Transparency and Social Media

I had a conversation recently what levels of transparency were appropriate for the management of an organization to release its staff (and by extension, the world at large). Of course, there are many layers of information that go into the operation of a business, but they broadly break down into financial and strategic. Depending on the nature of the business, and the temperament of the ownership, different levels of transparency will serve different purposes.

For a public company or a non-profit, of course, the financial is a matter of public record, and the organization is required to release certain statements regarding their previous operations and upcoming plans. Private companies, bound by no such rules, are thus left to determine on their own how much, and what sort of information to share with their employees and the public.

It’s important for private companies to have a publicly consumable strategy—employees and clients need to know that the management has the future of the company in hand, and that there’s a plan for moving forward. Moreover, savvy ownership will bring upper and middle management into the conversation on one level or another. This last tactic comes with a cautionary note: while allowing employees input into strategy is great, the ultimate decisions for the health and direction of the company is in the hands of ownership and management. It is important to set the expectation that input will be listened to and appreciated, but not necessarily acted upon.

This last conundrum is the crux of the transparency issue. It is the job of senior management to have an understanding of all of the factors that affect a business, a full picture that includes as much data as possible, with the useful data separated from the background noise. That full picture is difficult to achieve, changes constantly, and is necessarily imperfect and incomplete (one reason why I’ve been glad to have business partners to help triangulate issues over the years).

Because managers and staff have their own areas of concern and expertise, it isn’t possible or reasonable to expect them to have a holistic view of an organization. In fact, management counts on strong managers to have detailed views of their specific area of the organization to contribute information to the larger set of information.

Financial information is the most tricky to share. Reading and understanding a profit and loss report is not a widely-shared skill (and is an area where I prefer to triangulate with people who specialize in finance and accounting). The fun part (for me, anyway), lies in the interpretation of the P&L. Figuring out what the numbers reveal about the current state of the company, what the projected numbers portend, and how past reports, performance, and predictions affect the current and future state of the company require different measures of finance knowledge, experience, art, and gut. I’ve seen poor results when sharing P&L information outside of ownership and senior management. In the absence of experience in interpreting numbers and trends, two intelligent, effective managers can look at the same P&L for a healthy organization with good prospects and draw different conclusions: according to their temperament, one person could look at the numbers, see an operating surplus, and assume that they should be paid far more than they are. A second person could view the same surplus, find it lacking for the year to come, and begin preparing their resume. Choosing who to share this information with is not to be taken lightly.

There are different levels of strategy employed in a busy organization. High tech, service business, and startup companies tend to have the most dramatic day to day shifts, based on incoming client work or investor support (as well as market conditions in their particular industry). When the fortunes of a company are dependent on outside circumstances that may change frequently, crafting strategy for public consumption is a challenge. Easily understood, overarching goals are crucial (both internally and publicly). With a distant point in view, you’re able to make minor shifts in tactics while keeping that public goal in mind.

Finally, there is unintended transparency. I’ve touched before on the effects of social media on business operations, but I’m seeing an emerging world where nothing can be considered private any more. While different individuals have different levels of filter on business information that they share outside of the office, it only can only take one person to make things brutally public. An unhappy or indiscrete employee’s complaints used to be limited to a group of folks having beers after work—perhaps interesting stories would travel as gossip, but not far. These days, that circle of friends can include hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, and the interesting stories will travel farther, faster, and more permanently, stripped of context, for the world to see.

Some examples of areas where transparency is not in the interest of the employer or employee could include information that might destabilize the employee base (plans of a merger, sale, or significant change in company direction), information that management needs time to adapt to and plan for (changes in ownership structure or business climate) or other initiatives or changes that are being contemplated. Often, ideas need time to develop and bloom (or be discarded) in isolation and without group feedback.

Through social media, readers become privy to information about the inside workings of companies and the habits of senior management that would make the owners of those organizations cringe, and that could cost people their jobs if their employers were aware of what was being shared. However, the unhappy employee will find another job and move on, while the subjects of these ill-considered mails are stuck with that information, flawed or not, floating around the internet for a long time. Needless to say, some of this information is based on partially understood or incomplete data, but there it is, up on the web.

