our passion. Yeah, so that's where the name comes from. Yes, there is a Mexican sour cream. It's not what we try to connect ourselves with. And when we're in the office, when there isn't a pandemic, we've got pour over bars all over the place. And it's a very coffee friendly environment, for sure.

But yeah, the origin story, how did we get started? Actually, for the long story very, very short, is, I went out as a freelance designer when my oldest daughter was in the hospital for the first seven months of her life. And I was never able to be at the little agency I worked for. And so I did the smart thing you do when your critical child is in the hospital, and I quit my job. Oh, by the way, this was during the first recession, not the one we're in now, but the previous recession. And, you know, had no idea how to start a business, didn't know what I was doing. But I wanted to be close to my daughter, wanted to make sure I could be there instead of driving 45 minutes back and forth between the hospital.

So did that for about a year and a half, while she was there, and then realized, I'm a designer, and I have absolutely no idea how to run a business. And I was starting to get clients and I was getting work. And so I turned to my best friend at the time and now business partner who was finishing up his MBA and said, Hey, all that knowledge you have there, I would like it, please. And we had always joked about terrible business ideas that we should never have done together. And I said, I think I accidentally started a business. You think your wife would let you work with me? And that was the conversation. I remember the coffee vividly still. And so about a couple months later, we kicked off and that was 11 years ago now.

Tim Bornholdt 4:10
And like we were saying before, you know, probably just feels like yesterday. It's so funny when you just kind of look at what you've got going on now, and you take a look back. My favorite parts are when you look at the client rosters from various years and you remember how you felt when you had like three clients just total. And you're like, just so stressed out about trying to get all the work done. And then you look at what you've got now. And you've got like dozens of clients and you're like, Why was that stressful?

George Brooks 4:40
That's right or the vice versa. One of the reasons I wanted to grow into a company was partly I love being around other creative people instead of just staying in the freelance space, and there is a really great freelance community. But what I found is that I wanted to be able to, one, have more impact, do more work, but I also just felt like, I can't sell and do the work at the same time. And that was so hard to figure out, like, how do you both do and get more clients? And that's always been, even as we were a small team of, you know, we were pretty small, we were only five to seven people for the first five, six years. And it was still a challenge until we brought on full time sales people. Because it was always like, how do we find the work when we're doing the work and, and then sometimes it'd be like, Where's the work? Why don't we have any clients right now? And that's the roller coaster that we asked to be on. But I love it. I love it.

Tim Bornholdt 5:38
I feel like I could just ask you 1000 questions about running an agency, because that would be selfish. But I think a lot of our listeners are really curious about, more of how to find us, basically you and us as are separate agencies. So next time I'm in Kansas City, and there's no pandemic threatening our lives, I'm gonna steal you for a beer, and we'll just wax poetic. I love it.

So, moving into our topic here. In my experience, I've found that the people that get tasked at bigger organizations to find a technical team, themselves aren't technical, which is ironic in so many ways. But that, you know, it's not really helpful. So I think what I was hoping to get out of this podcast was us kind of helping those people find talented people to get their projects realized. So in your experience, you know, when you see development of a digital product being placed into the hands of a non-technical person, where would you say they begin their search for finding a tech partner to help them get started?

George Brooks 6:48
Yeah, my first suggestion is to ask their peers. I find most of the best relationships both that we've had, and that our clients have had, had been primarily through referrals to other people that have built technology. So if they can find anyone else in their space, or maybe, you know, again, if they're a product leader, or a CMO or a VP of some division, can they talk to other leaders inside the organization, depending on the size of the organization? There may be already a preferred vendor list for that organization. Or do they have anybody else in their peer network that they can say, Hey, here's what I'm looking to do. I'm trying to build a piece of technology? Who do you know, who have you worked with? Have you heard of anybody? A warm referral like that is going to be 1000 times better, at least on our experience, then, you know, going and just Googling software development team.

First off, as soon as you Google that, you are going to get hit by every global software development redirect possible. And so it does then become overwhelming to figure out how to choose, so I always say, who do you know, try to build a relationship and then ask your peers first. Beyond that, then there are lots of ways to startlooking for, you know, networks of people, whether it's a Clutch network or review or some other list of product agencies.

Tim Bornholdt 8:13
I was gonna say that that's one thing that's always frustrated me, because besides me and you, nobody are looking at Clutch reviews and monitoring where where you rank.

George Brooks 8:25
That's so true. Yeah, yeah.

Tim Bornholdt 8:27
But I think one thing that's always bothered me about it, before Clutch came around, we always ranked really high on Google for Minneapolis app developers.

George Brooks 8:36
Yeah, of course.

