We all have a story that defines who we are, and who we will become. For entrepreneurs, our story is as much filled with significant moments — when we turned on the lights of our first office, our first significant hire, the business opportunity that changed everything- as it is the small moments, the million important decisions we make on a day to day basis that chart the course of our business’ future. I want to celebrate these moments big and small by sharing my founding story, and I hope it inspires you to do the same.
How Digital Surgeons Was Born
I’m going to start my story as a rebellious teenager in a computer lab grepping access logs, switching between Notepad++ and Visual studio while I jockey image assets. Within a few hours, a site will be checked into a code repository and ready to go live for a major marketing brand.
Headstrong adolescence, and a fear of failure instilled an unquenchable need to sharpen my design skills and learn every programming language and syntax my ADD brain could stand to recall at a time. I’m not going to lie and say that I had the foresight to understand that this passion would transform into the business I run today, but it was all about the work — I hated, and still hate, bureaucracy and bullshit.
In the time it took for this pimple faced teenager to code and design a site in that computer lab, I knew the endless droning feedback loop of meeting after meeting, email after email, was taking place in the offices of my client. All talk, no action.
I didn’t have grand aspirations to connect the world, like Facebook, or to change how we get from one place to another,like Uber. I just dreamt of starting a service company (I know many of you are rolling your eyes) that replaced meetings, “touching base”, and “circling back” with actual work getting done — real action. I wanted to fuse my love of design and technology to help brands and business of all shapes and sizes to evolve, meet, and exceed their potential.
Nothing excited me more than the thought of being a creative generalist but everywhere I interviewed was interested in one thing or another. Companies of all shapes, sizes, and verticals wanted to pigeonhole me as a designer or a developer. Within each of these paths, there were even more suffocating siloes. Why couldn’t I just add value across the board?
I grew up in Milford, Connecticut and the California sun of Silicon Valley felt like a world away, but I found tech pioneers and marketers there to be an endless source of inspiration. Through sheer force of will, and seemingly endless creativity, the giants of Palo Alto were able to change the world.
Much to the chagrin of my parents, I decided to forego the security of a corporate job or another stent in academia — it was time to start my own thing. Being a know-it-all college grad, I sought to prove everyone who told me I was crazy wrong.
I had early success freelancing and gained invaluable experience at a ton of ad agencies and product companies like ESPN and Thule. At one point, I could count my name on ten different company business cards. I earned a reputation as “the digital guy”, a mr. fix it who came in at the eleventh hour when the in-house or offshore team couldn’t get it done. And so I became known as “pete the geek”, a moniker I hated then, but now embrace as who I am.
From Caffeine Delusions to Incorporation
I eventually settled at a small design agency doing one dimensional work nobody will remember for the sole purpose of profit. I realized if I was going to “make it”. I needed a name and identity far beyond myself and my computer du jour. It was at this agency I had the pleasure of first working with an extremely talented designer named Mark Myrick, now a founding partner of mine. We kicked around grandiose ideas of making things that truly mattered.
The identity suddenly took shape, the name Digital Surgeons was born.
I kept charging forward doing a great deal of white label work for large agencies who didn’t have the digital capability internally to get projects across the finish line.
Not much changed since my teenage late nights in the computer lab — a fear of failure, caffeine addiction, and the subsequent insomnia made doing the work easy. It was getting my name out there that was hard.
I was being suffocated by the NDA, or non-disclosure agreement. These agreements meant that the work I was doing for some of the largest agencies and brands in the world would never bear my or my new company’s name.
The Two Words Every Startup Founder Must Master — Sales and Marketing
No matter the myth perpetuated by Kevin Costner’s cornfield baseball diamond, it takes more than building it for them to come.
If I was going to scale this thing, I needed to understand sales and marketing. But I’m still “Pete the geek”, a tech introvert. I just want to make awesome things, I don’t know a single thing about selling them or myself. I didn’t have an MBA and hadn’t yet figured out that pushing companies forward is about more than just making or contributing to the product, but truly understanding how people discover and start to use it.
That’s where my co-founder came in. The Ying to my Yang.
When I first met Dave Salinas all I saw was a fast-talking sales guy. But the more I got to know him, the more I realized we had more in common than met the eye.
