Building a sustainable business from scratch is tough. For those who have successfully built a business, maintaining and growing that business can prove to be even harder.
As a design and development shop, the lifeblood of our business is designing and building products for clients. If our business is going to grow, we need to add designers and developers to our team, and the only way to do that is to bring in more client work.
In order order for us to bring in more clients we need to make sure that our services offering appeals to our prospective clients. Because the technology landscape changes so rapidly, the only way for us to ensure we’re providing the best services is to invest in our team’s learning and growth.
I’ve previously written about our struggle to find the right balance between client work and investing in our team. As we continue to figure it out, here are some things we’re trying out to help our team learn.
One of the benefits of working on greenfield projects is that we get use the latest and greatest technology. Many times, the libraries that we use or the design tools that we employ haven’t been leveraged by everyone on the team. We treat these situations as learning opportunities where the person using the new technology or tool, will give a presentation to the company.
We usually have these talks over lunch on Fridays. Terrible Labs buys food for everyone (typically via Foodler) and the team gets a crash course in something new that they might be able to leverage on their current or a future project.
We expect everyone on the Terrible team to push themselves to get better. Part of that includes learning through attending or speaking at conferences. We don’t have an explicit conference budget so we encourage our team to let us know which conference they’d like to attend and how we can help make it happen. For those on the team who are attending a conference we ask that they share what they learned with the team upon their return. They can do this through either a blog post or a brownbag lunch.
I spoke about Project Weeks before but for those who missed that post, a Project Week is is one developer/designer week of time where the sole focus is to complete or improve upon a current open source or passion project. So far we’ve had several successful projects including Motion Juxtapose and TicketZen.
An important part of every project we work on is the retrospective. Retrospectives are an opportunity for our team to learn about a project they didn’t work on and more specifically: what went well with the project, what didn’t go well, and what we need to do in order to make the next project better.
We host retrospectives at the end of a project. We take an hour at the end of the day to drink a few beers and discuss what we need to do as a team to select better projects and how to improve the execution of our projects. What we really like about retrospectives is that they don’t just help us run projects better but they also help us learn how to better sell our services.
We’re not the only ones focused on improving our product and team. The team at RunKeeper is heavily invested in keeping their product and team ahead of the curve. I was recently chatting with Tom Boates, VP of UX at RunKeeper, and he explained how they use internal, team hackathons, to make improvements to an already great product experience and office culture.
Here is what Tom had to say:
“RunKeeper has a really great product process when it comes to iterative improvements, but so far, for our big picture feature innovations, we’ve turned to our hackathons for inspiration. We do hackathons once every 6 months and have plans to increase the frequency.
At the start of the hackathon, the team spends some time pitching project ideas and recruiting members to help. Some of our hackathons have themes, but it’s usually totally open field for the teams.
Projects that have come out of hackathons have certainly ended up in our product: our existing website design as well as our April Fool’s Day pranks, RunKeeper for iPad, and RunKeepah were all thanks to our hackathons.”
Not all of their hackathon projects are focused on improving their products. Some are focused on improving the office. “We’ve also had a couple teams create office hacks as well. Check out RumKeeper, our office bar, as well as Rupee light, which lights up when we get a new RunKeeper Elite subscriber.”
Investing in your team and the future of your product isn’t something revolutionary. Most of us know that we need to do it. The difficulty of making the investment is figuring out which efforts your company should invest in.
Taking staff away from your core business – and having them work on something that isn’t necessarily going to produce revenue in the near term – can be a scary thought. However, the thought of losing your business because you didn’t make the investment is a much scarier thought to me.
Hopefully some of you will find these examples helpful. If you have any examples of what you and your business are investing in, we’d love to hear about them. Feel free to drop us a comment below.