Jeff Robbins: Co-founder Lullabot, Executive Coach
Jeff Robbins, entrepreneur, co-founder of Lullabot, founder of Yonder, executive coach, author, signed recording artist and a self-proclaimed philosopher is our guest.
- Discovering fortnight
- Jeff's background
- Boston universities tour
- Starting at O'Reilly Media
- Gopher & open source software
- Orbit, one of the first bands on the internet
- Signing with A&M Records
- Surviving record labels
- Intellectual property, algorithms and paradigms
- The complexity of band management
- On the Lollapalooza tour with Snoop Doggy Dogg
- The unintentional result of subliminal intentionality
- 123 Astronaut
- The transition from music to Drupal management
- Lullabot, one of the first fully distributed companies
- DrupalCon, Vancouver 2006, let the hiring begin
- Yonder, guide to distribution
- The future of corporate distribution
- Writing a new book
- One Minute Manager, Make Friends and Influence People and Tribal Leadership
- 123 Astronaut
- Office Space
- The One Minute Manager
- How to Make Friends and Influence People
- Tribal Leadership
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 even Ivan Stegic. In this episode of the Podcast, Jeff Robbins of Yonder and 123 Astronaut. Jeff is an entrepreneur, co-founder of Lullabot, a design agency you may have heard of, and most recently the founder of Yonder, an advocate for remote work and an inspiration for leaders of distributed companies like my own, all over the world. He's a business consultant and an executive coach, an author, a signed recording artist, a self-proclaimed philosopher, and in my opinion an all-around nice guy. Jeff welcome to the Podcast.
JEFF ROBBINS: Wow. Thanks Ivan. Thanks for having me. I want to start right off with a question for you, though. What is a fortnight?
IVAN: Two weeks.
JEFF: Two weeks. Ok.
IVAN: Two weeks. It must be a British English thing. We used to talk about fortnights all the time, when I lived in Africa.
JEFF: No, we don't use that one too much. It shows up, sort of, in archaic writing every now and then. (laughing) Or, maybe it's just British writing, I don't know. Fortnight. Okay. You know, I've heard the term, but I am embarrassed that I don't quite know what it is. But now I do. Now I will start using it, and people will feel uncomfortable around me not knowing what a fortnight. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) Well, people might think you're talking about the video game.
JEFF: Or, they might think I was British. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) Well, I'm so excited to be talking to you, Jeff. And usually I start out by asking about where life started for you. So, I know you live in Providence, Rhode Island. Is that where life started for you as well?
JEFF: Well, I grew up in Connecticut. So, in the grand scheme of things, not too far away, still southern New England. Yeah. That's where life started for me at least. I lived there through high school and then moved to Boston, again, in the grand scheme of things, not too far away. But at the time it seemed pretty significant. And lived in Boston for, as I say, most of my formative years, and then moved to Rhode Island right around 2000, something like that.
IVAN: So, that was where you went to college, was in Boston?
JEFF: Yes, I went to many colleges and universities (laughing) in the Boston area.
IVAN: (laughing) Well, I know you studied liberal arts and music, right?
JEFF: Well, yeah, I originally went there to go to Berklee College of Music, and after a semester at Berklee I realized like, there's no way I'm going to finish at this school. So I took all of the classes that I thought would be sort of important to me, actually pursuing the musical career that I wanted to pursue. I took a whole bunch of music business classes and stuff like that. Then I bounced around, I went to Emerson College for a while and took some classes at Harvard extension school, but eventually found a job doing technical illustration work, using a program called Freehand, which was sort of the competitor to Adobe Illustrator, what we now call Adobe Illustrator and eventually the companies all merged together and they all became sort of the same thing. But I started working for O’Reilly. We now call them O'Reilly Media. They were called O'Reilly and Associates in the early nineties.
IVAN: I remember that.
JEFF: Yeah. And doing technical illustrations for their books. I mean this was pre-web and started, sort of, they had really good internet there, meaning technical people themselves and writing technical books about technical things and so, I sort of discovered FTP, and a sort of lost technology called Gopher.
IVAN: Which was invented in Minnesota.
