2 Years In — And This Is The Beginning of For The People v1.0

I’ve decided I’m impatient. I always want things to happen quicker than they do — and probably should. I can often see where I want something to go and once that happens I just expect it to get there as quickly as possible.

If you’re starting a business, I’d recommend trying to balance patience with reality right from the beginning.

The general consensus when it comes to small business is that you’re doing well if you survive your first year, you’re on track if you’re returning a break-even in year 2 and if you’re still going in year 5 you should be returning a healthy profit (such a long time, if you’re someone who can be a bit impatient).

That said, we’re (For The People) ahead of those markers (and the marker that an old Indian palm reader once told me — that I’d make my millions by the time I was 55).

Which is more accurate? Palm reader or 8 ball?

We could have taken the easier path and accelerated ahead. But that would have meant replicating a business that we already knew (from the past), instead of creating something that could perhaps leave a legacy for the future.

We’re constantly testing ourselves and our industry, all without the safety net of an investor or holding company. Instead, we’re our own safety net. While we openly have our faults, the 3 of us — Jason, Damian and I — have our own backs. It’s hard, but it’s working.

After some serious self realisations, hard work, and a few casualties we might just have arrived at For The People 1.0. A business we can say that we’re proud of, but also (not kidding ourselves) has even further to go.

Growing up

Last year, I wrote about how we were still working things out. It was a post that also included what we claimed to have worked out — the naivety of 1 year in! We’d worked it out for where we were — but not where we wanted to be.

We (I) were high on reaching a year. But it masked some of the cracks in our approach. This year I’m writing about realisation and growing up. So firstly, some ‘corrections’.

We worked out how to sprint

Well, kind of. It was a claim and philosophy based on hitting deadlines. Our track record at that over the 6 months following was far from impressive. We rarely missed a client set deadline, but we were woeful at hitting our own — and it had consequences. It hurt our people, and it hurt our bottom line.

We were 14 people

We were paying 14 people, but we weren’t pulling in the dollars for 14 people. Money has never been a problem for the business. But if the 3 of us were going to scale For The People and make it a success, something had to change.

We’d worked out the formula of tech, design, strategy, storytelling

But only now do we know how well that formula can work. The last 3 months in particular have been so rewarding — but more on that later.

We’d worked out how to talk

Yes. But you can’t just talk. You have to understand. I have never worked in such an open, transparent culture, and I love that. But there is still too much left unsaid, at least openly, and thus left misunderstood.

This couldn’t have been emphasised more than when things came to a head between Jason and I a couple of months ago. Our relationship was being tested. Tested by my view (and impatience) on the way things were being done. I was unhappy, and Jason was unhappy and I cracked. It led to a very frank, sensitive conversation about how unhappy he was, I was and how we’d both considered leaving or taking a break from the business.

While it was the worst and most awkward time we’d both had so far at For The People, it has probably been a key step in getting us to the next level. (I think) we now understand each other better, trust each other better, and have greater respect for each other than we have had previously. It’s ridiculous when you’re called ‘For The People’ to forget that you should actually be ‘For The People’.

So with that as background, I feel much more confident about the year to come — because of the soul searching and model creating of the last 3 months.

Welcome to For The People v.1.0

Recently we presented a new model to the team. It aims to improve the way we work, run our business and create a stronger, more creative and productive culture. It caused a little bit of a stir with the team. You can listen to that in Episode 7 of our podcast. We aren’t broken. We’re just growing up.

We’ve hired some exceptional people in the last year (to compliment the original team). We have an even more diverse, creative and capable team that has extended our circle of knowledge and skills. And (whether they realise it or not) they’re at the heart of this change in the way we’re about to work for ourselves and for our clients.

So let me explain For The People v.1.0.

A product-centric approach

At the beginning, we had strong points of view on how our approach should differ to previous employers — moving away from ideas and concepts to real experiences and demonstrations of product and service. No more coming up with ideas that were either unrealistic or misunderstood. Ideas that were lost when passing the baton on to a client or another agency.

In fact, when we first started, we were going to release a series of rants about this approach. We had 12 of them! But it all got a bit too angry. Taking a look back the other day I found this gem from Damian that sums up part of this approach:

“We see organisations like Google and Facebook spend next to nothing on traditional brand building activity and have become some of the most valuable businesses and brands in just over a decade. The argument is that brand should not be taking credit for what innovation and technology has achieved. 
Similarly, Steve Jobs was famously anti-brand. He saw Apple as a product firm. Produce insanely great products and communicate why they are great, and people will love you for it. Now Apple is currently considered as the world’s most valuable brand.
How did a company that hates the concept of brands achieve this when so many organisations invest so much in “brand building” activities?
The answer to this is simple…brands are an outcome. They are for people and not for companies.
They are for employees and they are for consumers. They live in the minds of people. They don’t live in the marketing department or in some IP lawyers’ file.
The sooner we understand this, the sooner businesses will focus on what’s really important, which is aligning the organisation around creating great products, services and experiences for their customers.”

With the team we have now, this is absolutely a reality. We’re building products, digital experiences, bots and on more than a few occasions have developed working prototypes to demonstrate our thinking, rather than relying on some sort of mental leap.

I cannot stress enough, how essential the team we have, are at the heart of this capability.

A structured culture

When we first created a flat structure, it was to eliminate hierarchy that too often creates negative behaviours (despite its positive intent). But in doing so we only delivered on half the deal — the flat bit. The next iteration of For The People provides much more structure and process to help the team succeed in such a self-professed, self-made, challenging and unusual environment.

Hiring
We have a much better process for finding and hiring talent. It involves the team (not just the founders), and places as much emphasis on cultural fit as it does on adding missing skill sets and perspectives to the team. A bank of questions are in place to help everyone interview, a feedback mechanic is in place, and the people we interview also seem all the more prepared for the FTP experience.

