Follow Kyle Whittington
I am a software developer by trade but have always run businesses since I was a teenager. People often joke that I’ve never had a job because I’ve always created my own things along the way.
I’m originally from South Africa, grew up there and studied my BSc in Computer Science there (in a little university called Rhodes), and then moved over to Edinburgh a year after graduating.
I was only planning on visiting for a year or two but then fell in love with the city and Scotland in general and ended up staying.
I’ve now been here 16 years, own a flat, and have a daughter, so I don’t think I’ll be moving away any time soon. I’ve run multiple businesses since I was about 16. I started out selling custom-built PCs to my classmates at both school and university.
When I left university, I started a consultancy called HOWTOfarm which helped 3D animation studios with their render farms (lots of servers that work towards building the animations you see in films).
When I got to Edinburgh, I worked on a hand-drawn animated film called The Illusionist, where I was the IT Manager for a few years of the production.
When that finished up, I started another business called Tutlings which aimed at providing a platform for parents to find students to tutor their kids. It was 2010, and this kind of thing didn’t really exist or was really overpriced, so I tried to solve that problem.
I worked on that for a few years before starting Bad Dinosaur in 2013, the agency I currently run, which is an app development and design studio focusing on early-stage ideas from entrepreneurs as well as SMEs.
I had spent a lot of time around entrepreneurs and found that they were mostly looking for someone to co-found or build out their ideas but struggled to find the person to do that.
Agencies typically were asking for a far bigger budget, and with a tech skills shortage, it was incredibly difficult to find a developer willing to quit their job and join your early-stage startup.
That’s where Bad Dinosaur came in — we could build that initial version on a tighter budget and also help provide a sort of virtual CTO service to allow access to technical expertise on tap.
It’s our 10th birthday this year, and it’s been a rollercoaster, but I still love taking ideas and bringing them to life — we’ve worked on well over 100 products so far.
What lessons has been an entrepreneur taught you?
You need to be resilient. Resilience isn’t talked about enough. If you’re serious about growing a business, then you’re going to have to face some really tough days, and you’ll need to bounce back.
Lots of businesses fail and never take off — we’re at the forefront of that — but I can see from a mile away the clients who approach us that will be able to push through the challenges and not just run away when things get tough.
I’ve always referred to myself as a jack of all trades, and I think that’s really important as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had to learn about so many different aspects of running a business (and try to be good at it) to be able to succeed. You need to be willing to muck in and work on the frontlines of your business and sometimes do the menial tasks to show your team that you’re in there with them.
You need to be okay with the idea that you’ll sometimes be the person in charge of both ordering the toilet paper for the office as well as ensuring that everyone has a job tomorrow and the next day.
You will hit setbacks, and they’ll be really tough days/weeks. But if you have that resilience, you’ll persevere through it and get to the other side. Sometimes that’s months, not days, and you’ll have to just grit your teeth.
It’s okay to think about quitting — you should always be planning for 5+ possible outcomes when you’re faced with big challenges in the business, and one of those could be ‘shut it all down.’
That way, when the path changes, you can adapt quickly because you’ve already planned it all out.
Pick a few people closest to you and value their opinion and ignore the rest.
Not everyone you hire will like you or want to hang out with you after they move on from working for you — making friends with the people who work in your business is amazing, and I’ve worked with people I call my friends, but don’t solely rely on them to fill that gap – it’s too complicated.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Value the opinion of a few of your closest friends and family and then ignore the rest. I’ve spent too much of my life caring about what others think, especially within the businesses I’ve run. You won’t please everybody, and people will move on to other things and forget about you.
The people who really know you are the ones you should listen to. I’m still not great at this, but I’m better than I was, and it’s an area I’m constantly working on.
A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?
From the get-go, I ensured that the agency I was running adhered fairly strictly to a 9-5.
We’ve had clients not want to work with us because we were unwilling to get the team to jump on calls after hours. That’s okay – it’s not the business I wanted to run, so I wasn’t going to change for them.
