Learnings and mistakes building a successful Agile coaching agency – Dandy People turn 5 years

I’m well aware that people often see me as quite a fearless person. I often get comments like “but you are never afraid of anything”. But as all people I have had lots of struggles every day to overcome my own fears, to prove to myself I can do something I thought I couldn’t. And just as probably most people I have tried and failed a lot. One of my mantras I usually say to myself, and others around me is that it will solve itself somehow just as long as we stick to our values and believe in ourself and each other. As Dandy People now has turned 5 years old and we have grown to over 20 people I’m writing this post aiming to tell a bit of the story behind Dandy People and share some of my own personal fears, beliefs and our struggles and successes as a team along the way. None of this will be any silver bullets, but I hope you might find it valuable and perhaps inspiring.

The Dandy Team
The Dandy team on our spring conference 2022 celebrating turning 5 years together.

Building a learning organization where fast and shared learning is a key strategy

Curiosity is one of our most important characteristics as humans and we should always find new ways to explore and increase the pace of our own learning. I have always been very curious and loved learning new things just as long as no one is forcing me. My own strategy to learn new things has often been to work together with people with other skill sets to learn from them, and with them, while testing and building stuff together. This has been one of my core beliefs of how to deliver value and a foundation that has shaped how we want to work and run Dandy. In Dandy we always see learning as part of our job. This means we shape our assignments to work two and two as often as possible, or in teams. Many times we have shared a “1 FTE” (yes, our customers sometimes call it that) assignment on two people, and we always look for assignments for a team. The reason for this is both that we have a much bigger success rate on tough assignments by doing that, and also that we get to learn from each other on the job and we will live as we preach.. 

This belief around learning has also from the start made us prioritize having quite a big financial space for each individual to put time and money on learning new skills outside of work. Everyone is responsible for their own learning but of course we support each other. By doing this and always striving to deliver valuable training and learning sessions for others we make sure we are always at the front line and we will always be learning, making us ready for any new challenge that might occur within Dandy or at our customers.

Starting up my own business – getting over the fear of hiring people

But if we go back to the very beginning, before we started Dandy People, one of the biggest fears I had was to hire people and to be the one responsible for the wellbeing and financial security of other people outside of my own family. This was holding me back for years to move beyond having my own consultancy with only me, myself and I. This was the first obstacle I had to manage and get over when starting Dandy People. Before this I had been running my own company and doing Agile coaching, pretty much the same as we do today in Dandy, but under the umbrella of another consultancy. At that time I had way too much to do and had to say no to helping more and more customers which made me want to find another solution. I felt a huge need to build my own team to help the customers I had and others like them to bridge the gap between business and IT and by that building organizations that could deliver customer centric solutions. I was just getting more and more customers and I really struggled to find the time to help them in a good way as a one woman band. So knowing what I wanted to do in my company wasn’t a struggle at all. Just continuing with what I did, but together with a team of great people. I also knew I wanted to start a_real_company with people who shared my vision, not an umbrella company where everyone follows their own vision, and not just a group of friends who only share the space and occasionally meet and socialize. I often find it just as valuable to know what you don’t want as what you do want, especially when it comes to business.

After looking around for about a year for someone to start my company with, I realized that the people I enjoyed working with all had their own ideas and visions of companies they wanted to start, and none of those was inline with mine. So I would have to go alone… this could easily have been the end of this dream, since I was pretty sure I would never manage it alone. I would work myself to death then. But it happened so that when we came home to Sweden after celebrating Christmas abroad, we got a phone call at the airport that my husband’s company just got sold, meaning he would get out of running a full time business in just a couple of months! This was amazing news both because it meant we as a family would get a small amount of money from his business that we could invest and he would be available to help me with my dream. The choice was easy. He became my business partner. Just a few months after that, in April 2017, we officially started Dandy People and we had an address downtown for our office where we could set up seminars and meetups to meet customers and candidates for employment. After just another few months, after summer we were already a small team of people that could take on customer assignments and collaborate on business development, just as I was longing for. We have never had any problems paying salaries, not even during Covid (but more on that later) and I have never regretted taking on the role as an employer. I am so happy it didn’t stop me from taking the step to grow my business.

