The Tighten Manifesto

Dan Sheetz & Matt Stauffer (Tighten's Managing Director & Technical Director, respectively) join us this week for the last episode of season 3 to talk all about the Tighten Manifesto - how it was created, what it aims to achieve, how to live up to it, and more.

Recorded live at Tighten's 2022 Onsite in Gatlinburg, TN.


Dan Sheetz: Are we live?

Dave Hicking: We're live. All right. Welcome, everybody, to Twenty Percent Time, a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of Tighten, a web consultancy based out of Chicago, but entirely remote and spread out all over the place. We specialize in Laravel, a PHP framework, which we're often pairing with any number of Javascript frameworks and libraries. But today we aren't exactly talking about coding. Or, well, we sort of talk about the important stuff behind that, hopefully.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: I'm your host, Dave Hicking, and this episode is a little different. Well, it's not technically a Twenty Percent day. But really, more importantly, it's because we are live at the Tighten 2022 onsite in lovely Gatlinburg. I should learn how to pronounce that. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in an absolutely amazing space, surrounded by my lovely coworkers.

Matt Stauffer: Whoop, whoop.

Dan Sheetz: It's a mega lodge.

Dave Hicking: It's at the lodge. That's right. I'm joined for this very special episode... It's like in the '80s, when you have a very special episode of a sitcom and you learn a valuable lesson.

Matt Stauffer: I was just going to say, you learn not to do drugs. That's what this is actually about.

Dave Hicking: Is this an intervention?

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. We didn't want to tell you about it but-

Dan Sheetz: I think I missed that episode

Dave Hicking: And I'm joined today, as you've already heard, by Tighten's partners, Dan Sheetz and Matt Stauffer. Welcome, gentlemen.

Matt Stauffer: Hey.

Dan Sheetz: Hi. Howdy.

Dave Hicking: For people who do not know you, can you say a little something about yourselves? Matt, you want to start?

Matt Stauffer: Oh, man. I was thinking alphabet. My name's Matt. Man, I don't have any words to say yet. Can we start with Dan?

Dan Sheetz: Man, I wasn't ready to intro myself.

Matt Stauffer: I'm a partner at Tighten. I have two wonderful children and a little fluffy dog. Live in Atlanta, Georgia. Apparently really enjoy doing fake Southern accents right before we record live podcasts. That's about all I've got about myself right now.

Dan Sheetz: Okay.

Matt Stauffer: I'm also enjoying embarrassing my business partner right now.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. You got me blushing.

Matt Stauffer: He's like, "This idiot?"

Dan Sheetz: I'm Dan and I'm blushing. Is it my turn now?

Dave Hicking: Yeah, go ahead.

Dan Sheetz: All right. I'm Dan. I'm the CEO of Tighten. Shit, we're talking personal stuff?

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, no. I'm from Chicago. I'm a half decent tee-ball coach and got four little kids and spend the rest of my time, I don't know, hanging out with these people, kind of. So that's it.

Dave Hicking: Okay. Excellent. So we are talking today about something that y'all worked on quite a bit for a long period of time, called the Tighten Manifesto. But before we get there, I want to rewind a little bit. Let's start with the idea of creating a company that you'd want to work for. Matt, you wrote a blog post almost six years ago, which seems impossible, called The Great Tighten Experiment, that's almost like a prequel, of sorts, to the Tighten Manifesto. Either of y'all can answer this. How long were y'all in business together before you realized how opinionated you were going to be about the type of company you were building?

Dan Sheetz: I'll take that one, I guess.

Matt Stauffer: All right.

Dan Sheetz: Before we started, for sure. There was only one kind of company I wanted to work for, period. I just think that Matt and I happened to be really aligned on what sort of company that was. I already had small children by the time we met, or at least one, and it just wasn't going to be compatible with my life at all to have some sort of startup type company where you're going to work all kinds of hours. I wanted to work 9:00 to 5:00 and save time for the rest of my life, and Matt really shared that. So Matt maybe can take it from there. But am I right, that we were aligned on that before we started this?

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. Some of the things, I think, that are a part of what defined what this company looks like for us, we figured out over time. Dan often references conversations we had, where we learned about No Estimates, and some of these other defining elements. Those were not there from the very beginning, but things that were there from the very beginning were the type of people we wanted to be, the type of company we wanted to be overall. We just didn't necessarily know all the ways that was going to pan out.

Matt Stauffer: So for example, when we met with one of Dan's friends who was a branding guy and he said, "Let's just sit down in a room together with a whiteboard for a day," our answers were so consistent with each other that first of all, he was laughing at, though we basically didn't know each other super well at this point, we're giving all the same answers. But at some point he laughed and he goes, "Basically, you want to be Mister Rogers and Jesus as a company, basically." And we're like, "Well, that wasn't the language we were going to use," but it's all this, "Do good, care for people, take care of people," kind of stuff.

Matt Stauffer: And so a lot of those elements of what makes the company, at its ethos, less like how to do this as a programming company and more how to do this just in general. Those were there from the very beginning. A lot of the opinions about how to do that from a programming perspective, some of them we had from the very beginning. Like Dan said, we'd both worked for agencies that made our lives miserable. But a lot of those things we also figured out as we went, so it's kind of half and half there.

Dave Hicking: Mister Rogers and Jesus is a-

Matt Stauffer: It's pretty-

Dave Hicking: It's a high bar. Okay. So The Great Tighten Experiment, put out the lovely If you're listening to this and you've never gone, you should go. Is written in June of 2016 so actually, at this point almost... Yeah, entirely six years ago. So fast forward to maybe five, five and a half years later, and you're in the middle of working with Focus Lab on the new And what point did you know... It's a two part question. At what point did you know you wanted a manifesto on the site? And then second part, what did you want the manifesto to accomplish?

Matt Stauffer: I think I can answer the first one. We kept getting in situations where... Because the beginning of the branding process was them asking these questions about, "What are you about and what do you want people to know? How do you distinguish yourselves from the other people in the space?" and stuff like that. And so I would keep saying these things about, "Well, we're very distinctly this way and we're very distinctly not that way." And each time, they were like, "Oh, you have a very well defined way that you think you should approach these. And it's very unique and it's very different. Has this ever been written down somewhere?" And I'd be like, "Yeah, this one blog post we wrote, six years ago or whatever." That was kind of the deficient. And the rest of it just comes in things that he and I just spout all the time.

Matt Stauffer: And at some point they were like, "You know, this kind of reminds us a little bit of manifestos." And they gave us some example of manifestos and I was like, "Yeah, that's definitely it. There is a manifesto living inside of us, that we just have never actually written." And so Focus Lab actually made it a really big pressure for them to just... Not pressure. They said, "There is a very distinct way that you all think about doing this, and you've never really put it all down on paper in one place. We think it's going to be value, both for the Focus Lab team to be able to consume this, but also for actually to have it publicly on the website so that people can interact with." So it was all kind of a part of the same thing.

Matt Stauffer: And we didn't want them to be held up, so at that point, I was like, "Cool. I will just go disappear into a cabin, a literal cabin in north Georgia, and start this thing for a weekend and give them enough to work with." And then later, it turned into actually me and Dan fleshing it out.

Matt Stauffer: But a lot of it was just trying to get all these things that they kept experiencing us casually referencing, as our shared knowledge base of how we want to do this and how we think we should be done. They're like, "Can you just get it all in one place so when we're building the language for your company, when we're building the visual language for your company, that we can have something to refer to, rather than having to basically pick y'all's brains every time?" So it was really very much in the Focus Lab process, where they planted that idea in our brains, that writing it all down might be a good idea.

Matt Stauffer: And it lined up with a lot of our values. We talk a lot about Good to Great and other business ideas that basically say, "You don't want it to be The Dan and Matt Show." The goal is not for everything to define on us. The goal would be, when we disappear for however much time, because of whatever reason, everything keeps running, not only smoothly operationally, but also ideologically. And so this is another way for us to take these desires and dreams we have and put them on paper so other people can be internalizing them and agreeing with them and making their actions based on them.

Dave Hicking: That's interesting. The difference between bringing in extra folks, whether it was me once upon a time or whatever, to help with process and things like that, but operationalizing not just the nuts and bolts, but the ideology, which is an interesting term, but sort of the principles, the ideology of Tighten.

Matt Stauffer: Its whole ethos. Yeah.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. Ethos might be better.

Matt Stauffer: More accurate.

Dave Hicking: And then, in terms of what you wanted the manifesto to accomplish, I think that was part... Did you-

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. I have some thoughts, but do you want to stop or talk or should I just keep going?

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, you can keep going for a while.

