Brad Frost Web Turns 5 Years Old
On January 1st, 2013, I started my own company. Over the last 5 years I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of great work with a lot of great people, travel all over the place to talk about the web, collaborate with a bunch of brilliant people, and help teams do fantastic work together. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to set out on my own.
When I announced I was leaving the agency life to start my own company, here’s what I envisioned I would be doing:
At the beginning of the new year I’ll begin a new adventure doing a mixture of consulting, front end design, workshops, speaking and writing.
And holy smokes, 5 years later that’s still exactly what I’m doing. Of course, the percentage of time I spend of each of those activities continues to change from week to week, and the nature of what I’m making and helping others make continues to evolve.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
5 years ago, responsive design was the hot topic that organizations were trying to wrap their heads around. Responsive design was a big eye-opener for a lot of organizations, as they learned that making flexible UIs didn’t just involve sprinkling on some media queries and calling it a day. Indeed, creating successful responsive designs involves radically altering your team’s design & development workflow, tools, and culture.
Of course today the hot topic is design systems. I see design systems as a further evolution of that realization that began with responsive design. In order to create cohesive user experiences and scale design and development practices across an organization, teams have to be a whole lot more deliberate about how they approach their work. These are cultural and organizational challenges in addition to design/tech challenges.
I love straddling the line between in-the-weeds technical/design issues and fuzzier cultural/people issues. The nitty-gritty tech/design stuff tends to sort itself out; the cultural and people issues are often tougher to tackle. I’ve had a blast diving into these thorny organizational issues (in addition to the nitty-gritty design/dev stuff) with a whole bunch of teams.
I’m confident that in another 5 years’ time I’ll be focused on a whole different set of problems and technologies. But my guess is that people will still be struggling with how to make digital stuff and work together effectively. So long as that continues to be the case, I’ll hopefully still be able to help.
When I started my business, I very much thought that I’d have to be a one-man band. I’m so happy that wasn’t (and isn’t!) the case. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to work with some of the industry’s best thinkers and doers, and I’m especially thankful to regularly work with Josh Clark and Dan Mall. Josh, Dan, and I started working together on a redesign of TechCrunch, and 5 years later we’re still working together.
It’s great to have people you can trust, bounce ideas off of, collaborate with, and evolve with. It’s also great that we’re still our own independent entities so we’re able to do great stuff together without feeling like we’re married to each other.
We follow a model that assembles the best team for the project. Dan talks about this model on his website:
SuperFriendly projects are made up of the people who best embody the role. SuperFriendly doesn’t keep a full-time staff. Instead, we use what we lovingly call the “The SuperFriend Model,” where we call on some of the best folks in the industry to come together and collaborate, depending on your project’s needs. Some projects need a handful of specialists, like an information architect who has years of experience making sites for kids or a 3D animator who has extensive knowledge of the home improvement industry. Other projects call for an army of variously tenured folks, from junior-level production people to seasoned veterans who call the shots.
I think this model makes a ton of sense, as it allows everyone to be nimble and focused on doing the best work for the client. Working in this model I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with so many insanely talented people. I’m extremely thankful for those opportunities.
An ever-evolving process
One of the things I love most about working with Josh, Dan, and our merry group of makers is that we explicitly look for ways to evolve and improve our process. We’ve never done a project the same way twice. The first half of my career was spent working with great people, but often in a pre-defined rigid workflow that didn’t allow us to properly collaborate and do our best work. The latter half of my career has been dedicated to exploring what an effective, cross-disciplinary design/development process looks like.
I hired my brother Ian (@frostyweather) two and a half years ago. I didn’t know I urgently needed help, but I absolutely did. Ian’s stepped in and become a great frontend web developer. It’s been a lot of fun watching him grow, and he’s been pivotal at getting a lot of production work done since my attention is split 1,000 different ways. It’s also been great having someone to play music with during our lunch breaks.
