Ellis Miller is the co-founder and Managing Director of CodeCrafters International, a Dhaka-based international technology development company. Founded in 2007 by Ellis and Lynita Miller, CodeCrafters provides customized software solutions to businesses in the USA and other parts of the world. The company maintains a development team in Dhaka, Bangladesh with a U.S.-based sales and support team.
In this beautiful and intellectually empowering interview with Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader, Ellis walks us through his early life and experience of growing up in rural Kansas in the US, his journey into the world of software development, moving to Dhaka, founding and building a technology company out of Bangladesh, how his childhood and upbringing has shaped his outlook about life and work, how community, faith, integrity, and hard work define his understanding of a good life, talks about growing a business, team building, culture, leadership, reflects on the importance of valuing people, how our faith helps us keep our center solid and much more.
Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I want to begin with learning about you, could you please tell us your story, your background?
Ellis Miller: I grew up in a rural community in Kansas which is at the center of the US. I got into coding at a pretty young age and got my first job in an apprenticeship role in software development in 1995. I joined as a software developer and eventually became a team leader. I lived in Kansas till 2006. It has been 25 years since I joined the software development sector. We have been in Bangladesh for 15 years now.
I was approached by a software company straight out of high school. In addition to my job, I attended university. However, I didn’t complete my graduation. At the age of 17, I started working for Investortools which was around 12 years old at the time and they were working on their first Windows product. I am talking about 1995 and we are still working with them today. I have been working with them for 24 years now and even after founding my own company, I partnered with them. I lead one of the core programming teams for Investortools.
Two teams at CodeCrafters work on the software platform, while the third team develops customized business solutions using the same enterprise software package.
Future Startup: What was your childhood like?
Ellis Miller: I am a third-generation businessman in my family. In the US, the family business is the core of the economy. People are aware of large corporations. However, the truth is that the economy is primarily powered by family-owned small businesses. In small towns, there are many small family-owned businesses with 5-10 employees.
My grandfather owned quite a large farm. He used to raise seed wheat, process seed, and sell them. My father’s first job was on my grandfather’s farm and I recall working on that farm during summer vacations when I was 12-13. In the meantime, when I was around 8-9 years old, my father started his own retail business of foods and groceries. Later he opened a bookstore and gift shop as well. His own business was kind of a part-time job for him. But eventually, he started to work on that full-time.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I used to go to our shop before the schools would start in the morning to help with cleaning the floors and other chores. After I got home from school in the evening, I used to help my father. One of my favorite tasks was packaging the candies. The candies would come in large boxes and we had to put them in small boxes to sell them. As a child, I enjoyed that work.
By the time I turned 14, I started to help my father in accounting. I used to go there before school in the morning to manage the accounts. I would collect the cash according to the cash register and the receipts from the previous day and endorse the checks if anyone would pay in checks. Then I would add everything up and prepare to deposit the money in the bank.
I do think that my involvement in my father’s business played a role in my interest in the business. My father subscribed to the Inc. Business Magazine. I used to read that from cover to cover and sometimes I used to write pretend letters of business contracts for fun. So business was in my blood, which I attribute to my father. He involved me with his business at such a young age.
WhenI was still in grade school, my father was moving his business to a new location and he was designing the floor plan for the retail space. He told me to sit down with him to prepare plans, such as where to put the main counter, shelves, and so on. It was a thrill for me to assist my father with his work. Now looking back I realize that he didn’t need help from a grade school student to make plans for his retail store. He was simply involving me with the process. That is an example of how he sparked my interest in business and taught me the nitty-gritty of a business.
When I got the job offer from the software company, I joined there. But I already had a bit of an interest in business by then.
Future Startup: So you joined the software company in 1995, how long did you work there?
Ellis Miller: I worked there till 2006. This whole time I worked in Investortools, we were building the software for the Windows operating system. We started from scratch. I joined at the very beginning of the project and there were 0 lines of code. By now the platform has grown into 1.7 million lines of code and we transitioned from Windows software to browser-based software. I am sure I can still find the code I wrote in 1995, though there have been a lot of changes made since then.
Future Startup: You mentioned that your father used to involve you in his business. How has your childhood and upbringing shaped your perspective about work and the world?
Ellis Miller: I am sure there was something that played a role in building my perspective. My parents lived out their faith. In the evening all our family members used to sit together and read scripture. We used to pray and sing together. So faith was the core of our family. It wasn’t just something we believed, but it was how we lived our life.