Matt Stauffer: Okay. Two things I wanted to accomplish. Number one thing I wanted to accomplish is to make it abundantly clear to everybody who's involved in doing anything at Tighten, whether it was Focus Lab or all of our employees, or even eventually our clients, to know what we're about. We talk about it all the time, but the bigger the company gets and the bigger our clients get and the more clients we get, the more likely we are interacting with people who've never heard Dan or me actually talk about how we do work. So we take on the responsibility of communicating that more effectively to more people, and be in these bigger spaces. So the first thing is making sure that the people who work with us, and the people who we connect with, know that.

Matt Stauffer: But for me, there's also the value of, I would, in the middle or prior to writing this thing, would be on podcasts with people. And I was on a podcast with one of my friends. We were supposed to talk about one thing and she heard me mention some aspect of how we work. I can't... Oh, the apprenticeship program. And she's like, "We're canceling the entire podcast we're doing. We're talking about the apprenticeship program the whole time." And she does this live podcasting thing, and so her people in the chat were like, "Oh, wait. You do these other things? We want to hear more about it."

Matt Stauffer: And I just realized that historically, we have done a really good job of sharing how we code and helping other people understand how to code that way. And we've done a little bit of sharing how we think we should be as people. I'd give talks about empathy. Marje always talks about how we care for each other. What we have done very little of, other than that one blog post, is talking about how we think companies, especially programming companies, should be run differently.

Matt Stauffer: So one of the big goals for the manifesto was saying, "It would be very, very cool if we released this thing out in the world." And as similar to the way that 37signals put a lot of their ideas about how to work out in the world, and it changed how a lot... And Thoughtbot did too. It would be very cool if people consumed this manifesto and said, "Oh, this inspires how we want to run our company."

Matt Stauffer: And we have heard some really cool stories, where someone will say, "Yeah, we started our company and we wanted to make it just like Tighten." Which is cool, but they're scrabbling together their understanding of Tighten from blog posts and podcasts. So it'd be very cool if we had basically like a, "Take this and run with it, make it your own, but this is the basis of what being like Tighten would look like," and share it freely with as many people as possible, so more companies can hopefully treat their employees and their clients the way we're trying to do.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. I'll just, I guess, add one thing because most of the conversations I'm having on a day to day basis are with clients or prospective clients. And what I'm trying to communicate is, in dribs and drabs, like you say, just how we're different and what we're about. And part of this is just gathering a lot of it into one space. So I could say, "Hey, go read this thing," and you'll have a pretty good idea of what we're about. And it also serves as somewhat of an underpinning for other areas of the website where we talk about our method, all this kind of stuff. We wanted there to be a philosophical piece that underpinned it, I think, just to give it a foundation.

Dave Hicking: Matt, you were correct when you hinted earlier that I might want to ask more, I think probably about the processes, what you were thinking of, writing the manifesto. The manifesto is, in many ways, built on a lot of things that we have talked about over the years at Tighten. But can you talk a bit more about how you two approached it? Was it sort of like, you knew that you had this bucket of ideas and that was going to create the manifesto ultimately? Or did you actually create, whether it was you or with the assistance of Focus Lab, purposeful time to say, "Here's what we know we want to put in the manifesto. Is there anything we're missing? Do we need anything else?" How did you go about generating the raw material for it?

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. I thought about it a lot, and one of the things that helped was, in the conversation with Focus Lab, anytime they'd go, "Wow, that's very interesting," I'd tick it away in my brain of like, "Oh, that's something I should make sure is in there." But really, in the end, what I imagined was... And I literally did. I rented a cabin in Rome, Georgia, in the middle of nowhere, overlooking... Not a sunflower field, some kind of flower field, right by a river. And I just wandered around with a tablet for 48 hours straight. And I'm just like, "What makes us different? How do we set ourselves aside? What are we really about?"

Matt Stauffer: And I just wrote it down in the loosest, craziest notes you can possibly imagine. I wrote down little stories and I wrote down full paragraph prose, I wrote down bullet points, whatever I could just get out of my brain. And then I would step back and I'd sit away from it a little bit and then I'd try to organize it, and then I'd step back and then I'd try to organize it. And I tried to get to the point where we at least had some sort of narrative form that I was able to recognize, "This is about this chunk, this is about this chunk." Maybe write some rudimentary subheads or whatever.

Matt Stauffer: And at that point, I was mentally exhausted and so I put it in a Google doc and I shared it with Dan and Keith and the Focus Lab folks. So everyone who was working on the Focus Lab project at that point, I just said, "Here it is. I don't know if it's any good, but it's good enough for us to at least have the basic understanding of this." And so that was what they did a lot of the website work from, knowing it was kind of draft form. And then months later, I handed it off to Dan, and then he can tell you about what his process was there. But it stayed in this very, very draft form that I'd written in originally until Dan took it over, maybe February or something like that.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, sure. I think it was January. We launched the site, I think, on February 8th or 7th.

Dave Hicking: It was Laracon, I think, right?

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. Right before Laracon. I mean, minutes before.

Dave Hicking: Minutes before Laracon. Right.

Dan Sheetz: That was our hard deadline. Interestingly, we don't do a lot of that hard deadline stuff, but in this case, we got a taste of that. Anyways, I took Matt's what was effectively raw material and lots of really good ideas that were gathered into a place, and then did one round of, I guess, refining or trying to shape it up into something that read a little bit more linearly. And then I think I wrote an introduction a little bit, or shaped an introduction.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. It's not that much different from the way that Matt and I do a lot of team writing, which is sort of, "Don't try this at home" method. It's really strange, and it's different each time, but we'll pass emails back and forth that need to go to clients, communications to the team that we want to make sure that are nuanced properly. And we take it really seriously, the tone that comes out in written communication.

Dan Sheetz: One thing I definitely did was turn everything into the imperative form because we wanted to be speaking directly to people. And we wanted to not say things in a milquetoast kind of way, just because they sounded brash or braggy or something like that. These are grownups that we're dealing with and they can take things with a grain of salt, so I try not to disclaim or equivocate very much. I try to state things really directly. And if people don't like it, I would just say, "Well, it's a manifesto. Come on. Give us a break here. We're trying to make it a little bit interesting and direct, say the things that we believe strongly and that were hard earned, in many cases."

Dan Sheetz: And then I pulled a few things out that Matt wanted to put back in, which very often happens. One of us will say, "Wow, you pulled out the thing I thought was the best part. Try to put it back in." And I gave in on most of those things, because I don't always know which parts he thinks are really good and which parts he was brain dumping. So it went back and forth a couple more times.

Dave Hicking: He doesn't leave notes in the margin like, "This is my favorite, smiley face?"

Dan Sheetz: Well, we just change it and then pass it back to the other.

Matt Stauffer: And I either fight him on it or I don't fight him on it, just so you know.

Dan Sheetz: There's no diffs, there's no version control. It just goes back and forth and eventually something comes out the other end.

Matt Stauffer: I want to add a note about this, that this writing process requires an incredible amount of trust because-

Dan Sheetz: No, no. Yeah.

Matt Stauffer: ...I need to know that I can hand it off to Dan and not have to micromanage his editing and his writing and his whatever. Because otherwise I'd be like, "Oh, don't screw my stuff up." Whatever Dan does is, 99 percent of the time, going to be significantly better than what I added. And that one percent of the time, it's going to be, like you said, it's because he didn't understand that something was really important to me. So I'll come back and say-

Dan Sheetz: That's way off, but okay.

Matt Stauffer: Whatever. So I pull a little bit back in, or one of the things we ended up doing is having to balance each other a little bit on the brashness versus hyperbole scale. We both want to say things that are very strong and very confident, and we don't want to be so hyperbolic as to say things that makes everyone go, "Well, that's obviously not realistic, so now I have to take this entire thing as hyperbole." So we were kind of back and forth quite a bit of trying to figure out what that line is.

Matt Stauffer: And also we did this a lot with Focus Lab. How much language do we want to use that sometimes is more direct, and then sometimes we're going to turn people off because we're using almost kind of tech bro language of, "Well, don't be a dick," or whatever? So there's just a lot of this trying to figure out how to have the really fine balance of very direct and clear communication, without taking it so far as it made people not actually listen to it.

Dave Hicking: I mean, it is called a manifesto. In fact, I think I even gave Matt feedback, which was taken and considered, I'm sure, which was that, "Are we sure we want call it a manifesto? Because that is very strong."

Dan Sheetz: What is it evoke for you, Dave? Does it evoke the Unabomber or what's-

Dave Hicking: The fact that I didn't even have to ask.

Dan Sheetz: We are in a cabin in the woods. It feels like an appropriate place to be talking about it.

Dave Hicking: Question for both of you, so whoever wants to take this one first and then we'll go. Name what you think is the most important thing that the manifesto talks about. If someone visits and gets it, what's one takeaway you want them to have?

Dan Sheetz: Mm. Shit, man.

Dave Hicking: I'm sorry.

Dan Sheetz: I didn't prep. Oh, I'm flipping through it again.

Matt Stauffer: I am too.

