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10 Years of Teehan + Lax

10 years ago today, Geoff and I started this company. The two of us and one employee, a designer who previously worked with us at Modem Media, started that first day in an office we shared with another design firm. Today we are over 40 people in our own office.

All of this is a happy accident. It’s not by design but by a series of small decisions that lead us here 10 years later. Like most entrepreneurs, we’re making this up as we go along.

Over 10 years, each of those small decisions amass and form something approximating knowledge. Even though no one asked for it, I thought I would pass on the sum total of what we’ve learned running a business over the past 10 years. I wrote 10 of them, just for the symmetry of it all, but each point has got us through the first 10 years.

1) Your only job is to be unique
The last thing the world needs is another digital agency. Since we started we’ve always tried to be unique. Whenever a new client comes in, we ask ourselves “why are we uniquely qualified to do this work?”. We always want to be able to answer that question, honestly.

2) Trust your instincts
Learn to listen to your instincts, if something seems wrong, it probably is. Conversely, if something seems right go for it. People try to look for evidence or data to support decisions but understand there is no data about the future. Over time you get better at listening to and trusting those instincts. It takes time but is one of the best tools you have.

3) It’s all about the work
There is no magic to this business. If you do good work, you get good work.

4) Being big is primarily about ego
We could be a much larger company, but why? We believe that growth and scale is only necessary if the work demands it. Some work needs 100 people on it (most doesn’t). Many companies grow because their ego demands it. Being big comes with a some advantages (mainly financial) but for us, we haven’t figured out how to be big and maintain rule #3.

5) Figure out your values
I used to dismiss things like “corporate values” as bullshit. But about 2 years ago we sat down and went through an exercise of understanding and writing down our values. It was one of the best things we’ve done. By understanding our core values we look at our decisions and see if they are true to the things we hold dear. It is the clearest way we’ve found to validate instinctual decisions (see rule #2). I recommend using Dave Logan’s Mountains and Valleys exercise.

6) Create more value than you capture
This is Tim O’Reilly’s mantra and one we believe in. If you read our blog you know that we share everything. If you’ve heard us speak, we try and be brutally honest. We share code, we share our tools. This sharing resulted in 1.2 million visitors to our site YTD.

7) Be prepared to change your mind
Just because you did something one way yesterday does not mean it’s the right way to do something tomorrow. When Geoff and I first started we used to believe that if someone left the company, we wouldn’t hire them back. We were so personally hurt that we would excommunicate them. We realized over time this was stupid. We’ve welcomed back several alumni and we’re really glad we did. Over time you change and grow, keep your values but be prepared to change your tactics.

8) Learn to say no
I can’t explain it but when you say “no”, new possibilities appear. Don’t ask me why but it works. Saying no, gives you focus and makes you unique. You can’t be great at everything. Pick what you are great at and say no to everything else.

9) Slow down
Because we exist in this real time world we feel we need to respond to everything in real time. Some of the biggest mistakes we’ve made are because we reacted too quickly to something. Learning to slow down or even ignoring certain things is a really important skill. There are times when responding quickly and decisively is important but, in general, slowing down is a good thing.

10) You can make enough money but you can never have enough reputation
This is a line I stole from Warren Buffet and I love it. If you pursue reputation, profits follow.

The fact that we are here 10 years on is because, over that time, we’ve worked with clients who have trusted us with their brands, their customers and their businesses. Thank you to all our clients past and present.

Geoff and I could not have done this without all the people who have been part of this ride. To all the T+Lers, both past and present, thank you for bringing your best to work every day, sticking with us when we didn’t always know what we were doing and being part of making this thing work.

Jon Lax More posts by Jon Lax