I’m not sure what, if any, protection can be put in place to keep inappropriate information from finding its way onto the web. It may mean that management at all levels now needs to keep an increased eye on employee behavior at all times. It may mean that companies will develop zero tolerance for retaining unhappy employees. Other fallout may include employee agreements with specific prohibitions (and legal consequences) for public discussion of company matters. All of these possibilities would have a negative effect on the work environment. The solutions will vary widely depending on the nature of the organization, and it will be interesting to see how organizations adapt in a world where everyone can broadcast, one-to-many, from their phones.

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Interface Design, History, Theory, and Opinion

Unless you’re designing things for fun, someone’s paying the bill.

When I’m working with early career designers, I spend a lot of time explaining to them in various ways that the work they are doing is not for them, but for the customer. That customer can be internal—a project manager, account manager, or their creative director—or external, in the form of a direct client or an end user of a software application.

There are a lot of ways to approach this subject of pleasing the party who is paying the bills, but today I want to write about user interface design. In this case, the user in question is the end user of the software product (or web application).

I did my first online UI design work when social networks on the Internet were character-based, and called USENET. At that time, working on the Windows platform, there were specific UI standards for the work we were doing (help pages and tutorials for Microsoft’s Exchange/Outlook products). This meant that a large number of interface questions had already been answered by developers and users of previous versions of the products and by rigorous user testing of new features and interfaces. As a designer, once I internalized those rules—a task similar to learning to work with a set of corporate branding guidelines—the task became easier, and I was able to guide users from one area to another using the standardized language of that interface.

Designing for the web, every designer became an interface designer, with varying results. The web’s been around long enough now for us to identify different eras of interface theory and trend. Sometimes these trends have been driven by tools, sometimes by technology, and sometimes the reverse. A great example is the late nineties’ conceit of having a curled-down corner in the upper right hand of a page, generally (but not always!) indicating that there was more content available. The first few times this turned up, it was a neat trick. Then it got kind of boring. Then there was a Photoshop plug-in that automatically generated the curl and the shading for you. At that point, or well before, most professional designers abandoned that particular graphic quirk.

So the web rolled on, with technology driving design, and design driving technology. As web technology has become more sophisticated, we’ve been able to do more and more interesting things on web platforms.

As new applications rolled out, the tasks of devising interfaces became more egalitarian. Instead of a bunch of specialists in information architecture working with a team of user specialists in a test lab in Redmond, designers were winging it (regardless of their training or experience in UI). Designers (part of the wave of folks coming out of art schools trained in software operation, rather than traditional design) were tasked with creating front ends for complex back end functionality. Often, in the name of expediency, software developers were spent a few extra hours designing interfaces for their work. As egalitarian and exciting as this may sound, it meant that there were a lot of interfaces being released that were based on convenience, a partial view of an application or task, or inexperience. Worse, the nature of iterative, agile development meant that mistakes or poor choices early on often became so ingrained in a product that it may never be changed.

Generally, the more important the task is, the better the interface and user flow tends to be. Banks and financial institutions tend to do pretty well with user interface—an understandable thing, since they and their users need to be accurate all of the time. Sites that involve uploading or sharing files tend to be hit and miss. This is likely a function of budget, which brings me back around to my opening statement.

As an interface designer, whatever you’re building needs to serve your customer. Whether you’re an experienced designer working on a front end for hot technology, or an experienced developer who needs to figure out what the user of your new software will be looking at, it behooves you to think about who your customers are, internally and externally. Test it as you go—show it to the various users, customers, and stakeholders in the project, and make changes as needed to develop it as a real, usable application.

Begin by thinking about what the various participants are trying to accomplish when they’re using your application. Talk to the development team. Talk to the marketers. Talk to the people who conceived a need for the software, and find out what their vision is for its functionality. Find out who will be using the tool, and why, and talk to them, or study what they do and how they do it. Find out what environment they’ll be in when they use your software. If you can, find out about other tools that perform similar tasks, and find out what works well, what works poorly for them. If you’re working on a site that generates income, find out what user behaviors maximize income, and then figure out how to replicate those behaviors throughout the site.

