When Justin and I started Cause of a Kind, we had the goal of building a business. Anyone that knows our history knew us as Membo, a way for people to earn rewards at coffee shops, or maybe as an auction platform where celebrities donated time for charities, or maybe the t-shirt company for the environment with a kick ass video call
Lessons. I can't say that Justin and I had the burning desire to build anything except, utopia.
I recall an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show with Derrick Sivers, founder of CD Baby, where he talks about building a business as the opportunity to build your own little utopia. I believe that when Justin and I decided to build this thing, the one thing we knew was that we wanted to build the kind of company we dreamed of working for. For the past five years, we struggled to figure out how to actually build a product people would pay us for that would allow us to grow from two guys with laptops to an organization, a universe, a culture--our version of utopia.
Today we have somewhere in the order of 10 employees, all still contractors, but this team feels like our kind of people, the beginnings of a culture are forming. The problem here is we never had the opportunity to actually think about the culture we want to have. One disadvantage of being childhood friends as Justin and I have been is we leave a lot of things unsaid, there's a lot of context to this thing that Justin and I just share in our unspoken value systems. That's not to say we don't have plenty of disagreements, but when it comes to where we want to be, what this thing called Cause of a Kind should feel like, we agree so deeply in the fabric of our beings we never wrote much about it at all. At this point we would love to share our north stars with you all, what our version of work utopia looks like.
Pablo Picasso famously said "good artists borrow, great artists steal," and this document is no different. You are going to find many of the values are stolen from books and other companies. This is the first value because generally inspiration can come from anywhere. Most of what we do is stolen, stolen designs, stolen packages, stolen code. In our business this can manifest itself as copy pasta. This embodies the idea of borrowing. What we hope to do here is find inspiration from other frameworks, packages, and languages, but then take those ideas and make them our own.
The world is full of agencies with developers that can only use a fully baked CMS and install packages and scripts. This is not the type of agency we want to be. We seek other's code to help us learn, to help us achieve a certain velocity, but truly great work that brings us joy only comes when we fully understand where other's have been and can take those ideas and build better products for our customers from them. We seek to build bespoke solutions, custom tailored to our customers needs. We should take the time to gain deeper understanding of our tools so we can steal these ideas and build better tools of our own.
We are being defined by the work we do rather than the work we want to do. Everyone in our organization tries to do their best work, but ultimately the only thing that matters is the work that gets shipped to clients. Justin and I have quite lofty goals around general internal process, compensation, and work life balance for the team. The reality is we want to only take on difficult, interesting projects that stimulate the team. But we also want people to be able to do things like work a four day work week all year round, forever and not time track their time anymore.
We have a deep appreciation for freedom for each of you. In "Let My People Go Surfing," by Yvon Chounard founder of Patagonia he talks about you not being able to plan to go surfing. You go surfing when there's waves! Justin and I have a storied history of outdoor pursuits, but whatever your passion be, you can't always plan for the right moment to do them. In a lot of ways agencies and especially creative ones can be the anti-freedom. The vision of developers coding and debugging late into the night is not far from the norm when perfect work needs to be delivered on tight deadlines. How can we ever have freedom when we are slaves to our project schedule?
Mastery is how we do this. What is the difference between a master and an apprentice? The apprentice seeks to do good work, but a master actually delivers it consistently. The apprentice has desires, the master can bring those desires to life. The intentions do not matter, the end product is all the client sees. When we can deliver perfection, we achieve mastery, and with that comes freedom. When Steve Jobs was seeking a logo for his NEXT computer, he hired a famous designer. He asked for three versions in a variety of colors. The designer responded "I will give you one version, and if you like it you will pay me, and if you don't like it, you will still pay me." Jobs hired him and used the logo. This is the level of confidence I want to have in our company, when we are excellent, we call the shots. When we have our clients trust that we don't just have the best of intentions but can actually deliver we are free.
This one, we're stealing from Netflix. One of the aspects of Netflix's culture is an absolute maniacal devotion to the idea of no rules. We want you all to have the freedom and confidence to make decisions for yourselves. Organizations that rely on bureaucracy not only spend a ton of money on middle management that simply acts as a relay, they also cannot move fast enough. The time we spend seeking instructions is less time we have to actually think of solutions. As the person with the most context, you will always have more information than any manager who simply acts as the person to take blame for poor decisions.
However, we would like to set the standard now, if you write the code, you take responsibility for that code cradle to grave. Get clarity on an issue from the source, understand the problem, seek advice from those more experienced, but you own the decision. Make good decisions and you will thrive here, make bad one's and you will learn from them, ask a middle manager to make a decision for you and we can show you the door.
Mike and I have been working professionally for startups, agencies, enterprise brand and private businesses, combined for over 30 years. I myself, have been working, non stop since I was a Caddy at 13 years old. One thing we have always felt, was like a number. Like a unit in some large people capital equation. Easily replaceable, but "please don't go, well raise your salary and give you a promotion..." Despite a companies attempt to create "culture" and an environment worth spending the majority of our waking lives in, we both could not help but feel like no one was ever meaningfully listening. We have seen star employees, burn out. Truly talented individuals, become disgruntled and careless. We have seen leaders throw their hands up and disclaim their position, as if they didn't have a team looking to them, like the Patriots look to Belichick for soul and spirit to get the job done.
