In early 2009, I started Metagramme in a spare bedroom, with one client and a MacBook I’d bought with my credit card. After four and a half amazing years, I’m moving on. Along with three partners from two other companies, I’ve started a new company called Grain. We’re a full service creative firm. Grain serves clients in brand strategy, design, web and app development, and video production. The potential benefits for all of our clients are substantial. I’m thrilled about this new venture, although there are mixed emotions as I close one chapter of my life and begin another.
Some things aren’t changing much. We’re staying in the same building. We already shared a workspace with the teams formerly known as Catena (the developers) and Anastasis (the videographers). I’ll continue to serve as the creative director and lead designer. I’ll still work directly with clients. Jason is still my right-hand man. None of the partners had to fire any staff; in fact, we’ve hired two new people this spring. We’d already collaborated in depth on projects like The Saint Louis Curator, and knew from experience how our skill sets overlapped and complimented each other.
Grain’s content strategy will be similar to Metagramme’s. I’ll continue to write on a regular basis. It’s proven to be a powerful resource for clients and colleagues. The practice feeds our minds, helps fuel the business, and provides a valuable creative diversion.
Beyond that, a lot of things are changing. I’m no longer a sole proprietor. I’m now one of four partners. Metagramme was just two guys; at Grain, there are twelve of us and counting. I used to make all decisions around business development and administration; now we have a managing partner who handles most new business work and internal organization. I now have to consult with three other leaders, each with 25% of the vote and equipped with different personalities, backgrounds, communication styles and opinions.
I’ve been a lone wolf for a long time. As an introvert who also happens to be an entrepreneur, I can chat it up with the best of them, but I run out of steam pretty quickly. Too much social interaction, and I start to dream about monkhood or Thoreau’s cabin. I’ve always found peace in solitude. My track record in team settings is mediocre at best. I’d much rather lead. Creating a business with other people is way outside of my comfort zone.
Last year, I made a deeper commitment to Metagramme. I hired a business coach who supported me through a transformative process. I learned how to truly serve our clients from a place of love. I developed a solid marketing plan and put it into action. The money wasn’t exactly flowing yet, but hey – it can take over a year for a new marketing strategy to pay off. New clients were starting to find my essays and were calling us. Our clientèle was becoming more diverse. We were heading in a hopeful direction. Overall, I was happy. Given all the above, why on earth would I leave this business and start another one?
Three reasons come to mind: self awareness, persistence and God.
In 2009, I stumbled rather awkwardly into entrepreneurship after falling out with my last employer. (We’ve since buried the hatchet.) I was a designer who had to learn how to be a business executive very quickly, or go work for someone else again. I’ve always been good at talking about design in a way that resonates with clients. But in the beginning, I had no clue how to create new business relationships, estimate projects or close a sale. I’ve been blessed with a few brilliant mentors in my career, but none of them taught me how to run a studio. Perhaps I never asked the right questions. At any rate, after learning the hard way about what works and what doesn’t (I’m still learning), I came to really enjoy the process of business development.
And yet – despite all this knowledge and experience, the fact remains that sales just isn’t in my blood. I like it in measured doses, but I don’t live and breathe it. I’m happier when quietly making something, surrounded by fresh pencil shavings and my five-hour mix of every song in Iron and Wine’s musical catalog. The idea of having a partner who is focused on sales has been on my mind for a long time. Sure, they could include me when it’s time to decide whether to take on a new client, but my full time job would be what I do best: designing visual systems and leading the creative process.
In the creative industry, it’s common for agencies to execute work for clients at the strategic and creative level, but to hire freelancers or other specialist firms to produce certain deliverables. Web or app development are the most common scenarios. It happens with video work as well: a creative team will develop the concept. A hired gun stands behind the camera, and perhaps another edits the footage.
Sometimes a creative firm will have staff members who can execute simple front-end web development. But can they do back-end development, build apps from scratch, create complex e-commerce tools or a custom CMS? Rarely.
For years, I partnered with select freelancers or other firms for technical development. It usually worked out well, but it would’ve been far easier – for the client and for us – if those specialists all played for the home team. I’ve lost jobs more than once to firms who had some of these specialists in house. That’s not happening again.
So what do clients get out of all this? They get superior quality, consistency and accountability. They deal with one company culture. One invoicing system, with zero mark-up. The buck stops at one doormat. Something really cool happens when people from overlapping disciplines create together. The results are as functional as they are beautiful.
