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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 24, 2015 6 years ago

Swift success

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Being agile, to a Tampa software firm, is about more than a sprightly strategy. The company also aims to innovate, inspect and adapt.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Executive Summary
Company. AgileThought Industry. Software, technology Key. Staying agile is the key to the firm's growth strategy.


Being agile is not just a buzzword in software development. It's a way to run a business and scale quickly, according to executives from Tampa's AgileThought.

The firm's growth is proof: Over the last 11 years, the company, which develops mobile and custom software, in addition to software consulting, has grown from startup to 163 employees and $20 million in revenues in 2014. This year, executives believe the firm is on track to grow 35%, to $27 million in sales. The firm has been named to the GrowFL Top 50 Florida Companies to Watch list and has been on the Inc. 5,000 list for fast growth multiple times.

The ability to stay agile — at AgileThought it's defined as the ability to innovate, inspect and adapt — accounts for how the business has grown, according to CEO David Romine.

Though it started as a software development company, large enterprise-level clients began to ask AgileThought to consult on how to quickly build software using cross-functional teams.
The goal, these clients told AgileThought, was a common one for any business: How to breakdown internal department silos. Now consulting for accounting and professional services firms is a core piece of business at AgileThought, where top clients include the Big Four accounting firms — PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG. “Our strategy is downmarket from the Big Four,” Romine says.

To support their Florida-concentrated client base, AgileThought has a main office in Tampa with additional locations in Orlando and Sarasota.

Romine and fellow executives John Wagner, Jeff Alagood and Ryan Dorrell spoke about the challenges and opportunities they encountered while building their company at a TECH Talk hosted by the Tampa Bay Innovation Center in July. The executives met with the Business Observer following the talk to further discuss what makes them so “agile.” Here are excerpts of the presentation and conversation.

Founding and building
Dorrell, Wagner and Romine co-founded AgileThought in 2004, after the company they worked for, Arthur Andersen, was closed following the Enron scandal. Dorrell, Wagner, Romine and Alagood all worked on the software development side of the company. They realized they had started to build a business within a business — and they enjoyed working together. Though Alagood declined to join when they first started, the group says his additional experience working at a large enterprise has helped them as they've grown.

All three co-founders say they were motivated by the “pressure of being on the front line of business,” Romine says, where they could see their direct impact on the top line or bottom line. They wanted to run an organization where their decisions were impactful and their constraints were self-defined, instead of just being a “cog in the wheel,” Dorrell says.

Dorrell was the first to leave his full-time gig to start the company, saying he wanted to build software for customers in the way he thought it should be built. Even though his wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, he wasn't worried. “When you start a services company, the risk is much lower,” he says. “The risk comes when you start hiring employees and signing an office lease.”

Accountability
Eight years ago, AgileThought hired a facilitator to help determine the company's core values. All the employees were asked to answer questions about what made the company different and special. One of the most common themes was accountability. “There's no falling under the radar,” Romine says.

Accountability also applies to the co-founders and executives. Whatever role they are in, they are all compensated at market rates. The company conducts compensation studies and uses third party data analysis to determine what would be market rate based on title, market, company size, industry sector and more. “It removes subjectivity from the conversation with partners,” Romine says. “We ignore ownership.”

Though Romine has the title of CEO, he says he has multiple bosses at the company. That includes Wagner, the chief product officer; Dorrell, the chief technology officer; and Alagood, the chief operating officer. “There's an accountability to that,” according to Romine. The team has also switched executive positions: Wagner was previously CEO. “We actually changed seats on the bus,” Romine says.

Adds Dorrell: “You've got to apply agile to your own team.”

Move forward
Romine says AgileThought's success can be attributed to putting a different spin on textbook business practices. For example, on planning, the company has a daily meeting to discuss current issues and how employees are moving forward on the quarterly plan. So instead of just talking about things each quarter or annually, they bring things up every day, Dorrell says. It helps executives and employees use input to build the company, rather than just react to issues after the fact.

Tell the story
Though the executives agreed it is a tough labor market, Alagood insists Tampa does not suffer from a workforce issue. The issue, he says, is quality talent is not hearing the story of technology companies in the area.

Part of telling this story is getting involved in local and state universities to help retain local talent. AgileThought has worked with schools in Tampa, Gainesville and Tallahassee, in an effort to change curriculum to better prepare students for the workforce.

The company also works on proactive hiring; it hired nearly 40 employees in the first half of the year and expects to hire another dozen before the end of 2015. Recruiting is all about relationship building, according to Alagood. The company's recruiting cycle tends to last sixt to 18 months, so executives say it's important to remain in touch with a potential hire and understand what the right timing is for him and the company.

Once hired, AgileThought has a defined education process called AT University. The idea is to help employees quickly get aligned with what defines the company.

White water
The company had all employees read “Predictable Success” by Les McKeown, which is about the different stages of business growth. When executives asked employees which stage they thought the company was in, at least 95% agreed on “white water,” or the stage where some decisions are being made somewhat on the fly. It's recognizing that you're in this stage that's important, and “that's the 'aha' moment,” Alagood says. You also have to be transparent about your growth with your customers, so they understand it as well, he adds.
The company has since been able to identify where it needs new dedicated positions. A position to focus on internal processes and efficiencies is one example. Executives say it's important to create standard processes — but don't overdo it. “You don't need to document everything,” Romine says. “You still want some entrepreneurial zeal.”

Startup Fallacy
The four top executives at Tampa-based software firm AgileThought, David Romine, John Wagner, Jeff Alagood and Ryan Dorrell, are a decade past the startup stage. But there are several lessons all the executives have learned about starting a business. Some startup fallacies the founders have discovered include:

Capital: It's often said that funding, or lack of it, is what holds startups back. Not so, says Wagner. “It's all about the team,” Wagner says. “If you have the right team, you'll figure out the idea.”

Product development: The “if we build it, they will come,” philosophy is a myth, the executives say. If your product doesn't solve a real problem, you won't get the audience, Dorrell says. AgileThought once worked with a startup that made a really cool product. But the group it targeted had no incentive to use the software and it was quickly rejected. The user base was not advanced enough to embrace the new technology.

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