Tacos — specifically, Torchy’s Tacos. If you’ve had ‘em you know what I’m talking about. If not, well now you’ve got one other reason to go to Austin that’s not SXSW. For me, having already attended SXSW in 2010 (and not feeling the need to subject my liver to that level of torture again), my desire to head back to Austin this time around, beyond the great (GREAT) food, was Owner Summit.
Owner Summit is a 2-day Bureau of Digital Affairs event where Digital Agency owners can get together and chat about, get techniques and tools to better resolve, and most importantly learn how to manage, the stuff that matters to them — read: things that cause anxiety and stress in running a business.
It was an expertly organized conference, with just enough voices in attendance to get great perspectives and spark good conversation while still feeling intimate and warm — like a big dinner party. The food was outstanding, but that’s for another post. Having attended many conferences around Canada, the US, and Europe, this felt special. To say that it’s worth its price tag is just a huge understatement.
My hope for going to OS was to gain a sense of direction. Not just for my company, but also for me. For the past 13 years, running Filament has meant that I’ve worn a lot of different hats. I’m not going to name them all because, A) you’re smart and can probably infer that running a business, a small one at that, means that, as an owner, you’re doing a lot of everything yourself and b) naming all of the things would be a post on its own.
Aaaanyhoo. Direction. Right. Filament grew a lot last year and it got to the point where I didn’t instinctively know how to run the business anymore. At smaller sizes, I just knew how to resolve the issues, change direction, discuss strategy, and manage (lead?) the team. Things changed when more people came on board. Stuff that we would be on top of in the past was getting missed, projects got bottlenecked and a bunch of other things happened (like a senior developer getting deported) that continually frustrated me. We never really got back to optimal efficiency and the frustrations mounted because it felt as if we couldn’t navigate out of it, whatever funk we were in. We started tinkering with process, introducing more tools, more meetings, and really trying to increase the frequency of honest and transparent conversations with the team. And, in doing all of this, my role changed, I was no longer doing work-product but paving the way for my team to do it.
I haven’t done any design or development work in close to a year and a half. The feelings of regret or anxiety about not doing actual work started to creep in. Questions cropped up in my head and I didn’t have the answers to them. Things like:
- Am I focusing on the right things to move forward?
- What does ‘moving forward’ even mean?
- Should I also work on dev for this project?
- Should I jump in and work on design?
And the biggie:
- Does my team think that I’m pulling my weight, even though I’m not doing design or dev anymore?
I was setting strategy and managing projects but, to me, I always felt a little guilty or regretted that I wasn’t helping the way I had in the past. I don’t have to feel regret or anxiety for the evolution of my role.
Being a firm believer that multitasking is a crock of shit (read this if you want a neat perspective), I knew that I couldn’t work on the business and also work in the business. I just didn’t have capacity to grow and steer the business while at the same time produce great work, personally. Producing great work is, and will always be a core value to the company.
Hearing Nancy Lyons speak about letting the guilt go — even though she was speaking to being emotionally invested in clients — allowed me to reflect on this presence of guilt that has stuck with me for the better part of a year. I don’t want to sound dramatic, and certainly it wasn’t paralyzing, but it was there and I knew it, but never vocalized it to my team and it was starting to cloud my decision-making.
Reconciling the guilt was made easier when Richard Banfield of Fresh Tilled Soil spoke about the evolution of roles, and that it doesn’t matter what role you have, because it has nothing to do with the person you are. After that, it was almost as if I’d been given permission to do the thing that I wanted to do.
During one of the breakout sessions, there was discussion around figuring out what you want to be, an Orchestrator or a Technician — given what’s happened with Teehan+Lax recently, it’s a timely topic of reflection for business owners. I guess I always felt that getting your hands dirty as a technician was the best way to push the business forward. I now realize that’s folly.
Sure, I miss it, being able to come in and know that my day will consist of extended periods of complete focus on a dev or design task, but I don’t regret or resent my role. I appreciate my role even more and, thanks to Owner Summit, I’ve got a renewed focus and perspective on what I do. There is just as much craft in running a business as there is in the work that the business takes on. I’ll still put everything I’ve got into the work I do, I just contribute differently than I used to and I’m totally fine with that.
I’m almost positive that my team never thought my role was insignificant or that I wasn’t contributing in a way that mattered — I just needed to get out of my own head. I’m looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead and I feel more confident about dealing with them knowing that there is a really smart group of people that I can send an email to who, chances are, have already been there.
With such a great speaker lineup and excellent topics for breakout sessions, discussions in between were always charged but too short. All that meant was that there was always something to talk about with the new connections you’d made. I almost didn’t have a chance to get out to Torchy’s. Almost.
I’ll continue to stay in touch with my new colleagues and friends and will most certainly be looking forward to going back again with a whole new set of problems.
If you run a digital or creative agency, consider it for your next conference. That said, you don’t have to wait for a conference if you’ve struggled with these sorts of anxieties or choices. You’re not alone, so reach out to other owners, grab a coffee to talk it out — you’ll thank yourself. Choose your path wisely because if you’re good at what you do, chances are you’ll be doing it for a while.
As for the tacos from Torchy’s: Matador, The Trailer Park, Aces of Spades in that order.