Sounds like a no-brainer to leave my company and help form this new one, right? Not quite. It took a long time for me to come down from the hills and join the campfire. By the spring of 2013, my friend John Pa (co-founder of Anastasis and Catena) had been bugging me for almost a year with this notion of joining forces. I said no for a long time. At first it was an easy no. The timing sucked. I was actively working to reposition Metagramme. Also, I love John but he’s every bit as headstrong as me. I was concerned that partnership with him could get rough, and the other partners would get tangled up in our mess.
But John was persistent. He had a vision, he was passionate about it, and he was stubborn as hell. He kept finding new angles, new reasons why we should merge our three companies. Jason Froderman and Matt Seilback, our other partners, were easier to convince. They’d already been in business with John, trusted his approach, and saw great value in what we were doing at Metagramme. I already knew that the four of us shared common convictions, but I began to see much overlap in our creative goals. More to the point, it became clear that our visions – the kind of impact we each wanted to have in the world – were strikingly similar.
I started to entertain the possibility of merging, but was still on the fence. I knew the decision to leave my business and form a new one could NOT, under any circumstances, come from a place of fear. Fear, after all, is a story we tell ourselves about a future that might never happen. The less we feed it, the less it becomes reality. My decision had to be motivated by love, and it needed to support what I still felt in my bones to be my calling. This partnership needed to be a platform from which I could spend the rest of my life cultivating beauty and uprooting ugliness. Otherwise, I’d be miserable and would only drag others down with me.
I asked myself and my potential partners some probing questions. What would it be like to let someone else focus on new business, freeing up much of my time to manage and execute design work? In what setting would I be most empowered to pursue my mission of giving beautiful content the visibility it deserves? Does it matter whether the name on the door is my idea or someone else’s? Can all four of us align on vision and mission? Can we create a partnership that is democratic? Can we blend our ideas around company culture and work/life harmony? Could we serve clients in more meaningful ways with video, development and design under the same shingle? Could we achieve more through our combined efforts at Grain than any of us could achieve alone?
After much prayer, writing, whisky, thinking and arguing, all signs were clearly pointing to Grain. Something was shifting inside me. My picture of how success might look was broadening. I know some of you don’t believe in this sort of thing, but Jesus was clearly doing something that none of us could have predicted. John and I were still fighting like a couple old crows, but the arguments were more enlightening than harmful. More often than not, we were getting along with surprising solidarity.
On Saturday, May 4th, the four of us met for drinks to wrap up our last few questions and review our bylaws and partnership agreement. The first clause of our agreement was this:
The partners agree to completely and utterly dissolve their brands and redirect all brand recognition, value, and allegiance to GRAIN INC from this day forth.
I took a long pull from my beer and signed it in big, jagged letters. We celebrated with a round of scotch. There was hugging, professions of loyalty, and back-slapping. I think Bill Brasky came over at some point and bought us another round.
I drove home, sat down on my bed and wept. My wife asked what was wrong. For once in my life, I had no words.
It took a few weeks to realize that the minty new-business smell wasn’t masking the loss I felt. I was in mourning over Metagramme. I knew Grain was the best option for all of us, but that didn’t make the transition easier. I dreamed of starting my own shop back in college, and eventually that dream became a beautiful reality. I watched her grow. I spared no expense when she was sick, and rejoiced when she was healthy. Though I’m committed to Grain, it still stings every time I hear one of the partners tell someone that our previous businesses have been dissolved. I know it was a sacrifice for them, too.
It’s no secret that starting a new company with partners is hard work. But with the right people and the right service or product, it always pays off. John calls it warfare, and I think his hyperbole only just overshoots the mark. In the early days, every meeting and decision takes longer than you’d expect. It’s exhausting. There’s new complexity around every corner. Boundaries are stretched, broken and rebuilt. I consider it a victory that none of us have come to blows, although it nearly happened once. We have to make decisions together, compromise, and relinquish control. There’s a dying to self. But it’s good. I can tell that all of us are growing as leaders, even if there are growing pains. It’s good for our families and employees. It’s good for clients who seek to enrich, inspire and effect lasting change in the world.
Several months from now, metagramme.com will become a redirect to Grain’s website. You can visit the new company’s temporary (very temporary) site at grainforall.com. Until the full website launch, I’ll write a couple more posts on the process of creating this new business – half-baked mission statements, wonky logo sketches and all. My hope is that one or two aspiring entrepreneurs will find insight into what it takes to create and run a business with partners, and at the very least be entertained. If you’ve been here and done this, maybe you’ll have a chuckle or two at our expense.
Yes, I’m sad about walking away from Metagramme. I named it and built it. But what I care about more than naming and building businesses is doing powerful work that promotes goodness and uproots ugliness. Our mission continues in a bigger and better context. In that sense, I’m not walking away. I’m walking forward.
Long live Metagramme. Long live Grain.