Sharing is caring – and it may just be what you need to build a strong brand

You might have seen or used the infographic posters with our logo on. Most of them have my face on them since I am the creator and designer of them. The story started before I started Dandy People and was one of the kicks in the butt I needed to make the decision to start my own company. I created the first Agile in a Nutshell poster just to be able to give something visual that captured the most important things for the class at Hyper Island that I was going to run a half day short training for together with my colleague Per. We had a lot of experience based exercises as always, and was going to do some theory using a whiteboard. But I felt something more was needed to help them remember afterwards, so I decided just the day before to do a one pager with the key topics. After the training I published it as a PDF for download on our blog just if anyone else would be interested in using it. And it happened a LOT of people were interested in that. A few weeks later I was in Paris on a weekend with Mathias and suddenly I realized I had over hundreds of comments on the share of the blogpost on LinkedIn and many friend requests. My first thought was of course that something was wrong with LinkedIn, but it wasn’t. It just exploded due to people really liked the poster. Sharing valuable content for free has been a great business model and so we have continued to do so. When we create new posters we usually set them free on our Dandy blog within days up to 6 months, and also other content such as canvases, coaching models and serious games.

Some of the posters in the series.

Today I have lost control over how many downloads of the infographic posters we have, and also how many posters we have shared. But a few years ago it was close to 350.000 downloads (totally free with no email signups or nothing). People within the Agile community are translating the posters for free to their language to be able to use them better and we also share those translated posters to everyone, so today we can offer our infographics on Agile topics for free in 15 languages to anyone interested, making the Dandy brand really strong. If you would ask most management consultancies they would probably say this is a no can do for them and any business. I’d say it is exactly the right thing to do if you want to be part of the growing Agile community and if you don’t want to spend huge amounts on useless brand campaigns. Of course it might take some bravery (some would probably call it stupidity), design skills and that you feel fairly safe you know your stuff to make it work. But testing and see how it goes can take you a long way.

Building a company with a strong brand and still minimizing known risks

As I wanted to build a_real_company having an office was important to me and something I wouldn’t negotiate with. Many small business owners already then had their offices at home, but for me it would mean a huge benefit to have a good address downtown in the city to meet with customers and I was sure it would also be easier to attract employees. But we know that statistics say most startups don’t make it due to high costs linked to long contracts, and office space is just exactly that. Meaning getting our own space with a long contract was a big no-no, and that’s why we chose a shared office space instead. We picked one with the best address, a short leasing contract of just one month, where we could have our own room, with good big spaces to run seminars and training, and where we could have our dog 🙂 Those were the key principles and worked out well. We have been able to stay there for 5 years, moving into bigger and more rooms when needed, and now when we have outgrown it, we can easily get our very own space. The move to our very own space is just weeks away now and it feels just like moving out from your parents. We are (almost) grownups finally!

We were actually looking for our own space already a few months before Covid hit, but due to some luck we didn’t. We didn’t then find a space that was good enough and we somehow had the feeling we could wait to be more safe financially. And boy were we lucky! If we had signed an office contract with 3 years contracting period we would have had a really tough time during Covid to survive and would probably have had to fire some of our staff to manage. Thanks to this luck and other factors we could keep all staff and go through Covid financially safe and a lot more experienced and equipped for taking our business to the “next” level.

Finding management structures that follow our values – from individual salaries to team based

I strongly believe in building business based on values, and as an Agilist my own values are of course strongly influenced by Agile values. Early on after starting Dandy I invited my fellow Dandies to create our own “Dandy House” to put these values down on paper and what it meant for our behaviors. This has been extremely valuable for us, and me, since it has helped a lot to bounce ideas and situations towards them whenever we have had to make decisions about the business together. To have them clear and outspoken also helps to “keep the space” that you have to do as a founder of a company if it is based on your values. Many organizations struggle if the founder leaves since they don’t have the guidance of the founder anymore and other ideas may easily come and take the company in a different direction. For me it has been important that we all share the same understanding of why I make specific decisions since it makes people feel more safe and I also hope they more easily feel they dare to contribute.

The House of Dandy that has been tweaked over the years.

