POV: Interview with Steven Hambleton, Founder of Hambo Development

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



steven_hambletonSteven Hambleton is the founder and business development manager at Hambo Development, a digital agency that partners exclusively with advertising and marketing agencies. Located in Cairns, Queensland Australia, Steven leads a team of developers who specialize in developing with various different languages, database management/integration and application development, giving their partners the ability to focus on client relations and strategy.

Hambo Development works exclusively with agencies. Why did you choose to narrow your focus to only work with agencies? What do you find rewarding about creating these types of strategic partnerships?

When Hambo Development started, we also did design and information architecture (IA) as part of our services. Over the years, more and more agencies with a lot of creative energy and talent came to us to help them convert their creative strategy into a workable digital format. We started out working with a few agencies, but after a couple of years we found that trying to split our energies into both creative and digital wasn’t optimizing our resources, so we specialized. Our strength is and was always development, and we found that by removing our creative services we were able to focus on what we really loved, which was developing and researching new technologies for implementation.

The agencies we work with craft some amazing creative briefs, and we believe from our personal experience you will do a better job if you focus on what you are best at. Our clients understand this too, which is why they come to us to help them realize their digital needs, giving them time to work on the creative side of the project. We are also on hand to advise them, guide them and research new trends for them, so they stay abreast of digital technologies without having to employ the know-how in-house. We spend a lot of time on digital research, testing out new digital technologies and finding better ways to do things online. This is possible because we are focused on what we do, and we do it well.

In addition, we don’t step on anyone’s toes; we white label our work for our clients. Our agencies have their clients, creative briefs and processes. They know that our business model differs from theirs completely, so we complement their skills rather than compete with them. This offers both us and the agency a great business model and a perfect way to develop a trusting relationship.

How do you help educate and guide agencies when completing digital projects? How do you help them be proactive when working on client projects?

Educating and advising our clients on digital technologies is one of the things we love and pride ourselves on. We dedicate a certain percentage of our time to researching new and existing trends and then communicate them to the client.

For existing clients, we will review their specifications or creative briefs when they discuss new projects with us, and then we present options they may not have considered, such as responsive design, a mobile strategy, social media integration or a choosing the right CMS for their needs. We can also advise on new front-end technologies and the pros and cons of different output options.

To keep agencies in the loop on digital technologies in a more general sense, we send out a monthly newsletter aimed at creatives. Every month we release a well-researched article on current trends and how it may impact the creative industry. The article often offers tips, researched facts and links to other resources that agencies will find useful, both in the creative process and client pitches. We have had great feedback from these articles with many clients and potential clients coming back to us and telling us they have used our articles as a catalyst to educate their own clients on their digital capabilities as part of a complete marketing strategy. It also helps our clients gain enough technical knowledge to assure their client that they can offer a full digital service.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of working with designs created by an agency? How do you ensure that the Hambo digital team and the agency collaborate in order to create a product that not only executes on the designer’s vision, but also meets the needs of the web user?

Developing a good working relationship with all of our clients is what we strive for. The ability to talk openly about designs, direction and options is key to delivering a successful site. We find the sooner we are brought in on a project, the more cohesive it is from a design and development perspective. While we have worked on one-off projects, most of our clients use us time and time again, and as a result we learn to work within each other’s processes and help each other make the client’s wishes a reality.

We collaborate in several ways. Often it starts with an informal chat about the project, what the client hopes to achieve and the creative direction our agency wants to take. Then we create what we call a preliminary project on our online project manager, so everyone can centralize their ideas, documents, wireframes and briefs for discussion. This allows everyone who may be part of the project to provide input for development considerations.

The most important thing that a client can bring to us is a clear idea of how they envision the site/application to work, and from there we will happily provide feedback on what we need from them to make it a reality. They provide the vision and creative direction, and we help them decide what technologies to use that would best complement their ideas.

Hambo Development specializes in developing sites using ExpressionEngine. What about this CMS makes it an attractive choice for your team and agency partners?

We have been using EE as our CMS of choice for more than six years now, and we have found it to be very versatile in its application, particularly to mid-tier sites. We have introduced many agencies to ExpressionEngine over the years as well, delighting them with the ease of use and the ability to make what could be a very complex backend very user-friendly. The three main strengths of ExpressionEngine as we see it are:

  • Driven by data rather than pages so it makes the administration easy via a variety of data types from blogs, products or related fields.
  • It is very secure
  • The quality and integrity of the commercial add-ons are vetted by a tight-knit professional network

How do you work to prevent “scope creep” from the client? What are some of the most important areas to discuss with the agency prior to beginning a project?

