Growing against the grain has its bumps but it has also had its (major) triumphs for Alen Malkoc of HulkApps.
He defies the conventional wisdom of the industry — that agencies and freelancers should pick their one strength, build a team around that strength, and focus on doing it really, really well. It’s better than offering many services that you only do okay, they say.
Still, Alen disagreed. Indeed, his agency — which began creating themes, then extended the company into new markets to include web design/development services, and most recently started developing Apps for Shopify — offers excellent products, facilities, and is a success in every regard, showing that what works for most isn't necessarily right for all.
Maybe he's the exception to the rule, or maybe in the last eight years, he 's actually navigated business opportunities smartly (we think it's the latter). Either way, Alen is contemplating why HulkApps managed to thrive when taking the less-traveled route.
"I think part of it is that we acknowledge that each channel has its own unique way of working," he said. "We have not tried to do everything at once — we have evolved into different channels and markets, and we can recognize these differences and find unique ways to work around them."
Recently, HulkApps released its new app, Mobile App Builder, making the Plus Partner a 360 ° Partner (a partner who takes advantage of every opportunity to collaborate with Shopify).
I recently sat down with Alen, CEO at HulkApps, and talked about how a service business can be expanded. We will find out how he grew to offer three major services, the growing pains he faced along the way, and the benefits of serving merchants from every angle.
How HulkApps expanded its services as an online business
HulkApps started building themes for Shopify in
For a year, HulkApps focused on building Shopify themes,b> but by 2020 Alen picked up on a pattern he could no longer ignore.
"We got so many requests from our theme customers for small customizations and we just turned the company away," he explained. "With every month that passed, the opportunity was getting bigger and it seemed crazy not to take advantage of it. That’s when we got into the services side.”
Following that, Alen says it was only a matter of time before they began looking into the apps space for another chance.
"We realized that whilst providing customer services and supporting our themes, everything we learned about merchants was like gathering intel that we could apply to our next projects," Alen said.
That intel helped HulkApps with their theme work, but getting into apps meant they were leveraging that insight and experience for every bit of value.
"If you had asked us a few years ago if we were going to be a 360° partner, we'd probably have said 'no, let's just stay focused on themes.' But the way it happened — organically, in response to the opportunities we found, and the capabilities we developed as a team — made it seem inevitable."
How To Successfully Grow a Business
To date, HulkApps has 10+ themes in the Shopify Theme Store (with more on the way), 18+ Apps in the Shopify ecosystem, provided custom services to thousands of Shopify merchants, employs 85+ staff members, and has already accumulated over 50,000 app downloads for the apps since launching Mobile App Builder just two months ago.
Yet while their progress and development have been organically achieved, it has not been without obstacles along the way. Here are some of the lessons that Alen learned from growing and managing a 360-degree company. Here's how HulkApps way to grow a service business:
1. Focus on the right possibilities to extend your business to new markets
"The risk of over-diversification or loss of focus is always evident with a business like ours," Alen explained. "It's all the 'jack of all trades, master of none' problem."
"The way you run a Shopify Plus project is very different from the way you run a theme project, and the way you run an app project is very different. You need clearly defined processes in place and excellent project managers to ensure they follow those processes.
Alen adds that from a business perspective, it’s also about making sure you’re not scaling all services at once, and at the same rate. Timing is everything.
“We’re not just randomly building out parts of our business for the sake of doing it. We scaled selectively, based on where the opportunities were.”
Knowing when to scale can be tough, and may still be a challenge for Alen — for example, he feels he's waited too long to get started developing apps. But what makes it easier, as the CEO explains, is to develop a deep understanding of your market, the strengths, and weaknesses of your business, and make sure you make the move into something new, because you're really ready.
2. Working with clients
While HulkApps was transitioning into offering Web design/development services, learning how to work the "right way" with customers was a challenge.
"A theme or app team usually doesn't have to work in the same way a business team does with merchants," Alen said. "With services, you need someone who is comfortable proactively reaching out, teasing valuable input and feedback, managing priorities, and putting out the inevitably springing fires. ”
At first, HulkApps had no one who could play that role; someone who knew how to make the client feel like they were in charge, while at the same time being able to exercise professional expertise within the relationship and guide the project towards a positive result.
