On this week’s episode of An Agency Story podcast, we have Matt Sutherland – Co – Founder of HQ, a digital product agency that specializes in the development and design of mobile applications and websites based out of Ogden, Utah.
Sustainable, steady, and intentional are just a few words that can be used to describe Matt and his agency’s approach. And this patient strategy has found them great success and growth over the last 10 years.
Matt’s background may come as a surprise to some. Although he and his business partner Zarin have managed to produce impressive results over the course of their careers as agency founders, they didn’t exactly anticipate being in the driving seat for a software design and development agency. Matt had one real job prior to HQ, and then an internship in between. He worked a general construction job in high school and would continue that path for four years. By the end, he had learned a great deal and thought he would eventually become a general contractor.
Despite having met in high school, Matt and Zarin wouldn’t really start connecting on a deeper level until college, which is also the time when Matt began considering the possibility of working in technology. The two started working together; Zarin knew how to design and code and gave Matt some of his initial introductions to coding. Matt was hooked and dove headfirst into this new chapter.
Matt takes us through the evolution of his own journey, as well as the agency’s journey – from construction to wedding products to what is now HQ, Matt and his business partner Zarin pride themselves and the agency in code structure that is flexible and sustainable.
Enjoy the story.
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Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.
Welcome to An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russel. On this week’s episode, we have Matt Sutherland, co-founder of HQ, a development agency that specializes in mobile and web applications based out of the Salt Lake City area in Utah. From the world of construction to the wedding industry. Matt has one of the most unique paths to agency life than any guests we’ve ever had on the show. Using intentionality and lean management practices, Matt and his business partners there and have grown their business. And I sure and steady manner. Enjoy the story. Welcome to the show today, everyone. I have Matt Sutherland with HQ. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Matt.
Yeah. Excited to chat with you.
Start us off. Tell us, what does HQ do and who do you do it for?
We’re a software design and development agency, and we build applications, marketing websites, a lot of design related dashboard, SaaS type products. I feel like at the end of the day, there’s always a different tagline for that. I run a creative product agency, or I switch it up myself about every time I answer that question. I’ve never really liked any of ’em other than, at the end of the day, we design and develop software products. That’s the simple way of putting it.
Make cool online technology crap.
Yeah. I would rather say something like that because how many ways can I spin that we just write code and things.
It’s certainly an art you can or cannot pay adept attention to, depending on how you wanna go about it. Let’s get back into the early days even before there was an HQ. As I understand it, you had a very different career field before starting the agency business. What line of business were you in?
I’ve really only had one real job before this, and then an internship in between. I had a job in high school doing general construction, grunt worker, and I did that for four years. Enough that by the end of it, I was a bit better at it and I thought I was going to probably become a general contractor interestingly. I went into college and was in business. At that point, I did a internship, I did it almost my entire time through college where I was helping a pre-seed angel investment firm to analyze deal flow and do some due diligence. A group of other students did the same thing where companies were pitching to us, so I got involved with that. That was fun and probably was what introduced me to the tech a bit more. It was in college that I started doing more tech related things. I met my business partner in high school, but we weren’t like close friends, we were just kinda distant friends. We reconnected in college and that’s when I was thinking of potentially doing something in tech. We started working together. He knew how to design and how to code. I didn’t really know how to do either very well at the time. He taught me how, some of my initial introductions to code were him giving me lessons on it. That’s where I picked that up and dove headfirst in okay, I’m gonna learn how to do software development.
Obviously morphed away from construction but even your first foray into business wasn’t an agency or really even agency related. Can you share with us a little bit about that first venture?
While I was working with my partner we were trying out different tech things. We came up with this idea that was essentially we wanted to replace wedding postcards. We’ll make a builder that is an online website that has all the Information about a wedding in one place for someone. We built this app, think of it like a mini Squarespace or something, that you could go through and upload your pictures and it would create this long form template that would print an entire website with, we had Google Maps integration, which at the time was actually cool but it was not as popular as it is now. We had different things for your gift registry, things like that. Put it all in place and then built this website called besideyouforever.com. Do believe that domain is for sale probably at the moment. It was a good product. We actually built a product that worked well enough and we were able to get a reasonable amount of sales. I’d say at the time, a big limitation was our experience with marketing, as I’d say we didn’t do the best at marketing it. We randomly got a decent amount of traction in India. There was a lot of Indian couples that were using it and that was fun. Some of ’em were arranged marriages. I could see that. It was weird reading it and the different things that they were talking about. It was probably a year and a half where we were aggressively putting all of our energy into it, which we weren’t making enough money to justify the time and the cost that we were incurring in the building.
