The Great Tighten Experiment

Creating the company we'd want to work for

Feature image: The Great Tighten Experiment

Dan and I are asked often about the backstory of Tighten. How did Tighten begin? That's an interesting-ish story, I guess, but what's more interesting to me is, "why?" There are other consultancies out there; why put ourselves through the stress of founding a company when we could just work for one that's already established?

I won't lie and say that we don't hold a few of the romantic ideals so many folks have about owning a business: self-determination, being your own boss, and maybe making a little profit along the way. But that alone isn't enough to keep us going.

Why even start a consultancy?

When you own the business, you're the one responsible for coming up with tens of thousands of dollars of payroll every two weeks. You're the one who is on the line if business dries up. You're the one who has to lay people off if things go south, even if you know how it will impact their spouses and kids.

So, why do we keep running Tighten?

Dan and I put in the work to run Tighten because we believe we have the opportunity to create an experience for our employees and our clients that is unique and incredible.

Owning a company puts you in a position of power, and each person has the chance to choose what they're going to do with the power they have. As a consultancy owner, you control who you hire, who you take on as clients, what the rules are, what grace you'll give employees when their family members pass away or they find out they're expecting a baby, how many stressful responsibilities your employees must endure, and so much more.

Owning a company is a culture-making experiment. It's a creative venture. And Dan and I believe we're creating a culture that is beautiful and good and worth our pain to create.

Let me tell you a few things about the culture of Tighten that we think makes it worth our sweat and tears.

1. We're creating the company we would want to work for.

Dan and I have both worked for big agencies before. We've apologized to our wives for the last-second long weekends and the 80-hour work weeks; we've felt the pain of incredible stress levels passed down from every aspect of how the companies are run and the client relationships are managed.

We want something better for our employees. We want them to work 40 hours a week and then be able to focus on their families or cats or whatever else. We want them to have lives outside of Tighten; we want them to be able to relax when they're not at work; we want them to do fun and exciting things outside of work and bring those experiences back to influence their work; and, when they're at work, we want them to be able to focus just on doing their jobs, not stressing about crazy deadlines or client communication problems or anything else.

So, we provide a great healthcare plan, generous vacation, a fully remote work environment with stipends for coworking spaces or home office outfitting, and a promise that we're going to do our best to create a work environment in which our employees and their families can thrive. We offer 20% time so that our employees can give back to our community, and we encourage blogging, creating open source libraries, and speaking at conferences. We want our employees to love working here.

2. We're not just code monkeys.

We don't just join projects, put our heads down, and code. We're actively involved in the projects so that we can understand the needs of our clients and how they can best be met.

We call our most common arrangement a "strategic embedded partnership", which means we become almost a part of our clients' teams. Rather than being just a vendor, we're an active part of the team that's working on solving their toughest problems—and when there's a technical aspect to those solutions, we're there to plan and execute the best solution for them.

That's not to say that we'll never take a project that's just code. However, if we do, we still want our developers to understand what they're doing. Even in the most well-defined project, our multi-disciplinary developers are asking our clients questions about their needs and priorities and user base, trying to make sure that every decision we make is going to provide them the best possible final product.

3. We want to do good and be good.

One of the more interesting parts of Tighten's origin story is that, prior to forming the company, I worked at a non-profit and Dan was running a small consultancy called "Good Food Productions", which focused on non-profits and other folks who are doing good for the world.

It's at the core of our business to be good people, to do good for others, and to seek clients who are doing good for the world. That's not to say we only work with non-profits—we work with as many startups as we do established businesses and non-profits—but there's a definitively philanthropic bent to our attitudes.

We want to be good bosses. We want to hire good people. We want to care for our employees and our clients, and we love to help them do good for others. We want to be an organization of integrity, and we want to work with other organizations with the same desire.

Dan and I often brag that our (somewhat insane but so far wildly successful) hiring process has left us in a spot where every single person we've hired is someone we'd gladly just hang out with. They're all good people. And smart people. And multitalented people.

4. Remote work is good for workers.

It's not as hard as you might think to have an entirely remote team, but it's not as easy as you might think either.

We get a lot of easy wins from being remote: we can hire from anywhere, we don't have to pay for a big building, people are excited that they can work from home.

We also have a lot of costs from being remote: we don't see each other in person that often, our time zones don't perfectly overlap, our communication is all virtual so has to be more intentional.

In the end, we believe that allowing our employees to work remotely allows them the most space to flourish and thrive. In order to work for Tighten, you will not be forced to move across the country. You won't have to move to a city or out of one. Live near your family, live out in a farmhouse with a big yard, or even travel around the world. As long as you get your work done, we're happy.

5. We fight to do things the right way—as we see it

Of any of our core characteristics, you'd think being entirely remote would be the most difficult to maintain. But it turns out that the most costly tenet of our plan (other than the cost of offering a good health insurance plan... but we won't go there) is avoiding estimates and waterfall development cycles.

We have found that every person in our entire arrangement—clients, project managers, partners, and developers—benefit when we avoid prolonged planning processes that claim to estimate the cost and timeline of delivering projects.

Instead, we work with both current and prospective clients to ensure and show that we're doing the best possible work that can be done in the time given. Our rates are fair, our developers are fantastic, and we communicate like our lives depend on it—and we contend that this is what our clients need.

This saves clients from committing to any more work from us than what will give them exactly what they're happy with. It saves our project managers from having to spend days estimating projects up front (only to learn six weeks in that, of course, all estimates are wrong). It saves our developers from feeling the pressure to deliver a project based on a timeline that someone else defined, or the pressure to predict five months in advance how long a barely-defined project will take.

So, if everyone loves it, why is it costly? Because not everyone is comfortable working this way. Not every client has the ability to commit to a project with an undefined budget. Thankfully, we've been able to find ways to define a budget for some clients while still remaining agile, but it doesn't work for everyone.

It must be said: This culture ain't free

"It doesn't work for everyone." That's the crux: there's a big difference between having good ideals for how you're going to run your company and actually paying the price for those ideals.

Great health insurance isn't cheap. 20% time isn't cheap. Sending our employees to conferences isn't cheap. Turning down jobs that require committing our employees to unrealistic and stressful deadlines isn't cheap.

None of these ideals are cheap to fulfill. They're nice to say out loud, but what folks are much less likely to say is that it's not cheap to run a business this way. Dan and I want to make sure Tighten puts our money where our mouth is, as a company. These aren’t nebulous costs. They are real. And telling an employee they are great only means so much. You show them you value them by paying them well, and treating them well.

So, that's why I titled this post "The Great Tighten Experiment." We're idealists. We have a dream of running a company differently. But we're also pragmatists. We understand the costs—and we pay them every pay period, every month, every time we work on developing new business for the company. We have to constantly reaffirm our decision to run the company this way.

But it's worth it. This is a culture worth making. So we're going to keep on with this grand experiment. We're going to keep on doing good and being good as long as we can.

Does this sound like the sort of company you'd like to work with? We're always looking for new startups, non-profits, and businesses to partner with. Start your next project today.

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