The Founders Club and Meaningful Work

WP Engine and Meaningful WorkI was at a PHP meetup with Jason and Mark last week to see about meeting some developers to hire.  It can take months to hire, and since we’re growing (really fast) we need to have hiring conversations all the time in order to keep up with the company. The sooner we meet someone, the better.

We all started playing pool.  Jason and Mark are pretty great at pool, and I’m average :-).  As the party winds down, and the open bar closed, Jason and I started drinking gin and tonic and talking about growing a startup and what it means to both of us personally to have work that we find meaningful to our lives.

I was able to share my story of Rheumatoid Arthritis, which became pretty obvious when I was limping around the bar a bit, and my neck looked like it was fused together.  That’s one of those conversations that’s cool to have with people as I get to know them.  It’s a story that I don’t tell everyone personally, but the people I do tell are important.  Jason asked a few questions, but in general just gave me the opportunity to share an important part of my life.

The fact that I am having this conversation with my Founder, and my boss, is a good sign. Everybody has been through painful periods, so being able to relate those times with colleagues/bosses can strengthen relationships.  I really value the ability to have an honest and introspective conversation with the people I’m close to, and this counts my professional relationships as well.  Having an earnest and open conversation with Jason at a bar on 6th street was a significant moment for me that week.

At some point the conversation drifted to startups and doing work that matters.  The process of finding work that matters to me has been a theme in my life this year, so I started asking questions to learn about Jason’s work.

One of the questions that I asked him was about how founders like Andrew Warner, and Adii Pienaar of WooThemes, Peldi Guillizzoni of Balsamiq, Amy Hoy, and then Jason form the club that they have together.  I was thinking specifically about the camaraderie that Andrew expressed with Jason in their most recent Mixergy interview.  Andrew said, “Jason, you’re a friend, you could wake me up with a phone call in the middle of the night and I’d make a pot of coffee to wake myself up to hear what you had to say.”

I asked Jason if those strong relationships are the result of growing selling companies and “joining the club” of successful entrepreneurs.  His answer was pretty surprising.

He said that while, yes, there sorta is “a club” the reason they’ve all bonded the way that they have is more because they’ve each bared their souls and shared the messy process on their blogs.  They’re friends because they’ve all found their voice online and shared their entrepreneurial stories with the rest of the internet.  Less “Founder’s Circle,” and more Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920’s diving into one another’s writing.  Yes, either comparison is pretty damn flattering.

Here’s where this club is cool.

When we talk about entrepreneurs finding success, we talk about the ways they became better versions of themselves first, and successful in business as a result.  In order for an entrepreneur to become successful, and to make lots of money as a result, he or she must continue growing as a human.  My favorite example of this right now is Robert LoCascio’s Mixergy interview.   I also think that if growth stops at any point along the way, then chances are, the business growth stops as well.

Let me phrase that idea differently…  

The more self-actualized and genuine an entrepreneur becomes, the more money they stand to make, and this is an infinite process.

That’s a belief that I have.  And I’m not sure how Jason would phrase it, but I see evidence in the blogs he writes that he believes something similar.

I think the process looks like this: The more honest you are with yourself first, then you become more honest and open with others.  Then you start feeling more genuine all the time and find yourself connecting with more and more people who are doing work you find meaningful.  Then you find an opportunity to work with those people.   And once you’re doing work that matters to you, with people you admire, you’ll suddenly begin enjoying a greater level of success than before.  So you’re happier because you’re doing work that matters, with people you respect, and suddenly you’re waking up and going to sleep really happy about how you spent your time that day.  And now, since you’re happier in your work, you’re probably doing a better job, so you’re probably making more money all at once.  This becomes a vicious cycle of positivity, and you start looking back every 6 months and saying, “Damn, this 6 months was better than the last, and that 6 months was better than the one before that!”  And that’s an awesome way to live your life.

That’s been true for me the last 6 months, and having been through layoffs at a well-paying, but meaningless job before this one, when I look back over my shoulder, I’m pumped about where I’ve come, and where I am today.

I could have just had all that floating around in my head, or maybe I just wrote a blog post about those thoughts at some point.  But I actually got to talk to Jason about it, and that made the evening for me.  Jason gave the opportunity to share that bit about how working at WP Engine has made me feel and what it has meant for me.  Waking up in the morning excited and ready to go to work each day means a lot to me. (I think it should mean a lot to everyone.)

I told Jason, the work we’re doing at WP Engine makes me happy to get to work in the morning.  I feel like the work and the company actually matters.  I feel like the work that I am doing contributes something important.

When I said all that, Jason exhaled all of his founder stress for just a moment and said, “That’s good.”  As if he was still worried about the success or failure of his company, and my small story was a tiny mile-marker that he was doing something right.

My feelings about my work and the company mattered to him.  They were important to how he measured the company on some level.

Yes, we’ve got big graphs that show our revenue projections, and they are looking really really good right now.  And I’m sure that absent those positive revenue projections, my particular affirmation might have gotten lost in the chaos.  But all told, I still think it would have been significant to him, and I still think that he would have been happy to hear one of his employees talk frankly about what is important and valuable and good about the company they both work in.  I still think it would have been meaningful to this particular founder.

And the fact that it was meaningful to him, made it meaningful to me.

Because at the end of the day, I’ve got a lot of my own dreams and places that I want to go.  And I want to make sure that while I’m getting there, the people that I’m working with and learning from are the type of people I can have this sort of a conversation with.

If there is a club of founders who can connect with their audience in a blog or a video interview, and who can connect with their customers and employees as well; that’s the type of club that I’d like to join one of these days.  Call it “club meaningful work,” and we all roll up our sleeves to improve our little corner of the world.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.


    • Johnson, I love your definition of an entrepreneur. I've always preferred to embody my work, and not have a clear line that I draw between "on the clock" vs. "off the clock." To me, it's all life, and I love living. When I'm working late on a Friday evening at 9PM, there's usually no place I'd rather be than working hard to build something that matters, with people that I admire.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Great post Austin. Love the "I think the process looks like this" paragraph and very much believe that the process of being authentic and genuine is a never-ending process – as an entrepreneur and as a human being trying to live life bigger than themselves.

    • Thanks Joleen. I agree, being authentic and genuine never really ends. We always have more to do and more ways to grow. That's why I love working with entrepreneurs who want to grow companies, because, by definition, they're always looking for new ways to be a bit better. And it rubs off on the rest of us 🙂

  • Austin, its great to see how you're growing, and I am excited for you as new opportunities are opening up for you. Startups are addictive. Startups that are true to who you are are even more so. Best of luck with your work and future!

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