Atomic Object is opening a second office. That’s a big deal for Atomic, as it’s our first expansion beyond Grand Rapids, and a big deal for me, keen as I am on the issues of size, quality and culture. We chose Detroit for this expansion, for reasons I blogged about on Spin. What I’d like to share here is the approach we’re taking to establishing a new office.
Growth without growing
Atomic is good at what it does. Ten years of consistent, organic growth, happy customers, successful projects, regular innovation, and a deep talent pool prove it. We create a lot of value for our clients. Since we can create value and generate wealth, I feel we have a moral obligation to do so. This obligation doesn’t always align with my personal interests, however. I like the way Atomic is, and operates, in the range of 30-35 people.
Because Atomic is an innovation services firm, our capacity to help clients is strictly limited by how many people we employ. Our culture, facilities, business practices, and flat organization wouldn’t scale indefinitely, and are a critical part of why we’re good at what we do. The name of this blog reflects the tension between opportunity, growth, and excellence.
In the last five years I’ve watched many of Atomic’s peers expand by opening offices in new cities. Last year we decided it was time for Atomic to follow suit. Somewhat ironically, I characterize our strategy as “growth without growing”.
From the stories I’ve heard, the approach of consultancies opening new offices ranges from the extremely ad-hoc (“just move there and hire some guys”) through a level of control and planning bordering on franchising. The questions are legion. Promote from within or hire new leadership? New company, same company, a division? Shared or separate P&L? Local or centralized governance? Who vets new employees? Buy, lease, or rent temp space? What about the website? Uniform or market-dependent rates? And that’s just the beginning.
After researching, investigating, analyzing, modeling and debating the various issues and options, Mike and Shawn crafted a plan for expanding Atomic to Detroit. With this plan they identified a simple principal to guide us in the many decisions that need to be made. I dubbed this principal “extension and autonomy”. Like our value mantras, we’ll keep this idea ready at hand and use it to guide us in daily decisions about our new office. It should be the framework we use to make (or not make) decisions.
We’re extending many aspects of Atomic to the new office: the name, the brand, our business engagement model, the services we offer, how we treat employees, our value mantras and what they mean to us, how we market, core business practices, our ownership plan, a shared income statement, profit sharing, etc. By extending the essential core of Atomic to a second office we’re vesting an incredible amount of trust in the managing partner of that office and all its future employees. We’re trusting them to represent us to the world, to uphold our values — in short, to be Atomic. Given how hard we’ve worked to create our company, and what Atomic means to some of us individually, this is a heavy level of trust. In fact, to me at least, it’s a sacred trust.
Of course I’m helping establish Atomic Object Detroit, or AOD as we refer to it. But Mike Marsigilia is the point person on this complicated project. And many people in the office have stepped up to help with hiring, marketing, networking, and cultural ambassadorship. The latter is critical to the extension part of our strategy. I was quite happy to see our value mantras play a prominent role in the hiring site for AOD. And even happier that I had nothing to do with that site’s design or messaging. (If they weren’t shared, I don’t think they could be called values.)
Autonomy applies to things the new office determines for itself. Lots of things don’t have to be the same between offices. Local variation is fine, to be expected, and even encouraged. For example, in Grand Rapids we have a 9am standup meeting. I’m sure there are other ways of achieving the goals of communication and alignment that our standup helps achieve. Or maybe noon is a better time to have a standup? Doesn’t matter; they’ll figure it out. Hiring, firing and pay are local issues. The furniture and arrangement of the office may vary quite a bit. Keeping makers busy is a local responsibility of each office. I jokingly added “Adopt a Siberian husky” to Mike’s Detroit to-do list, but I’m very open minded to there being another breed of dog in our new office. Traditions like our monthly SpinDown party may be a good place to start, but they may also diverge at some point. I’m sure new traditions will arise. Maybe Grand Rapids will even adopt some of these variations and new traditions.
Perhaps autonomy is in fact the most critical element of extension. If Atomic was a formula, we could write it down; if the world would hold still, we could carve it in stone. If Atomic wasn’t a collection of complex, amazing, fallible people, we’d know all the answers in advance. And if creating great software products was easy, we could stop pushing every day to get better at it. But of course none of these things is true, so in order to succeed we need to grant autonomy to the people in our new office to observe, think and adapt to the circumstances and events they experience. That can’t possibly be done effectively from a distance or a document. Autonomy is in itself a critically important aspect of Atomic’s culture that we’re extending to our Detroit office.
Jumping in the deep end
The deeper we dig the more confident I am that Detroit’s a great place for our first expansion. I see the same opportunity in Detroit that I saw in 2003 when we bought a building in the core city of Grand Rapids. I hear from plenty of smart people that Detroit is not a great place to expand a technology firm, or that downtown is a crazy place to be. That’s not to say that it’ll be easy, or that we have it all figured out, or that we won’t make mistakes. But it feels very right to me.
We’ll know we’ve figured it out if Atoms from each office feel at home in both places, are intrigued by the differences, and have a common foundation of shared values.