With any luck, the preceding work will have happened before the product was developed, and is enshrined in a spec or at least a roadmap of some sort. More and more, though, designers and developers are tasked with making improvements and changes to product on the fly, without interrupting use of the project (an excellent example of this is the slow rollout of the recent Twitter facelift and feature upgrade). This requires a new approach to the software and interface t, likened by those doing this work to performing mechanical work on a moving automobile.

It’s a cliché that good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that may be truer of interface design. Good software needs a good front end to function well—and good design isn’t doing its whole job if it doesn’t allow the user to make the best use of the software.

Let’s Build a Fort (part two)

Part of Saltmine’s offices at 1725 Westlake, Spring, 2000

By late 1999, Saltmine Creative had filled up its space at 1725 Westlake, and once again, we engaged Matt Christian to help us find a new home. In 1999, the Seattle real estate market was hopping, and we had a lot less to choose from in the size (15,000 square feet) or style that we were looking for. We walked through a lot of soulless, generic office space before meeting Lou Pepper at Pine Street Development. PSD, who had just finished developing the opulent Pacific Place Mall (which coincidentally had been built on the former site of one of my first employers in Seattle) had taken on ownership of the building that had housed the Nordstrom flagship store prior to their move to the former Frederick and Nelson office space.

Our first look at the space was an adventure—the building was still being gutted, and we took an external construction elevator up (hard hats supplied by the landlord). At 27,500 square feet, it was almost twice the size that we’d been looking for. It was made from two buildings hooked together, and took up almost the entire block on Fifth Avenue between Pike and Pine streets.  The developers were busy opening up the formerly windowless outside walls, tearing out years of improvements, and turning the space into an absolutely featureless, but oddly-shaped box.

We were living cheek-to-jowl in our Westlake space, and I was both attracted and intimidated by the amount of space. I know that I was intrigued and excited about the potential to develop the blank concrete canvas that the space presented—and the challenge to do it well, and to try to maintain the culture and feel of the previous space.

I negotiated with the landlords for some time, and finally came up with an arrangement that would work for us—the ability to sublet a large portion of the space, and a generous tenant improvement allowance for design and construction—in excess of $1,000,000.

The future Saltmine office space at 413 Pine.

As a company run by liberal, egalitarian types, we didn’t want to replicate a typical office-by-the-window hierarchical office. I came up with a plan that put the executive offices in a central core, and to create open plan space for employees so that there would be light and window views throughout. The corner spaces, the ones with the windows and the most light, were set aside as informal employee meeting areas, and filled with couches and low tables. We built three conference rooms of various sizes, and a kitchen that would handle the load of up to 200 employees. I worked on this project with our architect, Susan Luu at HOK/Burgess, who did a wonderful job of translating our needs into a workable, buildable plan.

After signing the lease, we chartered two buses and held an on-site visit for all of our employees, with hard hats and lunch provided in the new space.

Saltmine employees enjoying lunch in the raw office space at 413 Pine Street.

The next few months were a blur of meetings with contractors, subcontractors, and owners’ representatives. Bit by bit I watched the offices take shape (I still have the photos from my weekly site visits showing the gradual progress). At weekly meetings, I would review the construction budget, working with the general and individual contractors to keep things on track. Although Saltmine was doing very well, we had no outside funding, and little margin of error to handle cost overruns. As I worked on this article, I went through some of the hundreds of documents I worked with during this process—the level and breadth of detail required for the project was phenomenal.

There were hundreds of aspects of the projects requiring attention—HVAC specification and construction, ceiling treatment (I opted for leaving the tall concrete ceilings open and untreated, a nod to our roots in the Westlake office), cabling, carpet, and paint. There were some strange moments—one employee was a bicycle commuter, and was insistent that there be a shower available in the new facility. We were concerned about moving folks into a place that didn’t have the same amenities as our existing space, and so went to great lengths to get a shower into the new space. However, vagaries of the building’s construction required an odd placement for the shower. To this day, there’s a large expanse of desk space there with a 10’ x 10’ box holding an incongruous shower standing in the center.