Running a business
And then there’s the whole “running a business” thing. I don’t know if the following advice scales to other people, but I’ll throw it out here because I’m generally pleased with how I’ve been running my business for the past few years. Here are some miscellaneous advice/observations around running my business:
- Know what you want – The work is there, so if I wanted to I could scale the business and hire a bunch of people. But then I’m responsible for feeding a bunch of other people’s kids, and I don’t want that. It’s important to know what you want out of your business. I want to make things and help people, and I’ve found that between Ian and my team of collaborators I’m able to adequately accomplish those goals.
- Get an accountant – One of the first things I did was get a dedicated accountant who helped me structure my financial stuff and takes care of all my tax and financial infrastructure. I always want to be on the straight and narrow when it comes to finances, so having a professional who makes sure I’m doing everything right is a huge weight off my shoulders.
- Track expenses – Tracking expenses first two years of running my business was rough. I traveled a ton, receipts were all over the place, and I would attempt to enter in all my business expenses in one go. It was a nightmare and things always slipped between the cracks. Eventually, I got my shit together and I now use Harvest for all of my expense tracking and invoicing. Harvest syncs with Quickbooks (which is what my accountant uses), and I try to be on top of everything and enter receipts as soon as I can. That bit of good hygiene has saved me a lot of stress.
- Bet the farm on my name – The lawyer that helped me incorporate my business was adamant that I pick a business name that didn’t have “Brad Frost” in it. His thought was that if I wanted to eventually grow or sell my business I’d want to not have my given name baked into the business name. But I knew that my business is me, so it’s impossible to separate the two. Looking back I’m really happy with that decision to name my company “Brad Frost Web LLC”. Friends who run their businesses struggle with the juggling act of maintaining two separate identities. It may seem like a vanity point, but I feel like I can dedicate my whole self to this business because of how I structured my business name.
- Choose how to promote yourself – Running a business requires some level of self-promotion. Some people spend a lot of time chasing RFPs. Others cold call potential clients. Others spend a great deal of time at networking events. I inadvertently chose to spend my time and effort on Twitter, blogging, writing, and speaking rather than chasing down projects. The nice result of that work is that rather than me having to seek people out, people come knocking on my door. By sharing what I know, I’m able to connect with people who are interested in or need help with the stuff that I care about, rather than me trying to figure out what a client needs.
- Context switching is the death of me – Many business owners will tell you how much stuff goes into running a business. Most of that stuff isn’t the meat-and-potatoes, core stuff that has people knocking at your door. The endless emails, proposals, conference calls, admin, etc add up and take your attention away from your core work. I’ll admit I’m absolutely terrible at managing all of my obligations. I never have just one project in progress at any given time, so it’s a real challenge to separate everything into tidy buckets.
- I have no set system for generating work I feel like the old-school video game where there are a bunch of coins falling from the sky, and you control a character that moves laterally to try to catch them all. Inevitably there will be coins that hit the ground before you can get to them. A lot of opportunities pop up, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to make everything happen. I’m learning to be alright with that.
- Finding time to step outside my comfort zone – There’s a friction between getting things done efficiently (which involves using the tools and processes you know intimately) and stepping outside your comfort zone (which inevitably incurs learning curves that slows you down). I try to find ways to expand my horizons through my projects, but sometimes with so much on my plate it’s tempting to take the easier road using tried-and-true tools and techniques. I’m trying to expand my horizons, but at the same time I keep telling myself it’s impossible to know it all.
Thanks so much
I’m thankful for 5 years of great work and adventures. Thanks to all my amazing clients for the opportunity to work with you and your teams. Thanks to Ian for working with me and for all your help. Thanks to Josh and Dan for all the fun times. Thanks to all the collaborators I’ve had the chance to work with; you’ve all taught me so much. Thanks to all the conference organizers for giving me the opportunity to talk about the stuff I love. Thanks to everyone involved in bringing Atomic Design to life. Thanks to everyone who supported my Atomic Design book project. Thanks to everyone following along and giving me resources and advice all these years. And most importantly, thanks to my wife Melissa for all your love and support over these last crazy, wonderful 5 years.
Here’s to another 5 years!