We have defined our different structures based on these values and beliefs about people (theory Y), that they always want to contribute and do a great job if they can adapt and influence what affects them. Since this is something we work with as specialists in Agile I know this to be true and if they behave in any other way (theory X) it has to do with the leadership or structures holding them back. It was obvious to me when we started Dandy that we have to follow this insight, but it wasn’t always clear what solutions would also attract the right people and help us keep the financial safety we felt we needed in the early days of starting the business. It might seem obvious now that individual salaries would be the wrong solution if you want people to collaborate as I wanted, but still we thought that most people wouldn’t feel safe otherwise so that was what we started out with anyhow. One of our goals and dreams in the beginning was to get a team of Dandies working together with customers. Not just because it is more fun, but because what we do is really complex and difficult and it usually makes it a lot easier to manage with more brains and more experience that you get as a team. I believe very strongly 1+1 makes 3 for the benefit of our customers. Individual salaries showed quite quickly not to be ideal. It made people care more about how much each assignment and person was paid, and less focus on delivering value together and finding great solutions to customer problems. The salary model was clearly hindering us to behave as we wanted. Collaboration, creativity, innovation and working together as teams was at the core of my dream Dandy and it wasn’t happening as it was, a new salary model was a must! So after about a year I decided we should change the salary model from individual salaries to a team based salary model. This has shown over and over again to have been the right choice. Most of our Dandies at the time probably wouldn’t have agreed, but I wouldn’t have been able to go on seeing my dream and vision not becoming what I was longing for and not trying to do anything about it. Happily I had support from Mathias and together with some support we made the shift.

Since then we have had a model based on our values that states that about 60% of our consultancy incomes will always go to the salaries of our consultants. This makes it quite clean and easy to handle most decisions we as a business have to take. Costs of other staff, office space, advertising, conferences and what not, is part of the other 40%. The idea was to create a fair model that gives direct value to the people working in Dandy. If Dandy does well they will also do well. It also removes a lot of boring and in my mind non-value adding activities such as yearly salary discussions. Making our job a lot easier and more fun.

Having a salary model that is flexible and team based enables growth – and helped us not just to survive Covid, but to thrive despite Covid

Another important part of the salary model to make it team oriented to support collaboration is that one part is fixed and one part is variable. The fixed part is the same for all working as senior Agile coaches and for everyone who are working as enterprise Agile coaches. meaning we have only two levels of pay that is based on what we get paid from our customers. This might also be changed in the future as we often manage to get a flat rate for our teams. If so, levels of pay might not be needed either. The variable part is based on the total invoicing from all consultancy. It is as simple as beautiful.

The setup of the salary model has also helped us stay safe during Covid. When Covid hit in March 2020 we lost one assignment quite early on for 4 of our Dandies and we started to feel that this could become a bad financial situation quite soon. Happily our Dandies asked if we could just stop the variable pay until we saw a change in the prognosis of assignment. And in September we saw we had new assignments coming in so we “turned on” the variable pay again. This meant we all had lower pay for a while, only our fixed base pay, but what was left of the variable pay was paid out to everyone at the end of the year. This shows that our salary model is VUCA-safe which has been one of our hopes in making it safe for all of us to support growth and also unexpected situations that we can’t plan for.

Our salary model has one more important feature. Everyone ALWAYS gets BOTH the fixed and the variable pay, with or without assignment. Isn’t that unfair you might think? What if someone is using the system to get paid and just be lazy not getting an assignment? As I shared earlier we believe in theory Y, with lots of support from science. So we know that A: people are not lazy, 2: peer pressure is far more effective than control. This has helped a lot removing fears of being without assignment. When someone is without a customer assignment they work on internal assignments, or help other Dandies for free on assignments which is just as valuable as getting paid directly – it will pay off later for sure. That was the idea behind always getting paid a full salary, and it just means that everyone gets a bit lower salary during that time which feels much better than not getting any if you would be the unlucky one – and we all are without assignments from time to time, that’s part of being a consultant. So much we know.

Finding the right people is the most important thing – but we realized parts of our model was hindering us

We have always been fortunate to have people approaching us asking to join Dandy from Sweden and also from abroad, but we realized many of the people we wanted to hire didn’t want to be hired by us. They liked us, they were a great fit for us and we for them.. but still we couldn’t get them to sign the contract. Something had to change. We had a great recruiting process that helped us keep good people in the loop. We met and socialized with a lot of Agile coaches in our meetups, courses and other open activities we hosted. Our process for finding out if we would be a good fit for each other was also getting better and better as we invited our Dandies to be part of it. We used both deep interviews, practical tests and scenario based tests, having candidates meeting several Dandies in different meetings to ask any questions they wanted, but still when we came to the final meeting to talk about what it meant to be an employee in Dandy we learned they wanted to have their own company. They wanted to join our community of Dandies, would love to work on our assignments and they really believed in the ideas behind Dandy and would really want to contribute to build a great company.

We decided to find a way to have a split offer to be able to get the right people into Dandy, not just those who wanted to be employed. I have never regretted that decision. Today we have a model where we run the regular recruiting process, the same for everyone, and then they can choose to become an employee OR have their own company. Also a simple and really beautiful solution that so far has served us really well. Our goal is that no one should see or feel any significant difference on who is what, and that they can change from one to another if it suits them better. So far one employee has become their own business owner with the support from us. And so far everyone is equally invested in joining in activities and building a Dandy together that we want to work in. If things would change in the future for some reason I am sure we can handle it and find a good way forward together.

