20 Years of 20/20 Hindsight
After rolling out of our 20th anniversary year, we've taken a quick account of the lessons learned along the way that help make up our "special sauce". We hope they give you an idea of how we work, pull back the curtain a little bit on our culture, and show that we are both honest and authentic when we say that we've made a lot of mistakes throughout the years that have shaped who we have become.
This article is dedicated to our beloved staff.
For the past 20 years, all of you, both present and past, have helped shape our company in ways we never thought possible. We will never be able to thank you enough and can only hope that we have helped you on your journey as well.
This article is also dedicated to all of our clients.
Those of you who have trusted us with your business and allowed us to explore new ways to solve the web has been exciting, rewarding, and humbling. We thank you for the trust and for allowing us to show you the path.
To those of clients who were "challenging" (probably the politest way to say it), you too are included in our dedication here, sincerely. You'll always have a special place in our hearts for helping us craft and refine our patience, empathy, and courage. You have helped us become aware of the value we bring, what the "win/win" should really feel like, and how being selective with whom we work and not letting future clients paint us as a "vendor" is something we should focus on with each new opportunity. We are deeply grateful.
Lastly, this article is also dedicated to all of our mentors and creative colleagues.
Each of you has shared information and provided guidance with open hearts, minds, and bar tabs. We appreciate you immensely, love the culture of sharing and transparency that we've built in Austin, and thank you for the encouragement, council, and camaraderie.
20 nuggets: one for each year of our evolution.
Running your own business, and the life of an entrepreneur is a life of white-knuckle, emotional roller coasters. Crazy ups. Crazy downs. Sleepless nights. Unimaginable rewards.
It is not for the weak of heart. It is not for the lazy. It is, however, for those who know there is no predetermined path ahead and yet still yearn to trailblaze forward with a machete in hand. This uncharted path is where you will find your biggest obstacles, find your inner strength and grit, and find the satisfaction of building something from nothing on your own terms. Whether you win or lose, the knowledge, agility, and stamina you gain along the journey are what success looks like. It cannot be bought, bottled, or downloaded. It must be earned the hard way.
You are the prize to be won. Seek to find the right “fit” with each client, employee, partner, and opportunity. Say “no” to anything that doesn’t help you grow the right way or push your team to evolve. Saying “no” shows integrity. It shows honesty and passion. It shows maturity. It shows selectivity. Those who do not follow you simply do not see what you see. Embrace those that do and be grateful for their trust. Help those who aren’t a good fit to find a good home, even if it’s not with you.
In business, digital and tech specifically, you have to be wired to move quickly, switch gears, and adjust like few others. Find a process that is strong, non-negotiable, and proven, but ensure there is room in each part that allows it to bend, but not break, for those edge cases and innovators. This shows that you have earned your stripes, can look around corners, and will sherpa those that trust you safely to higher ground. Be quick to fix issues. Be quick to call a fail a fail. Be quick to respond and make the best of what you're dealt.
Be cautiously optimistic at your Peaks.
"Peaks and valleys" so they say, right? When things are great, they are really great. Take pride in this. Soak in the fresh air at the top - it is that deep breath of not having to worry. Then, gently admit to yourself and acknowledge that things can't be awesome 100% of the time. Just when you think you have the craft, industry, financials, personnel, etc. figured out, something will come along and deliver a gut punch and make you doubt yourself. Cloud your vision. Lose faith.
Enjoy your peaks for what they are, great success and validation of your ideas and grit, but remain humble and grounded when you reach your heights for there are normally more ways down from a peak than up. Every business has its swings. It is the normal lifecycle of things. Don't let your highs get you too high or you'll get caught off guard professionally and emotionally when something does happen.
Be hopeful and trusting in your Valleys.
Similarly, when things do go south, have faith - they will get better. Dig in. Experiment. Be bold. Be patient.
Your business will evolve the most when you’re forced out of your comfort zone to make decisions quickly and explore the uncomfortable. Lean in. Most of your lessons will be learned here. Be present, be patient, and push beyond the fear to see the opportunities for growth. Look for ways to flatten out your revenue. Look at ways to further differentiate, position, and sell. Trust in yourself, your staff, and the power of thoughtfully-applied hard work.
You will look back at these times and see them as the launching pads that helped you, and your business, evolve. This is part of the flow of business and is normal. Bad times aren't a personal reflection of your self-worth, so don't take them personally. Buckle down. Show grit. Champion your values. Persevere...there is normally a rainbow (or two) at the end of each storm.
Be humbled by your staff.
Great rewards can only come to those who allow great people to help them. Trust with an open heart. Provide guidance and perspective, when needed. Embrace everyone’s special skills, experience, and perspective and be thankful for all that they bring. If they move on, appreciate that you have been a part of their journey and for all that they have brought to yours.
Be patient with yourself.
You do not have all the answers. You will make mistakes. You will fail. The quest for knowledge is a lifelong journey, so embrace it and give yourself time and permission to test new things and fall flat on your silly face. Our biggest mistakes are where we progress the most as professionals and humans.
Be thankful for the trenches and battle scars.
