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Postlight is going to Kindergarten! It’s been a wild ride these past five years and we’ve learned a lot. This week we share some useful lessons that we’ve learned since our inception. We talk about the importance of being generous, keeping your contracts short, keeping your employees happy and never forgetting that revenue comes first. Here’s to five more happy years! 

Also, we’re hosting a Postlight Podcast Live (remotely, obviously) on November 12! You can find more information on how to attend here. See you there!

Transcript

Rich Ziade You ever hear the term—and I never understood this term—the proof is in the pudding?

Paul Ford Yes. I don’t know what that is, but, I like pudding. [music ramps up, plays alone for 15 seconds, fades out] Oh my god, Richard. Oh my god. Guess what? 

RZ What?!

PF Guess what today is? The day we’re recording, guess what today is? 

RZ What is it? 

PF Postlight is going to kindergarten.

RZ Wait a second. Is it our birthday? 

PF Fiiiive years old? Oh, you forgot?!

RZ I did. [Rich chuckles] I did. I did. [Paul laughs] I’m not gonna lie. I did. Time is weird nowadays. So I did forget.

PF You know how people are like, ”Wow, it all flew by in an instant?” 

RZ Yeah.

PF Yeah, that’s not how I feel. [Rich laughs]

RZ It felt like five years?

PF I definitely can feel those five years. [yeah] You know, we talk about this a lot, more than nearly five years ago, I’m like, ”I’m, uh, I’m doing very well as a writer about technology. And my good friend Richard thinks that you know, who I advise, and I’ve worked in consulting, he’s like, we should do an agency together.” And I’m like, ”You know what, Paul, put your money where your mouth is, let’s let’s get in there and build an agency and figure out what that’s like! Instead of talking about technology, just let’s do technology! You’re a positive, hopeful person, and you’re gonna really enjoy this.” So it turns out, capitalism is hard. And it’s been an adventure. But man, did it work out? We did good. 

RZ We did great. I mean, I’m immensely proud of what Postlight is. It’s been a wild ride, I feel wiser for it on the other side. And I think if you asked me what does Postlight look like two years from now, I think it’ll, it’ll evolve even more, and now probably even more dramatic ways. So I’m very excited about what this place is.

PF I have no regrets. I lucked out, built a very good working relationship with you, which, you know, in retrospect, I knew we worked well together. But I didn’t think we worked, you know, who knew if we were talking, eight, nine hours a day, how that would go.

02:02 

RZ This is the ultimate test. I mean, it the time spent and the issues discussed are not casual by any means. And so I’m very happy, it brings me joy, I’m proud of what it, what it’s become. Onward. Like, I think it gets more interesting as you grow. We’ve grown. We didn’t just create a lifestyle business, we’ve tripled in size from when we started, if not more, more than that. And that has led to a lot of lessons. Just growth, alone, is the harshest teacher. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, you’re just gonna get the crash course. There’s no way around it.

PF Well first of all, right, like, I define growth, I mean, don’t. Because I sat down the other day, because I’m thinking about what’s Postlight a year or two from now. But like, how do we measure growth at this firm? And, you know, I came up with like, 42 different metrics. Like it’s, yeah, it’s not just revenue. It’s also like, you know, are we operating ethically in the world? Or how is our brand being perceived? [yup!] There are 42 different ways that Postlight says, ”Oh, I think we’re growing.” And, and that actually like things like that are really good to write down and figure out because you’re like, ”Oh, that’s complicated.” It’s gonna take a minute, to boil that down and figure out how our growth should look, Growth is hard. Because there have been times where things have been slow. And especially in the very, very early days of the firm, we kind of had our backs against the wall, and we weren’t sure, really how we were gonna survive. Those were easy moments, because it was like, I have a good working relationship with rich, there’s a crisis, and we’re going to work through the crisis. And we’re going to do the best we can. We feel a little bit of panic, but let’s all calm down. And, you know, what can we do? And you know, it was like, do we change our rates? Do we structure things this way? What do you do? You figure it out from there. And then when you get to the other side of it, you’re like, I did my job, I am a good person doing good work. I kept it together. And here we are. And I did the best I could. Growth is just infinite ambiguity dropped on your head. And everybody looks at you and says, ”Okay, what now? What are you gonna do with that? What? How are you going to make that work?”

