Greg is the CEO of Happy Cog, the legendary company founded by Jeffrey Zeldman. Greg began his career in sales and marketing in 1992, before turning his focus to interactive design in 1994. He worked as a web designer for 10 years, and has managed teams since 1997.
An entrepreneur at his core, he has launched several successful companies. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife Melissa and sons Nash and Penn, and is passionate about food, music, travel, Philly sports, Airstream travel trailers, and anything that's brewed, fermented, or distilled.
Greg tweets @hoyboy.
These Names Are Taken
If you’re thinking about starting a digital design company in 2015, I have assembled a few list of popular naming conventions that you should steer clear from, because these categories are totally full. If you see some that are missing, I don’t care, because this is enough. If you want to claim a future spot in one of these categories, I will be accepting a modest reservation fee of $25,000 USD for a place on the waiting list, which I will be admistrating henceforth*:
All the Boxes
Unexpected/Witty Adjective/Noun Combos
Authoritative Statements of Scale
All The Spots
Single Word Things
*Just kidding, there’s no list. But you can still send me $25 Gs.
Until Greg Do Us Part
Ever since Greg Storey and I met at SXSW in 2007 (where seemingly everyone met back then), that’s pretty much how people referred to us. It was easier, because where there was one Greg, the other was not far away. Storey would chat someone up about proper steakhouse decorum, and I would simultaneously be chatting someone else up about his chatting up people about proper steakhouse decorum. And after Storey’s company Airbag became part of the Happy Cog family in 2009, our relationship was further solidified in inseparable Gregdom.
After we got tired of the accounting headache associated with operating two separate businesses flying the same company flag, we decided to formally merge our operations in 2013. We called it Hoy Storey at the suggestion of our attorneys. The lawyers would say, “It’s kind of like “Toy Story,” get it?” Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Greg Storey is first and foremost a designer. Airbag (his alter-ego as much as it was the name of his company) was always about design. His personal site offered insightful pieces with one-word titles about all things design, often incorporating odd military references and inside jokes. It didn’t matter if you understood anything the dude was saying, you just bought into it because he was so convincingly witty. He inspired thousands. People, even long after he slowed his writing down, would come up to him and thank him for his contributions. I saw it happen all the time.
And me, well, I fell into web design via a more “businessy” track. I was a good designer, but I longed to be a great designer. Even if I would never get there, I was just as happy focusing on the business stuff. And by and large, that’s how my career has evolved.
So there we were, the Gregs. By all accounts, a two-headed boss. We both liked meat, liquids that made us feel funny, wearing our shirts untucked, chatting people up, laughing until no sound was coming out, and providing experiences for our employees as importantly as paychecks.
As we worked through the past two years, we began to struggle with our roles. Do I analyze the business? Does he do the marketing? Who should the buck stop with? Do we both pitch? Who has final say on design stuff, if either of us? It was like a big game of Perfection where we both had shitty pieces. Even though we enjoyed working together, we struggled. He’d go down a path that I’d invariably try to impose my will upon, or he’d try to design something and get his hand slapped. We were both relying upon our experiences running smaller shops, where we could make decisions with impunity. Lots of things about our collective mindset didn’t scale gracefully, especially as we approached 35 people.
2014 has been a year I’ll never forget. It has taught me more about running a business than any other. We’ve had successes and we’ve had failures, and nothing has been automatic. Many of the failures were out of our control, but some we contributed to, for sure. I think one of the biggest failures is falling prey to the mindset that your job is your job, and if it has veered outside of your passion zone, too bad—you’re stuck with it.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, it was evident that we needed to change our status quo. We made some extremely difficult decisions. And at the point we decided our course of action, Greg said the time was right for him to move on. He did so out of concern for his coworkers, but I could also tell he did so for himself. When facing the reality of struggling to find his role vs. the opportunity to simply focus on design, design won. And design should have won.
And just like that, his name in Slack went from a constant boldface to a thin, opaque italic. His daily quips are gone. His larger-than-life charisma will now be for some other TBD lucky dog to enjoy on a daily basis, as will his incredible design thinking and endless ideas. But I know he’ll be happy, and I know I’ll still see him. But man, it’s weird not having the other Greg around.
Next time you have the opportunity, raise a fine glass of Pinot Noir (“properly chilled and decanted,” preferably “from the Russian River Valley” recommended after a 20 minute conversation with the sommelier, because “they’re the experts”) to a guy who put his ass on the line for his colleagues, and is now rightfully doing the same for himself.
My pal, Greg Storey.
Manage or Be Managed
Ebola. I know you’ve been following it. If you live in the United States as I do, you’re following it very closely. And if you drive an ambulance in Monrovia, you have absolutely no choice.
