Hindsight is 20/20. This week Paul and Rich look back at Postlight’s beginnings. Knowing what they know now, they share insights on what they wish they’d done when founding the company. From embracing marketing to betting more chips on design, they reflect on some of the things they missed.
Paul Ford I would have sat down with you and spent six weeks drawing different cones on a whiteboard and saying, okay, well, what happens then?
Rich Ziade That’s very impressive, Paul. Lots and lots of cones. [Paul chuckles]
PF I would have drawn so many cones! [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out] Richard!
RZ Good afternoon, Paul Ford, how’re you doing today?
PF There’s no time where people are, you know, we’re just recording somewhere in the year 2021. Just getting by.
RZ Let’s pause and thank everyone for listening to this podcast, whether you’re working out or driving or taking a walk, or wherever you are, thank you for listening to the Postlight Podcast!
PF Sitting in your basement with a bottle of bourbon, 12 raw eggs, just whatever you’re doing!
RZ We’re happy to be with you.
PF So I’m going to ask you a question. And then you can choose to answer it or not.
PF Let’s say we’re back in the office, we’re done with the pandemic. And you and I were just kind of working together and getting to know each other. We’re back in the office in general. And you turn to Me and you say, “Paul, we should start an agency” Postlight had never happened.
RZ Okay. How did you get past security and why are you in my presence?
PF First of all, how do we have an office? It’s all very complicated this whole metaphor.
RZ Yeah, okay.
PF So what would you do differently if you were starting a services firm around technology in 2021 versus 2015, late 2015. Five years, not that long, shouldn’t be that big a difference?
RZ Well, you know, I don’t want to speak only about the agency world. So I’d rather speak more generally. I actually, it’s, it’s, I think, a criticism and a point of pride, right? I’m primarily motivated, I’m not motivated by money, though, when I make money, I feel good, because it’s a way to keep score. But I am motivated more than anything else, by surrounding myself, with people I want to work with that, keep my curiosity going. That’s very meaningful to me. And if you ask most entrepreneurs, most business school professors, that’s not how you’re supposed to start a business. That’s how you start a club, maybe where you get to smoke cigars and sip whiskey. That’s how you start a business. So one of the things I wish we had done more of, and let’s say, you know what, you and I had been talking and kind of noodling the idea for a few months already. We didn’t stop and say, what do we want this to be? What is the vision of this thing?
PF No, we didn’t even think where do we live in the market?
RZ We didn’t think where do we—exactly.
PF We actually sat down—I mean, there is also an aspect to our founding that is unusual, which is, we were born at the size of about 30 people, because you had been working in a big media company, and they were going to be our first client, and they wanted you to actually take their product team with you.
RZ Yes, everything is sort of half right half wrong here. I mean, I think we should have spent more time talking about the vision of the business. So that would have informed how we talk to the world and how we marketed ourselves and whatnot, not just put up a shingle, which is kind of what we did. Though, the shingle had the name Paul Ford on it. I mean, let’s, let’s point that out.
PF That’s nice, good old Paul Ford. But no, you know, we didn’t do and this, this comes to mind for me too, right? Like, I would have loved a couple SWOT charts, I would have loved a couple quadrant graphs showing where we wanted to sit.
RZ As a goal.
PF In the industry. And probably more attention to values coming from you and me there. It’s actually a funny thing, because we built you know, we start this company is kind of big. And then I spearheaded, I’m like, let’s do a charter. Okay, let’s get in the room. Everybody who wants to participate can participate. You’re here early days, let’s write a charter up for postflight. And I think that was good. It’s a very, like ground up kind of like, here’s who we are. And here’s what we care about document. I spearheaded the writing of most of it. But actually, in retrospect, what I wish I’d done is sat down with you and said, here’s where we want to be in the market. You know, how close are we going to be to management consulting? How close are we going to be to classic IT consulting? Do we do media brand and content work? And I’ll tell you why. It’s good to decide earlier, because those questions otherwise haunt you. Anything you don’t decide, you will answer over and over again, for the duration of the business.
RZ Well, you’re gonna figure it out as you go. And that’s not great, right? Because I think when you’re growing a company, people look to you as to why you’re doing what you’re doing, why we’re rationalizing. What is the rationale around what you’re doing? That is a big part of it, as well. Everything kind of trickles from that to be frank because without doing that, It’s hard to convince people, it’s hard to convince leaders you’re looking to recruit, it’s hard to convince leaders that are aligned with you that they should lean in versus like, hey, wouldn’t this be fun to work together? I think we could do well. And instead, it’s like, what do you really want to do? And now let’s go do it together as a group, right?