04:00 

RZ There were definitely key leap points, I would call them, where when you go from 15 to 25. That’s something very fundamental changes about the org, you start to need more help, just managing it as you add people versus like, ”Oh, I’ll do that. No problem. Yeah, sure. I’ll look up some turnkey benefits offerings, we’ll just do it together!”

PF I mean, what really happens as groups emerge inside the firm, because you have groups like operations or design or product, right? Each of those groups has a different metric of success and a different attitude towards growth and what really matters, right? Like HR thinks that, you know, bringing more people in and doing it in the right way. That’s a really obvious way that HR is helping you grow. Design thinks that improving quality and doing really better work around you know, the craft of design and product design is the right way to help you grow. And they’re right, that’s correct. And then it kind of boils up and it actually turns out that sometimes those things aren’t all aligned in a really simple way and you have to sort of put them together and prioritize. And it’s puzzling. It’s puzzling to do.

RZ Yeah, you have to change. A, you have to let go of a lot, you have to, like give a lot of control away to these different sort of limbs of the organism, right, limbs of this body that are necessary to make it succeed and to do well. But you know what, we’re gonna turn this on its head and give people advice, Paul.

PF It’s what we do.

PF We’re going to share five lessons from the first five years of Postlight. Why don’t you start?

PF Let me throw the first one. I’ll throw the first one to you. And I want you to talk about it. So we wrote these down, we’re very well prepared for this podcast, because that’s one of the things we’ve learned in five years. Prepare for your podcast. So one, deliver first, talk second, what does that mean?

05:46 

RZ So here’s, here’s how I would sum it up, let me share what many of our engagements look like. Why is Postlight here? Why did they go and—we have 180 engineers, 300, designers, 120 product managers—what are you doing here Postlight? And so we’re now we’re inside, right? And we there’s advantages to that, because it means we don’t have history, we don’t have politics. We’re not mired in the bureaucracy, like part of the reason people go outside is like I need it and I need it fast. And I needed fixed, or I needed up and live and in the world, right? Vice came to us is like ”HBO is airing Vice News. And we got to have Vice News on the internet.” That day, we work back from that day. But the thing is a good amount of your energy as an external actor. It’s like that weird person that’s something you know, your cousin brought to the party, a good amount of that energy is getting people to A, cooperate, B, be on your side, be your advocate go from being suspicious to supportive. How do you get there, right? Now look, there are some that you know, have, you know, what people call engagement managers, account managers, relationship managers, there is a profession around taking care of the client, right. And what we’ve found is there is no more powerful weapon than shipping something good, and making others look good in the org. And I’m speaking in the context of an agency, but you want to win people over? Deliver, and let others share in that success. If you do that, there is no better weapon. I don’t care what your quote unquote enemy on the other side whispered in their ears over drinks. If you are shipping and you are delivering, and that delivering I’m being intentionally ambiguous, it is impossible to counter. 

PF You know, what happens is just a totally different conversation from the minute that software hits the screen. Everybody’s having a conversation about the way things used to be and then they see the new thing and they’re like, ”What the hell? What just happened?”And then sudden, suddenly, all those old arguments are kind of expire, right? Because you can’t be like, ”Well, we can’t, they’ll never build it. It’s never gonna work.” ‘Cause it’s like, ”Well, here it is. Uh oh, what do we do now?”

08:04 

RZ So get the work out. Get the work out. I know you want to go pitch. I know there’s probably one more good deck. I know, if you take that manager out for drinks, you could convince the. Get the work out and let them react to that. It is way more powerful than your powers of persuasion.

PF Yeah, keep freaking out. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s like well, we’re just gonna need 38 more sprints. Just keep freaking out Get some get some stuff on the screen. 

RZ Number two. 

PF Ah, revenue is everything. 

RZ Oh, Paul, we started off warm and fuzzy. And then you come up with ”revenue is everything.” Let me just point out, Paul Ford, extraordinary writer, immensely socially conscious. His number one learning over the first five years is ”revenue is everything.”

