Episode 021: TEN7’s Origins
TEN7 is a full service Drupal web firm, focused on creating and supporting Drupal installations for clients nationwide. In operation since 2007, TEN7's origins and growth comprise quite a story, one we invite you to listen to as Ivan Stegic, Founder and President, tells it.
Here's what we're discussing in this podcast:
- TEN7’s origins, emergence and growth
- First web project
- Hiring first employees
- Impact of former employent
- Making tough calls and decisions
- Client mangement
- How Ivan's role has changed
- TEN7's DNA and its sustainabilty
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone, you're listening to the TEN7 Audiocast, where we get together every fortnight to speak plainly about technology, business and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic, and in this episode of the podcast, Madeleine Lowry TEN7's Technical PM joins me to talk about the origins of TEN7. Madeleine, welcome to the TEN7 Audiocast.
MADELEINE LOWRY: Good afternoon Ivan.
IVAN: Thank you for joining me. So this week we're going to do something different where I'm not in the interviewer’s chair, and you're going to take over that task so I’m changing and turning it over to you.
MADELEINE: Okay, great. Let me talk a little bit about how this came about. We were having a conversation, and I was telling you that you should really listen to this great podcast series called "How I Built This". It's one that I really enjoy. As you know I used to be a small business advisor in a previous life, and one of my favorite parts of working with small business owners was talking to them about how they got their business started. In this podcast, How I Built This is an actual NPR Podcast that interviews different luminaries in the business world, and how they started their various enterprises. So I thought we could do that here today and talk to you about how TEN7 got its start
IVAN: And I thought that was a great idea! I jumped on it.
MADELEINE: That's good. Love the enthusiasm. So maybe we can just start at the beginning. Tell me about how you got started. I mean I know that your business background at that time had been in a different industry right you could just come from a start-up company completely different business. You have a background in basic science right? Physics? And suddenly you decided to take a your career in a different direction. How did that happen?
IVAN: I was working day and night for this startup in downtown Minneapolis in 2006. Spent a lot of time away from my wife, and my two newborn kids and decided that it really wasn't for me anymore. That I wasn't seeing my kids my family and that I kind of wasn't enjoying my job because I was spending too much time in the office. After weeks of discussion with my wife, we decided that I should just kind of resign and leave. And we had a little bit of savings set apart and this was in 2007, that was before the 2008-2009 property crash and the rest of the economic downturn that we had, and so was pretty optimistic about the future. I felt that I could find a new job or figure out something to do after I quit. And so I did. And I tell you that was the best couple of weeks after I quit or the last two weeks of my job were wonderful. It felt like the weight was lifted off my shoulders. Wrapped everything up nicely and then spent time at home for the next month or so with the kids with my wife and with really nothing to do. I had been volunteering kind of on the side to help the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis build their new website, or at least maintain their existing website, and there was talk about building a new website The person I was volunteering with was a lady by the name of Edie Hofmeister. She's a designer. She’s still in business. She still has her own flourishing graphic design business in Minneapolis. She and I were both volunteering together, and when the Basilica said, “You know we're thinking about building a new website,” Edie and I both said, maybe we shouldn't volunteer anymore, maybe we should actually charge the Basilica to build a new website, and we can get paid for it. And we'll make something incredible. So that sounded really great. I had the opportunity to do it. Like you said I do have some background in science, and in my graduate studies I used computers extensively for computational modeling, and so I had to learn while I was in grad school I had to learn how to program. So I felt like I could figure this out, make a website and help Edie do this as a business. And so that was in April of 2007. I registered an LLC with the state of Minnesota and put together a proposal in a Word document. Edie and I split the work and we built mary.org using Joomla in 2007. And that was essentially the genesis of TEN7. I didn't have a background business. I don't. I did everything from project managing that project to building the site to testing the content to moving the content from the old site to the new site to the architecture to everything. After I registered the LLC, I kind of found myself to be a business owner, so it kind of happened serendipitously, I think. That's that's the origin story of TEN7.
MADELEINE: Wow, I think you had a lot of courage resigning your job without a plan, a little bit of savings. But there was no plans like yes, I decided to resign my job because now I want to do this. It just you just kind of sat back and you waited for something to happen, and it did.
IVAN: It did yep and it I mean I think that timing was important the ability to kind of sit back and have some savings and be able to not be terribly rushed into finding a new job. You know once I started working on this mary.org site, I was so engrossed in the work that I really didn't think about looking for a job. And as the work continued, Edie kept saying to me, “Hey, there's this other client I have that wants a website. Do you think you can help me?” And I said sure and that kind of spiraled into more clients. I think that if it had been 2008 or 2009, I most likely would not have quit my job and done this. I would have likely stayed at that position, and I probably would have looked for alternative employment to alleviate my unhappiness. I think it was the luck of the circumstances as well.
