I’ve been a part of iThemes for nearly 9 years now. Cory Miller and I have been friends a lot longer than that, and he was the person that originally convinced me that I should check out this Internet thing and put up a website. In 2008, when he and I sat in a burger joint and he showed me how to use WordPress for the first time, I could have never imagined how impactful that moment would be on the next decade of my life. I fairly promptly dropped out of college to work with Cory full time – and it’s been one hell of a ride.
I’ve served in several roles at iThemes over the years. At a certain point, Cory came to me and said that he thought the team had grown large enough that I needed a more formal leadership role. In 2011, I became the Chief Operating Officer. For at least the first year, I didn’t even know what that meant. I joked that it mostly meant I was a fire fighter, stomping out problems internally and with customers. That was fitting, seeing how I had plenty of experience starting fires in our organization. But over time, I grew in to my role as a leader. And through trial, error, and guidance, I actually got fairly decent at it.
This month, iThemes celebrated 10 years of being in business. 10 years has seemed like both an instant and a lifetime. Even though it’s just another year, it feels like a marker to look back from and reflect on how we got here, what role I played in it all, and what I’ve learned so far.
First, trust your gut – but make sure you’re feeding it a healthy diet of hard data.
Business intuition is invaluable, and I’d hate to be following a leader who was too scared to listen to their gut. Cory and I both credit much of our success in business to pure gut. But over the last few years, we’ve both learned that our gut calls get even better when we know our business inside and out. Understanding all our costs, knowing how moving one gear will affect another, breaking down all our different revenue streams, and deeply defining who our customers are has acutely honed the edge of our instincts. In the early years of a startup, it’s easier to grow by gut alone. But eventually you hit a plateau of where that can take you, and it’s time to dig and really KNOW your business.
Second, attitude and potential trump current skill set… Every. Time.
There are a lot of very talented people out there who just suck. They may be hard to be around, they may think they’re a rockstar, or maybe they’re just content with where they are because they’re an expert in the latest JS framework (oh, by the way, the “latest” will be different tomorrow).
At iThemes, we’re looking for people who are hungry.
We’re looking for people who want to dig in and passionately make a difference for our customers. Even if that means they’re a little green, we know we can pair them with the senior leaders of our existing team and teach them the skills they need. Teaching someone how to use version management or how to work macros in our support system is easy. I’ve yet to find a way to teach someone to WANT to come to work to get better.
Third, systems and procedures don’t mean the end of startup fun.
There was a time when iThemes didn’t have a PTO policy. We didn’t have regularly scheduled meetings, standard operating procedures, we didn’t even have formal coding standards. And yep, we had a lot of fun during those times. We affectionately refer to those as the “dorm room days.” The thing is, we eventually had a lot of customers who were counting on us. We were hearing stories of people who were using our products to quit the jobs they hated and start their own businesses. At some point, we had to grow the team to keep serving those customers. And as we grew, we realized that knowing how many days off you get is important, as is knowing what you should be working on this week, and writing code in a consistent manner across our products so that when you take vacation someone else can read your chicken scratches.
But we’ve worked hard not to lose the soul of the dorm room days.
We still want our team to feel like more than people who show up in the same place and sit at computers in the same room. We focus on relationships. We eat together, we have regular hangouts outside of work together, we travel with our remote team members, and we have stupid chat rooms where we talk about stupid things. Cory and I love to drop a huge bag of Lego in the middle of the conference room and see how many days (ok, hours) it takes for them all to be built. Our culture – our very DNA as iThemes – has a lot more to do with who we are and how we treat each other than it does with how many policies are in our handbook.
Fourth, just shut up and get out of the way.
When I call in members of my team for a meeting, I never want to be the smartest person in the room.
My goal is to hire people who are way smarter than me, and my job is to blow up the shit that gets in their way so they can be successful.
When decisions need to be made, my job is to put the right people together, listen to their expertise, and then call the play. When the play is a success, all the credit shines directly on the team that was responsible, not me. When the play fails, I’m the umbrella that protects my team from the shit storm that falls down. I can make corrections and coach when we fail, but the blame publicly stops with me.
Fifth, find a coach. For everything.
The first year I was made the COO, Cory introduced me to Michael Smith. Smitty, as he’s known, is a leadership coach, and has been one of the most important mentors in my entire career. When I started working with Smitty, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. He walked me through the finer points and details of what it means to not just manage a group of people, but to lead a team.
Smitty later introduced us to a “CFO for hire”. He took seat-of-the-pants guys like Cory and me and helped us put together our first real operating budget. He gave us a crash course in business accounting that revealed to us what parts of our business were thriving and which parts were crashing.
Over the years, I’ve had coaches in leadership, accounting, HR, programming, and who knows what else. But arguably the most impactful has been the role that Cory has played in my life.
He’s invested countless hours, dollars, Tom Bihn bags, and gray hairs in to my success.
A little over a decade separates us in age (I love to remind him of this), and he’s shared his wisdom and experiences with me to make sure that I’m always 5 steps ahead of where he was at my age. I can never fully share my gratitude for his guidance and, more importantly, his friendship.
Oh, and if you can’t find a mentor, just get a Netflix account.
Finally, it’s really about Mario Kart (or Rocket League, or Speed Runner, or Towerfall, or…)
In the front of our office, there’s a giant 3d sign that says “Make People’s Lives Awesome.” We’ve always said that this means three things to us. First, make your families’ lives awesome. Second, make your teammates’ lives awesome. Third, make your customers’ lives awesome. Notice the customer comes third. Not a distant third, but we can’t adequately serve our customers if we aren’t serving our families and our team first.
I don’t need (or even want) to be friends with everyone I work with. But at the end of the day, I want to like these people. I spend more time with most of my team than I do with my own wife. So it’s important to me to like the people I work with, and to enjoy the time we spend together.
I’m passionate about a lot of my work, but I don’t think anyone gets excited about every single thing they have to do every day. So, I like to supplement by spending really enjoyable time with my team. Sometimes that means playing video games during work; sometimes it means going on a walk around the building for exercise together; it means calling a team member to talk about woodworking and how slow he is at putting together his new bandsaw; it means going to scream at the Nashville Predators even though you don’t really watch hockey and aren’t from Nashville.
Our team works incredibly hard, so I think it’s only fitting that we know how to play hard too.
Just so long as we don’t forget that the hard work comes first :).