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Asking What It Means to Slow your Hustle Down and Take a Breather

Taking a Break to Take it All In

“How long have you been here?

 

Less than a year?

 

That’s not a super long time for everything that’s happened….”

 

 

Have you ever gotten a gut-check on your ambition? A little message from the world around you that suggested it would actually be ok for you to slow down and take a breath first?

That sort of feedback is really hard for those of us who are making our careers in the hard-driving tech industry. Working 10-12 (and more) hour days, 6 or 7 days a week is a badge of honor, and there is so much talking and tweeting about #hustle and #startuplife that it can be hard to tell the difference between posturing and working round the close because shit needs getting done.

Many of us in tech startups have a similar drive. We actively seek out opportunities that will grow our companies, and grow our careers as a result. We seek opportunities, and we follow through on them.

The more things we can build with our efforts, the more successful we become, the grander our organizations can become, and the more money we are able to make. The better I can perform for WP Engine, the more I can learn, the bigger an impact I can have, and the more I can measure it, the bigger my career gets.

When you’ve pushed for years and years to get to a place of career growth, you get used to that as a state of being. And then it can be hard to find a bit of balance because you start believing that the absurd level of hustle is essential.  The voice in your head says, “Without absurd hustle, I simply wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am today.”

...Therefore, without more absurd hustle, I won’t be able to keep moving forward to where I want to be.

In my head, I have this voice that tells me that if I don’t keep pushing hard for more, I’ll lose ground, and end up back at square one. It’s incredibly motivating, but it’s also exhausting. In the past few months, since arriving in San Francisco, I’ve been wondering if it might actually be permissible (yes, that’s the word to describe it) to stop, look around, and let myself catch up with myself.

“How long have you been here? Less than a year….?”

Translation: “Austin, I hear you pushing for more, but 1) here’s a little perspective for you about how much time things actually take, 2) you’ve actually moved plenty fast, and 3) slowing down and taking a breather isn’t a crime, and you may be glad you did…

Last week on a phone call, Jason asked me that question. I had some new ideas that probably would have added more responsibilities and more work to my plate. I was angling for growth for myself, and growth that would tie into WP Engine’s. As companies grow quickly, they often create big opportunities for employees and founders to grow as well, and I look actively for those openings. I want to be there when they happen so I’m able to turn them into potential opportunities.

In my head, opportunity knocks once, and you sure as shit better be ready to answer. If you’re not, you miss out for good. And there seem to be a million opportunities for me to add things to my plate right now.

In my head, there is always more work to be done, and not enough time to do it.

And as I write this post, I wonder if it is possible for me to be happy with what I’ve got for the time being, and then spend some months rounding out my life a bit.

Ben mentioned to me several times that there is a lot to be said for learning how to execute at your craft, and that may mean spending time just doing your work for a few years.

But not driving hard towards the future is something that I think I’d actually have to *learn* how to do.

Since graduating college, I’ve discovered a direct relationship between the things that I can pull off and the work I’ll be allowed to do in the future. The more I do now, the more I’ll be able to do later.

Conversely, if I miss an opportunity to grow now, then I may miss an opportunity I want later. At least, that’s what the voice in my head tells me.

If you’re reading my blog, I suspect you relate on some level. You want the most, the best, the biggest possible, and you know that what you have right now doesn’t match it yet. You haven’t made it yet. You can’t be satisfied yet. You can’t let up or relax yet. You’ve still got another hill to climb, and a battle to fight inside yourself, and a victory to not celebrate because you’ve got to wake up again in the morning in hot pursuit of the next growth opportunity.

But what if you believed that the next opportunity was right around the corner? Would that make it ok for you to let the immediate go a bit, and focus your energy differently? Would you be able to relax a bit?

How does that affect what would otherwise be an incredibly all-or-nothing attitude about life? We either made it all, and climbed on the rocket ship as it was launching, or we fell back to earth, flat on our back, starting again from square one.

It’s been fear of never achieving escape velocity that drove me. Fear of continuing to have what I’d always had, but never really wanted, that kept me setting my alarm at 5AM for an early breakfast, and to start sending emails and writing before I had to be at work.

Fighting every day like my life depended on it. Fighting to get something that I knew I wanted out of life, fighting so that I could someday take a deep breath, look around, and be satisfied.

But what day is that satisfaction supposed to arrive?

Do you relate?

In the past couple of months, I’ve been hearing a different perspective from the world. The advice I keep getting suggests that it may actually be time to slow down for a bit and settle into the work I have before me. To slow down and let life catch up with me a bit. There isn’t a rush right now.

Maybe I don’t actually have to keep hustling so insistently right now. Maybe the ground isn’t going to fall out from underneath me, and maybe the world won’t leave me behind like I’m afraid of. That stability I wanted to create might be all around me at this point.

Maybe I’ve made it through the atmosphere, my heat shield has held up, and I’m now peacefully floating in zero gravity with the heavens welcoming above me, and the Earth smiling up at me.

Maybe this is a year to lay down a foundation.

