There’s a saying often applied to massively successful startups: “it only took 5 years to become an overnight success.” What isn’t seen by most people is the daily grind to make incremental progress, the pivots in strategy that can only come from listening to customers, and the difficult conversations and challenging decisions necessary to build a better version of a business, again and again, in a seemingly never ending cycle of chasing an ideal outcome. Then, boom. Overnight success.
We’re not a massively successful startup, but we have crossed the threshold into a decade-old business, a milestone that only 30% of new businesses reach. We’ve hit this milestone while building a company that embodies values worthy of fighting for. We’ve built a team of intelligent, caring, and motivated people. We’ve won awards, both for our work and for our company. And, we’ve done all of this with an unshakable determination to never stop improving.
That’s hard work. Really hard work. Because striving to be better is never ending. There are checkpoints but no finish lines. Progress is almost unnoticeable until you stop to reflect on what has changed. Then it’s easy to look back at where you came from and be embarrassed about what you didn’t know, when you should, instead, be patting yourself on the back for all you’ve learned.
What I’m certain of is that this company is a success. Not an overnight success, and not the version of the company we will be in another ten years, but every single person who has spent time at Mostly Serious contributed to building something they can be proud of.
Now, we’d like to share four lessons we’ve learned along the way and, while doing so, take a moment to pat ourselves on the back. Then, we’ll provide a glimpse into our future and the company we hope to be writing about in another 10 years.
Lesson 1: Values, Principles, and the Impact of Alignment
We’ve talked about our Core Values a few times in the past. We even credited the creation of our values as a major reason we were able to win the Small Business of the Year Award. What we haven’t talked about, at least not in a public setting, is why our values have been so meaningful to us and, more recently, how we learned our values weren’t quite enough.
At the start of 2017 we were beginning a transformation of our business. As we grew, both in team size and in the types of projects we worked on, we began to experience new challenges. With each new hire we faced unique growing pains and we began to see a slip in the quality of our work and our ability to always surpass the expectations of our clients.
At the time, Spencer joined our team with a focus to help us overcome these challenges and transform into the type of business we all wanted to build. One of his first proposed steps was to create Core Values, which I admit sounded like a complete waste of time when we had a hundred fires to put out and dozens of projects to complete. What I didn’t realize at the time was just how misaligned we had become as a team.
The problem wasn’t a lack of personal values to drive our decision making, but rather a lack of shared values to ensure we were all moving in the same direction and for the same reasons. Every member of our team had a solid moral compass and wanted to build something meaningful. The issue, we found, was that we didn’t have a shared understanding of the values we use to make decisions as a collective. Working together to create values that define our aspirations as a business gave us that shared understanding of where we were going and why.
Our Core Values gave us a unifying vision to lean on when making decisions. They gave us a reference point to challenge each other and ensure we were living up to our aspirations. And when we faced difficult decisions, we could look to our values to validate how to best move forward.
More recently, we found that our values fell short when we needed to transition from aspirations to real-world scenarios. How can every member of our team understand how to solve specific problems using a framework that references our aspirations and virtues? As we grew, we knew we needed to build a solution that would help our team solve problems with specific solutions.
Enter principles. Whereas our values are aspirations, our principles are virtuous. Our values tell us where we’re going and our principles tell us how we’ll get there. Principles help us understand how to handle specific situations and provide clear insight into why we make any decision.
The coupling of Core Values and Principles has provided every team member of Mostly Serious with the knowledge necessary to make important decisions on behalf of the company every day. No one person is the arbiter of truth, but instead, the ideal version of the company provides the answers we need to find success.
Lesson 2: Consistent Difficult Conversations Achieve Better Outcomes
A vital aspect of our culture at Mostly Serious is our dedication to improvement, as individuals and as a business. In order to continually improve, we must remain open to relentlessly questioning what is and is not working, and that requires participating in nonjudgmental, honest, and productive evaluation and feedback.
Over time, we have institutionalized when and how difficult conversations happen. Early on, difficult conversations were largely centered around project feedback. We took pride in truly listening to our clients’ feedback, accepting where improvement could be made and pushing back where we thought the project goals may be negatively impacted.
We now use a combination of our process and systems to help us have difficult conversations more frequently. Our employee check-in systems and individual development plans place an emphasis on bidirectional input, and we train our team to use any misalignment in those meetings to prompt a deeper conversation about the underlying issue causing that misalignment.
Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
In the past, we’ve had a rule that no assholes work at Mostly Serious. This is decidedly different than saying we only hire people who don't avoid tough conversations and are willing to participate in honest feedback. We need everyone to come to every conversation anticipating that we’re going to ask tough questions, challenge each other, and seek answers that make us collectively better. Having a jerk in the room makes that a lot more difficult to do.
When a company’s culture encourages false harmony and avoidance of tough conversation, it often leads to back-channeling, talking about people when they are not in the room, a general lack of clarity on company and project decisions, and behavior that goes directly against the values of the business.
The systems we’ve installed into our company aren’t always easy—in fact, they are often the area new hires struggle the most to adapt to—but the long-term reward to the company and every individual is worth the extra effort.