Tim Bornholdt 8:37
We would always be in the top one, two, or three, and, you know, ever since Clutch came out, then 1000 other copycats came out and you kinda have to monitor all that. But the problem with Clutch and those services is they do a decent job of making sure that you actually have a presence in the area that you're purporting yourself to have. But I've found so many times, like in Minneapolis, you go and you look at the list, and it's like, yeah, they have headquarters in Minneapolis, and Chicago and LA. And you know, they're all over the world and and so it's like, how do you actually, you know, whittle that down into something productive of finding the actual shop. It's not to say that those companies can't do it. I mean, you obviously grow to a certain point and you have to have some talent. Do you see that as well happening in your area and around there is just trying to find ways to... Like I can't imagine being a non-technical person trying to navigate that list and being like, Okay, do I go to a super mega large shop? Or do I scroll down to the, you know, 20th result and click that. It's like, how do you sift through all the noise?

George Brooks 9:44
It again, is one of the reasons I say, if you can find a warm introduction, it's better. We primarily get the majority of our clients come through referrals. And the reason for that is, you want to find somebody you're going to trust. And so it is so hard to vet through a, you know, thing like Clutch. I'm with you. You're preaching to the choir when you talk about a platform like Clutch, and there's lots of others, because there's definitely a love hate relationship with the fact I was like, I think I have to have it. But do I really need it? Because what I want is that person who's really going to be willing to have a conversation with me.

So the couple areas that I would say to look for is one, yeah, who do you know? Yeah, you can Google but maybe also go look for what are topics that might be relevant to how you're thinking about software, the problems you're actually trying to solve. What I find is a lot of the agencies that are really good and really thoughtful, are also putting out really amazing content. And so you're going to find content from those agencies, from those groups, that actually is relevant to the problem you're trying to solve. And you can reach out directly to them. And then again, trying to find that personal connection and have a conversation, that's where you're going to get your best success too, to get past the, oh, the window shopping, if you will.

Tim Bornholdt 11:05
It's interesting because I like what you're saying about, you know, finding a warm referral and going that regard, but I know so many, especially as you get into larger and larger businesses, or if you try to take on government work, those folks are working within frameworks of, Okay, we have to put out an RFP, or we have to do, you know, all that kind of mishegoss that you and I look at as an agency owners and just kind of, you know, shutter a little bit. First of all, does Crema do a lot of responses to RFPs?

George Brooks 11:39
I will say we do, of the projects that we have on at any given time, one out of every 20 or less is an RFP led project or sourced project. And quite transparently, the way that we respond to RFPs is almost as quickly as possible, saying, Hey, would you mind going outside of this RFP process to have a conversation real quick? And then we vet whether or not it's even a good, viable option for us, because we've gone after some RFPs that cost us a lot of money and did not actually end up coming to fruition. That being said, with the companies that are actually required to do an RFP, it is definitely understandable. I think that my hope is most of them are trying to limit the number of agencies they're sending it to, and that they're not putting it on a list trying to get 1000 responses back.

Tim Bornholdt 12:39
Yeah, cause it just seems like that whole process, if I was put in the shoes of a non-technical person that's looking for a partner, I can't think of like a worse way to do it than sending out an RFP because you're just gonna get so much garbage back. And the worst part is that the people that would actually succeed the most at knocking your your project out of the park, those are the ones that are just gonna be like, I don't do RFPs, or I don't have time to read through your requirements document and make sense of it.

George Brooks 13:08
Well, and that's the other thing is, if you're talking to a no- technical person, one of the challenges that they they're going to have is in order to have the results that you desire from an RFP, you're going to have had to gone through a process that was extremely technical to begin with, writing a requirements document. Now a lot of times they'll pull together consultants that that's all they do is write a RFP for the spec, and then they ship that out. And there's people that handle that. The challenge I have with that is, likely you're wrong. Meaning your assumption about the technology or the solution to your problem is unknown still. We've never started a project, in the 11 years that we've been in Crema's business, we've never started a project that ended exactly the way it was described on day one. And that's normal, that is software, that is solving problems, that is building solutions to big issues. And an RFP doesn't really ask you to go that route. It says, you know, give me an exact fixed cost for this very large, inaccurate description with a level of margin for error. But nobody's going to be able to confidently do that. And if they do come back with this confident number, they're wrong. They're going to lie to you or they're going to make it up and that's fine because that's what they have to do to get the RFP. But what's going to end up happening is they're going to be in a position where, you know, no longer can they provide you value and you're going to be frustrated with that relationship all the way through, at least in my personal opinion.