PF I need to be honest and transparent. I want to help our community and I feel it’s important to talk about talks this. 

RZ Talk it out. Tell me what you’re thinking.

PF Look. I joked for a couple years. I’m like, ”I’m doing a little capitalism over here at Postlight.” And I was like, okay, I’m figuring it out. And I learned to sell services. And I really wanted this. I wanted this to work. Like people know me as being a little bit ironic. But I’m all in and I take it very seriously. And also as a leader in the firm, I think really, like I don’t think about employees, I think about family, like things that you do affect families. Right. So I’m taking this very, very seriously.

RZ There’s pressure. You want stability. You want to give people stability, yes.

09:29 

PF We joke around here on the post like podcast, but seriously, folks. Okay, so like, here I am. And I have this responsibility. And frankly, it all came rather quickly. We weren’t expecting the kind of growth that we saw, we thought we were going to do some weird products. Turns out there’s more demand for our services than we thought that we were obligated, really in order to preserve and keep this thing together to capture that growth. Because you don’t know as an agency if it’s ever coming back, like you don’t know what’s happening four or five months from now because a client could go away, a client advocate could get fired, all sorts of things could happen, right? And so when we started this together, and I was learning, kind of learning the ropes, while also being someone who operated in public, I thought a lot about the different things that would differentiate us. And I thought about our brand and our marketing. And I thought about how to help the people in the floor feel happy, and how to how to build a culture. And those are all really important things, like you learned about them, whenever you read a management book. And the thing that people tend to not say, because it’s so incredibly obvious is that revenue is everything. Unless the money is coming in, you cannot have those other things, you can’t. Because nobody will keep working for you. And you won’t have products to sell it as dumb as that sounds, as obvious and trivial, it’s one of the last things we talk about when we talk about growth, or we talk about management, we often talk about anything but revenue. And it’s been hard for me, that was a hard thing to admit. That making money was the most important thing for Postlight. Because if Postlight doesn’t make money, it doesn’t exist. It just goes away. There’s a balance here, right? Because we don’t want to become the Bank of Postlight, where it’s like, ”Oh, cool, we took the money. And then we invested it in an index fund. And now we’re doing great!” Right? Like, we want to keep building products. There’s a reason we’re here, we want to see change in the world and like, but unless you take care of that baseline, unless you learn to read the financial report and see how much money you have in the bank, and think about what the next six months look like, and increase the inbound and focus on the marketing. All the good things that we think are exciting and positive don’t happen. And that was—I think there’s just a part of magical thinking for someone who came along from the career I had in media in particular, where like, I’ll do everything really well. And the money will follow. And the actual way that you run a business is you think, how will the money be there so that we can do the other good things to grow that we like? That inversion is surprisingly tough. And I think people will hear me and they’ll go, ”Oh, it’s really obvious. How could you not figure that out?” But trust me when you live it, and you start to have to think like your bank, a little bit, it’s a big change in your life.

11:54 

RZ Absolutely. And I think part of the reason is that people perceive revenue in the sort of CNBC Squawk Box context, [yeah, yeah] quarterly earnings context. They don’t see revenue as sustenance, as stability. This is particularly prevalent in the kind of business that we are. The truth is, there is a durable, industrial strength business model around Netflix. They know even if you don’t watch that really shitty stand up, you’re not going to unsubscribe until about seven months from now, on average. So they have a horizon line, they have a level of visibility that an agency does not have, especially an agency of our size does not have, right?

PF That said, if I’m Netflix and I see a real cliff, seven months from now, it’s a big battleship to turn around. 

RZ It’s hard, you’re right.

PF It’s not like, it’s not like they’re off the hook or anything, it’s just that they actually just have the visibility.

RZ Yes. Number three.

PF Be generous.

RZ Now, you don’t just mean candies in the lobby, which we do have, by the way.

