Facet Digital: Our First Six Months
Last week marked our 6-month anniversary at Facet Digital. For the sake of posterity, and a little bit of sharing, we thought this would be a good occasion to update our story. Like an infant being born into the world, we came onto the scene screaming, cold, and naked (figuratively, of course).
Our previous employer had gone defunct, leaving us with no economic stability and little time to prepare for starting a company. We had no capital, no equipment, and no customers. The first few weeks were pretty rough. We did have a few things going for us. With 60+ combined years of industry experience, we had a great professional network of people that had loved working with us in the past, a deep understanding of Lean Startup principles, and a passion for learning. Like a young human, our young company has been learning at an exponential rate, and has proven its ability to thrive. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve learned to crawl, walk, and utter meaningful sounds as we adjust to our new place in the business world. If nothing else, our collective ability to learn quickly is our biggest strength.
“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” ― Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Growing a new company is a bit like raising a kid. It keeps you up all night. It demands all of your attention and interrupts you whenever it wants. It’s rewarding and exhausting. It requires constant feeding. There are certain milestones you expect to achieve…and often you wonder if you ever will. And just like a real kid, you have to let it make mistakes, have successes, learn from both, and build upon it’s cumulative experience.
Here we are, six months later…
At six months old, we’re obviously still in our infancy, but things are looking promising for Facet Digital. In this short time, we’ve provided consulting services for roughly 15 clients, three of which are large, ongoing, longer-term engagements. A handful of them are repeat customers, and we find that the more happy clients we have, the more future clients they refer to us. We’ve secured a couple deals that have given us ownership equity in promising, venture-backed startups and revenue-sharing with bootstrapped companies that are well on their way to lucrative profits. We have master service agreements with large firms that continue to tap us to fulfill their overloaded commitments, giving us ample supply of revenue opportunities.
We’re by no means rich but we’re able to support our families, live a great lifestyle, and do it all our way…and we’re having a blast doing it! Facet is on track to exceed our modest Year One revenue goals, and we’re in talks with a few members of our extended network to bring in a few more expert hitters to help take on more work than we can handle with just the three of us. We consider this a successful journey so far…
A focus on learning
Our primary keystone habit is to learn from everything. Learn from the mistakes. Learn from the wins. Learn from those who have gone before you. Learn from the younger generation and their wild ideas. Hypothesize. Do. Measure. Learn.
A child learns so quickly for two main reasons.
First, their brains are designed to learn through extrapolation and pattern-matching, driven by sensory experience. I.e., they learn by doing. So does Facet. Need to learn how to close deals? Go try to close deals. Want to understand how to manage a general ledger, taxes, and budgeting? Do your own accounting for a while. We’ve done all these things.
Learning by doing leads to more learning by doing.
That’s why kids seem to learn at an exponential rate. Research shows that infants use the words they know to learn new words. At Facet Digital, we emulate this by applying ourselves on projects that leverage our combined 60+ years of domain expertise in software engineering and product development…to projects where only 60% of that applies. By doing so, we use our existing knowledge base to propel us into new areas of learning to cover that last 40%. If you are 100% comfortable in the job you’re doing, you’re bored. If you’re 0% comfortable, you’re stricken with anxiety. We love the middle ground on this spectrum.
The other reason kids learn so fast is that they have no preconceived notions, no filters, and are not stuck in their ways. As humans, we sometimes feel old, but as a company of adventurers, we are young. With Facet we try to block out how it’s always been done and how it’s supposed to be done, and just go with with guts and data. It may seem a little immature, but we’re the kinds of guys that trust our guts and it usually pays off.
And that’s exactly how experience happens.
So what have we learned?
Stay committed. The first six months are about grit and hustle. Keep your eye on the ball, and know when to walk away from a bad deal. Remember how valuable you really are.
