App agency Chop Dawg on helping startups build for the long term

Joshua Davidson of Chop Dawg

Image Credits: Adobe Creative Jam | Philadelphia

Chop Dawg describes itself as an app development agency, but these days that can mean helping startups build and scale software over many years. Founded in 2009 by Joshua Davidson when he was 16 years old, the Philadelphia-based company has worked on the launch of over 350 digital products to date. Clients range from big companies like Six Flags Great Adventure, to startups pet-care company Alpha Paw, to nonprofits like Village Pledge, which is working to eliminate student-loan debt.

We sat down with Joshua to learn more about the company, why it does more than just software consulting, and how startups can best work with it, as part of our new series profiling great startup software consultants. The answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think they would be, but Joshua walked us through a few different scenarios where it would make sense to reach out to them.

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What is Chop Dawg and how did you get started?

We’ve been around since August of 2009. So, in dog years we’re pretty old. On paper, we are an app development agency, but we actually consider ourselves to be a technology-based company because we’ve really transcended beyond just traditional mobile apps and web apps. We call ourselves a technology company because we like to look at it, we are very agnostic anywhere that software could be, we try to build and cater for; which is really exciting and fun for us. In our case, we deal with really two types of audiences. So a huge segment of who we work with are early-stage brand new startups and companies, and we help them bring their ideas to life and we do that all under one roof, but then we also work with existing companies that are typically not on a technical nature or missing a piece that requires a technical branch. In essence what we try to do is be like a Swiss Army knife so everything from, if you need everything from us we have that capability to if you just need us for design or if you just need us for programming.

Chop Dawg does more than just building programming — you do marketing and fundraising, you’ll help with and attract media attention. What led you to be more than just programming?

It’s almost like a civic duty. I think that’s the only way I can articulate it. For every technical entrepreneur trying to build a tech product in this day and age, there are 10 non-technical individuals trying to do the same thing. Except for lack of technical insight, there’s usually folks who are seasoned entrepreneurs or know what technology can do and how it can solve for your industry. Their expertise is missing. For example, right now we are working with a music producer who’s trying to solve a huge problem in his industry. He produces for some of the biggest artists on the planet. He can’t build an app, but he knows exactly what type of technology to use and how it could [be used] to disrupt an industry. So it was more than realizing, oh my goodness, there’s this huge segment that’s just not getting help. And if you put yourself in their shoes, well they’re going to reach out to the app agencies. Most organizations are focusing on expertise and knowledge, or just, “OK here’s a bill for what you want to do,” and we wanted to make sure when we started a company like this is our craft. We want to build things that are going to be successful for the long haul. If we can help you with every aspect of this, we’re going to increase your probability of success, and if we can make you more knowledgeable, we can increase your probability for success, and if we can act more as kind of like your outsourced CTO and technical team, we can take away an area that’s already a conceived liability for you.

For us it was like, this makes more sense of this approach. You know I’m not naive. We aren’t cheap because of the service we provide, we pay real people’s salaries, we have everything under one roof, but our job is to produce ROI. Make an asset that we scale for the long term and do it where someone is going to invest money, time and resources into it. You’re going to have the highest probability of success. It just came down to that kind of context. So I like to look at it like it just feels like our ethical or fiducial obligation. In the industry, there’s so much saturation, there’s so much competitiveness, and being around as long as we have, we have seen so many companies come and go. I think the reason we’ve had that longevity is just because we’ve always come in with a partnership first approach — but to be frank, we do that even when it’s not startups and early-stage companies, I just think there’s a huge knowledge gap and we have a lot of things we’ve learned — what to do, what not to do, and we can use that as an area of expertise to help folks we work with.

What makes Chop Dawg unique?

I think the biggest thing at this point is our track record itself. We’ve been around since the early days, and we have maintained relevancy. If you asked one of our partners, that’s what we call our clients, I think what they’re going to tell you is that longevity allows us to tell people not just what to do, but that we know why to do it that way, and how to be more pragmatic — save time, save energy, but also know what not to do. From being around so long, we’ve probably made every mistake you can possibly think of. Which is an advantage. Once you know that lesson, we can also help folks avoid that mistake. I think the third piece and this is more my personal bias that says this, more than anything, but I genuinely do believe it. We are industry agnostic, we’ve worked in almost every industry you can literally think of. I mean professional cuddling is really in our portfolio at this point. We’ve done it all. What’s cool is you start learning that there are trends and playbooks that work in different industries that can be brought to an industry not done before. It’s such a saturated market a lot of folks really are focusing on, and I just don’t think they focus with the right intention. For us, like I think most people on our team if they could work for free to do it for free would, but you know, the reality of living in a capitalist society. We come in with that, have a background like this is the craft level we do and we get to build things we’re proud of and work with people we really love working with.

