Sun Nov 01 2009

Lessons learned - part 1

I’ve recently given a talk to future entrepreneurs about the 10 most important lessons we learned at Webreakstuff in the last few years. I often say these are the lessons I’d tell my younger self were time traveling a possibility. I thought I’d share these lessons here so that others, not just the people who’ve heard me speak, can discuss and hopefully learn from our conclusions and mistakes.

I’ve decided to split the lessons across three posts to facilitate discussion and to avoid one huge block of text that would be harder to follow. This post goes through the first three things we learned, and two others with the rest of the “lessons” are coming soon.

##An introduction

I have to start with a little introduction on what we are. Webreakstuff is a design and development company - we do web applications for us, for others, and we help other companies improve the user experience and code of their existing products. We’re not a typical studio, however. We work weird hours - office lights are often on all night -, say no to lots of clients and projects, work mostly with clients over a distance and prefer passion to money (even though we do like money too).

We feel we do great work and have a great team, though, and time has led me/us to conclude that a big part of it was a consequence of the way we, individually and as a team, think and act. These “lessons” may not apply directly to you or your work environment, but I personally believe they’re at least worth thinking about.

##Lesson 1: Trust your gut

I would have to say that I believe an always-on often-right gut feeling is the number one trait of the entrepreneur. There were lots times in our past as a company - right from the very beginning, really, when we decided to work together -, where trusting our instincts saved our work - and ourselves - from failure. There were times when dropping a client sounded like the wrong move but somehow felt like the right move. Or times when something told us we’d better be prepared for spending extra hours in the office preparing for a launch. Our gut feeling was often not only right, but spot on.

Whenever I talk about gut feeling, I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford ( watch the video here). He tells the story of looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself whether he’d do whatever he was about to do were that day his last. If the answer had been no several days in a row, he’d know something had to change. Pay attention to your own gut feeling - it might save your work and career.

##Lesson 2: Ownership & Motivation

One of the earliest decisions we ever made at WBS was that we’d never be a company where there would be a boss (in our case, 4 partners) and a bunch of employees. There were (are, really) many reasons for this, but the most important one was that we’d likely be hiring people much like ourselves (which ended up happening), and if there was something we were certain of was that we weren’t exactly fond of working for other people. So what we did was create a loose hierarchy, with no real bosses - just people with specific responsibilities.

If someone feels something as their own, they’ll take better care of it. And that is the case with a start-up company too. If people believe their opinions are heard and have an impact and value, they’ll feel empowered. You see where I’m going, I’m sure. Make sure you give people the most, so you can get the best out of them and their work. I recently heard a pretty good edition of the Harvard Business Ideacast (number 162) on “Leading Clever People” - go hear it if you’re interested on this subject. It resonated with us, and it very well might resonate with you too.

##Lesson 3: Environment is everything

It should come as no surprise that people do better work in an environment where they feel right. I’m one of those guys who loves a clean minimalistic desk with nothing but the tools I’m going to use (mostly because my work involves what’s on the screen, not around it). Other people take a more expressive approach to workspace management. Regardless of your preference, creating the right environment on which people can work is a great exercise in social design and often a complex task. Work flows better when everyone’s comfortable, however, so it definitely pays off.

Whenever I think about the right office environment, I think of places like IDEO, Pixar or Google. There’s a ton of office inspiration out there on the web - this post provides some good examples. Be creative and smart about balancing things for everyone on your team and reap the rewards - we did.

##A few concluding thoughts

Coming soon are two more posts with the rest of our lessons learned. I hope you enjoyed these, and be sure to leave a comment if you have questions or something to say. I would definitely appreciate your thoughts - thank you, and hopefully, see you back here soon for the two other parts in this post series!