Doing this has taught us a few key lessons that we’d like to share with our 6-month-younger selves…
1. Know what your customer needs. At first we struggled to succinctly describe what we do as a technology consulting firm. We build apps. We write code. We design things. We know how to manage projects. We handcraft delightful user experiences that…blah blah blah. Those things are not what are customers need. Our customers need their problems solved. You have technology problems. We solve them for you so that you can focus on your business.
2. Don’t sacrifice quality. One of my favorite quotes as a consultant:
“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” –Red Adair
We’ve seen the reality in this time and time again. In fact, we’ve made a good living cleaning up after amateurs. The cost of hiring an amateur is not immediately realized. It comes back to haunt you again and again over the lifetime of your project. We don’t want our names on that. When potential customers ask us to drop our rates to match some half-priced bargain firm, we politely decline. We know they’ll be back when the excrement hits the proverbial whirling blades.
3. Never lock in a client. I never sign up for an online service that won’t let me quit on a moment’s notice and export all my data. Why shouldn’t we give our customers the same benefit? In software consulting this means providing full transparency into everything we do. Written records of deliverables, wireframes, ERDs, blueprints, API docs, wiki instructions, etc. We strive to make it 100% easy to replace us, and we let our customers know this. You’re never locked into us. Our clients stick with us because of the value we provide, not because we enact dubious practices to try to force them to be dependent upon us.
4. Work for payers. Be a payer. “Payers value their time more than their money.” Amy Hoy nails it with this simple piece. A client that will pay you for your expertise, to get the job done, while they are off solving their own bigger and better problems, is like GOLD. They value their time and will pay you to solve problems and save them time. A client that doesn’t value their time will spend six hours researching the solutions to a problem you’re hired to be the expert in. They’ll impede your ability to provide them value, and they’ll nickel-and-dime you to death. Run away.By the same token, when running a small business, you should be a payer. We’re way more productive and profitable when we focus on what we do best, and pay someone else to save us time and money on the rest. That’s why after learning the ropes of business accounting, we hired an awesome accountant.
5. Invest in tools, platforms, and processes. I always take notice of a professional carpenter’s tools and processes, and how those serve as multipliers for their skill. A pro has the right tools and he knows which tools to apply to which problems. Building software is no different. Small teams often try to get by only using free tools, cobbling together pieces of custom code, and trying to build everything in-house to save cash, when buying a solution would move them so much farther ahead. At Facet, we’re not afraid to pay for platforms like AWS and Heroku, buy tools like Adobe Creative Cloud, and outsource commodity technology to SaaS platforms like SendGrid. Likewise, we’re in a great position to identify common problems across multiple clients, and solve them with one solution that we can sell over and over again.
6. Give back. So much of what our industry builds today is based on the free and open-source software world. When we started Facet Digital, we gave ourselves a goal of contributing back an average of one open-source project per month, no matter how big or small, and we’re right on track. Not only is it rewarding to be a part of that community, it generates real leads and sparks valuable networking.
7. Trust your co-founders. We’ve all seen the stereotypical co-founder feuds. One founder manipulating the other. Bad-mouthing behind each others’ backs. Countering each others’ every move. Why even go into business together if that’s how you’re going to act? One of Facet Digital’s core principles is to let each other fail and learn. We try things outside of our comfort zones. We make the bold moves, and we trust each other’s motivation and intellect. If we’re always worrying about each other, we’re not putting our energy in the right place.
8. Audentes fortuna iuvat. Fortune favors the bold. Starting a company is great exposure therapy for fear of failure. The easy, comfortable path is not fulfilling. The quickest way to stunt the growth of a fledgling company is to play it safe. Babies learn to walk by trying to stand up and falling over thousands of times. Their egos don’t get hurt by failure. They just get up and keep trying. At Facet, we have a ton of bold moves on deck. Baby steps…
To Infinity and Beyond!
In the early days, we didn’t think we’d make it. We all had backup plans and exit strategies. We’re over that now, and it feels great. No looking back and no second-guessing. Just a focus on doing what we love — building great products and a satisfied customer base. Look for some big announcements from Facet Digital in our second six months. We can’t wait for our one-year birthday party!