My Shrinking Family

In two weeks my family will be one person smaller. While I use the term family here in an untraditional sense, these are people whom I spend almost as much time with as my traditional family. These people are my employees.

Against the conventional wisdom of every business book on the subject, I started an interactive design studio with my best friend from college. With a fifty-fifty split. We’ll cross the ten year mark in a few months and while I can’t say it’s always been a cake-walk, I can’t imagine doing it differently.

We started out as two and grew slowly, typically adding staff one intern at-a-time. We grew the studio up to about thirteen people before the economy turned and things got tight. We’re eight people now, but in two weeks we’ll be back down to seven.

Ours is not a unique story in this regard. We grew. We shrank. But never in large numbers. Our steps were small and helped us avoid the financial exposure of large-scale growth without capital. These baby-steps also let us feel comfortable with the people we let into our family.

We’ve had (and still have) employees that have fundamentally shaped the studio — which is a pretty neat thing from my perspective. These are people who have cared enough about their craft and our clients and products, they’ve given much more than what we’ve asked of them. They’ve made this place theirs as much as it is my partner’s and mine. And while not every person we’ve hired has affected change as this level, they have all contributed to our family in a meaningful way.

When your team is small it’s important that every hire not only brings something unique to the business, but also operates with an understood flexibility of role. You need people that can design next best app AND are okay with making a run to the post office. So these are special people — talented, smart, funny, and more than any business I’ve seen, dedicated. Every single one of them. Of course, these people are hard to find and this is why it hurts to lose one.

Once in a while we’ll lose somebody because they have an opportunity so amazing we’re excited enough for them to practically help pack their bags. It’s rare though. I love the business we’ve built and I believe that it’s great place to work. So, it’s takes something pretty incredible for me to feel good about someone taking off for another place.

We’ve also lost people because something changed and they stopped feeling like we were the right family for them. While it makes me sad, I accept this — it’s a natural evolution for some people. I see these types of departures as my own personal failure because we haven’t been attuned to that person’s needs. We’ve stifled their voice and there’s no excuse for that.

At times, people have been lured away by recruiters or even worse, other colleagues, to jobs where they are promised things they are told are important. It feels like either an abduction or a betreyal when this happens and it stings. For those people I have hope they’ve found what they were looking for. For those who lured them away, I have contempt.

We also lose family because we have to make cuts for financial reasons. These are by far the worse. There’s no way to reconcile this process — no amount of severance or explanation makes being laid off, or having to lay someone off, feel good or right. It’s a decision that you make with nothing but sadness and guilt. You hope for the best outcome, but you know you’ve failed on a fundamental level and that’s a pain that runs deep.

I’ve learned that ultimately we are responsible for providing our team an opportunity to be happy and content in their work. This is a task that is much easier said than done because, while the image of life in the studio is full of stories of pool-tables and stocked bars, the reality is that work needs to get done. In the end, we try to feed good, profitable work to our family with the fairest compensation we can afford to provide and the acknowledgment that we will do anything in our power to make them satisfied with this place. But ultimately, we’re subject to the economy and the market just like any other business. And we have to know what will give them a feeling of contentment which requires communication.

I want our employees to feel like this place, these people, are their family. We don’t all have to get along all the time, but we all have to respect and support one another, which we do. We have to listen to each other like you listen to a spouse or a parent or a child. And when those family members decide, or have the decision made for them, that is family is no longer theirs, it leaves a scar that never heals. Ever.

To all of you that have been a member of the Design Commission family over the last decade, I hope you know how much we’ve loved working with you — Every. Last. One. Of. You. You’ve made a lasting contribution, you’ve left a mark. And I can say without any qualification I miss every damn one of you. How luck am I to be able to say that?




Seattle Dad, Designer, Design Commission Studio Director, Creative Mornings organizer, start-up advisor and pen addict.

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David Conrad

David Conrad

Seattle Dad, Designer, Design Commission Studio Director, Creative Mornings organizer, start-up advisor and pen addict.

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