I don’t know if that was the thing back then, to cut your teeth in the tech biz was to start a wedding website, but we actually did the exact same thing. We called ours ehitched.com, very similar in terms of a all things wedding website. What a small world. I’m very curious, how did that business evolve into what is now HQ?
As we were running it, we were struggling to make as much money as we were hoping to get off of it. Definitely wasn’t enough to live our lives off of or anything, but alternatives were okay when we need income, we can get a job. We were in college at the time, so I was very actively a student. This was in my side time, but still I needed an income so all options were go get a job. We gained a reasonable amount of notoriety in building it. Notoriety in Utah tech space that people knew that me and my partner Zarin were capable of building tech products. So people were coming to us and saying, hey, I saw what you did here, you should help me build my tech product and that was a good alternative to doing a job. We can do some contract jobs for helping other people build, whether it’s even just a simple website or more complicated applications. We started doing that as well as our wedding company, and then, we got more and more requests for that. It was good that we were able to justify hiring initially for it. HQ was definitely by accident, and in fact, honestly, that is one of the reasons we named the company HQ because we didn’t really know what we had and it was just, this is like our headquarters for the things that we’re doing, whether that’s like weddings or whether that’s like building apps for other people. Our very first client, they were actually a pretty big company, interestingly, and they wanted to pay us and I didn’t have a entity set up yet. But I did have the wedding one set up, so I was like, just pay besideyouforever.com. I remember they were weirded out by that when I made this invoice and sent it to ’em because it was like, this doesn’t sound like a web development agency, but they got over it. They see we’re good at stuff. Was a weird name but it worked out.
Yes. Sounds like you were pretty young, and it’s funny, the little things you either don’t quite have in place or start to obsess about. That’s hilarious. You sounded like you at least had a jumping off point in terms of having some clients when you officially started HQ. Was it all just word of mouth initially, or how did you get those clients in the early days?
It was definitely word of mouth. The wedding startup, people knew of it, so then all it took was me saying, hey, I’ll also do contract work on the side. We did that and that bred more people. I would say, luckily, we were able to work with some relatively influential people in the beginning, those influential enough that they were the types of people that refer other clients. That’s how that happened. Word of mouth through our own network. I’m always been a relatively well networked person, and not just for the networking purpose, but I like going to events and meeting people. That definitely played its part as well, me getting to know other people in the tech space, particularly in Utah.
Was there a nervousness as you’re going through that process, was there more work than you can handle? Was there a point where it was like, okay, I think this is gonna work, I think we’ve got this? Does that stand out in your mind?
Especially in the beginning, when I was in college, I lived with my parents. Although I wanted money, I didn’t need it, for at least that first year. That was nice, having my, parents support, they didn’t ever really support me financially. They just gave me a roof, which was good. In those initial days, our first hire, he did have a job, a house and everything. He had a house payment to make. I was more worried about being able to pay him than I was about paying myself. I remember he was like, hey I know you guys are just figuring this out, but I have real bills to pay. Are you gonna be able to do that? I committed to him, I will do everything I can to make sure that you have income. I will go knock doors on every business that exists in Utah if I have to, or whatever it takes. I can at least guarantee that you have a solid job. I don’t know if I have a solid job, but you have a solid job. Maybe a little bit apprehension there and then in the beginning, since we weren’t even sure that we were gonna start an agency, my fallback was still my other ideas and things that we had. That first year to two I was a bit less concerned. After that we were able to get enough traction that it was the opposite problem. We were growing, so I was more dealing with how do I keep up with the work that we had. Definitely had lots of different growing pains there, just cuz I had never hired people and never really managed before. Trying to do that effectively and make sure clients were happy. I think we did a good job. Hence they continued to refer us more clients, but still was a hard struggle to figure out. It’s still hard. Day to day, okay, can I keep up with everything that I have coming in or, those types of things.
All the trials by fire. I have to ask, how long did you keep the wedding site going once you even started transitioning?