It all came together over the months, thanks in large part to the great folks at Pine St. Development, and a great construction project manager—Denny Raley from Lease Crutcher Lewis. On the Saltmine end, I worked with our excellent office management and HR staff to prepare for the move—everything from desk selection to move instructions had been sent out to folks, and on the day of the move, April Fools’ Day, 2000, everything went like clockwork. The three large moving vans landed and unloaded, and were followed by a wave of assemblers, putting desks together, and setting up computers, while our excellent IT folks (special kudos to Rich Olsen and Roman Mach) made sure that everything was working as planned.

Moving into the space, April, 2000.

That Monday, we opened our doors in the new space for the first time. After a little unpacking, everybody was able to get back to business, and to have a little more elbow room, at least until we filled up the 27,500 square feet with working desks before the end of the year, and expanded to take on more space on the fourth floor…but that’s another story. Even in the heart of downtown Seattle, we had managed to find low space to make our own. We loved that the building had a history as the home of a Seattle institution, and that we were carrying on in that space. I love a lot of things about that office, but my favorite spot was in the northwest corner. During construction in 1923, just as a large beam was being poured, someone lost or threw a taxi company business card into the concrete form, where it remains to this day, 12 feet above the office floor.

Yellow Cab business card preserved in concrete.

It’s been years since Saltmine was in that office, and it’s changed a lot. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to walk through both the Westlake space and the Downtown space while they were between tenants. It was strange to see how the spaces that I’d helped create had weathered actual use, and odd to think of another company coming in and changing those spaces for their own use, but that’s how it works. Buildings and structures outlive companies and people, and keep changing and adapting.

I recently drove by the old downtown office and looked up—the employee area that we’d put in the northeast corner is now enclosed by an office.

Let’s Build a Fort (part one)

I just read Stewart Brand’s excellent ‘How Buildings Learn,’ a treatise on what happens to architecture after people begin using it as work or living space. I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort over the last fifteen years working to accommodate knowledge workers in unusual office space, but haven’t run into anything that speaks at such length about the interaction of humans and architecture. In stark contrast to the sterile Architectural Digest beauty shots, this is a functional view of buildings. It’s an amazing book, and well worth reading if you are interested in this sort of thing.

Brand’s description of what he called ‘low-road’ architecture resonated with me. Brand writes: “Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover. Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking advantage of the license to try things.”

Low-road buildings that are so tough and institutional that you can do almost anything to them and they will serve. Building users are able to effect gross change to meet their needs without altering the fundamental nature of the building.

One example of this sort that Brand lists is a structure at 770 North Point in San Francisco. At the time the book was written in 1994, the building, originally a garage, had been converted into a retail outlet for Patagonia. Photos show that although very different sorts of business were being conducted in the space, it suited both, well, while still maintaining its basic nature. I happen to ride up North Point every day on my bike commute, and stopped recently on the hill up to Hyde street to look at the current incarnation, still a Patagonia store. Nothing substantial has changed since the earlier photos were taken, and the building still has a rough elegance that endures—although they’ve added a spiffy Patagonia-branded sidewalk clock that’s permanently stuck at the wrong time. They really ought to get that fixed.

I find this fascinating because during the course of my time running Saltmine and Lux, our offices were almost always in repurposed low space that I was charged with managing.

Saltmine’s South Shaft (left) and North Shaft at maximum occupancy in 1996.

The first Saltmine Creative offices were in new, but unusual office space on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. The offices were included in the project plan as part of a zoning deal with the city. The real point of the structure was a large apartment building that was attached to, but inaccessible from, the offices. These offices were long, and very narrow (see photos), and over time, we took over both wings of the skinny top floor, with the two halves designated ‘North Shaft’ and ‘South Shaft.’ We grew and grew in these offices, and after discarding plans to break through the wall and start renting apartments to expand our offices, and after a few false starts involving buildings with rat-infested basements, we engaged a real estate agent (the excellent Matt Christian, with Colliers at the time, now at Cushman and Wakefield in Seattle) to help us find a new home.

