It started over some mediocre Thai at my place. Paul Ford and I had been talking about doing something together for a long while. We ran with a theory that our skills and the way we approach work is complementary. We’re different in how we think and work but love the same things: Disruption (real disruption, where regular people get more power by using technology), the open web (what’s left of it), and building not only apps but big sprawling platforms that power them.
The dream was a small team in some dingy converted auto body shop in Gowanus. Paul: “I just want to roll my bike into work and sit right next to it.”
The plan got delayed a bit. Paul’s feature piece for Business Week turned into a full blown issue. I was still slowly untethering myself from a large but struggling media company.
We started talking about a name, working back from domain names. There’s something incredibly satisfying about converting a dream into a domain name. GoDaddy is littered with unused domain names tethered to fleeting moments of ambition. We settled on postlight.com. It was relatively short, not too expensive, and didn’t end with .computer.
We shook hands on it. We were on our way. Sort of.
I called Paul a couple of weeks later and threw out a mildly insane idea: I could get the scatterings of what was Arc90, my old design and engineering shop — some incredibly talented people — and we could accelerate Postlight. By “accelerate” I mean starting at 25 or so people. No more bike coasting into the office. No more tight little team of 6. No room to play, really. We had a full-blown business to stand up. It was like giving birth to a 9 year-old.
Tip: Don’t start a company with a 25 person payroll, the usual accompanying costs and barely a plan.
We had some commitments from clients, and stable footing. But within a few months the bedrock client would fall away. We’d call a meeting and stare at each other. I’d love to tell you we walked out and left a jammed whiteboard with a birds-eye view of a broad strategic plan. We didn’t. We just kept trying stuff.
Tip: Try to come into a new business with some semblance of a sales and marketing strategy.
We’re not great marketers. We’re hackers and builders, and we like to talk a lot. So we stood up Postlight Labs. A way for us to show off that we’re not another WordPress or Drupal shop (no offense to those shops). We aspire to be killer designers and engineers. And we threw events. At first they were more like parties. We wanted to connect with the New York tech community. We always wanted Postlight to represent a synthesis of New York grit and the potential of technology. Somewhere along the way we decided to start a podcast. Because that’s really good marketing too.
We’re not great salespeople, either. There is no “sales process” at Postlight. There aren’t salespeople. We don’t have a deck that lays out The Postlight Way. We don’t even have a Postlight Way. Instead we just talk to you. We give advice and sometimes it’s bad news. “That won’t work for you…” isn’t uncommon.Then there are times that it all leads to conversation that has us possibly helping you. We hear you out, give advice and if it makes sense to offer up help, we will. We call it “the consultative sell.”
That was sales and marketing. That was it. And it was dangerous and precarious and at times really scary. We had personnel issues. We had some tough clients. We were taking some work that was helping us get on our feet, but not creatively and intellectually fulfilling. Which meant that talented people could burn out on it.
Looking back we had no business spending money on a lab (which is very costly) and signing a lease to a stunning office in Flatiron. But fuck it. We valued who we were and who we aspired to be.
We would catch our footing. Then slip. Catch it again. Then slip again. It was wild and stressful and deeply satisfying in a really messed up pathological way.
Then by the fall of last year things turned. Somehow we found ourselves short on people. We needed to hire. The waters began to calm and it began feeling a lot less precarious. We’d rendered ourselves essential for a couple of key clients and were on our way.
I was still cautious and a bit nervous. Paul seemed more relaxed but maybe he hid it better. We still wanted to take risks. I’m not even sure it was a conscious strategy. But things were stabilizing. The 9 year-old felt like a…13 year-old. Getting smarter, forming a personality. A bit awkward and lanky. Still, we were starting to get really good at…hockey.
The thing about this business is that you can plan all you want but it’s the things that happen to you that really shape your story. All you can do is seek out opportunity and increase likelihood. That’s it. I use this awkward analogy a lot to describe our business: Client services is like hockey. You don’t really aim and shoot at the goal. You just create chaos in front of the net.
Given how little Paul knows about hockey I’ve had to actually whiteboard out how hockey works.
The beginning of 2017 was eerily quiet. It was time to “establish a marketing strategy” or something. So we tried to do that. It didn’t go so well via the traditional paths. Everyone tried, we’re just weird.
Still, we launched a collaboration with Bloomberg, the podcast was starting to build an audience, and word-of-mouth began to really mean something. By spring things started to heat up and by summer we kicked up a gear.
Let’s grow, again
Which was a huge surprise. Summers are traditionally slow. As opportunity after opportunity continued to roll in, we realized we weren’t really set up for these sudden bursts of activity. You start talking about things like “growth strategy” and “instituting process.”
The thing about growth at Postlight is we can’t really grow very quickly. Our bar across the disciplines — product, engineering and design — is quite high. It’s a pain to get hired here.
But the results are great. The result is a work product that speaks for itself. High-scale platforms; sophisticated architectures; great design married to great engineering all glued together with good, sound product thinking.
This is really the Postlight marketing strategy. We’ve assembled a team of talented people and we keep finding them interesting work. They continue to unleash great technology products time and time again. We’re stable, with a good client mix, and year three looks…really good.
Sales is coming along too. Paul now talks about “adding a little more process to sales.” I’m very proud that I’ve taken a successful writer and turned him into a thriving capitalist. Next year I’ve set a goal: To teach him to appreciate hockey.
Story published on Oct 4, 2017.