I grew up in a rural community and the people there were very hardworking. Growing up, they taught me that you need to work hard to achieve anything in life.
While growing up, I was surrounded by a generous community. I can remember sometimes customers would start talking about their health problems or other issues they were facing. Then my mom would go to the bookstore and give them books or something to make them feel better. Those experiences deeply impacted who I am today.
Future Startup: Were you still living in Kansas when you joined the software company in 1995?
Ellis Miller: Yes. I was working remotely. The company was based in the greater Chicago area at that time. But my direct boss used to live in Texas, teaching at Texas Tech University. Somewhere during that time, he became full-time in the company which was originally started by him and his father.
After joining the company, I worked remotely just by myself for a while. Then another employee Joel Iwashige joined as one of the first full-time employees in 1999. Then another man joined us who used to work in Texas before joining us. Then Josh Nisly from Kansas joined. He now lives in New York.
My two younger brothers used to sit in my office. They were around 9 and 12 years old when I started programming. I taught them coding just for fun. Later they joined the company too. One of my brothers started his own business and I partnered with him. Now he looks after our sales and support in the US. The other one is working as a senior engineer for Investortools.
Future Startup: Could you tell us the difference between life in rural areas in the US and the life we see on the screen?
Ellis Miller: If you look at life in Dhaka and life in Meherpur, it is two different worlds. It is the same in the US, but maybe the difference is a little less than here. As agriculture has become more industrialized, the rural areas of the United States are experiencing new challenges. Farms are now much larger, and thanks to industrialization, three workers can now accomplish the labor of fifty. There have been a lot of changes in the rural part of the US.
But in general, you will find strong family bonds, hard-working, down-to-earth people. People who work hard to provide a better future to their next generation. I think that’s what drives the economy.
It is not the glamour you see on the screen, it is the hard work of people that keeps the economy of the US moving forward.
Future Startup: You joined a company in 1995 and worked there till 2006. Could you talk about your time working for Investortools and your transition to entrepreneurship and coming to Bangladesh?
Ellis Miller: My boss’s name is Dan Daniels and he was living in Texas at that time. Now he lives in Colorado. He and his father, Paul Daniels started Investortools in 1983. Paul Daniels was an investment professional. He was in the bond investment business. So, in the US, for anything related to the municipality, such as building a new road, they sell bonds, usually government bonds, which provide tax benefits to anyone who invests in the bonds. These bonds are part of the infrastructure of America. Airports, hospitals, power plants, school districts all provide tax benefits to whoever invests in them.
Paul Daniels was in the investment business at that time working as a portfolio manager. He witnessed the introduction of IBM personal computers in the market, which was highly thrilling at the time. At that time, Dan Daniels had recently graduated from the university with an accounting degree. Paul and Dan decided to start their own business. So Dan bought a computer and taught himself programming. I am talking about 1983 when they used to work in someone’s basement and they had to work very hard. Back then, companies didn’t have PCs on every desk. Whenever a company would need a PC they could get a PC by subscribing. People had to use one floppy disk for the software and another for the database.
So Dan Daniels and his father decided to build something sophisticated. But back then, Investortools was a tiny company and they had to do everything themselves from answering the phones, doing sales calls, and everything. With time the company grew slowly. They used a subscription model which ensured a regular revenue stream.
When I joined in 1995, there were around 50 people in the organization. At that time they still had DOS products. With Windows becoming dominant, they realized that they needed to move to Windows. Because corporate America was slower to adopt new technology, it was less of a problem as they were building enterprise software.
Dan Daniels left the company for his postgraduate studies at Texas Tech University and afterward, he taught there for a while. He started his own company in the meantime and came back to Investortools to help with the initiative of building the new software for Windows. So he was looking for new software developers and through a mutual friend, I got a call. They asked me if I was interested in joining a company to build software. I had no background in software and I used my PC mainly for office work. But I loved math. In grade school, I participated in the state math competition. Software development has a lot of similarities with algebra and geometry. So I replied to them with a “Maybe”.
Dan Daniels gave me a computer and a college textbook on Pascal after I graduated from high school in 1995. My first week's task was to complete the examples, finish the book, and go through it all over again. It was a computer science 101 textbook. That’s how I started. Then he gave me a learning project which was also a test for me. He used to train me over the phone. We had email and dial-up internet. But we didn’t have facilities like screen share or other technologies.
