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"If I Knew Then..." with Mike Kelly


Mike Kelly is a managing partner with DeveloperTown, an Indianapolis-based software consultancy. Before DeveloperTown, Kelly worked independently as a software consultant. Kelly and his partners launched DeveloperTown in 2010 to focus on helping startups build and launch technology products. In 2013, the company began working with established firms. After experiencing growth for several years, DeveloperTown shifted to exclusively serving established companies and last year launched the side company DeveloperTownStarts to work only with startups in early-stage technology on an equity-only basis.

The Mistake:

Before DeveloperTown, I spent pretty much my entire career as an independent consultant focused in the Midwest. I did not know at the time that when you join a team as an independent consultant, the beauty of that world is that when the going gets tough, you can just leave. If you’re working with a jerk, you can find the next gig. You don’t have to deal with company politics.

I did not realize until much later that I had not developed the ability to work through sustained organizational change. I could move people in a direction they may not want to go, but after that it was your job. Before DeveloperTown, the longest I stayed anywhere was two years. Before that, the longest was six months.

I did not have the vocabulary for a consistent steady push on something to influence the outcomes I wanted. I had to learn the hard way over the last few years.

The Lesson:

For me, it has been surrounding myself with a team that is like a partnership at a law firm. Over the last seven years, we have brought in a diverse set of partners. We don’t agree on everything, but we respect the superpower and background each partner brings to the table.

There is this idea of the unicorn founders who are good at everything. The reality is that those people don’t exist. When you look at early-stage teams, whether it’s a large company or startup, the teams that are successful are those who build safety nets for their weaknesses in the makeup of the team around them.

DeveloperTown has carved out pretty clear swim lanes for each person’s role and ownership. We have forced ourselves to talk and spend more time together than we would if we were left to our own devices. We have two meetings every week, one traditional meeting with all hands on board and then the core partners have a meeting. Even if we do not have a full agenda, we force ourselves to sit in a room for two hours together. We know that time together is just as important for relationships as business matters.

We found that when we do not do that, we have a super highly capable person working in a vacuum. Until we met quarterly offsite, we would butt heads constantly. By stepping back and forcing time together, it’s so much more fluid. People are not second-guessing each other. They’re trying to understand, be helpful or help me see another angle I might have been missing.

We also try to do a fair amount of things as leaders within the company, for and with employees. We host service events or internal company events where the leadership team does setup and teardown together. Any opportunity to collaborate on feel-good things creates space for those bonds to form. You learn you care about these people and this team and how we can make a better experience for each of us, our families and our kids.