Despite the tragedies America has endured, I, as I suspect many of my fellow citizens do, carry a default sense of confidence with respect to my safety and well-being. Protected from aggressors, from starvation, from disease. And I take comfort in knowing that there are brave, smart, forward-thinking people that are guarding against, outwitting, and anticipating the myriad things that threaten our society. Things that threaten my stupid ability to get an iced coffee on a daily basis. I take these things for granted, because by dumb luck I was born into a middle class American family where my reality is vastly different than the majority of the planet.
I’m frustrated though. Frustrated with an enduring, underlying crisis management posture in America. It’s a “management under duress” philosophy. Wait for something bad to happen in order to figure things out or take action. Wait for a plane to crash before implementing safety recommendations. Wait for bridges to fall into rivers before considering investments in infrastructure. School shootings. Or, wait for a deadly disease to arrive on United flight 822 in Dallas before figuring out you need a protocol.
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in America went for treatment (and subsequently died on October 8), is not one of the four American hospitals designed to treat the disease. It was the hospital that he could go to. If he was lucky enough to have been able to choose one of the four specially equipped biocontainment facilities in Nebraska, Montana, Maryland or Georgia, he’d have had a fighting chance. But these four facilities can only hold a total of nine patients.
Texas Health Presbyterian is dealing with at least 50 (and as many as 76) health care workers who may have potentially been exposed to Ebola, and two of those health care workers were infected with the virus. They were wearing “basic protective gear but had not yet upgraded to full biohazard suits” as disclosed in Congressional questioning. And the second infected health care worker, Amber Vinson, hopped on an airplane to Cleveland with 132 other people to plan her wedding. On the return leg of her journey, she “called the CDC to report an elevated temperature of 99.5 Fahrenheit. She informed the agency that she was getting on a plane.” What.
And NBC News Medical Correspondent Nancy Snyderman, who I watched report from Liberia in a protective suit on my kitchen TV, was one of seven people quarantined after NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo tested positive for Ebola while working in Liberia. She broke that quarantine picking up food at a Princeton, NJ restaurant.
Look, I’m not a dude who posts political opinions on Facebook. And this has nothing to do with web design, I know. But if the people who manage the CDC (and for that sake, my country) don’t have an actionable plan ready to deploy at the first sign of trouble, that’s worrisome. And if there was a plan, the plan failed.
And sure, there are pithy parallels I can make as they pertain to running a web business, but you know that already. I'm too far down my path now to equate this heavy stuff to anticipating client feedback or some crap like that.
People expect you to have a plan, in advance. If you find yourself facing sharp questioning at a Congressional hearing, you’ve missed your management obligation.
The Backchannel Consumes Us All
We have lots of ways to communicate. And the most popular methods don’t require you to even open your mouth. Just misspell something in a box and hit send.
I remember the days working in an office tower when I rode an elevator ten floors to have a real-time conversation with a coworker. Sure, phone calls worked, but an in-person visit signified you meant business. It was a pain, so before I committed to it, I made sure I had all of my ducks in a row—my thoughts planned, my supporting materials under my arm, and my bathroom key in hand (just to be sure).
These days, we just type stuff, even when we’re sitting next to each other. It has become effortless to share snippets of information—sometimes without context, often without real words. And lest we forget how portable these snippets can be.
In my eyes, the most dangerous by-product of SMS, IM, Slack, Hipchat, or any other real-time, text-based communication is how it emboldens us to share information we wouldn’t ordinarily share, perhaps with people we typically wouldn’t, without being mindful of consequence. Such communication is subject to devolving into an electronic game of telephone, with the resolution of the original message degrading with each handoff.
Such communication is often referred to as the “backchannel,” coined by Victor Yngve in 1970, which evolved into a term that described an online conversation about a topic or speaker at tech conferences. In this context, I'm just talking about any online conversation one might have.
The backchannel can all-too-easily erode trust and compromise relationships. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of people sending messages about specific individuals, only to have such messages accidentally end up in the hands of the person being discussed. “Wrong window” syndrome. And yes, I’ve been guilty of sending a text message about a buddy to a group text, including said buddy. Nothing elevates heart rates quicker.
I think we rely on the backchannel because most of us inherently dislike conflict. Matt Tenney thinks you should embrace it as he wrote in his post for Huff Post Business:
“Unresolved personal conflict can be extremely toxic for a team or even an entire organization. Thus, the dialogue is not optional...”
I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to vent by talking it out with someone—whether it’s about a beef you have with someone else or something you don’t agree with at work. And expecting people to change decades of water cooler mentality in the digital age is a tall order. But next time you go down that path, just consider the consequences if that message ended up exactly where you didn’t want it to. Because it often does.
