The A-Team Dilemma

Quick Post

It’s been a while since I wrote, partly because work has been a roller coaster. We’ve been at both our highest and lowest points as a company in the past several months. But… by God’s grace we’ve pushed through and things are looking up again, so expect a lot more chronicles from the Martians in coming weeks.

For now, I just want to share a significant dilemma that we’re facing. We haven’t even decided what path we’re going to take, but would like to invite you to ponder it with us all the same.

See, we consider ourselves to be a sort of A-team: When you need to do the impossible, or the extraordinary, or the exquisitely detailed, you call The Martians. And when you do, the job is done with German precision, guided by the highest regard for your hopes and overall vision for your company and product. We are less like mercenaries for hire, and more like personal bodyguards with a vested interest in your happiness.

This passion for exceeding excellence combined with a pro-friendship attitude towards our clients is at the heart of who we are and what we do. And now, after half a decade, it has brought us to something of a crescendo. One that we’re not sure what to do with.

The A-Team

The A-Team

Any team of experts is bound to be a relatively small team. But small teams of experts conversely tend to have the biggest dreams. Ours, from a technical perspective, was to work on massive systems that would have our processors maxed out on every level, from user interface design to monolith databases working in perfect harmony. From an organizational perspective, we wanted the websites of some of the biggest companies in the country and region to have our signature: “signed. martians.”

We ticked that box last year. Not just for Kenya, but Africa.

But that’s when we experienced the unexpected dilemma: Are big projects really worth it for a small team? As in, we are essentially questioning the very goal we set out to achieve as a team!

Why are we asking ourselves this question just when we’ve landed the biggest project, for our biggest client, giving us the biggest cheque we’ve ever received?

Because there’s something about working on a 9-month project that threatens to choke the passion out of you as a small team. It’s just crazy, man! Every single day, you wake up to face the monster that is a 10,000 lines of code project, with incoming bug alerts and client frustrations and complaints from users who don’t know the difference between signing up and logging in! For months on end!

And it’s a dilemma not just from that point of view, but also from the financial. A big project has an appealing total sum, but in this case, when the amount is spread over the duration, it’s about a third of what we’d have earn each month if we worked on several smaller projects.

So, is it worth having the biggest brands in your portfolio and to work on systems that most programmers only fantasize about, or is it better to target smaller and quicker jobs for the same companies and have more income and greater job satisfaction?

We honestly don’t know yet. What would you do?

  • Chris

    Are the two options mutually exclusive? The big projects, while not as lucrative on a per month basis, give you the visibility and credibility that may bring in even more of the smaller, more enjoyable projects. You can then become increasingly picky about which big projects you take on.

    • I concur with @disqus_9tWq8bxjGA:disqus, the big jobs will likely increase your visibility and credibility, and help you get more of the ‘juicy projects’ that you prefer.

      Perhaps you would need to grow the team and focus more on giving (team A2) direction rather than getting down and dirty for 9 months. Then again, what happens after 9 months of not taking new projects when the main project ends? #thoughts.

      • Chris makes sense.

        We have little interest in bringing in people who are not at our level. That would no longer be an A-Team, and wouldn’t give us the satisfaction of getting our hands dirty in the design and code.

        Definitely not a road worth treading for us.

    • Spoken like a sage.

      Thanks Chris.

  • K. Kirui

    Steve Jobs and many other brilliant tech leaders had a philosophy of never mixing A teams with B teams as it demoralises the A team. I have seen this during my day to day job. However, you still want to grow so the only way is to figure out how you can recruit A team grade or B team grade who can quickly be mentored and join the A team. It isn’t a challenge you are facing alone, almost every organisation goes through this when scaling. My two cents…

    • Indeed.

      The challenge with growing the A team is that coders and designers who are doing half the work we do on a daily are getting paid twice as much because they’ve been picked up by bigger companies. Growing your remuneration to that level as a small team isn’t easy.

  • Well @Houston Malande i was actually about to write an article on why we are no longer doing web designing and then i saw your article. As a web designer you may think that you are an entrepreneur when running a web design company, but the reality is far from it. Clients are your bosses, you find yourself always at their mercy.

    The funny thing is if your projects are a success, your reward will most likely remain the same. At best, you’ll earn yourself more work (bummer!)

    This is different from many other businesses like lets say, you make the best-selling wrist watches, the rewards are your own. If you’re the best, the rewards are immense.

    With web design, you actually earn yourself more, slightly better work, there’s a reason as a web designer the better you are, the less time you have to mind your own business, the results :- you can actually burn out and lose morale.

    • @zechtz:disqus, please do write this article. I’d very much like to hear your story.

      • Okay, will publish it soon, I am just finishing some editing then it will be ready @EugeneNyawara:disqus

    • Hi Zech,

      I respect your decision to quit web design, but I think any dictionary will prove your definition of an entrepreneur to be fundamentally flawed. Even your own idea of what “being your own boss” is can quickly be torn apart by the mere mention of customer expectations and the (mostly) infamous group of people called investors. We all work for someone.

      Some entrepreneurs thrive in the products sector. My team and I have so far thrived in the services sector. None can look upon the other and say they’re not entrepreneurs.

      Plus, we are not simply trying to make money and be successful. We absolutely love what we do, and it has so far done more than pay our bills. We won’t spend years and money trying to find and validate “the next big thing” when there are respectable clients that we can serve and even partner with until we identify an opportunity for a product while in the trenches.

  • Hmmm. Why do you wake up in the morning and go to work? Are the people you work with so much fun to work with you don’t want to spoil it? Is that what everybody wants? How long can that last?

    But there are bigger issues. The tech field is growing and so will you. Most of you will naturally leave the “down and dirty” unless you actively make a choice to be in the trenches. What does everybody want, not next week, but 5 years from now?

    • There are many reasons why I wake up in the morning and go to work, but the most important is that I’ve been made in the image of God, and I get to reflect his creativity and attention to both functional and aesthetic detail by profitably building technological solutions that help clients achieve their goals.

      My joy is doubled because I work with two other brothers who share the same convictions and work ethic.

      That however, does not mean that we don’t have plans to grow, and that’s not the present consideration. In fact, no matter how large we grow, nothing is (in the foreseeable future) going to change our drive because this trinity of ours will be the core of all future undertakings and teams.

      The future problem therefore, will not be whether or not we’ll leave the trenches, but whether—being among the best in the country—we’ll find and afford enough of other skilled and driven individuals to take us to the next level while maintaining our reputation.

      • There is the answer right there. We all grow and we all have people looking up to us. What we need to do is invest in people to make them the best they want to be. If they work FOR you, its only for a moment. It is working WITH you that will be life long.

        The industry needs to grow a number of small teams that can work together and can lead separate, sustainable lives when business is low.

  • As the saying goes “bite only what you can chew”. Working in a company has taught me that there are some things which can be outsourced: e.g. data entry, support etc

    And I’ve seen arguments from the likes of WPSiteCare on why the prefer small chunks (argument here: http://www.wpsitecare.com/why-we-love-the-small-budget-wordpress-client/)

    Long story short: small races give more glory and less body stress (As Usain Bolt :-) )

  • if you have the chance to make history then why hold back from it, it aint always about the cash, i think the best feeling ever as a programmer is changing the imaginable things into code.

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  • ANTONY ODHIAMBO

    Great stuff guys. You have an eye for web excellence. Your visuals, even from your website, speak tonnes to your perception of excellence. Great!!!

signed. martians.™