First, Find Someone to Run the Business

Owning Blend Interactive for the last decade has taught me something important: (1) practicing your craft and (2) running a business, are two very different things.

    Deane Barker
  • Nov. 13 2014
Shoes

When I got into the web development business 10 years ago, I figured success was just gonna be about me building websites. How hard could that be? My partner Joe and I joked that we were going to own our own business and “we wouldn’t have to answer to anyone!” It was gonna be fantastic.

Reality has a way of raining on parades.

Owning Blend Interactive for the last decade has taught me something important: (1) practicing your craft and (2) running a business, are two very different things. They require different skillsets, different temperaments, and different passions. I don’t care if you’re the best developer or designer or IA or UX or whatever — if you’re one-dimensional and alone, you’re gonna get eaten alive.

When Blend started out, it was me, Joe, and Karla — two developers and a designer. Joe and I loved developing, and Karla loved designing. Karla came from a freelance business, and so had some experience running it, but Joe and I were more or less clueless. We figured that as long as were great at developing stuff (and we were) then everything else would work out.

Despite Karla’s previous experience, we were essentially three technocrats — people very skilled at their particular craft or profession. What none of us was interested in doing was actually running the business.

And “the business” always intruded. First, there was the accounting. Joe did it for a while, but chronically underpaid everyone for the first year (math is hard). Then we hired a bookkeeper.

But the accounting was just the start — there were so many other details that kept intruding on our digital paradise: things like insurance, a health plan (we had none), office furniture, the legal details of the incorporation, utilities, the landlord, contracts, sales, billing issues, and on and on and on.

I quickly learned the difference between what we call “operations” and “production.” Production is work that you get paid to do — billable hours for a client. This is the reason you started a business in the first place, remember? Production represents you getting paid to change the world. Production is you livin’ the dream!

Operations is all the boring things you have to do to allow that to happen.

You don’t make any money managing the details of the health plan, for instance, but you might need to have one in order to recruit employees who will then bill hours to clients. Same with the light bill — you can’t invoice anyone for the time spent paying it, but you have to have lights in order to invoice everyone else. These things all suck time and attention. The clock is ticking every time you’re talking to the landlord about the broken air conditioner, and your hourly rate doesn’t care why you can’t get to it.

Last summer, someone asked me how he might start up his own consulting business. I told him the same thing I’ll tell you: first, find someone to run the business. If not right upfront, then very early on. (Blend’s first non-production hire was Employee #1.)

Operations is all the boring things you have to do to allow that to happen.

Even consider becoming a partner with someone who wants to run the business. Go in 50/50 — you provide the production talent, and they provide the operational talent. You practice your beloved craft, and they do everything else. They do sales, write proposals, manage accounts, manage the books, develop marketing plans, talk to the lawyers, manage the paperwork on new hires, wrangle the insurance company, and pay all the bills.

At first, this will seem a little unfair. I mean, you’re providing all the actual billable hours, and all they’re doing is shuffling paper to justify their own existence. But that’s just you being arrogant and myopic and thinking that all you have to do to succeed is production work. That’s you forgetting that there’s a business to run.

As time wears on and you start to grow, the business details will get more and more complicated. If you partner with the right person, and they take their job seriously, soon they’ll be shielding you from a hailstorm of operational stuff that has to be done, but has nothing to do with the production work you love. Every hour they spend doing this is an hour you can work on what you really want to do. You can play the mad, inspired genius all day long while they keep the lights on.

Recently, Blend named Karla our first ever CEO. She was our Creative Director, but began to move further and further into operations over the years. It dawned on me suddenly that she really loves running the business, while Joe and I love doing the business. There’s a massive difference there.

Somewhere along the decade-long road we had wandered, Karla ceased to be a technocrat and had become really good at managing, planning, and executing all the details that allow the business to function. She was able to keep all the operational balls in the air, and — more importantly — she enjoyed it. She had a passion for it. She looked back at the end of the day and felt like she accomplished something.

Finding this person is a gift. When you do, give them the title to match their passion.

No matter how much you love your craft, remember that someone has to run the business. Look around — if you can’t see who is gonna do that, then it’s gonna be you.

If you don’t want to wear this hat, find someone who does.