2017 Retrospective

Small Changes that made a Big Impact

Having been with the Blanc Media the last two years, 2017 was a exceptional year in many ways. The categories that come to mind; our efficiency as a team, engaging in healthy conflict, and our new work cycles.

It felt like we packed a lot in to 2017.

Four product launches, new sales funnel automations, a mastermind retreat in Breckenridge, CO, traveled for a handful of conferences, and took 7 weeks of time off.

My introvert self gets tired just looking at that list. But here’s how we got it all done. (And remained sane.)

Basecamp 3

For us, efficiency starts with Basecamp. In January, Shawn and I took a trip to their headquarters in Chicago for their Way We Work seminar. A one day event on how Basecamp (the company), uses their software tool to run the business.

Prior to the workshop we had been using Basecamp 2 as a team, but it was one of countless tools we used in a scattered workflow.

The revolutionary takeaway from the seminar was Basecamp (the software) is so much more than just a project management tool. For Basecamp (the company) it replaces everything. It is their communication tool (no more slack & email), it’s where pitches and ideas live (no more whiteboard pictures and scraps of paper scattered on your desk), it’s where announcements and team updates are made, assets are uploaded for team members to access.

Oh, and it’s a project management tool to get work done effectively.

With over 50 team members operating remotely from all over the world, Basecamp is clearly doing something right.

Work Cycles

One of our main takeaways from the workshop was the way that Basecamp structures their approach to project work. Work cycles were about eight weeks; six for doing project work, then a one to two week buffer window tie up loose ends and ship.

Work expands to the amount of time that you give it.

Things that we loved about this.

  1. Every work cycle had a clear predetermined set of projects.
  2. No new projects can be adopted mid-cycle.
  3. At the end of the work cycle unfinished project work was tied off and left undone. Projects didn’t automatically transfer over to the next cycle. i.e. No work debt.

We ended up with is a structure that causes us to reevaluate every eight weeks what projects will have the greatest impact for the business right now. This allowed a shorter feedback window to adjust our project work, and how that tied in to our goals for the year.

Essentially, we were able to adjust our work every eights weeks to always be working on projects that had high impact and were low complexity.

Single Biggest Impact of 2017

We tweaked the work cycle concept slightly with one caveat. Six weeks dedicated to project work, one week buffer to tie up loose ends and plan for the next cycle followed by a one week vacation.

Every eighth week in 2017, we took a week off.

This suggestion came from our good friend Sean McCabe, who has been implementing small scale sabbaticals in his business the past few years. Their team takes a week off every seventh week.

For Shawn and I both, 2017 was one of the least stressful years of our lives. We had the best year of the business financially while taking seven weeks of time off.

  1. No matter how hard of a project we are working on, having a week off coming up is always a good feeling.
  2. Having scheduled time off ensured that we actually took it. Usually you take time off to go do something. Vacation, travel, visit family. Because the week off was pre-scheduled, there were 2 or 3 weeks last year that I was at home with my family. This was 10x more restful than taking a week off of work to go on a trip. Time off at home was some of my highlights from last year.
  3. A week off every eight restored mental and emotional margin.
  4. Shawn and I would return from the week off refreshed and ready to go. It gave our minds enough down time that when we came back to work we couldn’t wait to tackle the next project.

We felt the quality of our work improved as well as our ability to focus on what was truly important.

Back to the thought, work expands to the amount of time you give it.

We figured, if we can do eight weeks worth of work in seven, then take a week vacation. Why wouldn’t we?

Side note: We got a ton of negative feedback regarding our sabbatical weeks.

We realize that we are a small business which affords us flexibility with how we structure our working hours. However, this is still a choice that Shawn and I have made that has real trade offs. We just happen to believe those trade offs are worth it. (Our wives think so too.)

This working structure may not be for everyone. But it has been a HUGE game changer for us as a team.

A Place for Ideas to Live

Another big win for us using Basecamp, it gave us a place for ideas to live.

In our small office we have a five by seven foot whiteboard which is often covered by inspired scribbles. Countless times have we discussed an idea only for it to be forgotten and left. This isn’t such a bad thing, there are many ideas that are better left undone.

But for the ideas that won’t let go, they needed a place to live, evolve, and be hashed out. And finally, to be executed.

One of the other things we picked up from the Basecamp team is the concept of pitches. Anyone in the company at any time can pitch a project idea.

  1. A team member has an idea about how such and such could be improved for a better user experience.
  2. They write the idea up as a post including the problem they are trying to solve and the benefits of the new solution. This can include sketches and mock-ups.
  3. The pitch is then reviewed in preparation for the next work cycle and either selected as one of the upcoming work cycle projects, or placed in the product backlog for reworking and will maybe be used down the road.

But the idea is never wasted. It lives somewhere, it’s visible, other team members are able to weigh in on it, help shape it, and if it’s really a good idea the team does it.

This process helps ensure the purest iteration of the idea is executed. It’s scrutinized by others on the team and the core idea eventually emerges.

This also helps eliminated emotionally driven ideas. The one guy on the team that always seems to have a new idea that constantly drags people off to another unfinished project.

Asynchronous Communication

Before 2017, we would have told you we were pretty good about keeping the interruptions to a minimum. However, this would have been only half true.

”When’s the last time you’ve had 4 un-interrupted hours of work?”

This question from Jason Fried challenged our communication tendencies. In theory, we 100% agreed with the philosophy behind this. Yes, we should have large amounts of uninterrupted time dedicated to work.

But in practice, our communication style was getting in the way of the uninterrupted part.

Some of this was due to the urgency of certain tasks. But for the most part, it was because we didn’t know any other way.