Dave Hicking: I'll add the Jeopardy theme.

Dan Sheetz: You can cut this if you want.

Dave Hicking: No, it's fine.

Dan Sheetz: My scrolling time

Matt Stauffer: Well, there are three that are the most important ones.

Dave Hicking: That's not how it works.

Matt Stauffer: I know I'm-

Dan Sheetz: That's why I'm just trying to get one.

Dave Hicking: Come on, Matt. What's one thing?

Matt Stauffer: Hopefully that means it's really good.

Dan Sheetz: Give us some candidates.

Matt Stauffer: Oof.

Dan Sheetz: For me, it's probably going to be this bit about trust because it's the thing I've been talking about for the longest in every context, from hiring to clients bringing us on to... With my kids, really all over. Someone mentioned it here today and said it really well, actually. I think it was Anthony that was talking about the idea of, there's two ways you can trust. One is, someone has to earn your trust and you build up maybe some series of steps, that you get to the point where you trust someone. Or the way that I'm talking about is the leap of faith kind of trust, like where you have a gut sense of somebody or a company and you decide to trust them, because the alternative takes a really long time.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. Just by default.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, exactly. That's not the only reason to do it that way. But for one thing, when our clients show up, for instance, they have needs. They don't have time to put us through our paces and figure out if we're worthy of their trust. What I'm trying to encourage them to do is look at our track record and realize that we have what they need and take that leap. But there's a really important underpinning to that, which is that you have to extend the presumption of good faith to everyone in all interactions. It's one of our core values. It was written around the same time as this manifesto.

Dan Sheetz: But that to me is the key. Because if you're not hearing what people are saying, or you're trying to see monsters under the bed all the time in an interpersonal interaction, then you're not going to be able to establish that relationship of trust. So that really is, I think, for me, the biggest thing, is not only to trust people, but to demand it in return. And I mean I guess I say it pretty directly. If you don't trust us, you just can't do business with us, period. To me, it's pretty straightforward, but the reactions I get sometimes on calls with clients are... There's a huge range. But the people who get it, really get it, and the people who really don't, really obviously don't. And I'll say this kindly. It's a good weed out moment in our conversations. So that, for me, is I think probably the most key part.

Matt Stauffer: For me, it's actually the subhead in the intro, so none of the individual sections. And the subhead is, "Build a company you want to work for." And the whole intro, before you actually even get into any of the particular pieces, says, "The company we want to work for." I think that the reason that's more important to me than any of the individual pieces, is because the individual pieces are showing you subsections of that concept like, "Here's a way to think about what it might be like."

Matt Stauffer: But in the end, we set out to create a company that we wanted to work for. Literally, that was the language we used to talk about this concept. And therefore, if you're doing that, then you're always leading with empathy and care and all this kind of stuff, and saying, I think that the number one shortcoming of the vast majority of leaders of companies is that they don't think about the experiences of the people who work for them. And so as a result, they don't do all the things that I think we're talking about here. Considering the people more than the work they're able to produce, or changing your relationship with Agile or your relationship with estimation. All these things come from what it looks like to care for people and to set them up for success. And it's not just the people who work for us. It's also the people who we work with, clients and everything like that.

Matt Stauffer: But in the end, I do think that if you don't foundationally have the understanding of what it's like to work for you, all the other things are not really going to do that much good. So you could have really great processes and everybody's miserable actually implementing those processes, it's not going to take you very far. So I do think that the most foundational piece is understanding that creating a space that people's lives and family lives and everything like that are better as a result of working at Tighten, I think is the thing that, if you ignore everything else here and you just ask that question of your processes and your policies and your pay or whatever else on a regular basis for your company, that would be the first thing that they would want.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. I just want to add one thing to that, because it risks being so obvious as to be meaningless. If you're going to make a company, of course you want to make one that you want to work for. But I think what we're saying, both in this manifesto and in lots of other conversations, is the idea that it's your company. You get to make it all up.

Dan Sheetz: You can take inspiration from different folks and other organizations that you respect. But ultimately, if I get an idea about a way that we can implement an employee benefit or perk better, I just get to decide to do that. Or at least Matt and I get to decide to do that. You don't have to build on a template that someone else decided. And having that notion of, "Is this what I would want my boss to do in this situation?" is a good kind of guiding light for us. So I think that's what we really mean by it.

Matt Stauffer: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: Was there one particular thing that was the last cut from the manifesto? Something one of you really argued for, but ultimately whether it was... Maybe it wasn't a thought that you both of you felt was fully developed yet, or maybe you looked at the page and you're like, "Guys, this is getting kind of long." Whatever your thinking was, was there just something that almost made the cut, but didn't?

Matt Stauffer: I'm just going to say right now, my memory is garbage so if he doesn't have any ideas, I got nothing.

Dan Sheetz: I don't, Dave, remember anything being the last cut. I think that there was a point where just what it was about shifted a little bit, after it came from Matt and passed through me one time. Naturally it was going to be more about the business and less about particular programming processes. And I think that Focus Lab really did intend it for... They were thinking more along the lines of, "How should you program?" And that quickly was not what came out of your brain.

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. I started with the whole Agile, not necessarily agile. But most of it turned out to be how to build culture and care for people and stuff like that. So yeah, that was pretty early on.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. But yeah, no, I don't remember there being a final cut. Like most of the stuff, it's stuff that has been in Matt... In fact, most of the website, I guess, is what I'm thinking about. Most of the copy on there is stuff that Matt and I have been talking about with one another and with others for years. So it's really just a gathering of a whole bunch of different stuff into one place.

Matt Stauffer: If there was anything that changed at the last second cut, it would probably be softening certain language. I keep looking at the subhead, "Rethink estimation." I'm pretty sure it wasn't that gentle, the first round.

Dan Sheetz: Oh no.

Dave Hicking: Was it like, "Eliminate estimation?"

Matt Stauffer: Probably. Or, "Never estimate."

Dan Sheetz: I was a little harder on the idea of meetings, too, than Matt wanted me to be, at points. In fact, I think, Dave, you might have had some feedback on that too.

Dave Hicking: I might have.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: The manifesto is ultimately just words on a website. So one of the things I personally value, you're not paying me to say this exactly-

Dan Sheetz: It's not a way of life, Dave?

Dave Hicking: I don't have it tattooed on me.

Matt Stauffer: I was just going to say, are you sure you should- We're not all getting tattoos after this?

Dave Hicking: There's a lot of shops where we could.

Matt Stauffer: There's a lot of words on this manifesto.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, that's true.

Dave Hicking: One of the things I value about Tighten is that both of you are very serious about living up to it. You didn't just put it out there and then ignore it. Out of all of the things in the manifesto, is there one part in particular that you think is hardest, and you can define that word however you want, hardest to pull off on a day to day basis, or one that you struggle with the most to pull off on a regular basis?

Matt Stauffer: That is a fantastic question.

Dan Sheetz: We're scrolling again.

Dave Hicking: The second half questions are harder. We were warming up before.

Dan Sheetz: It's okay. You might be cutting some dead air here.

Matt Stauffer: I feel like there's an easy answer, but I don't want to take the easy answer.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. I think we've probably-

Matt Stauffer: Do you want to take the easy answer and I'll try and come up with a hard one while you talk?

Dan Sheetz: It's hard to do, but let's see.

Dave Hicking: Well, let's start with the easy answer. Let's see where that goes.

Matt Stauffer: Okay. The easy answer is, don't shy from conflict. Dan and I are both naturally people-pleasing, conflict avoidant human beings who have been taught and have lived our lives just basically, just working mainly on making sure that... We're bridge builders. You make sure that everybody around you is satisfied and happy. We're empathetic, so we're able to read the room and figure out when people aren't happy. And so it's our nature to want to do the things that are making the other people who are around pleased.

Matt Stauffer: But the problem is, you can't run a company and you can't do a lot of significantly difficult relationship or organizational things, without sometimes making somebody unhappy. And so, if you're unwilling to do so, then you actually do really toxic things because you end up saying... One of the examples I gave when I talked the other day was, as a people pleaser, you tell people you might do this thing that they're really excited about, and then when you don't do it, it's actually worse. Or as a conflict avoider, you know there's something wrong with what somebody's doing and you don't want to be uncomfortable in telling them. So you don't tell them, and then that's way worse for them because they can't fix it. And then if they lose their job later, they're like, "Nobody told me."