I think he is one of the best teachers I have ever met. I am still amazed by his ability to teach someone software development over the phone. I loved communication too. Hence somehow the job was the right fit for me. Later in my career, I myself attempted long-distance training and it was difficult. That is something I no longer do. I am thankful that he did that for me.
The first fax he sent was handwritten. He sent it to my father’s fax machine.
In 1996, we started working on our Windows product. I had a training program before that. Investortools had a Windows 3.1 product for a custom solution for a client and that was written in Pascal. They had made a tough call and ended up deciding to switch to C++ and Microsoft because that’s where the market was heading. Thank God that they made that decision and headed that way. Because within the next few years, Pascal was dead and Microsoft became the future. It was the right call for us to switch to Microsoft.
In those early days, I used to do things like doing the database code, translating it from Pascal to C++ line by line, report writing, building a graphing engine, and doing screen layouts. We initially had a team of 5-6 developers working on the software. Now on the C++ side, we have around 30-40 developers. In the early days, we progressed bit by bit, converting the clients one by one, converting them from DOS to Windows, etc. It took us 7 years to convert our last client completely away from DOS to Windows.
We had a remotely distributed team. We used to contact them through email and Lotus Notes and work closely with Dan Daniels.
Joel Iwashige, who joined me later, started his first training project when he was 13. After finishing high school he completed his four years bachelor's degree in business from a college. Meanwhile, he was working full-time in the company as a software developer. He also became a CFA, so he was an expert in both finance and software.
He joined the company in 1999. By 2004, we had a team of young and bright people with a lot of energy. I was 27 years old and the oldest one on the team. We used to have a lot of fun together.
We were a team working for a larger company. So we rented our own office space in Kansas. There were a lot of soft drinks in our office to fuel us up. We had a lot of good times. Now some core people of that team are working as the senior people in software projects.
Investortools has cultivated a family-friendly environment. I do respect them for that. When you are building software for the next 10-20 years, it means you are thinking long term. They have a lot of employees who have been working there for 10-15 years. Investortools cultivated a sense of community and longevity. It feels like a family. I believe those ideals provided us with the steadiness and strength that no venture capital firm would have.
Future Startup: What do you think it takes to build a company culture like the one you just mentioned where people stay for 10-15 years?
Ellis Miller: We reflect who we truly are through our behavior and it comes back to us. If we take advantage of other people, people are going to take advantage of us.
Children turn out a lot like their parents. The same thing happens in a company. And it takes a lot of time and energy to build a culture where people stay for a long time. To build a culture like that, you have to be very intentional about it from the beginning. For that, you should keep in mind what your values are and how you can communicate those values to people. It makes us who we are.
Surround yourself with good people. None is perfect and I do not look for perfect employees. I look for technical excellence. At CodeCrafters, we do complex tasks. Our software engineers take in millions of lines of code. So we need top-notch excellence regarding technical skills. I also look for character and integrity. But I do not look for perfection. We try to figure out if a candidate fits with our culture. I love taking initiative. But sometimes there are people who are bright, but aggressive. They try to get whatever they can as fast as possible and jump to the next thing. That kind of mindset can not bring any value to the company or them.
One of the few things we have done in the last few years is, establishing a provident fund plan with a company match with vesting over 3-5 years. I think our employees understand that we are investing in them and it gives them a sense of security. Because every month they are putting their percentage and we are matching their percentage and they can see that it is progressing. So we invest in our employees. We honor and reward longevity, but not only longevity. You can have an employee working here for ten years and they do not have experience equal to ten years, rather ten times of one year of experience. So our other goal is to help people develop their skills including technical skills and soft skills.
I am proud of the people I am working with. We have fantastic developers and they are also good people. I enjoy working with them.
Future Startup: Going back to your journey to entrepreneurship. Tell us more about it.
Ellis Miller: I joined Investortools in 1995 and Joel Iwashige joined in 1999. I led the team till 2005. While working there I used to often think about starting my own business overseas.
Future Startup: Was there any particular reason behind that?
Ellis Miller: There were several reasons. I always enjoy traveling. In 1999, I traveled to Europe with a friend. I have been to Mexico before that. Something is invigorating about the world that I enjoy.
