“You Are the Worst Business Person I Have Ever Met.”

Management isn’t something I aspired to. Hierarchical systems never sat right. I’ve never been promoted or received a raise and I probably never deserved one. The notion that I could be anybody’s boss is absurd. So when we decided to found a design and technology studio, with employees, I knew I didn’t want to create an environment anything like anyplace I’d ever worked and I didn’t want to operate the way anybody I’d ever worked for operated. Instead I hoped we could create an environment which might motivate the people who work together there in a way that isn’t very realistic.

Lack of a college education, poor time and money management skills, an inability to produce quality work for anything I’m not passionate about and routine departures from reality make me perfectly qualified to fail as a businessman.

“You are the worst business person I have ever met” is the response I got when I floated this next idea to my business partner Trevor.

“Let’s require anybody who works with us to interview someplace else once a year.” I said, after setting up an interview with a cool shop in town for our first employee because I am bad at business.

It always struck me as strange that people I worked with in advertising and friends at other shops would sneak around doing interviews with competitors. Everybody knew it was happening but it was only spoken in whispers. Pretending to be going on vacation to places like Boulder, Richmond and Portland when we all knew why they were headed there. Or assumed we did. It wasn’t ok to go interview at Crispin or Wieden because that was a signal you weren’t happy and should probably leave. No agency I know of has any explicit rules about it but it’s an issue at all of them. Nobody wants to be somebody else’s farm league team. But what if we embraced it? After all, Durham North Carolina isn’t the place most ambitious young talent aspire to end up. Yet. This means the type of people we’ll want to work with, are the type of people who prefer to be part of making someplace great than joining someplace that was great before they joined.

The question I have is, “What if your employer wanted you to be good enough to get a job anywhere you wanted and worked hard to help make you that good instead of trying to make you fit a role or discouraging you from looking around?” What if your employer said, “I will get you interviews any place you want, every year, so that you can be sure you remain in a place you want to work and that you are making as much as you deserve?”

I see why Trevor thinks this is a bad idea. But there’s something to it so I’m sticking with the thought until one of us is proven wrong.

I’ve always wanted to know where the people I’m working with wish they were working. Where they want to end up. People are always reluctant to tell me. Once I know, I can help them build the qualifications they need to get a job there. If I know what kind of work they wish they were doing, I can find projects that allow them to learn and do those things. And it helps me to avoid taking on anything that doesn’t. Maybe there are people who can do a great job on things they don’t personally care about, that don’t get them closer to a goal, but I don’t care to work with such a person.

My hope is that The Experiment gets a reputation as a place you can come to as you are and leave as you want to be. That sounds cheeseball as hell. What I mean is, if you want to be an AI engineer at Google, then why can’t it be the shared goal of the people you work with to help you become that? Rather than treating you like you are delusional or like you did something wrong if you took an interview somewhere you thought could get you closer, how about I arrange the interviews for you if I can? If there’s a place you’d rather be working and I help you get there, wouldn’t you recommend anybody who isn’t where they wish they were, come and work with me? If you want to found your own startup and I agree to help you prepare for it, you’ll produce work that gets you closer to a goal and in doing so, you’ll play a role in creating the sort of environment you wish you worked in. If we can stick to that, it’ll become a place people aspire to.

All these thoughts were bouncing around before we hired staff member numero uno, Spencer.

I’ve loved working with Spencer. I care about him as a person and as a collaborator. I’ve viewed helping him get where he wants to be as my most important role his employer and selfishly, the way to get the most out of him as an employee. What does it say if everybody in town and eventually, the industry, knows how great he is to work with, how smart he is and how much potential he has to be great, and still he chooses to work with me? Are we better off if we make him feel guilty for wondering if he could find a better place to work, with smarter people for more money across town or across time zones? Should I view other shops as poachers who are my competition for talent? Because I don’t. I’d rather send them work when they could do it better and embrace the natural flow of creative people from one shop to another by encouraging my collaborators to explore other places openly whenever it’s something they are curious about. Maybe even if they aren’t. Nobody wins if Spencer stays because he doesn’t realize that there’s a better fit for him or he doesn’t want to jeopardize his current role. By encouraging him to explore other places, the worst thing that could happen is, he leaves for someplace he is excited to go. Maybe we are forced to address a flaw in how we operate or embrace something we aren’t good at. Either way, we get a reputation as a place where you can come, improve, and then move on.

If I’m a crap business person for being so naive, I’m comfortable with that.

I wrote this a few months ago. He stayed.