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Part II: The Burroughes Years – a decade of TWG

Winter in Canada guarantees one thing. The dark.

It’s dark when you wake up in the morning, and it’s dark when you head home from work in the evening. Christmas cheer may distract and keep you chipper through December, but come mid-January, we’re all hunkering down and preserving our energy for the long haul. It’s always about that time when I ask myself (and others around me): ‘when the pioneers and settlers, heck .. when the first nations first arrived here, and managed to scrape by, through the cold and the dark that first winter, why on Earth did they stay? Why didn’t they just keep moving.. farther south’?

There are as many answers to that question as there are people who stayed. But I suspect the one common element that connects them all is ‘perseverance’. It’s that curious combination of determination, stubbornness, and tenacity; the conviction that despite the obstacles, there will be a brighter day, and worthy outcome. If my previous post about TWG was about adapting, and shifting to try something new when you fail, then this post is about how we kept on our path and persevered. Building a business is a roller coaster, and you never really know if the day to day triumphs and defeats are just anomalies or a developing pattern. It’s an emotional journey, and having the ability to persevere is probably the most important ingredient in the day to day challenge of running a small business. So now onto Part II..

It was a winter evening six years ago and I was sitting at home, when my business partner Cam called. Five minutes on the phone, and my expression had changed from contentment and ease to panic. My career and business plans were out the window.. or so I thought.

Turns out that Cam needed to move on and follow his dream to California. It was a really tough moment, and it triggered a lot of feelings including fear, confusion, abandonment and despair. Over the past four years we had built the company to a stable and well coordinated  team of six, and I had always relied on Cam to lead the technical side of the business. He had become mentor and coach to the developers on the team, and without him I was unsure of how we could continue.

Over the next few days after that phone call, I sought advice, and direction from a number of close friends and family. One of the most important talks I had was with my friend Jonathan Blumberg  who runs The Wire, an ISP in downtown Toronto. He’s always been a great supporter of TWG, and he was able to get me to be still for a moment and reflect on what I had accomplished over the past four years, despite all the challenges we had faced. That moment of clarity was the foundation for his next comments which were more of a pep talk, and something to the effect of ‘See what you’ve already done. Now you get to run the show on your own and the calls are yours to make. What an opportunity!’ Cam would be soon gone from the day to day at TWG,  but I recognized that this wasn’t an ending so much as it was a challenge to steer a fledgling  business through a difficult time. So I set down to make a plan.

Over the previous year, Jack and I had grown in friendship and had built a solid working relationship. I had also been watching in admiration as Jack worked to reinvent himself. From his  fitness and health, to solving an eye condition, to his language skills, to his work as a developer, Jack was always improving himself. I knew that it inspired me, and I hoped that between his love for software development and his constant self-improvement, his role as a leader would also develop, because we had large shoes to fill with Cam gone. So I arranged a meeting with Jack to talk about bringing him on board as a partner and I was thrilled when Jack told me that he was just as excited to take on a greater ownership and technical leadership role at TWG.

There are certain days and weeks in your life where a confluence of events and people lead to remarkable shifts in the course of your life. In contrast, there will be other times when you can try and try again, but inertia, and contingencies will keep pushing you back. If you can recognize when change and momentum are in your favour and if you can find to courage to run with the bulls, then great things can happen.  The end of 2006 were just these kinds of days for TWG. Before he left, Cam had been telling me about a friend of his friend at McGill… a guy who was running a small business much like our own, and who had just started his own product startup. Andres was his name, and he showed up one afternoon, looking for advice and help on a startup that he had begun with a couple of friends. It was called Click Greener, a system that would donate money to charitable causes with every purchase through their online ‘mall’. Andres was considering outsourcing some of the development to India, and wanted to know our opinion of this, or if it would be affordable for us to build the platform with him. What struck me immediately was his energy, his eye contact, and his ability to set you at ease and create a real connection. We talked about his project and agreed to follow up on the weeks ahead on some other business that we could pursue together. Little did either of us know at the time that this would be the groundwork for bringing Andres on board TWG as a partner.

Andres and I spent the next few months collaborating on a large proposal, getting to know each other, discovering how well aligned our perspectives were on life, work and our dreams. What I recognized was a smart guy who was doing very much what I had been doing for the past few years – juggling the challenges of any small service business; sales, cash flow, project delivery, managing people. I saw someone who was also at a pivot point in his work and life. But beyond that, it was evident that he had an incredible knack for understanding and connecting with people, and that his growing confidence in business strategy would be an incredible asset for a business that we could grow together. One morning, sitting in Le Gourmande cafe, we talked about how he could join TWG. That conversation was followed by another and then another, and in a couple months time we decided to tie the knot and make it official.