Matt Stauffer: There's so many ways in which you can't run a company well, you can't have real, meaningful and difficult conversations or relationships well, especially with people who are distinctly different from you, without being willing at times to make them uncomfortable or make yourself uncomfortable. So the element that says, "Don't shy from conflict," I think has definitely been one where we, very early on, recognized the need to grow in this. And had some difficult experiences within the first year or two, where we didn't do a good enough job on it and really had to

Dan Sheetz: Matt's being nice. Mainly, well, I'm sure you have other examples, but there was definitely a point where I was making promises on behalf of the company that were making us miserable. And really you more than anybody, but really everybody. I don't know that I knew that I was so conflict avoidant or that I was really self aware about it until we got to that point. You clearly were and you knew it. But some of those early experiences with me going out to California, making a whole bunch of promises on behalf of the company and then coming back and being like, "Hey, look at all this business I got." And then you being like, "Wait. How much are they going to pay us for all this? This looks like a year's worth of work and we've got three months," or whatever. So that was hard earned.

Dan Sheetz: And so like you said, it's an easy answer, but it's the one that I think was the hardest personally to overcome and then implement. And it's not done. I don't mean to indicate that's a solved matter. It's really aspirational and something that we continue to try to do better at. Yeah. I don't have another one.

Dave Hicking: No, that's okay.

Dan Sheetz: That's far and away the most difficult one. What was the original question? It was great.

Matt Stauffer: Which was the hardest.

Dave Hicking: Is there something that is the hardest, the most difficult, challenging, whatever word you want to use, that is the most, insert, to pull off on a day to day basis, to live up to on a day basis?

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, that's definitely the one.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. The notion about worrying about, "Am I making promises that's going to make life hard for the team?" I think that's hard for agencies. It was funny, I was driving around with Keith and I was telling him that I worked at an academic library previously, where the joke that we would make is, "This isn't really a library. More, it's like a perpetual acquisition machine and then everything is in service to that machine."

Dave Hicking: And when you have an agency, as you ramp up biz dev and you get better at it, it can probably be tempting to almost turn it into a perpetual... Everything becomes in service of, how much business can you pull in? But I think one of the things that we've talked about this week, and one of the things that y'all have talked about purposely is, you don't want it to just be, "We're going to hire as many people as we possibly can in order to service..." Just more biz dev and then more people. That's not the point.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, for sure. It makes me think about those early conversations with Adam Wathan and others, about when I would come back with a potential project and say, "Okay, check out this really cool project I've got. Client wants to know how much, how long, et cetera." And he'd be like, "Man, seriously? You know I can't tell you. Why are you coming to me again, asking me this? Go tell them it's $6,000,000. $6,000,000 we can definitely do the project."

Dan Sheetz: And I'd go, "All right, I hear you. I hear you. It's hard to estimate. It's hard to give me level of effort kind of a thing, but can we just ballpark?" And I tried all the different ways to get around that, just thinking that, "Oh, I need to tell him what he needs to hear and then I need to tell the client what they need to hear." And eventually it was like, you know what? I think what I'm going to do instead is just basically tell them what Adam was saying, which is that we have no idea how long this is going to take, and see if we can get away with it. Because it was honest.

Dan Sheetz: And that's kind of the whole gist of this manifesto. Try to get away with doing things in a way that is in service of the people that work with you and isn't counter to it. And maybe we'll eventually get to the point where we do get smacked down. And we don't always get away with this super easily, but it has overall worked. And we stopped doing that. We built up the structures of the company, based on feedback from people like Adam and others that would say, "Hey, thanks for keeping us employed, but the promises you're making maybe don't map onto us having a good time." So we've been trying to shape things around that for a long time.

Matt Stauffer: I got a short note. There's one other thing that is difficult in the day to day. Less because this is hard for Dan and me to do, but because it's actually just a hard thing to do overall, which is develop culture and not just processes. So one of the things that happens when you get into a situation where you don't like how something happened, or it's going really well in most places and then you find a new place where it's not going the way you're expecting, is you're going to say, "Wow, we must standardize this. Let's figure out how we can lock in a checklist or a set of expectations or a document or whatever that's going to force everybody to do this in the first place."

Matt Stauffer: And what we've realized very, very quickly is, that doesn't line up with our way of thinking. What we want to do instead is to define a combination of hiring people and setting people's expectations, while communicating how we want to work, so that that is an inherent culture, so that people make those decisions or take those actions as a natural response out of how they understand how to do this. And this is both employees and clients. Rather than, "Oh, we've got 17,000 checklists that you must run at the beginning of every project and in every single conversation you have." But that's a really difficult thing to do, because on a regular basis, we have this natural inclination to build a checklist, build a process, build a structure or whatever. And some structures are good.

Matt Stauffer: But one of the phrases that you use often, Dave, is organizational scar tissue. A lot of things that you see happen in a lot of organizations, and this is true with a lot of our clients and a lot of other agencies, is not actually the best thing to do. It's sort of like if you walk up to a restaurant and you see all the signs that says, "No shirt, no shoes, no service," but also all the other things like, "And nobody can come in with a pet bear." You're like, "What are you talking about?" And it's because at some point, somebody came with a pet bear, so what did they do? They put a sign on the door that says, "No pet bears."

Dan Sheetz: They had a bad previous experience, yeah.

Matt Stauffer: Organizations have negative experiences and then they make a rule or they make a policy, or they make a process. When in reality, what those usually are, are reflective of a way that the culture has not been defined. And for us, as we've grown as a company, a lot of those cultural elements were like, well, we've hired a very similar set of people with a similar set of experiences and we all spend a lot of time together when there's six of us. When there's 30 of us, first of all, we're trying to hire people from different backgrounds, which means you have less assumption of shared experience. But also, people aren't hanging out with Dan and Matt every single day and so the osmosis from owner to individual employee is not going to be the same.

Matt Stauffer: And so, doing the intentional work to resist the temptation to build a process, build a policy, build a rule every single time something's not going consistently the way you want, versus doing the harder work to figure out, "How do we shape culture?", is something that we have to think about on a very regular basis, and have to catch ourselves from doing what the natural response feels like it would be. And instead, going to what feels like, how do we create the company that stays light, stays live, stays flexible and defines its culture and does not just have just an overwhelming glom of rules and policies and processes?

Dave Hicking: I want to talk about rolling it out, internal and external. So the manifesto was written by y'all, was presented to the team as a part of our internal rollout for new website and branding. And even though, as we've discussed, the manifesto is based on values and concepts that we had certainly largely talked about before at Tighten, did you feel nervous or anxious about rolling it out to the team internally?

Dan Sheetz: I did, a little bit. You made me feel nervous about it, Dave. No, I'm kidding, but-

Dave Hicking: That's okay.

Dan Sheetz: You did have a critique, and you phrased it really nicely and you basically... No, I mean that. You said, "Hey, did you consider having this be more of a collaborative process?" And it's a very good question. There are aspects of this document and other things about how we do business that are not democratic and don't come from polling the team and having everybody weigh in and then we make decisions that way. That's one way of doing things, and I can imagine a shape of organization where it would be time to look more at that sort of a thing.

Dan Sheetz: But I think that, given how much we had to say that wasn't already down, and also just how closely held a lot of these ideas are, it would have been odd to try to do it in a way that was like, "Hey, folks, what do you think about this idea, or how we're stating it?", or this and that. It really had to be something that we just roll out and say, "Hey, this is the deal."

Dan Sheetz: But yeah, I did have some nervousness about that and about, frankly, the whole rebrand process. But it was a conscious and intentional decision to not poll people, on especially design. It's just impossible to do from a committee standpoint. You can't. I can't even show someone something and get any kind of feedback from outside. It has to be a closed box, or that voice in my ear will start going, "Well, Such-and-Such said that it's a little too much like the old brand, or it's a little too blue," or whatever. Like that. And it sticks in your head, whether you like it or not. So for me, it needed to be something that we did as a subset of the team, and then if folks don't like it, we would just have to live with it. Which is legit.

Matt Stauffer: I agree with Dan that there was aspects of the brand that I was a little concerned about, just because it was a very big creative endeavor and people could think it was dumb. From the manifesto perspective, I think I wasn't, only because the idea of the manifesto is literally centered around creating the type of company that we want to work for and we think that the people around us want to work for.

Matt Stauffer: So if we released it and it was responded to negatively, that would have been awful. But I feel like it would have been so foundationally awful, like, "Wow, we are just completely not aligned about what we think the desirability of working for a place looks like," that that would have been a much bigger problem than people not liking the manifesto. And so for me, I'm like, "If y'all don't like this manifesto, that's fine, but we got some bigger shit we got to work on."

Dan Sheetz: "Y'all don't like working here."

Matt Stauffer: Yeah, exactly. Right? But that's fine and we could have worked that out. But let's say someone said, "Oh, you missed this point." Well, cool. It's a website. Just add a point. It's not a big deal. So I think for me, from the manifesto perspective, if anybody walks away from this manifesto thinking, other than maybe little nitpicks, thinking anything other than, "This lines up with the things I like about working at Tighten," well, first of all, I hope they tell me and we have a great conversation about it.

