Earlier this year, the Crowdlinker team was proud to celebrate the company's 10th anniversary. Over the past decade, we’ve pivoted from a product company to a digital studio, significantly grown both our team and our services, and won an award for The Elevated Awards 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2019.
To reflect on our journey, I spoke with company Co-founder, CEO, and my boss, Aram Melkoumov. We discussed the highs and lows of running Crowdlinker, how the company has evolved, and what we hope to achieve in the future.
For the first 3 years Crowdlinker was a company that built their own software solutions. Due to industry changes, we needed to re-evaluate our direction as the digital products weren’t gaining the momentum we had hoped.
“When our product lost its steam, we turned to our community of start-ups we knew in the DMZ, and realized a lot of people liked the way that we approached problems, and the way we built solutions from a tech perspective. After that we started getting hired to do dev work.”
As the referrals rolled in, Crowdlinker was able to increase revenue. In fact, when we became an agency, we managed to double our revenue year over year.
“Over time, our know-how improved around various tech stacks and strategies, and eventually clients started asking us for design support. We initially brought on a freelance contractor as a designer, but as we started growing we developed a solid design practice where we now have 4 dedicated product designers on board (Tess, Carly, Justin, and Muhammad).“
As product development began to soar, we continued to expand our services. From building or improving digital products, to our carefully crafted discovery process. Which you can read all about in our blog, ‘What is product discovery? Our process and systems’.
So, what did we learn from this shift to becoming a digital product studio?
“Ultimately, when you’re your own product company and you’re building out your own SaaS solutions, you’re niched towards what you do in that particular industry. So really all you think about is how to be more successful in your market with your target audience. Whereas with a studio, a lot of our team members enjoy how we work and who we are, because we get to work with many different companies and many different verticals. We’re always learning something new. It gives us that flexibility and that ability to be exploring new things.”
From B2B SaaS solutions for criminal investigations, to a ground-breaking NFT platform for Canada’s premier provider of sports and entertainment experiences. You can learn more about these projects and much more over in Our Work.
Building a team that’s right for your company can vary between industries and disciplines, but for Crowdlinker, Aram pointed towards two things.
“The first is making sure you can hire people who are smarter than you, or have certain skill sets or mindsets that challenge you. And, the second is finding people who can work autonomously and independently.”
“From a culture perspective we always had that freelancer mindset - where you kind of assume you’re running your own business. This keeps everybody accountable and responsible for the success of whatever they do.”
As a fully remote company, making sure people are where they’re supposed to be, doing the job they’re supposed to be doing helps us to work in the most efficient way. Which is why Roles and Responsibilities are key.
“One of the biggest challenges we had when we went from 35 - 50 people was scale. When you start growing - as much as I love a flat organization structure, you need to create hierarchy, because there needs to be some sort of organisational structure which can ensure growth.”
“I started to see that when we got to 50 people some roles and accountabilities started overlapping, and people got confused.”
By going through R&R, people in the company were able to better understand things like:
It’s just the kind of clarity this remote team needs.
To learn more about how we’ve managed to stay together while miles apart, you can read our blog post Why I love Working Remotely at Crowdlinker.
You have the best team and they’re all clued up to their responsibilities, now what?
Well, it’s important you’re able to trust them to do the work.
When you’re the CEO of a company, juggling priorities becomes your day to day. It can be hard to let go of certain responsibilities, but delegation will set you free.
“For so long I was doing HR by myself, and then Sarah (Operations Coordinator) stepped in to help for a bit. But as her role expanded, we realized it was time to bring on someone dedicated. We needed help with proper hiring, onboarding, work plans, culture, contractor handbooks, employee handbooks - there’s so many things. It’s a very key role, especially when you’re a remote company.”
“I had to step out of that role so that I could focus on things like operations, sales, and strategy. I needed someone I could trust to step in and take over that role, and I really think we found that when we hired Maja.”
Embedded in the Crowdlinker culture is the mindset to always propose or come up with solutions to whatever problem arises, then ask for forgiveness later if you need it.
“I tell my team to just run with it - if you make mistakes or you fail it’s fine, as long as you learn from it, because we’ll keep going, together.”
