In The Art of Gathering, master facilitator Priya Parker says that before you convene with a group of people, if you want it to be effective, it’s a good idea to establish a clear, sharp purpose for doing so. A book is a sort of gathering, and in any case, I’ve used her advice to facilitate the beginning of all kinds of projects, not just meetings and events. And so I’ve been considering this question.
What is my clear, sharp purpose for this book? I’ve thought about it from so many different angles over the past couple of years as I’ve been almost-but-not-quite committed to writing it.
It is to help teams be effective at collaborating and building relationships with their customers in the same way that comes more naturally to individual makers. It is to give tools to leaders who are invested in their organization’s growth, but who are looking for new models that do not rely on the metaphors of wars or viruses. And finally (and most obviously, as it became the sub-title), it is for people who care about people over profit, but who need profit to care for people.
These are all good and true things. I do think fresher, kinder, more effective ways of looking at business are needed as we connect with our highest values and navigate the changing culture.
But why am I writing this book?
It’s not because I have all the answers. I am just a year and a half into my tenure as CEO of a weird web consultancy called &yet. In some ways, we’re just beginning our journey into taking the approach I’m outlining here, and in some ways, we’ve been doing it for the entirety of the 13 years we’ve existed.
What I do know is rooted in my previous 16 years as a business owner and consultant to all kinds of companies, from teams of one to large institutions with a level of complexity barely fathomable. It’s rooted in my research for my first book, Gather the People, which was published in 2015, with a second edition published in 2020. And it’s rooted in my privilege and frustration at having been Chief of Strategy for &yet before I became the CEO.
Jazz legend Duke Ellington’s highest praise for a piece of music was that it was “beyond category.” &yet has always been beyond category, in so many respects, and it’s why I love this team. It’s also why applying any sort of focused strategic effort has been incredibly difficult.
For a long time, “What does &yet even do?” was the main message on our website. It was the main thing because we could barely answer it.
We did so many things (and still do!). We host immersive conferences about the intersection of design, technology, humanity, and ethics. We create story-driven web experiences using illustration, music, and narrative to educate and inspire. We build software like Talky, a realtime in-browser video chat app. We develop highly participatory demos for clients to use at conferences and trade shows. We work with growth teams to build strong customer relationships with high-touch generosity at the center. We build weird, fun web projects (we call them glorpies, after the handkerchief magic trick) like Wegotchu, digital cards for people to pass around and sign, even when you’re not together.
I could keep going. Deciding on one specific thing to offer and sticking to it was not something our team could do and continue to be true to ourselves.
Another quality I love about our team (but that also makes it difficult to strategize around) is its humility. We actually have t-shirts that say “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” It’s not that we don’t value the considerable amount of expertise we’ve developed over the years; it’s that we believe everyone has something valuable to contribute, and we’re all still figuring things out as we go.
So not only was it challenging to decide on one thing to focus our message around, few of us are naturally inclined to talk about that one thing or to put ourselves in the spotlight. And for several of us who do show up to talk about what we do, we’ve had to do a considerable amount of personal work to get to a place where it feels both nourishing and genuine. I’m still in that process as I write this.
Those are high-level challenges, but there are also the challenges inherent in a role responsible for something as nebulous and far-reaching as “growth.” What did growth mean to us, as a company whose identity above all else was that we are “people-first?” Our inclination was to grow in our ability to be good to and for people, within and outside of our company. This would have probably stayed our only metric, were it not for serious financial challenges that we’ve grappled with over the years.
In 2015, we experienced the painful reality that any small company who happens to have the (good?) fortune to be hired by a massive corporation can probably relate to. I was there the day we landed the contract (I hadn’t been hired yet; I was a consultant at the time.) Then-CEO Adam Brault got off the phone, gathered the team ‘round, and put a record on. “We Are the Champions” started to play. He and the other folks responsible for the contract ran through the office and circled the building, celebrating and giving high fives to everyone. It was a great day.
That contract necessitated that we grow our team to 42 people, the largest it’s ever been. I was hired as part of the marketing team responsible for growing a user base around our own product, a Slack predecessor called &bang (which we were going to rename Shippy). We were so excited to get to build a strong community of customers for an app our team had made and used every day.
I was also there a year and some change later, the day our giant corporate client bought out another big company and re-allocated all of its R&D budget, cancelling our contract in an instant. Suddenly what looked like an assured and promising future turned into a panicked reality in which we held very little power. We struggled along for a while, taking paycuts and furloughs, but it was clear we weren’t going to be able to hobble along at the size we were at. The marketing team was the first to be laid off, including me.
There were a few more rounds of layoffs in the coming years as the team tried to regain its footing. In the meantime, I was writing my first book (Gather the People), and re-establishing my consulting practice. And of course, while all this was happening, the market was changing.
