Business. It goes on. (Ten years of WAM)
It’s finally here. We Are Mammoth is ten years old.
A couple of weeks ago I was emailing with Shawn Liu from Harvest, whose company has done something so few have managed for more than a decade: succeeded. We discussed the fact that long-viewed entrepreneurs are great self-flagellators. We embrace failure, simmering in it with such relish we rarely look up long enough to see how far we’ve come. Yet here we are looking forward together. Hi, Harvest! Hi, Plank! Hi, Fresh Tilled Soil! Hi, Basecamp!
So how’s it feel? Normal. Our numbers are good, our team members are fulfilled, we do good work, and the economy is healthy for companies like ours.
Things haven’t always been peachy though. We’ve had a couple of lean years due to investments or economic downturns where we really pinched pennies but luckily never had to downsize due to finances. We also haven’t been great at exposing the world to the fantastic work our team does. That means an uphill battle in our business development efforts. Man oh man though, ten years.
When I first sat in that cheap Ikea office chair we had no gigs lined up, no babies, no employees, and no office. Now our company runs two products, Kin and DoneDone, and is the software design and development backbone for some pretty awesome clients.
What it’s taken
The long view
One of the best business books I’ve read (and one of the few I recommend), Small Giants, is a survey of companies that, in my own words, aren’t in such a big damn hurry to dominate the world. We set out ten years ago to stay in business, not to build a hot air balloon and sell it before it cooled. I look to those Small Giants companies for inspiration so often. They’re still around — Clif Bar, Anchor Brewing, Zingerman’s. They’re my rock stars.
We didn’t start our business with a singular set of business goals (money, patents, selling out), rather what I now look back on as a set of qualities like self-destiny, camaraderie, and honest work. Maybe because we’ve focused on the maintenance of these qualities, we’ve avoided the disenchantment that comes along with hitting and missing a single set of business objectives. We’ve failed. We’ve succeeded. We’ve meh’d. Chop wood, carry water. That’s what longevity is about.
Candidness and the dog and pony show
A smart, genuine fella in Chicago named Guy Turner recently wrote about transparency and ethics in entrepreneurs. How much reality do we share with our employees, customers, and investors? The answers to a short survey he gave were what you might expect: most founders claimed a sense of ethical/moral duty to each of the above. I think most founders are good people, but sometimes that virtue is obscured by a tendency to stretch the truth about how their company is performing. I enter for the jury’s consideration, Exhibit A.
Over the years I’ve heard founders proclaim things are great only to see their demise splashed across the internet a few months later. I’ve mostly chosen the more honest route: proclaiming that things are generally going OK. I’m not running for public office nor do I pander to investors. I have no need to weave a web of fortune to pacify the people around me. If ten years has taught me anything, it’s that honesty is a burden worth carrying. The truth is the easiest way to keep my story straight.
Rolling up the sleeves
We’re in this business because we’re smart, capable, and willing to help others. There’ve been a few times over the years when it didn’t feel that way — clients leaning a little too heavily on us or competition flying their battle colors. We’ve always stood on the principle though that hard work and good people make good business. It’s not the complicated business that many organizations make it out to be. Our deep midwestern roots have kept us well-grounded.
No sticks in the mud
Flash started dying a long time ago, but it was the technology that made our early business possible. We knew we couldn’t hold on to it, so we augmented our tech stack and started hiring in anticipation of a more standards-compliant way of building our software. It was the right move to make.
We also grew into a distributed company. It didn’t start with a remote hire, rather good people in Chicago who wanted to move away from the city but who still wanted to work with us. It took more faith than planning, and it paid off. We’re a fully distributed company now with thirty employees in eighteen states.
Change sometimes takes years, and while change for change’s sake isn’t productive, embracing it makes a routine out of the inevitable need to adapt. If the wind blows, see where it takes you.
What’ve we gotten wrong?
The founder’s crystal ball
I talk to my partners about my gut a lot — not how flabby it is, rather what it tells me. My intuition tells me more about the state of our business and industry than anything I read, hear, or create. I’m disappointed in the few times I haven’t listened to this voice when it would have made our company better. I’m still learning how to wield its powers which, I think, means understanding how to qualify its ramblings with the more quantitative sides of business management.
Too slow to know what makes us tick as individuals
It took nine years for us to dig into what makes us tick as a business and as partners. As a company with a long view, this isn’t disdainful, but there are great tools out there (thanks Traci and Tom!) to help us understand our talents, motivations, and even our fears. I can’t help but wonder what kind of company we’d be today had we initially employed some of the insightful practices we’ve only recently put into place.
We didn’t hire for design or biz dev early enough
If I’ve spoken to you about our failures, I’ve spoken to you about not hiring myself out of the job early enough. I wish we would’ve ingrained design and marketing much earlier at We Are Mammoth. Both have been in good hands for some time now, but had they been here from the onset, we wouldn’t have had to play so much catch up in the past few years.
Where we’re headed
Leaders letting go
As our company has grown and aged, so have we as founders. The company still needs us, but what it needs more is a non-founder leadership team with the intuition and know-how to carry the company forward. We’re always going to be the founders, but it’s not fair to the company to expect that we’ll be its only leaders. We’re creating the space and process for non-founders to begin taking over most facets of our companies.
More strategic, but accountable planning
It took ten years to get to know ourselves as a company and community, and now we can use that knowledge to create a strategic vision for the company’s future. Moreover, we’re learning the tools and processes to operationalize those visions into project plans the broader company uses to dig in and start building.
Business. It goes on.
It’s crazy to think we’re thirty people in eighteen states. Our ages span twenty-four years. We have clients who have been with us for eight of our ten years. We have team members who remember when water streamed from the ceiling onto our server equipment.
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life — It goes on.” — Robert Frost
We’re proud of the ten years of heritage we have, but we have new places we want to go. There are companies out there that need our specific brand of thinking and engineering. That’s a core mission of ours in the coming couple of years. We need to move on from who we’ve been to continue improving the outcomes of our people, our clients, and the people who use the tools we build.