Matt realized right away that we were not going to be happy in conventional office space. We looked at many places, but fell in love with the third floor of the McHugh building at 1725 Westlake in Seattle. At over 10,000 square feet (up from the 2,000 that we had almost thirty people jammed into) it was far too large for us, but we worked out a deal with the landlord to progressively occupy the space, and (after a false start with a bait and switch mover “Oh, you wanted to move the computers, too? That’ll cost extra.”) we engaged Mike Stepney at Hansen Brothers to manage our move right before  Thanksgiving of 1996. I remember driving there on moving day from the old offices, and looking down seeing the single moving van with our entire company—furniture, files, computers—all packed inside as it crossed the Fremont Bridge. It seemed small and fragile, strange to know that it could all be contained like that.

The Westlake space was fantastic—an old liquor warehouse, it had enormously high ceilings, vast open spaces, and had been remodeled perfectly by the landlord, Gary Bodenstab. They had done just enough work to make the space usable, but not so much that they lost the considerable character that the building possessed. There had been a fire there at one time, and they had gone through and sandblasted the wood down, leaving a beautiful patina in the giant old-growth beams. The only downside to this was the remaining sandblasting medium that had lodged between the planks in the wooden ceiling. When the building shifted, or there was snow on the roof, the planks would flex, and drop a light shower of sandy dirt onto the desks.

The beauty of space like this is that repairs and alterations were relatively easy. Our landlords were great about allowing us to change things as needed, and over the course of the three and a half years that we were there, we gradually upgraded some of the public (client-facing) space as budget allowed. Upgrading cabling to allow for new employees was easy. We didn’t have to drill, conduit, or hide the cabling, but could just staple bundles of wires to the tough wooden beams, where they created their own pattern and added to the overall look and feel of the space.

The place had its own set of sounds, too–Gary owned an HVAC company, and had installed a huge heating/cooling system. On a blustery day, you could hear the vents for the HVAC creaking in the wind throughout the whole office, giving the feeling of being on a ship at sea, while dozens of keyboards being tapped created a burble in the high-ceilinged space that sounded like water flowing past.

Part of the Saltmine offices at 1725 Westlake, Spring, 2000.

The two initial Saltmine spaces were my first experience with how architecture and office space affect the culture of an organization. Our first odd space affected everything about the initial feel of the company, including the separation of development and design (North and South Shafts), and the open floor plan (necessary, as the space didn’t lend itself to any sort of privacy screen or cubicle). We continued this in the Westlake space, with large open spaces, and fluid seating arrangements. The building and the office itself was as powerful an influence on the culture of the company as anything that my partners and I provided. This paragraph is probably worthy of developing into a whole other blog post.

We moved into the space with 30 people, and in the fall of 1999, we realized that with the 110 folks we had, we would need to find new space. Even after creating the Annex, an auxiliary office in the building next door, where developers’ desks and our custom-built recording studio were housed next to an enormous early-railroad-era freight scale that was too large to remove, we were still bursting at the seams.

To be continued in part two.

The Business Tourist

One of the best things about what I have been doing for the last sixteen years is the opportunity that I have to learn a lot about a variety of different businesses. My work requires me to come up to speed quickly on my clients’ organizations, business models, and business strategies. Over the years, I estimate that I’ve worked (conservatively) with a few hundred different companies. Coming in as an outsider to an existing organization is a great position to be in—I’m able to see things that someone on the inside might not see, and have the freedom (and actually a mandate) to speak my mind about what I’m looking at, and what I think it means for the company. Having a trusted partner/vendor come in as a fresh set of eyes can be a great benefit.

Over the years, organizations develop their own idiosyncrasies and blind spots, their own ways of doing things. Coming in to do a rebranding or a website redesign often means guiding a group of people (generally senior management) through the exercise of looking at their organization and explaining to a group of outsiders who they are, and what they do. In my early years of doing this, I was frustrated by the difficulty of bringing people through this process until I realized how universal it was. Organizations normally deal with employees and customers who are familiar with their offering. They are not used to explaining what they do and how they do it to someone who is coming at them cold—visiting their website for the first time. (This applies to all the constituencies that a business serves: employees, customers, and investors, each of whom may require a different approach).

