Jeff Archibald of Paper Leaf: The Secret to Defining Your Company's Niche
Jeff Archibald, CEO of Paper Leaf, a specialized website and app agency, talks shop with Ivan about many agency owner issues, like how important it is to define your niche (without being too narrow), when to bring in the suits (middle management), and the False Hustle.
- A guest (outside of Minneapolis) who knows what skyways are!
- Ivan says he's noticed that people that have English or liberal arts background end up running companies. Take that people who said Liberal Arts degrees wouldn’t amount to anything!
- How important it is to get clear on your business niche (but not to get TOO niche-ed!)
- Another mention of having imposter syndrome! It really is a thing that everyone has!
- How Jeff is trying to make his role useless at Paper Leaf
- How it's important to install the "middle management layer" at a company to enable its growth
- How changes in company growth tend to occur at inflection points at the power of two (two people, four people, eight people, etc.)
- More good advice from Ivan's business coach, Jeff Robbins
- The cult of keeping busy (busy doesn't equal productive)
- Jeff Robbins of yonder.io
- Owner Camp
- Jason Clark of VIA Studio
- It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, by Jason Freid and David Heinemeier Hansson
- The False Hustle, by Jeff Archibald
- "Your 60-Hour Workweek is Not a Badge of Honor"
- Lynn Winter talking about burnout in Episode 65
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I'm your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Jeff Archibald, CEO and Co-Founder of Paper Leaf, a specialized company based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, that builds websites, web apps and mobile apps that are critical to their clients' growth. I was lucky enough to meet Jeff earlier this year when we were both at Owner Camp in Bend, Oregon. For those of you who are regular listeners, you’ll notice a trend in the lineup of guests we’ve had recently. In addition to owning a company, Jeff is also interested in whisky, coffee, sports, ball, bicycling, fonts, all kinds of different things, and I’m really looking forward to talking about them all. Jeff, hello. Welcome.
JEFF ARCHIBALD: Thanks for having me.
IVAN: It’s a great pleasure to have you on the podcast.
JEFF: Yeah, likewise. It’s good to catch up with you again.
IVAN: Yeah. So, you’re in Edmonton, in Canada, and that’s much further north than we are in Minneapolis. I spent some time, I looked at the lines of latitude, I did the math. You’re about 600 miles north of where we are. That’s about 1,000 kilometers for you, because you’re Canadian. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Thank you.
IVAN: So, we’re used to snow here, but is it ever not snowing in Edmonton? Is it ever other than, freezing cold?
JEFF: Yeah. Yesterday was blazing hot; it was 30 degrees Celsius. So, whatever that is in Fahrenheit.
IVAN: Let’s go with 100.
JEFF: 86 Fahrenheit [laughing]. So that was yesterday, which is really, really hot for us. So, I slept in my basement.
JEFF: Because it was too hot, and it’s cool in my basement. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Oh, I see. Okay.
JEFF: It’s a winter city for sure. There’s snow probably six months of the year. But, the benefit of being up north is the other six months of the year, especially in the summer, we have really, really long days. We have sunlight in the summer until 10:00 p.m. So, for someone like myself that likes to be outside riding bikes and stuff like that, it’s nice to be able to hop on your bike and go for a ride, at 8:30 at night and still have light when you get back home.
IVAN: Yeah, that really is nice. Sunlight ends at about 8:45, 9:00 here, so, it would be nice to have another hour. I wouldn’t get any sleep if that was the case, though.
JEFF: It could be a little tough. You stay up a little bit later. But, I’m not going to complain because you kind of have to maximize your nice weather windows here, because when it gets down to February, when my neighbor's pipes froze, even though they’re eight feet underground, because it was so cold for so long, you kind of have to enjoy the summer weather as best you can.
IVAN: Yeah, you have to take advantage of it. So, my daughter was saying, “Hey, are we the only city that has skyways in their downtown?” I was like, “I don’t know.” Are there any skyways in Edmonton?
JEFF: I think we call them "pedways" here. Are those basically like glass bridges that connect buildings over top of the roads? Is that what you mean?
IVAN: Yes. Isn’t that what everybody understands a skyway to be, says me, from Minneapolis that only ever sees skyways? [laughing] Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It joins buildings downtown, and they’re glass, and you could see where all the cars are. What did you call it?