We decided to make a change at Cause of a Kind. We have a team. Sure. But they slowly become family. Its not the birthday wishes, or the congratulations on the yearly anniversary. Its an obsession with their mental health. We are practitioners ourselves. Surgeons in an operating room, calculating the mental presence, emotional state, and focus of every professional in the room around us. Every single person serves a purpose in the operating room. If even one individual is having an off day, fatigued, labored, or just doesn't seem as spunky, the surgeon reserves the right to ask his team member to sub out. A patients life, depends on it. We treat our customers, like patients at Cause of a Kind. Every customer comes to us looking for solutions to problems. We fancy ourselves surgeons or more often a Navy SEAL team, infiltrating frictionlessly to accomplish a mission with as little disruption, harm and notice, as possible. In order to achieve this level of excellence, Mike and I are watching the spirit of every team member.
To us, we always hoped our middle managers and team leaders in our former paths would have taken note of us, as humans. On our down days. On our slow days. To check in with us as humans and lead us personally as well as professionally. It would have made a difference in the short and long term.
Justin and I met each other through rock climbing. We've spent most of our lives dirt bagging from one wall to the next with our friends. One of the things that rock climbing teaches you, is that when the mind falls apart the body follows. Doing big, hard, scary climbs requires that you can keep this fear and anxiety at bay so your body can do what you've been training to do. Creativity is no different. When the pressure from a project sets in, mistakes start to happen. Deadlines and lofty demands and expanding scopes are all there to fuck with your head and get you to mess up. If you let these things get to you, you will falter, we will falter.
On one particularly long climb in the Adirondacks I remember being on a relatively easy climb pitched at about 120 degrees less than dead vertical but steep enough that you had to climb. Slabs like this are notorious for having little to no places to secure protection as you ascend the wall. A fall on one usually means you will slide down the wall like a piece of cheese on a cheese grater for quite some distance. On one such climb I remember being 110 feet up a pitch, looking back at a piece of protection fifty feet below me, placed in a hollow flake. Normally hollow flakes are not good to place protection as they are prone to breaking under the force of a fall, but on this climb, it's all that was there, and I figured at least it will slow me down.
If you do the geometry, being 50 feet above your gear means you're going to fall twice that distance, at least 100 feet in this case, plus the stretch in the rope. We were well over 300 feet off the deck so there was no chance of hitting the ground, but that kind of fall would leave you pretty messed up and that's assuming the hollow flake holds, which I was fairly certain it would not. My friend, who was belaying me, shouts up, how are you doing up there? I look back down the long sea of cheese grater below, smile and say "just shitting my pants up here, but I'm good!"
We are going to find ourselves in over our heads occasionally, in business, just the same. We will have budgets go upside down, clients will have insane demands, and we will try to hit tight deadlines and miss. This is the price of doing work that is worth doing. Big, interesting, complex problems are supposed to challenge us, they're supposed to push us to the limit, but that's why we do this work. We aren't here to build the same cookie cutter websites over and over again. We're here to make strong impacts on peoples lives and businesses. This is thrilling, but also scary. We will be run out, you will feel the fear creep in and that's when it's time to stop and remember that our likelihood of hitting the deck is much higher when we lose our composure. As the owners we are going to do our best to shield you from the external pressures, but they will be there, it's up to us to have grace under pressure. It's up to us to know when we are using our abilities fully we will succeed and make it to the top.
You will also have a myriad of personal difficulties and crises. These things are a part of life and we will not all experience them collectively. Grace under pressure means we can leave these things behind when we get to the keyboard. If you feel the weight is too great, it's better to step away and take some time. Just like with rock climbing, starting up a climb with the wrong head space means the climb is over before it has started. So take care of yourself, get your head clear, then begin the climb again.
In 2012, a LivingSocial email appeared in my Inbox. "Trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro". For me, it would end up being the most radical achievement of my early twenties. A defining experience for me as a human. So much about the experience has shaped me, from the work ethic and training requirements, to the logistics and organization needed for a successful expedition and life. I put everything I had into that trip. I even turned it into a philanthropic endeavour, partnered with a local not-for-profit, and put cause on my back for some additional weight, as if I didnt already have enough on my plate. There are countless life lessons that I acquired from this trip, but one specifically that stands out.
I would successfully summit Kilimanjaro on June 3rd, 2012, with my guide named Mudi. A local Tanzanian guide who had climbed Kilimanjaro, successfully, 299 times prior. I would be his 300th successful trip. I was also alone. Just me and Mudi. I guess no one else signed up for the LivingSocial deal. My complete trust in this man that I had never met and could barely communicate with. At the top of Africa, as close to heaven as you possibly can get, you cannot help but question your purpose in this world. In real time.
As quickly as the summit moment came, it was time to reverse the trek and descend. As always, the summit is only the halfway point. The minute you turn you back to it, it becomes a memory.
