This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by Jeremy Keith from Clearleft to discuss growing your business.
Paul: Hello and welcome to Boagworld.com, season 12. We’re talking about growing your business. Joinijng me today is Marcus obviously as allways. Hello Marcus.
Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?
Paul: I am very well. And also Jeremy Keith from ClearLeft. Jeremy, good to have you on the show.
Jeremy: Thank you Paul. Good to be here. Hello, Marcus.
Marcus: Hi. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to you Jeremy.
Jeremy: Yeah, I think the last time we saw each other was showing you a tune on your mandolin?
Marcus: That’s a long time ago. That was back at South by South-west. Surely we’ve seen each other since then?
Jeremy: Oh maybe.
Marcus: I don’t know.
Jeremy: Go-karting. I forgot about the go-karting.
Marcus: Oh go-karting. I couldn’t do that as I had a bad back, but I was there. You didn’t like it either if I remember correctly?
Jeremy: Nah, I was too much of a wuss. It’s not for me. It’s not for me.
Paul: It all felt a little competitive to me and I was out of my depth. Your excuse Marcus was that you were too heavy, wasn’t it Marcus, as I remember?
Marcus: No, I had a bad back. I didn’t think it would be too wise to whizz around a track in a go-kart. That’s my excuse anyway.
Paul: I do remember that it was Ed that complained about being too heavy. And he’s not a fat guy, just a very big guy. He didn’t quite fit in go-karts.
Jeremy: My problem was that I was just too crap basically.
Paul: Yes, that was the problem I was suffering with as well.
Marcus: Whenever I’ve done that before I’ve just been really, really average in the middle of the field, so it was like ‘Well I am not missing very much’.
Paul: Ahh. You only like to play if you can win, eh, Marcus?
Marcus: Obviously. Isn’t that what everyone thinks?
Paul: Well, no. I don’t think everyone does? Every red-blooded man does, which is why I don’t really care if I win stuff or not. Which is only probably because I know I never will.
Jeremy: That’s the spirit.
Paul: So Jeremy, because it’s been so long since you’ve been on the show, just give us a little bit about yourself. What is it that you do these days, because I know that your job changes a little bit as everybody’s does? And tell us a little bit about ClearLeft as it’s going to be very relevant to a lot of people later.
Paul: Which is useful. You do get to a point in your career where you begin to lose sight a little bit of what is it that you actually do?
Jeremy: That’s been a permanent feeling for me to be honest.
Marcus: Me too.
Jeremy: I’ve always felt that way.
Paul: Oh well. You used to do a huge amount of speaking around the world. It sounds as though you’ve cut back on that a little bit. Is that fair to say?
Jeremy: Well last year I did quite a bit, this year a lot less. This year, a little bit here and there, travelled to some interesting places and that’s always fun. For example this whole summer I am pretty much in Brighton rather than going somewhere else. I do have some talks and some travel lined up in September and October and I am really looking forward to that as I start to get itchy feet if I don’t head of somewhere once in a while. But that also means that right now the other thing I am doing is that I am in the hellish pit that is preparing a new talk.#
Paul: Oh right.
Jeremy: It’s no fun for me and it’s no fun for anyone around me. It’s a bad scene. It’s a bad scene.
Paul: So Marcus.
Paul: Last week when we were talking about having Jeremy on the show, you mentioned him didn’t you because we got into talking about Sci-Fi. Was that after the show?
Marcus: Oh don’t know. We were both at a conference staying in Halls of Residence. It was all a bit giddy.
Paul: Yes it was. We were at a Higher Education Conference Jeremy, which doesn’t sound like the most exciting in the world but boy, can those guys drink.
Jeremy: I have been to a Higher Ed conference. I was at one in America last year.
Paul: Oh is that EdUI?
Jeremy: Yes, the one out in Pennsylvania. That was fun. Those people do know how to have a good time.
Marcus: Yes they do.
Paul: I am glad that extends across the ocean as well. Well anyway we got onto the conversation of Sci-Fi and we decided that you are the definitive source of good Sci-Fi books.
Jeremy: Oh ok, wow. It’s funny I was just about to write a blog post. I realised I hadn’t blogged for a while about what I was reading. I like to alternate between fiction and non-fiction but the truth is I have been mostly reading fiction and when I say fiction, I do mean Science Fiction. But I haven’t been blogging or keeping track of or making recommendations or stuff like that, so I would be happy to go through some recent ones.
Paul: Yes, what are you reading at the moment? This is more important than the rest of the show.
Marcus: I have my pencil ready.
Paul: I need something new to read. Pencil Marcus? What are we, the 1940’s?
Marcus: I like pencils. What’s wrong with that?
Paul: I don’t know. For some reason it’s because you said it was a pencil. If you said a pen I would have been fine with that. Apparently a pencil suddenly offends me for some reason.
Jeremy: The battery life is excellent on a pencil. So I just finished reading a book last night. So at the moment I am reading nothing, which is unusual. I have to pick up a new book by this evening. I always read a bit in bed. But last night I finished a classic of Science Fiction which is the The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. It’s one of those books you hear about a lot and I hadn’t read it. It’s one of those things where I guess in Sci-Fi…every war gets its corresponding Sci-Fi book, so Starship Troopers by Robert Heinline was basically World War Two. And Enders Game was basically was the Iraq war was done for Sci-Fi and the Forever War was Vietnam and Joe Haldeman’s experience of Vietnam done for Sci-Fi. It was good. I can see why at the time it would have been quite influential and stuff but it didn’t blow me away. But that might partly have been because I have been reading some books recently that did blow me away from a writing perspective, which have just been very, very good.
Paul: Which were….?