JEFF: Pedway. That’s what all the signage here says. It’s a pedway. I presume a pedestrian walkway is the long form. But they connect a lot of buildings downtown. They have them in the university here. You can basically get a lot of places downtown or at the university without having to set foot outside in the dead of winter.
IVAN: That’s exactly what they’re for here. And, in Minneapolis, we have vendors and shops that show up, more in the winter than in the summer. I really appreciate that. There’s like this whole bunch of people that use the skyways, especially around lunchtime. All the buildings empty and the skyways get filled and they all go and get lunch. It’s quite interesting, actually.
JEFF: Not dissimilar here.
IVAN: So, you’re probably used to being in the cold.
I want to go back to where life started for you. So, your parents are both educators. Were you born and raised in Edmonton? Or are you from another part of the country?
JEFF: Born and raised more or less. There’s a small town just outside of Edmonton—well, it’s not that small, there’s like 90,000 people in it now. It’s called Sherwood Park, it’s about a 15-minute drive from Edmonton. That’s where I grew up. I lived in a house there with my parents, they were both teachers, so that was kind of the common threads around my upbringing, I suppose.
IVAN: So, they’re teachers, so you decided to go into education as well. Right?
JEFF: Yeah, totally man. It was one of those things where it’s like, “I’m 17 years old, I need to make a life decision about what my career's going to be. I understand what a teacher is, therefore, I will become a teacher.” But then about three years into that degree I had sort of realized that I didn’t really have any desire to be a teacher. I have a lot of respect for teachers, but it’s not my path. So, I finished up my degree. Anyway, I just didn’t just drop out, but, finished it up, because there’s value in that. But, ultimately, I never really became a teacher, just got the degree that said I was.
IVAN: What was your major? Was it education or was there a subject that you were interested in?
JEFF: Yeah. Good question. In post-secondary, I was a secondary educator. So, over here, that means grades seven through twelve, so Junior High/High School or Junior Varsity/Varsity, if you’re in the states I believe, and my major was in English, which has come in huge handy in the agency life, and minor was Phys Ed because jock life and all that.
IVAN: [laughing] I’m so interested in the fact that most of the people I’ve talked to on the show and generally even at Owner Camp—it seems that people end up running companies that have some sort of liberal arts training, and usually it’s English. So, how did that happen?
JEFF: I don’t know. I was always a good writer in school. That was clearly where my strengths were. I wasn’t really much of a math guy, even though now I do a lot of math, hopefully I do it right. But I don’t know. Writing was always a thing. I ended up playing a lot of music and playing in touring bands and doing some singer/songwriter stuff. So, a different type, more creative writing there. But that ultimately, when I started the agency, I think writing probably is one—if not the most—critical skill that I have right now. Because we use it for proposals, we use it for content marketing and even just day-to-day communications with clients or perspective clients, I can’t stress enough how valuable that has been.
IVAN: It really is a defining thread in the communication you have with clients, like someone who can write, you can absolutely see the difference between those communications and someone who maybe doesn’t have that affinity, who maybe is a math person. I think it really does make a difference.
JEFF: Do you have a background at all in “liberal arts?”
IVAN: Well, I grew up in South Africa and my major was Physics and Psychology. So, it was through the Department of Science, and we had this special thing where if you could get a Bachelor of Science and do some course work through the liberal arts college, I guess the equivalent of the liberal arts college. So, I was able to take Psychology. So, I don’t have any formal training in English or Sociology, but I do have psychology training.
JEFF: That would be so beneficial, I bet.
IVAN: Yeah, it really does help. But now that my son is doing his master’s in psychology, I realize how little I actually know [laughing]. So, yeah, it’s definitely useful. But you didn’t start Paper Leaf directly from college though. You worked as an instructional design coordinator somewhere.
IVAN: Please tell me what that is.
JEFF: [laughing] Good question. I didn’t really know what it was either, but ultimately it was for this little occupational health and safety training company here in Edmonton. They published safety training materials. Some written materials, some in-person training materials, and then ultimately online training materials. So, when they were getting to the online training game, they needed an instructional design coordinator, and I applied for that because it was an introductory role, and they wanted someone with an education background, and so, I was like, “Wow, I have a degree and I need to get some sort of job and I never got into visual communications which is the first thing I tried to get into at university. So this has the word 'design' in it, so that’s interesting to me."