Tim Bornholdt 14:49
How do you really feel? I feel the exact same way and I think the hard part about it is it's a no win situation for both sides. Because we, as the experts in this space, you know, we know how to build software. And we've built so much software that we know, typically, if someone comes to me with a problem, unless it's something that is, you know, way outside of my domain or comfort level, it's like, as an agency, you have to be flexible and be able to take on pretty much anything and find ways to get through it. And you're really having that process. And when you have somebody come to you with, you know, here's what we need, without you having done any deeper digging, or fact finding, you're kind of stuck with this project that you need to, like, you know, sink your teeth into that you don't really know anything about. And so you have to just take these guesses, and like any good technologist will tell you, if you get any hours from anybody, especially a developer straight up, then you just, you know, take whatever they say, double it, and then add 50% on top of that, because it's gonna change 6000 times. So yeah, it's such a weird process. But you know, that being said, at the same time, you know, it's like are you going to go to like, you know, Medtronic, or are you gonna go to, you know, some huge company and be like, Nope Like, if you want the business, you have to sometimes play ball. And I think also within those companies, when I've talked to people that have to write these RFPs, you know, they're basically doing what we're doing, like they're googling, How do you write an RFP? And like, what questions do you put in it? Knowing that this is kind of an unescapable necessity, for lack of a better term, are there questions or are there ways that if I'm stuck having to write an RFP, what considerations should I make, besides obviously, you know, how much is this going to cost? What questions within the RFP should these people be asking us?

George Brooks 16:48
I think as quickly as possible, you need to understand the team that you potentially are going to have. Get away from talking about the nuts and bolts of the tech stack. And I don't know, are they agile? Do they do Scrum stand ups? Those types of things. Instead understand the potential people you're going to collaborate with. So all the questions that we look for, and honestly, we'll judge an RFP somewhat by this, where we'll say, You know what, I can see they value collaboration. As a client, we're vetting them just as much as they're vetting us. And so I'm looking for them to say, We really want to understand this team, we value them speaking into the solution. So as much as you can say, How are your teams structured? Who will I have access to communicate and collaborate with? How many teams do you have? It's just good to get a sense of the lay of the land. What roles are represented on your team? And what roles will you need to pull in? Those are all valid questions to just understand how are they going to respond back to that. Are they prepared to bring the right people that are going to contribute to the table. And it doesn't matter if they have them in house, or if they get pulled in. I know, for some agencies or for you know, government work, there are some rules around how you subcontract. But for the most part, you want to be thinking about, what does that team look like that I'm going to have access to work with because you are asking for a relationship. You're not asking for a product. You're asking for a relationship that then results in a product. And so whether or not they're prepared to answer who's on the team, how that team would be structured, do they have a confident way that they approach solving problems. Those types of things are what I think more people should be looking for, rather than please break down the exact per feature cost, the estimate for each user story, the roadmap, as you see it would fit, you know. Get away from process and get more to the principle of how people work.

Tim Bornholdt 18:57
Yeah, cause I think choosing a software company is different than choosing like, say a asphalt layer. Because I think especially with government contracts, at the end of the day, somebody else designs the roads, and then they RFP out, you know, we need these five roads, scraped, milled and repaved. You know, that not how custom software is built. And if you find a team that just does that, then it's probably not what you actually want. It's one of those things where it's like you might think you want just somebody doing what you say but what you really need is somebody that can like take the whole project and own that stack but also be able, like you said, to collaborate and work with you so that they can tease out you know, the actual underlying issues and then present a plan to fix it, instead of being handed something top down, which I think that's how most government contracts work.

George Brooks 19:53
No question. And so many of our clients have had previous agency experience, where they've worked with another technology group or they outsourced it in some way. And whether we're cleaning up the work that someone else did, or we're just the, you know, the second wave of working on a new project with them, the juxtaposition of when they've shipped it out to either the cheapest, the quickest response, the, I have the most headcount, which a lot of people brag about headcount. So they'll say, you know what, I've got 150 developers somewhere in the world, we can pull in as many bodies as you need to accomplish whatever you want. You're not actually talking about, is there true collaboration, is there true problem solvers, is there creativity that's happening, that's going to get you to the right result. You will have a result, you'll just end up having a product that, not always, but oftentimes, is not really what you set out to make in the first place.

Tim Bornholdt 20:50
Absolutely. And I think with that bringing in extra bodies, it's just like the whole mythical man month of, you know, you can't take nine women and tell them each to take a month of pregnancy, and then they've got a baby. It's like some things just take time with the number of people. It doesn't really help to throw like 20 Android developers on an app. It's not going to get done any faster.

George Brooks 21:13
Well, and the way we approach it is small cross functional teams, right? I mean, I think that a small team can accomplish 10 times what a large siloed, or, you know, a team that's locked away that you don't have access to, because you're able to make faster decisions, move things forward quickly. So again, get back to asking questions that are going to better understand how will I get to collaborate with this team.