Whether it was getting another set of eyes on something we were working on. Or bouncing an idea off one another. We struggled to find a way that allowed complete control over when and where we would consume information or requests.

Simply valuing long periods of uninterrupted time wasn’t enough. We needed a system of communication that gave one another permission to be unavailable.

After this year, I can honestly say that I have nearly 100% control of my working hours.

Though Shawn and I sit roughly 15 feet apart, we rarely talk to each other before lunch.

If I need a somewhat immediate response, I’ll ping him in Basecamp. Usually this is for final confirmations on a campaign that is about to be sent, or a quick question.

If I need his feedback on something more specific and in depth, I’ll write it up as a post in Basecamp. You could argue that this is less effecting then having a conversation about whatever it is I’m trying to solve. However, we have found it to be more effective in the long run.

  • By writing up the post, I have to think critically about the problem. What am I trying to solve? What possible solutions have I already tried? What other solutions could we try? I actually have to think, not just pawn the problem off on a team member and rely on their expertise.
  • Shawn or other team members are able to then see the post when they are ready to digest the information. They may not be ready to process through something when I randomly ask if they have a second. This allows team members to respond in a measured, thorough manner.
  • As team members reply to the post it’s all contained in one place. This could happen over the course of a week, two, or three, and everyone knows exactly how the conversation has unfolded. Who said what, when. What solutions have already been proposed, etc.. All the while, no one has been pulled off an important project they are working on. We didn’t have to block out a 2 hour chunk for a meeting.

Communication doesn’t have to happen in real time for it to effective.

In fact, I may argue, communicating in written long form is more effective then real time back and forth.

There are pro’s and con’s to both. As well, certain scenarios call for one other the other. But in general, we could do with less meetings and challenge our team members to think more critically through the problems we’re trying to solve. And communicate them in a way for the rest of the team to digest in their own time.

Final thoughts on this. I weigh a bit more on the introverted side. So this totally feeds my preference. I often am able to give a more candid honest reply when the pressure is not in the moment. And it allows me to think through and say exactly what I mean.

For Shawn, he’s a total extrovert and loves brainstorming sessions (as he affectionally calls them, brain dumps). But he would also agree that this form of communication has been pivotal in freeing us to control how we spend our time, free of interruption.

We still have the occasional white board session and riff on ideas. But it’s not as frequent as it used to be. And that’s probably for the better.

Yay for asynchronous communication!

Breckenridge Retreat

In June we hosted a mastermind retreat in Breckenridge, Colorado with some pretty cool dudes! All of them either CEO’s of small companies or independent entrepreneurs.

Basically we invited all the folks that we would travel to connect with. Our thought, why not get them all in the same room?

We rented a house (mansion?) on the mountainside. Not only was the house unbelievable, but it was set back in the woods beside a mountain stream! The smells, scenery, and people made for a very memorable few days. I felt lucky to be apart.

We did morning and afternoon sessions. Which consisted of 2 to 3 thirty(ish) minute hot seats. Before coming, we informed participants that they would have a designated hot seat time with the group. They could use this time a couple of ways.

  • Explain a business challenge they were facing and ask the group for advice.
  • Or, share a keynote presentation of something they were having success implementing in their company.

All of the hot seat discussions proved to be lively. Everyone gleaming a nugget or two from each hot seat. Suffice to say, this is something we’ll be doing again this year!

Oh, we also hired a chef to prepare all of our meals. Which proved to be a highlight of the retreat. The food was incredible and it free’d us up to not have to think about the logistics.

Benefits of Hosting the Mastermind Retreat

  • All the people we want to connect with in one place
  • Gained a ton of insight and advice from all the smart peeps
  • Distraction free environment in the beauty of the mountains
  • It was super fun

Trust & Conflict

This was my second year working with Shawn and team. Shawn and I are the only full-timers, both here in Kansas City.

The first full year was gaining familiarity with the tools we use and the different spinning plates of the business. After becoming proficient, 2017 felt like a year of continued learning, as well as Shawn and I hitting a sweet spot with the way that we work as a team.

Full disclosure. Joining the team was a massive honor as I had been following Shawn’s work for a few years before he brought me on.

Initially it was a bit of a challenge for me to recognize the ways that I contributed to the business. I felt (and still do at times) like a complete ammeter in the industry.

BUT, Shawn has been super patient and encouraging through the process. When you work with only one other individual 30–40 hours a week, it can be easy to rub each other the wrong way.

What I’ve come to realize though is we are not afraid to engage in conflict. This has come through the process of getting to know one another and celebrate each others strengths and weaknesses.

As I reflect on 2017, one of my big takeaways is the amount of lengthy conversations we had about things we disagreed on. Not to say that we argued a lot, but we had our fair share of discussions.

We’ve come to trust one another and test each others natural defaults.

Shawn has taken this to the next level by regularly asking me what he can do to better serve me. Not only does he want me to poke holes in his ideas and empowers me to push back, but also continues to ask how as a business owner can better serve me.

I’ve felt super honored through the process, as well as humbled.

Humbling, because I’ve admired not only Shawn’s quality of work over the years, but also the way that he leads his family. As someone that has a front row seat, he’s the real deal.

I’m not exactly the easiest guy to get along with either. I have my moments. But Shawn’s tenacity to be a better business owner and how he truly cares about my well being speaks volumes about the kind of guy he really is.

(End employee gush.)

The point here, conflict promotes creativity and innovation.

Shawn and I know that conflict isn’t a bad thing. Actually, it means we’re doing something right. I don’t always get my way, and Shawn doesn’t always get his way. But our products, messaging, and business is better for it.

Looking forward to the projects we’re working on in 2018. And incredibly thankful to be apart of this team!