But as we know, anything “bleeding edge” eventually becomes “regular edge” which eventually becomes a commodity. We’re proud of what our team has contributed to helping make this technology more easily accessible. And at the same time, we have to find new ways to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace.
And so, I re-entered the picture, this time buying in as partner (I’d saved up some money in the two years I’d re-established my consulting business after being laid off) and joining as team lead for a new company-within-our-company, yes&.
At that point, we’d organized into a collection of three smaller, self-organizing teams (security, design, and development) in order to give more responsibility and ownership for generating revenue specific to that team’s strengths and needs. Since I’d led my own design agency before transitioning into consulting, I was a natural fit to lead the design team on a business level.
That org structure didn’t last long, however. Silos have never really been our thing. 1 Our revenue needs eased up a bit, at least giving us enough room to operate in a more integrated way. When the yes& brand dissolved and our design, dev, and security teams started working as a unit again, I transitioned to Chief of Strategy of &yet.
As Chief of Strategy, I was responsible for “growth,” but not entirely sure what that meant besides “let’s get out of feast or famine mode, please.” Up until that point (and really, any time we didn’t know what else to do), we’d relied on traditional business development practices: networking, generating new leads, cultivating those leads, and closing deals. At least this is what we did in theory. We were pretty bad at it. We didn’t know our customers, because we assumed they were people very different than ourselves. What went on inside a larger, more traditional corporation felt very opaque to us. We were a scrappy little technology company. What did we know about the intricacies of organizational decision-making and achieving corporate buy-in?
I knew I wanted to move us more into the model I’d consulted on with hundreds of business owners, written about in Gather the People, and successfully re-built my own business around. Central to that model was “creating out loud,” an approach for collaborating with your customers to build a path to help them get where they want to go.
Since I personally struggled with showing up publicly in any sort of consistent way (and it seemed to me that &yet had the same problem), that became my focus for &yet. Since we excelled at doing in-person conferences, I decided to apply that same thinking to building an online community, where we could surface our thinking as well as the thinking of our friends and colleagues who were interested in the same problems, creating out loud as we went.
There were many challenges with this approach, one being that many of the people on our team (including me) were introverts who couldn’t sustain being in 24/7 community, even digitally. Another being that we’d designed this community around the idea of helping each other approach our digital lives and work in a healthy way, but that had nothing to do with the services we offered. It became confusing; were we designing communities now? Was that what we offered? We played with doing that for a while, but it didn’t click. There was no integration there, and eventually we decided to retire the &yet community.
But I was still trying to answer this question: how do we grow, and still be true to ourselves? Is that even possible?
I may not be an eternal optimist (I see problems everywhere I look, and I become intent on solving them), but I am eternally hopeful. I kept looking around me for what I wasn’t seeing. Part of me wondered if I just needed to grow up and become more corporate-savvy. But every time I’d go down that mental path, I’d remind myself of all the ways we’d already tried to do that, and all the ways it hadn’t worked.
Then Adam (the then-CEO, and by that time my partner in business and life) and I went to a seminar in Nashville led by David Baker. It was on “Advanced Positioning and Lead Generation,” a very corporate-sounding topic. Perfect. I would finally be let in on the secrets of success in the corporate world.
But as soon as David started talking, I started to feel a sense of deep familiarity mixed with growing incredulity. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I know this stuff. I’ve taught this stuff. This is the secret to corporate success?” I soon realized that “Advanced Positioning and Lead Generation” was just a fancy way of saying “Taglines and Getting on Podcasts.” I’d been a leader in the indie marketing industry for 15 years. I knew it like the back of my hand. I’d written a book for people who hated marketing and all the “best practices” that went along with it.
That seminar was a pivotal point for me. And not because of the knowledge that David brought to the table (although he’s brilliant, and we ended up working with him on our positioning). It was because I discovered that there was no Wizard in Oz. The corporate illusion didn’t exist. What I needed to know was inside of me the whole time.
I decided I needed to trust myself. I decided to actually believe all the things I’d been telling myself and our team over the years. “We need to position ourselves from a place of strength, creating a platform for our unique perspective” and “we need to create a path for people to get where they want to go” and “we need to take down the fourth wall of our own process and let people see into it.” I decided to make a strong, vocal push for that direction.
Meanwhile, we had slowly been moving toward becoming a more focused team, selling our security division to npm and spinning off Talky as its own company. Removing some of the complexity in our business model made the idea of taking a strong position actually feasible. We were no longer doing all the things (though we were still doing…quite a lot of things.)
With a more simplified structure and my commitment to applying the principles I’d developed over my career, we were ready to take a clear, unequivocal stance as a team. And so, we decided to re-position &yet from that new position of clarity. Suddenly, I was leading not just our marketing and strategic direction, but the entire direction of the company. Before long, it made sense for me to take on the role of CEO, taking responsibility for our direction not only in the work I was doing, but also in the position that I held.