Anyway, long story, short, I applied for that job and got into it. What that entailed mostly was, I guess, the coordination of various contractors to deliver on my training courses. So, let’s say we would make a transportation of dangerous goods online course. I would work with a subject matter expert and a content author and a developer and a graphic designer, and just make sure that all those puzzle pieces came together to form that course. So, for me, I was always the kid in school drawing logos on my binder, and always kind of had that traditional graphic design interest. But that was my first experience in working with developers and the traditional graphic designer, I would go over to his office and he would show me all his old-school graphics and all that stuff which was really cool.
But that was my first experience into working directly with graphic designers and developers and subject matter experts and copywriters, and seeing how those sort of skills would translate into an actual career. So, I did that for four and a half years, quit, I went to this private design school here, and that’s ultimately what was the launching point into the digital/graphic design work that we started doing.
IVAN: So, you did a design job before doing a design degree?
JEFF: It wasn’t really a design job, honestly. It was more of a coordination job.
IVAN: Is that kind of like project management, I guess?
JEFF: Yeah. I think that’s ultimately the closest comparison to it. So, project management . . . when I look at the project management processes we have in-house now, at Paper Leaf, which I’m pretty proud of, I hesitate to call anything I did "project management" [laughing] because I was like 22 years old and just winging it, but, yeah, that’s more or less what it was.
IVAN: So, you decide to start an agency. What were you thinking?
JEFF: I have no idea. [laughing] Probably the same thing as you. My partner and I decided to start. She had been freelancing for a while and had a few clients, and just doing it part-time. I decided to go back to school and said, “You know what? Let’s just see if we could pick up a few more clients.” We already have a small handful, and maybe I don’t need to go get a job at another agency. Maybe we can just work out of the house and do it that way.
But we were just like so green. You have no idea what anything costs, or how to estimate things or do anything, because neither of us came from an agency background. So, even pretty rudimentary stuff like, project check-ins and writing statements of work and stuff like that, totally just winging it. I remember some of the first invoices I sent, I was hand-making them in Illustrator, exporting them to PDF, just like the world’s most inefficient shit ever, but it was pretty funny. But ultimately we just started because we were too dumb to realize what we were getting into. Just so naïve. But ultimately that naivety was a benefit, because we just kind of plowed ahead. Sometimes I think, like if I were to look at my age now—I’m 37—if I were to look at starting an agency and dealing with the workload and lack of pay that I dealt with for the first three to five years, that isn’t a very enticing view.
IVAN: What year was it that you started Paper Leaf?
JEFF: 2009. So, we’re just actually coming up on our tenth anniversary in August.
IVAN: And why is it called Paper Leaf?
JEFF: Oh man I wish I had some cool answer for you.
IVAN: Well, now’s your opportunity to make one up. So, I’m going to give you a couple seconds to think about it. Go. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Okay. Actually, the real answer was, we had like this giant list of names and mostly just words that I liked that were somewhat ownable, and bartered back and forth with Andy, my partner, and ultimately we narrowed it down to Paper Leaf, and the idea being—because when we started we were more of a traditional graphic design firm, doing stationary and annual reports and stuff like that—so paper was a clear nod to that, and then the whole idea with "leaf" is that every leaf is unique in its veins and shape and all that kind of stuff. So, we were like, “Oh, let’s do that. That’ll be a nice little nod.” And now I’m just like, “Oh my God, it’s so embarrassing to talk about.” [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] I think it’s a great name.
IVAN: I think it’s a great name. And, we do have Paris Leaf coming up on the podcast at some point in the future as well, and that was so crazy to make sure I get the people and the names right when I was at [Owner Camp in] Bend with you.
JEFF: Yeah, that was so odd.
IVAN: That was, I don’t know about odd, interesting.
JEFF: Great minds think alike right?
IVAN: I think that’s true. So, you guys don’t bill yourselves as a "digital marketing agency," but you kind of talk about yourselves as a specialized company. What does that mean?
