February 04, 2017
Almost 5 years ago, Russ Miles and I embarked on a wild journey with a bright new company, Simplicity Itself.
We started it with the goal of applying Simplicity in software development. This was Russ' inspiration from Rich Hickey, creator of the Clojure language. We had an idea, but no products, so we did what many do in that situation and started to run a software consultancy.
We have done many things over the years, and the company has gone up and down as our interests moved around.
For those who’ve never been in this situation, software consulting is both easy and hard. It’s easy, you need no real investment to get going, just a confident sales pitch and the ability to pull off what you just sold. It’s hard in that cloning yourself is currently impossible, so how do you scale?
The past 5 years have been an incredible learning experience, but I have to accept that, like the allegory of the Curates Egg, the parts that I love have inevitably been overwhelmed by the parts that I simply don’t. An egg cannot be partially good, and so it has come to the point where I’m calling time on the company, putting it to sleep and starting my next journey.
I’ve already talked to our active client base about this, so I want this article to answer a few questions for clients who I’ve not talked to for a while, people i know generally, fans, competitors, consultancy brethren etc.
Why are you shutting down?
Russ left SI in early 2016 to go to Atomist, a product startup. I didn’t know in advance, but it’s a good move for him, as he’d been having a tough time maintaining the travel required in a consulting role.
That left me as the sole active owner of SI. There was much rebalancing required, and we had several long term contracts in place to fulfill.
I decided to take a year, run out the contracts and see what the world would give me.
I will remember 2016 as a bit of a blur. The SI team as was worked hard, but we didn’t get much improved from where we started. Gaining clients as a pure architecture consultancy has always been hard, but as Microservices advanced in implementation, it became harder. Everything needed to be tied to implementing technologies, and we had found ourselves competitively boxed in, as the pure play tech consultancies won deals where we would have done previously.
All the issues I describe below came in to play, consultancy can be tough!
Ordinarily, this would have been fine, but I found my interest in pure play consultancy decreasing through the year. I got into software for the love of creating it, and it got to the point where I was presented a choice, either give up on development (even in free time!), or not do a good enough job in biz dev for a consultancy.
To remake SI, we would have had to begin showing technical strength across the board. This was possible with the team we had, but would have meant publishing things that are essentially click bait, not research papers, deep thinking or articles moving the industry forward. Just another blog post on "how to do X with Y" (insert tech as appropriate).
I came to a moment of clarity late in 2016, I wanted the world to stop and get off. Running a software consultancy shop was no longer for me.
Over winter we closed down, everyone has now left SI and we’re officially closing shop today with a ritual burning of the business cards.
It’s been a fun ride, but it’s done now.
What will happen to the London Microservices User Group?
I will continue to organise and run LMUG. If anyone is interested in helping out, please get in touch, but I’m going to continue to be involved for the long term. We (LMUG) just launched our new schedule for this year, if you have a talk, send it through!
Who will help me with Microservices now?
I’m now available as a freelancer. So, get in contact and I’ll be happy to help you
What are you going to do next?
I love building software. I’m going to do that.
That will mean that I still teach, which I also love.
I’ve been working on IoT hardware and software solutions for the past 6 months. Covering ultra low power wide area (10 mile) sensors and back end systems (based on Muon and its event store, Photon). I’ll be talking about this publicly now.
My background before SI was as a freelancer, I’ve been permanently employed for 18 months in my life and have no desire to go back to that.
So, I’m back to freelancing. I’ll be investing my time heavily into Muon and building products with it with some interesting clients.
If you need Microservices, Cloud, dev process or IoT help give me a call
Should I start a consultancy?
This is the bit where I unveil some of the issues I’ve seen with building a consultancy. I was warned before going in that it would be hard, and to everyone that did so at the time, you were totally right.
I don’t regret much of what we did, but I would not do it again now.
So, what were the problems?
Consulting is a people business. You are selling people to other people. The only way to scale is to add more people, which eventually becomes impossible to sustain. If you go into consulting, know that you are not going to get rich doing it.
You can be comfortable, but accept that you are buying into a lifestyle, one with variety, choice, frustration, travel and the constant need to be "the smartest man in the room", or you are out of a job.
Since consulting is such a people intensive business, you have a very high cost base and you’re looking for fairly low margins as compared to a product business.
For an architectural consultancy as SI has mostly been, our engagements are more likely to been in the days to weeks range than longer. There have been a couple of 9 month gigs, but they are the exception.
This means that a lot of time is spent chasing business, writing proposals, researching,
Deal Lead Times
As a contractor, you will generally expect to spend a few weeks on the market, interview and start the following Monday.
As a freelancer, you have a longer lead time on work, but normally measured in small weeks, allowing you to blend work together, move thigs around and ensure you are kept well occupied when you want to be.
As a consultancy, suddenly the lead times jump to months. Constant back and forth justifying rates, estimates, multi page proposal documents.
It’s soul destroying to have to spend so much time in pre sales, often delivering a significant portion of the value of an engagement before it’s even started. I never found peace with this.
For those companies that recognise this, you’re burning your suppliers, stop it. If you want proof that something works, arrange a 2 week engagement and pay for that proof yourself.
Otherwise you are asking for free consultancy. When you are in the consulting business, you are trading in ideas and skills. If you have to give these away for free simply to get your foot in the door, then run from that engagement, you’ll never profit there.
Constrained by the Company Mission
Something I didn’t expect was how constraining creating a group/ company identity is. You create a company, run a marketing process and come up with some sort of idea on what it should be perceived as. SI was perceived as an enterprise architecture consultancy specialising in Microservices. Which is correct.
For me, and others in the company, this was not everything we wanted to do. We discussed AI, data tech, I loved electronics hardware.
Lots of areas, but how can you talk about these things without diluting the company marketing push? It’s hard to, especially when you’re running on fairly low marketing budgets.
Overall, I don’t recommend that you try to start your own consultancy business, or if you do, keep it to just you and bring in other freelancers as you need to.
You’ll find it hard, you’ll find you end up chasing things you may not love. You may even be pushed into giving up what you do love, in the service of the greater good.
For me, I’m going to freelance my way for the next year or so, work on Muon, write my book and continue to learn new things.