Audio: 3 Lessons in Switching from Dev Agency to Inhouse Dev Team

3 Lessons in Switching from Dev Agency to Inhouse Dev Team

By Jomiro Eming


While establishing their product-market fit, Primephonic worked with a dev agency to spin up and trial different features of their product. Once it took off, however, they realised that they would need a dedicated in-house team to keep growing and improving their product — migrating code, as well as a lot of the contextual knowledge across the teams, turned out to be a major challenge. Here’s how Henrique Boregio, Primephonic’s CTO, navigated this.

Watch the video of our conversation here, or at the end of this blog post!

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Primephonic is a music streaming service geared specifically towards high-quality classical music. In the company’s early days, its main constraint was ‘time to market’: What they needed from a technical point of view was an MVP that could be shipped quickly, and tested with live users. For this, they used a dev agency for their software development needs.

At that point, working with a dev agency enabled Primephonic to prototype an MVP quickly, and have it built within a few months: “We just wanted to build a product quickly so that we could test a hypothesis we had about the market. Building a tech team from scratch is just too costly and time-consuming at that point.”

It was only when Primephonic’s requirements — and the impact of their decisions — changed, that they had to rethink why they were using an agency as opposed to an inhouse dev team.

Once their app was live, and their production became more regular, their decisions started requiring more long-term thinking and started having greater business impacts: “After we launched”, Henrique says, “your feature risk increases, because you have to now deliver to real users. This means that the ‘autonomy’ of the dev agency — take a prototype, and build it — decreases. We needed a dedicated team to make those kinds of ‘micro-decisions’ on a daily basis, which ultimately end up also being business decisions.”

What made this hard, though, was he had to offboard the dev agency while onboarding his new tech team — in other words, he not only needed to build an inhouse dev team from scratch, but he needed to do so with a business that was already operational. In order get this right, he needed to:

  • Involve the dev agency in the handover process = smoother handover
  • Give the handover process a ‘hard’ end-date
  • Let the new dev team help guide the process

He also shares some insights he learned about forging a new company culture, and selling a dev culture that doesn’t exist yet. Here’s what this looked like in more detail.

Transferring knowledge across teams: Offboarding an agency while onboarding an inhouse dev team

Involve the dev agency in the handover process

From the start, Henrique was committed to making sure the agency bought-in to the handover process: “If you look at it from a purely business perspective”, Henrique explains, “they are losing a client; but they are the ones that have the technical expertise of your product, so you need their cooperation.”

Furthermore, the dev agency knew how Primephonic’s product was built and what it needed from a technical perspective. Henrique not only needed their buy-in, but wanted them to be part of the hiring and onboarding process too so they could help set up the new team to take over the product. This took a very open and very honest discussion. “There’s no need to hide the fact that you’re hiring. It’s normal to grow as a business when you’re doing well. Just be very upfront with them.”

Give the handover process a ‘hard’ end-date

Another important part of making sure the handover process went well, and something Henrique was upfront about in particular, was a clear timeline and a fixed deadline. Otherwise, Henrique says he risked making it difficult to communicate real progress, and risked drawing out the process longer than they could afford. “It’s useful for the tech team as well: We said they’d have a maximum of two months with the agency — make sure you ask all of your questions; otherwise, you run the risk of just having this never-ending process where you always feel we need more time with the agency.”

PRO-TIP: Use milestone events as deadlines: When creating a timeline for his handover process, Henrique wanted to avoid it being a long, drawn-out process. To do this, his team picked milestones that Primephonic needed to reach in order to officially stop using the agency, and attached dates to them. For example, Henrique’s team picked hiring certain dev roles they marked as ‘critical to operation’ — ie. the roles without which they cannot keep the product going.

This let his team track progress easily, and use data to signal when they were ready to complete the offboarding process. The visibility helped everyone stay on track, and having data to point to made it easier to hold the various teams accountable to their specific responsibilities.

Let the new dev team help guide the process

For Henrique, simultaneously offboarding the agency and and onboarding his developers was structured as follows: Primephonic’s devs spent approximately two months with the dev agency, and learned all the technical aspects of the product during that time — from stacks, to more cultural things like workflows and approaches to problem-solving. These two months were split between Mondays to Thursdays at the dev agency, and Fridays bonding with the broader Primephonic company back at their office. This kept a regular connection between company and developers during the onboarding process, and gave the new dev team the opportunity to build their own tech/dev culture.

Henrique’s guiding principle for approaching this effectively was to let knowledge sharing guide the process. In other words, although Henrique set a two month timeline for the technical handover with the agency, he let his developers tell him when they had spent enough time there.

Doing this helped the new developers build a sense of ownership very early on: “I did my best to make it clear that they were hired for a reason, and they’re ultimately the one responsible for making those decisions — and they would build up their confidence. They would, on their own, reduce the time that they spent with the agency.”

A word on culture: New team, new opportunities

Although not directly linked to the handover process perse, culture formed a critical part of the process Henrique went through in transitioning from a dev agency to an in house dev team. This took two forms:

#1 You don’t yet have a dev/tech culture: When interviewing developers, it was hard for Henrique to sell candidates on a dev culture that didn’t yet exist, and give them an idea of what they would be coming into: “Culture is particularly tough, because you can never really plan for culture”, he explains. “Yes, you can try to write it down, and you can envision what you would like your team to become, but it’s the people at the end of the day that ‘make’ it.”

What helped him here was to focus on the opportunities that comes with being an ‘early hire’:

“Being one of the early hires… the impact you have on shaping the culture and shaping the product is tremendous. You always immediately see what you do, and if things go south, it’s within your power to solve those things.”

#2 Your broader company culture will be impacted: Although the people make the culture, Henrique says that being aware of and open to your culture changing gives you enough control to ensure the impacts are positive: “If you’re looking to hire 10-15 people and bring them into a team of 25 people”, Henrique says, “then yeah — the culture is going to change. It’s going to change drastically.”

Primephonic’s approach was to encourage the new developers to absorb both cultures — the agency’s and the company’s — and bring a ‘hybrid culture’ to the newly expanded team. This would also help them develop their own tech/dev culture: “We tried to have a healthy balance, and mix both cultures”, he explains. “They got the technical expertise from the dev agency, but also spent quality time with our team — being in the presentations we had with the music industry, going on company outings, and having drinks with everybody.”

There is no ‘right way’ — so the only way that matters is yours

Although Henrique had a plan in place, he said the biggest takeaway for him in this process was being open to things not going the way he had planned:

“Nobody really knows how to do it. Embracing that, I think, helps you establish the right mindset. Two years ago, I had never built a team of 10 people in six months, I had never migrated from an agency… but nobody could tell me exactly how to do it. It’s very likely that whatever you come up with is going to be an improvement.”

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