MADELEINE: That's interesting because I always wonder how much luck has to do with the founding of small businesses, but also just the trajectory that they take. Right? Because there's an element of luck to all these things finding opportunities and just meeting the right person that helps get things started. You hadn't ever done coded a website before right this was the first one mary.org. At what point did you decide that websites were a thing? Like at first when you first got into it was a project right, and you registered an LLC because you had to get paid, but it at what point did you decide now wait a minute here, this could be the new thing.This could be the business this could be my job.
IVAN: I think after I had more than I could handle doing myself that I realized that it was a business. When Edie came around with jbscottsearch.com that I hand coded without a CMS, and and just to be sure I did have HTML and CSS experience before I started TEN7, but it was probably five or seven years old, and I had taught an HTML class in college as well, so I had that kind of experience, but it didn't have CMS experience and CMS's were new and had a little bit of PHP experience, and that was kind of new as well, but to answer your question, I think I figured it out in the first half year when I had more than three projects that I could do at the same time, and I had to kind of say, well I can help you, but you'll have to wait for a few months. I think at that point I realized oh this could actually be a business, and I'm not really doing anything and work keeps coming my way. I think I think people are going to need websites more and more in the future. And at that time companies were essentially taking their printed material, their brochures and trying to figure out a way to put them online. There really wasn't any attention to detail as to what a user might want on the website, or what a company might expect as a return on investment, and you know differences between web copy and print copy, that was that was nowhere to be found.
MADELEINE: Early days yes. So you'd say you didn't have a background in business, but you had been working for a startup company, which does sometimes give you a kind of a bird's-eye view into the issues. How do you think working for that startup informed you as a business owner?
IVAN: It showed me exactly what I wasn't supposed to do, and I keep that in my mind every single day that I interact with all of you who work at TEN7.
MADELEINE: Such as?
IVAN: A fridge with free Coke and free food isn't the best motivator. A foosball table equally so. Don't demean the people that build the product and expect them to jump at what you want them to do. Communicate with your developers and the people who build your product and make sure that what you're saying is actually tenable. And most importantly don't make promises to clients without checking the feasibility of whether that thing you promised is actually possible. lt was a great exercise in watching an organization make mistakes and not being able to do anything about them, and I think I vowed to not be in that position after I realized that I had a company like TEN7 in that we were actually functioning as a real business.
MADELEINE: Tell me tell me about some of the you know tough decisions on the path, because business being a small business owner is requires some grit right? There there are points where difficult decisions have to be made, and sometimes entrepreneurs have to worry about things like making payroll, right?
IVAN: Well, I remember the first time I had to fire someone. I'd never done that before. That was a lot harder than having someone resign. When someone resigns it feels like it was inevitable and like I couldn't have done anything to stop it. I made mistakes in the kind of the first couple times when someone resigned. I did it a counter offer to try to get this person to stay, but that was not the best way to retain morale and to retain that person's happiness, because quite honestly if that person's resigned in that person is moving on that means they've already found something else they like they're not interested in staying. So from that aspect that's hard. I mean it's always hard to have that unknown looming that you know sometimes things change and people leave so that's tough. I think it takes grit to be able to deal with that, but just going back to what I said firing someone for the first time was tough. I am generally the kind of person that likes to keep the peace. I kind of like people to be happy and content in their work environment and satisfied and what they're in the work that they're doing. And when you have someone that you hired that you really believed in was capable of that, but their actions are counter to that, and when you still believe that you they can help you and be better, but they don't, then telling them that it's the end is difficult. It's not difficult when there's poor performance, it doesn't have to do with liking someone. It's like if if there is just clearly no performance, and then it's easy so that's easier. I'm trying to think of other difficult decisions. Well, I mean they're they're difficult decisions that may not be negative, like whether or not you should sign a lease for three years when there's maybe an opportunity to buy an office space and actually decide that you're going to buy the office space and not sign this lease and then having having trying to figure out whether or not you can find a six month lease for the interim like that that's another difficult decision that I've had to make in the past.
MADELEINE: What about firing clients? Ever had to do that?
IVAN: Yes, I've had to do that.
MADELEINE: How do you know when that becomes necessary?
IVAN: When you're when the team members who work on the particular project for a specific client are unhappy and are being mistreated, and maybe we're still creating high-quality work, but that doesn't matter. Because it's affecting them personally, and that is in turn affecting others on the team. That's my yardstick. I want to make sure we're not being taken advantage of no matter what the compensation is. That's one factor and that's one I can think of that that causes us to fire a client Another reason to fire a client might be if the work simply isn't fulfilling or up to par, maybe not up to par but up to our requirements, our internal quality requirements. An example from five or six years ago was someone came to us with the website they designed, and they had printed out the designs on paper, and we started working with them, because we thought this would be something that we could build for them that would just be amazing. But in the process of starting to do that the fact that they had printed out the designs and then started to bring back edits on paper was a red flag, and we simply had to say I'm sorry, we've done as much as we can you don't have to pay us anymore. You're going to have to find someone else to help you finish this project unfortunately.
