Leaving the company you started; lessons from 10 years at 383.
This week I’m leaving 383, the company that I co-founded 10 years ago. In that time we’ve grown from a self-funded team of two, to become one of the most successful Digital Product Studios in the country. We’ve got an enviable client list, a turnover that’s seen us push into Top 10 lists for Independent agency growth in the UK, and a hugely talented team of lovely folk that I get to work with every day. Over the last 10 years I’ve never written about the ‘company’ side of building a company. So I decided that in my last week I’d give myself that indulgence and jot down a few lessons (mainly for other founders) from the last 10 years before they fade.
1) Culture is what happens when you’re not there.
One thing I’ve read lots about over the years is company culture. It’s a subject where I feel there’s a lot of hyperbole and confusion, driven mostly by the fact that culture (actions) is often confused with environment (things). So, here’s my two cents; as a business owner culture is what happens when you’re not there. You can provide all the free drinks and pool tables that you want. You can stick snappy values posters on the walls, or give inspirational talks about what the company stands for, but it’s all just superfluous if no one cares about what happens when you’re not around. At 383, the times when I’ve realised we’d set a great culture was when the team did outstanding stuff with no involvement from me. Culture is when everyone is so tuned in to ‘what the company is about’ that they have the discernment and autonomy to act upon on that belief in the same way you would. That might be how they interact with clients, how they look after one another, or how honest they are with you when stuff is going wrong. Whatever it is, culture means people taking action without you asking them to.
2) Don’t confuse perks with fairness.
One of the things we did at 383 that I’m most proud of is adopting a salary formula across the whole team to ensure people’s compensation was transparent. Rolling it out has not been without it’s challenges, and I’m sure the team will continue to refine it after I’m gone, but in essence the goal was to ensure that people are never compensated differently by gender or age, but instead against responsibility and craft level. It’s a similar concept to the system introduced by Joel at Buffer, but one that I haven’t heard of being adapted for use in an agency. The point here though is that as much as a formula for compensation is certainly a good reason to work at 383, it is not a perk or a benefit. It’s just the right thing to do. In a lot of companies I’m increasingly aware that founders have a habit of taking what’s fair, and mis-labelling it as a perk or benefit. ‘Free pizza when you work late’ is not a perk, in fact it’s barely an apology. If you’re a business owner reading this you might think that I’m evangelising some ethical utopia that can’t exist, but here’s the rub; I genuinely think there is a clear correlation between fairness and company prosperity. Fairness earns respect. Fairness fosters great culture. And fairness breeds reputation. And for all those reasons fairness isn’t a cost, it’s an investment.
3) Running a business is fine, a business running you is not.
Aside from company stuff the best thing I’ve done in the last 10 years is without doubt becoming a Dad — I have two girls and they are awesome. But for me, becoming a parent threw in to sharp focus the amount of time that I was committing to building the company, often at the detriment of home or family life. When you couple that with the ‘early years’ which fly by really fast, I began to see how people quickly come to resent the privileged position they are in if they own and run a successful business. I’m fairly pragmatic, and so before I reached burn out, or before the company suffered, I chatted to the team about where I was at and why I wanted to finish. That was 18 months ago, and in that time frame I’ve been able to work on a transition plan with the other shareholders at 383, be really honest with the team and crucially, finish well. So, the main reason I’m leaving is not because I’ve had some existential crisis, fallen out with my co-founder, or fallen out of love with the work. It’s just that I realised the business was running me, and that even as the owner you always have a choice to finish without pulling the rug out from everything you’ve built.
4) Only start a business with people you can be real with.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s really crucial that you maintain a brutally honest relationship with the other people who own the company. Even when that honesty is not what people want to hear. I feel hugely fortunate that Sukhi (who I founded 383 with) and Jake (who came on board shortly after) were able to listen to where I was at, and accept the change I wanted to make. You have to be able to have tough conversations, and address things before they blow up in your face. As partners therefore, I strongly believe that the biggest item on your board meeting agendas should be how one another are doing ahead of how the company is progressing. In founding a company with someone you’re choosing to share a huge chunk of your life with them; it’s therefore crucial that you can chat about everything with them, not just the work.
A huge thank you to everyone that’s been a part of 383 over the years. It’s been such an incredible journey and I will miss it hugely. Please look after it!
In terms of what’s next for me I’m having some time off to catch my breath. After that, I’m shifting to part-time consultant and full time Dad. Balance restored.