JEFF: Good question. I don’t know what it’s like for you in your market, but here in Edmonton we have a lot of city and regional and western Canadian clients. We don’t delve a lot outside of that. We have the odd one here or there in Eastern Canada or one or two in the states, but ultimately a lot of our work comes regionally, and in our market the large, large, large majority of people who do the work that we do bill themselves as the one-stop shop. The digital marketing agency that could do brand strategy and marketing campaigns and SEO and PPC and UX and UI, and WordPress development, and everything under of the sun.
So, when we were looking at that, we’re realizing we needed to niche down a little bit and narrow our focus, and luckily for us, the things we were really, really good at, and the stuff that gets us out of bed in the morning, is the stuff that isn’t really focused on here too much. So, we love to focus on UX, UI and products. We want to build websites, web apps and mobile apps, so that’s what we’re really good at doing. And here in the city, the majority of providers will say that they do that alongside everything else under the sun, and I’m kind of of the belief that, unless you’re a giant agency, like huge, it’s really difficult to be great at all at those things. So, we decided to not bill ourselves as that. We decided to focus on being a digital product company for people who need complex websites, web apps and mobile apps. Not like your WordPress themes or Squarespace sites. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but just the stuff you don’t really need to pay agency rates for.
Yeah, we decided to focus on that, and since we’ve focused on that it’s been really good, because as you guys probably well know, it helps unify the team a little bit. It differentiates us from other agencies here. And it’s a point I come back to continually if I’m ever in the closing stages of a project proposal or a pitch, or something like that. If I can identify to the client that, “Your problems aren’t about pay-per-click marketing or lead generation or branding. Your problems are about business process or content management" or something like that.” If I can draw a clear line between what their problem is and our specialization, then way more often than not, we’ll close that deal. I think that’d be harder if we were like, “Oh, no, we do everything,” just like everybody else.
IVAN: I think I agree with you. So, your sweet spot is very highly focused in your mind, and selling the sweet spot makes a difference in the number and the quality of pitches that you do and that you focus on.
JEFF: It’s not dissimilar to you guys, right? Correct me if I’m wrong, but, you know, you guys focus on Drupal, but that’s kind of where your specialization partially is, right?
IVAN: Exactly. And so, that’s the niche that we are focused on. So, if you would need a complex Drupal site, you come to us. That’s what we feel is the best kind of service we can provide. And if someone comes to us and asks for a WordPress site, whether it’s complex or not, if they are dead set on getting a WordPress site, then we can’t help them. But if we have the opportunity to talk about what problem they have, and whether Drupal might be the right enterprise solution for them, then that’s a different discussion. I think you end up being more successful, and I love that you said that it unifies the team around it as well.
JEFF: Yeah, I think it does. One question that always bounces around in my brain—and I don’t know if you have an answer for this or have thought about it at all—but, it’s like we’re niche-ing down a little bit, but how far should you go and when are you too focused? Do you know what I mean? Because we’re saying we’re a digital product company and we build three things: websites, web apps and mobile apps. But we could say, “We build these three things for nonprofits and post-secondary, and I don’t know, pick an industry.” But then you could also focus down more and be like, “We are a WordPress shop that only builds nonprofit websites.” At what point do the benefits of kind of niche-ing down turn into a detriment because your pool is way too small? Do you know what I mean? Do you guys ever think about that?
IVAN: Yeah. I’ve actually talked to Jeff about that. Jeff Robbins, not Jeff Archibald. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Sounds like a handsome guy though.
IVAN: He is. He’s great. He’s just like you, Jeff. He’s awesome. [laughing] He actually is. We actually talked about this a couple months ago, I think, and I would say it’s probably detrimental after the second level of niche. So, you’ve been very clear that you have these three things that you’re building, right? So, web apps, websites, mobile apps. Right? No. What is it again? [laughing]
JEFF: Yeah, you got it.
IVAN: Web apps, mobile apps and websites.
IVAN: And then if you say we also have expertise in higher education, I think at that point you’re probably done. Like, you don’t want to say, only WordPress, right? Because I think at that point that pool is way too small, and we’ve thought about this as well. I think the niche that we’re in is Drupal, and if you come to us with a problem that is in an industry that we haven’t worked in before, then we’re probably going to do just fine. We’ll likely rely on experts that we’ve worked with in the past to help us out with that subject matter expertise. But, if you come to us in an industry that we’ve got experience in, that’s even better for you—whoever you are clients, big university—but anything more detailed than that is just, I think, cutting it way too close in terms of a pool of potential market.