I believe that one of the ways to serve God is to serve people. What I am doing is nothing special. I am just running a business and trying to be faithful and kind. But I hope that my work serves people such as our employees, customers, and partners in some way. I consider my role as a trust that has been bestowed upon me, and I intend to honor it. I considered many opportunities. I looked up the former Soviet Republic, but English seemed to be an issue there. When I looked up Turkey, it was near the top of my list of potential business places. Because they have at least the same level of stability Bangladesh has had for the last ten years. Some people ask why I didn’t choose India. Because the Indian market is so mature that it was quite hard to enter.
I talked to people who tried to establish their business in India. But it’s so difficult to recruit people. Because all big software companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, etc are present in India. I learned about Bangladesh from a friend of a friend and contacted some people in Bangladesh. He helped me with my contacts here. My family and I came here in 2005 and spent a few weeks. We stayed in a guest house in Banani. I had to go to a cyber cafe to check my email. Waiting for dial-up, arranging visas, etc was stressful. But everyone was saying the fiber optic cable was going to come to Bangladesh next year.
For my research, I visited BUET and Daffodil Computers Ltd through a mutual contact. Other foreigners had businesses here. They said that establishing a business in Bangladesh is challenging, but possible. When I checked I saw that there was talent, opportunities, adequate spoken English and faster internet was coming. So we found it feasible. Considering all these, we moved to Bangladesh in 2006.
For the first few months, I took some courses on Bangla learning to read, write and speak the language. I had to complete the necessary paperwork to start my business. During that time I was working with Investortools to support us. When I told Dan Daniels about starting my own business, he suggested that I build a team for them here. They were not taking the risk of opening a branch overseas. So they suggested partnering up with us. That’s how it started.
We decided to live in the Dhanmondi area. I walked every street of the Dhanmondi area to find the right apartment for us by speaking the scanty Bangla I had learned. Finally, we found the apartment we liked.
Later on, I met someone on the elevator and started chatting and I found out that in that building there was the office of Computer Jagat Magazine. Then I met Mohammad Abdul Haque Anu of Computer Jagat, which was a very instrumental meeting. I see it as a blessing that we ended up at the same building of all places. Mohammad Abdul Haque Anu was friends with several professors in BUET. So he kind of reconnected us there and helped us to rent an office space. He was friends with some people who were running PageFlakes. They had an office in Lalmatia, A-block. They had a large apartment there with a lot of space. We shared the apartment with them as our office space. They suggested splitting the internet cost with us as it was very expensive. So we hired a cook who used to cook for both of the companies. That’s how we started.
I talked to Dr. Saidur Rahman from BUET and he recommended us to the senior class of BUET. We got quite a few applications from there and hired six fresh software engineers. From Computer City, we bought desktops, and Josh Nisly from the US worked with me for almost two months to set up the business. We also worked with a US-based company that did a lot of our legal accounting work. That was helpful, as the process of registering in different government organizations was really tough. The registration process is a little better now, but it’s still tough. They still oversee some of the accounting tasks which help me to keep the admin part slim while focusing on the technical and sales part. So that was the scenario in 2007.
Starting my own business was tough. But at the same time, it was like an adventure. My developers were bright and young. It was fun working with them. But when you are an entrepreneur, you have to do a lot of things. So my role was simultaneously exhausting and exciting. My business kept growing slowly and we hired several more developers in 2009. We started to think about more commercial space. In 2011, we moved to our current location.
Future Startup: Could you please tell us about the early couple of years: challenges you faced, some of the strategies and activities that worked, etc?
Ellis Miller: I managed my team in Investortools in the past. But the team management here was different because of the culture. The culture in the US is based on flat relationships. So I had to learn how to lead my team well here and that was challenging for me. Because of the cultural differences, there were a lot of misunderstandings with the employees in the early years that took away a lot of energy.
What has helped me throughout the years is having a leadership team including Joel and the CodeCrafters team leads. CodeCrafters is an international company, but I hope people do not see it as a foreign company. It is just a blend of the world and it took a long time to understand each other’s culture and to develop trust in the early stage. But we had some fantastic employees.
Infrastructure such as internet connection was kind of a challenge. Electricity was a problem. The load shedding every two hours was causing problems. The building didn’t have a generator. So we had to buy a bigger generator. At some point, I got tired of the desktops. I wanted laptops. Then we switched to laptops. Now we use laptops exclusively and we’ve got backup on everything. We were on the top floor, so when the power was out, it was extremely hot inside the office. So we insulated the office to prevent heat. I learned things like that, step by step by fixing small details which took a lot of time and energy.