My mind is constantly spinning, trying to come up with those scenarios and possible outcomes that I need to plan for.
I’ve found myself being at the dinner table with my family, but my mind is actually somewhere else entirely. When the business has been going through particularly challenging times, it gets worse.
I acknowledged that and made changes to mitigate the chances of these challenging times arising so that I could be more present outside of work. Sometimes that means taking on less, not chasing growth, and just being okay with what you have right now.
What is the inspiration behind your business?
Taking early-stage tech ideas to market. Providing a cost-effective way to allow entrepreneurs and startups to be able to build tech products that solve some big challenges.
Early on, it was all about entrepreneurs, but more recently, we’re focusing on SMEs and digital transformation — taking some mundane and boring tasks within businesses and building software to make it easier for them.
What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?
Our rapid product development framework. We’ve invented and built our own platforms for clients to interact with us on — giving them visibility of their projects, product backlogs, neat ways to provide feedback, and streamlining all communications (we don’t use email!).
All of our services are based on time & materials, so the way we see it, we need to ensure that we are as efficient as possible and can give the best value for money when spending time on a project.
That means having really good tools and frameworks in place to capture what we’re doing and how we’re getting on.
We also ‘get it.’ People buy from us because when they meet us, they realise how quickly we can get up to speed on the problems they’re trying to solve.
Once we get it, we can provide valuable insight and opinions on what they should do — so we help shape that outcome rather than just implement what is being asked of us.
How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?
It felt like, in the early stages, you could generate enough sales purely based on referrals and word of mouth.
This in itself is hard to quantify, and it’s also hard to speed up — it takes the time it takes. People will only refer you once they’ve had a good outcome, so this can sometimes take months/years to build up. In the agency world, I think this can get you to a headcount of 5-10 people.
At that point, you can often get enough work through the doors without doing much outreach — you can just service your existing clients and take on some referrals without needing to do very much.
You are then faced with a decision of whether you should start to do that outreach and grow the business or just stick with where you are. If you grow from there, you’ll need to keep putting that sales effort in to bring more work in – it won’t just be organic – so it’s a commitment.
Looking for work when you have a lot of mouths to feed is a tough (and highly stressful) gig because the stakes are high. Turning away work because you’re too busy can also be hard, but it’s a lot easier than searching for it in a downturn.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your business, and how did you overcome it?
Growing a team from 12 headcounts up to 20. At that size, you start getting big enough that you are no longer in control or even aware of the work coming through the agency.
You also need to start focusing on some kind of middle management or at least building a platform to grow from. This means taking a hit on profits for a longer-term gain (in theory!).
In agency terms, this means fewer billable team members, which can sometimes seem counterintuitive — that you have worse margins/profit than when you were smaller. But if you’re doing it to grow beyond that 20 headcounts, it’s required and needs a complete change of approach from you as the founder.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy the agency at that size and decided it wasn’t for me (right now), so I pulled back a bit and shrunk back down. This was helped by a drop in sales, but it was a decision that I made before I was forced into it.
What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in Scotland?
The tech and startup landscape in Scotland is exciting and growing. Being around new ideas and innovation is great.
What, if any, are the weaknesses of operating your business within Scotland?
Smaller market, but that’s been helped by COVID — we find more businesses and entrepreneurs are looking north for their development needs and avoiding higher London day rates.
What influence does being part of the UK have on your business?
Single market is good to work from without any barriers.
What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years with your business?
After a very stressful 2022, I’m keen on focusing on doing what we do well rather than chasing any kind of growth. If growth happens, great, but it’s not what I’m after. Any decisions being made in the next couple of years will be cautiously optimistic, given the current state of the economy.
We won’t be rushing to hire without knowing that we have full confidence in being able to sustain a larger team size. I’d also like to keep growing our SME client base and getting more existing businesses on board.
How has BREXIT impacted your business (if at all)?
Not very much other than the inflation that it has inflicted upon us all.
And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?
Check us out on our website or drop us a message at [email protected] – we’re always keen to chat with people about how tech can help their business. No such thing as a stupid question!