Tim Bornholdt 21:35
Yeah, and finding ways to know that you're actually, you know, working with that team. And I think it makes sense that you would want to be able to talk with some of the people that you're going to be working with, because at the end of the day, all of this stuff is just working with people, and you're going to need to get along and make sure that you can speak the same language, because talking nerd sometimes doesn't translate if you have a certain team that fancies themselves highly technical and aloof to a certain point.

George Brooks 22:02
No question. That's absolutely right.

Tim Bornholdt 22:04
So let's say, you know, we've gotten through all this RFP process, and you've gotten some bids back, and you're starting to, you know, talk with some agencies in person. Like we've kind of been saying it's so easy to look good on paper and to present a website that looks fancy. But what questions do you think companies actually should be asking agencies? Obviously we've talked about the people side of things, but are there other questions that you think are really important to ask up front to kind of ascertain whether an agency is, you know, good versus another?

George Brooks 22:38
Yeah, I think, hands down, ask to talk to a previous client if you're actually starting to have a conversation with that particular agency. One of the challenges, at least that we have, is that so much of our work, we can't actually share, whether it's under NDA or it's their own personal IP, or, you know, we just had a relationship, we said, we'll keep it private, because we care about this relationship for the long term. We can't maybe show you, you know, this full Rolodex of clients. But a lot of times our clients will say, Hey, you know what, I'm more than happy to talk to anybody else that wants to work with you. We love you guys, and everyone else should as well. And so I think the first thing to say is, Let me talk to your previous or existing clients. I wanted to ask them questions about what the experience of working with you is like, because that's truly where you'll find out, were they as good as they said they were going to be on paper? And you know, be candid, really kind of push into it. Where were there areas that they went wrong? Where were there areas that they didn't, you know, deliver the way they said they were going to? So I always say, ask for a referral, find out who's worked with them previously, what was that experience like. That's kind of number one. Second is, it is good to know what technology they're familiar with. How flexible are they in that? Are they going to pull in subcontractors? So again, you just know, who's approaching the team? And then what is their forte? So Crema, primarily our forte's in user experience, front end software development. Can we do the full stack? Of course we can. But our forte is in these areas. So understanding that particular agency's forte might mean that either you know if they're going to be weak on the user experience side, or maybe they're going to be weak on building out a really strong infrastructure database, or maybe they don't have a lot of data science experience, so they don't have as much knowledge about doing machine learning if that's something you're interested in. Then that's fine. You just, you're going to have to close that gap or they're going to have to close that gap somehow to make sure that you've got all the bases covered for what you're trying to accomplish.

Tim Bornholdt 24:52
I really like that. I think it comes down to, like you said, of finding what their weaknesses are and and if you talk to past clients, especially past clients, but even current clients, you can really find ways to tease out whether or not, because a lot of times, it's what they don't say. So if you ask a couple of questions and kind of artfully find ways to see, you know, are they actually good communicators? Do they have weird quirks that you have to overcome, and that stuff is super important. And I also really liked the point that you made about figuring out what their forte is. And I think any good agency is going to know for sure what they suck at. And as a result, they're going to say, you know, we're really bad at you know, for example, like, we're not great at marketing. We're working on improving it, but when people are done with their apps, that's always a question that people ask is like, How do you market it? Well we're good at building apps, but we're not great at marketing them. But we do have contacts that, you know, we can farm out, and we can tell you, you know, go to this person or go to that person., If you're working with a good agency, they're going to have those kind of connections in the, you know, surrounding ecosystem. So it's just like, if you're taking investment in your product, you don't want to necessarily take any investor. It's helpful to take a strategic investor that can help, you know, push you along in the right direction, be an advisor, and not just kind of like we were saying before, not just kind of, here's the work, do it. It's really a partnership and a collaboration and making sure that they're bringing all that value to the table.

George Brooks 26:42
No question. No question. And even as you were saying that, sometimes it's just as simple as having the agency respond back with, What do you think it takes to build a great product? How do they think about, if they were to do it for themselves, how would they think about building a great piece of technology? The way that they answer that, hopefully, is with some level of articulation and authenticity and realism. And so it's more so, I think you hit the nail on the head with, it's kind of what they they do or don't say, right, that you're listening for, less of, can they check the boxes. We can all check the boxes. That's not the problem. Everyone can check the box, they respond to the RFP, and they check the box already. The question is, how do they approach this work? That's a whole different conversation. It's a whole different level of the quality of work you're going to get out of an experience with a great agency versus an okay one.