The Question

All that leads me to the question, “When is it (is it ever?) ok to take your foot off the gas and relax your hustle?” Is there a right answer to this question?

Is it ok to loosen your grip on the steering wheel for a moment, and take a breather?

I think the answer is probably yes. I think it might be ok to rest my bones and my mind, and focus on just doing the job at hand for a while.

What have you all done when it was time to slow down for a bit?  How did you know it was ok to let up your pace for the moment?  Did you have a hard time giving yourself permission to let up?

 

Today, Jason Cohen used me as an example on his blog ASmartBear.com

This morning I woke up in Vegas ready to fly home from a conference only to discover on Twitter that Jason Cohen, the founder of WP Engine, had written about me on his blog, blog.asmartbear.com. The title of the post is, “Austin in San Francisco,” but the post is about his belief that startup companies should enable not only the founders, but the employees as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of Jason’s enablement since joining WP Engine over SXSWi 2012. I can honestly say that I’ve had more opportunity to build my own life than I had any reason to expect from joining someone else’s company. But I also know that Jason acted in his own self-interest by letting me loose to build as much as I could, as quickly as I could.

In his post, he mentions me coming out to the PHP meetup to film his talk rather than watch the Final Four on TV. All I remember thinking was that if given the chance to spend an evening with an entrepreneur like Jason, or watch TV, I knew that it was a simple choice, and that I was lucky to have the choice to make. I’ll soak up as much knowledge as possible, and am opportunistic to spend time around entrepreneurs I respect.

Something key to Jason’s philosophy also happened that evening. After the meetup, he and I were drinking Hendricks and Tonic and finishing some Nachos, and I remember telling him that everyone at WP Engine had the opportunity to inject something personally meaningful into their work every single day, and that not all companies give you that opportunity. When I told him that, he sighed very deeply, had a moment to himself, and said, “That’s good.” The company I’m part of enables all its employees to grow because Jason set out to make it that way from the beginning.

When I was discussing the viability of moving to San Francisco with Jason over breakfast at TacoDeli (the best $20 I’ve ever invested), I asked a ton of questions about how me moving to SF would be in the best interests of WP Engine, because I knew that had to be the first priority. If the company leadership wasn’t 110% convinced that having me in San Francisco would be a 10x win for the organization, I was going to be swimming uphill, and I didn’t want that. I wasn’t going to move if it wasn’t going to be good for the company, the devotion does go both ways.

Jason went through how the company would benefit, and then he told me something key. He said, “We have a ton of rockstars at WP Engine. People who could get a job at a lot of companies, and the way I see it, I can make one of three choices in how the company treats them.”

  1. We can hamper their growth because we’re afraid if people grow too much that they’ll leave. BUT, all that’s going to do is make talented people want to leave as quickly as possible, and nobody is happy while they’re actually working here so we don’t get their best work.
  2. We can do nothing either way. We don’t stop their growth, but we don’t help it either. People will be less anxious to leave, but once something that gives them a better opportunity comes along, they’ll disappear.
  3. We can pour as many resources into our employees as is humanly possible, and as much as they can handle. This strategy puts faith in the fact that everyone wants opportunities to learn and grow, and as long as the company can provide those opportunities, they’ll love working here, and do amazing work.

Jason said, “Nothing lasts forever, and nobody stays at a company forever. Since we know we can’t keep people forever, I choose to go with the 3rd option, because I think that will mean the least amount of turnover, the most loyalty, and the highest producing employees possible.”

We dwell on how startups enable founders to quit their day job and master their own destiny. But what about everyone else?

What about what they can control, how they want to grow and learn, how their personal goals might be fulfilled?

A startup must be an enabler, otherwise you’re just building another big company, exactly like the one you as a founder refused to devote your life to. In 2013, in the tech world, with our opportunities and capabilities, we must do more than just build another big company.

Thanks for letting me be part of this. Thanks for letting me enable the people I work with in return. You’ve set a high bar for entrepreneurship, and I appreciate the challenge. And yes, I love you guys too :-)

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

The Entrepreneurial Mindset – Mikey Trafton

Mikey Trafton is the founder of Blue Fish Development GroupFire Ant Software, an original investor in the Alamo Drafthouse, and mentors several Capital Factory startups. When Mikey and I met in 2012, he told me a few stories that distilled his motivation for entrepreneurship down into radically discrete elements that are so simple for us to apply in our day-to-day lives there is zero excuse not to. Things like how we do our laundry, or the work environment that we want to have.

Mikey calls the result of these motivations, “local optimizations.” As an entrepreneur, when Mikey wants to adapt a tiny area of his life, he evaluates his circumstances, isolates the element that he wants to be different, and then makes a change to create a situation that will serve his interests.

These local optimizations have been major players in Mikey’s life that led him to start his first company.

Mikey’s story tells me that “entrepreneurial mindset” can be attained. You or I can train ourselves to think and behave like the successful entrepreneurs that have build companies and created products that are changing our world.