PF We’ve sent everybody ice cream, we’ve had some, we have a lot of swag, we’ve sent everybody ice cream freeze dried at home, which was probably ecologically a disaster. But you know, it was good ice cream. [Rich laughs] And it was vegan. For people who wanted a vegan option. We like a lot of perks that sort of feels like a good part of agency life. We like to give people bonuses, so but I don’t think that’s you wrote this one down. I don’t think that’s exactly what you were talking about.

RZ It’s not. It’s not. What I’m talking about is when someone comes to you, it is still—we’ve tried to undo the word sales from Postlight, but it’s very sticky. It’s sales. They’re coming to you seeking potentially, to buy something, and we would like to sell it to you. That is what it is, we should say it out loud. But very often the people that are coming to us don’t really know what to buy yet. And the classic move is to ”Well, let me tell you how Postlight can help you! We’re a top tier New York City based product design and engineering agency, blah, blah, blah.” And then the conversation now is shifted on to Postlight. One of the killer moves that’s led to some of the biggest relationships we have at Postlight is when you say, ”You know what, settle down for a second here. I don’t know if you’re thinking about this the right way. That sounds risky.”

14:21 

PF Well, you know, the way I often say it is, ”Let’s figure out if we’re the right partner. And if I’m not, if this firm is not the right one, then we should find you somebody who’ll be great.”

RZ That’s right. And there’s a great quote, I think I said in a previous podcast that I use in my brain sometimes which is, before you sell them your solution, sell them the solution. Meaning help them solve their problem. I say it sometimes out loud, I’m like, ”Look, we may not be the right shop for you. But this is what you should do. We can help you do it. We’d love to help you do it. But whether it’s us or someone else, this is what you actually need to go do.”

PF Well, you know, sometimes this budget, they’ll come in with, you know, $5,000 and we’ll go like ”Why would you do this? Instead of just getting, get a designer and then do Squarespace, you’ll be a lot happier. What are you doing? Don’t make this hard for yourself.” 

RZ That’s what I mean by generous, which is, A, give advice! Don’t just give them the Postlight sales deck and the sales brochure, give advice, be generous, build a relationship. And then from there bigger things often come. Sometimes it turns them away. It does. Because sometimes, like, could you just do exactly what I’m telling you to do for Christ’s sake?

PF You know, my absolute fantasy in this world is—this will show how to base my life is that this is my fantasy—which is that there’d be something like that I would call like, an RFP light and not a request for information, but a true RFP light, which is just ”Given these constraints—”

RZ ”Can we talk?” 

PF ”How much would a company like yours typically charge? What would it look like? And how long would it take?” And I can get you that in like a half hour. I’ll get you within 10% either way. Pretty good. You’re, you’re a better estimator than I am, you’ll get me within 5%, right, but like, and then and then you could ask that, you can ask 10 agencies and figure out what the hell you really wanted to do. But instead, everybody gets real formal, and we really are inclined to just sit here and give you advice and be be helpful. If you want me to spend an hour and tell you how you’re going to get the thing done. I’ll do it. I love doing it. We like doing it. But the world doesn’t believe it. They think you’re gonna want something back. I mean, I do. I want you to give me the business if we’re the right fit.

16:20 

RZ We want you to feel really good about giving us the business, not in pain about giving us the business, right? It’s like, ”Wow, yeah, they’re pricey.” But you know what—and we’re not, there are agencies that are more expensive than us. There are agencies that are less expensive than us. But we just want you to walk away and say, ”You know what, for the dollars, I got some really, really great stuff.” Like that’s, that’s the goal. In the end, we’re not looking to trick you. This isn’t about, ”Hey, you know, Netflix spends big to get you to sign up not to stick around because you just tend to stick around.”

PF Yeah, that’s the thing. Like people worry about engaging with the agency. And they’re, you know, somebody that is like, ”Hey, we’d like a no commitment meeting.” I’m like ”Every meeting is no commitment” [Rich laughs]

RZ It’s the story of our lives!

PF Contracts are a commitment, right, let’s not be—which actually brings us to number four, which is another critical part of our success. And it’s a funny thing, I don’t think people think of this as part of your success as an agency, short contracts.

RZ We have extremely short—

PF It’s like a two pager.

