Late last year I did something that’s been on my to-do list since 2012—I visited Alt Group in Auckland, New Zealand. There have been numerous nights over the last decade where I’ve sat in my kitchen long after everyone has gone to bed, poured a glass of wine and just stared at Alt Group’s website, thinking “I wish I had the guts to do that.”
Their site hasn’t changed in 20 years and it probably will not change in the next 20. Owners Dean Poole and Ben Corban and their 30 team members (capped at 30) have more important work to do. They’re not optimizing their website, let alone updating it. They’re not pitching for work. And they’re not on social media. They just exist. Doing great work. They’re willing to talk to anyone who makes it to their unmarked door in a distant corner of the world, but not many make it. And they’re certainly not waiting for people to knock.
My friend Carl Richards recently sent me this quote from Confucius …
“A man, sitting in his house, attending the way, will be heard a hundred miles distant. Work done truly and conscientiously, in isolation, calls unknown friends.”
And this one from Naval Ravikant…
“Be a maker who makes something interesting people will want. Show your craft, practice your craft and eventually the right people will find you.”
Both Confucius and Naval were clearly influenced by the Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella…
“If you build it, they will come.”
Alt Group is the Confucian man in the house, “attending the way.” They simply practice their craft, largely in isolation, and eventually, people find them.
All this is lousy business advice, of course. I mean, it’s seriously, dangerously bad advice—advice that would bankrupt many established businesses and cause many more to never get off the ground. But Carl, Confucius, Naval, Kinsella, Dean and Ben—these are not business people. They are philosophers and artists, each of them. Some of them own businesses that are embodiments of their philosophy and art, but business goals are never allowed to outrank the art. There is something in this idea of focusing on doing great work at the expense of almost everything else—including chasing the work, talking about the work or spewing vacuous drivel on social media to attract the work—that is compelling. That “something” is the power of putting principle above all else.
“We are artists with a 50-year plan.”
“We only work with decision makers.”
“Our clients have to already have design as part of their ethos.”
“We expect to work with our clients forever.”
These are some of the many principled comments I heard from Dean and Ben in our conversation. I’ve heard similar comments from others before, but they rarely ring with such authenticity. This is a firm where it’s clear the founders have no interest in compromising their principles for money. And, fortunately for them and their families, the money has followed. But you get the strong sense that they would keep going no matter what. If clients quit coming and the team had to be let go, the two of them would still be there doing their art. I hesitate to share too many specifics about Alt Group because their story is not mine to tell and the mythology is part of the allure. The mystique of this firm had built to such an extent in my mind that I was certain they could not measure up, that I was going to be disappointed by what I found. Instead, I was inspired.
Late in my agency career I had a difficult job working for a difficult person. They weren’t a bad person, just damaged from earlier experiences I knew nothing about. That job broke me, psychologically, but if I had not endured that experience I may have never started my own business. I can vividly recall the profound sense of freedom I felt from my willingness to be poor to be happy. I probably wouldn’t have taken the leap as an entrepreneur if financial security was above happiness in my principle stack. There is no freedom like having principles on which you absolutely will not compromise. There is zero stress in your decisions.
Youth and the early days of your business are the times in life to be principled—when you don’t have much to lose financially, and when you’re young enough to still make money if you do lose what little you have. It gets harder as you get older and more people—family and employees—depend on you to keep delivering the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. And then there’s your own need for that lifestyle to keep going in just one direction. At some point the survival of the business moves to the top of the principle stack, above doing meaningful work and maybe even above happiness. And then growth moves to the place where survival used to be. And then after many years, a lucrative exit might make it to the top of the stack—because why would you want to stick around in a business where you’re doing mediocre work for people who don’t share your values when you can pocket a few mill and walk away?
The cure for all this is to spend a little time with people who truly are “attending the way.” It will reset you.
If I’m allowed to say so, I fancy myself a bit of a philosopher and artist (with words as my medium) but make no mistake, I am a business person, too. These things exist in tension, with me being pulled back and forth between the principles of doing meaningful work—attending the way—and growing a business. I believe that growth—in people and in organizations—is mandatory. When you stop growing it’s over. There’s no shame in it being over; all growth stops one day and everything comes to an end. And to be clear, growth in a business doesn’t mean headcount, and it doesn’t necessarily mean revenue, although revenue and profit are often approximate measures of growth in many businesses because they can reflect the value that business creates in the world. But when profit, revenue or headcount growth moves above more fundamental principles in the stack, that’s when the joy of the business becomes elusive. That’s when I edge toward the lesser versions of myself.
I once wrote that I was never going to sell this business and never going to retire, but at times I’ve had more thoughts of both than I am comfortable admitting. And there was a period of a couple of years where the words going out under my name were not written by me, they were written by an HI (human intelligence) that ingested everything I had written and recycled it into something approximating new content for something approximating value for the reader, all so we could sell more training. And since I’m confessing my sins, while I believe revenue and profit growth are important on their own, and also good rough measures of the value a business is creating in the world, every time I have set specific goals for either it has never sat well with me. There is something about a specific number that says “our principles are subservient to the goal.” I felt it when I set those goals and I set them anyway.
These thoughts and behaviors that come from the lesser versions of ourselves arise when attending the way gets subsumed by specific measures of growth, or when we get worn down by doing work that isn’t meaningful—the wrong type or for the wrong people. There is nothing like spending time with people attending the way—doing work truly and conscientiously, perhaps in isolation—to remind us of the better versions of ourselves. When we’re focusing on meaningful work, when our principles are immutable and immovable, when we’re playing the long game, then the direction of growth becomes more important than the amount of growth and our most valued and foundational principles remain at the top of the stack.
So what, dear reader, are you to do with this self-indulgent introspection of mine?
I don’t know. If you are young and principled I would say to you, hold onto those principles and build your business around them. Do not accept that business has to be done a certain way, that you should compromise your principles for commercial success. Push back on bad practices that others would impose on you and walk away from people whose basic values conflict with yours. Being dangerously bad business advice, of course, this might set you back a few years, but if you don’t take a principled stand now, you never will.
If you’re older and find yourself struggling to find meaning in your business, I’m less confident giving you advice. I don’t know if I’m willing to be poor to be happy anymore. I hope I never have to find out. But if I do find myself in that place again I hope I think of Dean Poole and Ben Corban, two men and a team that will never exceed the size of an extended family, sitting in an unmarked studio in an opposite corner of the world, attending the way.