Another thing was I hired six guys of the same age and they were batchmates. It was amazing in the beginning. But in 2011 they all decided to leave for the US. Within five months I lost four of my senior people from my small team. That was tough for me.
So from 2011-2013, we had to rebuild our company and figure out how to do things differently. Now we do not hire six people at once, rather we hire several people every year. We do continuous hiring and that creates stability. We also try to make sure that the people we are hiring will enjoy working with us and vice versa. I inform my employees that if they know any software engineers, I will gladly interview them but will not necessarily hire them. Sometimes juniors who have just graduated from university knock employees on social media to know about the company and how it is like to work here. That’s what builds trust. Trust helps to build a culture that is healthy and resilient.
Future Startup: Could you give us an overview of CodeCrafters today? How big is your operation and how does your business work?
Ellis Miller: We have a team of 20 people and we typically hire two developers a year. But the number of hiring varies.
On the business side, we have two parts. Up until 2014-2015, all of our revenues were from partner company Investortools as we were providing development resources for them. You can call it outsourcing, but it was not like traditional outsourcing. Because we have had a long-term relationship with Investortools. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a startup is when the cash flow drops. You can have great ideas and great people. But you need cash to make that work. Once you get into negative cash flow, it’s tough to get out. So having that stable baseline of revenue was really helpful. Still, two of our teams are developing enterprise software for Investortools.
In 2014-2015, we started brainstorming to use the same enterprise software that gives business solutions to growing businesses and nonprofits. So this is the software platform, the same software we use for fortune 500 companies. It is hosted on Amazon server. It is a software platform that can host enterprise software as web-based solutions. There are multiple solutions provided and CodeCrafters is kind of an anchor of it. It is like a host community. There are 3-4 solution providers on this platform at this point and there is an ecosystem of connections. My brother who lives in Colorado built solutions. Josh Nisly has a number of different software solutions that he has built and hosted on this platform. There are others as well who have done the same thing.
It is not an open platform where anyone can join. It is more like an ecosystem. In a sense, the platform itself is cooperative. CodeCrafters USA charges a percentage fee as they provide hosting solutions through this platform.
Future Startup: It is kind of like an app store where you are the platform and users can choose any solutions they want?
Ellis Miller: Exactly. That is almost what our platform is like. So the business owners log into their browser and he has got the software right there. He doesn’t have to take care of the hosting, database, backups both online and offline, monthly backups, daily backups, and all other things related to the software. All of these solutions are provided by us.
In this regard, our revenue model has two parts: the first part is building enterprise software for Investortools. Another part is providing custom solutions by developing custom software. We use the software that we have licensed from Investortools to provide business solutions including a subscription model and a customized solutions contract model.
If a company needs software we build that for them. These are the big contracts. With that, the subscription comes as well which varies based on the deals. It depends on how many users there are, what kind of support we are providing, etc. We slowly build the subscription model for the baseline revenue.
Future Startup: How big is your business now? How many clients do you have?
Ellis Miller: At present, we have 19 active clients and around 250 users. The number is growing as we are doing marketing and advertising. We also rely on word of mouth.
Investortools is much larger than us. They have 120 employees and several hundreds of clients. They have thousands of users of their software. So the business there is hundred times bigger than our clients. I love working with them as I enjoy developing enterprise software.
But what I like best about developing customized business solutions is that I believe in small businesses and it is really fun to build software for these companies. Customized software is always expensive. We built one software package and the client came to us saying the accounting process that used to take him all day long, now takes an hour without any interruptions. That kind of feedback is rewarding and I love seeing businesses performing better with our software.
Future Startup: You mentioned word of mouth has been instrumental for your growth. Apart from that, what are some other strategies and activities that helped you to attract customers and grow the business?
Ellis Miller: We place advertisements in a few email newsletters. We produce some print advertisements that are targeted to magazines that are sent to rural-based manufacturing enterprises, many of which are family-owned.
Usually, a small business does not use customized software. They use excel or other tools. When you have small businesses, you have a small number of employees. These businesses are built on delivering value to the client. As the business grows, it becomes more challenging to manage. I'm not interested in developing software for someone who isn't sure if they need it. But say someone creates custom cabinets and his business has grown greatly, making it difficult for him to manage the entire system. He has 40 people who depend on this business and it is like a community. So the company is struggling due to growth, but the owner has the financial means to invest in a software solution to tackle the problem. So I hunt for clients that are in desperate need of my assistance.