JEFF: I was just going to say I think it’s interesting too, for me at least, to recognize the difference between our niche and what we’re communicating outwardly on our website and other marketing materials, versus our niche and our preferred customers as well. You know what I mean?
IVAN: There’s a subtlety there.
JEFF: Yeah, we have our ideal customer, about three of them, but we aren’t so focused—and maybe we should be—as to say these are the people that we work with. Or, these are the industries that we work with, and these are the three things that we build. Instead we go, "These are the three things that we build. You can glean from our case studies if you’re generally a good fit organizationally with us," and then we use those customer profiles as part of our project vetting process, project scoring process. Like, how many boxes does this tick and should be bid on it kind of thing.
IVAN: Pursue it. Yeah. And I guess the other approach is to say, “I focus on higher ed, and that’s all I do (or as a company), and any higher ed we will have experience with, and it doesn’t matter what your platform is. It could be Sitecore, it could be WordPress, it could be Drupal, it doesn’t matter. We will make it happen.” That’s another way to slice the approach in marketing and trying to do business development for your company, and personally that makes me a little nervous.
JEFF: Yeah, I totally hear you. I think honestly a lot of us try to find the perfect solution, right? Like reading these articles, we’re working with business coaches, we’re experimenting on our own business, but what works for you in your area, and the kind of work you do and the kind of team you have, the messaging that works for you might not work for me, in Canada.
IVAN: I think you’re right about that as well.
JEFF: Basically, we’re all just winging it, you know.
IVAN: Yeah. And none of us should have imposter syndrome because we’re all imposters.
IVAN: This is a great learning from Owner Camp, as well, that I had. It’s like, Oh, ok, we’re all winging it. Thank you bringing that up, Jeff. [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] It is true though, right? Everybody obviously is competent and has their skills and strengths, but in certain areas we always have that moment where it’s just like, “I've never done this before. I feel like this is the right path, but I don’t really know.” I think everybody has that regardless of if they’re owning an agency or if they're an accountant, or anything in between.
IVAN: Very true. And, if I think about your company, you’re about 17 people I counted on the website?
IVAN: And you’re building stuff, and there's design, and there's code. Are you still involved in any of the day-to-day, well maybe not day-to-day, I would assume you're not involved in any of the day-to-day, but maybe you're involved in some of the creative direction or setting the tone for the IT, maybe the architecture? What does your role look like at Paper Leaf right now?
JEFF: Good question. It’s mostly useless, but [laughing] that’s what I like to say here anyways.
JEFF: Shh, don’t tell anybody.
Yeah, a lot of my role, I suppose, is focused on sales and marketing. I do most of that. I have a business development coordinator here, she helps with that a lot, in terms of proposal writing and getting that stuff out. But, from a high level, understanding how we’re going to meet some requirements, writing the odd proposal, creating the odd estimate, depending on if it’s in my wheelhouse. If it’s too complex, then we’ll do some estimation poker with the people who actually know what they’re doing here. That kind of work.
Meeting prospective new clients, all the stuff under the business development end. Then when it comes to the day-to-day operations, most of that stuff is handled by the teams here and our operations and development directors. My role is mostly I’ll run part of the initial project kickoffs or workshop. Part of that is, I’m reasonably competent at it, but also as a bit of a bridge from dealing with me, to now dealing with the project team you’re going to be working with over the coming months. It’s a nice handoff sort of moment. So, a lot of my work is there. To be honest, a lot of my focus these days is continually trying to remove the hats that I’m wearing, and I’m sure that’s a common theme for everyone you’ve talked to, but trying to make myself actually useless. If I can do that, instead of just feeling that way, then I think the company will be running pretty well. You know?
IVAN: I hear you. Everything that you’ve described is basically the role I have at TEN7, as well. You were telling me that you made some changes recently to the staff at Paper Leaf before we got started here. You added a director of some sort. Tell me about what’s changed lately.
JEFF: Sure. We’ve grown quite a bit in the last few months, for us anyways, you know, when you’re 17, if you were 12 to start, then that’s quite a bit. [laughing]
IVAN: Yeah. Oh, definitely.