Tim Bornholdt 27:45
Oh, yeah. And kind of piggybacking on that too, the kind of unspoken, those nonverbal cues that you can get, one of them that you should look for absolutely when you're talking with an agency is excitement. When you're working on a project, when you're explaining it to whoever you're talking with there, are they excited about it? Do they actually come back and say, Oh, I wonder, you know, have you thought about this, this, and this? And even like when you said, if you're asking somebody to say, what does it take to build a great product? I know if I get asked that question, if somebody just completely blindsided me with that question, I would ramble an answer. But I would come across with so much passion and enthusiasm, because it'd be like, Oh, God, where do I begin? You know, like, I could write a whole book on that, on how do you build a great product. And you could feel that energy. And I think often in life, you know, people can either give you energy or take away energy. And if you're leaving a developer meeting, and you're leaving a company, and you just kind of feel like they didn't really listen, or they weren't excited about your idea, trust me, you can find agencies that are going to be excited about building your product. And that's one of the big things you should be looking for. I mean, obviously, they got to be able to do it. Sometimes that can be a red flag, all this stuff has to be taken together. But yes, that's one thing I'd look for is passion.

George Brooks 29:11
You hit on something that we've been thinking a lot about lately, and that's this idea of postures, and so much of really what you're wanting to measure is the agency's posture, the people you're working with, the conversation you're having, the posture of the way they're approaching it. Are they humble? Are they willing to learn or unlearn to figure you out? Are they confident that they can pull off the work but not arrogant? The line between confidence and arrogance is thin. But are they confident they can actually, you know, if they don't have the skills now, are they confident they could learn them fast enough to still bring value? Right? Are they curious? Do they do they care about you? Do they care about the problem you're trying to solve? Are they, you know, empathetic, can they put themselves in your shoes or in your customers' shoes or in your users' shoes, so that they can actually understand what it might be like to be the user on the other side of the product. We can all make functional things. I don't know how many developer shops I've seen where it's like, technically speaking, what you asked for, yes, it does that. No one will ever know how to do it. But if you click the right series of buttons, it will work. Well, that's not it. There's no empathy in that. There's no ability to say I'm going to step into their shoes and go, if I had to come into this cold, would I be able to figure out how to use this product? Those are all postures. That's a mindset. And I think that's more so what people really need to be vetting is the postures of their agencies, given the table stakes of being able to know how to build tech.

Tim Bornholdt 30:46
Do you ever watch? Better Call Saul?

George Brooks 30:49
I haven't. But there's three or four people at work that are like, Oh, you would love that show.

Tim Bornholdt 30:54
There's a scene that, I haven't seen this particular scene but my business partner keeps talking about it, and I have to actually go back and watch it but, if you've ever watched Breaking Bad, Gustavo, so there's this scene in Better Call Saul where he's trying to get a bunker built or he's trying to build something that he can then use to mule drugs and cook them and all of that stuff. And in this scene, he actually like blindfolds a person and like they they meet in a parking lot. He blindfolds them, they drive, they unblind fold. And then he asks them these series of questions. And he says, I need to get this tunnel built. And I need to have this building built. And the first guy who comes in, Gustavo says, You know, I need it, this, this and this. And the guy says, Oh, yeah, no problem. I could do that. That's easy. You know, give me two months. I can get that done. No problem. So he puts the blindfold back on, goes away, it's done. Second guy comes in, same whole rigmarole deal of the blindfolds and stuff. He takes off the blindfold. And then they talk about this whole thing. And the guy says, No, like, you know, that's not enough money. It's not enough time, here's what's wrong, you need to think about this, this, this and this. You know that there's no way I could pull this off. And they put the blindfold back on, and he drives off and goes away. And of course, guess who gets the job? Right? It's the second guy. Because you can tell like, no, I thought about this. You can't pull it off. It's just like with app development, like this budget and this size, like this idea, all this stuff we need, here's all the pitfalls that you're going to run into. And here's how you fix them. And it's like, there's something to be said about having that enthusiasm of the first guy being like, yeah, of course, like, I can knock this out of the park no problem. There's something to be said about, you know, everybody needs a first break, and you need to get like your juices flowing and everything. If you're really serious about trying to get something launched and done and trying to pick a partner that's going to look out for you, it's like you really want that second person that has that uh, kind of, now I want to say jadedness, but I mean, all of us developers, you know, it's okay, we can be real, we're jaded. But we've got the experience of seeing like so many failures. And along with the successes, of course, like you got to have success, but it's the failures where we can say, okay, we tried it the way that you're specifically talking about, and here's the things you need to think about before going that way. And that's another big thing. I'll stop rambling here. But that's another big thing you can look for when you're looking for a team is that kind of confidence, but not overconfident.