Jeremy: Well right before the Forever War I finished reading The Girl in the Road. That was good. It’s a relatively near-future type thing but to be honest the science or technology part of it is secondary to a magical realism atmosphere. Very interesting for the setting. The setting is India, Africa, a bridge between the two. And that’s an unusual setting and an unusual perspective so I really enjoyed that. Right before that, the one I would heartily recommend is Station Eleven. This won the RC Clark award last year, and it’s really, really good. Don’t want to give too much away but if you read any synopsis of it, it would say it’s a classic post-apocalyptic book. And as soon as you have a post-apocalyptic scenario you say ‘Ok well what kind of post-apocalypse are we talking about? Was it nuclear, was it disease, was it robot uprising, was it nuclear, was it alien invasion?’ So this is disease pandemic that wipes out most of the population of the earth with some survivors left. A classic post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s really well written, the writing is really very good which is was breath of fresh air as I’d finished another book before where the writing was just so-so. It was really something when I read the first chapter of Station Eleven, and I thought ‘Wow, this is terrific’. But also it’s got an interesting take and it’s received some flak for this which I think is completely unfair. It doesn’t assume that if you take away civilisation that we are all going to revert to being rogue warriors in the wasteland, raping and pillaging.
Paul: Oh that’s good.
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild. And that’s something that I really like. You don’t see enough… although interestingly, you know what it reminded me of was – did you guys see Interstellar?
Jeremy: Ok, well I won’t give away any of the plot but what I found interesting about the initial set up is that by any objective measure, Interstellar is showing us a future that is another post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s revealed that the population of the earth has been almost completely wiped out, it’s an environmental catastrophe and what we are seeing is the survivors. We are seeing the post-apocalyptic survivors. And yet what are they doing there? They are farming. They have schools – sure they have problems there, but they have schools. And they are just trying to get on. Another message is that we need to get out there, to rage against the dying of the light. Again but the fact that they are not reverting to a marshal way of living where it’s the survival of the fittest, fighting one another, none of that, but just that human beings try to get on and pull together. I think that’s interesting. It’s almost the default of any post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi to assume that with the removal of society that things will go really bad and probably stay really bad. And so that’s a little bit, maybe not enough to call it a trend when you see it in two different things, but interesting to see push-back against the idea that maybe actually when the chips are down, human beings might come together and work together.
In Station Eleven it’s more about preserving culture, like what is it that makes us human? The arts and entertainment and stuff which is a really interesting take as I am obsessed by digital preservation so it was really interesting to see what will we do without our digital technology. How would we try and preserve our culture? That idea has been touched on in Sci-Fi and we’ve got things like A Canticle For Leibowitz which is a classic from the sixties I think and that sort of follows the civilisation rise/collapse/rise/collapse it’s a very long zoom book. It takes over hundreds and thousands of years with the idea that knowledge is somehow passed down from generation to generation. So it’s not a new idea, this thinking of how do we preserve knowledge and actually it’s not even new to Sci-Fi as that idea itself comes from the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages where we had the monks on the fringes of Western Europe writing stuff down. There is an obvious parallel of society today. What would happen if our society collapsed, how would we preserve things? But Station Eleven I would really recommend that. I am starting to realise that the Arthur C Clark award is generally a really good source for what should I read. A few years ago Lauren Beukes, she won it with her book Zoo City and that was really good. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the winner from two years ago, which was The Testament of Jessie Lamb which I have heard is really, really good. My success rate for reading something that was recommended because it was up for the Arthur C Clark award and enjoying it has been really, really high. So I think there’s some books queued up on my Kindle which I have purchased basically because they were nominated or won the Arthur C Clark award. So it’s a good source of recommendations I would say.
Paul: I think Jeremy you’ve just given your next talk. Just turn that into a talk. There you go.
Jeremy: The problem is that I don’t get asked to speak at post-apocalyptic conferences.
Paul: Well then, they are missing out Jeremy.
Jeremy: I am not even sure there are any post-apocalyptic conferences. Three types. You just need to add a fourth to it and you will be fine.
Jeremy: Well actually the funny thing is this year’s dConstruct—which I am not organising, Andy is organising that—the theme is organising the future. And so the speakers are talking about Sci-Fi and they are talking about topics I am really interested in. And I’ll let you in on a little secret – a scoop. I’ve been practicing my podcasting/
Paul: Oh right?
Jeremy: I’ve been recording interviews with the speakers ahead of time.
Paul: Ahh superb!
Jeremy: And it has basically been us nattering on about technology and Sci-Fi. One of the speakers is Matt Novak and he runs the Paleo Future blog. That’s really fascinating as he looks at past visions of the future. Like an article from 1920 trying to imagine what life in 2000 is like. And that’s really fascinating. And then one of the other speakers is Chris Noessel who co-wrote the book with Nathan Shedroff, Sci-fi interfaces Make it So.
Paul: Yes, I know that.
Jeremy: And that’s really interesting, the classic interface of UX and interaction design and basically an excuse to talk about Sci-Fi all the time which is great. Brian David Johnson is a futurist that works at Intel and again that intersection of real life, real jobs, design and stuff but actually gets paid to think about what life will be like in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time?
So I’ve really enjoyed these interviews where I’ve basically been able to natter on about Sci-Fi and books, films, scenarios all the time. It’s been good fun. And Deconstruct itself is going to be heaven for me. It’s going to be a whole day of designing the future which is right up my alley.
Paul: And you won’t be having to organise it this year, you can just sit back and enjoy it.
Jeremy: Yeah. I did it for three years. 2012/13/14 and I am really, really proud of those three years, I thought they turned out great, but I got a bit burned out by the end of three years of doing that. A lot of pressure in the end, so I decided to step back this year and say ‘Andy, it’s all yours’.