The second thing I look for is trust. Of course, you can not gain trust from the very beginning. But you can build trust with time. Though all businesses are based on trust, the more knowledge-based a business is, the more trust is involved. So trusting a company to build a software solution based on the pricing they are offering and their service is very important. So my favorite types of clients are those who ask a lot of questions but are willing to trust us. I like that sense of connection. This is the reason numerous people told me not to pursue government projects. Because in government projects they just pay for the solution and we have to compete with other software developing companies to get the contract. There is no sense of connection and trust in that. Hence I do not desire to work on that kind of project. I like to work with clients who really need the software solutions we provide.
The thing about small growing businesses is that what they want is the result. Once your company becomes a large corporation you start to do paperwork and legal processes. Of course, we do paperwork with small companies to sign contracts. But what matters most for these companies is getting what they want from us and I enjoy working with them.
Future Startup: Over the years you have grown as a company. If you look back and also look at the present, what are some of the strategies that have helped you to grow your business?
Ellis Miller: To start a business you have to be diligent. We entrepreneurs love new businesses. But the reality is most businesses do not work. The percentage of failed businesses is extremely high. So you need to find the right people who can help you to evaluate your business idea to find out the challenges and possibilities. You need to find people who can provide constructive criticism rather than simply saying “It won’t work”.
The real question is, “What is the unique value you are bringing to the table?”. I have no degree in business. But I have had practical experience in business since my childhood and ten years of team management experience in a software developing company which was a well-run organization. So I learned from them how they run business, which has been really helpful for me.
I chose to build a business at the speed of cash. So I refused to take a bank loan to make my business grow faster. Because loans represent promises and risks. Personally, I do not borrow money from people. I feel different about investors by the way. We have grown this business through bootstrapping. But if we find investors with the right mindset, there is a possibility to take investments from them. But I absolutely avoid taking loans. Using my own cash makes the growth slower. But there is no use in running fast if you are going to fail in the end. For every Google or Facebook, there were a thousand failures. I have been listening to the podcasts of Simon Sinek. The fact is, when it comes to business, you have to be hungry. Remember that every time the tortoise wins because of the consistency, not the rabbit.
My goal is to grow at a slower yet consistent rate. I think it is one of the strategies that has worked for us.
So first you need to decide the value you are providing and a solid business plan. Then you need the right people. Then you need to work hard and depend on God for the outcome.
Future Startup: In the process of building the business, what are some of the practical lessons you have learned that you’d like to share with other entrepreneurs? You mentioned that you grow at the speed of your cash. But you need to earn that cash first. So how do you do that? What things can you do as a founder to build a stable operation?
Ellis Miller: I have had the privilege of having the right connections in this case. So it was the initial long-term contract based on which we funded the businesses. I think it’s possible to start a business part-time. It takes money to survive. So you can start your business besides your regular job and build it to the point where you can work full time. Because the first year after starting a business is critical, as it is hard to get that momentum going.
Some people have enough money or an investor for that. But working part-time on your business is also another way to grow your business in the early days. You can use practical strategies to reach your goal.
In the early days of Investortools, Dan Daniels went to work for a large client on a contract basis to keep the revenue stream going. He was living in a tiny apartment with his family. But it was part of what it took to make his own business work.
So in CodeCrafters, we are going to make hard choices to keep this business going.
But stay hungry, especially when we grow. Do not stop when you reach your goal. Always keep moving forward. When I first started, our office space was not this big. As the company grew, we started to get advantages. But I can never stop being hungry. We will always work hard, try to be smarter, push ahead and serve our clients better. Because the day you stop trying is the day you start dying.
Future Startup: What are the plans of CodeCrafters?
Ellis Miller: We have several plans. At present, our teams are really good and they will continue. Right now the development team is working on what the solution team has worked on. The solution team values being close with the development team. But for the development team, it is really motivating to know that the solutions for the banks of America are being built right here. It’s very rewarding for them.
I plan that our solution team will keep growing. Our vision is to build on successes, figure out what it takes to do this well, and keep learning. Suppose we have built a solution, whether or not it is profitable, we learn something from that.
I keep getting calls for building order management systems for customized products. One of our plans for the next advertisement is asking “Do you need help handling your orders?”, which is a very practical problem. That’s how we continue to learn.
Our goal is to build something that can be reused. Of course, the clients want different things, but there are often components that we can reuse.