The Newest Vacation
Vacation. What a fantastic word. Almost as good as “poolside.” Or “charbroiled.” And “poolside” and “charbroiled” are usually part of any vacation I take, so “vacation” wins.
In my lifetime, there are three types of vacation:
- Type 1: Vacation with my family when I was a kid
- Type 2: Vacation I took in my adult life before I had kids
- Type 3: Vacation with my kids
I spent the first 40 years of my life experiencing the first two types. These were either “Here’s where you’re going, kid” trips (Type 1), or “Here’s where I want to go and here’s what I want to do” trips (Type 2). I have had little experience with Type 3. Until now.
As I prepared for my two-week vacation three weeks ago, my friends, colleagues, family, and professional advisors encouraged me to take three weeks off. It’s been a tough year thus far, and I was already pretty spent and insufferable. So I took their advice. Time to recharge and become human again. I’d surely have more than enough time to reflect on the year, plan for the future, and just bask in some off-the-grid calmness. Surely.
As a quick aside, this was the longest stretch I’ve ever taken away from work. Like, completely away. I deleted my work email account and removed Slack from my iPhone, because I didn’t trust myself not to check them. This is the first time I’ve cracked open my laptop in almost three weeks, and moments ago my screen exploded into a Growl message hootenanny of email notifications (824 unread), an hour of Dropbox syncing activity, an Apple update telling me I missed tens of millions of Digital Camera RAW Compatibility updates, and a CrashPlan (an automated cloud backup service) brow-beating basically saying “You deserve what you get.”
Let me get this crap out of the way. Ok.
19 days ago, we started our Type 3 getaway by hauling our Airstream trailer up to Portland, Maine for a six-day stint. It’s an eight-hour drive from Philly, so we split the trip up into two four-hour sprints. This is crucial if you have kids, and we have two little ones, ages four and 18 months. I’m almost 45. My tolerance for tomfoolery is waning fast. When one kid slept, the other screamed. When the other kid slept, the other one screamed. And when they were both awake, they both screamed in a call-and-response shriek contest in which there are precisely zero winners. My wife and I looked at each other with those “Oh, shit” looks—already, our stress levels were through the roof, and we really hadn’t stepped out of the vehicle yet.
Our first time in Portland (a beautiful city, by the way) was largely spent eating fried things, touring, dodging monsoons, and mitigating kid meltdowns. I also had to save my eldest son from choking on a hot dog by giving him a swift wallop to the upper back (if you’re a parent, make sure you know what to do—it’s scary when it happens.) The thing flew out like a Patriot missile. We were all shaken up, but he was back to being a maniac in no time.
One day I booked an afternoon boat tour around Casco Bay that explored lots of lighthouses and adorable island communities. The first 27 minutes on the boat were neat. The rest of the trip devolved into a shitstorm of kid tears and inconsolability. Our youngest boy has no less than five teeth coming in simultaneously right now, and if the breeze so much as catches his gums at the right speed and direction, you’d think we removed his arms. And our elder boy was apparently two minutes shy of his varying and unpredictable sleep quota, so he felt it was appropriate to join his brother in uncontrollable sobbing solidarity. There we were, trapped with two rubberlike children for the remaining 93 minutes on a floating Alcatraz.
The following two weeks took us to Cape May, New Jersey, a quaint Victorian seaside town I have been going to since I was four. I brought a lot of books to read. My wife said, chuckling, “When are you going to read those?” Uh oh.
My mom joined us for the first week. She knew what a challenge it is to parent two young children in equally difficult stages of their psychological and physical development, but she was about to get a continuing ed class. Restaurants were a special exercise in restraint. Silverware instantly became the percussion instrument of choice—knives banging on plates, spoons used as cymbals. Laminated placemats became shuffleboard sticks, launching anything adjacent to them off the table at incredible velocity. Then there’s the “Want it, daddy?” game. Our 18 month old will pick up a piece of food, look at it, and try to hand it to you like it’s a gift. When you politely decline and say, “That’s okay, you have it!” he’ll look at it again, and throw it on the floor like he grabbed a hot iron. Repeat. As a last resort, we'd whip out the iPhone and put on an old Yo Gabba Gabba episode as a distraction just so you can wolf down your now cold, overpriced seafood platter. I used to scoff at parents who did that. I used to.
The casual observer might think, “Those parents have no control over their kids.” The truth is, we’re probably on them way more than we should be for their own well-being. It’s a constant conversation my wife and I have. “Do we hover too much? Do we shut them down too often?” But sometimes, there’s just not a damn thing you can do, because it’s like reasoning with bread dough.
In between all of this, there were moments of life-couldn’t-be-better joy. Those were the moments my wife and I captured and put on Instagram to promote our idyllic family lifestyle spin campaign.