In the meantime I was organising A Responsive Day Out which happened for three years as well. But after three years I was done. But that was much less pressure that was much looser, low-key, grass-roots event. All the fun without the high stakes, really. So for the last three years I have been organising conferences, for at least some part of the year. And now for the first time I don’t have a conference that I am organising on my horizon which is a strange feeling.
Paul: But a nice feeling, I would imagine.
Jeremy: It’s very nice. I am totally going to enjoy Deconstruct and totally going to enjoy being at conferences where someone else has put in the hard work.
Marcus: I just wanted to say, do you ever re-visit your favourite books and re-read them? Because I am always doing that, it’s like going back into this place that I always love. And whether if you do or don’t, what are you favourites?
Jeremy: Oh this is a good one. Yes I have re-read books, I haven’t done it for a while. Let me think. I’m looking up on my bookshelf now… ok so I can see some Neal Stephenson books and I definitely have read Snowcrash and Diamond Age more than once and I’ve definitely read Cryptonomicon more than once as I remember enjoying it the second time a lot more than I did the first time. Looking at all these William Gibson books, I am pretty sure I’ve read all of them at least more than once. So I do. Sometimes it’s a bit daunting as I mentioned Neal Stephenson and re-reading his stuff which is good, because Neal Stephenson is great and I love Neal Stephenson but he’s not best at tying up and ending a story, certainly in some of his earlier books. So the initial reading experience can be when you get to the end is ‘Oh ok, I enjoyed that book but I was expecting a bit more from the ending’. But when you back for a second time, because you remember enjoying that book you are prepped and primed to not expect too much from the ending and then you end up actually enjoying it a lot more. I’ve seen films like that as well where the initial first time I see it the endings feel like a let-down, but then on re-watching it because I am expecting the last act to be a let-down, I think ‘Actually now, that’s not bad’.
An example of this is Sunshine which is brilliant and one of my favourite films. The Danny Boyle, Sci-Fi film. The last act is just not as good as the rest of the film and so the initial feeling is—you always remember the feeling of the last bit of the film when walking out of the cinema—but then on re-watching because you are primed for that, you think ‘No actually this film is great, I love this’. And I’ve had that feeling with some of the Neal Stephenson books like Cryptonomicon which isn’t technically Science-Fiction, but somehow all of Neal Stephenson’s books feel like Science-Fiction even when they are not. The ones that I definitely plan to read again but haven’t gotten around to reading again are Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle books, so it’s Quicksilver, System of the World… but they are set in the seventeenth century so technically not Science-Fiction. There is something about them, the sensibility that he brings to them that makes them feel almost like a Science-Fiction book. I really, really like them. I am not saying they are the best written books ever but they are really enjoyable, you are immersed in the seventeenth century world. But they are really big. I can’t really complain about how long it takes to read these things, because imagine how long it took to write. Also, he actually wrote them with a quill.
Jeremy: Yeah, he actually wrote them with a quill. I’ve seen the manuscript. It’s in the Science-Fiction museum in Seattle. It makes you realise reading this thing wasn’t such a hardship after all. Because I really enjoyed the experience of reading them, that was a few years ago now and I definitely plan to go back and re-read them but it feels like a daunting task as they are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages. And when I do read a book I get that feeling of guilt as there are lots of books that you haven’t read, that you could be reading. Why are you re-visiting a book when there are so many books out there that you haven’t read that are on your to-do list that you should get around to reading.
But yes, I’ve re-read quite a bit. Actually thinking about it there are a lot of books I have read as a teenager. Growing up in a small town in Ireland if the local library didn’t exist I would have probably gone insane. It was the only thing that kept me sane. I read through everything I could that was in the library. So that would have been my first introduction into Science-Fiction, Arthur C Clark, Isaac Asimov and stuff like that. In more recent years I have re-visited those. I have re-read some of the Arthur C Clark stuff, like Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise which is really interesting as you get a very different perspective when you’ve got a twenty year gap, you are a different person now than when you were first reading it. You see more flaws especially in the writing style and the character development but you do also re-kindle some of that feeling you had as a teenager which is fun.
But the second part of the question which was do I have a favourite? That is a lot harder to answer. I am not sure I could pick a particular favourite book. There are authors that I feel I can’t go wrong with, like Neal Stephenson and I haven’t yet read his new book Seveneves and I am really looking forward to reading that. William Gibson I mentioned, I have enjoyed every single one of his books, some more than others. But yes, I really feel like if I hear there is a new book coming out by Neal Stephenson or if there is a new book coming out by William Gibson then I feel pretty certain that I will enjoy it and I will buy it sight unseen and tuck into it. But thinking of a favourite book is really hard. Because again you change, your tastes change. As a teenager the obvious thing would have been Lord of the Rings. When I discovered Tolkein it was like this great revelation. But I remember, I think it was Phillip Pullman who said ‘If you are fifteen years old and the Lord of the Rings is not your favourite book then there’s something wrong with you. But if you are fifty years old and Lord of the Rings is still your favourite book then there is something wrong with you’.
And I can kind of relate to that. I can still re-kindle the feeling of the amazing world building that is in Lord of the Rings. But I have a different relationship to it now, I wouldn’t quite get the same out of it. So yeah, I don’t know if I have a favourite book.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco would probably be up there. There is something about that book that I really like and that’s one I haven’t revisited thinking about it. That’s one I should as it’s been a long time since I read that one. Not Science-Fiction, but great, great writing. So yeah. I do re-visit but I would be very hard pressed to pick a favourite.
Marcus: I’ve written down so much stuff. Can I go now?
Paul: Marcus, can we talk about what we are supposed to be talking about now? Is that alright with you?
