First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Anthony Fox-Davies: We’re lucky to be doing well at the moment. As my partner and I both work from home, the hardest thing for us has been juggling work with childcare for our 5-year old who has been missing his school friends. We’re fortunate not to have bigger issues when so many people are struggling badly right now.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SystemSeed.
Anthony Fox-Davies: SystemSeed is a web agency specializing in supporting social impact organisations such as large charities and NGOs.
I joined SystemSeed as an Agile PM 10 years ago, after meeting one of the founders in Chamonix. Over 7 years, I worked my way up to Director of Operations, and when the two founders decided they wanted to exit the business three years ago, our CTO and I acquired it. It was a big leap for both of us, and we’re very glad we took it given the wonderful clients and team we get to work with every day.
How does SystemSeed innovate?
Anthony Fox-Davies: We try to make innovation part of our every day, and there are a few things that we do to maintain that:
– Running lean teams that are as small as possible. They stay focused on deep work and running fast.
– Using off-the-shelf, well supported Open Source tools and code to leverage time and cost to market. This has advantages in ensuring our code is fit for production use and with some LTS.
– R&D of 20% of the working week. This is similar to ‘Google Time’ and means that we support staff, in independent or self-managed teams, to investigate and develop solutions that will be beneficial to their clients, internal projects, or the company in general.
– Limitless education budgets. Our staff are our greatest strength, so their ability to enhance their skills can only benefit the company. If a team member wants to pursue training of any kind and can see a benefit to the company, we’ll cover the cost.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Anthony Fox-Davies: As a design and development agency with long-term client relationships, we’ve not been affected too badly by the pandemic as a business. Of course, planning ahead is now harder, but not impossible.
Our clients are often focused on the next three-to-six months, rather than annual or larger timescales. Our work hasn’t dried up, but clients are rightly more cautious, and sometimes getting sign-off on a new project can take longer than usual.
Our longest-standing design, build and host client, Concern Worldwide, has been with us for 10 years, which is a measure of the positive working relationships that we have. We’ve worked on being highly responsive and pivoting to our clients’ changing needs, and allowing them to be flexible with contracted hours to put our time where they need it most.
A good example of that has been our recent work for the World Health Organization on their EQUIP project. In just a few weeks, we were able to release a version of the EQUIP training for mental health support in low and middle-income countries that would be most practical amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Here’s how that happened.
Inside the organization, we were concerned about the mental health impacts of the crisis on our team members and put in place on-demand therapist support for all of our team, including our contractors. Back in March, we also set up a specific slack channel to share updates on actions that we were taking and so that everyone in the team could ask questions or share concerns. This openness has been hugely important in the last few months, and our team members have reported feeling a lot of reassurance because of how we have been communicating together.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Anthony Fox-Davies: We haven’t had any layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts in the organization, but we have had to make some blanket decisions, such as freezing all salaries until 2021. However, we communicated this early and clearly, both in an email to all team members and on our weekly team call to ensure that everyone understood what was happening and why.
At the same time, we also specified what would happen if we did come up against problems (e.g., losing clients due to their circumstances). The company would take the hit first and cut profits to keep staff comfortable. Eventually, we would look at reducing staff salaries if absolutely necessary to prevent job losses.
Our lesson learned is that this was the right thing to do; however we also acknowledge that we’ve been very fortunate compared to hard-hit industries and organizations.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you protect yourself and SystemSeed in the future?
Anthony Fox-Davies: My best method for dealing with stress is to get outside with the family. We like to take long bike rides, go on boat trips, and Menorca is full of beautiful places for dog walking. However, I don’t do this enough, so I am working on taking more time off to get out and about.
We encourage our staff to do the same. They are able to take time during the day, if they wish to, as long as they are available for calls and putting in the right amount of time on the right activities during the week.
SystemSeed is intentionally a resilient organization. We invest in poly-skilled team members, spread over multiple locations, and time-zones. We also work closely together as a team and share successes and struggles.
We are very aware of burnout and have previously seen it occur with team members at all levels, so watch for it closely. To help prevent burnout, we deliberately employ a relaxed management style and are very flexible about the time individual staff needs to spend at their desks. The 20% R&D time helps here too, and we offer competitive salaries, so that team members aren’t worried about money. Having on-tap mental health support works as a protective element too.
We protect the organization by starting a new client relationship strong and with enthusiasm. Once delivery expectations are met, and trust is established, we find that many want to work with us for the long term. This reduces anxiety with staff, and we see less demand for in-and-out project-based work. We have also expanded our services to offer strategic consultancy and highly secure web hosting. Taken together, these steps mean that we have better continuity and predictability of income and more diverse revenue sources.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Anthony Fox-Davies: We have two types of competitors: other high-quality web agencies and SaaS tools.
We actually work with a few of our agency competitors, offering reciprocal support to enable us all to take on the projects that come our way.
SaaS tools are more difficult to compete with while also being inflexible to the needs of enterprise clients. Enterprise-scale and government-tier organisations tend to want customization as a top-tier requirement. We use FOSS (free and open-source software) and senior designers and engineers to deliver customized solutions without the astronomical bills that bespoke development usually incurs.
We don’t compete with SaaS products directly; however, we’ve been turning some of our services into products in the last two years. SystemSeed created several open-source distributions to make them available to others for free. However, for those organisations that don’t have in-house Drupal capabilities, we have also packaged up three of our most popular distributions as products that come with customization.
This gives our clients a much lower cost than a fully bespoke site, with more customization than is available through a SaaS tool, and has been most popular with:
● Falcon – all-in-one not-for-profit website, including CMS, donations, and campaigns
● ANU.Community – mobile-optimized learning management system
● Falcon gifts – stand-alone alternative gift site for charities
Your final thoughts?
Anthony Fox-Davies: While the pandemic has created big problems for many people, it’s generated opportunity and a new perspective for SystemSeed. We’ve clarified our focus as an organization and built up the support we provide our team.
We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also benefited from previously made decisions of company strategy and our focus on working with social impact organisations. Now is a good time for all of us to review our structure and clarify our business objectives.
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