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March 3, 2021

An interview with 8020 CEO, Matt Varughese

Written by Shanice Stewart-Jones

I’m really curious (as is the whole MP team) as to how the state of code/low-code/no-code is shifting, and in particular what that means for agencies. Design-led businesses that deliver work using no or minimal code are springing up like ‘shrooms, and it’s easy to see why. Not tied down by complex code, sprints, and rounds of bug-testing, these agencies can deliver projects in a fraction of the time it might take their traditional coding counterparts.

Fuelled by my curiosity, I wanted to see what this kind of work entails. And what better way to find out than by picking the brains of someone who’s in amongst it? 

Even though it only just passed its first year in business, 8020 is, in our opinion, a trailblazer for the visual-dev scene. Launched in January 2020 by Andrew Wilkinson (of Tiny, and also a Makerpad investor), 8020 is one of a growing number of agencies that are using the power of no-code to deliver end-to-end websites, apps, and automation workflows.

Of course, the no-code tools that agencies and studios are using aren’t necessarily anything new. Webflow was born in 2013 (and with it came a slew of expert Webflow freelancers and agencies), but companies like 8020 bring a different offering to the table. Beyond expert knowledge in tools like Webflow, Bubble and Zapier, 8020 is a design-first product studio. For businesses that need all-round help, 8020 will scope, design, build and implement an end-to-end solution that their clients can then own and control.

This way of working just isn’t possible with regular web development. Typically, a developer can’t just hand off their work to a team that has minimal coding knowledge. If that team wants to make even one small tweak, they’ll need to use an in-house developer or hire one, and if it’s big changes that are needed, testing and releasing them can take weeks (or months). With a no-code tool, a change can be made in 5 minutes.

The real giveaway as to why agencies like 8020 are thriving is in the name: no-code allows you to reap 80% of the result for 20% of the effort and cost (compared to an intensive coding-based strategy).

Last week Amie and I jumped on a call with Matt Varughese — 8020’s CEO and an all-round super-nice guy. I’m making an assumption here (not about him being CEO), but in the 40 or so minutes we chatted, I just got the sense that he’s a people-first, life-is-good type of person.

Tell us a bit about you, 8020, and how you got to where you are today.

I ran a no-code agency before 8020 called Websterpeace. I actually sold that to Tiny Capital (technically in July last year, although we never announced until November). After I sold the company over, they asked me to come run 8020 and work on building it up into something even bigger.

Before that, I was always following along with the story. I remember Andrew tweeting in November of 2018 that he was starting a no-code agency. He’s famous because he started Metalab — an amazing agency that does design development for Fortune 100 companies including Google and Amazon. Safe to say you need to be a very well funded startup in order to work with them.

Eventually Andrew became a full-time investor, but I think he recently realized that with the newest no-code platforms, there was a much nimbler way to do what Metalab does, but without needing expensive developers. You can move at a fraction of the time, and it's an ideal case to build an MVP, where you want to minimize the investment in time and money to validate an idea. That's essentially how 8020 was born. And yes, the name is a tribute to the Pareto Principle.

In 2020, we launched more than 50 projects of all kinds… from “zero to one” apps to massive website migrations. We’ve kind of wavered away from calling ourselves an “agency” — we like to think of 8020 as a “no-code product studio”.

So what does 8020 do? What’s a typical “day in the life of” for you and the team?

We have a handful of full-time team members, and then a handful of contractors as well. We have Veronica who's our head of sales, working with companies to assess in the first instance if no-code is going to be a good fit (which is not always the case — we have a fiduciary approach to taking on new clients and we let them know if we’re not the right style of working for them). Then we have Max — he works on Webflow dev stuff for us all the time. We've got Mauro who's a stud when it comes to design and development! And Sebastian, who essentially manages all projects while helping systemizing our operations. Everyone on the team kind of has a pretty wide array of roles.

The main things we work on are websites, web apps and mobile apps. We're in Webflow I would say 80% of the time; we're in Bubble quite a bit too. We're in Zapier all day!

What’s your favorite part about what you do?

It’s not necessarily tech-related but I am having an ecstatic time growing the team. And also systematizing the business — making things more efficient on our end as an agency.

I love talking to people, figuring out that they’re actually a really good fit for the company and then giving them a job offer — that's super fun to me. So too is making things like onboarding a very smooth and seamless process, and building company culture. I really like working on the business.

Who are 8020’s typical clients? 

It’s a spectrum. We work with startups of all sizes, from bootstrap founders that have revenue, to CMOs or VPs of marketing for really well-funded startups (our latest client is a billion dollar public company now). But we most often work directly with founders, I think the reason being because that’s the perfect place for no-code. Founders are often not yet at scale or haven’t yet found product-market fit, and they need us to build some sort of MVP. 

Tell us more about this billion dollar client…

Yeah, just this week our first ever publicly-traded client launched. We designed the website and we've been working with them on it for the past few weeks. It was a lot of preparation in terms of getting their website up and running but we got it live this week in time for the Wall Street Journal publishing an article on the launch.