JEFF: Oh yeah, in fact, actually, many of the FTP sites, or at least one of them, was at the University of Minnesota as well, now that I think about it, where you go and download open source software and stuff like that, basically you just download other FTP programs. (laughing) Eventually you could FTP to download Gopher, and then use Gopher to download other programs. So Gopher was post FTP, but pre-HTTP, and it was basically folders and a little bit of hypertext linking but no graphical stuff. But then the web came around, and O'Reilly was first into that, and I worked on the team that ended up building the first commercial website. We were just calling it like, an online magazine at the time. We hadn't really thought about the fact that it was the first commercial website, but we figured that we would probably need to support it in some way, and it being a magazine, advertising seemed like the obvious way to go.
IVAN: What quantified it as the first commercial website? Was it because it was revenue generating?
JEFF: Yeah. Up until then it was all, mostly academic colleges and universities people there, just sort of building a website about usually something scientific, or about technological things. There were a few sort of like arts websites and bands. My band was one of the first bands to be on the web. Not quite the first I don't think. Although we did build a website for our record label when we were the first record label on the web at the time. And it was like there was a website that listed new websites launched today, and it had like three listings on it.
IVAN: Back when it was a finite countable list of websites. (laughing)
JEFF: Just email Bob when you launch a website and we'll put it up on the page. (laughing) It all seemed funny at the time.
IVAN: So, you were in this band called Orbit. Were you one of the founding members?
IVAN: And there were three of you and you started your own record label? You just alluded to that.
JEFF: Yeah, we did. We'd been playing, the other founder of the band Paul and I, had been playing in Boston bands for years, and we were just frustrated and fed up with the subservient nature of playing in a band and decided, “You know what, screw this we're either going to start our own record label, we're going to go out find other bands that we think are good, we're gonna to put out our own music and stop worrying about getting a record deal and trying to be what we think that bands ought to be to get a record deal.” And of course, that was exactly what record labels were looking for it turns out. So, within about six months of starting the band and starting the record label we got signed to A&M records.
IVAN: Wow. How did you know that you had a sound that you thought people wanted to hear?
JEFF: I didn't. We created the sound that I wanted to hear. Like I said, after playing in all these bands where it just felt like a, sort of compromise, and too contrived, I wanted to do something that just sort of felt authentic and raw and something that I felt like I could at least just sort of be proud of. And, it was a big life lesson for me in general, in all things.
IVAN: So when you signed with the label, did that mean you were officially a full-time employee of the label, and you could tour and write and perform without really having to worry about where's my next paycheck coming from? Is that how it works?
JEFF: No. (laughing). It's more like a book publishing contract or something like that where basically they say, you're not an employee but we'll pay you to create records for us, and ultimately that's a good thing, because if you were an employee then, it's actually how record labels are working a little bit more these days where they want a piece of, when you play shows and when you sell T-shirts, what they call an all-in deal, where basically the label is just there.
Which is also how record labels got started way back when, when there really wasn't a difference between the record label and the producer and the manager. It was all one thing. But in the nineties at least, it was more like a book publishing deal where the luck at the time that there were a lot of record labels at the time, but the music industry was really changing. And so we got in a record label bidding war and managed to kind have our pick of a bunch of different record labels, and we really liked the way that A&M was running their label, and so we signed with them for a pretty favorable record deal with a three album, actually it was like a five-album deal or something like that. But, so, we knew that if we continued delivering albums, we would get at least the amount of money that it said in our contract. But in terms of like, making a full living, we still needed to tour and sell records and all that stuff.
IVAN: And, they own all of the rights to the records that you produced in perpetuity? Is that right? Or does that get structured differently? And the reason I'm asking is, it feels like that was in the nineties, and that's a long time ago in technology years. And now there's Spotify and Apple Music and all these things, and I'm sure your songs and albums from Orbit are online and people still listen to them. How does that work?
JEFF: Well, it’s all very complicated, and there are spreadsheets and algorithms that keep track of everything. But, in its simplest form, when you sell a physical copy of a CD or a record, and again I mean a lot of these sort of paradigms go back, then, you know, the band makes a certain amount and the record label makes a certain percentage of that. However it gets more complicated because there's also the rights to the songs on the album. So, sort of the intellectual property of this music. So, that's called the mechanical, is the actual physical copy that you're buying. But then there is the publishing on the music that's on the CD, and then when it gets played on the radio, that's also different stuff. So it's all very complicated. It's very complicated.