In my glory, literally above the clouds, decending the unstable shale of a dormant volcano, and passing through the alpine desert, I saw two young women sitting on a rock. One obviously in discomfort, but maybe 10 hours from the summit and maybe 30 minutes from high camp, where one would spend only a few hours to rest before a summit attempt. My guide Mudi, looked at me and said, lets take a break and sit with them, as if he could tell from miles away, exactly what the problem was. We sat down, they bagan a conversation in Swahili, and before I knew what was happening, the young woman with clear distress, took her shoes off to reveal blisters on the soles of her feet that covered 60 to 70%, respectively. 6 days from a hospital or medical service, no matter what is done. There is no rescue option available, unless you are a wealthy American and can afford a helicopter to come rescue you. Stuck. Up shits creek and no one else stopping to help. It turns out that she was actually on a school trip, and her own classmates and teachers, left her there to wait for them. Its a dog eat dog world, I guess.
If you know me personally, I am always prepared. I am a dialed, well trained, clear headed and well educated outdoorsman, and I never leave home without enough supplies to get me in and out of harms way, autonomously. Even just local trips to the supermarket, I look at as missions. I pride myself on being prepared. I am also a wilderness medic and live for this shit.
I was meant to stop with Mudi. I would end up providing medical attention, draining and dressing supplies, antibiotics that I didn't need any more, providing wound care, food, water, smiles, comfort and provided encouragement, in what would be a horrific continuation. Up or down, considering, she was only half way... But, the part that truly shaped me was realizing I wouldn't have stopped if it was not for Mudi. I may not have even said hello to a struggling fellow human. I was simply in my bliss from my own path.
What made Mudi exceptional, was not his fitness. It was his developed accumen to his craft and the attention to detail he had. A skill that comes with mastery. It was his ability to sense, assess, execute and smile entirely through everything. All along, on the decent, he would remind me of moments on the ascent, where his intuition would kick in for me as his client. Always a step ahead, and always ready to lift me, hydrate me, distract me, nurish me, all without me knowing.
It is from then on, that I opertate with perifery. As a business owner, I am Mudi. It is my absolute mission, to be aware of everyone in and around my organization.
It is also critical ethos for each of the team members within Cause of a Kind. It is as much my role, as it is yours, to operate with humanity and humility. You are the one on the ground with your team members. You are the one creating intimate relationships and spending your time with your team members. I implore you to pause. To really listen. Everyone is a player, but everyone is also a coach and you are empowered to care deeply for the people around you. It makes a huge difference. Overcome tunnel vision. The team around you needs you, as much as you need them.
Mike and I have worked at quite a few different places, in quite a few roles. In all that time, we have had managers that were mentors, and managers that were dementors. We have had leaders that were motivating and focused and others that were hacks and pretending. We have worked for CEO's that rally team spirit and inspire, and CEO's that toil and demotivate.
I once worked for a CEO, that wished failure on me. At my going away happy hour, surrounded by my friends, colleagues and team members, all wishing me well to my next endeavor, the CEO went out of his way to discourage me publically, wish failure upon me, and banned me from ever participating with the comapny ever again.
Why? Because I claimed responsibility for the business. I didnt care about the money, or the rigor, or the benefits, or the vacation time, or the culture. I cared relentlessly about the customer and about my team. The folks that made the job worth working on, daily. I would have done anything for that business, because I was blindly loyal and completely all in. I felt as though it was my own business and anything and everything I could do to improve the team and the customer experience, I did.
Along the way, I developed an ego about it. After 7 years of tenure at a business that was only 10 years old at the time, and where I was employee number 7, I had definitely developed an ego. That is where I was immature on my own. I didnt remain humble. But neither did my CEO. Instead of offering mentorship, I was met with hostility. Instead of coaching and influencing, I was met with disapproval.
At Cause of a Kind, we want to inspire. We want to develop individuals into team players and build community within our Lab. We want you to do your best work, receive the recognition you independently require, and nurture your contributions with praise and humility. We will demonstrate Extreme Ownership, so you have a roadmap yourself.
At Cause of a Kind, we focus on a concept introduced by Netflix, referred to as "Talent Density". The easiest way to understand this concept is to look at a professional sports team. In sports, a team of individual top performers is assembled through rigorous testing, relentless physical demand, cohesiveness with other top players and no individual super stars. The goal is to create the best team possible to win games, keep fans entertained and to keep ticket sales high. The players should never get to comfortable, but should feel that they have incredible job security as long as they remain healthy, committed to the progression of the team, and supportive of other teammates encouraging them to achieve as well.
We operate the COAKengineering team in the exact same way. It is our goal to provide the world with impressively high quality product, performed by the absolute best talent we can attract, and in world class fashion. Just like an elite sports team, each team member has to perform at an incredibly high level. There is no room for underperformance.
"Talent Density" is stacking the team with top performers. In a family, you adjust and compensate if a family member is in duress or under performing or under contributing. Cause of a Kind, is not a family. It's just a fact of performance at a super high level. Emotions aside, we want COAK engineers to support each other, root for each other, and progress each other, all understanding that the contributions made are for the progression of Cause of a Kind and the mission requires absolutle talent.