The “busy" work that might have once been beneath us is truly the bedrock of our talents, dexterity, and the frameworks that we build our careers on. Soak them in, give thanks, and do not rush to escape them too quickly. The strength of each new rung up the ladder is only as solid as the wood before it. Climb slowly. Be gracious for each opportunity as it has helped shape you and helped you become what you’re meant to be. Once this is done, take an audit of today, for somewhere in the future you will be giving thanks to today’s you for putting in the hard work and building the skills needed for what comes next.
Be responsive and communicate.
It is incredible how much success can come to those who are responsive, helpful, and take the time to talk to people - even when it’s inconvenient and may not lead to more work or profit. Slow down, have real conversations, and help, especially when it may not be obvious how it will help you in the long run. How you communicate and respond to those interested in working with you is a sample of what the relationship will be.
Do not play games with information. It is not a weapon or chip to be gambled with. If you have it, share it openly and trust that those who receive it will be gracious and handle it with care. Take care of the information you receive in reciprocation.
Be known for speaking your mind in a kind way. Be known for being truthful and keeping your word. Be aware that there is no faster way to build trust and help clients than when other clients speak to strangers of your honesty and integrity. Honesty and integrity are a priceless currency (and strangely a differentiator these days) that can build incredible businesses and keep people knocking on your doors.
Be conscious of your non-negotiables.
What does your vision for your life consist of, and what should be considered "non-negotiable" as you build your business moving forward? For us, it was our families - being home for dinner, kiddo holiday parties & sporting events, and ensuring our kids and wives knew we were amazed by them and wanted to support them personally and professionally. Find your compass. Calibrate your business. Stay true north.
Be pragmatic with your offerings.
“Innovative” is a relative term. It is important to remember that most clients aren’t really looking for true innovation. They’re simply looking for a new, safe, better-looking/functioning harbor. There are very few “Zero to One” types of organizations out there willing to invest the time, money, patience, and courage to build something new that has never been done and is truly innovative. Find the balance of what is “new" vs "what is new to them/their industry” and then kick things up a notch to find the sweet spot that provides uniqueness and long-lasting value.
Build in thinking time.
Some of our best ideas and moments of clarity come when you take the time to take a break. Whether it be a true vacation (free of any business communication), dedicated weekly time to think or exercise, it is vitally important to make time to clear your headspace of the head trash and make room for your mind to process the business questions that are known and unknown. Schedule it. Guard it. Cherish it and those that respect it.
Build trust to earn forgiveness.
This plays into honesty, integrity, and doing great work, but I think it’s important to call out that when you treat your clients right, do your best, and go out of your way to help them, it is very easy to say “we screwed up” and not fear painful repercussions. Each positive engagement with them adds to the “accountability bank account” and allows hard conversations to happen without bankrupting the relationship. Build your reputation with these deposits of accountability and own any mistakes and make them whole. The right type of client will appreciate such accountability and your bond will be even stronger.
Build your selling skills.
One of the best things we ever did for the company was formally investing the time and money into learning how to better price and sell creative services. Selling is truly half art and half science and is a messy thing, especially when you’re selling custom, un-productized, solutions. It's a complicated game that includes philosophy, power plays/shifts, candid communication, leadership, vision, and an unwavering desire to help while staying true to your values. It’s a learned set of tools, techniques, and frameworks coupled with the courage to implement them.
If I could turn back time, I wish I would have learned these sooner. Acquiring a better understanding and actively sharpening these skills in only the past 3 years of my career is one of my biggest regrets as the volume of lost opportunities and countless wasted hours responding to RFPs and “poor fit” clients is, well, heartbreaking to say the least. Lean in. Be courageous and invest in yourself by learning how to sell. Your business and your thinking-time will reap the rewards.
Build your business as if you’ll never sell it.
It’s amazing how fast you’ll make business decisions and prioritize things when you stop thinking about your business as something you may someday let go or sell. Sure, it makes sense to run things well, keep your books tight, etc., but how distracting is it to grow when you’ve got one eye on the door? If you could never sell or leave your business, what decisions would you make immediately? How fast would you react when something broke? Soak this in and think about what changes you might make right now.
Be coachable and find good mentors.
As the saying goes, “You can’t read the label from inside the jar.” Much like our clients rely on our trusted counsel for their blind spots, it is so important to rely on outside counsel and perspective to build your business, financial, and leadership skills. Good mentors do not come cheap, but when you find the right one(s) they always pay for themselves by way of increased revenue, business efficiencies, and savings by way of helping you avoid costly, often debilitating, mistakes that waste both time and money.
Be kind and show people that you care.
There cannot be enough kindness in the world, and it takes only but a few kind words or the smallest gesture to make someone feel appreciated, valued, and loved. Build your business with this in mind. Build an experience for your staff and clients that underscores both kindness and appreciation. Expect nothing in return; simply bask in the joy of smiling faces.
It should go without saying, but is often forgotten, that building and creating something special with good people is truly incredible and should be cause for laughter, happy dances, and merriment. Don’t let the business challenges and daily stress keep you from smelling the roses and remembering that we are SO incredibly lucky to do what we do.
Thank you for reading and for helping us over the past 20 years. Here's to another 20 and beyond.