I started my career, as I imagine most young graduates do – engaging in the first random opportunity that presented itself. This was in the mid/late 90s and I was an idealistic college student, high on self-righteous integrity and about to join a long list of college dropouts.
Meanwhile, a distant friend and his friends were watching the Internet-gold-rush of the 90s from the sideline, and wanted to get involved. Back then anyone could make decent business by building simple web sites. Because at that time, no one really knew what to do with a web site, much less cared for any real purpose. Clients back then were perfectly happy if they could just check the box and move on; ”Cool, we have a web site now” – almost like ordering a set of shiny business cards.
My friends wanted me to join them, because I pretended to be a skilled Photoshop-artist, and they were not. This was my first deliberate deception, on the first job in a field that would become my career. Luckily, neither my new partners nor my first clients had enough competence to see through my deception. So I overcompensated my hours and learned enough to fake my way forward.
Building a house of cards
The following first years turned out to be terrifying, but at the same time also a lot of fun. It seemed as if every new project had challenges we didn’t know how to solve. “Fake-it-‘til-you-make-it” became a working mantra amongst us, as we all aspired to the same vision and never turned down a client request. We always claimed to have solid experience in any given challenge, and pretended to have perfect solution ready in our back pockets. This way of working creates an awful amount of stress but ultimately drove us to constantly grow. Because while we oversold our capacity, we were always committed to please and deliver.
We deliberately challenged ourselves on every project. We took risks and pushed ourselves every day. Since we never worked off any blueprints, given standards or actual experience, we ended up having to invent stuff all the time. It often felt like building a house of cards, and cautiously letting go of that last card at the client presentation, praying that it wouldn’t all fall apart. The stakes felt dreadfully high and our successes felt absolutely glorious.
The menace of convenience
Yes, I do cringe when thinking back on those early days. Our inexperience and constant pretending was embarrassing. But I also recognize the powerful culture we embodied. That type of ever-challenging environment created a high performance culture that I don’t come across very often nowadays.
Today with a workforce of roughly 70 people (all talented experts in broad variety of disciplines) we rely heavily on proven processes, a fine-tuned organization, clever tools and ambitious spreadsheets. Unlike the early days, our confidence now is backed up with solid experience. Managers depend on talents. Talents rely on managers. Real failures are virtually non-existent. But success is seldom acknowledged, thus rarely experienced. Sounds like a nightmare? Not necessarily. It’s actually rather pleasant. But it’s also dangerously convenient. Playing it safe will get us to the next inning, but it doesn’t hit a homerun.
Fear of failure is a powerful ally
I realize that our journey and transformation is typical, and probably not that different from other mid-size agencies that once started small with big dreams. But it is vitally important to hold on to the fake-it-‘til-you-make-it-mentality, and intentionally seek those terrifying challenges. I think the agency culture should include a responsible degree of sanctioned crisis in every corner of the organization. Because fear of failure is a powerful ally forcing us to rise to the occasion. We really shouldn’t be afraid to over-promise every once in awhile. We just might hit a homerun.
Creative Director / Founding Partner