We have during the years realized that we are not at all that good at hiring staff that are not Agile coaches. I have to admit that I have been especially bad at judging who could be a good fit or not and sometimes pushed too hard and not listened that well on the Dandies giving me information about who to recruit or not and for what. Firstly our recruiting process isn’t adapted to cater for testing the right skills needed in other roles so each time we have to adapt it which makes it difficult to improve. I have also made the mistake to speed up the process too much due to stress, trying to get someone in to take some workload from mine and other Dandies shoulders. This has resulted of course been even more stressful when we realize we have different expectations, or that the person has no understanding at all of what we do and often people who are used to traditional companies and structures might feel really uncomfortable and unsafe not having a clear chain of command or someone who tells them exactly what to do. I have had some learnings along the way and I think my fellow Dandies might agree that to hire non Agilists into Dandy takes a different setup where we slowly collaborate and see if we are a good fit for each other. Everyone always have to find their place a bit too since we don’t really have clear roles, there is work to be done, responsibilities to take and goals to find the way towards, but you have to have a collaborative mindset and care for us as a team and for our customers. It could be very different from where people come from. Still I believe strongly in getting fresh minds in to get us out of group think and to give us new capabilities that we might not needed yesterday but today and more tomorrow. But anyone joining need to be experts in their field and they need to be comfortable and interested in how we run the organization and believe in our core business and our values. If not we will end up in value based conflicts internally and that is something I believe we should stay out of whenever we can.

Should I as a founder work with our customers – or just work with growing the business?

This is something I have been struggling with over the years and even more lately. I find it really valuable that I also work with our customers on different assignments for many reasons, but as Dandy grows it takes more and more time to grow and run the business and the risk of letting that go is too high. I have had a goal to have customer assignments to a maximum of 50%, and to sometimes not have any customer assignments to get time to take bigger steps with Dandy. As I always have to prioritize the assignment on a daily basis, if I’m out with customers it may impact our daily work badly in Dandy if something unexpected happens. Of course in a perfect world no-one should be so dependent on me that I’m needed every day, but sometimes if I’m on an assignment it can take days before I have time. It has shown to be a good prioritization if I can join in our Dandy operations daily standup every morning for 15-20 minutes, and then might call in or collaborate a bit during the day if it is acute.

The operations setup with one Kanban board and a daily short standup in the morning have grown into something we really like and it helps with delivering both operational and strategic internal work as everyone working outside of our customers deliveries are there and can support each other with admin, marketing, sales and other things. This also increases transparency and engagement and most of all, it helps not grow unhelpful and unwanted silos! If it can help us stay out of traditional silos that we know creates a slow organization with a lot of handoffs and with difficulties delivering value in a high speed and complex domain then it is worth A LOT keeping up and improving on. So for that reason only it might be one of the most valuable good practices to take away from this post.

Creating flow within the company to keep pushing the limits to delivering value not only today, but also in the future

the way we run organizations to make them more humane and customer centric. I really love building products, customer experiences and finding new ways to support people and organizations in becoming what they need to be to make people awesome. My biggest fear around this is that everyone is too occupied to be able to deliver only on the customer assignments doing day to day consultancy work (which of course is not at all a small or bad thing by itself), and not being able to also team up and look at the bigger picture, share our learnings and build reusable products or services that will move us forward in the long run. To be honest I’m really afraid that our consultancy will be too successful so I don’t have anyone to do business development work with outside our customer assignments, or “play with” as I usually see it. Work is not work for me when it comes to this, it is pure creativity and fun. This might be a radical thought for many to be a consultancy and NOT wanting everyone to be 100% at paid customer assignment. I know it seems contradictory, and that most consultancies and agencies do the exact opposite. They ask people to do all internal work outside of their 40h work week which for me is totally unfair and not something you can ask any employee to do. Only founders do that. We work our asses off often, but it is because it is our company. Our baby. We do it because we believe in something and we set the rules for ourselves, they don’t. As a way to reinforce this belief we have created a model (structure) to support this that we call Dandy 4×4 where we state that we only want to work 80% in “our roles” and 20% growing ourselves, each other, Dandy and our customers’ business. This is also supported by structures in each of the 4 areas that we continuously improve and adapt separately.