Mikey told me that he started Blue Fish because,

“…I wanted to have a cool place to go to work every day. If someone else had started Blue Fish, and I had started working there right out of college, I wouldn’t have ever needed to start my own company.”

As soon as I heard Mikey say that, I thought, that boils entrepreneurship down to it’s essentials.

He’s not after a revolution.

He’s not on a wild crusade.

He’s using zero buzzwords.

Mikey is just stating an honest desire to have a great place to do work that matters with people who “get it.” When Mikey looked around, he couldn’t find a place that he liked to work, so he went and created his own place. He didn’t have to become an entrepreneur. But he did need to work in a certain environment in order to maximize his life. And he was unwilling to compromise those values.

Mikey was describing the results of a lifetime of “local optimizations,” slight modifications to his environment throughout his life that have made him into the entrepreneur that he is today. The same willful qualities that he describes made him a “bratty kid” also made him a “successful entrepreneur.”

Me, I’m a selfish person. I heard Mikey say those two sentences, and I started scheming how I could get more access to his mind so I could hear him tell his story and hopefully apply it to my life and efforts.

The interview is the result of that conversation

Here are the highlights of what we talk about:

  • The founding ideas behind the Midnight Cowboy Speakeasy
  • Why Mikey wanted to become an Entrepreneur in the first place
  • Minority owner in a company is something Mikey wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy
  • Started Blue Fish Development Group to be “an optimizer of my local environment”
  • Discovering that “going the extra mile” for his clients is a keystone motivator leads Mikey to start Blue Fish
  • “I just wanted a cool place to work” is the only justification Mikey needed to start a company
  • Sought to create a “get it” culture. A place where he want to work, and a place where his employees want to work there as well
  • First contract was with Sun Micosystems turned his idea into a 6-Figure Company overnight
  • His first attempt as an entrepreneur is met with a crisis when he doesn’t hire for cultural fit
  • Your company is only great if the people who work there also think it’s great
  • How to hire really badass developers who normally work in “product” companies in a consulting company
  • Turning down business for the sake of the culture
  • Tweaking the business model to attract the right people
  • How being “incredibly selfish” motivates Mikey to seek ways to locally optimize his environment in an entrepreneurial manner
  • “As a child, being selfish made me a brat. As an adult, I guess it makes me an entrepreneur.”
  • Asking “how” questions, not “why” or “who” questions
  • “Don’t compromise your values” vs. “Being a selfish jerk…”
  • Why a high need for approval makes Mikey a perfect leader for his company
  • “I’m not afraid to go try something if I think it will improve my happiness”
  • Also, “I’m even less afraid to remove things if I think they are getting in the way of my happiness.”
  • “I’m one of those people who believe rich people should pay more taxes…and I’m rich, so that belief technically hurts my wallet…”
  • “One of the things that makes me happiest is when one of my rockstar employees comes into my office and tells me they’re leaving to start their own thing or to be a CTO…that’s freaking awesome”
  • Mikey’s rule on relationships: they must be built on a spirit of mutual giving
  • The more you give, the more you get, and the world is a better place
  • “The rantings of a selfish man”
  • Being opportunistic and creating opportunities for yourself
  • The belief that you actually *can* create the life you want
  • Forget the 5 year plan…How do I prioritize for right now, and let the rest work itself out?
  • Not everybody has to be an entrepreneur, not even me…and I’m fine with that
  • Knowing what matters to you and being able to prioritize accordingly
  • Know what you care about and then prune the tree
  • I’d rather make less money and have a great work environment
  • “There’s two kinds of people in the world…”
  • “Giving myself permission to live the life that I wanted to live…”
  • Define your goals correctly: “The goal to make $100MM…that’s a messed up goal.”
  • Realize the core values of how you want to live your life, and your opportunities will balloon
  • “If Bluefish had existed when I graduated college and I had gotten a job there, I never would have started my own company…”
  • Summary, “Get to watch DVD player all day, and you’ll be happy.”

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Jack Dorsey on Editing His Ideas and Making Twitter + Square Happen

I love how he talks about the intentional, iterative, messy process he was willing to put himself through on the way to fully realizing his ideas. It makes me wonder what ideas are we all having that we’re not giving time enough to mature.

Notice also how clearly he can articulate the human perception of Square towards the end when he describes accepting payment as “primarily social” and articulates very clearly how important it was for him to make Square “trustworthy.” He breaks his ideas down to their atomic center, and then has the clarity to build around them. I’ve seen that pattern in the successful entrepreneurs I’ve gotten the chance to work with, so I think this truly is a pattern.

Let’s not make a cult out of failure

If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your styleThere’s a brand new PandoDaily post that glorifies failure in a way that I think is totally unhealthy and misses the point of learning from failures and mistakes. The point isn’t to focus on the failure, the point is to *stop* failing so you can *start* being successful. Those are two different mindsets and “ways of being,” and one doesn’t necessarily lead into the other.

I disagree with the post and rather than point to my own life to start this post from Joe Kraus of Google Venture explains why success is more valuable than failure better than I ever could.