Dave was passionate about business, and knew more about marketing and media than the fast-talking executives on Madison Avenue I was freelancing for. But perhaps more important than anything else, Dave saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself at the time.
Adding Our Name to the Door
Dave and I made fast friends and after passing work back and forth to each other, we decided to test out working together for a 6 month trial period.
During those couple months, Dave wielded the dark art of media and advertising while I focused on designing and coding for our clients. Whether our names went on the plague or not, all that mattered at the end of the day was results.
7 years, four offices, three startups, and almost 50 employees later we are still the scrappy band of brothers we started as.
“Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.” The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.”
From Dorm Rooms to Board Rooms
I don’t code or use Photoshop nearly as much as I’d like to anymore, but I am extremely thankful to now have the privilege of designing the future of Digital Surgeons and the brands I am so fortunate to be working with.
Whenever I can, I’ll still hack together an API or learn a framework the cool kids are working with. Staying current and capable is imperative in our fast paced, FOMO world — if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.
I won’t lie though, I still get a tremendous sense of satisfaction when I can show someone a tool or feature that’s been around for a half a decade that they didn’t know existed. It’s not about showing them up, it’s about being able to pay forward the endless sleepless nights spent hacking. It’s about empowering those around me to reach their creative potential in ways they never imagined.
Here’s to the Makers and the Rule Breakers
I may have come a long way since the shy teenager hacking in the computer lab, but I’ll die before I become a hollow, fast-talking executive that speaks in incomprehensible, pretentious jargon. In a way, I guess I’ll always be the crazy, rebellious teen hell-bent on creating cool shit and blowing off useless meetings.
To Know Where You Are Going, You Must Remember Where You Come From
Less than a decade ago, LEGO was in dire straits. Management lost confidence in the simplicity of the company’s plastic bricks and believed it needed to diversify LEGOs business interests across many different verticals. Profits plummeted.
Jorgen Vig Knudstorp took over as CEO in 2004 and changed everything. Inspired by the passion children and adults share in these simple bricks, he steered the company back to its roots. LEGO went from being on the verge of bankruptcy to one of the largest, most successful brands in the world. Knudstorp is known for quoting the following poem from T.S. Eliot.
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot
I’m proud to say LEGO is one of Digital Surgeons’ clients and this is one of my favorite stories about brand and product development. I even hang the poem over my desk as a reminder to stay true to my creative roots.
It’s not profits or processes that power some of the world’s leading companies. it’s purpose, people, and most importantly a clear and powerful vision from leadership that allow them to withstand the test of time.
It’s not the destination but the journey that I focus on. Whenever I try to set big goals, I find myself paralyzed by the enormity of the expectation. Instead, I focus on getting just a little bit better each day, trying my best to fail forward and hope that my passion and drive sustains me from tomorrow to ten years from now.
Focus on the Journey, Not the Destination
Twitter began as a platform for podcast subscription, Groupon as a fundraising site for causes, Flickr as an online role-playing game, and Nintendo once produced vacuum cleaners.
Even some of the world’s most successful brands and founders have had to pivot. As entrepreneurs, it’s all about just trying to put one foot in front of the other — this is a marathon, not a sprint.
For me, it’s not about work/life balance or a big payday, it’s about doing what I love. As long as I can keep doing that and moving my business forward, I’ll do this till the day I die.
Finding your Endgame
So what’s next?
Founders have to get used to being asked what their end-game, even with my relatively modest list of accomplishments I frequently get asked about my plans for the future.
For a first-time founder, it’s tempting to build-to sell but I’ll argue that doesn’t have to be the only end-game. Sometimes, the best end-game is not having one at all.
What I love about being the founder of a service business is that I’m just as concerned with helping others achieve their vision. Being a hybrid en/intrapreneur allows me to stay focused on the vision of building my clients brands’, it distracts me from sleepless nights over-thinking what’s next for Digital Surgeons.
One vote of caution — every business needs a champion, someone who lives and breathes the work every waking moment. I like to think I’m one of a few champions that are propelling Digital Surgeons forward.
Thanks for giving me some of your precious time to read this.
So dream big and start by doing. After all, ideas are nothing without execution.