Hacking the American Dream

Last week I had the privilege of attending the 2011 BigOmaha conference. BigOmaha was by far the best event I have ever attended. The Silicon Prarie News team did an amazing job organizing and executing this conference.

Filled to the brim with inspiring content and amazing introductions, Jonathan Sharp, Andrew Wirick and I sat down to just hang out and decompress on the event. The short discussion that followed crystalized a perspective I’ve held for a while, but am only beginning to understand and communicate.

A bit of history

When I founded appendTo in October 2009, I was working full time in another company I’d founded, a Drupal consultancy called A Mountain Top, LLC. Jonathan Sharp and I were working together, but hadn’t made the full jump into a partnership yet. We landed our first training gig with AOL and earned enough money to get the company off the ground. The initial plan was to merge A Mountain Top with appendTo, leveraging the success of A Mountain Top to propel the new venture.

That plan ended abruptly in mid-December. Due to a series of unforseen events, A Mountain Top came unraveled in the span of a few days. Everything I had worked to build for the prior three years evaporated in a span of a few days. Going into the holidays, I chose to take some time off, something I hadn’t truly done since I began working in my own business.

It was during that time that I realized I had to change my approach. I’d learned many valuable skills in my previous venture, but had also introduced many fatal flaws into A Mountain Top. The chief flaw being I was always working for tomorrow, always searching for that big payoff.

I realized that while the damage to A Mountain Top could be repaired, I had been given a tremendous opportunity with appendTo, an opportunity to do something different.

Trying to do it “My Way”

Little did I know the impact of that choice. The first practical outcome was to choose to partner with Jonathan Sharp. We solidified that partnership in January 2010. The second was the decision to close down A Mountain Top and start fresh.

Over the next few months, the new start began to get off the ground. We landed a few more sales, participated in the jQuery 14 event, and began getting some traction. However, Jonathan and I didn’t completely follow our gut. We followed well-intentioned advice that caused a few missteps, and we found ourselves out of money and out of time early in the year.

The weeks that followed, mid-April through early May, defined the future of appendTo. We threw out all the rules and decided to do three things: work hard, follow our instincts and do the right thing even when it is hard.

Initial results

What followed was an explosion of growth. We hired 6 people within the span of 2.5 months. As a bootstrapped company, we were selling new projects as fast as we hired employees, a juggling act that would be difficult to replicate even if we tried.

Along the way, we made several important decisions. We decided to build a company that would be 100% virtual. We committed to run our company infrastructure in the “cloud”. We decided to pay for health insurance for everyone, covering 100% of the premium cost for all full time employees and their families.

As more and more people joined appendTo, relationships began to form. Our team grew and our capabilities grew. We committed to a transparent style of leadership, agreeing to make the hard decisions as leaders, but honestly sharing our thought process and doing our best to put the health of the company and the employees first.

We operated with the key philosophy that we were running a marathon, not a sprint. This drove our policy of maintaining realistic work hours within the company. As such we work 40-45 hours a week. Client’s didn’t always like or respect this policy, but we knew from experience that mandated rest promotes productivity for knowledge workers. We’d all worked at jobs where the value delivered went down as the hours we logged went up.

Emerging culture

As our culture began to form, we started to realize there was something special about appendTo. While we couldn’t quite put our finger on it, or easily describe it, everyone in the company started to feel it.

We began holding focus groups to discuss the concepts that we felt made appendTo different. We would ask questions, write answers, create lists and write down definitions in an attempt to describe what we all intuitively knew had drawn us to the organization.

Our attempts to define and document our culture were important and produced a lot of great information. Yet, the simple definition of what made appendTo different kept eluding us.

Closing party at BigOmaha 2011

Fast forward to the conversation at Big Omaha last week. As we discussed common threads from the speakers and valuable advice that we could take away, the conversation drifted to the topic of appendTo’s product.

We have an amazing team of people. Not only do we have a team that could build an awesome product, but they each possess amazing character and an amount of internal motivation that makes me honored to work with each one of them. The consensus is that we can build anything we put our mind to.

The trick is to find something we are all passionate about. It’s not easy getting two people to be passionate about any specific thing, let alone eleven. This is why the conversation drifted to the similarities everyone at appendTo shares and the factors that draw us to work there. Our shared passions boil down to two things:

  • We are passionate about Front-End Web Development and JavaScript
  • We are passionate about working to live, not living to work

The lightbulb went on when we realized that appendTo was an organization that not only believed this, but was actually a place that followed through with making these passions a reality for each employee.