TL;DR Let’s not make a cult of failure for its own sake. The amazing part of the PandoDaily story is not the colossal fuck-up, but the fact that the marine succeeded once, make a massive mistake that tore down all his work, didn’t get in his own way and give up after the failure, and then went on to succeed once again. Had he not succeeded a second time, that initial mistake would have defined his entire life. That failure would have been the thing that he believed he was, not the success that he later became.

I had a mentor of mine suggest to me me over an early morning breakfast, “Austin, at some point you may ask yourself if it’s possible to stop ‘failing in exchange for knowledge,’ and actually succeed while simultaneously enjoying your work and learning twice as much as when you fail.”

That was a defining moment in my life and those words have rippled to where I sit now two years later. Until that moment, I thought that the only path to knowledge was called “failure.” I didn’t honestly believe people who were successful learned as much as people who failed.  I simply think that’s a lie we tell ourselves now to hedge failures. We learn more from success than we ever do from failure. We learn how to succeed. We should not be in denial about that fact.

I’m still on the journey, but with a lot of progress behind me since that breakfast. I tell the story of my mentor not to point to position myself as the “model for success,” but merely to share my own journey learning the difference in my own psychology between failing and succeeding. I’ve come to believe that success is life-affirming in a way that failure often isn’t. Failure is a reminder that we’re human and we should stay humble. Failure often reminds us of things we forgot along the way.

Other times, like the time I got laid off from a miserable consulting job in 2011, what might appear to be failure from one angle, is actually the best thing that ever happened to us because it opens up a new opportunity. However, in that case, the story isn’t really the failure, it’s the success you find later on. My story wasn’t about getting laid off, it was about starting my own consulting business, getting a contract with WP Engine, and then writing a job description and getting Jason Cohen to hire me. That’s the story I choose to remember. It makes me feel much better, and I don’t have time to walk around morose cause I lost what was, in most respects, a shitty job that would have been bad for my life. Turns out, the painful job wasn’t going to teach me as much as the one I have now, which I enjoy immensely.

Coming full-circle, I don’t intend to take away from the Pando article. It’s an incredible story of resilience, and the marine deserves credit and respect. I just want to reframe that the story isn’t about failure. It’s about someone who was so focused that he was able to overcome his own psychology in one of the hardest arenas on the planet, not once, but twice, and emerge victorious regardless of what anyone else might have predicted.

He’s a champion who knew better than to focus on “learning from failure.” He knew to leave his failure behind, but to never forget his rifle again.

Also posted on HackerNews.

I’m Moving from Austin to San Francisco

I’m very curious to hear the reactions to this blog post. I’m about to make a statement about startup communities with my actions.  In 10 days, I’m going to pack up my little roadster and drive 1,800 miles from Austin, Texas to San Francisco, California. That means I’m becoming a Californian. I’ll be joining the marketing office that WP Engine is opening up in San Francisco, and I’ll be putting myself in the heart of the startup scene out there. I’m really excited.

There’s two parts of the story to tell. The first part is how and why WP Engine benefits from me living in San Francisco rather than Austin, as well as how the move will impact my career. The second part is the inevitable comparison between Austin and San Francisco/Bay Area startup communities.

My perspective on the “Austin vs. San Francisco debate” is based on working with 120 startups through Tech Ranch Austin, a local accelerator, before joining WP Engine and being part of Capital Factory.  I’m comfortable stating a public opinion about my first-hand experience building and being part of the Austin Community, and how that relates to San Francisco.

Why I’m Moving

When I started at WP Engine, the thought of moving out to San Francisco hadn’t crossed my mind. I held the party line that Austin, Texas was the only place to start a startup in the world, and that the Bay Area was overrated. And more importantly, I loved being part of WP Engine and the company culture that I wouldn’t have entertained the thought of moving away from the office. The company was important to my growth at the time. We truly do have something special at WP Engine.

However, as the company has grown from adding the 12th employee (me), now to 36 people, WP Engine now requires different things from each of us in order to keep growing. A company needs vastly different things when there are 10 employees than when there are 30. Growing companies require growing employees, and growing founders, and one of my big mantras these days is to ask myself, “how do I continue to stay aware of what the company needs from me, and stay willing to evolve my contribution accordingly?”  I can only imagine what this would be like for Ben Metcalfe and Jason Cohen.

Moving to San Francisco started with conversations that Ben had with me when I was out there in July and August. The thought about what would be possible from San Francisco that wouldn’t be possible from Austin began to take root. After a month or two, Ben let me know that if I wanted to join the office (to be established) in San Francisco, that would be up to me, but that WP Engine would support my choice to move.

I had several conversations with Jason and Ben to make sure that any move I made would be in the best interests of the company. I also worked closely with LA Lassek, our new VP, to plan how my job would evolve as part of the move. T’s crossed and I’s dotted.

I’ve been blown away by the amount of support I received from company leadership. Knowing that my move would benefit the company, meant that it was a real possibility, so I had to consider it.