Jeremy: To be honest, I’d rather talk about Sci-Fi.
Paul: So would I. But this is the trouble, we’re doing a whole season… and …
Jeremy: Well hang on, can I quickly find out what have you guys been reading and what would you recommend?
Marcus: You can. I will just say one. The reason why I asked that question is that I am re-visiting a book by Alastair Reynolds called the House of Sons which is not his best, but I particularly love it.
Jeremy: I do like the long zoom timescale on that. It’s more than centuries, it’s a millennium.
Marcus: Yes, so that’s where I am currently. I am re-enjoying that book at the moment. But I hadn’t got anything else on my list.
Jeremy: Did you read the Revelation Space books by Alastair Reynolds?
Marcus: I have read everything he’s written.
Jeremy: Oh great, because those for me are the top of the game books for him.
Marcus: Yes, stunning.
Paul: I am not going to get drawn into this conversation because I am the only professional here.
Jeremy: Marcus, what did you think of the more recent ones? The Poseidon’s Wake?
Marcus: I thought the first book was alright. I thought the second book was fantastic and the one that he’s just written I found a little bit disappointing.
Jeremy: I haven’t read the third one yet, but I will be primed. The Revelation Space books to me are the top of the game and nothing has quite come close to that, that I’ve read from Alastair Reynolds since. Even if I am reading a book and am thinking this isn’t great, it’s always an enjoyable ride.
Marcus: Absolutely. The third book you are definitely on a ride, but I just felt like he was a bit bored of it. I suspect he’s got some other project he’s desperate to move on to. Anyway, Paul, go on.
Paul: You sure? I mean we are half an hour into the show but you know. That’s fine.
Discussing growing your business with Jeremy Keith
Paul: Anyway. Let’s have a quick break and talk about our sponsors and then we can get into the proper discussion. The first sponsor I want to mention this week is TemplateMonster. TemplateMonster have a great community that have provided a lot of the questions that we are covering in the show and they also help with the transcription that keeps the show accessible which is good. TemplateMonster – I think it’s quite important to understand what their role is and how they see themselves. They don’t see themselves as a way to replace bespoke design, they are never going to do that. But they are great if you are a small business and want a quick web site, you can’t afford very much but you want something a bit more than a Facebook page, TemplateMonster is a great place to go. They are also great if you are a web designer that works on very small sites with thin margins. Again, starting with a template is a really good place to begin.
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Right. Now, what we were supposed to be talking about this week on the show and the reason why Jeremy has done such an excellent job at stalling….we were supposed to be talking about growing your business. When I was talking with Jeremy before about this subject, even though he is one of the founders of ClearLeft which has grown phenomenally and they’ve done some really great stuff, he claims he doesn’t know a lot on this subject. Now is this true Jeremy, or are you just being modest?
Jeremy: No, I just don’t have much interest or desire. Unless we are talking about business practices in Science-Fiction, then we can talk. I just am not much of a business person.
Paul: So how has ClearLeft grown to be the way it is if you are not much of a business person?
Jeremy: Other people doing the business side of things basically. Pretty much from day one. ClearLeft formed in 2005 – there was myself, Andy and Richard. I was a freelancer, Andy was working at a local agency as a designer and Richard was working up in London at MultiMap who were brought out by Microsoft. So as a freelancer I did have to deal with the business side of things. That’s one of the things that comes with the trade and I’d been freelancing for a good few years so I had had to do all that stuff – chasing invoices, finding new work, all that kind of thing. And I never really enjoyed that side of it. So for me, when we formed ClearLeft one of the best things about it was that I was able to not have to deal with that stuff. And it was really interesting because pretty much from day one, Andy took over the finding clients and doing all that business-y kind of stuff and Richard was quite happy to deal with the finances and bank things and stuff that I had no interest in whatsoever. And that was really nice. Right from day one I could think about front end development or design or user experience unencumbered by having to think about chasing up invoices or following up leads or any of that stuff. So for me it was one of the nicest things about the story of ClearLeft was that it freed me up to never having to think about business stuff again.
It’s not entirely true that I never have to think about it, as a Founder I am one of the Directors of the company, not in the same way as Richard and Andy, they are proper Directors. They have dividends rather than a salary, whereas I am a Non-Executive Director? I don’t know what the distinction is. I have no head for this stuff. So there is a distinction in the Directorial roles that we each have and mine is less important, but I do still have to be involved in decisions. And I do want to be involved. Anything around hiring or strategy or long term visions, I do want to be involved in that. I just don’t care that much about the day to day stuff, the boring stuff. But as we’ve grown I have had to get more involved, not in the boring moving things from column A to column B stuff, but weighing in on a decision and giving my input on whether something is a good idea or not. But the truth is that I still leave it to the others to take care of most of that stuff.
Paul: You mentioned hiring there and how you deal with stuff like that. Talk us through, who was your first hire and how did you decide that it was time to hire someone?
Jeremy: Ah that’s a good question. So when we started out, there was just three of us. There was a particular feeling when you’ve got three people who know each other well, and the thought of adding another person that is 25% more and it completely changes the culture of the company as it is when there is three people. At the beginning we had no office, we were working out of cafes and our bedrooms basically. But we did get an office and we thought it was time for hire. And I believe it was Paul Arnet was the first hire. And it felt like he fit. He was coming from a similar background, felt like a good fit and he did fit in really well, but obviously was really nervous. But every hire whether it’s the first or fifth or sixth it’s really vital, because it could change the feel of the company. But at that size there was a tacit agreement about what we were about, what our goals were and what our values were. Once you get above the ten, eleven, twelve size and people are joining, maybe that isn’t just as clear to them, what kind of company this is. It doesn’t go without saying, it needs to be said. We have been struggling with that lately. We really need to articulate stuff. We’ve never had to articulate it before. We actually must start articulating, especially for new hires and for people who have been here a while, clarity on agreement on what we are here for, what we believe in. Those kind of things.
