First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Chike Agbai: We are fine, thankfully. But, as you know, this is a tough time for everyone. Covid19 is a beast that has disrupted lives.
As the father of two young boys, it hurts to see that they can’t go out to school, play with their friends, and do things that I feel are important for young children to experience.
My wife is a doctor, and every day she has to go to the hospital. It’s scary. I know she fears getting the virus, bringing it home, and passing it on to children or me.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Azumo.
Chike Agbai: I worked as a Technology Investment Banker for almost 20 years. In that world, I took companies public (IPOs), advised on mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and helped raise capital for emerging and large-cap companies.
Having worked with a number of companies in my career, I felt that there was a better way for companies to grow and manage their technology solutions. More insightful, less transactional. So I started Azumo with a mission to help companies create affordable technology solutions that accelerate and modernize their businesses.
I bootstrapped the business with a vision of helping companies build intelligent applications. I’m proud that we’ve worked with Facebook, Twitter, the Discovery Channel, and many other companies looking to build great software. I am excited to make technology decisions easier for everyone through our approach, solutions, and our empathy for their challenges.
How does Azumo innovate?
Chike Agbai: When I started Azumo, one of the things that made perfectly clear sense to me was that you could build a meaningful business without taking on a lot of physical office space. I travelled a lot as a banker, and I realized just how productive you could be on the road, from a hotel room or airport. The office was a-nice-to-have. Not a must-have. And when you really think about it, we live in 2020, where we’ve had all of these collaboration tools that allow us to coordinate and connect and communicate with colleagues for a few decades.
But most businesses still operate like Industrial Era companies, colocating their entire knowledge worker teams in office space that are relatively expensive and take a lot of time to get to. So we believe in having a distributed workforce, where we allow our teams to work remotely from anywhere in the world.
Another aspect we’ve tried to innovate is by creating a flatter organization where managers have a few goals, and we empower the individual to make decisions. I personally always try to build a supportive atmosphere in the day-to-day working of the company so that people can feel free to express their ideas without the risk of criticism. I want people to fail and take good risks.
I try to keep the organization flat, so everyone feels that there’s a shared responsibility for moving the business forward. Everyone we hire, we tell them upfront that our goal as a business is to make them shine and put them in a position where they can succeed. Honestly, I believe that if we have a group of motivated folks on the team striving to succeed and make themselves better, then that will make Azumo better.
As a service company, we are trying to bring about small, incremental changes in our operations and service delivery processes – whether its development methodology, finding ways to improve customer interaction, encouraging employee diversity practices (especially hiring women engineers). Being a 100 percent remote company, we focus on hiring talent wherever they are on the world map. I think our distributed strategy helps a lot, given that people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles, and cultures bring innovative insights into how things should be done.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Chike Agbai: Well, coronavirus has disrupted almost every business around the globe, and since we’re living in a highly interlinked economy, we’ve also felt the pain. I’ve referred to the Coronavirus as a mass extinction event for small businesses — and sadly, that has been borne out. During the lockdown, when business activity came practically to a halt, we had some customers reduce the size of their engineering teams. We had some surprise very large customers who actually had to cancel their contracts with us because of budget issues.
Thankfully we were able to navigate through the first wave of the crisis. We are a distributed team where everyone works remotely, so the lockdowns did not impact our productivity. We have always been 100% remote and have a robust infrastructure in place to support our distributed workforce.
With the economy gradually re-opening, we have seen a strong uptick across our business. I would say our business and the services we offer have resonated more with customers during Covid.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Chike Agbai: Well, I feel that every business owner has a responsibility to keep the business going and support staff in difficult times, especially when there is already so much negative environment and bad news coming from all over the place.
The pandemic has accelerated some businesses’ move toward digital channels like e-commerce. I think that every business has learned a few key lessons from this pandemic. Not every business is as digital as they thought they were. Even companies that have had digital transformation projects underway for some time now have realized that they just aren’t “really” digital to the extent needed. Or their technology stacks were older and not scalable. While for many other organizations, the shift revealed gaps and weaknesses in their businesses, helping them identify errors and speed up digital adoption.
Although we at Azumo believe in remote work, a lot of companies had rigid operating structures that required employees to work in close physical proximity. Well, come on, the days are gone when you needed employees under the same roof every day to be productive. That requirement that everyone collocate in one spot actually makes the business less flexible, more dependent on the available local talent pool, and tied to the cost structure of the local economy.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Azumo in the future?
Chike Agbai: I think there will always be a need to find outstanding engineering talent focused on building modern applications. We’ve been building intelligent applications for our customers like Facebook for years, and we’ve been incredibly supportive to younger companies looking for a great value. If I am right, I think there will always be a place for a company like Azumo.
From a stress perspective, I tend to drink Woodford Reserve and Blanton’s on rare occasions. Otherwise, I spend a tremendous amount of time with my family and young boys. They do a great job of grounding me in terms of what is important.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Chike Agbai: I think any company that provides custom software development services can be counted as a competitor, but this is not simple. We’re more of a software product development company, so we’ve mainly worked on building complex web and mobile applications and enterprise-grade software. You can find a lot of cheaper development shops who will always underbid us across the planet. But we don’t compete with those companies because we try to hire top engineering talent and create a place for them to grow and thrive. We are not a marketplace that pits developers against one another. We are a home for the developer looking to expand.
Well, we are going to stick with our mission of helping companies create modern technology solutions. The Pandemic has been a catalyst for change across businesses that are now trying harder than ever to become more digitally-driven. We see this as an opportunity to expand our business. Also, we see managers across all industries recognize the importance of building data analytics infrastructure and visualization capabilities as well as deploy Artificial Intelligence to make smart, informed, and fast business decisions. This is an area where we have strong in-house capabilities that I think will enable us to help more customers.
Operationally, we plan to stay lean, support remote work, hire the best talent, wherever their location, and continue to innovate so that we can stay ahead of the game in the coming years.
Your final thoughts?
Chike Agbai: Thank you for the opportunity to introduce a bit of what we do at Azumo and how we think about our customers, employees, and doing business.