RZ It’s like a two or three pager, purposefully ambiguous contracts, which sounds insane.

PF And sneaky, at first sounds kinda sneaky. 

RZ Sounds a little sneaky. But what it’s actually grounded in is a strong belief in relationships and good faith. That’s actually what it means. What it essentially is saying is, ”I trust you.”

PF We should remind people, Richard is a lawyer, Richard passed the bar, went to law school. And so his attitude towards the law, I would give, if five years in strong advice to anyone starting a company do with a lawyer, it’s great if they also are really inspired product manager. [Rich laughs] That’s good too. And they previously owned and sold an agency over 10 years. Like that’s another bonus. But here’s, let me give you my attitude towards the law. ”Oh, God, I could get sued. Oh, god, they’re gonna sue me.” This is Rich’s attitude, ”Anything can happen. Let’s just make sure we have a plan.”

18:11 

RZ Yes. And I have been told by other business owners like ”You’re a little agency, how could you expose yourself like that?” And we have, we’ve had clients that are worth billions of dollars, sign on, for these really, really simple related engagements. Because here’s the thing. And here’s what lawyers, I don’t bill for hours, right? lawyers love conflict, ’cause that’s when the clock starts ticking. Here’s the thing, if it melts down, I assure you, a 30 page agreement is not going to be a better defense than a three page agreement. When it melts down, it has melted down, all agreements are susceptible to interpretation. Anyone can be sued. Of course, cases can be thrown out. But just being sued causes enormous distraction and stress. Instead, you’re acknowledging something. And the last point I’d make here is that it acknowledges the incredible uncertainty and malleability of software development. Contracts and statements of work are born out of old industries, where you’re saying, I’m going to give you 60,000 plastic screws that we’re going to put into the boxes. And—

PF The great example is construction. Right? Like I’m gonna we’re gonna build the house and it will have doors, I might build you an app that has windows. I mean, there’s like there, but that’s about as analogous as it gets. It gets really speculative after that.

RZ That’s right. And the reason for that is because we don’t have—you rarely have the level of fidelity that you need for good software, right. There is the blueprint equivalent, which is for us a prototype, typically happens after the contract is signed.

PF Yeah, no, I mean, look, let’s talk about how this has worked over the last five years, every now and then something will flare up, and they’ll be like, ”Hey, I went back to the statement of work and you said this.” And we go, ”Oh, yeah, well, I mean, that’s still part of the scope. It’s just we prioritized this instead, we were thinking that’ll kind of come in later. And you know, remember that exercise?” And they go like ”Oh, yeah!”

20:03 

RZ And they never say ”No, you said in the contract, blah, blah, blah.” It never, it never, it’s never happened. And that’s such big advice for small businesses to hear.

PF And we’re not that ambiguous, we write down what specifically we are going to deliver in the statement of work. Like, it’s not just like a nebulous blob. The reality is that like, Rich had a very good point once, which is like, if the relationship is going well, nobody’s going back to that contract, right? That’s not the relationship. And if it is, now you’re in a bad situation, if the contract is a relationship, it’s very hard to escape. So spend all of your energy and time building relationship and avoiding that situation.

RZ Contracts are owner’s manuals for when things go bad.

PF Well, as an agency, if you’re in a zone of conflict, the relationship is not going to work. And they’re going to find a way to get get you out of there, like so. This is why people don’t understand as an agency, you’re just eminently fireable. And you live with that. And you’re very comfortable. 

RZ That’s right. That’s right. I think we’re up to number five!

PF This is it, man, and this is an absolutely critical one. Number five, happy people. 

