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Jul. 1, 2014 8:02 am

Back Forty: Fells Point consulting dev firm grows in mobile, enterprise

Founded in June 2012 by Flip Sasser and Ed Schmalzle, this consulting firm is proud of its contract work — no matter what the product-lovers say.

Three of the four members of the Back Forty team in the company's Fells Point offices. From left: programmer Jamie Gaskins and principals Flip Sasser and Ed Schmalzle.

(Photo by Christopher Wink)

If you talk to enough contract software development firms, most will tell you about their latest product. Either the one that just launched or the one that’s in the making. In today’s scaling frenzy, the product is the prize and outside consulting is a means to get there. Just don’t tell that to the guys at Back Forty.

Founded in June 2012 by Flip Sasser and Ed Schmalzle, the dev shop got its start working as de facto mercenaries for tech startups — sometimes serving as, and other times working alongside, technical teams. Sasser and Schmalzle built and grew products for others, like for local edtech firm Alchemy.

But the nationwide tech startup craze that has grown their business — the same one which has investors chirping for scalable software products, rather than people-powered consulting services — doesn’t have Sasser and Schmalzle wanting one of their own. (Set aside Sasser’s online payment service Plinq.)

“When you have a product, you have to focus on that alone, and it has to be everything you commit to,” said Sasser, sitting on a couch in his spacious Fells Point walk-up, just outside a Broadway Square busy with people watching what would become a U.S. World Cup loss to Germany.

“With a consultancy, when you’re done with a project, you can just hit the reset button and move on to new fun things,” he said.

That represents an entirely different kind of software company than the flashy kind, one that is perhaps far more likely to last in a place like Baltimore, with more steady tech businesses than risky consumer web flashes. No one is rushing to make a movie about their work, but Sasser and Schmalzle steadily employ technologists who want to make a living doing what they love and, increasingly, where they love doing it. Both Back Forty founders can walk to work.

That work is experiencing two big trends, says Schmalzle.

First, Back Forty is courting more later-stage businesses — hoping to offer a fresh approach to mid-sized businesses not known for that kind of thinking. They won’t be dropping their passion for early-stage companies, they say, but startups aren’t the most reliable clientele around which to build a portfolio.

“Working with startups is fun because they’re flexible, fluid and fun, but the problem is that they’re also flexible, fluid and fun,” said Schmalzle. Bigger, if more creatively restricting, customers offer other kinds of benefits.

“When someone has the budget today and can plan out over six months, we can do some really special work,” said Schmalzle.

Second, they’re seeing an uptick in mobile work, following national trends. Largely that’s due to entirely new, mobile-minded clients, said Sasser, not yet a refocus by existing customers, which he predicts will follow. Back Forty still finds itself convincing some existing clients that they don’t need mobile apps.

“Whenever you’re focused on producing really good, manageable software and offering your client good advice, you’re working to get fired,” said Sasser. There might be a retainer for maintenance and future consulting, but in the end, the Back Forty crew prefer to work on projects and move on to the next challenge.

Call it a lifestyle business — one of the four-person team, programmer Ali Ibrahim, was in Brazil at that World Cup game while we met — but that’s not exactly how Sasser sees it. He and his team take what they do seriously, and they’re “damn good at it,” Sasser said. It’s more telling of the wide spectrum of what a maturing technology community can sustain.

“We’re not going to make millions doing contract work,” said Sasser. “But we love what we do.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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