The truth of the matter is, on this vacation, I expected to relax. I expected to have a few cocktails, read some stuff that had nothing to do with my profession, and grab some extra sleep. I was clearly recalling “vacation” without kids. But I have kids. Two. Did I mention that?
But here's the thing. My parents dealt with the same crap. And when you're a little kid, you're subject to all kinds of things that mess you up on a second-by-second basis. Different environments, different rooms to sleep (or not sleep) in, fluctuations in meal times, not napping, physical exhaustion, not to mention the teething and other stuff that affect them. It’s tough being a kid, and therefore, it’s tough being an adult. That's how it works. My wife kept telling me "you need to readjust your expectations." Boom.
From here on out, I won't lump "vacation" into one single, all-encompassing three week event and expect the world from it. My wife and I will take some time with the kids, take some time with each other, at different times. Duh.
I'll get the hang of this someday.
We’ve been having some really intense thunderstorms lately—big, windy, black-as-night, lightning-filled, tree-shredding mayhem machines. We lost power during our last storm. As my wife and I ate Thai food by candlelight in our kitchen, I scoured Twitter for outage updates from our power company (as one does), which were non-existent. I complained that our local all-news-all-the-time radio station was still bot-tweeting stale stories that had nothing to do with the storm, nor the fact that trees had fallen on cars everywhere and people had no power.
Someone tweeted back to me that I should follow real weather pros to get timely information, to which I responded that I did—one of whom I think is really good. I paid her a compliment in a tweet. She responded, thanking me.
Also recently, an athletic friend of mine was doing her athletic things when a complete stranger took notice and complimented her out of the blue on how well she was doing. She said it made her week, and it felt like it had been an eternity that she had any positive reinforcement (outside of her close family and friends) in any facet of her life.
I’ve seen my colleagues go out of their way to high five each other for stepping up and doing a good job, both in person and on Slack. At their suggestion, to take it a step further, we have instituted a “toast of the week” every Friday afternoon in our offices. It’s a nice way to highlight a specific person’s contribution, as well as transition into the weekend by sharing a beverage together.
When it rains it pours. Just this week, our random Know Your Company question for our employees was, “Are there any small things we could do to show our appreciation for each other’s work?” Good timing.
It’s been a challenging 2014 for me. A confidence shaker. Work has been a bit unpredictable, and lots of things have been happening around me that make me wish I could hit the reset button. However, recently, I had a chance to reconnect with my practitioner roots and contribute to a client deliverable, something from which I have been largely removed as our company has grown. My coworkers offered compliments and thanks for my contributions, and I felt a bit like a withered plant that just received a healthy watering. Literally minutes later, I was bouncing around the office like I hadn’t been in weeks.
Personally, I know I need to step up my game with respect to providing positive feedback, and sometimes it takes just a smidgen of positivity directed toward you to hammer that truth home.
The Healing Words
If you work on the web, you know the work of Eric Meyer. He’s an industry pioneer.
In August of 2013, Eric and I were exchanging messages, trying to find a time for our kids and wives to meet. Both of our families were vacationing at the New Jersey shore, a town apart, as we had in previous years.
Just before we were able to agree on a time and place, Eric messaged me that they needed to rush their middle child Rebecca to a local hospital for intravenous fluid treatment, due to something they couldn’t pinpoint. A virus or strep throat, perhaps. Soon thereafter, she was taken to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, undergoing major surgeries.
On June 6, 2014, Rebecca died of an unrelenting brain tumor. It was her sixth birthday. Losing a loved one is tragic. Losing a six-year-old child is unimaginable and unjust.
Through Eric and his family’s experience, we became witness to the raw emotion of a man going through an impossible journey, via his blog. From his earliest post to the day we lost her, we all felt like we knew her through Eric’s writings. I was immediately struck not only by how open he was, but how elegant a writer he is.
In early April, Eric shared with us the reasons he chose to publicly share his journey. He wrote for historical documentation, to provide an account for his son, and for giving him the ability to shape something while everything around him had no form.
When I read Eric’s post entitled “The Truth,” in which he and his wife Kat discuss Rebecca’s prognosis with her, I uncontrollably sobbed over my lunch in a ramen restaurant. It is the most powerful thing I have read in my 44 years.
I am devastated by their loss. I am particularly sensitive because I have young kids of my own. Amidst the agony he and his family are negotiating (and he continues to document), I would like to thank Eric for showing the world what love and compassion truly are.
Having lost my dad recently, I too continue to grieve. Eric, your words have helped me, more than you know.
The Fine Line Between Hero and Zero
I remember how it felt when I left the job I feared the most. It felt like the day Elwood Blues picked up his brother Jake from Joliet. Sweet freedom.
