President & CEO Jason King founded Accella as a breakaway from the IT consulting firm, Bodkin Consulting Group, in 2006. Under his guidance, the company has grown steadily from a two man development shop to an 22 person team focusing on web and mobile design & development. With strong revenue growth year over year, the company has shown strength under his leadership even during tough economic times, picking up enterprise clients such as Volvo, Fox, Parker Hannifan and Long & Foster along the way.
Accella designs, builds, and integrates custom websites and mobile applications based on their client’s specific requirements. Whether it’s implementing an idea from scratch, or migrating an existing website/application, their dedicated project managers and design team work with their clients to make sure their ideas and visions are implemented on time, in budget, and within scope.
MO: What influenced you to leave an established firm to start your own company?
Jason: I was working in the server rooms of a large defense contractor just outside of DC. This involved hours spent under fluorescent lighting with little interaction with the outside world; during the winter months I would arrive at work in the dark and leave after the sun went down. I knew that this type of environment was not for me. I began doing some website programming on the side and started building up a small clientele list which I felt could actually pay the bills. Taking a leap of faith, with encouragement from my family, I decided to forge my own path and open up shop doing web design and development full-time. I convinced our now COO, Steve Demby, to join with me in doing some development and the two of us had a blast bringing on new clients and turning out some pretty impressive websites for a two man shop.
If I had an office with a window I may not have been so motivated to start my own firm; I guess I just wanted to see the sun every now and then.
MO: What were the biggest obstacles that you faced along the way and is there anything you would do differently if you had to start again?
Jason: Finding talent has been one of our biggest challenges in growing our firm, especially when we started developing mobile applications. You have to remember, as large as the web is, it is still relatively new, and the iPhone and Android OS have only been around for a few years. You can’t find someone with ten years of experience building apps, or twenty years creating websites. So when we are scouting out future employees, we are looking for passion. Someone that has a strong desire to do what they do, that wants to continue learning through reading blogs, attending conferences, and simply trying to figure out how to do something they can’t do.
As far as doing anything different if we were to start again, I would say no. I think one of the keys to being a successful entrepreneur and a successful executive is the ability to make tough decisions, sometimes based solely on intuition. Do those decisions always turn out to be correct? No, of course not, but I find it much more painful to see people labor over a decision for months, when they could have encountered and overcome any obstacles in a bad decision by that point. In a small and growing company, you don’t have time to standstill and you don’t have time to labor over past mistakes. You see them, learn from them and correct them for the future.
MO: In 2010, Accella was listed as one of the best places to work in Baltimore by both Baltimore magazine and the Baltimore Business Journal. How have you managed to attain this level of recognition when everyone works remotely?
Jason: That was a great award for us. Since the inception of the company was based on my lack of interest in my own 9 to 5 job, I wanted to foster an environment where people were truly passionate about their work and enjoyed their working environment. I think a work place where people are happy contributes to a better product and this award was somewhat of a validation that we had achieved that goal.
I think we’ve achieved it through a high level of trust within the organization. When you work from home you have a certain level of freedom that you typically don’t have within the four walls of most organizations. There isn’t someone looking over your shoulder, or making sure that your sitting at your desk coding away from nine to five. Our designers, developers, project managers, and everyone else on staff has a job to do and we trust that they will do it and they relish that trust and freedom. Sure everyone needs to be available for internal conference calls or to speak with a client during regular business hours, but if one of our developers wants to put in a couple of hours on a project in the middle of the night while their newborn is keeping them awake, and then needs to run some errands in the middle of day, we don’t have a problem with that. What is important is that they produce high quality results in a timely manner. My feeling is that if you need to constantly watch over your employees to make sure that they are doing their jobs right, you might as well just do it yourself.
MO: What’s your favorite part of your job? Your least favorite?
Jason: Honestly one of my favorite parts of the job is hearing all of the different, wild, and amazing ideas that our clients come up with for apps and websites. Some of them are just so far our there you think, there is absolutely no way that could possibly work. But then you sit and talk to them a bit more, and talk with our development team, and three months later you’re delivering what they wanted and more. Sometimes I just sit back in awe at what we’ve been able to provide for our clients when at first glance I had no idea how it would possibly work. The wide range of projects we are lucky to work on is astounding, from building a CPR training mobile app to a social website for a body piercing & tattoo company, we really never know where our next project will take us.
For the most part I enjoy all aspects of our company. I keep on waiting for that honeymoon phase to end, when going to work starts feeling more like work and the excitement fades; luckily five years in I’m still waiting. But my least favorite part has to be hearing that we’ve lost a deal to someone that went with a firm that outsources their development overseas. Not to say that overseas developers aren’t competent, or can’t produce a high quality app or website, but we have seen a large number of clients come back to us after going that route because their project fell apart. Deadlines were missed, costs were overrun and then they come to us, sometimes with the source code, often times without it, and we do our best to pick up the pieces and finish their project. A good chunk of our projects are clients who are investing a lot of their own money into their projects and it’s painful to see them lose that money by trying to save money by going overseas or hiring a new minted developer that doesn’t have the experience, communication skills or team that we do.
MO: You’ve managed to double Accella’s revenue year after year despite the depressed economy. What’s the secret to your success?
Jason: Our core growth comes from retaining clients. In technology, there are always going to be issues with a project – everything is a layer more complex than it seems on the surface. The trick is how you handle those issues. Do you shy away from it or put it in a corner for later, or do you take it head on and keep in constant communication with the client to work through it. We very rarely lose clients because we foster communication and inventive problem solving and that helps our revenue continue to grow as we bring in new clients as well.
Accountability is key part to that retention. Everyone on a project team is accountable for their portion of the project as well as the project as a whole. I have never heard that someone didn’t help out on a project because it wasn’t their job. Each person that works on a project, and even those not on the project, is working towards the overall success of that project and of the company. Unlike other companies, we can’t cut costs in manufacturing, or find more efficient ways to ship something, our end product is a website or mobile application. So our company’s success depends upon our clients being happy and that means each Accella employee is accountable for the work that they do. It is that philosophy that keeps our client retention rate very high and keeps our employee retention rate at near 100%.
MO: What excites you most about the mobile app market and how do you think it’s changing how you do business?
Jason: What excites me most is that I think we have only hit the tip of the iceberg. The mobile app market is really just starting to pick up steam. Everyone has their toe in the water and I think you are going to continue to see more and more innovative ways to leverage mobile in the years to come. More apps are being built which can really help how people do business, especially with the influx of all new tablets to the marketplace. Having a smartphone or tablet has long passed being a novelty to being a necessity. We have been seeing a lot more requests for B2B apps and productivity apps that will revolutionize how people do business.
We liken where we are now with mobile apps to where we were with websites in the mid to late nineties, companies all knew they needed a website, but didn’t know why or what they wanted it to do. Now more and more companies are sensing that they need a mobile app but don’t know exactly why they need one and what it can do. We are here to help them understand mobile and realize that it’s not just an extension of their website.
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