So how do people find 8020? At what point do you enter their journey?

I would say right now that 90% of our clients come through word of mouth and referral. We do paid ads from time-to-time, but what we find works is to focus on a truly great product and service, every time. If we do that, and if we do it consistently, then everyone will refer us to their friends.

I was just on the phone with a client 30 minutes ago, and they were telling me some amazing news about their company. Being able to impress that client day in and day out means that we can potentially meet their friends later on down the road. Reputation and referrals — that's like the whole name of the game in the agency business.

To answer your question on what point people contact us — it definitely varies but I’d say if it's a larger startup, it probably happens in a board meeting when someone says something like, “We've got to do a rehaul. We need to revamp the website and overhaul the software”. That’s where we come in.

So when clients come to you, do they already have developers on board? How do you navigate that relationship if they’re wanting to develop and you’re like — no, it doesn’t have to be that hard!?

Yeah, that's actually been kind of tricky. It’s interesting but in the past, some companies and their in-house developers have been very anti Webflow. I’m not 100% sure why… maybe people like gatekeeping. Like they think that if marketing gets a hold of the site instead of them and the site goes to hell… that would be an issue. Some think no-code is a fad.

But then there are developers who are more like, yes! Get this off my plate, I don’t want to deal with this anymore! And there's no one in between, like ever.

So it’s tricky and definitely a work in progress. You have to nurture the developer relationship. You have to get buy-in from the whole team, otherwise it's going to be a mess. Admittedly, we're still trying to figure out how to navigate that.

When we did this post at the back end of last year on the future of no-code, a common theme was people thinking that this year and beyond will pave the way for a lot more freelance no-code experts. If that’s true, do you think it’ll take away from the work you’re doing at 8020?

I do think that there will be a ton more work for no-code freelancers. David from Airtable tweeted that ‘no-code operations’ will be the next big job in tech. I think that's true and I think freelancers are a perfect fit for that role, at least in the beginning stage where a company doesn’t yet have a need for a full-time role.

Do I think that will that affect 8020? I don't think so. I think they both serve their own purposes. We have the ability to help larger companies with their updates and what they want to build. And often, larger companies want to deal with an agency with a collective, all-round expertise. Of course, there’ll always be freelancers who will crush it and can work with all types of companies on all kinds of projects. But I think in general it’s hard to find the skill we have at 8020 in just a single person.

How do you think no-code roles will change?

I think no-code is going to go the same way as coding. Just as you have front- and back-end developers, we might end up with front-end visual developers and back-end no-code operators, or something like that.

I mean, that's how we're thinking about hiring at 8020. We're thinking about hiring someone that just does automation, and maybe a handful of people that just do Webflow development who won’t do design at all.

I'm very pro specialist. Generalists have a little bit of knowledge on a lot of things. But I want a team of people who are very good at one thing each. So we can build a really good system where when the design’s done, it’s handed off to a web developer who can get it shipped, and so on.

Looking forward, we’re thinking of hiring in very specific roles; literally visual developer, automation, specialist designer, things like that.

Let’s talk pricing. Because you’re doing things the no-code way, does that make you a deal compared to a typical developer?

So I think everyone thinks that “no-code” means budget and affordable. And for many individuals it can do. But as an agency, where you rely on specialized talent like we do, that stuff comes at a cost. So we don't really compete on pricing ever. We largely compete on timing and the quality of the product — qualitative aspects of a project rather than quantitative.

We probably are more competitive in price than a traditional developer. But we're also not going to be the bottom of the barrel, cheapest option. If we ever get requests from people who say they don’t have a huge budget, we try to at least point them in the right direction, either by getting them hooked up with a freelancer or showing them a template that could work for them on Webflow.

So what gives you, as a no-code product studio, the edge over more traditional developers?

I think a big part of it is speed. People can make up for what they might lose by not using a developer in being able to ship something quickly. It’s amazing.

I was talking to a client yesterday, and almost all of our clients say the same thing: that before working with us, they had to go through engineering for all of the changes meaning it took forever to even make a simple text change. Their CMS was messy because they were using Contentful, for example. But now, it’s Webflow. Like, they can literally just jump in, enter the text, change out a blog post, etc. and publish it within five minutes.

For our clients, what sets us apart is the convenience factor, the speed factor, and the ability to make people autonomous. We don't do retainers at all. We've never done retainers and we're very hands off. After we finish working with you, you have full ownership of the site. We're here if clients need us of course, but we want to make people as autonomous as possible. That is the goal.

So do you find that you need to educate people in these no-code tools as part of the work you do, then?

Yeah, all the time! Every project we do concludes with a training session where we walk them through say, Webflow, and show them the CMS and how to do backups and things like that. But as I said, we don’t do retainers as our goal is for people to be self-sufficient.

I mean, that’s the whole beauty of no-code, right?

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