IVAN: So, you see a check from Spotify for like five pennies every other year. Is it kind of like that?
JEFF: Yeah. We could do a whole podcast about how it works. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) But we won't get into that.
JEFF: Yeah, but there are basically rights agencies that collect money from Spotify and radio play and stuff. So, I get different checks from different places. All of them for about seven dollars for various things. (laughing)
IVAN: But, it's interesting to know about all of that, I'm sure it formed how you ran subsequent businesses and other aspects of your life as well.
JEFF: Yeah. I learned a lot playing in a band and putting together the people in the band and around the band and very focused on, you don't really think about the business as a business when you're in a band. It's more about the vibe and all these things that are ultimately branding things, like who’s it going to feel good to work, who's going to look good to work with, who can I sit in a van with for six weeks at a time, and all that kind of stuff. So, I learned a lot about marketing and branding, but also group dynamics and a lot about contract law and intellectual property as well. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) What was your highlight during your time with Orbit?
JEFF: Boy, you know, a lot of it sort of happens in retrospect. So, prior to that, 1994 when we got signed, kind of the previous rock trend had been like hair metal bands. And then, like Nirvana broke through, and a lot of the stuff that I was actually listening to broke through, and it was much more of a feeling like, of trying to be more authentic and a little bit, sort of more of like a blue-collar ethic, like less about having this facade of crazy partying.
And so, you know we came in, and being from Boston and all that kind of stuff, there was this utilitarian aspect of things, like, we're not going to party our asses off and do all the drugs, and we're going to just get in the van and like go play shows and be the best band that we can be. However, we had some really great success. I fear that at the time we didn't absorb that, and if we didn't celebrate that enough, that we took it as like, “Well that's great.” We played on MTV or our video got played on MTV. Okay, what’s the next thing. Or we went and performed on a show on MTV. Okay, what's the next thing? And, we were very on to the next thing. We did the Lollapalooza tour in 1997 and that felt good.
And at the time in the nineties there were a lot of these like, radio festival shows, it seemed like each major radio station in each major market would have a festival show, whatever the big outdoor venue was. And bands like mine would just go from these radio festival shows and go on to the next and the next and the next, and we had pockets of popularity. But, I mean, we played one show north of Miami to 20,000 people, and all the people in the front are singing the songs along with us. It was like, it’s hard to get too utilitarian about that. So, that kind of stuff’s the highlight.
IVAN: So, while you mentioned Lollapalooza 1997, I thought, there must be a poster online of what that looked like, and I looked it up and wow, you guys were playing with Prodigy and Tricky and Snoop. I guess he was called Snoop Doggy Dogg back then.
JEFF: Yes, he still was Doggy at that time. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) That's wonderful. Wow. Twenty thousand people is certainly a tool. KoЯn, except the poster didn’t have the ability to put the R backwards, maybe it wasn’t backwards back then, (laughing), I don’t know. So, now you're the front man for 123 Astronaut, I feel like there's a theme – Orbit, Lullabot, 123 Astronaut – what’s the genesis of 123 Astronaut?
JEFF: Well, I wish it was more thematic. I mean I think it is may because of its unintentionally it's a sort of subliminal intentionality. I was born in 1969, and my mom brags about propping me up, you know, five months old or whatever I was, to watch the moon landing. She says, “you're going to be able to tell everybody you watched this.” I don't know, that sort of hope and optimism of the space program, I think, is something that has always been really close to my heart and sort of the melding of that optimism with sort of the technology that's offered by close to my heart, as well.
But, 123 Astronaut, my son who's now 14, I think was probably two or three at the time, and he was going to throw something up into the air, and he was doing what he thought at the time was a countdown. But, instead of saying three, two, one blastoff, he said “one, two, three astronaut,” and then threw this thing in the air and I said, “oh, man, I’m going to name a band that someday.”
IVAN: That's awesome.
JEFF: And, in the intervening 12 years, never came up with a better name and didn't really think about its relationship to orbit and space, and all that stuff. And. it really wasn't until about two or three months after we'd been playing out with this band name that I realized, “oh, I have a theme going, I guess that’s okay. Yeah.”