To address this universal roadblock, about ten years ago I came up with a creative brief form, similar to traditional ones used for creative projects in agencies and design studios. It’s a series of questions about the company, its goals for the project in question, and how they’ll measure the success of the project. I designed the questions and the flow of the document to be redundant, with similar questions phrased in different ways in different parts of the form, as I found that during the course of filling out the document, people began to think about their project and company in a different way—as an outsider—and that their answers would change, based on what they’d figured out in the course of the interview. Because putting the brief together is such a subjective process, I always make sure to work through the form with a client, rather than just emailing it to them blank.

Going through this process is a bonding experience between my team and the client team—it sets the stage for the communication that’s necessary for a successful project, and for a good working relationship through the project.

It is a great opportunity for me–getting to learn about a much wider variety of organizations, professions, and fields has provided me with a real-world education that I don’t know how I could have gotten otherwise. I’ve had the good fortune to learn the ins and outs of software companies (large and small), nonprofits, convention centers, banks, custom construction companies, a large recycling processor (I was sent home from the office after a day of crawling around shooting photos in their recycling plant—I think I was still a little fragrant), and the organization that puts on the yearly National Cowboy Poetry Gathering each January in Elko, Nevada. I’ve gotten to learn about Magic the Gathering, how a pathology laboratory works, and in one fascinating legal detour, I managed to comprehend Black Scholes pricing methodology for non-public stock options.

Working to create a new company’s public face (or to update and illustrate the image of an existing company) is a unique peek into the psychology of the folks starting the new business. My enthusiasm for startups (see earlier posts) is boundless, and working alongside a team kicking off a new business is nearly as exhilarating as starting my own projects—albeit with a less skin in the game.

Out of the Comfort Zone

I figured out a while ago that many of the interesting and worthwhile things that I’ve done are scary in one way or another. Not necessarily scary in the ‘Oh no I’m going to die’ kind of way (though that appeals to some folks) but scary in that the activities take me out of my comfort zone. Once I started thinking about it, I came up with a whole list, and a few good stories about scary stuff—everything from playing punk rock to speaking in front of the board of directors of a prestigious non-profit organization.

The first show with a new band is always exciting. Rehearsal helps, but is no substitute for sitting on a stage (I’m a drummer, so I get to sit. And hide behind drums). Looking out at people who expect you to make entertaining music, and then playing a live set is one of those thrill-ride kind of things that’s over before I know it, that I sort of remember, and want to do again—the sooner the better.

When I set up the Saltmine Creative branch in London, I spent a great deal of time working with my HR manager and our attorneys to plan and establish the new company, working to make certain that the work visas, the business entity, the office space—every detail, down to the connectivity and the desktop computers—would be in place. Our resources didn’t allow for a lot of travel, so much of the on-site work had to get done in a single trip.

I flew over with the gentleman who we’d chosen to run the operation, and our schedule was packed: I’d set up meetings with our solicitors, to evaluate several candidates for accounting firms, to meet our new landlords, and to check out several possible lodging places for our folks…and to meet our bankers. I needed to work with them to set up our operational and payroll accounts, as well as our UK line of credit, and to get banking information to take back to our employees.

The Barclays meeting was our first, and to maximize our time, I’d booked it with our banker as a breakfast meeting the morning after our arrival. What had seemed clever from a distance was a little rougher in person. We got up after only a few hours of sleep, and found our way to Barclays’ headquarters in the heart of the old City. Our hosts took us deep into the building, several floors underground, through rich marble hallways, into an intimidating and opulent conference room. There we sat, jet-lagged and a little oxygen-starved due to the unfamiliar neckties we were sporting. We met with a group of about a half dozen Barclays executives who grilled us (in a polite, British kind of way) about our operations in the US, our plans for the UK, and our financial and other prospects in general. All this was going on while we were served breakfast—my first time face to face with a full English Breakfast, complete with beans, mushrooms, and the unusual British bacon. We soldiered through and dealt well enough with the questions and with the breakfast, and went on to the next meetings.