"It's been challenging because that part of the business should always be a top priority because your relationship with your consumers and clients is what enables you to do a great job. And it's also what makes or breaks you when you keep scale — their word of mouth is the foundation of your brand credibility, and that's so significant.
When HulkApps acquired a small interface design agency, this allowed them to fill that and other business needs quickly and efficiently. It brought in a strong team who thoroughly understood the complexities of dealing with clients, and knew how to deal with a brand, how to interpret the narrative, and how to handle the size and scope of various types of clients.
It also helped HulkApps to refine its Project Management approach. Gone were the days when Alen had to handle all the customers alone. In particular, he believes two roles really helped him scale: project managers and a director of client services.
"When it comes to working with our clients, the project managers we have are extremely cautious. They communicate where we are in terms of reach and schedule, what customers need in terms of feedback when they should anticipate when the next meeting is ... everything.
In comparison, a director of customer relations has nothing to do with day-to-day activities, but offers the VIP treatment to clients, while ensuring that everything goes smoothly. Most significantly, when things go wrong on a project, this position is an escalation route for clients.
“Figuring out that these positions were vital was painful early on,” Alen admitted. “As soon as you can, hire these people, but do so carefully. It’s such a sensitive role and one that requires a lot of really nuanced skills when it comes to communication, organization, and understanding. They will effectively represent you and your business, so they have to be a perfect fit.”
3. Communication is key to expand a business offering
Yet beyond unique roles and duties, there's another thing of HulkApps that Alen has worked hard to improve: communication. Either internally or with customers, an understanding of this has only helped his business expand.
“So much of the mess that you can get yourself into in a project comes down to communication or miscommunication,” he said.
Projects eventually come up against problems; dealing with clients, partners, shifting tastes, and technology is a reality. But if you're diligent about making changes and demonstrating you 're truly interested in the success of your team or your company, they can all be resolved.
"The majority of consumers are reasonable and understand that projects are reaching speed bumps," he said. "When you're transparent, honest, and positive about the obstacles you face, people will understand this. After all, they are company owners-chances are they were there before.
The same holds true internally. It's becoming crucial for the team of HulkApps to communicate clearly and consistently with each other, particularly with three different divisions. That's why they were able to gather crucial merchant information, and even recognize important market opportunities as they arose.
“By communicating openly as a team, we make sure the best ideas surface, that problems are quickly addressed and that the business as a whole is working efficiently. ”
How Do Businesses Expand?
With so much experience under his belt, we asked Alen to list his top five actionable business expansion strategies for others to use and grow their business:
Communication is king:
Clear and open communication is the most useful asset you have as a company, whether you work with customers, partners, or the team. Effective communication will solve just about every problem; it will just reinforce bad communication.
Invest in your team:
Don’t assume that great products and ideas are just a matter of time and energy; that anyone with a copy of Sketch can make a theme, app, or custom storefront. Invest in the right people and treat them well, then invest further in helping them develop their skills.
We should not believe that great products and concepts are merely a matter of time and energy; that anyone with a Sketch copy can create a theme, app, or custom storefront. Invest in and handle the right people well, and then invest more in helping them improve their skills.
Set your own standards:
Most consumers don't have the sophistication or understanding to learn about mediocre work from great work, which makes it tempting to avoid keeping them happy, rather than moving ahead and creating something that's truly outstanding. But that's the short game: if you're trying to create a brand, you've got to set your own expectations and follow them for anything you do, even if that means extra expense or effort.
Learn from yourself:
Every project you work on, whether it’s your own product or something for a client, will offer something valuable you can learn from. Should not skip the chance to change by hurrying through the next thing without a moment's pause to ask yourself, "What have we learned from this? ”
Timing is everything:
Don't just dive into a new venture, because you think you can. Understand what the market is doing right now, where it is going, and balance it against your existing capacity and growth appetite. You'll know when the time is right.