Austin and San Francisco

The decision to move comes down to career opportunity for me. The work that I do as a marketer growing communities (I hate the title “community manager.” It’s not what I do), and around content means San Francisco (and also New York City) has the cutting-edge ideas and top performers in the world. Austin has infinite potential, but less existing thought leadership in these areas. There are notable exceptions like my good friends Ian Greenleigh at Bazaarvoice, and Jacqueline Hughes who founded Austin Startup Week. There are more great people in Austin that I’ve missed naming, so forgive me for that.

I knew that San Francisco had much more to offer me at this stage of my career, and the move will afford me the opportunity to create something brand new for myself. Professionally as well as personally.

Recently, I wrote that San Francisco is a city that insists on changing your life. Spending any significant amount of time in the Bay Area will have a powerful affect on who you are. There are too many amazing men and women who are building incredible things out there to not be affected. You can feel the city buzzing when you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, which by itself looks down and challenges you to do something of the same scale. As Richard Florida has explained, cities have their own identities, and I think that part of San Francisco’s identity insists that everyone who lives and works there will be affected by the energy.

Maybe it’s because there is so little space to cram so many people that everything has to be distilled down, and the electrons get to bouncing off of each other faster. I do know that the people who move from San Francisco to Austin are doing it because they don’t want so much going on in their lives. They’re coming to Austin because they still have a great startup scene, creative and artistic culture, amazing food, but there is more balance and more space. In Austin, we’re a little more spread out, and a little more relaxed about doing things.

We bootstrap more often than we get VC Funding because it allows us to control the pace and the growth of our startups. We live in a house with a lawn, and spend the weekends on the greenbelt or driving through the Hill Country.

I once had someone who moved to Austin from Manhattan explain that he was tired of the high-pressure work, and he moved to Austin in part so he could, “never get on another plane for the rest of [his] life.”

I’ve never been a big “balance” person, to be honest. I’m intense and focused, and when I make up my mind to do things, I do them to the hilt. When I was a Pick-Up Artist in college, I spent 18 months *really* being a Pick-Up Artist. The summer that I was a vegan, I wasn’t just a vegan, I was a raw foodist. When I wanted to learn Spanish, I didn’t buy the Rosetta Stone software, I lived in Latin America. Twice.

I’m moving to San Francisco because I’m ready to turn the volume up and be immersed in the world of startups. I’m moving to San Francisco because of the fact that it is going to change me. There’s an author in Austin who says that in contrast to San Francisco’s mantra of intensity, Austin’s mantra is to “Be Yourself.” I think that’s absolutely spot-on. You can come to Austin and combine all the ingredients of what makes a good life to you, including startups, but also including a lot of other things. Austin is good at a lot of things, but it’s best at offering you the cultural freedom to “bootstrap your own identity.” You can move here and spend your time and energies putting together your version of the Good Life.

You move to San Francisco because it’s time to pour rocket fuel on your dreams and go big or go home. A mentor of mine from Tech Ranch, Jonas Lamis, moved with his startup, Rally.org, to San Francisco 2 years ago because they wanted access to that network, and this year they raised an incredible round of funding from investors that we all admire.

When Jonas moved, he told me that “San Francisco is the place to be for Rally.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he was referring to. But it was the right decision for them. Just look at their growth.

I want more than anything the opportunity to grow. That’s my core motivation. Give me an opportunity to grow, to learn, to contribute to something that matters, and then let me take some risks. I’ll make up my mind and make something happen.

For this stage of my life, San Francisco represents the next personal growth opportunity for me. And yes, that means having to leave Austin behind in some ways. “Austin from Austin” will no longer be such, and even though I’ll be back and forth to the WP Engine offices inside the Capital Factory (which is the most amazing “office” I’ve ever experienced), I’ll still be a new resident of San Francisco. As the American Archetype goes, I’m “going West to find my fortune.”

And in many ways, it feels like coming home.

I was born in a small hospital on the border between Nevada and California, and I lived in the mountains until I was 10. California always called to me, and I dreamed of living there. My whole family is from Texas, and I’ve lived in Austin for 16 years, but I’ve always called the American West my home.

On November 10th or 11th, I’m going to pack my little car and start the 1,800 mile drive to San Francisco.

I’m going to miss Austin more than I can express. In particular, I love everyone in the WP Engine offices, and knowing that I won’t be in the office with them every day hurts. I’m also going miss my friends and my community here.

I can’t wait to get out there and see what happens. It’s going to be an adventure.

A big thank you to everyone who has been part of my journey thus far. That’s a lot of people, and you’re all part of this journey for me.

I’ll be having a farewell party at 7PM on Thursday, November 8th at Easy Tiger. You’re invited to come by so I can give you a hug and say a proper goodbye. Please do stop by.

 

 

WP Engine is deepening our bench and expanding into Silicon Valley

Big news “on the wire” today. (That’s a joke, because we sent out a big press release and my Google Alerts for “WP Engine” are ringing off the hook right now.)