JEFF: So, we’ve grown a little bit. We had a role here that I was experimenting with called the team lead. So, we have two project teams, and, we had a team lead designer and three or four developers on each of those project teams. That team lead role was a wishful thinking role that I sort of made up, that was part project manager, part personnel manager, and it ended up just being a not very realistic role. So, what we did is realize that project manager, in and of itself, is a full-time job. So, team leads became project managers and then we installed, for the first time here at the shop, I guess that middle layer of management, and that was an operations director and a development director, and then down the road the next one will most likely be a design director of some kind. I pseudo play that role now, but not really.
And that was just about me handing off some accountability to people who are wanting to do it and able to do it better than I can, and having a little bit more reasonable job descriptions and workloads for everybody. So, we put in those positions, but I don’t know, as you well know there’s some math behind those things. If you’re going to put in those director-level positions, those come with a certain kind of salary, and those come with a certain lack of billable time. And so, for us, we need to have a certain amount of developers and designers and billable staff to support those roles. So that kind of necessitated some of the growth that we found in the last few months here, but ultimately, I think it’s been great. I know for me it’s been great.
There’s a lot more oversight on projects and the teams are delivering faster and they’re more excited and more satisfied and clients happier. For me, that means I’m not doing a half-ass job of managing operations off the side of my desk, and I can focus on the higher picture stuff, and also a little bit more on the biz dev and sales process. So, those kind of change have been really beneficial, but it’s surprising. It took a long time for me to get there. I don’t know what you guys are like over there.
IVAN: We’re still just after the inflection point that’s before the growth that you’ve had in the last few months, and I was just remembering something Jeff told me. Man, Jeff is coming up a lot in his podcast.
JEFF: Yeah. Good for him.
JEFF: There you go. A shout out.
IVAN: Okay, there we go, shout out. So, Jeff was saying the inflection points of growth in a company loosely follows the power of two. And so, going from one person to two people, it feels like that’s a big change. And, I remember being one and hiring my first contractor and that being a big deal for me.
IVAN: And then the next would be four, and yeah, there’s definitely a dynamic that changes when there’s not two people working on something. In a team of four or five, it’s different. You need check-ins and reporting and other kinds of things that maybe two people don’t need. But then the other inflection point is eight, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now. Between eight and ten, depending on who you count. But to me, it was interesting that the next inflection point might be around 16, and that’s kind of where you are, and at that point, the things I read and the things I’ve talked to Jeff about, he’s kind of like, “That’s when you start adding middle layer of management, because you’re kind of getting to a point where all of these people can’t really function with just one overseer, one leader. You have to split that up.” So, it’s really interesting that that’s kind of where you’re at and that’s what you’re seeing as well.
JEFF: Yeah. It’s just funny. You pull one end of the string and then everything else moves. It’s never just one change. For us, I kind of understood that the team lead role here wasn’t very feasible, and we wanted to change that to project managers, because the production staff on that team reported to their team leads, so all of a sudden, they had nobody to report to. So, then I had to put in an operations director, because that was, in my head, the most critical piece, but she can’t have 13 or 12 people reporting to her. That’s way too many.
JEFF: And so, then, that meant adding a development director and then I needed to figure out who is reporting to whom and all this stuff. And that also meant I had to hire now, to backfill that PM role, because I promoted that PM into the operations director role, and then I needed to backfill the development role, because I promoted that guy into the development director role. And so, there’s all this hiring and all this moving and all this changing and reporting, which then necessitated all this changing in procedure and process here, and that all stemmed from one decision, that team leads needed to be project managers. [laughing] You know what I mean?
IVAN: How interesting that it all evolved like that. It’s exciting stuff.
JEFF: Yeah, what’s interesting too, I want to give some props to Jason Clark from VIA Studio. He was at Owner Camp in Bend with you and I, and I was kind of still kicking the can around a little bit, when the timing was, to get that operations role in. I was like, “You know, I feel like I need one or two more billable staff before I’m really comfortable with putting that role in,” and he was just like, “In my experience, that has been the best decision I made for my mental health, and by proxy, everyone else’s stress and happiness levels.” He’s like, “I think you do that first, make that change and then find billable staff. Don’t wait to make that change.” So, I took his advice and did that, and I think he was bang on.