MADELEINE: Yeah, so that kind of speaks to lessons learned also. How is your role changed? I mean it sounds like in the beginning you were the whole company. The company has grown, you hired for more positions. Tell me about how your role has changed as a company has grown.
IVAN: Well, it's certainly changed a lot. It's dramatically different now than it used to be. I once heard Jason Fried from Basecamp say that as an owner and a leader in a company you should have done every single job in your company so that you know what it takes to do those specific tasks, and what those roles are. And I feel like I've done that at TEN7, and so in my in my mind I feel like I've got some sort of empathy for the people that work on a day-to-day basis at TEN7. When I first started TEN7. I was the owner. I'm still the owner. I had to be worried about payroll. Payroll is a little easier back then because it was just me. If I screw it up I don't screw up other people's lives. It's just you know my own and my family, so that's like less risk. I had to meet with a client, project timelines, I had to develop the website, test the website, deliver the website, and then be concerned about the uptime of the website. I also had to be concerned about marketing and business development and then client happiness after delivery. In some respects, it was easier to be the project manager back then. Because I knew exactly how much time I had. I knew exactly how much, well I thought I knew how long it would take me to do something, and so estimating things was a whole lot easier. When you put more people in the mix and the complexity goes up that becomes a little harder. But as the years have gone past, I’ve started to let go of the things that I thought wouldn't affect quality first. So the first person I hired was a developer whose work I checked myself when he started. Then I hired another developer and a project manager. And as I hired more people I just started to do less of the things that those people who I hired were doing. And up until the end of last year, I was still writing code. I was still contributing to some of our clients’ websites, and the issues in JIRA. I don't anymore. In the beginning of this year, I kind of got everything off of my plate in terms of operational things at TEN7 that need to happen for the company to continue to turn and function. I can go on vacation for 6 weeks like I did in the summer on that sabbatical, and I don't have to worry. I know that invoices will get generated that people will get paid, that issues will get created, that clients will be happy, and I'm my my sole responsibility now is to make sure that the people that work at TEN7 are happy in what they're doing and continue to be, and more so that they're challenged that they have new things that they're learning and developing, and that we're delivering to our clients the best possible product, And now it's a matter of being concerned with how TEN7 changes in the future and making sure that we're more sustainable than we are, and my hope is that we can bring additional humans into the fold that can experience what it's like to be at TEN7 and hopefully grow and contribute and learn. So it's certainly changed to be more like product and thing-related that you delivered to the client and for me It's more about the humans now and their happiness.
MADELEINE: So that brings me to my sort of last question here right, so you just talked about sort of the last ten years of TEN7 history, and kind of how things have evolved, and how you now are not working in the business as you say you working on the business. You have more time to think about the vision and strategic growth and decisions about how the business grows. What's essential to you in terms of the company DNA? When you started this company, you weren't planning to be a business owner, but you kind of came into that, and I think that business owners along the way may start to to formulate what's important to them the values or the atmosphere or the spirit of the company. So tell me what's essential to the TEN7 DNA that you want to make sure is not lost as you grow this company.
IVAN: There are four values that we came up with for TEN7 and I would say if you if you think about the DNA of the company the culture of the company, they're centered around those four. But if I wanted to distill it even more than those four items as for values that we said, I would have to choose honesty and mindfulness, because they encapsulate loosely the other two values of speaking plainly and sharing. But they are the thread that I think connects all people that are a part of TEN7 in some way, whether you are a contractor that spends 10 hours with us every other week or every now and again, or you’re a client of ours or whether you spend 50 hours a week building things. If we have honesty in how we talk to each other, and we're frank and factual and not hurtful, and we do that with our clients as well whether their existing or potential clients, that there's really isn't anything that we can't do when we're being truthful with each other. In how you deliver that honesty you have to be mindful about it, because it's not just a matter of saying the facts. It's a matter of how do I say things so that they're in the best interest of who I'm talking to. And I would say that I would love for those two things to continue to be a part of TEN7 as we grow, and that people know that those are fundamental to the way we do business, the way we work with each other, the way we treat each other and the way that we want to treat our clients. You can extrapolate that to the rest of the world right? You kind of want that for the community that you're in and for the world at large, and my hope is that we can slowly bring more people into the fold of TEN7 that can experience that.
MADELEINE: Yes, both as employees and as clients right?
MADELEINE: Well that brings us to the end of this podcast. Thanks so much for your insights Ivan. That was really fun to do this interview with you. And to our listeners. I just like to say please visit us on the TEN7.com website and keep an eye out on our blog for future episodes. Thank you for listening.