The fear of scope creep is always an issue in the development process, and we have of course had projects in the past that we have learned from in order to develop better processes for future work. The most important part of any project is having all the assets, a clear site map and specifications up front. Using this, we create a series of milestones with specific to-dos that when finished complete the milestone for testing. In development there will always be a few areas that have changed or were overlooked by both the creative and development team — this is just human nature. However, by clearly defining the outcome of any site/application, we can keep these to a minimum.

Before any site starts development, the specification is properly reviewed by the developer or developers who will be working on it. They will create a flow of how they intend to approach the project, and if they feel that there is anything ambiguous they will return the questions directly to the agency for confirmation/verification so no assumptions are made. Once both parties are happy with the direction and outcome, the development can start. The spec is always revised and resubmitted.

If the client changes their mind, wants to add functionality to the site or extend any existing functionality, we create a new section in the project called “out of scope”. This is then tackled at the end of the delivery to ensure that we first deliver on the agreed specification. This also gives the client time to consider the ramifications of changing the functionality because sometimes, once the site is finished and the client sees the final product, they may rethink those changes.

What is your opinion on brands and agencies going to theme sites or programs that convert design files into a Wordpress theme in the matter of a few minutes? How do you think development firms need to grow to show the added value of their services and expertise in digital projects to agencies that may use these types of services?

While automated systems will become more popular as everyone has to have some sort of web presence, the value a development/design team can bring to a project is the human element. An online strategy is about marketing, which is essentially about people and psychology. A well-crafted design and digital strategy will stand out and drive the marketing needs of a company or organization because it is designed to do that. The back end is no different. A site needs to be easy to administer, be accessible, allow for changes and work with the design, not limit it. This takes time, thought and consideration. Custom code and human input are essential to a good web/mobile strategy.

As in most industries, it’s the human perspective that leaves a personal imprint on the outcome.

We see it this way: there will always be clients who are happy to work within a rigid framework of an automated system to get an online presence, but there are more out there who want the whole package in order to communicate a whole message and brand identity to their customer. This is a result of hard work, creativity, technical expertise and bespoke solutions.

Do you find that specializing in a CMS platform has helped to bring a specific type of agency to Hambo Development? How do you work to market yourselves to agencies as a specialty shop?

We love working with ExpressionEngine because it meets the needs of a lot of our clients. It’s also very versatile and has a great professional network to draw from. We have received a lot of recommendations from this network and still happily develop within this CMS. Clients such a Sony Music UK sought us out purely for our ExpressionEngine expertise, and we delivered several sites with functionality such as multi-language and multi-site management.

However, because we are there to support agencies, we also offer other CMS options if the client requires it. In some cases the client will specifically request Wordpress or Magento to implement a specification. There are various reasons for this, including familiarity, an existing in-house team that can support it or just that their client has specifically requested it. It is our job to educate our client and help them make the right choice for them, whatever that may be.

E-commerce and multi-language sites are becoming more common and important, even for small businesses and brands. What are some of the pitfalls to avoid when integrating payment gateways and multi-language options into a site?

A good specification is essential for e-commerce, particularly because a lot of time has to go into testing performance and output. A workflow is also essential; the agency needs take every step in the purchase cycle into consideration. Missing any of those steps leaves a hole in the development process. Simple touches like telling the user they are logged in, sending emails, password security and other little things need to be considered.

E-commerce also opens up other considerations such as a returns procedure, delivery options, customer feedback and technical support. These things need to be driven by the internal processes and procedures of the company and then translated on the online interface.

When developing a multi-language site, you have to consider the content and the audience. For example, Site A contains content that relates to all countries you represent. The content won’t change, but it can be read in different languages. But Site B contains content that is region-specific, so you then have to consider the languages spoken within those regions. For example, Belgium recognizes three official languages: Dutch, French and German. So your content has to be organized by region and then translated for all the languages for that region. Your switcher becomes a site by region and a language switcher!

What upcoming and/or future technologies and trends in the digital space are you most excited about?

At the moment we are doing a lot of research into mobile technologies. People are by now familiar with iPhone and Android apps and have at least come across a mobile website, but responsive design has come on the scene and represents a new and more accessible way of accommodating content across many devices. Nearly every industry has a reason to be visible by a smart phone, and researching those trends has been an exciting part of our business.

Social media integration is also taking off in a big way; promotions, applications and PR campaigns are all going on social media sites. Being able to offer our clients insight into this media development is exciting for us, as every month brings new ideas to the table.

Mentor: Don’t really have one, unless you count my wife!

Most inspirational book or artwork: Richard Branson’s “Screw It, Let’s Do It.”

Music that gets you in your zone: Anything from the ‘80s.

Anything else you’d like to add: Experience has taught me that you will achieve much more if you focus on what you do best and consult on the expertise of other people who are doing what they do best. It’s only then you can really reach your potential.

Connect with Steven on LinkedIn or by following him on Twitter @stinhambo and @hambodev.

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