IVAN: Well, shout out to Jason Clark, who you will also find, will be on the podcast [laughing] in the next couple of weeks here.
JEFF: [laughing] I’m feeling less special.
IVAN: [laughing] No, no, don’t feel less special you guys. All of the folks I met there were amazing. I’m sure you'll agree with me.
JEFF: Oh, for sure.
IVAN: I just want to keep having these conversations and share the experience with everyone if we can.
JEFF: I agree. I’m just bugging you. There was a good group there.
IVAN: [laughing] A very good group.
So, I have a book in front of me. I just so happen to see it on the shelf right next to me. I pulled it off because I’ve been meaning to read it, and I haven’t been able to get to it yet. It segues really nicely into something I wanted to ask you about. So, the book is called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.
JEFF: Ah, yes.
IVAN: It’s by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, from Basecamp fame. So, the book is about trying to run a calm company. What does that even mean? Read the book because I need to read the book, but it segues into this article you wrote on Fast Company about the False Hustle, how keeping busy is just a way of not getting things done.
IVAN: And you’ve also written about humble bragging, about how a 60-hour workweek is actually symptomatic of larger problems that you might have as a company. I’ve talked to Lynn Winter in a previous episode about burnout, and it just seems to come up more and more. Like we are trying to be cognizant of what we’re doing, of what our employees are doing, so that we’re not detrimental to our own mental health, and so that we’re happy in the work we do, so that we have careful focus in work and life and home. So, the question is, what motivated you to write those two articles? The false hustle one and the one about the 60-hour work week?
JEFF: The 60-hour workweek one was just a bit of a direct response to what I was exposed to, and what I’m sure virtually every listener and yourself has been exposed to as well, through social media, and just is that humble bragging, right? “Oh, man. Crazy week. Finally shutting the laptop down. It’s 10 p.m. on Friday.” It’s indirectly talking about how important we are—and I’m totally guilty of this in the past as well—how important we are, how busy we are and how successful we are. But in reality, that’s not sustainable. It’s symptomatic of not having enough process in place, or not having enough revenue coming in, or just symptomatic of a host of potential flaws with the business model.
So, instead of bragging about it, it’d be great if we were bragging about how everybody in our shop worked a 25-hour work week and it was super stoked, and we’re hitting 30% profit margins, and everyone is getting paid properly. Those are the things we should be bragging about. And I get that, especially when you’re starting a business, a start-up or an agency or whatever, there is an inordinate amount of time that needs to be put in to get to the point where you have enough clients and you can support bringing on somebody to help ease that workload. I understand that. But, if it’s continually what we’re touting as success, then I think we have it totally backwards.
The False Hustle article, that was more just like, I suppose, a moment in self-awareness for myself. I’m a productive person, I can get a lot of stuff done very quickly, but I have a tendency to overvalue the volume of tasks I complete, versus the importance of those tasks. I could sit down and crank out 12 things in a day, but did it actually move the needle anywhere? I was working really hard and I was being really busy, but it’s the equivalent on some level of . . . in that article the analogy I drew to Sammy Sosa’s sprinting from the dugout to the outfield, in between innings, but then jogging after a fly ball. [laughing] It’s the same kind of thing. For me I just wrote that more to remind myself that I need to make sure and understand what I really need to be working on. What’s truly important. And apply tools like the Eisenhower Matrix to understand what needs to be done now versus what can be delegated and plan my week out a little bit better. Or else you can get to the end of the week and think that you’ve moved the needle because you did a lot of stuff. But it doesn’t mean you actually have moved the needle.
IVAN: How do you keep yourself on track for that? It sounds like a great idealistic way of living, and I would love to do it myself, but how do I actually do it? How do you do it?
JEFF: It’s relatively straightforward, to be honest. It is, I suppose, a series of processes. So, we use OKRs here: objectives of key results. I set one or two objectives for sales and marketing, which is primarily my focus here for every quarter, and then I list out the key results. If you’re a listener and you’re wondering what that means, just google "OKRs" and you’ll find a whole bunch of really interesting methods and information about it. But I set up those results and those are the things that I really try to focus on. Those are the things that are going to move the needle.