George Brooks 33:30
And what you just described is worth a premium rate. I want that to be really clear, because the person that has been through the successes and the failures, the person that is curious and willing and resilient to keep going, and now is going to stand in front of you and say, Hey, I would love to give you some feedback on the way that you're approaching this because I've been there. I know what works, I know what doesn't, and I'm not going to say I know exactly what you need because we still have a lot to learn together. That right there is a premium consultant. That's a person that's going to bring more than just lines of code to you. They're going to bring you solutions. And I think you literally change the whole game when you're not trying to sell lines of code or amount of code written that produces amount of features. Instead, you're trying to produce meaningful outcomes. I mean, that's what at least our agency is trying to do. We're trying to stay in that space of, you're looking for a partner to offer you premium solutions that actually solve some of your big problems. You don't want someone who's just going to ship features. By the way, there's a whole bunch of people all over the world that will do that for you. And you will not be satisfied. Sorry.

Tim Bornholdt 34:46
Well, yeah.

George Brooks 34:47
I got on a little soapbox box there.

Tim Bornholdt 34:50
No, that's a really great point because when you're getting into software people underestimate how much you want to keep going. When you have a partner, then you've got somebody that's going to understand that and be with you for the long run of the product, where if you just are hiring a team to knock something out and just code it, you know, there's not that vested interest and that urge to... You were kind of talking about the being curious and asking questions and things, I mean, I don't know any good agency owner that isn't watching, like, you know, the WWDC keynotes or watching like Google IO and seeing a new feature be announced and not immediately think of their clients and be like, Oh, man, that new, like app, the quick links where you can have that, like, 10 megabyte little file or whatever. It's like...

George Brooks 35:43
Nano processors, right?

Tim Bornholdt 35:45
Yeah. It's like, whenever I'm watching those, that's what I'm thinking about is, is that continual value. Obviously it's good for us from an upselling standpoint, but it's also what's right for the product. It's the perfect alignment of interests. Yes, you can just have the app, but you know, adding in this feature is going to improve your user's experience, which is going to make you more money or blah, blah, blah. And yeah, I think that's that curiosity part of it of wanting to explore. You're not going to get that if you just go offshore and hire a random team for $10 an hour. You're just getting somebody to lay the road, you know, you're not getting someone to design it at that point.

George Brooks 36:26
When we first started Crema, one of the things that I noticed pretty quickly was that people would hire me, and I was only doing design, I was only doing user experience design at the time, people would hire me because I paid attention more than they did. I was downloading every app I could get my hand on. This was the early days of the App Store. I was signing up for every SAS app that hit the market. And I was just soaking myself in user experience design. I was studying the way that everyone was doing it. I took note of what worked and what didn't work. And you know what, my clients weren't doing that. They didn't need to be doing that. They needed to be running their companies, they needed to be providing their products and services. And then when they brought me in, this guy that just soaked himself in digital user experiences, all of a sudden there was, you have all this knowledge, you have all this experience, you've looked at more things than I have, which is really what I'm going to pay you to do so that I don't have to go do that. It's not much more complicated than that sometimes. It's just you want an agency that's paying attention better than the one next.

Tim Bornholdt 37:34
Yeah, it's having somebody that cares. That's really what you want. Because I think most people don't want to manage an app, right? That's not something that most people, like most marketing managers, aren't like, Yes, I'm so excited to be running an app. It's always just like, Alright, well, this is one thing of 1000 that I have to do. And I can't tell you how many of our clients are like... It's such a relief. Because if you come from having not a good partner, where you do have to spend all your time managing and trying to chase down support tickets, and trying to do all that stuff that comes with being an app owner. It's like a breath of fresh air when you actually have a company that cares, and that actually wants to go through it. But it takes a little bit of digging to find those companies, but there's obviously people out there all around that are doing it. And it does, it just takes a little bit of digging, because I would think that people that are listening to this episode, you know, if they came to you, or they came to me, they would feel that kind of passion and energy. It's something that you can feel with a 15 minute Zoom call. You don't need to, you know, get too far into the weeds. But I think you do need to look around and see, you know, who you can kind of sniff out, like who's full of it, and who actually loves it and and breathes it, you know, every day.

George Brooks 38:58
Well, and you pretty quickly get, you know, somebody saying yes to everything you're saying. And maybe that's a little bit of a yellow flag or a red flag. You know, you're trying to avoid the person that's just like, yes, whatever you want, I will do it. Get the person that says, Hmm, interesting. Why do you want it that way? Or get the person that says, Have you considered this other route? I'm not saying you have to, have you gone down this path? That will push you just a little bit. Because if that relationship starts that way, that candid feedback happens in that sales process, then you're going to have a trusted relationship all the way through.

And to your point, technology is never done. Like name the last piece of tech that you finished it, and you never had to touch it again. Right? It needs bug support, it needs, you know, upgrading the libraries, it needs building new features, it needs responding to clients, it needs customer support, all these things go into owning a piece of technology. So a lot of times we'll ask a company, Are you ready to be a tech company? Are you ready to own a piece of technology? Now we're going to help you do that so that you don't have to do it all by yourself. Just assume that we'rre your in house tech group. We don't really work that way. But you get what I'm saying?