WP Engine continues to grow

We have a Press Release going out with the big news. You can read the full release on the WP Engine blog. I’ll explain here why I’m excited about the news, both as an employee of WP Engine, as part of the marketing department, and as a “startup guy.”

Today, we’re announcing two amazing new team members that are joining WP Engine’s executive team. LaurieAnne Lassek (LA), and Chris Errett.  LA is our new VP of Marketing, and is an amazing Silicon Valley marketer who has worked with a number of cool startups, as well as larger enterprise companies. She’s bringing a level of experience to our organization that I’m pumped about for two reasons. First, I’m really excited about our company growth, and the industry experience LA brings to the company as we scale our product and our marketing, while still remaining true to our home base in the WordPress Community.  Second, she brings an amazing amount of experience from her leadership at cutting-edge tech companies, and I get to work with her and learn from this experience.

Chris Errett is an Army veteran, and has deep experience developing scalable IT infrastructure and processes. We’ve reached an awesome place as a company where the technical groundwork that the founding team laid down has seen a great deal of success based on the growth of our customer base. The tech that was originally developed still scales, but now it’s time to lay down a new level of process as a company that will allow us to continue providing amazing support for our customers, even as we continue to grow. No pressure, Chris.

Since LA is based in San Francisco, this also means that we will officially be establishing a presence in the Bay Area. She and Ben are both located out there, and this gives us the opportunity to grow our presence there.  Rest-assured that WP Engine remains an Austin, Texas company. That’s not going to change. Our base of operations will always be in Austin, and we’re proud to be an Austin Startup. While we expand our presence into the Bay Area, we’ll be able to maintain our connections to our roots, while also looking to new frontiers for WP Engine to grow as a company.

This is a big move for us, and I’m out in San Francisco this week working with LA, Ben, and Shayda (the WP Engine marketing team). It’s incredible to be part of a company that is growing the way that we are. I’m particularly grateful in light of the challenging economy around us.  I count myself as very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of WP Engine. As a company, I see a prevailing sense of gratitude across the board, really. (Meta-comment: being thankful is a big part of our company culture.)

LA and Chris join the company when we hit a headcount in the mid-30s. I was the 12th employee back in March, over SXSW weekend. Startups always want to be high-growth companies, and we’re growing in a way that blows me away when I look at where things were earlier this year. The startup guy in me pays close attention to how much the company evolves as we add more people. With more people, the culture evolves and asks new things of each of us. It’s my responsibility to pay close attention to how the company is growing, and therefore how I need to grow as well.

As a startup grows, it requires the people inside of it to grow as well. I can only image what this is like for Ben and Jason. For my part, I have people outside the company that I can talk with to get perspective, and I also pay attention to new situations for signals that I need to adapt and evolve how I respond to each situation.

It’s a big day for WP Engine.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Startup Education

Note: Today is my birthday.  I would love for you say happy birthday in the comments :-)

Inspired by my colleague Brian Bailey’s post about a startup education, I started reflecting on what I’ve learned at WP Engine in the last 6 months. WP Engine has been a departure from the last company that I worked at. It was a small consulting firm that specialized in requirements gathering for F500 companies.  After reading Brian’s post, started thinking about all the things I’ve gotten to learn at WP Engine that I never would have learned at the firm.

WP Engine, as a startup has been an incredible place to get a professional education in how to get things done. Today, I had a lesson smack me in the face with the reality that I didn’t know the answer to the problem at hand. The way that WP Engine has organized itself is dramatically different than the consulting firm. This structural difference is neither good nor bad, only essential to what must be achieved for success.

WP Engine finds success working its way from startup into business. The consulting firm makes progress by billing hours. The equation for each is dramatically and structurally different. When I arrived at WP Engine, there was a bit of intent chaos. As in, from the outside, it might appear chaotic. It happened in weird hours, long hours, short hours, but there was intent driving it forward through some crazy hours towards profitability.

On second glance, the chaos was throwing off features that are (hopefully) re-defining WordPress hosting. You’d have to ask some of our customers about how they like those features. They’re the real experts about our results. The point is, what looked like chaos is creation that hadn’t finished organizing itself yet.

On the other side of the equation is a consulting company organizing itself within a very specific set of requirements, including a number of hours, and making sure that any sign of chaos would fit nicely into an Excel spreadsheet. It was finely-tuned, and extraordinarily organized. And it was quite successful, made good money, and provided a service that large technology enterprises needed.

I’m going to admit that the work never inspired me, though. I couldn’t put any spark into my working the requisite number of hours every week. Structurally, all they asked from me was a certain number of hours. They didn’t ask me for anything of myself, though. That was what I hoped to give.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the work takes all shapes and sizes. It’s diverse, and defies too much structure too early. Don’t put the work into a specific set of hours during the day because too much structure will make the creation disappear.

The structural differences in how the companies make money can be boiled down to a key element that defines everything else in the startup, and determines how everyone prioritizes time and action. This is my favorite part.

Work is measured in the results, not in the hours.