Just doing regular business has its share of intimidating moments. In 2005, I was doing logo, web, and publications design for the Western Folklife Center. I’d met with them a number of times by phone, and flew to Elko, Nevada, to present the logos I’d designed to the dozen or so folks on their board of directors. There’s nothing like walking into a room full of people as the main attraction to clench the stomach and focus the brain. I really enjoy it, particularly when I know something about what I’m supposed to say, and fortunately this was one of those times.  As scary as it was walking into the room, it turned out to be a lot of fun, and I got them fixed up with a nifty new logo. A lot of the things that are scary when anticipated turn out to be fun once they get going.

Lots of other scary/fun/exciting moments that come to mind: moving down to the Bay Area after 28 years in Seattle, visiting Burning Man for the first time (approaching the gate after midnight), starting a business—and even just walking into a room full of people who I don’t know—it all becomes part of the adventure.

The more stuff I do, the more I realize that enduring and succeeding when out of my comfort zone makes me stronger and more adaptable afterwards. Confidence comes from being tested, from finding out what you’re capable of doing—and to paraphrase George Patton, what you’re capable of bouncing back from after you’ve fallen.

The Heart of the Startup

“Where is the spirit the surest? At the beginning.” –Paul Klee

There is little in the world that I’ve experienced that’s more exciting and engaging than starting a new business. On every level there are challenges, tasks, and activities that fill the days and imaginations of everyone involved. It’s so much fun to think about that we (my business partner, Jayson Jarmon, and our Business Development Director, Loren Skaggs) used to play a game when we saw a storefront for lease: given a year’s free rent and a little seed money, what would you put into that space, and how would you get the business to sustain itself in a year? In six months? Once your brain starts working that way, it’s hard to get it to stop.

Crucial global issues involving market, customers, and revenue flow are at the top of the list—creating a business plan and model that will sustain the company and allow for growth are the first jobs (and modifying those items as reality meets your projections!). The next challenge is to gather a community to support the venture. Clients and customers, of course, (or in the nature of a business with a long-term payoff, financial supporters) but also advisors (legal, accounting, human resources, real estate, etc.) need to be judiciously brought in. Of course, to support core business functions, you’ll need employees, but not too many at first. I’m a fan of running lean for as long as you can. Depending on your funding and the nature of your business, maybe some support staff—but maybe not. It won’t hurt to have people answering their own phones for a bit.

Watching the business take shape over time is a singular thrill. Seeing your plans and intentions intersect with reality is a fascinating and sometimes scary thing. Assumptions made in the safety of a planning session often need to be revisited quickly, and on the fly, in order to take advantage of previously unrecognized opportunities—or to prevent good money and effort going after bad.

Realism is a good thing to embrace in the early stages of a venture. You can’t start a business without optimism and a belief in the certainty of success, but at the same time, you can’t let that optimism and certainty blind you to the reality of your operations. I tend toward an optimistic, yet conservative approach, and as I expand the business and discuss new directions, I always make sure that there is a bookkeeper to cast an impartial eye on the state of the finances.

As a venture begins to take form, you’ll see the unique personality of the company take shape. This is formed by the nature of the venture, and directed by the company’s leadership, but it is ultimately determined by the temperament of the people who you bring in. In the early days of a company, toxic personalities (no matter how talented they may be otherwise) can infuse the company with that negativity. If it begins early enough, it can be a very difficult thing to recover from.

By the same token, staffing with creative, engaged, and generally happy individuals will seed the company with that positive outlook. This is something that works to the company’s advantage on several levels. First, like attracts like. People recognize a positive work environment, and will want to become a part of it, either as a client or as an employee. It will be easier to attract, hire, and retain good people. Second, clients and partners will recognize and respond to that positivity—you will be the group who people want to work with, and who people speak well of after projects are completed or after they’ve worked with you.

Watching a company move from established business to startup is exciting, and guiding that process is a challenge and a privilege. Reading back over this entry, I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface. Don’t be surprised to see me return to this topic again and again.

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