Hacking the American Dream
Posted on May 19, 2011
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.