But even though I had that clarity and a growing sense of self-trust, we were still entering wilderness territory. No one had cleared the way for the path we were about to trod.
We made the decision to re-position ourselves as “strengthening customer relationships through creative technology.” We would focus on working with “growth teams of people-first tech companies.” It checked all the boxes. We were specific about who our customers were, how we helped them, and what the value was. It used language that resonated with us (specifically “relationships,” “creative,” and “technology”).
But still, it felt like trying on a new pair of shoes that hadn’t been worn in yet. It technically fit, but felt awkward to walk in. In addition to that, I had all these ideals and a framework for how business should be done (and I could teach those principles to classes full of people, and have), but I wasn’t sure how to shift our own business into actually living it out.
But I did know one thing: to even start living out our ideals, we needed our own growth team.
Because of the painful realities &yet has faced, forcing us into having to make multiple rounds of layoffs, we’ve had a tendency to avoid hires that we could not immediately recoup the value of. Folks who have been on our team for a long time are well-acquainted with the terms “billable” and “non-billable.” Several teammates have expressed to me that they get antsy if they are working on “non-billable” projects for an extended length of time.
We’re also very familiar with the word “overhead.” As someone whose role has been categorized as both “non-billable” and “overhead” for the entire time I’ve been employed at &yet (and as someone who has experienced being laid off because my work fell into those categories), I understand the anxiety.
At the same time, I knew that if we weren’t invested in our own growth (and in our own definition of growth), we weren’t likely to experience much change. And so, we hired our first two team members on the growth team, as well as transitioned our Chief Creative Officer to mainly work on growth team projects, rather than client projects.
9 months after establishing our new positioning and 6 months after establishing our growth team, the U.S. entered into what was quickly becoming a global pandemic. It shook us into a period of uncertainty that we are still living in as I write this. But one thing that became clear to me was that even though I was trying to shift us into new patterns of operating our business, I was still operating out of fear. I was afraid that if we didn’t decide on our positioning in the “right” way, we wouldn’t be able to clearly communicate our value. I was afraid that if we didn’t have our systems for growth perfectly in place and perfectly executed, those systems wouldn’t work for us.
This thinking had been keeping us from fully embracing the truth of what we know on a foundational level. I had been focused on trying to prove the ROI and tangible business value of taking our approach (which is certainly important), rather than centering our messaging on what we really believed and had experienced, with ourselves and with our clients. And more importantly, illuminating the path for others to get to where they wanted to go.
My perfectionism had also kept us from acting on that truer vision and communicating it to the wider world. Because I had this very specific model of how healthy growth works in my head, I wanted to have everything in place before we put anything out there. I wasn’t taking into account our limited capacity or my own “creating out loud” approach I’d established in my first book.
I’d written in Gather the People that “I believe in the creative power of setbacks, frustration, and limits. It may be human nature to desire comfort and safety, but in the end, it’s the rug that’s yanked out from under us that often does the trick of getting us moving.”
The pandemic has yanked the rug out from under us on a global level. We’ve learned that we really don’t control as much as we think we do. For us at &yet, that has given us new clarity. We not only want to help our clients experience growth through creative technology. We want to build a culture of education and enchantment so that all of us can become explorers of the idea of people-first growth, together. We want to create paths for integrating healthy growth principles into our work, and doing it in a way that actually helps us (and our teammates, and our communities) thrive in every area of our lives. And we want to start small, with the people who are already in front of us, knowing that we already have everything we need to begin.
Originally, this book was going to walk you through the framework our team at &yet has developed for approaching growth in a people-first way. It’s a beautiful and useful framework, and we will certainly walk through it together.
But it’s so easy to get held back by idealism, especially when all you have is a model for how the world could be. If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that. If we can’t see how to take the small steps that will get us to our longed-for future, frameworks have little use except to show us where we don’t measure up. It is my hope that this book will serve as not just a map of the territory, but a guide that can help you get from where you are now to where you want to be.
At the same time, if we are ever to truly inhabit the future we want, we have to learn to embody it in the present moment, with our current resources and set of circumstances. Otherwise, we will get there only to discover that our accomplishment doesn’t feel that much different than it felt when we were on the other side of it. We will have found a new future that we are longing for, the old one being no longer sufficient.
We make big changes by focusing on the small ones. We create a more joyful, thriving future for ourselves and others by learning to create joy and thriving in the here and now.
With this in mind, let’s start at the beginning. The business sector has been operating under a now deeply-engrained set of assumptions that go back to before the Industrial Age. Because of this, it’s not enough to lay out a set of principles for doing things differently. We need to define our terms. What does it mean to be “people-first”? What do we mean by growth? How do we define leadership? How do we measure success?
We need to know the water we’ve been swimming in, so we can migrate into newer, fresher waters where possibility lies.