Lesson 3: Maintaining Focus & Measuring Goals
A highly functioning goal-setting system is a superpower to a business. It is the glue that holds together every lesson listed here and many important elements not listed here. A great goal system inherently creates shared focus throughout a team and organization. It aligns and connects departments and people to ensure everyone is moving in the same direction. It allows for deep accountability and transparency from the people closest to the work all the way through every level of management. And, most importantly, a great goal system is constructed from the bottom up, ensuring that the direction of the business is shaped by every member of the company.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people walk out of meetings saying, "I’m going to conquer the world"…and three months later, nothing has happened.
Our early attempts at goal-setting were flawed—lacking the clarity and purpose we have since learned are necessary to turn a goal-setting system into a real superpower. When we began setting more clear goals, they were often tied to financial outcomes, which is rarely how we evaluate success at Mostly Serious. Instead, we prefer to allow financial outcomes to serve as a trailing indicator on our success in building better teams, creating great work, and increasing the value we deliver to our clients.
We now use a modified version of the OKR (Objectives and key results) system, created by Andy Grove during his time as President at Intel. The system has since been used by Google, Microsoft, and hundreds of other companies, large and small, to build alignment and focus throughout an organization. Our arrival at the OKR system was instructed by the same iterative approach that influences every other aspect of our business. Through our incremental improvements, we had designed a similar goal-setting system, but the OKR framework added the important ability to expand the goals to every department, team, and individual, which expands the opportunity for alignment and increases transparency.
Further reading: Measure what Matters
Lesson 4: Perseverance and Consistency
Warren Buffet has claimed that his wealth came from “a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest.” Albert Einstein considered compound interest the most powerful force in the universe (there is some debate if Einstein actually said this). The concept of compound interest is quite simple. Benjamin Franklin summarized it by explaining, “Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes money.” The thing is, compound interest isn’t limited to money. The concept can be applied to other areas of our lives, including relationships, reputation, and goodwill. After working on the same team for 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years, the friction evaporates and bigger, better work can be done. Compound interest is immensely powerful (if Einstein didn’t say it, then I’ll go ahead and take credit).
The challenge compound interest presents is that outcomes require long-term commitment. No get-rich-quick scheme starts by defining compound interest. Conversely, we consider our company culture to be whatever we’ve done with consistency over the past 3 months. No matter the values and principles a team has defined, if no one is utilizing them to make decisions, and no one is holding each other accountable to those aspirations and virtues, they aren’t part of your culture.
This creates a difficult balancing act. A business needs both the perseverance to realize the reward of compound interest in relationships, reputation, and goodwill as well as the consistency to ensure the business holds true to its values and principles, every day, while continuing to evolve and improve.
When the benefits are first realized, they often come with an influx of sustained new projects and new employees who bring greater levels of experience. The new projects and new team members then compound and the cycle continues.
We’ve used two primary mechanisms to help us achieve perseverance and consistency. For perseverance, we have relied on an evolving strategic planning system, that now utilizes the OKR model, which we explained above. For consistency, our team has created a collection of channels and methods for continually putting our values, principles, and the evolution of our company front and center.
Every Monday we start with a full-team meeting while every person talks about what they’re most excited about. At the end of the week, every person then reflects on their biggest win that week. These opportunities are regularly used to call out value and principles moments (even if they aren’t labeled as such in the moment) and bring decision making and successes out into the open.
Every completed project goes through a structured post-mortem, where we have honest, difficult conversations about what went well and where we can improve. We have dedicated teams for process, promotions, outreach, office, and fun (called PPOOF! teams) that meet regularly and ensure we’re moving in the right direction. And we review our progress, along with wins and challenges, each and every quarter as a full team.
The work we put into consistency can be difficult and, at times, exhausting. But the alignment gained from intentionally building in these checkpoints, while incorporating our values, principles, and embracing difficult conversations, allows us to keep moving together toward the long-term benefit that allows us to realize the payoff for our effort.
Lessons for the Future
As you’ve likely picked up by now, we are continually aiming at a future version of ourselves and our company that is an improvement on what we’ve become. To the version of the company we want to be, leaning on the lessons we’ve learned and our aspirations to guide us. Imagining ourselves ten years in the future, reflecting on where we’ve been and how we’ve improved, we would be very proud to hit on each of these topics:
- We have a diverse workplace that celebrates different experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives
- We continue to be known for our partnership with key community organizations, both regionally and nationally
- We’re doing important, problem-solving work for a client roster full of local, regional, and national clients that match our values
- Our industry-leading solutions bring unique value to our clients, expanding our offerings into providing services and solutions
We’ll be tracking our progress through OKRs, having difficult conversations about what is working and what isn’t, and ensuring consistent alignment across our team to remain pointed in the right direction. And, certainly, we’ll uncover many unknowns and new challenges along the journey.
We would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to acknowledge the many people and organizations who have partnered with us and supported us over the past decade. Our early partners, the companies that decided to trust a local partner to solve challenging problems, and the many great organizations that improve our communities.
And, of course, our team, who choose to come to work every day accepting an unwritten contract to work a little harder, dig a little deeper, and reach a little further in hopes of creating something better.
Here’s to the next 10. 🍻