Tim Bornholdt 39:41
Yeah, definitely.

George Brooks 40:18
But understand, I'm not going to be done in three months, I'm not going to be done in six months, I'm not going to be done in a year. We're going to be done for the life of this, when the life of this technology decides to be tabled, or it gets replaced by something else. That's okay. Not that I'm going to charge you, you know, whatever, that's not a costing conversation. It's more about are you prepared for the long road, the long journey it takes to own and manage and be a part of technology? Awesome. Let us be with you as you do that. If you need to hire people, we'll help you hire people. If you want to hire replacements, we'll even help you do that. But the reality is, is it's going to be a long term thing. We're not building a coffee mug, right? If I'm building you a coffee mug, once a coffee mugs done, I can hit it back to you. But when we're talking about technology, it's like saying we're gonna have a baby, right? That baby's gonna have to be fed, and it's going to grow and you hope it grows up to be a decent human being. It's constantly investing in that. One of the vetting things that we do with our clients is if they're not willing, if they immediately say, Oh, no, I have no desire to be a technology company at all. Then I'll go, You know what, go buy some technology, don't build it. Instead, avoid building a big piece of custom tech. And, you know, just go buy something off the shelf, there are lots of solutions, we can help you implement it or do something else. But if you are not interested at least in the value of building your own technology, which I think every company should be right now, don't start down the road. It's a long road.

Tim Bornholdt 41:58
Just real quick. I'm glad you had a coffee metaphor already, because I would assume that you would have a lot of coffee metaphors.

George Brooks 42:04
There's several coffee mugs on this table right now.

Tim Bornholdt 42:09
Last question for you. And you've already been going down this path. But since you're already down it, I'm glad you steered the conversation that way. You were mentioning red flags, you were mentioning, you know, what you do to interview clients. What are some other questions, red flags, things that you're looking for in clients that makes you think like, Yep, this will be a slam dunk client or no, this is not going to be a good fit.

George Brooks 42:35
Yeah, we actually have a scorecard that we use when we're vetting our clients. It's, you know, nothing fancy, but it is: Are people ready? Do they have budget clearance? Who are the decision makers? Those are things that we just want to know. What's the field of play, right? Who's involved in this process? And then I really want to make sure that they understand their business. I know that sounds crazy. But you would be surprised at how many people in very large organizations come and say, Hey, I was tasked to go find somebody to build this app. I don't know. Here's the spec sheet, or here's a list of features it's supposed to have. I don't know why. I don't know how this is gonna affect the business. I'm blown away by how many people approach us with that posture, that mentality. So do they understand the business? Do they understand the impact that technology will have on their business? Do they understand what it takes to be a tech company, that it's not just about the lines of code, but you need to have designers involved and product managers and quality assurance or test engineering in some way. You've got to have someone who's doing DevOps and thinking about security. There's so much more to building a piece of technology than just having a dev. Right? Are you okay with that? Do you understand that? Do they know who will be impacted by this technology? That kind of goes back to the business, but do they understand is this a product for their customers? So our sweet spot is b2b software, a lot of times it's internal software, software that's helping global consultants do their work. So we're building solutions that it's primarily used by the company itself to serve their clients, but their clients maybe don't interact too much. Other times, we'll build a piece of technology where it's like this is a consumer app for, you know, a brand or something like that. Well, that's a different experience. Do you understand who your users are? And, yeah, so there's a few things. When they can't answer those questions confidently, we'll either say, Hey, we'd love to help you answer those questions. And we have a whole strategic arm of Crema that's coaching and facilitators and strategists that will help you get those answers. Or you need to go find those before really you're ready for me to have a full stack product team start looking at this solution, you know, front and back.

Tim Bornholdt 45:10
That's awesome, because I think we've been trying to kind of go that way too of getting a scorecard and kind of helping clients understand whether or not we're a good fit for them. Because that's one thing that in life, it might be something again as entrepreneurs we take for granted, but I always throw out that Steve Jobs quote of like, you know, When you realize, you know, life is just made up of things that people around you did, it was just people, just made it up. And you can change it if you want to. I think people think when you're interviewing a company, you know, that they can't interview you back, or like if you're interviewing for a job, like you can ask the company questions. It is a two way street, you know, but most people don't. And you can always tell the people that end up exceeding and doing really well are the ones that are curious and asking questions, and not just kind of taking things for granted and absorbing it but more, you know, pushing back, and not in a confrontational way, but just also making it a two way conversation instead of this power imbalance when you're, you know, in this critical stage of deciding who's going to build your technology.