Matt Stauffer: But second of all, I think I would have been a little bit surprised, only because it's not just that these are our ideals. These ideals have been informed very significantly by conversations with the people who work at Tighten or used to work at Tighten or who want to work at Tighten. And so it's not just like Matt and Dan swooping and pooping, and something nobody's ever heard of before. These are-

Dave Hicking: We love the swoop. Well, no. We don't love the swoop.

Matt Stauffer: We don't love the swoop and poop.

Dave Hicking: The phrase is great.

Matt Stauffer: But it's a fun phrase to say, right? So it's not like we just... I was going to say another phrase. How much do we swear in this podcast?

Dan Sheetz: You're going to bring up toilet paper. Somehow you're going to bring up toilet paper.

Matt Stauffer: Whatever. You can beep it off. It's not like we just shat this out, out of the blue and nobody knew this was coming. That's what I was going to say before the swoop and poop. We have been holding these ideas, building a company around these ideas, hiring people who exemplify these ideas, for the last, whatever, 11 years. And so to imagine that group of people who have been around us, who have been helping inform this, who exemplify these things, which is why they work here, and then for them to have a negative response to it, it just seemed so outside of my realm of possibility that I wasn't that bothered by it.

Dave Hicking: When the website launched during Laracon, I think overwhelmingly, there was a lot of positive feedback. Social media, all sorts of things, which is great. But I have to ask, whether social media or friends or other people in the industry or whatever, did you get any negative feedback? Or any feedback that made you think that... Instead of negative, maybe it was more like, "Are you sure about that point?" Did anybody push back on you in a way that... Whether it was somebody you respected or some random person who resonated with you? Was there any feedback like that?

Matt Stauffer: Have you gotten anything like that?

Dan Sheetz: I mean, I live under a rock. You know that. Unless they say it on LinkedIn, they're not going to get a response from me.

Matt Stauffer: I'm pretty sure the only negative word I heard was, "Hey, can we have a not dark mode version of this?" That's not negative. That was just people's accessibility concerns.

Dave Hicking: Oh, interesting.

Matt Stauffer: Beyond that question, not only was it positive, but people who've never cared about anything I've ever done professionally ever before finally went and read the manifesto or the whatever and they were like, "Oh, damn, this is what you do?" And I was like, "This is what I've been doing, but thanks for paying attention." So I got very, very, very positive feedback from a lot of unexpected quarters, from this website.

Dan Sheetz: I definitely got some negative feedback from the imposter voice in my head at times.

Matt Stauffer: Oh, sure.

Dave Hicking: That's another-

Dan Sheetz: Well, you write a thing in a... Yeah, maybe that's a different question.

Dave Hicking: No, let's keep going.

Dan Sheetz: But yeah, you write a thing with a whole bunch of really direct statements that are opinionated. At one point, you're in one kind of mood and one mind state and you go back and read it, and there are times when I've looked at statements on the manifesto or on our site and I've gone, "Man, that person might be bragging a little bit. That's maybe a little direct."

Dan Sheetz: But I don't want to just go editing things like that willy-nilly either. There's a good reason for the tone of all this stuff. Bold, savvy, and optimistic. Those are the tenets of the brand that we wanted to communicate and I'm basically living with them for a good amount of time here. But yeah, I've had those moments where I... You work long enough on anything and you start to... You do question it.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. All right. So one more question from me, and then if any of our lovely audience members have any questions, we're going to pass the mic around. Fast forward two years from now. Is there something that either of you hope that maybe we could add to the manifesto because we've changed something at Tighten or grown in some way? Maybe something where there's a seed germinating in either of y'all's brains that you think a future iteration of Tighten could do?

Dan Sheetz: Man, you ask some good questions, Dave. Sorry, I'll face the mic. You ask really good questions, Dave. Some of them are hard.

Dave Hicking: Sorry.

Dan Sheetz: No, I'm terrible at envisioning the future. Maybe a lot of people are. But in the context of this document? Hmm. I can't think of anything directly. There's definitely things that I want to do and implement at the company that I hope would get done in that timeframe. But I can't think of anything like the foundational, you know what I mean? Nothing comes to mind.

Matt Stauffer: I would say, I agree with what Dan said. If anything were to change about the manifesto, it would be out of a desire for us to get out... One of the things I've been telling the team a lot, with this trip, is that I feel like a lot of my time and energy has been being seen as someone who can teach about how to code and how to be a good individual person. And what I'm interested in doing is spending a little bit more time talking about how to run a great company, and the manifesto is kind of step one of this. So I think that if there was any change I could imagine happening, it would be, as we start teaching other people about the manifesto, they say, "Well, what about X, Y, Z?" And we realize it's missing, and then we make it.

Matt Stauffer: So maybe that wasn't necessary, to talk about how Tighten should be Tighten. But if we imagine the manifesto as almost like a guide that we help other people will take and run with, then maybe we can add some things in there that make it more useful for more other people. But I don't know that I would imagine... I think if there's something is a goal for us, it would already be on here. So, like Dan said, there's some goals I have for things we can do as a company, that will help us even better align practically with the ideals in this manifesto. But none of them line up with actually changing the manifesto itself.

Dave Hicking: So it's not like you're like, "Okay, this is Manifesto 1.0," and you've got a vision board somewhere?

Matt Stauffer: People very often say, "Oh, this is a work in progress or a living document." It's not a living document. It's just words on a website. I mean, we can change those words, so in some ways it's a living document, but-

Dave Hicking: It's a living document in that way.

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. Yeah. It's not stuck forever, but there's no intention to make any significant changes to it.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. Agreed.

Dave Hicking: Okay. Anybody have any questions? If so, get the attention of my amazing audio assistant, Jake.

Matt Stauffer: All right.

Keith Damiani: Yeah. I got a question. This is somewhat related to Dave's last question.

Matt Stauffer: Say who you are.

Keith Damiani: Oh, I'm Keith Damiani. I'm the principal programmer here.

Dave Hicking: Hey, it's Keith.

Keith Damiani: Hey, how's it going?

Dave Hicking: Hey.

Keith Damiani: Good to see you.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Keith Damiani: This is somewhat related to your last question, which is forward looking, but I want to look back a little bit. So one of the things that Matt said, and I agree with, and I think is one of the most important parts of manifesto, is the tagline. "Build a company you want to work for." It's been about a decade now. Has your notion or your conception of, quote, the company you want to work for changed over that time? Has it evolved?

Matt Stauffer: Yes. Jamison, who's been here as long as anybody else, is nodding vigorously right now. So in some ways, the idea of building a company that cares for people, and all those things, hasn't changed at all, like we were saying at the beginning. But what it looks like to practically do so, as an agency, has changed very significantly. Because at the very beginning, for example, we were still estimating everything. That's the example we keep using, but it has been the most notable change. But I would say, there's also a lot of other elements in which just our understanding of how to be, for example, confident and aware of our capabilities and seeing ourselves as experts, was not something that we would have defined as a really strong value at the beginning.

Matt Stauffer: And now, I literally just gave y'all a whole talk about... Not y'all, but them all, about expertise and having other people understand that we're experts. And so I think that that's something that we certainly benefited from at the beginning, but I wouldn't have named it that way. I wouldn't have understood it, like this is one of our things that we're looking for. And doing that allows us to have a company that is more enjoyable, that we certainly would have enjoyed 10 years ago, but we didn't know to understand that was something valuable at that point.

Matt Stauffer: So I think, high level, the goal was always to create the type of place that cares for the people who work there and that cares for the people who we work for, or however you want to call a client, and does so in a way that treats people as people, that does the best job we possibly can, who's open and communicative. But I think our understandings of how to do so have grown as we've grown as people and as we have, as a team, understood better what it looks like to actually act those things out, through trial and tribulation and also some employee contribution stuff.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. Yeah. I don't think my idea of the kind of company I wanted to work for has changed all that much, but what has been really surprising is just how well it's gone to do that and to say, "Well, what if we just got rid of all the stuff that really, really sucks?" And I'm looking around. I'm sure somebody's thinking, "Oh, there's still all kinds of stuff that sucks." But-

Dave Hicking: Just ask for the mic. We can get that question.

Dan Sheetz: Exactly. Go easy on me. But we say it in the text of the document, that what we were really surprised by is the results that we could get by doing these things, and by not just trying to treat people well, but by making that the literal reason for the company to exist. We could all get other jobs in tech or in another industry, but the reason to have a company like this is to have a place where we come together and take care of one another. That is the reason. And having that down on paper... I'm so far from Keith's original question. But it has been really surprising to me, just what we've been able to get away with, on the business side, as we've centered that component of things.

Matt Stauffer: Yeah. Let me add on that just a tiny bit. That blog was called The Great Tighten Experiment because we had started talking publicly to people about how we wanted to run the company and they all were like, "That's a cool idea. Not sure if it's going to work for you, but good luck." And for people who know and love and respect us, and who believe that this is how companies should ideally be run, they still didn't think it was going to work. And so what we basically had to decide together was, this is worth the attempt and if it doesn't work, then we'll just get some other job. But why not at least try it?

