These days, the startup world is starting to look like a parody of itself. In the haze of technobabble and overstated social impact (LoMoSo, bro!), it takes a rare breed of founder to cut through the crap and focus on real, tangible results.
Josh Davidson, founder of the Philly-based development agency Chop Dawg, has no time for the flimsy metrics that some firms try to pass off as results. “Results say everything in the agency world, and there are too many people focused on bullshit metrics like ‘oh, we got you 1,000 sign-ups or hits’ or things like that,” he says. “You have people who think metrics mean success- bullshit. Money is success. Impact is a success. Anyone who focuses elsewhere is just wasting each other’s time.”
This is the core of Josh’s philosophy. Having started Chop Dawg when he was only 16 (he’s 23 now), he’s proven that his company is more than a wunderkind’s passion project by delivering solid results for his clients and his employees. Completely eschewing the typical 9–5 workday, Josh’s employees at Chop Dawg are free to set their own schedules. “Except for scheduled meetings and deadlines, they can work when they want, where they want, and how they want.”
Think it sounds too good to be true? Think again. Chop Dawg has been a huge success since it was founded in 2009. They’ve launched over 170 apps in that time, working with companies from all over the world. When we interviewed Josh back in July, he shared some of the keys to his approach to entrepreneurship.
How does a founder go from hustling on a project-by-project basis to building a steady, stable company? It’s all about shifting your perspective at the right time and in the right way. Here’s how Josh explains the pivot: “It’s the second you, as an individual, realize ‘my time’s better spent working on my business than working in my business.’”
In other words, instead of spending all of your time getting in the weeds and coding (or the equivalent in your field), you’re better off working on ways to improve your business and help your employees do their jobs more effectively. Josh believes most would-be entrepreneurs won’t successfully make that pivot, and he counts himself lucky to have figured it out quickly.
“Fortunately, I had that moment early on. I realized that I wanted to grow a team, I wanted to hire people who are a lot smarter than me, I wanted to make a bigger impact. Doing it by yourself is rewarding, and I don’t want to undersell it or decrease the value of those who do it everyday but the reality is, to be an entrepreneur, you want to take that next step. The real entrepreneurs are passionate about the operations side.”
If you’re struggling with your first startup, the notion of turning away any paying client probably seems alien, if not downright foolish. But Josh sticks to his principles with Chop Dawg and won’t take on work from incompatible prospective clients.
“We won’t work with people that we just don’t get along with personality-wise. We also won’t work with anyone if we feel that they’d just be throwing their money away because they have a bad idea.”
“We’ll only work with those that we want to work with and on ideas that we truly believe in. If we can’t do those two things, we turn down work.”
It’s not just talk. Despite having around 800 potential clients contact them over the course of the last year, Chop Dawg has kept their list of active clients at around 60.
“If you put your name on work that you know is going to fail, then you’ve lost your integrity. That’s where negative reviews happen. That’s when they’re going to be pissed off. And that’s where you’ve crossed that moral line and can’t go back.”
Of course, picking the right clients is about more than principles. Great clients let you make great products, which is one of the most reliable forms of marketing that exists. “Results are your best sales tool. If you produce results, your clients will recommend you,” Josh says.
He’s speaking from experience here, as about half of Chop Dawg’s current roster of clients are referrals. “Before you look into paid marketing, know you can do such a damn good job that someone will just tell people to work with you. If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be in business. Because that means you’re focused on the revenue; you’re not focused on taking care of those that matter.”
For Josh, the truth is in the numbers. “Let data tell you what to do, then you can be the genius saying ‘this is what we’re doing,’” he says. “It’s basically a cheat sheet on how to be successful. But too many people don’t even look at it.” Guesswork and intuition can only take you so far. Without the validation of solid research, your business won’t be able to take the right steps.
When you start a business, you have to spend far more time than you’d like desperately trying to secure funding just to keep going. Naturally, this instills a frugal mindset in many entrepreneurs. But frugality can hurt in the long run, and Josh cautions founders against being too afraid to spend money.
“As a first-time entrepreneur it [being frugal] is a hard habit to break, because you’ve always looked it as your own personal expense. But you run a company now. You can’t be afraid to invest. If you’re afraid to invest, you’re establishing terrible habits. When it comes to hiring later on, you’re gonna lowball people, break off partnerships- you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Chop Dawg’s marketing is focused almost entirely on free social media. Josh says they’ve only just recently paid for advertising for the first time. Instead, they focus on creating content and sharing it through their blog and Twitter account. “No propaganda, no bullshit, just actual things people need to become better entrepreneurs and motivate them.”
How much content is enough? “I wish I could put out a blog every five minutes,” Josh tells us. “There’s no such thing as enough content.”
With an eye to the future, Josh views the tech business world from a Darwinian perspective. “The only challenge is keeping up with technology. As VR, wearables and bots enter the marketplace, the landscape is changing on a daily basis. If you can’t keep up- if you can’t grow- you will die.”