The juxtoposition of this realization against the story of other exciting startups floored me. General wisdom states that most startups are built for one of two end points, a grand exit of some sort or die trying. In appendTo, we’d built an organization geared to serve the employees while maintaining stability, and we’d succeeded.

Deep inside, we probably share the same goals as the founders of other startups. We just found a way to get there faster and with less compromise.

Freedom defined

In appendTo …

  • I have the freedom to work anywhere in the world, as opposed to going to a specific location every day.
  • I don’t have a million dollars in the bank, but I have a job that pays the bills and puts food on the table.
  • I have the freedom to work on projects that I find interesting.
  • I work with talented and passionate people that motivate me.
  • I can turn off connectivity and actually relax because I know that the team has my back.
  • My work encourages healthy relationships, with friends and family.
  • I don’t have to choose between providing for my family and spending time with them, I get both.

The key point is that I wouldn’t trade any of these benefits for all the money in the world. Taken together, these benefits allow us to enjoy the present rather then betting on the future.

Conclusion

As entrepreneurs, we’ve been taught that working hard to achieve the American Dream is all about hustling, growing big and then gunning for the big payoff. That’s no longer true. Eighteen months ago, we set out to build something different. Along the way, we chose to ignore the rules and build something that made sense. What I realized this week was that we’ve essentially hacked the American Dream. I think that’s pretty awesome.

I’d like to add a few more key points:

  • While this story is about me and I am a founder and leader of appendTo, I am only a participant. The manifestation of this hack would not have been possible without everyone’s participation in the company.
  • Have you hacked the American Dream? Please share your story in the comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  •  http://disqus.com/forums/mikehostetler/hacking_the_american_dream/trackback/

  •  Wow – what a great post.  I’m a friend of one of the employees at appendTo, so I had already heard great things about the culture there – but it’s fascinating to hear your perspective on it.  The juggling act of growing while selling – and providing for your family as well as spending time with them – seems more intense in the development world, as there are always things to learn & new technologies to spike.  It’s a rare gift to find a group of people who: love what they do, but aren’t slaves to it; who are excellent in their skills and contributing to the community, and not just another mediocre also-ran – and yet are humble about it; who work together well remotely (wow!); who “get” what the pain points are in the development community (amplifyjs!  THANKS!).  Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Jim. It’s hard to describe the relationship I have with what has been built.  I don’t feel like I can honestly take credit for what exists now, we just followed the principles that we felt were important.  

      By focusing on the principles and values that mattered to us, something great emerged.

  • Mike, I’m a fellow Big Omaha attendee and came across your post on Hacker News.

    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story here.  With the news of LinkedIn’s public shares soaring today, it’s refreshing to see folks like yourself who aren’t in it for the big payoff, but rather a sustainable lifestyle that affords growth, time with family, and truly living life.

    • Thanks Tim.  Shots at a big payoff aren’t bad, but you have to realize you’re playing the lottery in some ways. 

      Focusing on the future at the expense of the present doesn’t make sense all the time.

  • Johnny Goodman

    That is neat and I respect it. However, I don’t follow it in my own life and work. I find life too unpredictable. When I have the ability to sock away a good sum of money, I do it even if it means living to work. I’d rather have that long term security than a short term good balance which may be yanked out from under me by fate. 

    • I respect what you are saying Johnny, but I’d venture to guess that your current lifestyle allows you to live to work.  

      My question to you is, what are you working on that is creating lasting value?  How much time do you spend building relationships with other people, true relationships?  How much time are you giving away to others through community service?

      As I explain in the post above, I lived to work even after I had gotten married and had children.  A part of the story I didn’t go into was my personal choice to not let myself wake up in 20 years without knowing my kids.

      For me, it was a question of priorities.  I sat down and realized that my true priorities didn’t line up with the way I was living my life, so I changed.

  •  21 years old no degree, opened a computer shop in Chicago,IL
    check me out http://www.keiththecomputerguy.com

  • Marcos Sánchez

    Congrats Mike! Very interesting read. Greets from Buenos Aires 🙂

  • I think it’s great that more and more people seem to be building their businesses towards shared values rather than narrowly aiming for some kind of explosive success. A lot of people don’t realize: People > Money. That’s not to say you can’t have both, but it’s important to focus on people first, which is what you’ve done.

    Kudos for keeping a cool head while you grow!