Matt Stauffer: And so I think that part of that comes back to Keith's question a little bit, in that we weren't sure if it was going to work at the beginning. And so if we weren't sure it was going to work, we certainly weren't going to be as brash as we are today, having seen that what we've tried so far has worked. So now we're like, "Oh, let's try even more to experiment in how to run this kind of a company." And so I do think that, like you said, since the beginning of the company 10 years ago, even just looking back to that blog post, our confidence and our belief that we could actually do these things was significantly lower and different than what we're believing today that we're capable of doing.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, no doubt.

Jake Bathman: I have a question.

Matt Stauffer: Yes.

Jake Bathman: I'm Jake Bathman.

Matt Stauffer: Howdy, Jake.

Dave Hicking: Holding the mic.

Dan Sheetz: Jake.

Jake Bathman: Holding the mic. Manifesto or procedures or culture fit and otherwise, how would you think that how you want to run the company would have to change, with double the current employee staff or 10 times the current employees? I know that's not something that's going to happen tomorrow or next year or in two years. But I'm wondering how the things that you've put in place, you see scaling. If there's something else that you definitely only works with a relatively small shop of 30-ish people, or if you start to get into the triple digits or higher, that you'd have difficulty implementing.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. You're terrifying me.

Matt Stauffer: Dave is quitting.

Dan Sheetz: I'll take this one, to start anyways. Jake, super good question, first of all. I've thought a lot about size and headcount, and when I attend these industry events and there's people running shops of from one to a couple hundred or more, it dawns on me all the time. I wonder if we could get away with this at a larger size. I don't want to be. This is as big as I ever thought we would be. 30 has always felt like a real inflection point. But I don't know. It's the first time I've done this.

Dan Sheetz: I don't intend to get any bigger. I do think that, like Matt was saying about building culture and then putting it out in the company and then letting y'all run it, gives me hope that one could do that if they wanted to. It can't continue to live in the two of us, but it already doesn't and it hasn't for the longest time. Those of you who have been here a long time, so many of the quirks about what we do are from y'all, not from Matt or I. And so I do think, if we had aspirations to be huge, there's a chance that you could do it at a larger scale. I just... I don't know. You want to run that company?

Jake Bathman: Yeah. No, thank you.

Dan Sheetz: Okay. But it's a good question. Thanks, man.

Matt Stauffer: I think that, one of the things we've been doing intentionally is... I don't know if I mentioned this earlier in the podcast, but I did earlier today, talking about the book Good to Great, which basically says that if you have a charismatic front person or people, you need to get to a point, in order for this company to have a long, successful future, to the point where it doesn't depend on those two people. And there's lots of reasons why, but you can imagine the simplest being, what happens when that person retires or gets hit by a bus or whatever? If everything is dependent on those people being who they are, and then they walk away and then everything falls to shambles, then you couldn't scale, you can't have any longevity, and you're really just depending on them pulling all the strings all the time.

Matt Stauffer: So we have been very, very, very intentional over the last years, trying to set things up so that either of us can disappear for a month for whatever reason, and eventually get to the point where we can do that and the company will keep running exactly as it was. And it's not there yet. For example, a month without Dan, I would try to take over biz dev and I've told you all earlier in this retreat, exactly what would happen in that scenario and we know it's not good.

Matt Stauffer: But the goal would be eventually to get to the point where you don't need the two of us, and we're still doing what we do, but there's people who are capable of doing all the things we currently do. And so that's one of the reasons why we're trying to hire for more roles. We're adding more levels of management, even though traditionally we used to want to be really flat management. That's one of the reasons why we're also trying to scale everybody at the company up in certain skills, that sometimes are things that he or I exemplify, and we want everybody else to have them, so that you don't need us around for anything.

Matt Stauffer: So we are trying to take steps to do so. And one of the things that's unintentionally done is prepared us for, if we do get to a point where we want to be significantly bigger, it's no longer, how big can the pyramid that has Matt and Dan at the pyramidion? That was from Keith's talk earlier. But the top of the pyramid. You can only scale so big when everything runs down from the two of us. But when we have cultures and processes and people who can then teach other people to do the same thing, there are more opportunities you have for scale. That doesn't mean we want to scale significantly. At some point, we can hire 10 project managers, but at some point there's only so many Daves. We can have 10 leads, and at some point there's only so many Keiths. And so then we have to do more work.

Matt Stauffer: But we have always grown as slowly as possible. It's been a value of Dan's and mine from the very beginning of the company, to grow as slowly as we're capable of doing so. Because when you grow really quickly in response to significant influxes of potential money then, A, you don't have the ability to respond to the changes that come bit by bit, and then you get overwhelmed by them and you get really toxic cultures that slip in accidentally. But then, B, what happens when that money falls away? Now you have to start changing the culture of the company to adapt to the fact that, oh my gosh, we now have to find crappy clients to fit those spaces that we thought were going to get.

Matt Stauffer: So we all have been very, very, very, very... All along, have been very careful about growing as slowly as possible, so that every new challenge that comes with each new piece of growth is something we can address in its own time, and then not grow anymore until we feel like we've addressed those things. So in theory, we could potentially just keep doing this as long as we wanted. Maybe eventually hit 150 people, if we wanted. But it would take a long time to get there, because we're very intentional about growing really slowly and then hitting pause until we feel like we have a handle on where we are, and it takes time. And the bigger we get, the longer it takes to get a handle on each new stage.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. And just a quick point to follow that up. I was just thinking to myself, why I was making a scared face at you about being bigger. The idea of there being 60 of you instead of 30 here, that doesn't terrify me as being in the room or anything like that. What terrifies me is the idea of getting big enough to where you have to lay people off at times.

Dan Sheetz: And just to get to Matt's point about growing slow. That's, I would say, the main reason that we have tried to grow so slowly, is I never want to come tell anybody that they can't work here anymore because we tried to grow too fast, because I made some bad decision, or we did something too quickly or not intentionally. So that's the big thing. That's 60 families that are dependent on me making good decisions. And it sounds like a lot of pressure, but mostly I just don't want to ever have to tell anybody that they can't work here anymore.

Matt Stauffer: Interesting. Because my bigger fear is choosing to take on working arrangements that are not in line with our values so that we don't have to lay people off. And then the whole freaking experiment of, "Create a company you want to work for," we're like, "Well, in order to keep this company alive, we now have to make compromises that it's no longer fully the company we want to work for. It's like 80 percent the company we want to work for, but at least we didn't lay people off."

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, that's a good point. And it's not-

Matt Stauffer: That's a terrible situation.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. There's some downstream things that happen when you have that as an imperative. But, good point, yeah.

Dave Hicking: Can I ask a follow-up to that? Which is, one of the things that happens as Tighten gets bigger is, as you pointed out, in a good way, the company is not just the two of you. But that means the company culture is not just the two of you. Have either of you, maybe in your darkest moments, felt a fear or worry of any kind about... The culture at Tighten is just multiplied and it's just... In a good way. It's just not the two of you anymore and I think that's a good thing. But have you ever thought, "Oh boy, I don't know. Things took a turn somewhere."

Dan Sheetz: No, not at all.

Dave Hicking: Good. I'm glad.

Dan Sheetz: Not in the least. It's so much more interesting and fun with other people driving it than it would be with Matt or I doing it. There's so many inside jokes and traditions and things that we have around here, that have absolutely nothing to do with me. And it would be really boring if it was all flowing from the top. So no, I haven't ever had that feeling. You?

Matt Stauffer: I haven't had that feeling. But you asked me for deepest, darkest.

Dave Hicking: Therapy hour with Matt and Dan.

Matt Stauffer: Right? I'm a words of affirmation person, so I really like it when people notice what I do well. But I also try to be very humble, so I don't want to tell anybody what I do well. And so I really enjoy when somebody notices something that I did well and then notices that I did it well. So anytime anybody's like, "Oh, Matt did this great," I'm like, "Okay, I'm full for the day," and I'm happy or whatever.

Matt Stauffer: The bigger the company gets, the less the things that I have done that are good are attributed to me. Because first of all, I hired great people who acted those things out. But second of all, they took them and probably made them better, so the credit belongs to them instead of me. So the more we have an amazing company that has amazing people doing amazing things, the less it's The Matt Show being amazing and the more, it's a whole bunch of amazing people who happen to work here because Matt and Dan brought them together.

Matt Stauffer: And so deep, dark inside, every once in a while, there's a moment where I'm like, "Oh man, I'd like more credit for whatever stupid thing." And I'm like, "Well, that's not actually something that I, left to my own devices, would have put it in the place that it's in today." And then I go, "I'm really grateful for all these wonderful people." So in terms of the culture running away from me, no, everything in here, just like Dan said, is 100 times better. But if we just really want to talk deep dark, the ego sometimes can be a little bit lower when you intentionally don't make yourself the big masthead, figurehead, who gets credit for every great thing in the whole place.