During my tenure there, I remember my co-workers describing how it used to be before my time. It started as a tight-knit group of eight, in a cozy townhouse nestled in a happening part of the city. They had an open floor plan because they had no choice, not because it was hip. Everyone would pitch together, travel together, work as a single team on projects, and hang out outside of work. And it didn’t matter who owned the company and who didn’t—it was just a work family thriving in a hierarchy-free utopia where everyone had equal say.
As the company grew, they jettisoned the cozy office for a bigger, staler environment. Fluorescent lights. Cubicles. People were often hired in fire drill fashion to fill "look-what-we-found" project slots. When employees didn’t work out because they weren’t properly vetted, they were shown the door.
As headcount further increased, the owners become more distant and impatient. They’d fail to set proper expectations, and when employees would inevitably fall short of their mystery benchmarks, all hell would break loose. It became a toxic environment propelled by threats and intimidation. Current and former employees got together outside of work and gossiped regularly about the company, myself included. I remember thinking, “If I own my own company some day, I’ll never let things get like this.” I’d create the company I always wanted to work for.
In 2006, I finally got the chance. And interestingly, the growth pattern was strikingly similar. We started in an old brewery in a hip neighborhood, and had a handful of really great people. We’d work, eat, and hang out together. Then, as we got bigger, we moved to larger offices, instituted more complex rules, and had to work harder to keep everyone on the same page.
When people asked me how big I wanted the company to be, I’d always say, “I can’t see growing beyond ten people. I want to know everyone.” Then, over time, I’d find myself ratcheting up that number when I was asked the question again. The work was coming in, and it seemed silly to turn it down. More work, more people.
Almost weekly, I kept reminding myself not to end up like my former bosses. “Greg, always remember to be fair, be supportive, have fun, and don’t to take work too seriously,” I’d say in my head.
A funny thing happens along the way though, and I didn’t understand this when I’d sit at those happy hours and bash my old bosses. When you bootstrap something, you quite literally pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it, not to mention every penny you have. It’s your baby, and you’ll do anything to protect it. You have a vision of how it will turn out, all the way down to the color of the office chairs you’ll have in 20 years. It’s easy to be the freewheeling fun guy when you’re eight people. When you quadruple that, you have to delegate responsibilities if you are to stand a chance. And if you’re a control freak, that’s really tough. The care you take in that process will either make your life easier, or give you a heart murmur.
Which way that goes is entirely on you.
If you take the time to work with people, clearly establish expectations, and show confidence in them, you have a much greater chance of being on the right trajectory. Move too fast, become distracted, or be a chronic blamer, and you’ll be cursed over vodka tonics. That’s about it.
I think a lot about those bitch-a-thons we used to have. I’ve had nightmares about being the subject of those too, I must admit. At the end of the day, I feel the path I’ve chosen and the decisions I’ve made have been the right ones, even if at times I executed them with high school sophistication. And I’m okay with that.
Differentiate or Die?
I recently spoke to quite a few digital design shop owners, and the consensus is that the first quarter of 2014 sucked, and for some, criminally so. Shops depleted their cash reserves, struggled to meet payroll, extended their lines of credit, and yes, downsized.
For our firm, it seems to be a chronic first quarter kind-of-thing. And while it doesn’t happen every year, it has happened in four of the last seven. We always try to prepare ourselves during the last quarter of the year so we can bridge the Q1 gap, just in case. And that’s a challenge, because you’re also trying to get cash off your books, figure out if you have money for bonuses, and leave enough liquid assets as a safety net.
I’m fortunate to be able to draw insight and advice from a lot of my contemporaries who attended Owner Camp, of which I’m a co-founder. I won’t name names (that’s against our rules) but I have permission to share this stuff. Some observations they’ve noted with respect to Q1 2014:
- Prospective client budgets are 50–75% lower than years past
- The sales cycle is taking months instead of weeks
- Payments for existing projects have slowed significantly
- Project teams are becoming taxed with more work
- Prospective clients are performing more work in-house (a vastly shared sentiment)
- Agencies are putting hiring on hold and freezing benefits
- Agencies are relying more and more on one or two “anchor” clients
- Large scale projects ($250K+) are few and far between
- Prospective clients are fielding proposals from many more firms
- Decisions are increasingly being made by large committees
To add to that list, some say due to the ongoing commoditization of design, you need to differentiate; otherwise you’ll forever be at the mercy of the industry’s fickle ebbs and flows. You need to have a unique point of view, and being a generalist doesn’t help you stand out. You’ll also have to start taking marketing seriously. Stop treating it like a thing you’ll get to if you have time, or have a few extra bucks to throw at it. It’s business 101 stuff. I’m reminded of the importance of differentiation by something Bill O’Reilly unapologetically said about being called a sensationalist. Regardless of how you feel about the guy, you have to give him these 25 seconds.