Feedback and development
In removing 1 issue, we created another. A common issue for discussion has been the lack of recognition or understanding of progress within the business and (god forbid) if someone was to leave, how would they represent their seniority and capability to another employer.
We’ve tackled this head on.

Peer feedback and recognition is a tough issue
  • Peer feedback sessions with the team members you’re working closest with — every 2–4 weeks (each team member records the feedback they get — both positive and negative)
  • Nomination of essential team members on every project every 2–4 weeks
  • Quarterly OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) for every team member with a mix of personal and business objectives
  • A detailed reference (on leaving, if requested) with everything they’ve achieved at For The People during their time with us, and what we believe their level to be. We’ll even put a page on the website explaining how careers work here — for anyone targeting our staff (yes it happens now)

Continuous learning
Bookclub will continue. It’s part of the routine now. It’s good for us all, and we’ve even had guests off the street and social media. But beyond this, we’re encouraging more and more learning and sharing of skills. From small teams working out points of view on what’s going on in the world, to evening classes — I’m being schooled in motion as we speak.

This, along with the constant search for new opportunities and tickets to conferences and events focused on the startup world or other special interests.

Advocates and mentors
The advocate system is another new initiative. A chance for each team member to take a step back and get advice from each other–for anything. It doesn’t imply seniority, it provides different perspectives, an understanding of different skill sets, and an even better way to discover strengths that exist throughout the team, in order to help each other.

Transparency
You can’t talk about transparency if you’re not doing it yourself. As founders, we attempt to lead from the top (there’s still a little hierarchy of course). Often our true feelings or thoughts will come out through sessions in bookclub, but also this year in much more public situations.

Jason spoke from the heart about his experience at For The People, as well as his personal experience with myself and Damian at the Adobe MAKE IT conference.

I’ve shared personal views on Risk at Creative Mornings, and earlier in the year, Jo and I held a performance review session live on stage at The Design Conference (coming soon).

Not only are we cracking the culture formula, we’re starting to bottle it for clients and projects as well.

Universal process

As we were ‘working it out’ we started developing replicatable elements of process that were applicable to almost all projects, and when present, improved the outcome.

Without realising it, we were writing the formula for v.1.0. It includes components like:

  • Sprints, now structured, that are getting to solutions faster, with everyone on the same page, using different perspectives and skill sets, while sitting next to each other. We haven’t missed a deadline yet.
  • The Grid, a shortform summary of a problem and solution that could quickly get the whole team and a client on the same page.
  • Workout sessions, a way to share information and accelerate thinking and generate ideas after just 1–2 weeks through a project.
Sharing discussions and workings out
  • Video sessions, where we record debates, thinking, working out so that clients can be part of the journey, without always having to be there in the room. It means that as we complete a sprint, we’re just ticking the final box, not delivering any surprises — and clients love them.

A no bullshit financial model

All of the above means that we can construct a financial model that the business can grow into and is 10x more realistic than our previous version, which to be honest, was just borrowed from our past employers.

What are we fixing?

Streamtime: Designed by us, used by us
  • Bookings. We sell time and materials. If you sell time you have to give people a way to manage their time. We’ve introduced Streamtime (which we helped design and develop) and now also have a bookings system that shows where and when we can fit projects in (managed by the team themselves) vs. saying yes and working out the resources later.
  • The connection between people and revenue. We know how much money we need to make to hit certain targets around profit and revenue. In our previous businesses this gets evaluated once a year and if you’re high enough up there’s a chance of a bonus (based on a number of variables, often outside of your control). In v.1.0.––if we hit the right targets — the team have the opportunity to receive reconciliation payments (note: must think of sexier name, suggestions welcome) at the end of each quarter. To do this, we take into account the projects that they’ve worked on, their contribution to the revenue in the business, their nominations and feedback from peers and our own view on their value to the business. It’s essentially a share in the success of the business that we’d strived for at the beginning. Show that you’re consistently doing this and we can increase your hourly rate, revenue, and as a result, salary as a reward.
  • The connection between work in the business and cash in the bank. We normally invoice in phases, or 50% upfront and 50% on completion. This means that our bank balance is always out of kilter with how busy we are (or aren’t). Now, we’ll invoice at the beginning of a 2 week sprint of work, with 14 day payment terms (wherever possible).

Does it really work?

It has done. It was the origins of this model that have already delivered some great results. Results that have been part individual excellence, part exceptional team collaboration, and part trust and partnership with clients that have given us the freedom to get on with it.

Just a small selection we’re incredibly proud of:

  • Streamtime — where we honed the model in bringing together strategy, design, tech and storytelling to take a giant leap forward in the approach to time tracking and project management.
  • Biennale of Sydney — yes, we completed it without breaking our business (sidenote to last years challenge) and delivered one of the most complex and voluminous yet beautiful pieces of work that I think most of us have ever worked on.
  • Adobe Start-Me-Up Labs — a many sizes fits all brand identity toolkit experience for startups all over Sydney, created in collaboration with Adobe.
Start-Me-Up Labs with Adobe

But. Have we hit peak stride?

I can’t wait to be 3

I’m excited by the platform that we’ve developed this year. Between now and our 3rd birthday we’ll share how we’re helping the world to be a kinder place, helping financial services to make the world a better place, and how we’re helping some of the country’s leaders to understand what innovation is truly capable of.

Life changes all the time. New priorities come along, Jason and Jo got married (congrats guys) and Damian needs to finish his renovations and get the kids through high school, and in January, I’m welcoming a new baby boy into the world. We all need to be aware of what’s important to each other, which is why it’s all the more important to get work right — and all the more satisfying to get to something that we’re proud to call, For The People.