Dave Hicking: Sure. Because as Tighten has gotten bigger, in a sense, you've probably had to decide for yourself, do you find joy in others succeeding, not just yourself? And I believe the answer to that is yes. I don't want to put words in-

Matt Stauffer: Yeah, it is. Yeah.

Dave Hicking: But I hear you. It's just almost like a different job, almost.

Matt Stauffer: And also, one of the things I talked to one of my friends about recently is, there was a moment about a year and a half in or something like that, where everybody we'd hired up to that point was either an apprentice or Jamison who I had started working with... Well, that's not shade at all. I don't know. We all love you. No, so everyone we hired had either been an apprentice or Jamison who I had worked with together, and not trained him but helped him grow. And so every single time we had hired somebody, it put me in a position to be like, "I'm smart. I know what I'm doing. People are looking to me." And I had a point where I'm like, "That's not going to scale. I need to hire people who smarter than me."

Matt Stauffer: And so we made the shift. And not to say that Jamison isn't freaking brilliant or the apprentices weren't amazing human beings, but my goal there was not to hire somebody who can blow me out of the water in X or Y technology. My goal was to bring in wonderful people and give them a space to grow. And I had to shift my mindset and say, "If I'm always the smartest person in the room..." And again, I'm not talking about intelligence as a human person, that's just a phrase, "...then we're only always going to be limited by my abilities as a programmer." And so we shifted and I had to say, "I want someone who's better than me at this technology or that technology, or this way of thinking, or whatever." And that is a difficult thing to do when, again, a lot of owning a company can come down to ego at times. And it's like, "Oh, I want everybody to think I'm great and wonderful and smart, and stuff like that."

Matt Stauffer: And so it's been a joy to have done that, but it took work to choose to put myself in a position where every single person in the company is better at something than I am in some way, shape or form, and I celebrate that. And I'm not the smartest person in the room and I love not being the smartest person in the room because now I can learn something from everybody. But again, when you're doing that thing where you're set up in a position to be seen as the leader, it takes an intentional step to choose not to do that, because then it's always just going to be The You Show and a whole bunch of people who you intentionally made subservient to you, and that's not healthy for anybody.

Dan Sheetz: It dawns me that we never had a conversation about making sure that I wasn't the smartest person in the room or hiring people smarter than Dan.

Matt Stauffer: Sorry for that.

Dan Sheetz: I mean, maybe you're still the smartest person in the room. I don't know.

Matt Stauffer: No chance. No chance.

Marje Holmstrom-Sabo: Hi. I'm Marje Holmstrom-Sabo. You've heard my voice many times on this podcast. Matt and Dan, you've talked about building a company you want to work for. My question is, have you built a company you want to retire from? What are your plans for your own selves and your own lives? Because we love our company. I'd love to see it be here forever. I don't want you to be here forever. So what thoughts have you given to, "What am I going to do when I'm done with this?"

Dan Sheetz: I got thoughts about this.

Dave Hicking: Now we're getting deep and dark secrets.

Dan Sheetz: I know, right? No, it's not dark. This is the opposite of dark. This might be getting kind of long. I had this thought about people who are really wealthy and who try to do... It's like once you get to a billion dollars, other than capital allocation or something like that, 90 percent of that money already has a utility value of zero, because ultimately, you have one life. You're limited by that much time. There's only so much luxury you can avail yourself of, or any of that.

Dan Sheetz: And I was thinking to myself, I don't have a desire to be incredibly wealthy, but I think it would be unbelievably cool if Tighten were independently wealthy. And what I mean by that is, imagine that we were successful enough at a certain point to say, "Okay, well, we just don't care about revenue for a year or two," or whatever, and we just hit the pause button and then it's like...

Dan Sheetz: A billionaire that is ridiculously rich but has a bunch of people that they treat poorly working for them and that's why they're so wealthy. I'm looking at you, Mr. Amazon guy. But they just still have the one life. But imagine I have some project that I want to do and the company is successful enough that we can just say, "That's fine. Okay. We'll just lose money for a year. It doesn't matter." And then my dream is to say, "Okay, now you three, as a group, go find the thing that is the most impact that you think you can have for a year. Go." And then have clusters of people doing that. That is my idea of retirement. Because then you've multiplied yourself. So you have good and big ideas, and there's only so much I can do. There's wonderful things we can do on behalf of clients. But ultimately, these are not my dreams playing out.

Dave Hicking: This is when we finally build the Instagram-

Dan Sheetz: That would be retirement to me. Because I still don't have to do... Yeah, right? I wouldn't be me doing the work and so in that sense, I could be retired. But that, to me, would be the ultimate way to be moving on to that next step, is to have done well enough with the company that it can be a vehicle for playing out my old man dreams, in the sense of being able to do stuff that isn't driven by a financial incentive.

Matt Stauffer: I think the baseline assumption that, if there's retirement in the future, I'd like to spend to more time with my kids and travel and be in the ocean. Those are all baseline assumptions. I think he's got the same ones.

Dan Sheetz: I should have said that.

Matt Stauffer: That was baseline assumptions for you too, right? But now that I've said those things, if we talk about what I would like to do with my life and the impact I'd like to make my life outside of the context of Tighten, I think what I hinted at earlier is that. And that doesn't mean that there'll be it forever. But what I said earlier was, I spent the beginning of my Tighten career teaching people how to code, spent the middle of it teaching them how to be kind and good and generous and empathetic people, and my goal going forward is hopefully to spend time teaching business owners and CTOs and stuff like that, how to run organizations that look a little bit more like Tighten does.

Matt Stauffer: And so for me, the impact I'd like to make is for people to look... We talk about Mister Rogers and Ted Lasso being my heroes all the time, and if you look at the impact that Mister Rogers made on people's lives, he made millions of children believe that somebody knows them and loves them and cares for them and they're not alone. And that's amazing. And when we see stuff from Mister Rogers today, we all tear up a little bit because we remember the impact that he had on our lives, making us feel that way. And he was very, very, very intentional about doing that. He literally said, "That's what I want to do, is make kids feel this way." And so for me, that's why he's my hero, is because he spent his entire life, his entire legacy is making millions and millions and millions of children, and he especially originally targeted children who were least likely to have that love and support, making them feel that way. And he has an amazing legacy and we're all grateful for him.

Matt Stauffer: So I am very grateful for the opportunity I've had to influence culture at Tighten because I've always said, with ownership of a company comes power and privilege. And those words are scary because they're abused most of the time, but if you just try to pretend that you don't have it, that's also ridiculous. Dan and I both have power and privilege. We own a company. We have access to do things with money, with people's jobs and stuff like that. And we also have power and privilege in the company. Dan's pointing at the lodge that we're in right now. It's power, it's privilege, and we can either pretend like we don't have it and just allow it to just go unhinged, based on whatever random crap comes out of our brains, or we can acknowledge that we have it and then try to use it for good.

Matt Stauffer: So for me, the goal with the power and privilege has always been, just like Dan keeps talking about, how can we create the best place... Daniel Coulbourne said this on a podcast years ago and it was very helpful. He's like, "I feel like Matt and Dan just basically set out to create the 17 best jobs that have ever existed in the history of the planet," because it was 17 at that point. And it was really nice to hear somebody say that because yes, but I often don't understand that people understand that.

Matt Stauffer: And so, one of the benefits of this whole manifesto situation has been naming those things so I'm not as surprised when somebody recognizes that's what it's about. But for me, I'm like, "Great. Well, we're at 30 people." I don't want to have to grow this company to 200 people in order to have a positive impact on 200 people's lives. I think the company should grow at its own pace, but I would love for my impact to grow at a larger pace than that.

Matt Stauffer: So if I were to imagine what retirement looks like for me, it's first of all, Tighten continuing to thrive and grow and be the space where now people who are not Matt and Dan continue to do all the wonderful things in this place to give people wonderful lives and wonderful jobs and all that kind of stuff. And then for me to be able to go do that for other people. So I don't want to be a schmoozy consultant. I keep telling people who just quote Sun Tzu on Twitter, just to try and get more Twitter followers or whatever. But I would, if there's an opportunity for us to use what we've done here-

Dan Sheetz: Matt, you're not going to go full thought leader on us?

Matt Stauffer: I'm not going to go full thought leader. But if there's an opportunity for me, without trying to sell courses or trying to sell anything else, to go take the manifesto or whatever else and help more people create companies that care for people, that create 17 more jobs or 1,700 more jobs, that make people lives better so that they can be more present for their families and can be happier, that's an impact I'd like to make.