So, I map those out. So if I have an objective to increase revenue for the next quarter, then some of my key results might be to pitch three new projects every month. It might be bid on $1.5 million of work. Just key results like that. So that’s where I start, and then at the start of every week, I have a reminder in my calendar and about a 30 minute window to actually plan and block out my week, and it says right in there, review your OKRs, figure out what you should be working on, and then I’ll go through my calendar and I’ll see what time I have available, that hasn’t been booked for meetings or whatever else. And I’ll block in time to focus on this particular sales objective, or this key result. Or, this particular proposal that I know was due by the end of the week. So, for me, those OKRs ultimately are making sure I’m working on the really, really important stuff that’ll move the needle, and then that weekly calendar reminder and the subsequent blocking out of my time on a weekly basis, is how I make sure that stuff actually gets done.
IVAN: So, I need to use my calendar more for that kind of stuff is what you’re saying? [laughing]
JEFF: [laughing] Yes. I have it perfect. No, I'm just kidding. Works for me.
IVAN: [laughing] Seriously, but what do you do for fun?
JEFF: What do I do for fun? To be honest, I feel like I’m not doing enough for fun these days.
JEFF: Yeah, I know, poor me, hey. No, I ride my mountain bike a lot, so it might seem counterintuitive to the conversation that started this whole podcast about living up north in snowy Edmonton. But Edmonton has one of the largest trail networks of any urban center. So, I can go out my back door and hop on my mountain bike and in five minutes I’m riding single track in the forest, and there’s miles upon miles upon miles of single track. So, I do a lot of that, which is really nice. I have Gus—he’s my dog—and I end up taking him to the off-leash park a lot. I’ll go rock climbing with a buddy every week or two times a week. So, I do a lot of active stuff like that, and then I do the things you would expect from your typical black plastic-glasses-wearing-hipster-agency-owner guy, which is like, going to drink craft beer and things of that nature.
IVAN: Craft beer. And whisky without an “e.”
JEFF: Yeah, whisky without an “e.” That’s more of a cold weather thing for me. I don’t think you drink much.
IVAN: Not a whole lot. No. I like gin, though.
JEFF: Oh, okay. Yeah, so gin for me, if you’re making a cocktail or something, those are always nice summer drinks. And then whisky for me is if it’s cold and snowy out and I want to stay inside, that’s when a good whisky comes about.
IVAN: And, do you ride your bikes in the winter as well?
JEFF: Yeah. I don’t ride to work, I’m not that hardcore in the winter, but I have a fat bike, one of those giant-tired mountain bikes, so I’ll hop on that with Gus, my dog, and take him out to the trail that’s by my house, and we’ll do some loops. It’ll wear him out, and it’ll get me some exercise over the winter break. Man, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on one of those bikes, but it is entirely different. It is so much more difficult than a regular mountain bike.
IVAN: It is a very different experience. I’ve only gone on the bike once before, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time on it. What I can’t understand is, why do you need a fat tire bike in the summer? Cause I’ve seen people riding them around in the summer and I thought they were designed for the winter, and maybe I have it wrong, but I can’t understand that part.
JEFF: That’s really how they blew up, was for the winter. People use them for riding on sand and stuff like that, or a similar kind of consistency. But, yeah, to be totally honest, I haven’t been out on my fat bike at all since the snow melted, so, I just ride my regular bike around.
IVAN: So, you have at least two bikes is what I’m hearing?
JEFF: I have four.
IVAN: Oh man.
JEFF: Well, they're purpose-designed tools! [laughing]
IVAN: That’s awesome.
JEFF: Yes, it is.
IVAN: Well, I’ve had a really good time talking to you. I think this has been a great episode. Thank you for spending so much time with me today, it’s been awesome.
JEFF: Yeah, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on, and I hope life stays well.
IVAN: And for you too. Thanks Jeff.
JEFF: Alright. Take care.
IVAN: Jeff Archibald is CEO and co-founder of Paper Leaf, a specialized company based in Edmonton, Alberta Canada that builds websites, web apps and mobile apps that are critical to their clients' growth. You can find them online at paper-leaf.com and Jeff’s personal site is jeffarchibald.ca. That’s Jeff with a “J.” Jeff is also on Twitter @jeff_archibald. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.