But the hiring thing still feels like a very big deal even though we are now up to twenty-one people. But it’s less of a big deal than when we were three or four people. It means you can take a few chances, like I said we were taking on a Junior role for the first time. That felt like a bit of an experiment, it could have gone horribly wrong – it hasn’t it’s gone quite the opposite. But we really couldn’t have tried that type of experiment when we were only three or four people I think as we wouldn’t have had the resources to devote to make sure that Junior person was getting the training they needed. So yes, it’s changed over time for sure.
Paul: So when you hire someone, are you purely making the decision to hire based on work load, the amount of work that’s come in or are you sometimes hiring pro-actively because you want to move into a new field or because you don’t want to do a particular part of your job so you want to replace yourself. What motivates hiring?
Jeremy: A little of both. There is definitely that feeling of being squeezed. We need more hands. And so we need to hire someone. The impetus can come from that. If we don’t get somebody else there is going to be a real struggle to get this to work. So we put out a job ad, we have people applying and fend off the recruitment calls that come in. But in some areas there is this feeling that if you find somebody good, even if you don’t necessarily need anyone right now, we should grab them because it’s a good opportunity. So particularly actually in the role of UX it feels like if you are a UX designer in the current climate you have got it made. You are sorted. You are not hunting for a job, you get paid well, and you’re working wherever you want. So if we come across a really good UX designer who is mentioning they wouldn’t mind working for ClearLeft we might have a conversation and have a chat even though we may not be looking for a particular UX person at that time, we would take the opportunity. Whereas maybe in some other areas we may feel that that’s slightly less of a concern.
Whenever we’ve wanted to hire a front end developer we’ve had really good responses because ClearLeft still has a good reputation in that world and so if we put out a job ad for front end developer we are going to get people who are at the top of their game applying for that, wanting to work at ClearLeft. So there it’s been maybe a bit less of that, although I have come across people who have thought ‘Oh maybe we should just hire them, even though we don’t necessarily need the pair of hands right now’, proactively hire them. It’s tricky because it’s definitely a bit of both. On the one hand you are looking at what’s coming down the pipe and we have a lot of work that’s going to start in three months’ time and so we will need a lot of hands and ‘Oh this person is really good’ but looking at the horizon we don’t have any work coming in for a while so maybe it’s not a good time to take them on. So it’s tricky. It’s really tricky.
Paul: Talking about a good person. What makes a good person to you? I mean you’ve already talked about cultural fit, I am guessing that is your number one priority. But is there other things you look for in particular?
Jeremy: To be honest cultural fit was at one point the number one priority and I’ve come to realise over time that it’s actually not a good thing to be hiring for and potentially even toxic. Cultural fit, that term has almost become code in certain places for ‘Well you’re like us’. White middle-aged wearing plaid shirt, probably got good facial hair, fond of coffee and craft beer and plays ping-pong.
That’s cultural fit and that’s not necessarily the best thing a) for your business, b) for the candidates and c) for the industry – for the world we want to live in. So over the years I became attuned to maybe there was an issue with cultural fit and the more that I was attuned to it the more I realised there was more than just an issue- that it was positively a bad thing to be only hiring people that were like you. People that were like those already in the company. It’s this very echo chamber way to go. So if anything, and I don’t think that this idea is shared with everyone at ClearLeft. James Bates did a blog post recently about what he looks for when he is hiring. He’s in charge of visual designers, right? At everything I was going yes, yes, yes, yes and when he got to cultural fit I was going no, no, no, no. And I get why you want to make sure someone is going to get along with everyone, you don’t want to hire someone who is going to be difficult to work with and who has nothing in common with the other people, but I really don’t think that should be a criteria for hiring. Getting along with people sure, but if someone doesn’t have anything in common let’s say from an interest’s point of view with the other people in the company, so what? Why is that relevant? And I’ve been in situations like that where I’ve had candidates for a front end role and I’ve been discussing it with the other Directors and some would say ‘This particular person, they are quite quiet, quite shy and so they would struggle to get their opinion heard’ because people are ClearLeft are quite a bit strident I guess. And initially I’d agree but then I’d think ‘What’s wrong with being quiet? What’s wrong with being shy?’ That’s not a failing, it’s a character trait. It’s not a positive or negative character trait. It’s just a character trait. So I find myself having to battle the desire for cultural fit. Not to just tamper it down, but to actively battle against it and say ‘I should be deliberately looking for people who aren’t like the people we already have’. Because you will produce better work, in my opinion, by having more differing voices, more differing ideas, more differing world views looking at issues, feeding into a problem. I think we see a lot of evidence these days of design that’s produced in a bit of an echo chamber, in a bit of a vacuum. You see at the Apple health kit stuff that came out with the last iPhone. Here’s all the stuff you can track, your sleep, your walk, blah, blah, blah. And yet you can’t track Menstrual cycles.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeremy: And this is something like 51% of the world is already tracking this stuff and this is an opportunity to help them. And yet nobody thought of it, or it got voted down, I don’t know. But that’s one example of how having more voices involved and more diverse world views, backgrounds—I would not say would have avoided the problem because you might still have decision makers with very blinkered on that kind of stuff—who would at least bring up this stuff. In the OpenSource software world they talk about getting many eyeballs. With enough eyeballs, many bugs are shallow. You want to get as many people as possible looking at the code as they will spot stuff that you’ve missed. And I feel that way about most things. Not just many in the quantitative way but also in the qualitative. You want as many differing eyeballs on the code to spot stuff that somebody else doesn’t even think of as an issue.