First to trust wins – getting to know each other will make us psychological safe

This is a hot topic for us now, and has been since we started out. It is often a difficult thing to build trust within consultancies since people often don’t meet their peers often enough to build personal relations. We have worked with this in mind and tried out different things along the way. One thing we have to support and build trust between the people within Dandy is creating a My Needs profile. This profile gives me an understanding of my own key drivers, what is important to me. This also helps us understand others around us. If we are very different and have different drivers we might see things very differently. Now we haven’t been putting enough time into getting to know the whole Dandy System with everyones profile in a couple of years, but everyone always gets their own upon joining Dandy which is a great foundation to build upon when we have the need and time to share with each other as individuals or as a group.

The Buddy System is another structure thats part of the Dandy 4 by 4 development framework. This is a structure where we connect people 2 and 2 or up to sometimes 4 people while waiting for a split. The idea is that they check in with each other more often, weekly or bi-weekly and coach and help each other on any topics. The buddy system can also be used to perhaps get more structured strategy work done, or communication by asking all buddys to do a specific assignment and then share. We have so far focused on using it to build a network of people to make people get peer coaching and make them feel safe by getting to build strong relations with one person at a time, and then rotating about every 6 months. Me and Mathias have many times been so grateful for this system which by far outperform any traditional people managers we have seen before when it comes to bringing safety, trust and support. And we would not have been able to run Dandy without it. What we have realized now the past 6 months or so is that we now need to split it into two buddy systems since we are over 20 people, and having a buddy facilitator within each system to help and keep it alive and bring all buddy pairs together more often for activities might be a good idea. It has turned out not all buddy pairs meet as often as they might have intended, and it has also been failing in the sense that it hasn’t been able to pick up these “system errors” as quickly as we might have wanted it too. A couple of people have sadly become critically ill because of stress during Covid and we can see that the buddy system can not handle those kinds of things, it is not something we can have instead of taking our responsibility as an employer. These people have been cared for by me and Mathias as employers, and both are now well again and doing good. This will be on our shared Dandy agenda moving forward to adapt and fine tune the buddy system, so that it will become what we need moving forward too.

Another thing we have tried and started with just a few month ago is “Secret Dandy Dates” which is as it sounds, someone pulls together some Dandies in a smaller group to spend some time together and do something non work related together to socialize and get to know each other a bit more. This is a test to see if it can help build relations between people faster, and not just those working on the same assignment. To run a SDD anyone can just let RoseMary in Dandy HQ know who will be invited and then give her the receipt afterwards. We have said around 2000 SEK is a maximum per individual per 6 months. But as always, it is making it happen that is the most important, and not following the rules. I’m hoping everyone will have at least one SDD after 6 months 🙂

The picture below is from the first Secret Dandy Date where I invited Kari, Rachael and RoseMarie by asking them separately if they were free a night a few weeks ahead, and then gave them information about an address and time where they should be on a specific date…. They managed to figure out about half of it, that we were going to an amazing vegan restaurant, but the part about building mini eco systems in glass houses before dinner they had no idea about. We had a really lovely time and we still connect about how our plants are doing in the glass house 🙂

Moving from start-up to scale-up? The future will decide, but we will do our best to not make it a screw-up 🙂

These are some of my, and our, beliefs, mistakes and learnings so far on our 5 year journey moving from a startup to perhaps a scale-up, but most certainly not a screw-up 🙂 We don’t know what the future holds for us but I’m confident we can manage it as a team just as long as we stick to our values. That makes me feel safe, and thats why I love the work I, and we do.

When I asked the dandies for some feedback on this post some people asked for more mistakes, it feels like everything has been really smooth and everything is turned into learnings and actions. And of course there have been small mistakes too, everyday. And big ones too that are not mentioned here but more of respect to those involved because I believe no matter how much the “mistake” may hurt us we should not hold grudge or dig a hole and stay there, we should get out of it, make sure we are all safe, get the dust of our shoulders and find a new path forward. We have had lots of reasons to give up along the way, but even more to continue and work even harder – but mostly smarter. Love and values will lead the way.

As I hope you understand who have read this far (big thanks to you), none of these ideas are silver bullets alone, and I can assure you a lot of work will be needed to make your dream happen no matter which way you go, but I really hope you do it. Take that step, start your own company based on your own vision, or adjust the company you are in to better align with what you believe in and fight hard for those values. Feel free to use any of our models and learnings if you believe they might help you. Please reach out with any thought, questions, ask for support when needed, or if you want me or any of the other Dandies to come and share the story.