PF I mean, it’s never too late. We actually, you know, we have that plan more and more. After six years. But if I could do this over again, two page plan, what is Postlight? Where does it sit in the market? What kind of leadership do we need? And where do we think we’ll be in two years? Four years? Six years? And you’re gonna throw all of it away. But that gives you meaning in your decisions. I swear to God, I don’t even think the right decision is less important than a decision about most of the time.
RZ You’re preaching to the choir with that.
PF Yeah, what a surprise.
RZ Because when there is uncertainty, all I do is like, well, I’ll bake banana bread. And then I’m going to go outside and sing and play blues guitar at the corner and things will work themselves out. So I am a big believer in just forward motion and filling up the vacuum with with action. And then you know, even if 40% of it is right, that’s good enough, because that’s forward motion, right? I’ve learned though, that as we grew that that can be very disruptive and very disorienting for your your teams. I think the other thing we weren’t ready for the first few years is really understanding how to empower others and cultivate leadership early. We were, I think, a little late to the game. I’m going to take more of the brunt of that than you Paul Ford. Because I think I am a bit of a control freak.
PF I have the opposite problem, which is if someone comes to me, if you came up to me on the street right now, you knocked on my door, and you’re like, “I think I’d be better running Postlight than you would” I’m gonna go like, “oh, well, maybe so!”
RZ “Come on in, let’s talk about it!”
PF I just like I really have, it’s a terrible vulnerability. And I’ve actually had to build a lot of guardrails around it, because if you come to me, and you’re like, I should do that. I’ll be like, oh, well, maybe so. You seem nice. So no, I think there’s that a plan would be, you know, more of a plan. I think, you know, it’s funny, what we’re not talking about are the disciplines. Like we’re not saying we would have chosen a different technology stack or approach design in a different way. I think that those things really are up to the leadership in the organization and the people who work here.
RZ Yeah, I do wish that that we had leaned in more aggressively on design earlier, I think the design group is really soaring now today at Postlight. It’s the second largest discipline, and it’s it’s really grown in a lot of ways. So I’m excited about where it is today. But we should have put more backing early. Like if you’re picking your chips, you have 100 chips, and you’re putting some engineering, some in product management, some in design, we should have put more in design sooner. But you know, we’re speaking in hindsight is as if this is like a post mortem for a failed company. I just want to tell everyone here that I think you and I have been just world class executives in stewarding this this incredibly successful venture. [Paul laughs]
PF I mean, look, frankly, we did great. Like that’s not you know, I think one of the things that has helped us succeed is that we continually, this is actually a larger meta point. And this is actually a tricky moment for us. Because we are doing we are doing better at delegating, we’re doing better at making sure that leadership is is running Postlight and that it’s especially you know, for a while people really thought it was my company because I had a big public voice. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think they hear you and me on the Postlight Podcast. And I think they go to the website and they see work that absolutely 100% I had nothing to do with aside from, you know, maybe helping shape it in the early days. And so I think that we’ve changed that. And I think that the same is true with you for the people who saw you as the driving force. But there is a founder thing that we are still unpacking. And this is something if you are if you have founded an organization, you might see the founder, if you deal with founders, you’re like how what are they saying, are they quixotic, weird leaders? Are they going to blow up my world? And, you know, Rich’s real hard driver. Paul is very abstract. And so the reality is because it came out of our brains, at some level, we never fully believe that Postlight is real. And all the people around us believe that Postlight is real because it’s their job, right?
RZ Let me restate what you just said, which I think is really important. For you and I early days, and this is much less so today. And that’s that’s again, credit to us and our just wisdom and stewardship.
PF Oh, just inspired leadership. Never, never a bad day.
RZ You and I, I think viewed post light as much more tenuous than others did. Because our part of our job is to construct a reality so that others can do their jobs and feel stable and comfortable. That is part of leadership, right? Especially early days, early days, the insane founder who’s raised a little bit of money, but stands on top of the like kitchen table and gives the speeches is doing something really important there, which is they’re offsetting all that signal of instability that is inevitable for a young business and an early business. I’m not talking about deception here, what I’m talking about is a calming voice, right?
PF It’s one it’s a combination of vision, enthusiasm. And then, to our credit, we’ve we didn’t function like a startup, and we, did if people came here and got a job and locked in, they kept those jobs, right. Like we didn’t. We’re not that volatile. But yeah, literally, the first party, we had the launch party, about 300 people, that was something. And I stood on a table and said how excited and how great this was, and 100% i was i was on board at that moment. Even though I probably didn’t fully know what I believed. I was just like, here we go!