So anyway, cultural fit I no longer think is an important criteria, in fact I think it might actively be a dangerous criteria to look for.
Paul: It very much depends on your definition of cultural fit. Because if you take Headscape when we were founded you could not get three more different people. Really, couldn’t we Marcus?
Marcus: Err, no.
Paul: You’ve got Chris who is well-considered, thinks things through in detail, an incredibly thorough person. You’ve got me running around the complete opposite to that. Driving forward come what may, mouthy all the rest of it. But then you’ve also got differences in other ways, interest wise. Marcus is into music and cricket, neither of which I couldn’t give a shit about. So we were very diverse from the beginning. But I think where our definition of getting the right cultural fit is in terms of tolerance for different people, and different attitudes and personality in the sense of… it’s more a bit like you said, an ability to get on with other people and to work as part of that team. That’s what I would define cultural fit as. And I would totally agree with you that anything beyond that gets harmful.
Jeremy: Yes and I think the dangers are that if you start putting the cultural fit stuff down on the job add it’s going to pre-select certain types of people and scare other people off.
Paul: Yes, absolutely. Yes.
Jeremy: We thought we were being helpful when we put a job out saying ‘Hey ClearLeft is a great place to work at because we will do all the fun stuff as well, we’ll go on work outings to museum exhibits, we’ll go mountain biking etc..’ To someone who isn’t into that kind of stuff it sounds like the beatings will continue until morale improves kind of situation. ‘Suppose I don’t like mountain biking or going to museums will you force me to do this stuff?’ And so you realise that actually unintentionally we are scaring off people. And it could be the very people we really should be getting into the company. So you can take stuff into account when you are evaluating candidates but it’s really important that the initial job advert that you put out has got to be as fair and as open as possible and you don’t scare people off before they’ve even had a chance to apply.
Paul: One of the things that I’ve noticed about ClearLeft is that—well this might have changed, this might out of date—is that you get everybody that you hire, you want working out of Brighton. You want working out of your office. Am I right in that, and if so, why does that decision come about? Because obviously there are a lot of companies that work very successfully remotely.
Jeremy: Yes it’s a historical thing and it may not always remain that way. And it’s definitely something that worked really well around that smaller size. That 6/7 up to 10/11/12 size, it absolutely makes sense to have everyone in the same room. Because communication is more tacit, you just know what’s going on because there are only so many people around and it’s very hard to miss something. Now as you grow and we are up to the 20/21 point, people start missing out on stuff all the time even though you are technically in the same building, in the same place. You run into these problems ‘Oh I had no idea that was going on’ or ‘Why wasn’t I informed?’ stuff like that and you start to realise well, this wouldn’t be that different to having some people not physically here, that could be further away. So maybe we will change that policy and say ‘Oh we are keen to have people from further away’. As it is, if anyone wants to work from home that’s absolutely fine. As long as there isn’t a meeting they need to be at or something, you can do what you want as long as you get the work done. There is no time you start at ClearLeft and no time that you knock off. Whatever works for you? That’s why I roll into the office at 11.00am or 12.00pm.
But I think the trick is if you are going to do remote working I think you have to go all in. You have to treat everyone as a remote worker, even if they are sitting next to you otherwise you end up with the situation of has and has-nots. People are in the loop because they are in the room and people are out of the loop because they happen to be working from remote locations. And we don’t have the experience of that yet and I am not saying we won’t do that but we are aware of our own weaknesses and that’s not something we have historically been good at. I would want to talk to people who are good at that and figure out how they go about it. I’ve seen some great advice from Mandy Brown when she was running Editorially. She talked about how she did the remote working stuff and it was that idea that everyone is a remote worker, I don’t care if you are sitting two desks away from me, but we are going to do things over slack or over email. You don’t get to turn around and say something to me and not include everyone else in the conversation just because you are sitting over from me. And that makes total sense. I totally get that and it would be quite a big change for us to do that. Maybe we will do that, I don’t know. Because the truth is that a lot of time a lot of people aren’t in the office because maybe they are working on site with a client. We really like to embed ourselves with the clients a lot of the time. Especially if there is a client with an office in London we will for a month or two months, we will be in their office. So those people aren’t in the ClearLeft office so they are missing out potentially on information, being kept informed of things so it’s sort of happening a bit already, not because of remote working, but because of embedded working. So it’s not something that we are completely attached to, it’s more of a historical artefact. But also not leaping to try out the remote working thing just yet because we are aware that we wouldn’t be that good at it. Certainly to start with it’s going to take a lot of work. So we are under no illusions of how much work it takes to take remote working work well.
Paul: It would help your diversity mind. It would improve that kind of different perspective beyond the Brighton world.
Jeremy: Oh absolutely. When I said you want to be careful in the job ad that you could put people off before they’ve even had the chance to apply, well that’s exactly what we are doing when we say you have to be in Brighton. Immediately there is huge amounts of talent that are being cut out of the equation by insisting on that. So yes, totally get that.
Paul: Sorry Marcus were you going to say something?
Marcus: Yes, you briefly alluded earlier—because you were talking about ClearLeft growing to 20/21 people—that you were finding it possible that there were small issues with that. We did, we got up to 19 people and frankly it didn’t work. I get what you were saying earlier about not knowing what was going on. That happened all the time. We just felt like we were losing control and I am delighted that we are back down to being a smaller group of people again. Tell us about your experience of that. Why are you finding it difficult, what are the issues? I am wondering whether it’s the same we had.
