Great Not Big is about software development companies that choose to pursue excellence over largeness. The kind of software development companies I’m interested in are examples of innovation services firms — they sell their expertise and capacity to co-create innovative products with and for their clients. While my blog’s name is pretty self-explanatory, I thought it might be interesting to share the story of how it came to be.
Atomic was founded in summer 2001. By the summer of 2006, we were five years old and had grown from me and my co-founder Bill Bereza to sixteen total regular employees (we always have a few interns and apprentices around). Some of our senior people had begun to express concern about growth, what my goals were, and where Atomic was headed. I was just starting to feel the pain of working solo, being irreplaceable on nearly all non-technical responsibilities. It was time to clearly communicate that I wasn’t interested in growth for growth’s sake. I decided to send my quality vs quantity message by making a strong statement.
I designed the first Atomic t-shirt for our 5th birthday party in August 2006. That t-shirt, in addition to starting the tradition of having current employee names on the back, had the phrase “Size Matters” on the front. At the same time I created a page on our website and in our wiki describing my non-interest in growth for its own sake, identified the many ways we could still grow without getting bigger, and predicted 20 people would be our upper bound.
At the time, one of our large customers had a sharp and obviously rising-star manager. She let me know through one of her employees that she didn’t think the phrase Size Matters was a good catch phrase for a company consisting, at the time, almost entirely of men. Given how hard it was (and still is) to recruit software developers who are women, I certainly didn’t want to do anything that might hinder those efforts. And pissing off an important person at a major client didn’t seem too smart, either.
I was recently reminded that this same phrase is a key component of the extended title to Bo Burlingham’s book, Small Giants. I’d read this book when it first came out back in 2005 and was quite inspired by it. Small Giants was the first mainstream publication I’d seen to question the assumption of “grow or die” that I found so prevalent in the business world. I’m not sure whether Mike had read the book by 2006, when he fixed my little tagline problem, but in any case, I don’t remember making the connection between our tagline and Small Giants at the time.
Fast forward to March 2011, when I was casting about for a blog name. Several of us at Atomic had fun brainstorming. After coming up with lots of duds (“Cult of Carl”, joking), (“Carl Erickson on Software Development”, boring) and (“Dirty Dog Belly”, weird), I finally hit on the title you see here. Amazingly, the obvious domain for Great Not Big was still available. I grabbed it one cold, dreary Sunday afternoon, while sitting by my fireplace. I hadn’t thought much about Small Giants in several years, though the book’s ideas continued to influence me strongly.
So there you have it: the name GNB is a pithier refactoring of a more politically correct version of a mildly controversial tagline I used five years ago. And it’s inadvertently a nod to an influential book and a collection of inspiring companies.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 5: Distributions - May 1, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 4: Financing employee ownership - April 4, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018