I think it was live for three to four years, around there. We were continually getting sales, but it needed to be upgraded, the back end particularly. It was a bigger haul than what the sales were justifying, so I actually felt bad when I went and decided to shut it down. We initially just closed off all new sales and luckily with the way it worked, I could see when people’s weddings were, and it’s okay, you don’t need me after your wedding’s done. I kept the site live for all the existing customers until their weddings happened and then turned it off completely. I thought about selling it to someone, but the fact that it needed a significant overhaul made me a little bit uncomfortable with that. I was already at that point focused on trying to grow HQ.
Wasn’t meant to be. I’ll do a quick plug here for the end. Listen to the very end folks, because you’ll get two for one today on interesting stories, because similar to Matt’s story there, I have probably what was my worst business experience in my entire career. Which I’ll share that at the very end. Things are moving along, sounds like a lot of success. Obviously you’re doing good work, getting lots of referrals. You have a business partner and that’s always an interesting dynamic in a business. How did you guys find your footing in terms of working together and growing the business as a common mind?
Yeah, that had some growing pains initially was, who did what? It was funny at the time, Zarin was definitely a better designer than me. I had some design ability, but he was way better at that. We got to a point where we were comparable in our coding ability. When we were doing production, a lot of times he would design and I would be coding stuff live as he was designing it, side by side. That worked well and I was a little bit more inclined to the overall business. I was a business degree major so that part of it I was more interested in. The development was more like, that’s what I need to do in order for us to be good. I need to be competent there, cuz Zarin already had the design completely taken care of. If anything, especially in those early days, he was almost like our marketing dude, because he was so good, especially for the age. Everyone wanted to work with him. But then we needed to implement those designs, so I took that other part of coding and running the rest of the business. It was pretty easy back then, just setting things up, running sales, and hiring, some of the simple stuff. We had to figure that out in that first year, but after that it was pretty smooth from there. We had very delineated tasks of how we would manage things coming in. Zarin and I have a really good partnership and still do after 10 years into it, lightening each other’s loads. We are both good at different things and we both trust each other on being good at those things. After that first year we were pretty solid on okay, you’re gonna handle everything design related, I was handling the dev and the overall business aspects of it.
I love a good partnership story, folks are able to work out that dynamic, cuz I’ve certainly heard the other side of that. Kudos to you guys, I know it had to be some stressful times in there. One of the things that kind of stood out in your own words is that you’ve grown the business in what you might say is a very paced manner. Has that strategy been intentional? Was it akin to your personality or is there other factors involved?
That’s a good question for me to introspectively think about. I would say in the early days it was maybe not my personality. I was a more young aggressive entrepreneur wanting to do everything, but I saw the need of intentionality behind pace growth, particularly as a service business. You’re growing with people and services, that’s your product. That’s not super scalable in training. I have always had this mentality of ensuring that, if I’m going to say yes to a client that I can build something, I’ll do everything it takes to make sure that they get a good value for that. It was a bit more intentional than against my personality. I’d say maybe my personality has molded around that sense that I think I’m less aggressive than I used to be, in that regard of growth at all costs and those things. The intentionality of pace growth, personally I think that’s kept us in business. I had a lot of peers or other agencies back in those days that I looked up to, some of them grew quickly. The majority of the ones that I looked up to at that time are out of business now, and I think that some of ’em were due to overly extending themselves on what they were capable of. That’s worked for us. That’s not necessarily something that I preach outwardly. I think different managers are capable of doing different things effectively. For us, that’s what I felt comfortable with.
Know thyself. Sounds like it’s worked well for you. It’s funny when you mentioned that as I think of some of the agencies that we’d really looked up to and it’s gosh, someday we could be them, way bigger than us. A couple years later, not too far removed from that thought they’re not even around now or they’re only a fraction of their former selves. Interesting world, game of survivors, you could say. You’ve done a lot of big projects, big work, and sometimes that leads to big clients as well, but oftentimes, as clients go, they go a different path. That always takes a hit to the business in some ways. Over the course of time, what measures have you learned to put in place to try to offset some of that risk when a larger client goes out the door?