Jeremy: I think it sounds very similar to the issues you were having. It’s funny I remember talking to Kelly Goto about this years and years ago because she’s been running an agency for a long time. And her experience was that you are hiring slowly but surely from 6 people to 7, from 7 to 8 and from 8 to 9, maybe one person every six months or a year perhaps. And her experience was that when you get to about 11 or 12 you basically want to leap-frog up to the early 20’s because in those teens you have all of the overhead of having to manage more people without getting the benefit of having more people on separate teams doing the work. Basically you have to introduce much more ops people. People doing the admin stuff, people making sure that things are going smoothly behind the scenes. In the building, with the finances, with new hires, all of these things that aren’t making websites. The things that aren’t design, UX, front end development but they are really important. And when you are smaller you can do those things on the side, it can be somebody’s 25% job to do that stuff or you can have one person that does all that stuff, but by the time you hit those larger numbers you have to get people dedicated to those tasks. And if you have people dedicated to those tasks and you are around the 14/15 point, the ratio of people doing ops and people doing client work is a bit off. And so that’s why Kelly was recommending you jump to the 20/21.
And maybe unconsciously we did that because the last couple of years we ramped up. We went from 12/13/14 and within an 18 month period we went 15/16/17/18. We hired faster and faster. Not a particular spurt but there were some days when I thought ‘Wait a minute. How did we get to be this many people?’ And there’s always going to be growing pains and we had the growing pains up to a certain extent I think we have still got them but I also feel like we’ve had issues but we are coming through it and figuring out what works and what doesn’t and where the pain points are, how to try and smooth over those pain points. Still plenty of issues around communication stuff and stuff like that. Again I think a lot of it comes down to what’s explicit and what’s tacit and realising that too much of what we relied on in the past was unspoken, was implicit and we need to get things out in the open. And so we’ve actively been working on that, bringing someone from the outside to run workshops on figuring out roles. Now roles aren’t the same as job titles but you can get that one person does quite a few different roles within a company or one role that’s shared between multiple people, but if you don’t explicitly talk about this stuff then someone is assuming someone else has that role. Or someone is assuming that it’s their role to do something when actually someone else thought it was their role. So too much was being left unsaid and we are still figuring this out and we’ve gone through exercises asking what roles we would like to have. This idea that what you want to be accountable for versus what you want to be responsible for versus what you want to be informed about. There is this idea, the RACI model. So figuring out what you are happy to be informed about, what you want to be responsible for and what you are actually accountable for. What are the things where the buck stops with you? And if you don’t have the explicit knowledge about that, ‘Where does the buck stop on hiring? Where does the buck stop on finances? Where does the buck stop on any of this stuff?’ too much is being left unsaid and too much is ‘Oh I thought you were going to do that’ or ‘I thought that was somebody else’s job’ or ‘I thought that was my job’ and it turns out it wasn’t. There is a lot of wasted effort going on.
So all of these things came up particularly as we grew and as we hit those larger numbers. And we are still figuring it out. I don’t want to claim that we went through that, we figured it out and now we’re all fine. We are still totally muddling through this stuff. But I am feeling a bit better now about the size. I was really nervous about the fast growth spurt maybe about a year or 18 months ago. It was like, how did we suddenly get to be 20 people, when did that happen, how did we turn into this size of company? But now I am feeling better about it, we can maintain what we want from the older style small agency ClearLeft model and get the benefits that come with having more people.
Paul: So let’s talk about that because that’s a really good point. You hit this pain point and you’re pushing through and Headscape went ‘Nah’ and turned round and went back. And I’ve taken that to the absolute extreme and going ‘I only want to be responsible for myself these days’. What do you see as the benefits that come with continuing to grow past that pain point? What are you hoping to get as ClearLeft gets to those bigger sizes.
Jeremy: That’s a good question. A lot of it is about the work- that we could take on work that if we were smaller we’d have to say sorry, we can’t do that, we’re not in a position to do that, we don’t have enough people to do that. But now we can pitch on work that maybe would have been outside our area or comfort zone in the past. So there’s that and also because it isn’t simply ‘Oh now we’ve got more designers, more front end developers, more UX people’ we’ve got people with dedicated tasks that make sure finances, HR, the office is being taken care of, that frees up people who are doing design, UX, front end development. It frees them up to take care of the work. And that’s nice. And when you are smaller there is a certain amount of everyone chipping in to help out with that stuff which is fine, but there is something to be said for having people dedicated to that work as well. But it’s tricky. I don’t think it’s better, I don’t think having more people and being a larger agency is being better—and these are all relative terms obviously as there is a difference between being a 12 person or a 20 person agencies, so it’s all completely relative—I don’t think there is anything particularly better or worse about agency sizes. There is probably huge advantages to be had in being a 100 person agency but I can see the disadvantages too and I don’t want to go there. So I guess what we are trying to do is have our cake and eat it too. We are trying to figure out ways of how we keep the things we like about being small and nimble and a small group of people and still get the benefits of having enough people to do more work and bring in more work. Maybe these things aren’t reconcilable. Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe you have to choose, I don’t know. I guess we will try and figure that out, but right now we are trying to have the best of both worlds and we will see if that’s even possible.
Paul: One question that keeps coming back to me for you three founders personally, do you feel that you benefit personally from a growing larger business? Or has it now become this thing in its own right that you have to nurture and encourage because there are so many members of staff on it? Because that’s partly the point I have got to was going ‘I feel like I am running this for its sake, rather than running it to facilitate the life that I want to live’. Which is very selfish of me, I fully admit. But I am interested whether you personally feel like you get more out of it the larger it becomes?