George Brooks 46:24
Well, and the reality is, underneath the surface, we're looking for someone who, do you want to relationship? Or do you want a transaction? I mean, like, do you want to buy something? Like if you went to the store and you could just say yes, I want to buy that TV, and then I will have a TV and I will have given you money. Do you want to just transact? Or do you want to work with someone to design the future of TVs, right, or to to build a piece of technology that's going to change your business? That's two different approaches. The probably the biggest red flag, coming back and just kind of thinking through it a little bit more, is when someone is either transactional, or is really interested in the potential long term relationship. And that's selfish a bit too, right? Because that's lifetime value for me. Right? I want a client that's going to stick with me for a long time, both from a business perspective and from the impact perspective. I don't want to just be a one and done shop. So I want somebody who is ready to have a committed relationship. This sounds like a dating podcast all of a sudden. But it's kind of like that, right? I mean, you have to be willing to say like, Yes, I understand, we need to court a little bit, if that's an old word, but we need to, you know, hold hands for a second. But at some point, I want to make a commitment here that we're going to work together for as long as it makes sense. And again, if somebody's using transactional language, that's going to shoot up a lot of, you know, the feelers on, mmm, they just want something cheap and fast. Well, okay, that's not us.

Tim Bornholdt 48:04
If you want something cheap and fast, I don't want to put myself out of business, but there's like 1000 apps that do like everything that you're looking for these days. Any off the shelf thing is gonna, you know, solve a problem. But do you even know what your problem is?

George Brooks 48:06
Yeah, that's it.

Tim Bornholdt 48:13
And do you know how it specifically affects your business? Because even though there's a million project management software solutions out there, that's because there's a million different ways of running business. And maybe Trello is not the right fit for you, or maybe JIRA, or whatever is not the right fit for you. You need something a little more custom to your way of doing business. And that's not something that you can really get out of something off the shelf. You can get, you know, 80 or 90% of the way there maybe, but if you really want to dial everything in and do it the right way, there's really nothing that beats having that kind of custom approach to solving whatever your business problems are.

George Brooks 49:01
We've had a long term client, we've had them for about three years now. And they're incredible. And they're a big client for us as well. And, you know, it's the little things in the relationship with them that just stand out so much to me. It's like, yeah, we're building great technology together. Yeah, it's having huge impacts on their global business. Amazing. But it's like when the pandemic hits and they call us and they're like, hey, is as all your people. Okay? Are you guys good? We don't even expect anything from you this week? Totally get it. You know, like, that kind of empathy back and forth, that type of relationship, it's hard to feel it during the sales process, but that's what we're always trying to like kind of scratch the surface and go, Are you like that under there? And we just recently engaged with a new client. And again, they just they have all those green flags that we're looking for, to the point where, we do this thing called Venture Lab Fridays. So every other Friday, we dial down all client work, and we work almost exclusively on internal projects, continual education, you know, the team getting better together, creative work. And then we have happy hour at the end of the day, which is all over Zoom now. But that's not the point. But we have a big kickoff in the morning and a big demo day at the end. And we had this client who we were vetting, they were vetting us, they were talking to three other agencies, that they literally stepped on, and they said, Do you mind if we join your kickoff and your demo for that lab Friday thing you do? Oh, by the way, a lab Friday thing that would say that every other week, they lose all their people for a full day. Right? And when somebody says, I'm curious about that really creative thing you're doing, and they join on, and while they're on the call, they're clapping and unmuting themselves and saying, This is amazing guys, and they're championing 40 people on the screen. That's a relationship you want. That's one that you know is going to last a long time. And that's the thing, that's what we're all looking for. I mean, if you can find more clients like that, and if clients are looking for more vendors, partners like that, that's good work being done, at least in my personal, humble, very biased opinion.

Tim Bornholdt 51:06
Well, I would cosign on that. That is a fantastic last point to make and a great way to leave off the podcast. George, I really appreciate you taking the time here today to talk with me. Is there anything you want to sign off with any way people can get in touch with you if they need obviously some services on your end. How can people get in touch?

George Brooks 51:28
Yeah, definitely check out Crema.us. We also have a YouTube channel if you search for Crema or Crema Lab. We've got over 150 YouTube videos that we put out on a pretty regular basis. And then we also have a podcast as well. So check out People of Product and you can learn more about us, just how we think and a lot of it's just us nerding out on this thing that we love, which is, you know, building really cool products.

Tim Bornholdt 51:51
You've got a new subscriber in me at least, so yeah, everyone, go check out that podcast. George, again, I really appreciate you coming here today. And thank you so much for your time.

George Brooks 52:00
Such a pleasure, Tim, appreciate it.

Tim Bornholdt 52:03
A big thanks to George Brooks for joining me today on the podcast. You can learn more about George and his team at Crema by visiting Crema.us.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast.

Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the yern Jordan Daoust.

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