Being realistic about the longevity that a client might be able to provide and what risks are involved. It changes throughout time. Different customers that you have, there’s different factors at play that could make them leave. The biggest one is if you are not providing the service to the expectations that they have. That one, you have a bit more control of making sure, okay, do good work and make them happy, and then they will continue to pay me. Now, the good thing about that one is if you’re not doing it, the writing can be on the wall, so to speak. It’s yeah, I can tell they’re not happy with the product we’re giving ’em. That might not be because you suck at your job it’s just, they want something that you’re not even offering. You can tell those types of people might be flighty, that’s the word I use when I have a customer that I don’t trust their longevity. You’re not gonna say no to someone who’s willing to spend a ton of money with you, and if you can do that, therefore they become a large chunk of your revenue. Being aware of that exposure, okay, I now have a lot of eggs in this one basket, and I’m aware that they could leave me for reasons out of my control, reasons sometimes even out of the clients themselves control. Last year’s a great example. My biggest client, they got acquired by their direct competitor, so it was a good thing for them. They loved us, and even when the acquisition happened, the new competitor liked us, but they just didn’t need us anywhere near to the degree that our previous client was doing. We lost them, not because we did a bad job, in fact it was probably the opposite cuz we did a good job. That’s what happened. That one hurt. Being constantly aware of, where am I exposed to, and what’s gonna happen when this customer might leave, and then how would I potentially deal with that? The really hard ones is when bad things like that happen consecutively. Losing key employees or losing key clients all at the same time. That’s a lot harder to plan for. There’s no magic bullet there. That’s something that I have learned through doing this for 10 years is that you try to create systems and processes in place so that you can deal with whatever problem comes your way, but sometimes these are gonna hit. I think the magic bullet is being financially prudent and not running your company to such a bare metal. You have enough to absorb issues when they come up just through money. It was a big client and I’m not comfortable at the time laying off the people that were working on that project, and I can float them a couple months while I am aggressively trying to replace that client or something. Which, I couldn’t have done that in year one of my business, but then at the same time I did grow small, slow so my payroll wasn’t super high. That’s probably the best thing I can think of, ready for it.
A lot of great lessons in there and perhaps the biggest one of all, there’s so many countless stories of agencies that went by the wayside or are solely relying on that large client. I think a lot of ’em, and we probably even did this ourselves in times where we had a large client, you tell yourself the story, that won’t be me. They have to be with us forever, and there’s just so many factors outta your control, to the point you do such a good job, they get bought out. Let that always be a reminder to folks out there that they’re likely not to last forever. What are your plans to the contrary? Thank you so much for sharing all that. One of the other things that’s stuck out is, and I’m a big believer in this, what you say no to is just as much important in the growth of a business as what you’re saying yes to, and you’ve done a really good job of sticking with what you’re good at. What kind of decisions has that forced to make over the course of time, the things you’ve had to say no to that might have seemed appealing otherwise?
That’s really hard to do in a service company because there’s a lot of crossover between everything, right? It’s very regular that a customer wants you to do all of it, and you’re not necessarily good at all of it. Being honest with yourself about that, or am I capable of effectively managing if I need to hire to do the places that I’m not good at? What does that do to my company if I’m now spread out between multiple expertises? Bigger agencies can handle that a bit better, as you’re smaller that’s really hard to do if you have 10 different employees who are all good at their own thing, trying to manage the workloads can be difficult cause they can’t help each other as well. With us, we do a level of marketing websites, that therefore has a crossover of marketing broadly. There’s a lot of services involved with marketing, whether that’s SEO or something. Those were ones that were always really easy for me to say look, no, we’re not a marketing agency. That’s a different thing than us, though we do have some crossover because we will build those sites, but the technology choices that we use to develop, there’s a lot of different code out there, and that’s what I’ve dedicated my last 10 years to and nobody can keep up with that. There’s different languages that always come out. Choosing, I’m going to be really good at a few and not say that I can do every backend language there is, and I’ve been happy with the choice that we’ve made. I am aware of other companies that have done pretty good at growing horizontally versus, vertically, but that’s just how we’ve done it. I think it has shown, a big reason why I do that is again, to make sure that I’m building a great product and service for the customers that I have. Good majority of the customers, we have good relationships with them. They promote us, they refer us, and I think it’s due to us being intentional about what we’re good at. That is something that I’m pretty transparent with, even on sales pitch with clients, hey, we won’t say yes to something unless we are very confident that we can do a good job at it. We say no to the ones that we’re not, which has bit me a few times, in the sense of maybe I lose a client because they want someone who can do all the things or some maybe I could have serviced if I would’ve hired properly for, but it’s worked out.
