Past, Present, Future
Some reflections on the past and new goals for the future on the occasion of Gridwork’s 10th anniversary.
The early years were rough. I left Chicago in my mid-20s with a pit in my stomach, broke and aching for something I couldn’t articulate. I moved back in with my mom and rolled the dice on entrepreneurship. My last employer had me managing the website while juggling the duties of an art director & IT administrator. Working on the site was my favorite part of the job and I figured if they’d let me keep doing that remotely, I might be able to find a few other customers and have a little business of my own.
This did not go according to plan. I couldn’t find customers, didn’t know as much as I thought I did about making websites and struggled to figure out all the extra stuff you need to do for healthy businesses. You know, taxes, marketing, sales, networking, professional development (aka “overhead”). It took 6 months to make more than I was spending, 9 months to get my second and third customers, and a year before I was able to move into my own place and start paying off the credit cards I had used to pay for food and gas and lotto scratch cards (that was my backup plan).
If it weren’t for the generosity of my family and patience of my previous employer, who kept me on as a remote freelancer, I don’t know what I would be doing now. Eventually, thankfully, things stabilized and I have been able to try new things, hire occasional subcontractors, pay for work spaces, build side projects, live and breathe.
There have been many versions of Gridwork since then. A brief period of reckless, unplanned growth. A half dozen unfinished side projects. 80+ delivered client projects. Long periods of solitude. Sitting and staring off into space, wandering the grocery story. Nights spent worrying about money and where the next project would come from. Feeling shame about my capabilities & talent, and irrational pride for a clever animation or design flourish. So much awkward "networking" chit-chat. Patient, kind, brilliantly satisfied customers .... and hostile, frustrated, disappointed customers.
Do I have regrets? Hell yes. I wish I could say I haven’t, but the truth is that I’ve let people down along the way. I would do many things differently if I could go back in time. But I can't, and it’s led me to this point, and growing up is nothing if not painful and embarrassing. And the best worst part of it is that it never ends.
For the last 2+ years, I’ve run Gridwork with a partner, my wife Liz, who works in several important roles: project manager, marketing, sales, admin. This has been a genuine blessing and an occasional struggle.
Her steadfast empathy for our customers, thoughtful critiques and natural artistic talent have improved our process ten-fold. Now we invoice on time, get back to people within a reasonable timeframe and develop more accurate estimates of timeline & budget. We form stronger relationships with our customers with Liz on board. It’s a better company and I do better work thanks to our collaboration.
But as you can imagine, working with your spouse day in and day out is not easy. Our personal life has suffered at times, with work stress bleeding into family time. Clear communication is vital. We’ve disagreed about many things: strategy, pricing, internal projects. But I’ve come to believe that the struggle is not necessarily bad. It’s actually essential. The struggle has forced me to grapple with questions of ethics & confidence. To understand that our business model and our mental health is a constant work in progress. To practice articulating my point of view. That our process can always get better. And that there are better days ahead, if we persist and stay humble.
The initial mission of Gridwork was noble. I wanted to build websites for progressive non-profits. To contribute to positive social change with our work. To some extent we’ve done this. I’m extremely proud of our work with prison reform activists, spiritual reformers, housing rights organizations, independent news organizations, and outdoor education non-profits. We believe in the work that these customers are doing and strive to serve their audiences as best we can.
At the same time, usually in times of financial uncertainty, I’ve made compromises and executed questionable designs as subcontractors, and taken projects with people who didn’t share our values. In moments of desperation, I’ve allowed bad customers to consume my nights. With more clearly defined (and communicated) values I might have saved some heartache. I'm learning that the process of onboarding new potential clients means ensuring our values are aligned before we submit a proposal.
And first step in aligning values with our customers is to define them. In thinking about this, I keep feeling like it’s too easy to write platitudes, backing them up with action takes guts. It takes saying “no” probably more than we’re doing now. So here’s the first draft of my values for Gridwork:
- Be real. When we collaborate, you get the whole shebang. Even professional relationships require vulnerability & trust to be successful. Do whatever it takes to earn that trust.
- Love humor. Bring levity to our work whenever possible. Sometimes it’s just writing silly placeholder copy, or sharing a funny YouTube video, or shooting the breeze on a conference call.
- Fight for justice. We give a shit about what you do with our work. Doing web design for a living in America is an incredibly privileged position to be in. It is our duty to contribute something meaningful when we can to "the cause". And we deeply, deeply believe that design has a vital place in balancing the scales of justice.
- Creativity must be stoked like a fire. We sell custom websites, uniquely designed, conceived just for you and your idea. To do that we draw inspiration everywhere. From popular music, airport signage, street photography, encounters with wildlife, elaborately cooked dinners, and the whole world beyond our computer.
- Write well. Design is writing. Sales is writing. Marketing is writing. Hell, even code is writing. We edit and edit and ruthlessly cut until the language is sharp and meaningful.
- Learn something new on every project. Design studios that encourage self-learning consistently produce better work. I want my customers to learn something from working with us, and I want to learn something from them. It makes things more interesting, keeps us relevant and increases our value for the next project.
These will evolve and change as we age, and try new things, learn new lessons. For all it’s flaws, I am proud of where we have come from, optimistic about our future, open to new struggles, willing to experiment and eager to create. Let’s get back to work, alright?