Others have gone as far to say that the very concept of a user experience-focused agency simply isn’t a long-term play, largely because of what the big folks are up to. Facebook and Google went on a design/product buying spree specifically because they needed to figure out how to own this thinking themselves, and other tech companies have followed. And more traditional industries, like insurance, media, and retail? They’ll develop robust in-house capabilities soon, if they haven’t already.
Ready to pack up your things and start a landscaping business? Not so fast.
I’ve managed teams in some large organizations, many of which were building their own in-house capabilities. And, while on paper, it made sense for them to do so by snagging talent to achieve the promise of glorious self-sufficiency, the one thing that they never accounted for was their own politics. Time and time again, ideas were presented to various internal stakeholders, all of whom had their own agendas and budgets. Pushing ideas through the maze of red tape and exhausting levels of buy-in was usually a soul-sucking effort in futility. Even though everyone was theoretically working for the greater good, everyone was working against each other at the same time. Great ideas became mediocre ideas that became ghosts of ideas put on the back burner. And ultimately, the only way for them to ship something was to hire third party design firms. That dynamic hasn’t gone away. I don’t think it ever will.
And, as another Owner Camp colleague pointed out, agencies tend to provide better work environments for creative thinking, through a variety of projects and design-oriented cultures. And when talented design professionals leave an in-house team at a larger organization, those organizations are often left with mid-level production people and their managers. Those managers are going to look at their team and recognize that they can handle some internal work, but that they are going to need to bring in niche specialists in order to achieve their goals.
Finally, there’s this thought from another successful agency head: there is a massive amount of untapped work out there that is waiting for you. You don’t have to change a thing with your business, you just have to find it. Again, this speaks to the fact that you need to spend money on marketing. The industry has many more talented players than it used to.
When you’re in the middle of a tough situation, it’s human nature to wonder what the hell you’re doing wrong. I believe the best thing you can do in these circumstances is to talk to others who are going through it themselves. And talk to those who aren’t, too. Take stock in what they share. Apply what you think makes sense. Remain true to your gut.
But most of all, remember that cycles are cyclical.
My Personal Organization Is a Joke
Inbox zero. Balderdash. I used to scoff at the notion of clearing out your inbox and snicker at people who claimed they could do it. At any given time, my inbox was about 500 messages deep, and while others may be dealing with lots more, to me, 500 is like picnicking under icicles.
I know, there all kinds of “new-fangled” ways to deal with email. I remember Gmail being the first attempt to turn email on its head, but I hated the interface (still do). And labeling/tagging emails is for suckers, I thought. But folders? Eff yeah folders! Gotta have 'em. I’m in my mid-forties, I grew up in a world of hanging file folders and metal filing cabinets. It’s time-tested, right? To this day, I meticulously file all of my email into folders nestled into a taxonomy that would stupefy library scientists. And this process, when repeated over and over, takes forever. Yeah. Not good.
And let’s not forget about all of the in-person encounters throughout the day that don’t land in your email. The to-dos resulting from meetings, the hallway conversations that lead to other stuff you need to take care of, and the things that pop up in your own head, like “Get your taxes done, dummy” (I just had that one happen when I started typing this paragraph.) Unless you have a plan to deal with these inputs, they can consume you. I can’t even walk to lunch on a nice day and simply enjoy the walk. I’m always thinking about something I have to do with each step I take.
I was recommended a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I started reading it on a flight recently. I have yet to finish it, but it’s already changed my thinking. The general premise is that your brain is like computer RAM—it can only handle so many processes at a time. Therefore, you need to offload that crap before you start to get like a hot iPhone. He refers to the flotsam that needs dealing with as “open loops.”
The core of his philosophy is simply to establish buckets to offload the open loops into, then to establish a decision tree workflow methodology to deal with them. There’s a nice diagram of the workflow in the book, and my interpretation of it is:
What is it?
Can you do something about it?
If you can, will it take less than two minutes to complete? If it will, just do it and stop whining.
If it’ll take more than two minutes, either delegate it to someone else (hooray for delegation!), or defer it for a bit. And if you defer it, either take care of it shortly thereafter or set a calendar reminder to knock it out at a later time (but don’t keep changing the date, cheater).
If you can’t do something about it, either throw it away/get rid of it, sequester it as something you’ll maybe or someday get to, or just archive it for future reference so you’ll have it if you need it.
Make buckets. Fill them. Empty them. Don’t get more buckets. Duh. Brilliant.