IVAN: I think it’s cool. So, it feels like, at least to me, it feels like 123 Astronaut is you going back to music after this career in technology. So, in my mind, you were part of the music scene in Orbit, and then you founded Lullabot, and done some amazing things in the Drupal world and now you're doing Yonder and coaching, and you're also in a band. So, the question is, how has the open source mentality that you experienced in between these two bands, and how has running numerous companies and products influenced your perspective of your new band?
JEFF: Wow, that's interesting. I need to acknowledge just sort of the disparate nature of these things, that arguably and I might be the one to argue this, but when I sort of think about it, like having credibility in business and credibility as a songwriter seem mutually exclusive, right? (laughing) You hear every so often, that I don't know, what's his name, the co-founder of Microsoft who just died recently?
IVAN: Is it Paul Allen?
JEFF: Paul Allen, right. Paul Allen’s got a band, and you sort of assume like, ehh, (laughing)
IVAN: Right. Like that's the first thing, you think.
JEFF: Yeah, and likewise you probably wouldn't go to like, you know, Slash for business advice, so, it’s been a little bit difficult feeling to try and pull these things together in my life, but they really are related. I really got into the creativity of building a business and, in a particular kind of gathering together groups of people to do great things, I think is something. But, to get back more directly to your question, it's been interesting, cause I took a lot of that, sort of, utilitarian attitude in the building Lullabot, but I also took that lesson of, I need to celebrate the successes, I need to notice them.
I feel like I went through this whole experience with Orbit and when all was said and done we'd gotten dropped from the record label in about 2000/2001, and we'd had all the success, but it didn't feel like success. And so I wanted to embrace the success, and learn to build off it. And Lullabot became very successful, certainly much more successful than we would have imagined when we first started the company, although I have a very good imagination. (laughing) And, as such I learned a lot of leadership skills, and I just became sort of more confident.
I was also, as I mentioned, a parent and there's a lot about being a parent, that is sort of built in with leadership skills and leading and I think with Orbit I was hesitant to take a leadership position, to be too opinionated, to be too preachy is probably not quite the right word, but it's something in that area. But with this band I know I bring that with me. I think, I'm writing more confidently and presenting a more confident, opinionated perspective than what was happening in the nineties.
IVAN: And, you're still being authentic in making this music for yourself, for the way you think that it should be made and not for the audience, which is, I think, a wonderful thread to have in any creative work that you do.
JEFF: Yeah, I think you need to balance that. The word I use in business is sustainability. You need to look after your business well enough so that your business can remain a business, that you may want to be true to your employees and really focus on culture and make it a great place to work. And so, having difficult clients is something that you want to avoid, but you need to have clients, and some of them are going to be difficult. And, so from the point of sustainability if you want to really make your employees happy, they need to continue to be employees. They need to continue to have jobs and you need to find the work for them. And so sometimes you need to kind find sort of creative ways to make it be a win/win and keep the business.
And the same thing with making art as a consumable, something that you want to put out there. Ultimately, I think it's best to drive it from yourself to find a perspective where I could get excited about. I like to consume things and go to shows and listen to music and get inspired by it. And so, how can I try to create that, that would inspire that in other people as I'm able to inspire myself. That's the hope at least. So, I think sometimes when you talk about this idea of authenticity and just do it for yourself, I think it can imply a certain sort of uncommercial reality, sort of inaccessibility to it.
And I think both in business and in art, you end up selling yourself short if you don't just acknowledge what people like about what you do or what people could like about what you do.
IVAN: One last question about 123 Astronaut. Are you going on tour anytime soon?
JEFF: (laughing) Well, this is the sustainability, commerciality thing. Nobody knows about the new band yet. In retrospect, I probably should have called it Orbit, creatively at least, I was the creative lead in Orbit and the creative lead in this group. I've always really thought of myself as a collaborator and felt like I really needed to collaborate with people. And so I've been uncomfortable with the idea of doing a solo thing, because I really value the input of people around me. But nobody knows about it. If I'd called it Orbit maybe at least we could have built off that, and we don't have a record deal or whatever the current equivalent of it is.
I'm still trying to figure it out, having taken a basically 15-year break from the music business. But we're playing around in New England and trying to get down to New York City and stuff like that, and the people that have seen us have been interested and excited about this brand-new band that they've never heard of before. But, it's slow going to gain fans one by one. We've got an EP that's out on Spotify, and if anybody who is listening and we've wet their appetite, 123Astronaut.com is where you can hear our music, see our music video and find links off to Spotify and Apple Music and all that kind of stuff.