We are building an accounting module. We have non-profit organizations that use this for accounting and we use it too. We just had the first client for this in the US. If you need a solution regarding the accounting side, we can just plug in the module integrated with your system. However, I have zero interest in going head to head with Quickbooks or Tally.
When I sit with people to know about what they need, some say that they are happy with using Quickbooks and some think having an integrated accounting module will be great. But when it comes to the whole business, including the accounting and the inventory management, in some ways, our accounting module sounds like ERP software. I do not want to use the term ERP, as I am not competing with ERP software in the market. You can think of our accounting module as an equivalent of ERP software, which is uniquely built for you.
I think about 10-20 years down the road and how to build the system so that the next generation can take us on and we can keep moving forward.
Future Startup: Could you tell us about your organizational culture at CodeCrafters?
Ellis Miller: The core value that we keep repeating is excellence. Whatever we do, we try to do it l in the best possible manner. That starts from how we design a task, how we work with the clients to how the software is coded. We train our developers, which is more like on-the-job training. We do code reviews very heavily.
We have engineers who now work in big companies like Amazon or Microsoft and they still say that in CodeCrafters they learned to code software correctly. That’s very rewarding for us. So excellence is really at the heart of what we do.
We try to learn constantly. In my early days, I learned technical skills. Then I learned how to manage. Now I am learning how to lead managers. I have managers who manage other employees and I am learning how to build them up. There are so many things that I don't know. So I want to continue learning.
We are 8000 miles away from our American clients. It doesn’t matter if they see us or not. I want to give them good value by doing the right thing. I want us to do the right thing no matter what. I want that to permeate our culture.
I value the connection as a community. I grew up in a tight-knit community and I still feel like a part of that community. We are also creating a community here because business is meant to be a community. People often see the business sector as secular, commercial, and cold which is full of money-hungry people. But the truth is business depends on the community. Business means providing something which someone needs or getting something that I need from someone. It’s the dynamic sharing within a community that helps a business to flourish and remain healthy.
We want each of our employees to be flourishing. As individuals, they are growing as well as their families are prospering. What we do here, which I learned from the Investortools, is we work 40 hours a week. In many software companies, even after the startup phase, when a project runs late, the employees have to work overtime. Eventually, this becomes a way of life. They start to become late in everything.
But I refuse to persistently consume the life of my employees and their families. Of course, I need their time and that’s what they get paid for. So when they come here I just tell them to give me 8 focused hours and then go home. The fact is that when people work 50-60 hours a week, they don’t really work 60 hours. So I prefer a good 40 hours to that. So that’s part of who we are.
Future Startup: You have mentioned excellence as your core value. How do you ensure and maintain excellence?
Ellis Miller: We do have daily check-ins, often via email and I try to give feedback to my employees on what they are doing. I think positive feedback goes a long way. There’s peer-review as well which is more like a code review. That is a lot of feedback as well. Hopefully, I am leading by example.
We have a formal review process, such as sitting down twice a year to review things.
We reflect and focus on our excellence. For example, if a bug slips through a customer, we ask ourselves what went wrong and how we can prevent that from happening again.
Future Startup: As an organization, how do Codecrafters learn? And as an individual and leader, how do you learn?
Ellis Miller: As a company, we do several things to learn, such as formal learning sessions twice a month, which are on technical skills. Sometimes we learn soft skills too. We watch Patrick Lencioni's “Five Dysfunctions of A-Team” and then we split up into groups to discuss how we are doing. We try to find our strengths and weaknesses in those sessions.
We watched “The Infinite Games” together and our engineers asked what that meant for us. So I thought about how to apply that to CodeCrafters. So I did a second presentation on that.
I think we learn a lot from each other informally. We have connections with our US developers. I want to be quick to show appreciation to the idea of one of my team members. I have been in this sector for around 25 years. But when they have a better idea than I do, I want to let them know. Because when the leader learns, everyone feels comfortable to learn as well. Learning requires safety and when there is no safety, people tend to put walls around them to avoid any humiliation. That’s how we learn as a company.
We have a number of people who have done their post-graduate studies. Three of our current engineers and several of our past engineers have done MBA from IBA. One of our employees is doing an MSc in Computer Science. I like to encourage those kinds of things.
There’s practical learning as well. So we provide both on-the-job and outside learning.
