When looking back on a decade in business, it’s easy to get sentimental. One can’t help but think of all the ups and downs a decade will bring, especially when your business is in the ever-evolving digital space. We’ve grown. We’ve diversified. We’ve hired to support that growth and made some great friends along the way. I could continue on but I’ll leave that to my more verbose co-founders, Craig and Ka Wai.
What I’d like to do instead is share ten lessons I’ve learned from building and cultivating a business over the last decade. Some you may have heard before, but these are the ones that have left their mark on me.
1. Create core values.
If you don’t, someone else will. And they’ll do it without you. All groups have core values. They just may not be conscious of them. Organizations that don’t explicitly create core values tend to have core values of indifference, apathy and inefficiency by default.
2. Culture first. Financials second.
It’s important to get priorities straight. At WAM, we prioritize our people, our way of working and our way of living above landing more business for the sake of driving revenue. A good culture builds a good business. The financials will naturally come.
3. Ask ‘why’ not just ‘what.’
After being in business for a decade, it was no longer adequate to simply know what we were doing as a team. We also needed to know why. This helps instill a sense of purpose in your team when so often they’re otherwise mired in the demands of daily life and work.
4. Know a little about everything then hire experts.
Understand the basics of business, accounting, contracts, engineering and design, then hire subject matter experts that are way smarter than you in each. If I’m the smartest person in the room, I haven’t done a good job in hiring.
5. With great freedom comes great responsibility.
Have to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for this one, but it’s so true at a company like ours that values empowerment. We provide our team with the trust and latitude to have a high impact on our business, our process and our clients. With that freedom comes the responsibility to your colleagues to take full ownership of your work and to be successful. There’s no one to blame.
6. Play less. Listen more.
This harks back to what I’ve learned as a musician. It’s not what you play that matters. It’s what you choose not to play. In short, If you’re talking, you’re not listening. You’ll find that subtle but important distinction by listening to what your fellow musicians are playing. Listen before speaking. Distill your thoughts before you share them with your teammates or clients.
Contemplation goes a long way.
7. Make a decision.
I’ve witnessed individuals and entire organizations be paralyzed by indecision too often. The root cause of that is typically the desire to make the best decision. However much like the rest of life, very few things are perfect.
What is more important is to make a reasonably good decision and then execute on it, assess it and continue to iterate until you get closer to the elusive ‘perfect.’
8. Empower your team and trust their decisions.
As a business founder, I understand the anxiety one may feel as power and decision-making is distributed across a larger team, many of whom were not there ‘in the beginning’.
Trust in yourself. You did a good job starting this thing. You did a good job hiring and growing the team. With good hiring, you should sleep a little better knowing you’ve got a trusted team making decisions.
9. Everyone leads means nobody leads.
We’ve tried experiments where we’ve had entire groups, from support to engineering to design, identify strategic business initiatives and drive those initiatives forward. While we certainly value team empowerment, we’ve learned that the team still requires and desires higher leadership. Call it founder DNA.
Solicit feedback from the group. Build consensus on what to do. However in the end, there needs to be someone responsible for making critical strategic decisions. That can’t be driven by committee.
10. Present calm in the face of chaos.
We’ve all been in difficult professional or personal situations. You may have a panicked client, an angry customer or a disgruntled employee. Emotions tend to feed emotions. When you’re on the receiving end of panic, anxiety or anger, I’ve learned the best thing to do is respond with relaxed calm. Balance a firm and measured response with a calm and confident delivery. Your calm response will help to instill calm in the other. A panicked client will never feel reassured by an equally panicked engineer or designer.