Fifteen years ago, I left my job. It was a bad fit, and I probably should have left much sooner. I interviewed at a few other web agencies and they all felt like different versions of what I just left. I knew what I wanted and suddenly realized it didn't exist; I would have to make it.
What followed were years of hard work, long nights, tough decisions and expensive lessons. Here are nine things I wish I knew before starting a web development company:
I had the good fortune of marrying the most patient and dedicated wife on the planet. During the many difficult moments – wrangling clients, wading through finances, cleaning up HR issues, looking into the abyss and having it look back – she never once doubted that it would be OK. She rolled up her sleeves to help in any way she could. She remains my closest adviser about issues great and small and is the primary reason Integrity exists today. If your life partner doesn't want your company to succeed, it will not. Period.
I once had a bad partner fit and I now enjoy a great partner fit. The benefits of having a great partner aligned with your vision is worth the risk of trying/exiting a bad one. We can't all be good at everything; find someone who shares your values and loves to do the stuff you don't enjoy. It makes everything so much more fun, and life is too short for drudgery.
Those who work with you and the clients you serve ultimately define a service business. It is YOUR job to be the gatekeeper and ensure both team member and client are cultural fits. No shortcuts. Own it.
I have never regretted ending any working relationship too soon (employee or client), but many times I have regretted ending them too late. Once you know, let them go ASAP; before real damage is done to the company, the team or their career.
I once wasted huge amounts of time and money building an online shopping product for pizza stores that was too early for the market. Stores did not understand it, and I had to shelve the product. Ultimately, my mistake was not poor timing, but selfishness. I had the opportunity to have a national pizza chain (800 stores) as a partial owner/investor and turned them down to maintain complete ownership. Very stupid. That experience completely changed my view on business and new ventures.
In hindsight, building an online pizza e-commerce system was also stupid because that isn't how we make money. We are (and always have been) a user experience-focused web design/build company. We are not staffed to run a new spin-off company and drive it aggressively by ourselves. It seems every agency has a few stories of their “multimillion dollar product idea” that went nowhere – primarily because that's simply not what they do. Stay focused on how you make money, then grow and refine that singular model. Distractions are extremely expensive for a services firm and occasionally downright fatal. If you really want to build a product, then BE a product company. Flirting with half-hearted efforts is guaranteed failure.
If you think you can build a great company around your “day job,” you are wrong. Either push 200 percent for the company you work for and drive its success or quit and grow a new venture into a global powerhouse. Riding the career fence is like secretly marrying two people to see which will work out better. One is more stable, but the other is more fun. All you'll have to do is put in the minimum effort and see which pans out. Garbage. It is hugely unfair to both and will certainly end badly for everyone involved – especially you. Pick a path, own it completely and create something remarkable with the limited time you have on this planet.
I have always had a specific vision for how things should work and am accustomed to having people tell me I am wrong. Integrity exists today because I ignored the advice of others and followed what I believed was right. Today we are the largest privately-held web development company in St. Louis with zero sales staff. We are a manager-less team where everyone enjoys open PTO and the freedom to do what they believe is right every day. Everyone said our model could never work, but new ideas will not be found in old patterns. Don't let anyone change your vision of how the world should work.
Experiment. Try new things. But once you know something isn't working out, let it go and move on. Get to conflict fast and honestly accept things for what they are, even if it's painful or disappointing. Life is impossibly short and mediocrity should be feared far more than death. The world may not like you, but if you are prolific they can't ignore you. As a builder of things (companies, products, people, etc), this is the name of the game. Always be building something you love with people you love in the way you know it should be done.
Fifteen years ago, I was an oddball looking for a home that didn't exist. If you are an obsessive perfectionist with amazing communication skills looking to work with a group of cool people building cool projects, we may just be the home you never knew existed. Drop us a line anytime. We would love to meet you.
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Integrity partner, Ed Morrissey, will present at the Healthcare Internet Conference this year, helping healthcare organizations be successful on purpose.