Last year, I got an email from one of my 3 or 4 bosses at the F500 consulting firm where I worked on contracts for Dell, AMD, and HEB. The email admonished me for how I was filling out my time sheets. We were expected to keep track of a certain number hours of work every week. This really meant tracking an additional 2-5 hours over the minimum in order to keep up appearances.

“There is always infinite work to do and not enough hours to do it all. We need to make sure we spend our time doing the work that matters.”

While I was there, meeting the minimum hours was challenging for us as a company, particularly the junior members, because sales were slow, and the limited projects had a certain burn rate at which we could bill them each week. This meant that billable hours were scarce but the hourly minimum was inflexible and didn’t match the scarcity. We didn’t have enough work to go around, but we were still expected to bill a number of hours of “work” every week. I spent time reviewing old documentation and editing for grammar in order to make my weekly nut.

Rather than ask the qualitative question, “What have we accomplished this week?” the company wanted to ask quantitatively, “How much of your life did you spend in front of your computer this week?”

“How many words did you write?” 

“Did you write enough lines of code this week, according to ‘the guidelines?'” 

“Did you spend at least 25 hours in Microsoft Visio this week?”

The answer to all those questions should be: 

“Here are the fruits of our labor. The results have moved our company forward.”

Many of you are consultants and would make the very valid point that many projects are billed by the hour, and that consultant time is valued at so many dollars, and that consultants should be compensated accordingly.

My point is that the success of the business, as measured by its employees should not be:

“Did everyone spend an arbitrary amount of time working this week?” 

That removes free will, and is a painful way to live. Someone else has told you how you’ll prioritize your life and your time. As consultants, you know that the projects just have to get done. Sometimes, that takes less time than allotted. Other times, it takes more.

The creation of something new requires that which you have to give.

There is a trade that you make as an entrepreneur: you trade working longer hours for the autonomy to work on your own terms (more or less). I think that choice is critical to my personal happiness. It means that I measure my own success and failure, and that I take responsibility for making sure I am successful in my projects.

One of the very first things Jason Cohen told me when I was started my interview process* was this:

“There is always infinite work to do and not enough hours to do it all. We need to make sure we spend our time doing the work that matters.” 

At that point, there were 10 employees, and everyone had enough work to fill 24 hours many times over. We had to get better about asking questions about what it means to be productive. If there is a limited number of hours in the day, and since as humans we need to rest and do things like spend time with our families and / or unwind, the real question is:

“How do you prioritize your time to maximize your impact on your startup’s growth?”

You’re going to work way more than 50-60 hours a week, but the stakes are high, so it’s crucial that everyone in the startup learn how to prioritize their time.

An amazing thing will happen when you’re doing work that grows the startup. You’ll grow too.

A year at a startup will teach you more about work than 4 years of college. And they’ll pay you for your time, too.

I’ll trade more time working for more autonomy. What would you trade?

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

*I never really interviewed, I sort of made them hire me by becoming a contractor and then writing a job description

San Francisco will change your life. A recap of my week in the city

The Villa in San Francisco

San Francisco = Changes

San Francisco is supposed to change people.  I’ve never been to another city in the world that compares.

The last time I was in San Francisco, I made one of the most important decisions of my life, to become Orthodox. I came with my family after a visit to Gardnerville, Nevada, the town just outside of Lake Tahoe where I was born.  It was the first time I had been back to the area since we left when I was four.  I visited a Cathedral on Geary street that houses the relics of an American Saint, John of San Francisco.  I walked in, and when I walked out 2 hours later my perspective had changed.

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for about a week, and I’m not sure what the holdup is, but the words didn’t start to spill out until I realized that too much of what happens when I go to San Francisco I can’t immediately put into words.  For example, within a few hours of landing I was on a rooftop in SOMA with 120+ Burners crowding around a handful of fire-spinners. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world, so it’s hard to describe it.  I guess you simply have to experience it to understand it.

Ben Metcalfe and the Union Jack

Ben Metcalfe

This time, I was coming to spend a week with Ben Metcalfe, Co-Founder of WP Engine, to talk strategy, and meet a few PR and Industry contacts.

Ben picked me up from the airport in his Audi TT and we listened to Dubstep and talked about the startups who are advertising on billboards on the highway back from SFO.  It hadn’t ever occurred to me that tech startups would get an ROI out of such an analog format.  Admittedly, I like going analog whenever I can, so I was in favor of the idea of buying traditional ad space.

To prepare for the trip, I spent the weekend writing notes about my last 5 months at WP Engine and setting goals for my week, and for the next 5 months.  One my goals was having a strategic conversation with Ben about where we were headed as a company, and a big part of that conversation was also a personal one.  I also wanted to review the work that I had done so far, and then set some goals for growth and progress for the next 3-6 months.

The prep work paid off. Without revealing content, we got to discuss the company’s growth, and how marketing would be driving the growth of WP Engine.

Our normal routine all week was to wake up, find some breakfast for me, and start drinking espresso.  Ben’s got an espresso machine, and I think he probably has about 10 a day.  The absurd caffeine levels are why his hair changes color so much.

