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Ellis Miller on what he learned from the early days of CodeCrafters and the fundamentals of building a business from scratch

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.

Ellis is a deep thinker. In an interview with FS published in 2021, Ellis talked about the challenges he faced in the early days of his entrepreneurship journey, lessons he took from those days, strategies he used to grow the business, and his major lessons in building a business from scratch. Ellis’s reflection offers rare insights into the life of early-stage founders and actionable strategies founders can use to build enterprises from the scratch. 

This is an excerpt from our interview with Ellis, you can read the full interview here

On the lessons from the challenges of the early days of CodeCrafters 

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 which 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 what it is like to work here. That’s what builds trust. Trust helps to build a culture that is healthy and resilient.

On growing 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.

On lessons in building a 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 development 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.

This is an excerpt from our interview with Ellis, you can read the full interview here. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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