IVAN: And, the singles called Friction, is it?
JEFF: Yeah. On the EP. That's the title of EP and the first song on the EP, and the video that we did, is all the Friction. But we're working on a new album right now, and I feel like I ought to be sending it out to record labels or putting an infrastructure around the band but, mostly I'm just focused on trying to get the right guitar sounds. (laughing). I feel it's a little bit like navel gazing.
IVAN: Well, I wish you the best of luck with that. It's interesting to talk about how 15 years can make a difference to your perspective, I think.
IVAN: So, let's go back to what happened after Orbit. You basically co-founded the company Lullabot, which from what I can tell, is the first fully distributed and remote company that ever existed. Am I going out on a limb by saying that? (laughing)
JEFF: (laughing) Well, it's really hard to gauge those things because, especially at the time, you get like freelancers that are working together, that don't have an office, and is that a company? I think we were the first fully distributed agency services business. Automattic started right around maybe a year or two before us, and they were a distributed company, a product company, their product being WordPress, WordPress.com in particular is their commercial product. But obviously people know WordPress is an open source project. But we started in 2006, and I think much like Automattic sort of modeled ourselves around the incredible productivity that we were seeing happening around open source projects and the ways developers, in particular, were collaborating online.
IVAN: So, it was fully intentional to be distributed and remote right from the get-go?
JEFF: Yeah, I met Matt Westgate through Drupal.org and I just got over my head with my first Drupal project as probably most people do. And I needed someone to help bail me out and I was asking questions in the IRC channels and finding a whole lot of developery snark. And that's very defeating and frustrating to have people just make fun of you as you ask questions.
You know, this guy Matt Westgate, every so often he'd answer a question in IRC and he seemed really helpful and posting also on the message boards, and I think I found it at one point. I did a search through Drupal.org and managed to find out our very first interaction. And I was asking some just sort of random question. It was probably about the ecommerce package in Drupal at the time, which was Matt's project, and he was super helpful and eventually I cornered him and said, “Can I get you on the phone? I've done the math and even if I pay you to just answer my questions for me, I've got so many questions, that I think it would…right now I'm just Googling and searching and researching, is most of this project, and so if you could just point me in the right direction, then it would save me a lot of money, and if I gave you some of that money that I'm saving, I would still be saving money.”
And that's how we first met, but he lived in Ames, Iowa and I lived in Rhode Island, as I still do, and, it just seemed to be such a revelation, to be able to find this information in the form of Matt Westgate, that I was saying to him the whole time, I'm like, “listen, we need to start a company. People need this information that you have and that you're giving to me. And, I think that if we could help the world understand how to use Drupal, there would be value just simply in that, aside from actually building websites for people.” Just to tell people how to build websites would be valuable, and that's ultimately how Lullabot got started.
So, again, to go back and answer your question more directly. Matt lived in Iowa, I lived in Rhode Island. So, we were distributed, and then we started finding more people. We went to our first Drupal conference as a company in Vancouver in 2006 and February of 2006 and lo and behold, several people came up to us and said, “Oh, wow, you guys are really cool what you’re doing. Are you hiring?” And we thought, “What? Hiring?” We hadn't even thought out that far. And then we hired a few people who were also living in other areas of the United States and pretty quickly in Canada, as well. And then that was it. We were a distributed company.
IVAN: What a great origin story. I think I understand now, kind of the desire, to educate people about Drupal through Drupalize.Me, because Drupalize.Me came out of Lullabot, right? That’s a separate company. You guys started that and there was the best training on the internet for Drupal in my opinion, comes from Drupalize.Me. So is that true? Is that part of it?
JEFF: Yeah. We started with kind of several different things first. When we set up the company, we thought of ourselves as a consulting company, that we knew from experience, that if Matt and I just took projects directly, it would take one project, two projects, before we would be unavailable and not able to help people to do more Drupal. And, so, with this mission of, we need to help people do more Drupal, being developers wouldn't be necessarily the best aim towards that goal.