While that all seems pretty simple, it was the kick in the pants I needed to adjust my thinking. My inbox went from 423 to zero in 30 minutes. Yeah, that stuff is all still there, but it’s now organized by action and purpose, and its not staring at me in a long list, mocking me. And in the physical world, I plan on recording the stuff I need to remember using a tool like Evernote or Apple’s Reminders fed by Siri (or some crazy future world magic) to subject to the same workflow. I’m sure I’ll tweak it as I continue through Allen’s book, but I needed to do something.
I guess the most important thing I realized from this exercise isn’t that I implemented a new workflow. It’s finally realizing I needed to implement a new workflow. Don’t be afraid to deconstruct your processes at every level and try to make them more efficient. If you’re swimming in your own thoughts and you can’t find the time to do the stuff that matters, you may need to shake the tree a bit.
I’ll report back on this to let you know if it has had a lasting impact on me. I have a feeling I’m already forever changed.
Say "Hello." It's Free.
My wife and I have two young boys, ages one and three, and we’re awakened anywhere between 4:30 AM and 7:30 AM, even on the weekends. It sucks. I know, we signed up for this when we decided to have kids, but that won’t dissuade me from moaning about it. When the elder boy gets into the groove and sleeps late, the little one wakes up at 5 AM with a load in his pants. Just when Sir Pants-A-Lot gets back into the groove, the older one decides to escape his room, tiptoe to our bedside and abruptly terminate what little REM sleep we’re able to savor, causing minor heart attacks in the process. I’ll hear a little voice say, “Hi, daddy” in my ear, and I’ll open my eyes to find a little face staring at me. If you’re not used to that, it is terrorizing, even if the little face is your own child. So, as you can imagine, with so little sleep, there are many mornings I’m not in a stellar mood. If you pepper in the complete lunatics I dodge on Interstate 95 during my commute to work, then you’ll understand why I’m particularly void of pleasantries in the morning hours. But my kid said “hi” to me, and I’m holding on to that.
After pulling into the parking lot near my office, I walk over to the cashier, who is perched in a metal box slightly larger than an airplane lavatory. We’re in the middle of a brutal winter in Philadelphia, so lately, he’s been huddled in there fighting for warmth as the temperature struggles to escape the single digits. When I arrive at his door, he slides it open and belts out “Good morning!” I’m a bit taken back by it every time. This guy is so cold he can barely hand me my change, but he always greets me like I’m the king of the parking lot.
I then pop into my favorite coffee joint, grab a large to go, and encounter Ron. Ron is a fixture in our office neighborhood. You can usually find him standing on the corner wearing an orange jumpsuit or a third-hand delivery service jacket. He does odd jobs for some of the businesses, but mostly he just hangs out and smokes. You can always count on Ron for a hearty “How ya doin’!” My favorite is when you respond “Fine, thanks,” to which he responds, “Aiiiiiight!” Ron doesn’t have a lot going on throughout his day, but you can’t walk by without him greeting you.
As I enter our office building, the maintenance crew is busy hauling the dumpsters from the curb through the lobby (we have an old-school building with no loading dock). The guys are filthy and tired, and it’s only 7:30 AM. But Frank, Eddie, Agustin, and the rest of the crew always stop to welcome me and give me a nice pat on the shoulder.
When I enter our office, I’m still dragging because I have yet to take a sip of my rapidly cooling coffee. And I’m still fuming about the jerk who cut me off on my drive. I’m already thinking about the zillion things I have to do, and the limited time I have to get it all done. I make a bee-line back to my office without saying a word so I can blitz through my important email before we meet for our daily status meeting. I’ll start firing off chat questions usually without even pausing to type the words “good morning” to the person I’m trying to get answers from. Then I stop and think. This is ridiculous.
We are in the business of facilitating communications. We stare at screens all day so we can make positive experiences for others who stare at their screens all day. We strive to make people feel comfortable, welcome, and wanted in an artificial reality. Yet, in real life, we dart to our computers, put on our headphones, and hide from each other. We input our conversations through keyboards, often when the person with which we are conversing is right next to us. When we get up because our legs are numb, we’ll pass by each other as if we said hello at some point, but never really did. We’re on coffee-fueled autopilot, blissfully unaware of our surroundings until we’re put into a situation where we need to be. Our perspective is skewed.
If being a toddler, working in a 5 degree box, or being one step away from homeless is what it takes to reconnect with our humanity, we should reassess. We should start by not taking our interpersonal relationships for granted. We should talk to each other. We should look each other in the eye. And at the very least, we should say “hello.” It’s free.
Collaborate Like a Craft Brewer
I like beer. I used to drink bad beer in volume when I was a college jerk, but I prefer to drink really good beer in smaller quantities now that I’m a refined gentleman.