What trends are you seeing right now in the industry?

I think the first thing is using AI. I think, as a user, we expect our products to just do things intuitively for us more than ever before. Social is in almost everything at this point. It’s crazy to think that we’re building social base functionality in even internal apps for organizations. There is not a single app I can think of that we’re building right now that doesn’t have some form of social element involved, which makes perfect sense to me as being social beings, making technology being an extension of ourselves and just more industry niche-based products at this point. One more trend of notice is that there’s a cliche in business called “riches in the niches,” but I think you’re really starting to see this now in the app world, where instead of one app eats the entire world, so to speak, there’s a lot more companies that are focusing on just owning a niche and being absolutely best at it and then having minimal competition — no competitors, things like that.

Has the pandemic affected the trends that you’re seeing?

The thing it has impacted is a lot of folks, who I feel like probably would have been a little bit more hesitant to go build apps and software, are now going in. I think it’s just jump=started the industry, like “Oh snap, we might never have a full office again,” our customer base or user base is less probable to come out, or they have a different type of learned behavior now because of a year living through Zoom and not leaving your home. So there is no direct trend as far as like, here’s these type of apps and software coming. I think the trend is more you’re seeing organizations and companies and ideas come out that maybe would have taken a couple more years to make that jump. While I can’t share who they are because of an NDA, I talked to a nonprofit yesterday, who, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, they would have never been entertaining, “we need to build an app that does X, Y and Z.” It’s a nonprofit. For them to talk about an app and saying we’re gonna invest 1,000s of dollars is pretty staggering. But I think that’s the pandemic, in a nutshell. Where it’s forcing folks to have a whole new playbook or approach that didn’t exist before.

Have you seen a lot more companies, outsourcing their tech and getting more comfortable working with you since remote work has increased?

There’s been a plethora of Fortune 500 companies who reached out to us. I’ve noticed some are companies who I think cut back at costs or were like, we’re gonna let go of our development department for this segment, let’s say it was React Native, but we still have React Native needs so we’ll begin offshoring it, or outsourcing it or finding a team for hire for a specific engagement. I think that’s definitely become a big thing.

Then I think what you’re seeing too is a lot of folks are realizing what a benefit agencies are. You know, there’s one thing I talk to partners all the time about and it’s there is merit to when you want to hire internally and grow a team in-house, but there are also times where having an agency — having a partner like that makes perfect sense too. For a lot of our partners, where it makes sense is that it’s pay as you go. If you don’t need us for a year, you’re not on the hook for multiple developer salaries, a project manager salary, a UI, UX designer salary, a QA salary. You can control your coffin. The liability is more on our shoulders at this point than it is on them; there’s always risk in business, to build a successful business, but if you made the wrong hires and you’re building a new company, or running a company — that is completely on you versus you hire an agency that falters, they’re legally liable to provide what is contracted and we’ve been obligated to do it right. So there’s also that perspective.

I think the third thing is you’re also seeing, more than ever, folks trying to get things done as quickly as possible. Where a benefit comes into more established agencies is when you have a methodology they’ll actually be quicker to move because you can jive and you have the resources, you have the process nailed down, you know what you’re doing versus when you’re building a team, rebuilding a team doing it internally, you still have to figure these things out too and figure out how to work well together. But again, there’s no such thing as absolutes. No way. When we talk to people, it comes down to what aligns with your business goals, objectives and, you know, like, I feel like agencies short term can be more expensive but long term saves you so much more money, and that comes from our position but, it comes down to what they’re trying to do and trying to accomplish.

At what point do you think is the best time for a startup to come and work with an agency?

There’s different dynamics for it to make sense. I’ll give you a couple different examples because I don’t know if there is just one smoking gun to work with agencies.

There would be a situation like, I have very limited funds, funds to the point where I can’t go and even build a team internally or hire a major agency to build my own product, and I’m trying to get enough of proof of concept because I want to possibly fundraise with it, or I possibly want to go in front of potential users and get preorders or get interest, or I want to hedge my risk before I even build it. Well then maybe doing a non-functioning prototype where you design the app with an agency, start to finish. We don’t touch a line of code, we use a tool like Figma to create the illusion of a working app that can make a lot of sense because one, let’s say, God forbid you find out people are not interested or you can’t raise money off of it. It’s significantly better to find that out, spending the least amount of money than it is to go all in and go do something.

Then we also get folks all the time who will reach out to us and they’ll say, I’m interested in doing an MVP, minimum viable product, and working with an agency can actually make a lot of sense in that regard if that’s the context they have.

