Startups Working for Startups

Categories Articles, How To, Web Design

This is a guest post from Jay Melone – founder of DigitalXBridge, a great company who’s offering expertise in Website Design & Development, Mobile Apps, Branding and Marketing.

Of course every digital agency would love to open their doors to a stable of Fortune 500 clients but the reality is you’ll likely have a few (read: 97%) smaller-sized clients during the early days. And that’s OK. As a floundering digital shop, during your first years, think how reassuring it was to find a lawyer, accountant or publicist you could not only trust, but who kicked ass at their job to help get you out of the sandbox. At DXB we feel right at home working with such startups. All of the events we sponsor are brimming with first-time entrepreneurs, where the buzz words are “boot-strapping” and “MVP” and “lean”. And after dozens of successful startup launches, we get the philosophy. We get it so much that we thought we’d share how other web companies could make a splash in the startup scene, with things to do (and not do).

To Do:

1. Give — Be prepared to spend more time and resources than you would with an established brand. Offer up some freebies. Free = good, especially to startups.

2. Educate — Most of these business owners are first-timers at just about everything. Don’t make it worse by gagging them with industry jargon and acronyms. Explain what payment gateways, APIs and CMSs are. Show them examples.

3. Consult — Don’t ask them to make decisions that you’ve facilitated dozens of times over already for past clients. Provide some options with pros and cons. They’re having a hard enough time as it is finding the right business plan template on DocStoc.

4. Meet Them — If you can. Their Dads already probably sat them down and lecture them on “looking you in the eye” to make sure you can be trusted. Propose a meeting and take the pressure off them. Worse comes to worst Google+ Hangouts and Skype are good alternatives.

5. Be Flexible — Part two to meeting them, is doing it at a convenient hour. Your time is yours, but it’s safe to assume that most of these business owners are working a 9-5 to keep up with your invoices.

6. Elaborate — There is no such thing as explaining yourself too much to the young and naive. Have your meeting and then follow it up with an email (or message within your PM software) that ends with, “What else are you unsure of?”. I bet they’ll ask more questions than they did face to face.

7. Long-term Rates — Consider offering more competitive rates for those starting businesses that show promise of being successful. If you play your cards right, a small set of your startups will mature one day into the next Urban Airship and hopefully take you for the ride.

8. Stability — If you work with a lot of startups, make sure each new client you’re pitching knows that. Explain to them your track record (hopefully it’s decent), and that you understand their position and goals. Explain that you offer varying degrees of services (they all need something different). And that while offshore cheap is tempting, your services and products are built for the long haul. Of course, it would be good if all of this were true, too.

To Not Do:

1. Cash is King — Most of your clients’ businesses will fail. Sad but true. And while cash for the startup is a scarce commodity, they all love the idea of your agency financing their project with equity or revenue sharing deals. Treat these offers as if you were an investor in their company. In the end, if they go buy-bye, the odds of you getting paid will, too.

2. Don’t Give up the Farm — A free proposal – expected. A couple hours of complimentary UX consulting – nice gesture. Committing to all HTML/CSS before receiving a deposit – dumb. Use some common sense here, people.

3. Inheriting Past Junk — Some initial client calls we get start off as something like this.. “Help! We hired this company from X (insert country name) and they stopped responding to us!” (you can replace the last part with “built the wrong thing”, “built it in some proprietary language” or “lost power in their city and can’t finish it”. OK, so this is what’s a called a red flag. If a startup is groveling that you help them take over some half-baked custom job that started in Drupal and is now, half in English and the rest in a mix of 4 other languages.. cut to the chase and tell them you’ll review their code but likely need to start over. Otherwise, turn and run.

4. Walk Away — You ever hear people say, “if I were rich I would give all of my money to the homeless.” No they wouldn’t, and neither should you. This is business. We love encouraging, coaching and helping startups become players in their field. But you have to look out for your own well-being. If a startup is dragging you and your team down with them, offer to get them transitioned to another (sucker) provider and then cut the cord.

5. Diversify — In the end, you want to eventually do whatever it takes to land some clients with deeper pockets. Of course this is important to your cash reserves, but you’ll likely be tasked with larger projects with brands that have their own established identities who (hopefully) won’t mind throwing you a bone (free press?) if the project is successful. This doesn’t mean turn your back on the little guys that got you to where you are today, but make sure your eggs are in a few baskets.


Working with lots of startups is an amazing experience. You’re typically out on the brink of technology and innovation. You get to work with bright, young, excitable personalities. Such startups have given DXB our place in the market and enabled us to grow at an exceptionally fast rate during our first 2 years. We’ve endured the bumps because we anticipated the ups and downs of working with these businesses and made the proper adjustments to ensure these types of engagements are planned for, budgeted properly and staffed appropriately. If you do all that well, and take care of these small-timers of today, karma should pay its dividends down the road. Or, worst case, you’ll get invited to some decent keg parties where you’re 15 years older than the average person.

Founder of DigitalXBridge -- Offering expertise in Website Design & Development, Mobile Apps, Branding and Marketing.