RZ Hmm, explain, Paul! [Rich laughs]

PF So it’s just sort of, this is the other one for me, like—

RZ I just want to—can I just put ”revenue is everything” next to ”happy people” as the eternal tension that drives Paul Ford. [Rich laughs]

PF That is true. And then just, you know, this, put those both, put on both sides of my gravestone. [Rich laughs]

PF So it’s a really tricky one. When people are absolutely should speak their minds and be transparent about what they want. And you and I have taken some real feedback since we started this company. And it’s been delivered sometimes, as a two by four to the head, like not everybody’s been happy with us every day. In general, the reality is happy people who enjoy the work tend to thrive, even if they have criticism of the organization, or frustrated with another person or another client, if they’re fundamentally somebody who’s engaged with the work and wants to keep moving and growing, boy do they thrive. And someone who is really just kind of critical, they’re critical wherever they go. And they’re critical in every single function. And it’s, it’s tough, and it brings everybody down, spreads like wildfire. And it’s an awkward thing to talk about. Because really, as an organization, what I’m supposed to be saying as the CEO is we have a perfect team, and everyone’s happy all the time. And we’ve only ever delivered great moments to our clients and our employees. And so on. But come on everybody’s an adult. And that doesn’t always happen. It is the hardest thing in the world. And it’s the hardest thing to learn. And it’s not their damn fault. Sometimes somebody just is just not aligned.

22:32 

RZ Oh, we’ve got good relationships with people who have left Postlight. And the conversation started with, ”I just don’t think this is for me, dot, dot, dot, for various reasons.” And looking back after the fact, they’re like, ”You know, I’m in a better place, or I’m not in a better place. But I gotta say, I come to appreciate what Postlight is, it just wasn’t for what I was looking for, at this point in my professional life, or whatever it is.” That’s okay! You should be happy.

PF Those relationships can absolutely build again. So that part’s tough. And it’s tough, because there’s a power asymmetry, and so on and so forth. You don’t get happy people by stomping your foot and saying ”be happy.” [no] You get happy people by paying them well, giving them interesting work. No, a big part is just acknowledging reality, like, ”Oh, this may not be the most interesting thing you do over the next six weeks, but Postlight really needs it, and you’re good. So let’s do it.” And you know, if they, if they will engage that much, then you get really inclined to reward them with something else on the other side, right? Like that is actually a very meaningful thing to do. It’s not about sort of patronizing them, right. And I think a lot of, a lot of companies make that mistake. It’s about like, ”Okay, you’re an adult, here we are, how do you want to do it?”

RZ I think that’s the key bit here, which is autonomy. I think we’ve gone really far. We don’t really do timesheets at Postlight, we give you control over your time over how you work, where you work, we’re very flexible that way. And I think that goes a really long way as well. 

23:56 

PF But you know, the reality of it, you know, we’re winding this up is that as we’re saying this, I think about a lot of the mistakes and challenges and difficult moments over the last five years. And I know that a lot of people are going to have lots of helpful feedback for how we did it. But here we are, we keep growing. We’re three times bigger in size. We’ve really good clients, we’re hiring in the middle of a pandemic. And a lot of people, if I if I could walk around the halls right now, which I miss very badly, I would find person after person who would say ”Boy, do I love this work. I love the discipline I’m in. I love being a product manager. I like being an engineer. I like working in HR. I like being a designer.” [music fades in] That makes me proud. That gets me—I really, really like that. There are hard days and bad days, but—

RZ No doubt. I mean this, we are our people. We are not a set of patents. We’re not a product line. We’re not a 50 year old breakfast cereal brand that we can just keep going and going. We are the people. We are essentially the sum of our parts, as Postlight.

PF Frankly, would be an extraordinary breakfast cereal.

RZ I think it would be just efficient and well designed. And it’s scalable. 

PF It’s just little flakes. It’s just Postlight flakes. With very little bit of, little bit of sweetner.

RZ That’s out there. You could, we could make that swag, maybe that’s the five year anniversary gift for our favorite clients and fans.

PF Mmmm Postlight flakes.

RZ With your face and mine. Alright, well you know what, usually we pitch—

PF Wait, hold on. Deliver first, talk second, revenue is everything, be generous, short contracts, happy people. We’ll be back in five years for five more lessons. Rich, we did good.

RZ Yes. I’m very happy to be working with you, Paul Ford. I will say that out loud to everyone.

PF Me too. Ah, I love you. You’re a good friend. I love you very much.

RZ I love you too, buddy. I love you too. 

PF Alright man.

RZ Have a great week, everyone. 

PF Alright. Bye, everybody! [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends]