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Save Time & Money by Working With a Smaller Agency

August 4th, 2022

Is it better to work with a larger or smaller company? Which one will give you better quality, communication and results?

Consider this - a business is looking for a company to help them with website development. On the left is a large agency with multiple locations, a large team and a portfolio that includes large projects with household names.

On the right is a small agency with one location (or even remote-only), a small team and a portfolio that includes similar-looking projects but with unfamiliar companies.

Which one do you choose to work with?

Sure, it's not that simple. You have to factor in price, timeframes, etc. But which one are you automatically leaning toward for your project?

Most likely, unless you've had a bad experience, you're naturally leaning toward the larger company. After all, why not? They could certainly help you with your project, right? They probably have access to the best technology on the market.

Since they're so big, they must be sharp when it comes to communication and project management. They're certainly going to provide the better experience.

Based on the title of this post, you probably have an idea of where I'm going with this. But the above thoughts and expectations are the norm. It all makes sense and sounds good, right?

But they're wrong.

I think some of the most common misconceptions about working with a larger agency include expectations regarding:

  • Higher-quality of work
  • Better guidance and support
  • Access to better technology and functionality
  • The project completion process will be better structured
  • Larger agencies are more trustworthy

I have a confession to make - I've worked for larger agencies as an employee. I've developed projects for Microsoft, Mastercard, Best Buy, Costco and others.

I'm going to share my personal stories about why those expectations are wrong, and why I'm building ZeroToDigital to do it all better.

Larger agencies do not provide a higher-quality of work

One time, when I was between projects while working for a large agency, my manager came to me with this new Shopify project they were going to bid on. He said that they were going to put me on the project.

Problem - I had never developed with Shopify before this. "No problem", my manager said. "You have 2-3 weeks to get up to speed before the project starts."

You can imagine that the customer probably assumed our agency had experience with Shopify, and the developer who would be leading the dev team was a seasoned Shopify expert. Instead, they'd be getting a dev team with no experience whatsoever. Who had never developed in Shopify before let alone launched a Shopify store with over 100,000 products.

A different time, I was tasked with building a small, 3-page website that would be added to an existing, larger site. There were some minor integrations but nothing too complicated.

Because it was so small, I did it myself. No other developers, quality assurance or anyone. Just me. That was no big deal, but the agency charged over $30,000 for this project.

Yep, $30k for 3 pretty-straightforward webpages.

If I were to estimate the same project for one of my own clients, I might say $1,000. Maybe even less. Would I be leaving money on the table? I don't think so - that would still equal a pretty good average hourly rate for the time it would take me to complete it.

The problem was that this was for a larger company, and so "smaller" amounts like $30,000 are often overlooked.

Did the $30,000 equal a better quality of work than the $1,000 would? Nope, I would be the developer in both situations. So, same exact quality.

Larger agencies do not provide better guidance and support

Large agencies are always racing to gain experience in every technology out there so that they can bid on every project under the sun and say they're "experts".

The problem is that they become jack of all trades and master of none. They get their feet wet with everything, but they don't know many things well.

One time, the client had a request that we modify how users are authenticated into their app. For someone knowing the platform well (Azure app services - which is actually one of the platforms that our dev team used most often!), it would've taken only a few minutes to make the modification.

But since we were constantly being pulled in other areas and technologies, it took 4 developers being on a call together over 3 hours to figure out how to make it work. And then the client got billed for 12 hours (4 x 3) of support.

When a client of a large agency has a request, it's often received by an account manager who then forwards it on to the developer. Account managers are often in meetings all day, so the email doesn't get forwarded right away.

Once the developer gets the email, they determine the response and then gets back to the AM who gets back to the client.

The point is that, in large agencies, requests come to developers to respond to. And that's the same thing that happens in small agencies - so, no better level of support there. And small agencies are usually able to respond much more quickly since there are fewer links in the chain between the client and the developer.

Larger agencies do not have access to better technology and functionality

This expectation has been invalidated over the past 10 or so years with web servers that can scale up and down depending on the needs of the project and hundreds of platforms that can be used in custom settings by teams of 1 or 100.

So, large agencies do not have better technology. In fact, I'd say that large agencies are being held back by lesser technologies.

When part of a large company, it's basically a right of passage that you use some sort of Agile tool. They claim that this improves project efficiency but it really ends up taking more time and causing confusion.

We used Azure DevOps. ADO is fine and very popular amongst project management tools, so that wasn't the problem. But why we were often held back was because, although large agencies like to learn every technology under the sun for prospecting purposes, they don't like to change internal processes.

Because of that, we used ADO. For everything. Because that's how a project had to be done - via ADO. And not just the project boards but the repository (source code) as well.

One time, because of the project, we had to host the repository in Github because that was the only integration option for a platform we were using for the client. No big deal. But my manager insisted that we also upload and maintain the repository in ADO as well (because that's what we did ...).

So, we had to update the Github repository and then export and update the ADO repository each time we made a code change.

Large companies are being held back by technologies and processes because it's too difficult to change.

Larger agencies do not manage their projects better

This starts from the very beginning of the project. For example, there was a project that I was looped into and about to start that completely fell apart because of how poorly the early parts of the project were managed.

It started with the intro meeting. Now, I wasn't part of this meeting but from what I gathered, the client came to us with a need for an updated website. They said that their budget for development was about $108,000. The AM and my manager who were in the meeting said that would probably be fine for what they were asking.

The project then moved to the stage where the dev team (me) gets involved. I'm tasked with going through their requests, line by line, and determining how long things will take (and, therefore, how much money everything will cost so that we can give an accurate estimate).

During this time, the AM is having meetings with the client where she's being told to develop a good relationship with the client and "land the sale". The problem is that means she's agreeing to things she shouldn't be and not keeping the client's expectations in check.

I then have way-too-many back-and-forth meetings with the AM over the course of a couple of weeks, and I determine (based on all of the information that was given to me) that it would take X amount of weeks which would equal approximately $180,000 (remember, I wasn't in the intro meeting so I wasn't aware that $108,000 had already just about been agreed upon).

The AM, knowing that the client wasn't going to be happy with this, talked me down to about $150,000 (this is another problem with large agencies and account managers - they often overpromise to land the sale and leave the developers in an impossible situation).

The AM then went to the client with the $150,000 price tag and the client then proceeded to let our agency know just how unprofessional our agency is for having already agreed to a much lower price. That was the end of our short relationship with that client.

TLDR: Large agencies are constantly trying to land the sale and often agree to things they shouldn't, and this often leaves the production team (developers) with having to work around the clock to get a project out the door last minute.

Larger agencies are not more trustworthy

Maybe you think that a certain larger agency with name-brand clients is more able to be trusted? This isn't the case.

One time, we were trying to land a client who had requested a Java (not JavaScript), Springboot and Angular full-stack dev. My manager came to me with this project. The client also requested to have resumes sent to them for us developers. So, my manager emailed me and asked me to add those 3 technologies to my resume if they weren't on there already.

Problem - I had zero experience with Java, Springboot AND Angular.

Trying to not be a difficult employee, I updated my resume and sent it to my manager. Over the next few days, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was dishonest. What would the client think if they found out? What would it mean for me? Would I have to work around the clock to make up for my lack of experience that my resume said I had? Would my manager remember that I had zero experience? How could this possibly end any way other than terribly?

I emailed my manager about my concerns and nothing happened. Then I emailed his manager and again, nothing. It wasn't until I reached out to the human resource department that my resume was finally pulled back from the client.

You see, people are the same whether they're in a large company or small. People are people and, unfortunately, capable of dishonesty in an attempt to get ahead.

The problem with larger agencies is that the pressure is usually higher to close the deal. There's more at stake - money, executives, management, etc. If the people communicating with the clients and building proposals don't feel supported by their managers, then they will place a larger emphasis on getting the project than on honesty and ethics.

Why smaller agencies are (often) better partners

There are exceptions on both sides. Many large companies ARE terrific, honest, ethical and produce high-quality work. And many small agencies are NOT trustworthy, efficient and professional.

But, back to where we started, you shouldn't automatically assume that the larger company is the better one. Here's why you should give the edge to smaller agencies:

Smaller agencies are more efficient

Earlier, I mentioned a project where we came back to the client with a proposal of about $150,000 for a website. It was an e-commerce website.

But this was only the second half of the project. The first half was the design of the website (1/2 - design, 2/2 - development based on design). That portion of the project ended up being somewhere around $80,000.

So, altogether, if the client hadn't walked away, we would've netted $230,000 for the design and development of an e-commerce website. This is actually considered a "small project" for a large agency.

What would the client end up receiving for $230k? Well, the design team at the agency (about 5 of them) searched Shopify (the e-commerce platform that the website would be hosted on) for existing templates that closely aligned with what had been discussed with the client in the meetings prior.

Then, minor tweaks were made to the template (e.g. adjusting spacing, shifting certain elements to one side or another, etc.). The template with the designs would be presented to the client followed by a few meetings back and forth to continue tweaking. The development team would then take these designs and build the site.

So, for $80,000, the client is basically getting an existing Shopify template with minor adjustments. Oh, and this entire process took about 3 months - just the design, development hadn't even started yet. And it involved 5 designers and an account manager, and multiple emails every week between the internal team and the client.

All in all, the project would be $230,000 and take about 6 months. If this client came to me directly, now, with ZeroToDigital, I would propose somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000 and have the projected completed within 2 months.

We would have fewer meetings since you'd be talking with the developers directly. There would also be fewer chances of miscommunication.

Would the quality be diminished? Nope - I'm the same developer. The design? Well, that was just a Shopify template anyway.

TLDR: Larger agencies are more expensive because they're very inefficient, not because they produce better work.

Smaller agencies answer your questions more quickly

If you want to get a question answered from a large agency, you have to reach out to your account manager. The account manager then assesses the question and either emails the entire team, the lead developer or sets up a team meeting. This usually doesn't happen right away - meetings are often scheduled for either the next day or sometime within the current week.

Best case scenario, you get your answer sometime within the week but it comes with a bill for the time spent for the AM to read your email, set up a meeting, and for everyone to attend the meeting.

Worst case scenario, your question leads to followup meetings that take the project down an unintended rabbit hole. Other people (other than the person who actually had the answer) start weighing in and providing their perspective, then other options get considered and you end up receiving a change order for additions to your project.

With a smaller agency, your question usually goes directly to the person who can answer your question. And it can typically be answered immediately in the email reply. If it's more complicated than that, then perhaps another email or 2 or required, or the client and the person can jump on a quick call right away to discuss.

Smaller agencies give you direct access to decision makers

In large agencies, you're often not working directly with a decision maker. If you want to make a change to the scope of your project, you need to reach out to the account manager who reaches out to the production team to see what's possible and then the account manager sets up a meeting with their manager to approve the change.

In a small agency, your change can often be handled entirely by your main point of contact - changes to the scope, timeline, priorities, project, etc.

Smaller agencies will be more willing to customize their services for your needs

Smaller agencies typically have a smaller client base. Since the team is a fraction of the size of a large company, not as many clients and projects are required to pay the bills.

Because of the fewer clients, smaller agencies want to make sure to keep you happy because the loss of a client hits harder than it does for larger agencies.

So, they value your relationship more and invest personally into the success and happiness that you receive from their projects.

What about ZeroToDigital?

As I look to grow ZeroToDigital, I'm excited to integrate the things I've learned from working with both large and small agencies and companies in the past.

A few of my goals for everything that ZeroToDigital produces include:

  • Honesty: If it's not realistic to complete a project for your timeframe or budget, then we're going to be honest about that. We're not going to overpromise and underdeliver - nobody wins in those situations.
  • Transparency: I want us to be open with our clients about "how the sausage is made". I want them to not just receive a product or service from us, but also the knowledge of how it works and what to do with it to maximize potential.
  • Efficiency: If it doesn't seem like we're communicating well with a potential client (e.g. getting our questions answered, being on the same page with) then it's likely the project is not going to run smoothly, so we're going to decline to submit a proposal.

Tough situations are bound to happen - it's impossible to avoid everything. People have bad days sometimes and that's okay. As I've learned from many bad and difficult situations like the ones I've expressed above, we'll learn from them and take that new knowledge with us.

This was a different, more personal-style of post than those I typically write, but I appreciate this opportunity to be transparent and reflect on the past and be excited about the future.

We at ZeroToDigital can help you unlock your business's full potential with an optimized website, web functionalities and effective digital marketing that works. Send us an email today to get your project started.

Hi, I'm Tyler Willis and I've been helping businesses optimize their digital marketing and web development efforts for over 10 years. I excel at teaching and helping companies understand complex digital solutions, and applying them to their businesses.

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