For today's post, I want to take a break from the technical side of things and talk a bit about the business side of running a small software development consultancy. I plan on posting several future articles on this topic under the Business tag. You can subscribe to the RSS feed if you are so inclined.
In the interest of context, let me start the series by telling you a bit about my business and how I came to be running it.
I graduated from the US Military Academy (aka West Point) in 2002 with a computer science degree. I spent the next five years leading soldiers and doing very little programming. Most of the programming I did was in VBA because every computer in the Army had a copy of Microsoft Office installed. I mainly wrote VBA in Excel; I never did any Access development.
After fulfilling my five-year service obligation, I chose to separate from the military. It was not an easy decision. I enjoyed my time in the Army. But I spent a lot of time away from home.
My wife and I were from the same hometown--Honesdale--in northeast Pennsylvania. We decided to move back home from Fort Riley, KS, where I was stationed. We wanted to raise our kids surrounded by their grandparents and other extended family.
The decision to move back to my small hometown limited my career prospects in the software world. I figured I would lean on my leadership experience in the Army to get a corporate management position instead.
Then serendipity intervened.
Grandjean & Braverman, Inc.
My sister-in-law was at an Oktoberfest celebration with a friend from high school. Her friend's father, Bruce Grandjean, had a one-person custom software development company, Grandjean & Braverman, Inc. Bruce was looking to hire a developer, especially one who might be interested in purchasing the company in the next ten years.
I wish I could provide you a better blueprint for how to land a similar opportunity, but that's pretty much the whole story. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Junior Software Developer
I started as a junior software developer at Grandjean & Braverman on April 1, 2007. It was really half-job, half-apprenticeship. I had a strong background in programming with my computer science degree, but I had never applied those skills in the real world.
Bruce had developed dozens of line-of-business desktop applications in the years prior to my arrival. Most were Access applications, but a few were written in a text-based version of a Windows database development application called Clarion. One of my first jobs was migrating a suite of Clarion accounting applications to Microsoft Access. That might be an interesting story for another day.
Before long, I found myself relying as much on my time in the Army as I was on my CS degree. All the classes on data structures, algorithms, and compiler design provided me with a nice foundation of knowledge, but very little of that knowledge was directly applicable to my job developing business applications. Rather, I leaned on my ability to quickly analyze complex situations and identify the key problems that had to be overcome. That's the name of the game in the custom software development business.
After working as an employee/apprentice for five years, I purchased the business from Bruce. We structured the sale as a five-year transition, with 20% of the business being transferred annually. It was a unique approach that the two of us came up with.
I still remember my attorney--who has been one of my best friends since high school--shaking his head as he read through our plan. When he finished, I asked him his thoughts. "Well, you can tell two engineers came up with this," he laughed.
The plan worked well. The gradual transition helped ensure that we didn't lose a single client during the process. Gradually transferring the responsibilities also made things less overwhelming for me as I moved from employee to business owner.
That said, there is a reason this was a unique approach. Making the whole thing work required enormous mutual trust between Bruce and me. We had developed that over our previous five years working together. It's not an easy thing to replicate.
This is my fifth year as full owner of Grandjean & Braverman, Inc. I'm still trying to figure things out. I've done some things that have worked well and made my fair share of mistakes.
I'd like to start sharing the challenges I face, some of the ways I overcome them, and--most importantly--the mistakes I continue to make along the way.
I'll never pretend to have all the answers. Most days I feel like I barely know what I'm doing when it comes to running a business anyway. But I will make you three promises:
- There will be advice (it may not be good)
- There will be lessons learned (maybe not the right lessons)
- There will be growth (hopefully not another tumor)