So, we started doing a podcast, we started doing Drupal workshops and then put out this idea of consulting. But, between the podcast, and we would use the podcast to promote the workshops, we really got known pretty quickly as the Drupal education company. And there wasn't really so much reason to talk about our consulting work on the podcast because with that, we were pretty full up. So, we would often times get people approaching us saying, “listen, you guys seem to be really experts in this Drupal stuff and I know that you do all these workshops and you guys do all this Drupal education, but do you think we could like, hire you to just like kind of help guide our project, like kind of like, maybe as a, I'll call it a consultant?”
We were like, Well, our marketing is a little too leaning towards all the education stuff. Eventually we started doing full-fledged development, basically out of necessity. The Drupal market was growing so quickly and a lot of companies sort of built their foundation off of Lullabot taking this position as, sort of, the technical lead consultant for these projects but the development still needed to happen and so we would kind of go out and find all these Drupal companies and then they would kind of take off from there. So, as those companies got more busy, it became harder to find companies to do the work for all these projects that we had. So, within a couple of years of starting, we started truly doing development and calling ourselves a development company. But we continue to do workshops. Eventually in 2008 the market made a big shift, in particular, a lot of the companies that we were working with were really big companies and the way that the finances tend to work around these companies is slow and delayed.
So, although there was this market crash that happened in 2008, a lot of the companies, their budgets were still there, they still had the budgets to do development projects, but they were trying to cut the corner so they wouldn't approve things like budgets for people to travel or to go to education events to learn about it. So, we started doing DVDs. Remember DVDs? So we started creating Drupal training DVDs and selling those and those did pretty well. And then, when the next version of Drupal came out, we realized that our DVDs were all going to be obsolete and we'd need to make an entirely new library of DVDs and with open source moving so quickly and stuff like that, and also the reason that I joke about remember DVDs is because the world has moved to streaming and so did, we.
So, we took all our DVDs and that became the original library of what became Drupalize.Me, and then we started building additional content on top of that and it didn't need to be an entire DVD, we could just kind of do basically what's a patch video. It’s like, now that you watched that here's the new stuff in this module. Here's the new things in this new version and kind of keep it more evergreen. So Drupalize.Me is still out there and still doing great. If anybody wants to keep up their Drupal knowledge, it's a great place to start learning Drupal or just make sure that you're keeping current.
IVAN: Your experience with distributed companies and distributed products, as a result of those companies, is vast. And so, in the last three years or so, you guys started something internally at Lullabot called Yonder. That's now its own company that you founded, and it's really, I think it's changed TEN7, honestly, because I think, I thought for a long time that TEN7 would be a company that was always in an office and would always be together, physically present with each other. But now we're completely distributed, and I think part of it has to do with all the literature that was out there and the podcast and the website and everything that you've been talking about, that really got me seriously thinking about becoming a distributed company.
And things have changed right? There are more distributed companies now than there ever have been. And I think the question I'm kind of leaning towards here is, asking you whether you think there's going to be a critical mass? A threshold of the number of organizations that end up fully adopting being a distributed company. And, I know there's gonna be a continuum, right? There's going to be always physical, and then hybrid where some folk are remote and some folk are physically in the location, and then completely distributed. And I'm curious about whether you think there's going to be a plateau or whether you think there is an extreme? We're going to be all distributed in the future, and we're going to have flying cars, and we'll use those cars when we need to go somewhere, and we won't really need to go anywhere. (laughing) Right? Where do you think we're going for distributed work?
JEFF: I think ultimately, sort of pragmatism will drive us wherever we're going. It’s sort of fun to think about it, kind of like, Oh yeah, everybody should do this. But, again going back to that sustainability thing, like companies need to stay in business, and oftentimes they do what they know, they do what they know works for them. And so legacy companies, again kind of going back to the Fortune 500 companies, they know what works for them. They've figured it out over all of these years.
IBM's been around since the fifties, forties, thirties, something like that. And it's kind of difficult to change. The interesting thing is that these companies know this and they have departments—the change department—that’s what they call themselves. These people who are like change agents within the company acknowledging that there's sort of this, I wouldn't call it lethargy, but it is inertia, in that inertia also happens for things that are rest want to stay at rest, right? As things were in motion want to stay in motion. Things that are at rest, also want to stay at rest. That is also inertia. What I've found is that the companies that are distributed tend to be younger companies. Companies that oftentimes started this way and are growing as a distributed company, Automattic as I mentioned, continues to grow. But there are also companies like Shopify whose main offices in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. But they have a clear central office, but mostly the companies are distributed, they define themselves as remote first. GitHub is another company that defines themselves as remote first.
