Three Things I Learned at Teehan+Lax
When I was five years old, my dad, uncle and grandfather decided that I was old enough to go on a fishing trip. We drove six hours north of Montreal to my grandfather’s fishing cabin early that spring.
I remember it being freezing cold and rainy. We caught a lot of fish, told stories, and my grandfather showed me his “secret hideout” in the woods where he hid the boat engines and other valuables when he wasn’t at the cabin. It was the best weekend of my short life up to that point.
At the end of the weekend, my dad sat me down and told me my grandfather had just sold the cabin. I was heartbroken and couldn’t stop crying when I realized that I would never come to this place ever again. I couldn’t understand it. Why would you give up something so great? Why wouldn’t you want to come back here year after year and repeat this amazing experience?
My grandfather came over to console me and explain the situation. I remember telling him how sad I was that we wouldn’t be coming back. And I distinctly remember what he said: “Don’t worry. We’re going to go fishing again.”
A few weeks ago it was announced that my employer, Teehan+Lax, would be closing its doors. Today is the last day of its existence. When it was announced I wondered: How could this be? We just had our best year ever. Why would you walk away from something so great? Why wouldn’t you want to keep building things with these talented people?
These decisions are so intensely personal that it’s hard, from the outside, to understand and relate to why someone would walk away from something successful. It took me a while to process.
There are things I learned at T+L that I will take with me everywhere I go. I’d like to take a moment and look back at the three most important things that made T+L special to me:
Values always come first
The service industry is about two things: revenue and cash flow. There is an unpredictability to the amount of work you’ll have at any given moment. Sometimes projects land all at once, and other times there are scary lean months.
It’s tempting to take on any and all work that is thrown your way. Money talks when you have to pay salaries every month. Revenue matters when you are trying to grow. But Teehan+Lax was never about that. The work came first. We regularly turned down projects because we didn’t think we could do a good job or it wasn’t interesting to us. We never took on too much work which would have required us to awkwardly staff up overnight. Most of us went home at 5pm every day.
Too often I’ve seen agencies fall into the trap of doing the thing which leads to the highest profitability, or the thing that will simply please the client. At T+L the values always came first. Always do the thing that will lead to the best work — even if it means lower profitability, turning down projects, or having an awkward conversation with a client.
Give away your best stuff
I am certain that the reason you first heard about Teehan+Lax has to do with one of the free tools or knowledge that was shared over the years: iOS PSDs, Labs projects, blog posts, our stories, products like ImgSpark, code, etc.
All of these things cost money and took time to make. What we learned was that by knowing our audience, being authentic, and giving away our best stuff, we generated reputation and social capital that would pay off when we needed it to. And when I say we gave it away I don’t mean “sign up for our mailing list before you download the PSD.” T+L paid the bandwidth bills and let our peers use those things as they saw fit.
Too often I see companies try to charge for things too quickly, or try to sell products and services to an audience of zero. The time to start building your audience is a year before you need it.
Good is never good enough
There was a real feeling working at Teehan+Lax that we were never done. Whether it was a client project or our internal process, it seemed like the ground was often slipping below our feet. In some ways, this was by design. We were never fully satisfied with the work — always tweaking, always refining, always rethinking. It was hard for us, I think, to say something was “done.” In hindsight, it’s funny looking back at earlier projects to see how much had changed in our approach.
This could be emotionally draining and frustrating at times — like the feeling of climbing a mountain only to realize there is a larger one behind it you couldn’t see. We demanded the best of ourselves and our clients. We always tried to find a way to do things more effectively, and it made the work better.
I’m so proud of what we accomplished together and can’t thank the Partners enough for the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of people who I can now call my friends.
And don’t worry. We’re going to go fishing again.