Breakfast in San Francisco

“Reality Shows.” 4th of July at The Villa

Of course, the week I was in San Francisco was also the 4th of July.  Ben is British, and when we were planning the trip, he apologetically asked if I wanted to take off work on the 4th.  I can’t remember the last time I had observed a holiday by not working, so I didn’t care.  His line was, “well, I refuse to celebrate the independence of your country from my great nation.” I just laughed and told him I’d bring the muskets.

I spent the morning of writing. When I came back, Ben had an enormous Union Jack on a plastic broomstick that he was waving around the house and singing British football anthems. I took lots of damning photos :-)

Flag in hand, we went to the 4th of July party where Ben’s friends were filming the Bravo reality show, “Silicon Valley.”  The show follows a group of Entrepreneurs, who are mostly British or Australian, are part of a reality show about their startups and living in Silicon Valley.  I signed a waver telling them that “hell yes, they could put my face on reality TV.”  You know that I was way too excited to possibly be on the show.

On the Set of Bravo's Silicon Valley

For lunch, the cast served “Texas” Barbecue to the guests. Now, Texas Barbecue in California is bad enough, but it wasn’t even made by an American, much less a True Texas. It was made by an entrepreneur from Australia.  To be fair, he did a pretty decent job for his first brisket.  The flavor was great, but the meat ended up a bit dry.  Nothing a good bit of sauce couldn’t solve.  As the only Texas in residence I ended up helping him cut the meat.

Aside from the cameras that were constantly around us (look for me talking to a tall brunette with heels in the background), I felt like I was around my people. It was a new feeling.  In my head, I’ve imagined parties like that, but that afternoon I watched fantasy meet reality right in front of me. My dreams for my career and my life became reality that afternoon, and I got to watch it happen :-)  That’s an amazing feeling, to have your life unfold the way you’ve pictured it.  Those are the moments that we work hard to achieve as entrepreneurs.  There is something about startup culture that I believe I belong to, and that afternoon, on the set of a reality show, with people who had never met me before, I had a very clear sense of arriving exactly where I was supposed to be.

Holy Virgin Cathedral, Joy of All Who Sorrow San Francisco

My Faith

I also revisited the Orthodox Cathedral, Our Lady Virgin, Joy of All Who Sorrow, where I made my decision to become Orthodox.  I was revisiting the place of a religious conversion at a very different point in my life, so my perspective had changed quite a bit.  I actually had a bad experience in the service when the priest turned me away from a blessing. He didn’t have a reason to do that, but he did.  I walked out the door so angry I couldn’t speak. The contrast between my first visit and my second was too great.

Walking out the door and back onto Geary Street was the lowest point of the week.  A place that held immense religious and spiritual value to me had changed for the worse.  I’m still not sure how to think about the rejection I felt.

San Francisco is a city of extremes.

Can you Rally?

From the Cathedral, I went to the IdeaMensch event.  IdeaMensch will visit every single of the 48 continental states this year, hosting entrepreneurial talks. They’ll be in Austin at Capital Factory in October.

At the event, something else came full circle. The event was held at the RallyPad, where Rally, formerly Piryx, and a company that I got to work with at Tech Ranch Austin now lives.  Their COO, Jonas Lamis, was a founder of Tech Ranch, and an early model of entrepreneurship for me before I had the first clue what a “startup” really was.  Jonas was one of the first people I met when I started my little journey of tech startups soon after graduating from college with my rhetoric degree.  I think if you’d told either one of us 3 years ago that I would be traveling on business with an amazing startup to San Francisco, neither one of us would have believed it. But there I was in his office space. The last time Jonas and I talked, he was giving me career advice the day before moving his family to San Francisco with Rally in order to make a go of it.  And boy are they.

The RallyPad, San Francisco

Come Full Circle 3 Times

If I’m being self-reflective, which I am at all times, I’m grateful for the time spent with one of the founders of my company.  As hopeful entrepreneurs, folks like you and me grow each time we are around the men and women who have gone before us.  After the week I spent with Ben, I noticed how differently I felt.  I arrived back in Austin with a sense of confidence and place in the company that hadn’t existed before.

That week, my life came full circle three times. The first time was when my dreams met my real life a The Villa.  The second was re-experiencing the place where I chose my faith several years ago.  The third was stumbling upon one of my very first teachers of tech entrepreneurship.  Any one of those would have been huge by themselves.

This post took a very long time to write, and after cranking all of this out, I understand why.  It took a while for me to process it all.

In the space of a few days, Jeremiah Owyang asked me for writing samples.  Internet Sabrina and I got to chat about community management.  Ben took me to the place where Jack Dorsey built the initial prototype of Twitter. I saw fires pinners on a rooftop. I felt like myself the entire time. The emotions I felt the most were belonging and aspiration.  I feel like I belong in the city that changes lives.

San Francisco is a city that wants to change your life.  Don’t go there unless you want to turn things on their head.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter WP Engine and SOMA, San Francisco