Matt Stauffer: And so for me, it's taking the little kind of template that we did here, and taking it much broader. That's kind of next dreams for me. And I don't have to be retired to do that. That's where I'm heading right now. But as I think about what would be post Tighten, for me it would be just taking Tighten and bringing it everywhere else, basically. Thanks, Marje.

Dave Hicking: I think this might be our last question, because I'm guessing dinner is probably-

Marje Holmstrom-Sabo: We're actually doing okay.

Dave Hicking: Okay.

Marje Holmstrom-Sabo: So you can probably take-

Dan Sheetz: Okay. If we got them.

Chris Trombley: Hi.

Dan Sheetz: Who are you?

Chris Trombley: Chris Trombley, head programmer.

Dan Sheetz: Hey, Chris.

Dave Hicking: Hey, Chris.

Chris Trombley: You both have helped everyone who works here professionally, and many, if not all of us personally. You've built a great company and certainly a company that I want to work for. This isn't a dig for a raise, by the way. Dan already owes me $50K after losing several holes in Golden Tee last night. So despite all of your success, nobody always gets it right. What is one thing that you both got wrong, building Tighten? How did you correct it, what did you learn from it, and how does it affect your decision making process, moving forward?

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, the worst decision I made was playing with you last night. I mean, $50K. Good Lord. You want us to answer that seriously?

Matt Stauffer: Well, we should, but I don't even know the answer right now. Do you have a good answer?

Dan Sheetz: Chris, would you mind just repeating it? Because once you said the $50K thing I really uh-.

Matt Stauffer: He was too busy thinking about golf.

Dan Sheetz: My mind went down that path, to Top Tee or whatever it's called.

Matt Stauffer: It's like 10 Dannonballs.

Dan Sheetz: It really is. Exactly.

Chris Trombley: Sure. While building Tighten, what is one thing that you got wrong? How did you correct it, what did you learn from it, and how does it affect your decision making process moving forward?

Dan Sheetz: Hmm. I think the first thing that comes to mind is that we were doing almost everything wrong at the beginning. We've just been trying to course correct bit by bit since. Thing it did wrong though. There hasn't been any big theory. It's kind of like the question about the manifesto, and are there aspects that we would have pulled out or that almost didn't make the cut. Reminds me of that. But there's not anything that comes really concretely to mind, just because they all stem from a principle that's kind of hard to argue with, I guess. Damn, man. You ask Dave-like good questions. That's another tricky one. You want to go?

Matt Stauffer: I don't know if this is the biggest one, but I think that one of the things we've been talking about, this onsite, is how much are we trying to write code and how much are we trying to help other people get their organizations healthier and set up better? And one of the things that's meant for me is always trying to push the boundaries and the edges of how comfortable we are with basically working with clients who are putting our programmers in unhealthy spaces.

Matt Stauffer: And so I can't say that this is definitively a huge issue, but I would say that if I have regrets, most of the moments I regret in terms of interpersonal interactions with clients is where I get into a place where, in retrospect, I feel like the team was not as healthy working with that client as I wish they were. And often I reflect it's because I was trying really, really, really hard for us to fix the client.

Matt Stauffer: So I don't know that I would say that's a huge mistake and that we shouldn't do it. Because you all know, y'all listening to the podcast don't know this, my talk at this onsite was about how we can scale up in our ability to help clients grow and fix their internal issues. But I would say that just leaving people in a difficult situation where I desperately attempt to fix whatever's going on organizationally, has often led to people feeling burned out, as I'm like, "Look, let's just do this. We'll do this work. This is something I really want."

Matt Stauffer: So I don't know if this is the biggest regret, but it was the first thing that came to mind when you asked that question, is just my aspirations for us to be more than just programmers and really change other people's culture, leaving people in unhealthy situations longer, in retrospect, than I would have.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah, now that you mention it, I think I can answer the question more like looking for what I want to avoid doing. I want to make sure that I don't get to the point where my role at the company needed to have been augmented or replaced, long before I actually do it. And that's something that, towards the end of last year, I was definitely thinking about. We're a lot more people than we were, and there's just a lot more hungry mouths to feed. And by that, I mean people ready to do work at a really high rate of speed and with great adeptness.

Dan Sheetz: What would be terrible is for the current situation or a situation like last fall to be something that was a trailing indicator of a situation that already existed and that we were really in trouble. So I guess I would say that I want to make sure that we're smart enough, or at least I'm smart enough and humble enough to see the writing on the wall long enough in advance before big change needs to happen, so that we don't wind up screwed. It's not really an answer to your question, but I didn't prepare for this, like most conversations I end up having.

Matt Stauffer: Actually I just came up with a better answer.

Dan Sheetz: Okay, good.

Matt Stauffer: When we have-

Dan Sheetz: I know I'm going to think of something as soon as we're done.

Matt Stauffer: I'm sure you will. That's fine. What you said was great. When we had difficulties in the first couple years of the company-

Dan Sheetz: Oh, now I already know.

Matt Stauffer: Oh. Do you want to go?

Dan Sheetz: No, no. You go.

Matt Stauffer: I would often see the difficulty coming and then I would ask Dan about the difficulty, and Dan would say, "This isn't a difficulty." And then I'd be like, "Well, Dan said it's not an issue, so I'm going to go." And then later it would become a difficulty and then I'd be like, "Well, I asked Dan about it and he said nothing about it." And so I took a lack of ownership over my agency and actually figuring out what's going on, because I wanted somebody else to be responsible for the decisions that were being made and for the consequences of those decisions.

Matt Stauffer: So if I said, "Hey, I'm worried," and I'm only saying this because Dan has mentioned it multiple times, "I'm worried that this particular project is booked in a way where there's no way we're going to be done when they run out of budget, and I think we should be communicating now, three months before we run out of budget, that this is going to be a big issue." And he says, "Don't worry about it. It's no problem. They've got more budget afterwards," and I think that's probably not true and it smells to me, I go, "Dan said we're good."

Matt Stauffer: And then multiple times, when I'm working with programmers over the next three months, they're like, "Hey, we're not going to have enough time or money." I'm like, "Don't worry about it. Dan said we're good. We're good. End of story." And so I was refusing to take ownership, to have the difficult conversations with Dan and also with this client, and I just put all the onus on him to basically take this responsibility. And then, when it turns out that Dan was wrong, he spends all this time apologizing.

Dan Sheetz: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I was wrong?

Matt Stauffer: You were wrong.

Dan Sheetz: Slow down here.

Matt Stauffer: You were way wrong. But then, Dan spends all this time apologizing when in reality, I had a very big role to play in that. And it looks like it was just Dan's fault, when in reality I could have, at any point during those three months, actually sucked it up and actually had the difficult conversation, and didn't. And I've had a couple moments since that particular one, where I've found that temptation come up, to be like, "Well, Dan said so," and I have to remind myself it doesn't matter. We're equal partners here. He's not my dad. We got to figure this out together.

Matt Stauffer: And working that way allows us to now trust that we're going to push each other. If he says the thing and I don't agree with it, I'm going to push it again. And same thing with him, for me. So I think that's probably one of my biggest regrets, is allowing him to take the fall of a difficult decision. Not necessarily fall, because he could have taken the success if it worked, but just not being willing to do the hard work, if that makes sense.

Dan Sheetz: Yeah. I did think of the thing and it's very concrete. I just want to be very careful about how I talk because it's about someone who doesn't work here anymore.

Matt Stauffer: Oh yeah.

Dan Sheetz: Early on in an early employee's tenure, I think there was conversations that needed to be had with that person, that I did not have because I didn't want to have a hard conversation. And I think that person was ill served by... I served myself by doing that because I didn't have to feel the discomfort, but harm was done to that person for that. And I have learned a lot from that, and really centering that as a value is something that came out of that and many other experiences. But yeah, there's one in one thing in particular I think that I should have been better in that spot.

Dave Hicking: Okay. Do we have any other questions? Last one. Going once. Going twice. Okay. So that's it for this very special episode of Twenty Percent Time. I have some people to thank. I want to thank Matt and Dan for doing this. For doing this episode, for building this company, for helping put us in this awesome lodge at onsite. I have to thank Marje and Anna for planning onsite and doing a fabulous job. I need to thank Jake for being my audio man. I didn't even ask him. He just did it. Thank you, Jake, with an assist from Shawn-

Dan Sheetz: Typical Jake. Typical Marje.

Dave Hicking: ...for supplying any amount of equipment and expertise. Thank you both. And I want to thank all of you for taking time. I know we're running a little late. For being an audience, for asking questions, for being here. So thank you, everybody. Everybody give yourselves a round of applause.

Dan Sheetz: And thank you, Dave, for coming as prepared and ready to put us into uncomfortable conversations, as you always do.

Dan Sheetz: No, I mean it. Thanks for the great questions and it was just fun.

Matt Stauffer: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: All right. That's it. Thanks, everybody.

Dan Sheetz: All right. Peace.

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