It’s always hard to measure what didn’t happen, but I have to imagine that’s worked out far better for you in the long run and overall than maybe a few instances that seem to the contrary. Kudos to you for the courage to be able to do that. As we look at the future, where do you see HQ going from here? What are we talking about on the podcast 10 years from now?
As it relates to HQ specifically I do see us being comparable even 10 years from now in terms of, potentially, more growth. That’s not for sure. Like the boutique agency’s style, I think it enables us to do things in a way that I like as an agency really well. For me personally, I don’t ever shut the door to any opportunity, and so there could be a chance that I’m doing something different, 10 years from now, whether we’re building a more product focused company or something different entirely. I wanna always be excellent at the things that we’re doing, evolving with the times with new technologies and being able to keep up with the demands of what customers are wanting agencies to build, we’ll focus on that.
Last big question for you. Are entrepreneurs born, or are they made?
I was more in the born camp in the sense that I’ve been wanting to own a business since I was in junior high. Again, I thought it was gonna be construction for a minute or I didn’t know what it was gonna be. My answer to the question is definitely more on the made. I’ve met plenty of people who were never intended to be entrepreneurs or never even had life aspirations of that. I think people sometimes don’t realize that if you put yourself out there and say, if you pay me, I’ll do this for you. Whether that’s build a product or do a service people are willing to pay, all of a sudden you’re an entrepreneur, you’re starting a business without necessarily working directly for someone. A lot more could be made as they are willing to do it.
I like it. If people wanna know more about HQ, where can they go?
Our website’s builtbyhq.com. Website itself is a bit dated. We focus more on building our customer, I think every agency deals with that. Never quite proud of what is out there compared to what they’re capable of. It’s good enough right now.
Awesome, sir. Thank you so much for being on the show today. Absolute pleasure to chat with you again, and I really appreciate your time.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to email@example.com. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.
I offered a job to a guy once to work with us. We interviewed him, he was good and then offered him job and then he ghosted me. It was weird. That doesn’t happen very often when someone’s interviewing. Maybe he got another job or something and that’s fine. This was a couple years ago, but then it was literally five years later, he responded to my emails. Five years and he’s, hey, yeah I’m super interested. And I thought maybe there was a weird email send later thing, maybe he meant to send it five days later and it got sent five years later or something weird like that, but no. I responded to him, hey, it’s, been a minute. I was being cautious of how I responded to him. We were hiring, so I’m like maybe I would consider him again. I don’t know, probably should redo the interview and he is like, yeah. He was awkward and didn’t know how to address the elephant in the room, and so instead of just saying, hey, I know I didn’t respond five years ago, but I am interested now. He decided to go for it and pretend like that conversation had never changed. It was fascinating. We didn’t hire him, but…
Better late than never?
Yeah, I guess.
Maybe not so much in a job applicant standpoint. Maybe, if you’ve seen Avengers: Endgame, it’s like Thanos snapped his fingers and he just missed the last five years and disappeared and reappeared, and this is like business as usual. I’ve seen a lot on the hiring side, but I’ve certainly not seen something quite like that. If you don’t mind, I’ll share my worst business experience story as it relates to a wedding website. Similar bucket, I think we’d started the agency at this point and we’re coming down that path. More and more the wedding website was going on the back burner and we had quite a bit of traction just in terms of traffic. We weren’t selling a whole lot, but there was a lot of traffic. We ended up actually going through the process of redoing, overhauling, in the same boat that you were saying earlier. This is right before we knew a lot of things about SEO and how Google tracks. We had this test site that was basically you could go search for on Google. If you went and searched wedding favors or something like that, you could find the site, but we didn’t have anything on there that said this was not in production or this wasn’t a real thing, so we weren’t really paying attention. One day we go in and we see all these orders for this test site. We weren’t charging cards or anything like that, so we had no way to really know this was happening and start to look at this, and this is products that people were expecting for their wedding. Literally probably the worst day of my life was going through that list and calling all these brides to be, and telling them and having to share that information. We tried to offer whatever we could to make it right. Man, that was a tough day. Long story short, put the no follow tags on your test websites, all stuff that we know very well to be true today but didn’t certainly know back then.