This week I had an enjoyable conversation with Brian Krogsgard for the Post Status Draft podcast. In the hour we covered a lot of ground from my professional journey and life, from what it was like to wind down a consulting business to my time working at Automattic to how people both in and out of the WordPress community get their important news and information. We also got into some fun details about the software-as-a-service application I launched last year for WordPress professionals, WP Lookout.
You can find the episode on the Post Status website, in your favorite podcast directory, or here with this mirrored copy of the audio:
If you have a chance to listen, let me know what you think! Thanks to Brian Krogsgard and Dan Knauss at Post Status for having me on.
I recently joined podcaster Dave Albert to talk about my adventures with entrepreneurship, what it was like to start, run and eventually wind down a technology business, what it's like to work for someone else, the joys and challenges of distributed work, and some of the cool stuff we're doing at Automattic. We covered a lot and it was fun to look back on all of those different parts of my professional life.
In December 2013, I completed the transitions of staffing that I talked about in the previous post, such that I became the sole remaining person at the company. I was grateful that my now former co-workers were all able to find new job opportunities throughout that transition.
Continuing in the theme of last week's post on how I became a computer geek, I thought I'd also share some thoughts on how I learned to run a business.
I get asked now and then what path led me to the world of business ownership/management, and I think the short answer is that I've always just learned what I needed to know to support my other interests and passions, and in one particular long-running case, that meant learning the world of business. I've never set out to run a business for the sake of running a business, and I don't have any formal educational training in that skill set.
I'm not sure that my story should be any kind of model for others; I don't claim that I've always learned to run a business well, and I'm sure that there are many things I could and should have done better over the years. But by at least a few traditional measures of my company Summersault's performance from 1997-2013 - profitability, financial stability and customer satisfaction - I think I can claim some success along the way.
I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers." This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.
I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better. I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.
If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time. The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step. As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.
2013 has been a year of change for me in my professional life and at my company, Summersault. The changes were set in motion by a combination of intentional planning and dealing with the unexpected, and navigating them has been challenging and stressful, but I think ultimately worthwhile.
The company has been around since 1997, and so we have a number of supporters and interested observers who we've connected with over the years, locally here in Richmond, among our clients and vendors, and of course among our friends and families. As I get questions from them about "what's happening with Summersault?" and "what's happening with you?" I know I haven't always been clear in my responses, in part because the answers (or how to talk about them) haven't always been clear to me.
As I've built Summersault with care and attention to the complex interactions between business needs and human needs, so I've also wanted to give that same care and attention to times of transition and restructuring. It was - and still is - a challenge to share publicly about professional changes that have many layers of complexity. It's a challenge to answer questions about what these changes might mean for individual employees while honoring their privacy. It's a challenge to talk about new directions while acknowledging the interests and concerns of our clients and the services we might still provide to them. It's a challenge to speak about areas where we have encountered difficulty with our local economy, talent pool and business climate without seeming to disparage the good work of people trying to improve the same. It's a challenge to share about the specific difficulties, frustrations, opportunities and realizations that have led to these changes while maintaining harmonious relationships with coworkers, clients and supporters who might have their own and different narratives about Summersault's history and evolution. It's a challenge to distill the feelings, hopes, disappointments, anxiety and messiness that go with owning and running a business with a history and identity in a community I care about, let alone making big changes in that identity. So, when people ask me "what's going on at Summersault?" and I find myself speaking in vague or jargony terms about it, it's clear that I've not done a good enough job of meeting all of the above challenges!
Here, then, is an attempt at answering those questions more clearly, based on what I know and can say now.
In 1997 I co-founded a company whose business model was based on the value of building highly customized websites for our clients. Those clients often didn't know (or want to know) much about the inner workings of HTML, Photoshop, hyperlinks and web hosting, but they knew that the World Wide Web and the Internet represented a new era of marketing and communications, and it was worth paying someone else to figure those details out so that they could be a part of that in some form.
And so in a time before content management software, Google, PayPal or GoDaddy, we - like other web development companies starting to pop up around the world - built websites, online stores and interactive community tools from scratch. At first we hand-coded sites in HotDog Pro or BBEdit, and then later used Dreamweaver and Fireworks. We created complex software applications using Perl, and others used PHP, Python, TCL and C. We tested for compatibility with Netscape and Internet Explorer, and we submitted links to AltaVista for crawling when we were done.
That model evolved as we went and worked pretty well until around 2008, when we saw the maturity of many new "software as a service" offerings and a bunch of off-the-shelf tools and programs that often made custom website development unnecessary, or at least seen as too costly in the eyes of clients who once had few other choices. We also saw the focus on developing an online presence shift away from "doing it right" to "doing it quickly" - edgy, authentic and in-progress began to trump polished and highly produced.
In reading the Gallup book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, I encountered their list of questions that, when answered by close to 200,000 employees across almost 8,000 business units in different companies, turned out to be a good measure of organizational dynamics that led to lower employee turnover, higher productivity, and higher customer satisfaction.
At their core, the questions are asking an employee whether they feel their strengths are being used every day at their organization. The questions are simple and applicable across a lot of different kinds of organizations; I've listed them out below.
Using the free open source software LimeSurvey, I set up the questions in an open ended online survey on Summersault's Intranet. Around twice per month, a randomly selected subset of the staff get an automated email invitation to answer the survey, anonymously by default but with the option to provide our names if we want.
Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel's immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way.
I can't agree enough with this quote by Ralph Crawshaw. I am always fed by seeing the world from the different perspectives that come with traveling around it, being temporarily away from the routines, habits and comforts of my home. Indeed, many of my best life choices and decisions have sprung from the thinking and reflecting that I've done while experiencing some other part of the country or the world, engaging in new conversations and reacting to new landscapes. I've often had my notion of "the right and only way" challenged and redefined by seeing how others live, work and play. I'm appreciative of the privilege to have had these experiences.
I'm currently having another one. For several weeks this summer, I'll be spending time in Portland, Oregon and in other areas of the northwestern U.S.
The trip is a combination of professional development, research in community building and city governance, and personal adventure and reflection. Because a number of friends and colleagues have asked me about the trip, I thought I'd say a little more about these three areas of focus.