But I will say, I’ve turned down quite a few folks who reach out to us, even if they have the financials. One of the reasons is folks who might have the money, but you can clearly tell they haven’t put any effort into market research, understanding ideas and maturing the vision. The first thing I like to tell folks is you need to know that you are committing yourself to this thing; you’re building a business. This isn’t a hobby that you’re willing to make just the next five years of your life.

Then there are folks that reach out to you or they have an idea, but you can tell the idea is still not fully fleshed out. It’s almost like they came up with a key feature, but they haven’t fully well rounded it yet. So one of the things I encourage like, do you understand your market? Do you understand your competitors? Do you understand the logistics of running an app? Because even when you’re done with the agency [it] doesn’t mean your app cost is gone. There are servers, there are APIs, there’s a third party you may have to pay for marketing, customer support, legal insurance, like just all the logistics. Have you put proper follow through to understand it?

There are different contexts when people reach out to figure out what’s a good fit and it’s going to be, yes, you’re ready to make this investment versus again, I look at like like a fiduciary duty like, I get to do that; you might have the money but you’re gonna end up with an expensive toy.

It’s not like “Field of Dreams,” ‘if you build it they will come,'” that’s not how it works. I think if you’re looking at the sign to work with agencies you have, I don’t want to say a business plan because frankly I never had a business plan, but you understand the industry you’re getting in, you understand a clear vision of what you’re doing, you understand the pragmatic approach of how you’re going to roll it out. You know who your customer base is going to be, how you’re going to get to them. You have an idea of what your cost is going to be to operate it, and you have an idea of projections on what it’s going to take to break even, become profitable, to scale for the big picture. And if not that, at least have an idea enough like, I want to go to fundraise, or I want to get preorders so I can fund it, like a strategy or even a non-functioning prototype can make sense to hedge your risk.

So it’s a mixture of those things and this, if in a given day I talked to five, six companies that reach out to us. I’d say three to four fall in the bucket of that they need to go back to the drawing board and really take more time and careful consideration. It kind of comes into going back to a question you asked earlier like “what makes us different?” I think because we’ve done this for so long, I learned a lesson early in my career. What happened when you try to fit a square peg in a round hole, like how disastrous that is even if everyone has the right intention. So it’s like finding the right fit. And to be frank, there’s even another question that comes out of this and what is the right agency partner for people too.

One thing I tell folks all the time is that we’re a remarkably collaborative company … our partners are meeting with us every single week. We are having Slack or real-time conversations during the week. They’re going to be putting in several hours a week to work with us, on top of what we’re doing, and they have to be ready for that and to be involved and be able to pay attention and be able to context switch. There’s a lot of things that happen, we even do orientation week before we start our project where we literally spend a week before the project begins training the partner on how to be the best partner possible, how to pay attention to understand everything. That’s definitely a big component in that regard. Companies reach out to us, or individuals, like I just need someone for the next three months to build this and come back and say, “Here you go.” That just doesn’t fit in our DNA. It’s not how we’re going to be successful. Or the approach we take from design and development QA might not align with the type of approach that they’re looking for. So, it doesn’t even mean these people are bad or it doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas but this is part of even finding a good cultural fit from like a methodology perspective. Us as an organization, we’re a salary-based agency, so we don’t bill by our week or month, we really take the time to figure out in advance what we are doing. I’m a big believer in you should know exactly what it’s going to cost and take in time, and what’s needed for expectations setting to get that goal. I just think it’s a really big thing, ethically for us to do the right way. But again, these are all pieces, there’s not one solution out there that fits for everyone.

What else should we know about Chop Dawg?

I think the set rate is a big thing for our partners, just because everyone’s been in a situation, doesn’t matter if you’re in this business or not, where you’re halfway through your budget and you find out you’re not even a third of the way through the project. It’s kind of one of the worst things in the world. I personally never liked the weekly or monthly billing model because I feel like it incentivizes the service provider to take as long as possible, versus everyone having the same incentives; the same goal. Accountability was always a big thing to me as we created a culture and the DNA as an organization; everyone should be in the same alignment with the same goals, and then have the same transparency and goals and alignment within that.

As a company, we purposely are constantly just trying to be better and better at what we do. Even today, with my CEO hat on, I’m constantly like, “How can our process improve? What new technologies can we adapt? What do new design trends, technology trends can we be leveraging?” I think that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of. The fact that we just have an amazing team that I know is like genuinely bought into helping people and it’s cool to see where once upon a time we started just need like, 50 plus people and you see them, build a career here, have families, have kids, buy a home, like have the company create something bigger than itself. I think the third thing is this constant quest. We always feel like although we’re great at what we do, there’s so much room for improvement. And how do you have that lens to constantly just reevaluate nonstop, how to be better, because I feel like that’s our, again, our fiduciary and ethical duty for who we work with and who we work for, to constantly push the envelope to just improve.