Chris Burns, Nate Becker & Ben Sinclair share the SHift story
Chris Burns (left) and Ben Sinclair (right) pose with SHift's third team member Nate Becker (middle) who Skyped-in for the photo as he's based out of New York. Photo by Christopher New.
Most don’t have it easy when they launch their startups. Companies will universally go through the initial process of finding office space, or converting a basement into workspace, building a client list, or finding vendors and consultants for day-to-day needs.
SHift, a web and mobile application development firm founded this past February by Ben Sinclair, Nate Becker and Chris Burns, had a leg up on most other startups. All three worked for West Des Moines-based Performance Marketing prior to their newest venture, and the scenery hasn’t changed much, as Sinclair and Burns now occupy space on the same floor as their old employer (Becker lives in Brooklyn, New York).
The gentlemen of SHift provide “digital design” for a host of platforms – web, mobile, walled gardens – and pride themselves as able to attack just about any kind of web-based marketing project with a focus on serving the customer. It’s a company mission that all of them felt couldn’t really be met as employees of a larger firm.
“Some of our clients weren’t as thrilled with the idea of an agency,” said Sinclair, describing the trepidation potential customers had with the bureaucracy of larger marketing agencies. They found that what clients were asking for was a more nimble response from the designers in their web projects, and separating from their employer – if more in a organizational sense than physical or relational – gave them that agility.
“With Performance Marketing backing us, we can draw on [a larger company’s] resources,” said Sinclair. “If we need a copywriter, they’re just down the hall.”
Their success at striking out on their own wasn’t based on good fortune or happenstance, however, but rather years of building relationships, skills and experience that allowed their break-away to go so smoothly.
“Ben’s programmed for large companies to very specific applications,” said Burns, speaking of Sinclair’s decade of entrepreneurial and programming ventures. “Nate’s designed for major magazines. I’ve done project management and business analyst work for big brands within North America.” He described their collaboration as a “three-legged stool.”
It’s those skill sets that have brought larger enterprises, such as Honeywell and Hyperion Books, back to this small firm, which was originally created to service the needs of smaller Midwest companies, like clients Dwolla and School PLANit.
They find startups are actually the clients who come to the table with the most-complete game plan. The larger companies often present roadblocks in the way of multiple levels of approval, or last-minute changes from legal. One high profile prairie startup – and SHift’s self-described best case study – is the recent national launch of cash-transfer site Dwolla, for which SHift had already designed an iPhone application, and recently brought out a vendor version of the app as well.
Ben Milne of Dwolla had wanted to create an iPhone app for some time, but, according to Sinclair, made certain that the actual API for the site was ready first. Their first conversations were very casual, but with Milne’s specific requests and input, Becker was able to mock up the design of the application, interface and all, “down to the pixel,” according to Sinclair. When asked what the average entrepreneur may need to keep in mind when they go in to meet with a web or marketing designer, their advice is universal: good project management.
(Above: Ben Sinclair shows off the Dwolla iPhone app. Photo by Christopher New.)
“Typically we don’t get requirements that are fully-baked,” Burns said. “He pretty much came to us with the requirements…that project skips part of our normal process.” At this month’s Dwolla Meetup at Mars Cafe in Des Moines, SHift showed off their newest version of the application, a Dwolla interface for merchants.
“It’s even simpler,” described Sinclair, demonstrating on his iPhone. “They just have it sitting…by the cash register. It just refreshes in real time.” The team is dependent on tools like Basecamp and Skype to stay coordinated on projects, especially when a third of the team is a time zone away.
“It’s tough,” said Becker, about the separate office setup, “but I think it’s been more productive for me to think and focus on projects.” He relocated to Brooklyn when his wife found residency work there, but the environment didn’t change much as he was already used to often working from home from his time in Des Moines.
“After a while I don’t even realize he’s not on site,” said Chris. “It’s just so easy.”
Burns believes that 2011 will be a good year for the young company, which has seen a growth in its business despite the stagnant economy overall. They plan to soon start shopping for additional developers to add to their team, particularly those skilled in PHP, Ruby, iOS & Android programming.
Nate Becker (right), based out of Brooklyn, New York, Skypes into the SHift office in Des Moines. Chris Burns pictured left. Photo by Christopher New.
As the three reflect on their first year in business as SHift, they have many words of wisdom:
“Don’t go it alone.”
“Rule of thumb: Have six months salary saved as a cushion.”
“Find an environment that works for you: coffee shop, library, home…”
“If you fail, fail fast.”
But, as Sinclair and Burns sit in the offices of their former employer, Becker leans into the webcam in his Brooklyn home, projected on the far wall of the West Des Moines conference room, to share one especially personal revelation: “Do not burn your bridges! If you’re gonna leave your company, do not give them the middle finger. I don’t care what city you live in, it’s gonna be small…get out there and really network.”
The other two can only nod.