Where do we go from here?

I want to tell you a story. Sometimes I write things and throw them away. In fact, most times I write things, I throw them away. The funny thing is, every once in a while, I write something and neither publish it nor throw it away. I tuck it in a drawer—a virtual drawer—for a future me to find. I wrote one of those things in March of 2010. For some reason, it was never published. What follows is an excerpt from a piece titled “The Road to Complexity”.

I have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make: I can’t rebuild the engine in my car, I can’t balance a checkbook, and I can’t describe to you how the electrical circuits in my television produce such stunning pictures.

The gap between where I am and where I would need to be to do so is staggering, but I comfort myself that it is a gap of knowledge not intelligence. Assuming difficult tasks are impossible is a mistake I see far too many people make.

One Step at a Time, Grasshopper.

Here I am running a business. Had you asked me five years ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated I would be where I am today. The thought itself would have seemed preposterous. Yet here I am. How?

Well, because it took five years to get here, and thousands of simple decisions and consequences paved the way from economics student to founding partner of Full Stop Interactive.

Any of those steps when viewed in isolation (and from a sufficiently early point in time) appears daunting. When I didn’t know any HTML, CSS, PHP, or Javascript, installing a CMS would have been as intimidating as rebuilding the engine of my car.  I’m introverted by nature and prefer pixels to people, so calling a client up on the phone or sitting down for a lunch meeting can be a frightening prospect. But. But when you put it into context, it’s suddenly manageable. It’s an almost insignificant hurdle to go from setting up and configuring WordPress to doing the same with Expression Engine. It’s completely reasonable if still uncomfortable to go from sitting beside someone else who does the talking, to doing some of the talking, to doing all of the talking.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet.

What I’m trying to say is, you can do this. Whatever it is, it’s almost certainly possible. The key (he said, channeling his inner self-help guru) is realizing you can break it down into as many steps as necessary to avoid traumatizing yourself. Want to write a book? You could start by contacting Random House, but that seems premature. Better idea, start a blog. Do some research, write a post, get feedback. (Especially from people who are good at writing. Email them, chances are they’ll respond.) Rinse and repeat. I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim high, but being realistic about what’s within your grasp will reduce your frustration when you start and make it much more likely you’ll get you off  your couch.

Full Stop is two people right now. It would be easy for Jay and I to look at Happy Cog or 37signals and see something completely unattainable, but we don’t — not because we have any particular ambition to be Happy Cog or 37signals — but because we know neither company was built in a day or even a year. Each day in business further reveals who we are and what we can do. Someday, we’ll add an employee. It’s a bit disconcerting to consider today, but we’re not hiring today. My business philosophy is the same as my web development philosophy: keep 90 percent the same and add 10 percent new. Maybe this time it’s HTML5, maybe next time it’s @font-face. Either way, I’m moving forward and widening my base.

You don’t need me to tell you that the road to any worthwhile goal is long and winding. I’m not the first nor will I be the last to remind you that the only way to accomplish something incredibly difficult is one step at a time. I just want to encourage you to see your heroes as people like you who needed years of hard work and a few breaks to be where they are today. You can do it, but you need to start somewhere.

Remember, this was written in March of 2010, a few weeks before Jay had even posted the first Dribbble shot of what would ultimately become United Pixelworkers. Full Stop was an incredibly young company at that time, barely six months old. Our entire focus was on building the best web design and development shop in Pittsburgh. The idea that three-and-a-half years later we would be out of client services entirely—having turned our attention to retail of all things—would have been startling. Yet, strangely, not all that intimidating. Three-and-a-half years is a long time. It’s possible to go from knowing absolutely nothing about designing, printing, packing, and shipping to knowing enough to write two meaty posts (“So You Want to Make T-Shirts?” and “So You Want to Make a Whole Lot of T-Shirts“) and half-a-dozen smaller ones that together serve as a relatively thorough introduction to the industry. To go from selling zero shirts each month to selling thousands. To go from zero annual t-shirt revenue to over half-a-million dollars per year.

This story isn’t about t-shirts, though. It isn’t about retail. This is a story about our identity and future as a company. Looking back at all the things we’ve written, at the conversations with friends, the podcast interviews, the conference speaking engagements, they’ve all been about one thing: business. It was an exceedingly strange realization, and one that occurred only gradually over the course of years: we’re not a designer and a developer, we’re businessmen, accidental at first but now quite intentional, businessmen.

Together, Jay and I started a client services company, but it wasn’t out of a passion for client services. We started two retail companies, though not as a result of any passion for selling products. What we value is independence, the opportunity to build the best company that we can, the freedom to work or to not work, to treat our customers as we would our friends, to solve new problems. That’s what motivates us. That’s what causes us to cite companies like 37signals and Stack Overflow and Intercom (née Contrast) as our role models without blushing. We’ve always believed we were cut from the same cloth.

This blog will be our journal as we take everything we’ve learned over the past four years of being in business and apply it to staying in business. The money we earn today from selling t-shirts on Cotton Bureau and all sorts of things on United Pixelworkers is not enough to sustain us month-to-month. There’s a very real gap we’ve been working to overcome since announcing our transition on November 8th. We’ll be talking more about that (and many other topics) soon. If you’ve ever wondered what happens behind the scenes financially, legally, culturally, etc. at a tiny, non-startup web business, you’ll want to stick around. You’re going to have a front-row seat on this ride. It’ll be nerve-wracking for us. It ought to be educational for you, or if not educational, at least mildly entertaining.

You can follow us on Twitter at @wearefullstop. We promise we’ll start using that account for real. You can subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog right here or sign up to receive updates via email. Finally, this post was authored by Nathan Peretic. You can email him with feedback at nate@fullstopinteractive.com or pester him on Twitter at @nathanperetic. Thanks for reading.