The Most Important Lessons Learned From a Decade in Business

2016-07-29-1469803965-6839872-MingChan.pngBy Ming Chan

This is a story about change. It begins in the early 2000s, in the world of 0's and 1's that didn't really seem all that crazy at the time. But for us, it was. My team and I had been software engineers doing the normal engineer thing: building products and rebuilding them over and over again until they eventually died before ever seeing the light of day. Something inside us shuddered every time it happened. Something bigger inside us started to feel more and more uneasy about all of it. Because after all, we got into this business in the first place to build things -- not watch them die a slow, procedural death. We knew there had to be a better way.

Even before my company, The1stMovement, was founded, we were recognized for our development work in Silicon Valley. Thanks to our history working with Fortune 1000 companies and major advertising agencies, our proficiency in merging development and design gave us some major inroads. Change was in the airwaves, and embedded in the code. The1stMovement was officially born in 2006 in Los Angeles.

By 2008, we had a second office in Denver. We were blossoming into the true definition of our name, which references the first movement of a symphony, the place where musical notes on a page are first transformed into actual music you can experience and hear. We were no longer just flash developers. We were full-fledged creatives, ready to change the world.

And then the bottom fell out.

The Great Recession hit, and there were budget cuts and layoffs. Change, after all, isn't always pretty. But out of all of that, we recognized an opportunity to hit the re-start button and come back as something better. What kind of people did we want to work alongside with every day? What kind of place did we want to be?

We became a full-service agency ourselves, a one-stop shop, specializing in all things digital and creative. We had a major leg up on the rapidly-aging traditional agencies we were watching scramble and/or crumble in the advent of smaller budgets and increased measurability.

By 2010, we brought on people whose resumes included all of the vaguely law-firm-like names that populate the traditional agency world. Things were humming. The mix of highly visible project work and agency-of-record duties landed us on the Inc. 500 "Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America" list, and should have proven that our shift in priorities and models was working. And on the surface, it was.

Taking a Step Back

Success, we would realize soon enough, had ruined us. Our transformation into a full-service agency had moved us away from the very thing that had put us on the map in the first place just four years before: our expertise as digital specialists.

For us, digital is specifically the creation and construction of software, and our belief in that process (and those products) is at the very core of our being. The world becomes more digitally integrated every day, to the point where almost everyone who's alive interacts with something digital in nature on a daily basis. That's profound to us. It means that what we do has a good chance of changing someone's behavior if it's designed thoughtfully. And when people's behavior changes, even in the slightest way, the world changes with it.

Adapting to the traditional model had made us less specialized, a core value on which we were founded. Simply put, being less specialized made us a less capable partner for our clients. We were at another turning point, and the only way to truly handle the velocity of that turn was to lean into it harder than we ever had before.

We have always been a group with the same values, beliefs, interests and skills, aligned on one goal: changing people's behavior. We put those values in writing. We didn't have bosses or supervisors -- we had co-workers. We didn't have a roster of clients -- we had a group of partners. It finally felt right. We finally knew who we really were.

Realigning Our Business

Out of those revelations and internal realignment, the final and most integral piece of the puzzle fell into place in 2012: the adoption of Agile. Most people think of Agile as a development process, and it is. But it's so much more than that to us. Agile is an organic outgrowth of our skill set and core values, a true product of the tribe. Agile favors the team over management, collaboration over siloed thinking, and velocity over speed. For us, it's a cultural process: a true reflection of who we are and why we exist.

We had finally become who we wanted to be: specialized, agile, partners.

A lot of things changed over the last 10 years for us to fully embody and embrace those three words. The prospect of creating change gets us up and ready to go every morning. The partnerships that enable us to make this happen are the lifeblood of what we do.

Take a step back away from your day-to-day hustle and take a look around. Look at your office, and the people who work there. The market will change, and so will your product and service offerings. But your purpose, your values, and the way of life at your company could be your ultimate, sustainable, competitive edge in this great war we call business.

As CEO of The1stMovement, Ming Chan was named as one of the "Top 10 Asian Entrepreneurs in America" by Inc. Magazine.