For myself, connecting with others is helpful. I have regular phone calls with 5-6 people including my colleagues at Investortools, my brothers, one of the executives of Investortools, and a salesman who connects us with the sales in the US. I am regularly connecting with them and we are often just swapping stories. We talk about the things we are working on and the challenges we are facing. So there’s a lot of pure learning.
I do not read many business books. Because most business books can be fantastic articles for business magazines. But I love podcasts and cycling. So I often listen to podcasts.
Future Startup: What are you listening to right now?
Ellis Miller: I am listening to Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast on leadership. He has a lot of good content.
I think the best podcasts are people interviewing other people. Because none of us have enough wisdom to talk about in every single podcast.
Michael Hyatt is also an excellent podcaster on leadership. He actually does a lot of talking himself. But his contents are good.
EntreLeadership is a podcast by Dave Ramsey Solutions. I listen to Dave Ramsey for entertainment. He is a financial advisor. He is an incredibly gifted business person. The line about the speed of cash is from Dave Ramsey.
There’s also Donald Miller. He has “Marketing made simple in 5 minutes” videos. Those daily videos are really excellent. He also has a really good podcast.
I also listen to some personal podcasts.
Future Startup: What is your management philosophy? How do you manage yourself and other people?
Ellis Miller: Managing myself is the hardest. As an entrepreneur, you always have to keep your vision in front of you — where you want to go. On the business level, I keep in mind the tasks I need to finish in a day, a week, a month, a quarter, and a year. Personally, I also maintain the goal as to who I want to be as a person.
If your personal and professional life gets out of sync, it’s not healthy for either side. These are not written in the business magazine. But there is no 80-year-old person who wishes they had invested more time in their business and less in their children. But there are thousands of businessmen who have done this exact thing. Though they didn't realize it, they traded what's most important for what's more urgent. I am not willing to make that trade. It’s not that I do not want to work hard. But you should keep in mind that everything you are seeing here will disappear one day. At some point every business changes. Thomas Cook & Son lasted 200 years and they are gone now.
There are things that are eternal and those are the things I value the most. Finally, investing in others means giving them what we wish others would offer us. This is one of my guiding principles. This is one of my core philosophies.
When you are looking for a financial investor, you are ideally looking for someone with fiduciary responsibility. In the US you can have someone invest in you and they are not obligated to be your best influence. If they cheat, that's a different thing. But if they choose something better for themselves, that’s okay. But if you want trust, then choose someone with fiduciary responsibility.
I truly believe I have an ethical and moral fiduciary obligation at CodeCraftersers. This isn't about me at all. There are other persons for whom I am responsible. Joel is a minority stakeholder and my wife and I share the rest of the business. We have a US partner, Investortools. We only see each other every few years, but I am responsible to them. My employees entrust me with one of their most valuable assets which is time. I am responsible to our clients. Most clients can not tell whether or not I am giving them something valuable. But I have a moral responsibility towards them.
I think when you realize that we are not owners, but stewards, who are managing for someone else, it changes the way we do business. That’s the core of my management philosophy. Of course one of the reasons I am doing business is that I want to build a legacy and earn money to retire on. But a part of me sees myself as a steward, operating this firm for the benefit of others rather than just myself.
Future Startup: That’s a beautiful way to put it. What do you think is the definition of a good life?
Ellis Miller: There is a line in our scripture which says: “It’s better to have one hand with peace, rather than having two hands full of troubles”.
I have said that business is supposed to always be hungry. But for me, a good life is a contented life. Because there will always be someone who has more than I have. I am an American who is living in Bangladesh and I am surrounded by Bangladeshis who are wealthier than I will ever be. No matter where you go, there will always be someone who has more and someone who has less.
Meaningful relationships. My faith is the most important thing in my life. After that my family matters more than anything else in the world. I love business a lot. I love software and training. This is my dream life. But I could still be content without my business if I have my family and my faith. It would be like chopping off one arm. But I could still live.
Finally, all of us come with a specific set of skills and interests. We are all gifted to make a difference in the world, even in a quiet way. But we should find work that gives us fulfillment and joy. What’s better than using your gifts to make a difference in the world?
Future Startup: What are some of the lessons you have learned from your journey so far?
Ellis Miller: Always do the right thing no matter what. Because the cost is always higher when you don’t. Maybe the financial cost will be less. But the real cost will be higher.
Always value people. Because people are not to be used. Life is divine and when we mistreat people, we mistreat the creator. When we love people, we are loving the creator.
Work hard. Do not let your dreams turn into nightmares. Do the right things in the right way.