If you asked me what my favorite brewery is, that’s easy. It’s Delaware’s Dogfish Head. Founded in 1995, Dogfish Head is inventive — they age dark brown ales in giant Paraguayan wood tanks, they created a homegrown device called Randall to infuse their beers with other ingredients on the fly, and they have a giant steampunk tree house on the grounds of their brewery.
While all of that stuff is super cool, I appreciate something else about them even more — the spirit of collaboration they foster for their industry. A good old you-show-me-yours and I’ll-show-you-mine way of doing business.
Collaborating to Compete
Dogfish Head’s Founder and President Sam Calagione knows what his industry is up against. Despite the fact that there were over 2,500 craft breweries in the United States in 2013 (compared to only 78 back in 1976, according to the Brewer’s Association), and craft beer production has grown 71% in just six years, the mountain craft brewers must climb is significant. Just two mass brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) and SABMiller, control 75% of the worldwide market, and ABI and SABMiller control 39% and 29% of the United States beer market, respectively. That means that U.S. craft brewers have to scratch and claw to maintain and grow their 32% slice of the pie.
Perhaps because of this, Dogfish Head and other brewing companies like Sierra Nevada, Allagash, Stone, New Belgium, Avery, and Brooklyn (to name a few) have openly, willingly, and enthusiastically collaborated with their competitors. The Street’s Jason Notte surfaces the likely genesis of this sharing attitude:
While ultimately a bunch of individual businesses that have to look out for their own interests, [breweries] tend to share similar stories of origin, growing pains, distribution obstacles, legal and legislative pitfalls and struggles for shelf space. There are a whole lot of shared interests and goals between them, but that results in the occasional shared recipe as well.
In other words, they aren’t precious about all of their secrets, because it makes no sense to be. They purposefully work together, because they realize the collective brainpower they harness and put into action will serve to increase their market share and tip the scales more quickly than going it alone.
At the end of the day, beer is comprised of four main ingredients: water, yeast, malt, and hops. Beer is beer. A brewery differentiates itself by creating unique twists on beer styles, changing their business strategies, and creating lasting relationships. Dogfish Head has experienced fifteen years of double-digit growth. They are expanding their capacity and distribution, and they are further diversifying their business into large-scale partnerships, hospitality and food products. I’m confident Sam Calagione’s collaborative spirit had more than just a little to do with this success.
Hey, It Worked for Them
I am the CEO of a 34-person digital design firm called Happy Cog. I find plenty of inspiration in our industry, but if I had to identify an area in which it sorta smells like bad fish, it’s how we work together to 1) define our collective agenda, and 2) further it. This is where the craft beer industry can teach us all a thing or two. Calagione articulates Dogfish and the craft beer industry’s collaborative philosophy and suggests the tech industry can certainly follow suit.
Web design is a $20 billion industry in the United States. It grew 4.5% in 2013. While more than 70% of the websites built in the U.S. are built by professionals in client services, do-it-yourself website creation companies like Wix (valued at $700 million) and Squarespace are changing the conversation. And while no single web design firm accounts for more than 5.0% of total industry revenue according to IBISWorld, the full-service heavy hitters like R/GA, Razorfish, Designory, DigitasLBi, and BBDO make it tough for 25-100 person boutique design firms to compete to scale.
The Little Agencies That Could
I challenge my industry colleagues to pause from viewing your peers as “the competition.” Take a step back and ask yourself, “Is there something I can offer them? Is there something I can learn from them?” Yes there is, on both counts — even if your philosophies differ or your industry niches don’t completely align.
Let’s adjust our thinking from unnecessarily withholding our experiences, processes, and knowledge, to openly sharing ideas that make us all better off. Don’t like RFPs? Let’s collaborate to construct a coordinated, uncompromising stance. Hate it when clients ask for spec work? Let’s adamantly refuse the idea of it together, while educating those who request it in the process. If we work together, we can positively impact our bottom lines and command a stronger voice in our industry.
Back in July of 2012, while sitting on a bar stool at Philadelphia’s Yards Brewery (I told you I liked beer), I tweeted this:
I am inspired by the US craft brewing industry’s spirit of collaboration. I will bring this to the digital design world. #watchme— Greg Hoy (@hoyboy) July 27, 2012
Since then, my business partner Greg Storey and I launched Owner Camp, a retreat for small to mid-size digital studio owners and professionals who can help them. We share experiences, trade war stories, and forge lasting friendships. It’s the most therapeutic, engaging, and genuinely feel-good experience I’ve ever had working in this industry. This year, we are expanding the idea beyond a bi-annual retreat, in a concerted effort to affect meaningful change for our piece of the industry.
As I type these last few words, I shall crack open a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, stashed away to protect it from holiday consumption, dreaming about the industry that could be.