Jeremy: I think there’s more of everything because the pressure is definitely greater the larger it becomes. But then the rewards are greater, or are potentially greater. So it’s like everything is ramped up. The highs get higher and the lows get lower. In the last couple of years there has been more growth than in our history before. We moved into a new building, bought a building that was a big deal. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of risk. And the lows were pretty low. For me, for Richard, for Andy. That pressure. But to be honest that pressure was always there. As soon as you take on your first hire you are responsible for somebody. You are responsible for them putting food on the table. You are paying their salary and if you screw up it’s not just you who suffers now, other people suffer now too. And it’s the same pressure whether it’s one person or twenty people. Still, the more people you are talking about the pressure feels bigger.
Paul: The more work you’ve got to bring in for a start.
Paul: Talking about the coding and that side of things, do you ever feel that you are losing something, because you are not doing coding all the time, every day, does that create a fear in you of losing that skillset and are you comfortable with this idea of not really knowing what you do anymore? Because that strikes me as one of the things that comes with running a larger company is your job becomes more and more hard to define and you feel like you are losing the skillset that got you there in the first place.
Jeremy: I definitely went through a bit of a crisis of worrying about that as I started to do less and less of the client work myself and left that to other people. Certainly ‘Are my skills going to atrophy and I will become a dinosaur? I won’t know what the latest and greatest stuff in front end development is.’
I have kind of gotten over that. In some cases it’s the opposite because what I do spend a lot of my time doing is keeping up to date with stuff. I read ten times more than I write in a typical day. I am getting a lot more input than I do have output. I blog, I write, I do all the stuff and give presentations and that’s just a fraction compared to what I am taking in.
Jeremy: And I’ve met other developers who are at the coal face and writing code every day and I realise they are the ones that quite often are getting left behind because they are the ones that don’t have time to keep up with what is the latest in the world of SVG or what’s service worker or what’s the latest in this particular spec or this standard, what’s this browser just released. They have no idea because they don’t have time because they are working at the coal face and it’s the people who are constantly writing code without looking up that tend to become the dinosaurs I am afraid. Now that might be unfair but in any situation, in any company you have a set of tools or skills that work for you and you tend to keep using them and it’s hard to actively refresh those or get out there and push beyond your envelope and try out new stuff – you don’t have that luxury. And I do have that luxury. I’ve got personal projects where I can try stuff out and also I am kept informed of what everyone’s doing at ClearLeft so I can chuck my oar in and say ‘oh I’ve just read about this particular thing and why don’t you try this out’. Now I might not be the one to actually write the code to do it, but I will be pointing it out that it exists or there is the avenue for exploration.
Paul: You’ve become like the R&D department of ClearLeft.
Jeremy: Yes exactly, that’s the way I describe it. I am the one researching this stuff and then I feed it back in to the developers who might not have time to find out about this stuff. Let’s give you an example. Every Thursday we have a front end pow-wow at 4.00pm. We crack open some beers and get together in a room and all the front end developers—who might be working on completely separate projects, so will be spending most of their week with a visual designer, a UX person or whatever—get together with other front end developers although anyone is welcome to come along and we show what we are working on and we ask for opinions. We ask ‘What do you think about what I’ve written here? How would you do this?’ or ‘I’ve got this particular bug’ or what have you. And my contribution because maybe I haven’t been working on anything that week, would be ‘Well here’s stuff I have tagged on the link section of my blog on front end’ and we’d go through them and I would say ‘I highly recommend you check this out’. Or somebody is showing something they are working on and are trying to solve a problem and I’d go ‘Oh this reminds me of something I saw at a conference, or a video, or a blog post, or a mailing list post. Let me dig that out’ and I give it to them and say ‘There maybe that will help you’.
So yes it is like the R&D department although the other people at ClearLeft, particularly the front end, they are machines and they do stuff outside of client work as well and so it feels like every front end developer at ClearLeft are the R&D department because they are all focused on tracking down particular things and keeping abreast of particular technologies.
But yes, going back to the question I definitely had that fear for a while that I was going to atrophy and become out of date. And I have come to realise now that’s not the problem at all. And if anything by trying to combat that feeling by just doing work all the time, constantly being at the coal face you run the risk of actually atrophying and losing your skills because you just keep using the same skills and don’t update them over time. So I’ve gotten over that basically and I no longer have that concern. I will say though that if I didn’t have personal projects – I have my own website, I have got Huffduffer, and this Irish music website I run. If I didn’t have those to experiment with, try stuff out, I think it would be tougher.
Paul: I can totally testify to what you are saying as well because of course I have gone in the opposite direction. I was the R&D department of Headscape and now I am having to do the work which is a shock to my system. And it is true, I am having to fight much harder to get time to set aside for working on and keeping up to date with stuff and reading and all the rest of the stuff. So I can totally see where you are coming from.
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Alright, Marcus. Do you have a joke for us?
Marcus: I’ll make it a quick one as we are going over. I am sure I’ve said this one before but it’s a goodie.
‘I was raised as an only child which really annoyed my sister’.
There you go.
Paul: You haven’t done that one before and I actually quite like that one. Jeremy, thank you very much. For someone who knows nothing about growing your own business you certainly have had some really good stuff in there, so thank you very much.
Jeremy: I should probably caveat everything I said with ‘This was entirely my own opinion and other opinions at ClearLeft are also available’.
Marcus: …and not the opinion of ClearLeft.
Jeremy: I can imagine Andy and Richard listening with horror to everything I have said.
Paul: Well it’s Andy’s fault. He volunteered you for this, so…
Jeremy: That’s cause he’s busy doing the business stuff!
Paul: Very good point. Alright, thank you very much for joining us Jeremy. We will be back next week. I am no idea what we are talking about but I am sure it will be very good and we will have a wonderful guest on. But until then thanks for listening.