But now you know GitHub is part of Microsoft. Part of what Microsoft is buying and buying GitHub is the knowledge, the perspective, on how this can work. How do you make remote work, work? So, I don't know. It happens a little bit in fits and starts. The companies that are remote first or fully distributed are usually really excited about it. There are some requirements of the actual mechanics of remote work, the architecture of remote work, requires autonomy. You can't look over people's shoulders in order for them to work. And autonomy requires respect, and the respect requires trust, and so, some companies have tried this without autonomy, respect and trust and they usually fail pretty quickly. But other companies go in with this kind of experimental attitude towards it. “Well, I guess we need to trust people. We need to give them autonomy if they're going to work from home.”
And they do, and people rise to the occasion and they find that when people are trusted, they become trustable, and when they are respected, they become respectable. It doesn't always work with everyone, but there tends to be a little bit of sifting that happens. And then the people that are doing it, like I said, they get really excited about it. Just from that perspective of self-management and all those kinds of things that go with it. I would like to see more of it happen in the future. I'm available to anyone that wants to talk about figuring it out. This is sort of currently my mission, and the mission certainly of Yonder is helping people to figure that out and talking to people who have figured it out, and are trying to figure it out, and sharing what we are finding with everyone. We do a podcast and post articles on the website and stuff like that.
We've got a mailing list. But we haven't hit that tipping point yet, right. I mean we haven't hit that point where all of those Fortune 500 companies are chomping at the bit to try to figure it out. But I do think a lot of it is sort of generational. The definition of connectedness and productivity have changed, especially for the generation that's growing up with productivity and connectedness in their pocket. And the idea of needing to go into an office so that you can type things to people, like doesn’t really make sense, or that you could talk to people doesn't make sense, or that you could see people even, doesn't quite make sense.
Obviously, this doesn't translate for all types of work, all types of jobs, like doctors, and more tactile professions. However, we are seeing even in that medical realm, there is a fair amount of talking to people about how they can be helped, that can happen well prior to a medical professional needing to lay their hands on someone. And so even some of that kind of stuff is starting to move into a more virtual realm and people can kind of work from wherever.
IVAN: When I think of distributed work and remote work, I always think of it as the antithesis to Gary Cole's character in Office Space. You know, the guy who walked up to the cubes with his suspenders and his tie and his thick glasses and just needed to make sure that everybody was in their cube doing what he was paying them to do. And just like you said, the more you respect your people and the more respectably they will behave and the more autonomy you give them, the better off it is for everyone.
JEFF: Well, it's a human, it's not even a human nature thing. I mean, it goes back to animal pack behavior, having the leader of the pack, like the lion king, right? Mufasa, standing up on the rock to look down over the lions to make sure, “We're all good. Are we all here? This is all good. Okay I'm in charge. I know I'm in charge because I can see everyone.” And then you think about kind of the industrial revolution, these giant factory floors with the management office raised up, so that they could just look and see everyone. It is a calming thing to be able to look over everyone You feel like, okay, I know what's happening. But the truth is, you don't know what's happening.
IVAN: Exactly. And it's maybe calming for the for the boss, for the person in charge. It's just the opposite.
JEFF: Yeah, it's sort of a false effect. Right, and going back to that, this idea of, kind of that factory worker mentality, or Office Space, right. I mean the whole thing with Office Space is that they're not really being productive, they don't really like their jobs, it's about putting on this facade and kind of playing this game in the office of caring, of trusting, of respect, and so you don't have that facade anymore. So, it kind of gets all broken down, and hopefully in trying to rethink it, in order to work remotely, we kind of rethink that relationship, because the truth is people need those jobs.
Right. Like, you know there's this kind of resentment of your boss and resentment of your company, when you think about that sort of Office Space paradox. But the truth is people need jobs. Companies need sustainability. This goes back to that. We need to continue. You’re not going to get paid if the work doesn't happen, if the company doesn't get paid for the work happening and being done. Things don't progress, don't move forward if there's no productivity, and so to kind of redefine that and get everyone involved and to expose that fact is ultimately, I think, ultimately…that's really what I get excited about.