Getting comfortable with misses and letting go of minutiae can give you the freedom to focus where you’re most needed.
“As a CEO, I have to let go of certain things, I can’t be involved in every aspect of the company. I need to have trust in the team. If there’s any f**k ups that’s just life, we move on.”
Over the years Crowdlinker has been involved in a few acquisition attempts. None of them ended up being the right move for the company, but all of them held valuable lessons, and in most instances opened up new business opportunities.
Most recently though, Aram had spent 3-months working on an acquisition that looked like a done deal. But after the pandemic hit, the deal fell apart, along with the sales pipeline.
“I spent 3 months focussing on this deal and I lost track of sight on the pipeline. I didn’t think about what would happen if it didn't go through. I thought this was a done deal, and operated in that mindset. When the pandemic hit and the deal didn’t go through, I got hit with a pipeline that evaporated. The reality for me was never take your eyes off the prize - ensure you have a good sales pipeline, good forecasts, and have any kind of distractions handled by some other trusted partner in the company.”
When you’re running a company, staying wise to market corrections and moving quickly can mean the difference between failure and success.
“After the pandemic hit, I had to start focusing on where’s the growth? Where’s the opportunity? eCommerce was booming, so we reached out to companies like Shopify and Bolt Logistics, and worked more within this vertical. We landed projects like our work with NBC universal, and went to where the market was needing support.”
With layoffs continuing to rise across the tech industry as we face another recession, staying vigilant to new opportunities could be your best bet to beat the odds.
Following the failed acquisition attempt pre-pandemic, Crowdlinker was faced with a harsh reality. Diversify or drown.
“After speaking to the CEO of the acquiring company, I eventually decided there was nothing crazy about what he was doing at his company that we couldn’t do ourselves with our own client partners. I had the rationale that even if we got acquired, I’d still be handcuffed to one business or one product idea for a long time.”
Over the years, we had gone from solely building our own SaaS solutions, to becoming a professional service company for purely transactional work. But we knew we could do more.
“I realized, when I look at our balance sheet it’s all professional service transactional work, and we didn’t have any ownership or equity in these projects or companies anymore.”
So, we expanded our services to include Venture Builder projects. We wanted to help mitigate start-up failures for our clients, feel more immersed in projects as true partners, and reduce our dependency on professional services.
After the company went fully remote, we decided to launch our new podcast series. “It was a time when nobody was connecting in person. We thought, how can we connect with people virtually and continue to build relationships?”
The company wanted to expand its network, create new relationships, and increase brand awareness, whilst developing some domain authority and thought leadership.
We ended up creating two podcasts - Off the Record, where Aram connects with founders and VCs to talk about the ugly side of growth, and Product Innovation Series.
In the beginning, PIS started off as an interview show with innovators at enterprises. But we quickly learned a lot of these people didn’t have a community to connect and network with other innovators at different enterprises.
“We thought, why don’t we broaden out and try to create content that everybody can benefit from - from a scale up product leader to an innovation leader.”
As the podcast grew, we shifted over from being all about innovation to becoming more product focussed. And we found that, especially during the pandemic while people were working virtually, it became pretty successful.
“Random people would reach out and recognize me because I come up in a lot of people's feeds as the bald guy talking about product. Even people on the other side of the world. It’s great because that was the objective - to increase brand association.”
One of the biggest challenges we’ve identified since becoming a product studio, is that we don’t have a specific niche. Although this has helped us to stay nimble and diversify quickly, we have begun to turn our attention to focusing more on Product Led Growth.
As a product studio that has extensive expertise in design thinking and discovery, one of our strengths is ideating around how to help businesses shift from labour intensive and traditional sales models to the digital onboarding of customers.
“I’m a strong believer that products should sell themselves, you don’t need to rely on sales reps and account managers to do it, unlocking the ability to scale your product without the human capital dependency. “
By using PLG as a mechanism to go to market, we can streamline our approach to benefit our clients with a new business strategy that could help them see faster growth at scale.
“I hope in the future we can become the regarded thought leader when it comes to approaching a studio that specializes in product led growth.”
If you’d like to find out more about how we’ve evolved our services over the past 10 years, check out our brand new Capabilities Overview Page. Or Contact Us with your most complex business problems today.