Steve Thomas is a software developer and the founder of Coding Labs - a development agency based in Queensland Australia.
I spoke with Steve recently about his business (which has been running for 17 years!) and I discovered Coding Labs and my previous agency share some key similarities:
- Initially focused on startup businesses
- Then moved into building custom software for established businesses
- Embraces Laravel, and the Laravel eco-system
Anyway, that’s enough of an intro, I’ll let Steve tell his own story…
Can you introduce yourself & Coding Labs to the Dev to Agency readers?
Hey, I'm Steve Thomas, a software developer, headbanging enthusiast and father to two wild, energetic young boys. The family and I are based on the Gold Coast, Australia.
I have been using computers since multi-colour monitors were a big deal, and coding real world projects since I was a teenager.
My agency, Coding Labs, has been around since 2005, and specialises in custom software development with a great fondness for all things Laravel - especially the VILT stack (Vue, Inertia, Laravel, and Tailwind), and the TALL stack (Tailwind, Alpine.js, Laravel, and Livewire).
How did Coding Labs start?
Coding Labs was established while I was completing a Diploma of Multimedia, as a way for me to charge for part-time IT work without needing to take up formal employment (ie. have a Boss).
I was very fortunate that I landed a role in a local business where I was able to not only learn about eCommerce first-hand, but to also get paid to continue teaching myself the craft of software development.
I was pretty useless at photography and listing items on eBay, but I was (barely) ok at programming and was able to get to work developing a marketplace web app for the client that has survived and thrived for 17 years and counting.
Do you have a niche or an ideal customer type?
Our niche is custom software development. The way I think of custom software development is the creation of any software that cannot be purchased off the shelf (or there is a logical motivation to build from scratch).
Previously many of our clients have been startup-orientated, but our focus nowadays is for the majority of our effort going toward large stable businesses with proven revenue models and long-term opportunities.
“I would say almost all clients have either been referred to us, or found us organically via Google”
How did you find your first clients, and what was your strategy to find them?
I found the very first client when I went to speak with the Careers Counsellor while I was studying, and she matched me with the aforementioned eCommerce business, who had advertised on the job board.
We've never done paid advertising.
I would say almost all clients have either been referred to us, or found us organically via Google.
What challenges did you face early on, and how did you overcome them?
I did not work with many other developers in the early years, and so had to figure out a lot of things on my own. Back in the late 2000s, there were vastly less free online resources, and where I live on the Gold Coast the software development community was / is pretty tiny.
Not to mention I was also very introverted.
To counter this, I got involved in any meetup or co-working space that I could find, went to conferences, and cultivated professional relationships. Eventually I got to the point where I had built a great team around me to collaborate with day-to-day, and the right foundations in place to bring in external experts a few times a year.
Did you have a clear vision of what your business would be when you first started, and has that changed at all?
In my early 20s I had an idea of growing Coding Labs to a ~10 person agency working in a converted warehouse with Porsche's for the company cars haha... through experience, now I realise that the trajectory and velocity of software development innovation is wild and I can scarcely imagine how the art of coding will change in the coming years.
In general terms though, I think the vision is still intact - aside from the fleet of Porsche's, which would be a ridiculous waste of company money!
What challenges do you face today?
Finding experienced developers is extremely tough. It is pretty simply a case of high demand and low supply.
Pulling all the right levers at the right time for a project to succeed, especially when the project is highly experimental / startup orientated, is no walk in the park. We've done so much work across the business, top-to-bottom, to try and maximise our odds of success, but it is still tough to accept when a project doesn't succeed.
“The time invested in going all-in on Laravel has paid enormous dividends and the surrounding ecosystem just keeps getting better and better.”
What do you think sets Coding Labs apart from other agencies?
I think we do a good job of providing a supportive environment for up-and-coming developers, and that in turn leads to strong team camaraderie and great client outcomes.
We also got really lucky in deciding to move to Laravel around v4. The time invested in going all-in on Laravel has paid enormous dividends and the surrounding ecosystem just keeps getting better and better.
What do you hope your business looks like in 3 years?
I'd like to see us emerge as one of the top Laravel agencies in Australia.
As an owner, I want to be able to spend more extensive time with my family travelling abroad (ie. snowboarding in Canada, summer in the Mediterranean), with the knowledge that all parts of the business can function without me, day to day.
What are 3 things you would tell a developer who is thinking of starting a software agency?
- From my perspective, the entire industry is really still in its infancy, and whole sectors of the economy have barely progressed past Word and Excel workflows. I think the timing to be an agency owner is as good as ever.
- IT wizardry will not outweigh poor/underdeveloped people skills as a business owner. There will be conflict, there will be headaches. Prepare policies and contracts that anticipate problems. Policy response > emotional response.
- Talk and consult widely with all sorts of people; strategists, marketers, financers, business owners, end-users, IT folk. Having a strong general knowledge about how things work and where you can be most dangerous with your effort is probably the best tool you can utilize to bring value to your clients.