Remote work, I think, is a way of rethinking the relationship of workers to work in the future, and the relationship of managers to workers, and leadership and all that kind of stuff. I think that stuff will translate to all sorts of workplaces, even the ones that can't go remote, because they've got these more tactile professions and that's the thing that's even more exciting. The real work is kind of the mechanics of it, but kind of rethinking the way that work works is really interesting and exciting.
IVAN: And you're writing a book about it as well. I've been meaning to ask you, how is that going?
JEFF: Also in fits and starts. It’s sitting and has been sitting for a while now, as I try to figure out if there's a market for it, if people get excited about it and as I get more excited about playing music it just kind of sits. But, hopefully, in a perfect world I'll finish this new album for this band, and have that obsession out of the way and as the weather starts to warm up for the summer in New England, maybe I'll start focusing back on the book again. I have a feeling it wouldn't take too much to shape it up into something that would be helpful for people.
IVAN: I look forward to reading it. One last question before we wrap up. You've read a lot of books and I would love to hear if you have a recommendation for a single book that I should pick up or maybe that our listeners should pick up and not miss out on?
JEFF: Well, there's so many.
IVAN: There are. Only one please. (laughing)
JEFF: I'm just gonna say the first one that came to mind. I guess I'm going to mention some others though. Three books have kind of come to mind. The One Minute Manager, this is a classic management book, but ultimately, really teaches the lesson that managers shouldn't really manage. That you need to let your people manage themselves. Then, the other book that came to mind was, even a classicer classic, How to Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Some of these books seem kind of old now to touch, but that one, I think the real theme of that one is just reminding people as managers, as leaders, as people, that really, we all just want to matter. We want to be important. We want to matter.
And, I think realizing that builds a certain empathy and a way of connecting to people that recognizes that. Initially when that book came out, I think it was sort of this feeling that you could kind of start to exploit that understanding as a salesperson or something like that. But ultimately it comes down to authenticity. Neither of those books though were the first book that came to my mind. The first book that came to my mind was the book Tribal Leadership, which is not well-named. When you read the book, you understand it at first, but ultimately, that book is about finding a higher purpose for yourself and your business in particular, and trying to strive beyond that day to day stuff of being in business.
This really rung true to me because playing in a band and making music with the goal of inspiring people, or the goal of trying to connect to people that you may never meet, is in itself a higher purpose. And, I tried to take that attitude to Lullabot when I started that business and find ways to make an impact on the world. You know, we should go teach people about Drupal. Drupal should be more popular, is ultimately a higher mission than, “Hey let's start a company. I think people need websites, and we can build websites and let's just build websites, as cheap and as awful as possible so that we maximize our return on investment. We will invest as little as possible and charge as much money as we can and try to cheat all of our clients." You know, that's obviously the flip side of having a higher purpose, higher goal. In the end you're building websites either way. But ultimately one, I think, will pull people towards you, whereas the other tends to sort of repel people away, and that book is great for kind of reminding us of that and putting some rules and metrics around it and stuff like that. So, I recommend that one.
I tend to be an audiobook person in general, but I believe that the audiobook for that at least a few years ago when I found it, I could not find the audiobook on Audible and in searching for it realized that that was because the Tribal Leadership people were keeping that for free if you sign up for their mailing list. So, for anybody that's interested in that book and particularly if you're an audiobook person you can get it for free.
IVAN: Awesome. We'll link to all of the books you mentioned online in the transcript of this episode and we'll try to make sure we link to the free version too. Jeff, thank you so much for spending your time with me. I really enjoyed talking with you and listening to everything you had to say.
JEFF: Well thanks, Ivan. Thanks for having me on. I am never quite sure what I'm going to talk about with any given person, and when you invited me on, I thought, Boy I haven't really been keeping up with Drupal very well. I don’t know if we’re going to talk about Drupal for long, but I hope all of this information is helpful to people. And, if anybody wants to get in touch with me jjeff.com is my website mostly for my business coaching there, but you can find the contact form to get in touch with me there and you can find me as jjeff on all the various social media.
IVAN: Thank you very much. Jeff is, as he said, online on jjeff.com, and of course, be sure to check out Yonders website at yonder.io and make sure you give his band 123 Astronaut a listen as well. 123Astronaut.com. All of that will be in the show notes in the transcript online. 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 [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.