Not fitting in fits us perfectly.
My career in web design started by working out of my boss’ home with 5 other people in 2001. It was as bad as it sounds. And something about the way they did things didn’t sit well with me. High volume and fast turnaround was the name of the game. I had the sense the web could mean so much more. So when they fired me for “not fitting in,” I took the opportunity to do things my way. It was refreshing.
I never wanted to start a business. I just wanted to get it right.
My goal was to deliver a more effective digital experience than “make it look pretty and do it fast.” So I jumped on all the offerings that were gaining momentum at the time: PPC campaigns, SEO, blogging, social media, branding—and even print media. Everything a “blended agency” was supposed to do. I had one foot in my business and one eye on big agencies struggling to react to the internet era.
“What do you do best?” asked a prospect in a memorable pitch meeting.
I froze in my tracks. I couldn’t answer. I murmured something that probably didn’t make sense to anyone but me. I was hiding.
I didn’t win that project. And it was a big one. All the things I had hoped would make my agency better were hurting it. I was lost. As a company we just weren't very good at any particular thing and the projects we lost were proof.
I knew I had to change. Or I just wouldn’t be able to deliver on the promise of what I knew the internet could do for businesses and people alike.
It was time to find myself.
You know all that business talk about having a mission and values? Well it’s true. And it works. I’m not talking about the “We believe in customer service” kind of stuff. But the real, personal, disruptive kind of values.
It took me several years and the help from a handful of wonderful coaches and team members to finally see a clear picture. I decided to look inward. And where we landed now defines us. I call it the Code—a set of actionable truths that now hold us together.
Know the problem.
This is not about collecting specs. It’s about understanding your business challenge—from every angle. Only then can we truly do our best work.
Be structured, but flexible.
Even creativity needs boundaries. Our process gives us focus. And we like to keep our build phases bite sized. That means we're structured but open for change.
Work in small teams.
Small teams are better optimized for greater effectiveness and efficiency. And our clients are collaborators, not critics. They're there every step of the way.
Be dangerously detailed.
We understand how important it is to begin with an acute focus on the objectives. Even the smallest detail can affect the outcome.
Be tough on the work, not each other.
We share, refine, mold, and build with a demanding nature that strives for the best outcomes. But our respect for each other and our clients never diminishes.
Measure what matters.
Even though we build with technology, our focus is on how people use it. So our QA process doesn’t just cover code best practices. We’re optimizing for the user experience.
Once the Code was exposed, it was easy to see the things we were doing that didn’t add up. “Let’s keep going,” I told the team.
We pushed forward.
One plus one
With a new perspective, I easily saw where we were getting in our own way. It felt natural to continue the change the Code set in motion.
Changing how we work.
The Code caused a shift in our thinking. The reality is, we’re not selling time, we’re selling outcomes. We’re now focused on results, not punching the clock. We’re breaking our work into smaller chunks, giving us the ability to manage the scope as we go and remain agile so we can change direction when we need to. Building in small cycles also means we can focus our entire team on the project, combining our disciplines around well-defined goals and working within a timeline that pushes us to solve problems quickly.
From everything we learned in our quest to build digital products people love to use, it became apparent we were no longer a full service digital agency. We don’t want to be the kind of company that says they’re great at everything. In order for us to do our best work, we needed constraint.
The only way to move forward was to break apart.
The agency we grew up in, Rise, would move on to serve leaders who need a strategy to differentiate their business. The group here, now a completely separate company, is called Second Form.
The road ahead
Looking back, the decision to split made things clear again. I’m reminded of how the most successful companies only try to tackle a few problems, but solve them in a really compelling way. That’s worked for us. More importantly, this approach is working for our clients, too. By focusing only on what we do best, we help them do the same. And together, we can make something big.
Think small, stay focused.