Those critical months of reflection and transition really helped me recognize what made TWG tick. It’s the people stupid. TWG would only ever be successful if the people who worked there loved what they were doing, and were given the chance to create a culture that reflected who they are and how they want to live. TWG wasn’t going to be successful because of me, or Jack, or Andres. None of us were software or business geniuses, capable of driving a company’s success singlehandedly. TWG was only going to be successful if the team as a whole created a shared vision and could persevere together through tough times, to see the brighter days ahead.

There were lean times, and there were flush times (like those sweet times when the Canadian dollar was weaker and we made an additional 25% on every US dollar that we billed). So when fortune struck, we chose to share the wealth, and when we could afford it, we always chose to invest what extra money we had into our team – paying for work retreats in Muskoka, Mexico, and Costa Rica. In fact, it’s on these getaways from our studio that we find the time to reflect on where we’ve been, where we want to go, and how we can get there. We also use this time to come up with ideas for new software products and tools. These retreats really feed the soul of TWG.

There’s something very intimate and very powerful about voicing your aspirations to your peers, and knowing that they have your back, and that they want you to become everything you hope to be. We’re trying to keep TWG a community of peers and so we reserve 30% of the ownership in our own products for the team.  We’re very much looking to continue to grow our business based on our mission, and core values.. so I may as well lay them out here:

The TWG Mission

To be the best software company in the world to learn, work, and create at. We create beautiful, functional and valuable web and mobile products for our clients, partners and our community.

Our vision is to create a better kind of company.

Where people love what they do and are inspired by others around them.
Where people are given the tools and the opportunity to create magnificent work.
Where people are excited to push their boundaries and to grow.
Where the profits from all of our work are fairly distributed.
Where the corporation is an extension of its people, who will act responsibly within their environment and within our community.

Our values come from the people who call TWG home.

TWG is a technology company for people who love what they do. We believe that when you love what you do, and who you are with, excellence will follow.

We act on this by fostering an environment that values the people involved, even over the profits that follow.

We value continual improvement; we look for our mistakes, and adjust our practices based on what we’ve learned.

We act honourably with each other and with our clients. We acknowledge when we make mistakes, and we respect ourselves by inviting others to take responsibility for their own failings.

It’s fairly evident by now, 2007 – 2008 marked a sea change for TWG. In the years that followed, as we grew the the team from six to twelve, our senior developers really began to carve out their own roles and identities at TWG. Some vignettes on the early TWG team..

The TWG team – middle years:

It was clear from the start that Scott had a real knack at dev-ops – configuring servers, monitoring system, and backup systems. For a number of months Scott worked with Sean on setting up these systems, and he soon extended these efforts into creating whole applications that would support the software that we were building for our clients. PostageApp was dreamed  up on our trip to Mexico in 2009 to solve the problem of sending application driven email for all of the social network tools and group buying systems we were building at the time. It’s still going strong, we’ve turned it into a revenue driver at TWG,  and we recently sent over one million emails in one day for our PostageApp clients.

Oleg, tired of battling with brittle Content Management Systems and their lack of proper rails integration, built his own prototype on that same Mexico adventure. He aptly named it Comfortable Mexican Sofa (CMS) based on the place where he coded the prototype. We’ve now shifted to calling the CMS ‘Comfy’ , we Open Sourced it a couple years back, and have now added a number of modular components to the system – .

Hesham, one of our earliest hires, began working with Jack on projects like Front Porch Forum, which required an ability to keep a clear head, amidst an extremely complex set of application and business logic requirements. Hesham brought a level of calmness and good humour to our most challenging projects. He’s back in Egypt right now, trying to make a positive difference in the country he now calls home.

Vivian used to sit across the room from us at the design studio we shared. When she left her job, we immediately began not so subtle efforts at wooing her, only to discover that the feeling was mutual. Ah, requited love.. is there anything more exhilarating? Vivian worked with us for a couple years before opening up her own successful design studio. We’re really happy for her and we still get the pleasure of working with Vivian on many of our projects.

Dessy met us through the Rails Pub night that’s hosted by Pete and the unspace team each month. She was ready to leave her previous job, and was looking for a smooth introduction into the Startup world. Dessy joined us and we worked together for a couple years and actually helped transition her into an exciting CTO role with a Startup that we’ve become deeply involved with called Greengage Mobile.

Sean, Jason, George, Alex, Stephen, Todd. All of these guys played a big role in shaping our culture and success. They’ve each followed their own path, and moved on to work in other cities, at other firms, or different industries. The door is always open for anyone who’s worked with us, and we enjoy hanging with them and sharing stories and memories from time to time. I hope that never changes.

The Burroughes

After three years of sharing a design studio, and seven years after initially opening our doors, TWG was finally ready to have our own space, and in early 2009 we took apart the desks, rented a panel van, and carted all of our office gear a few blocks away to an old renovated building at the gritty corner of Queen St W. and Bathurst. 639 Queen West was, and still is, a colourful address. It’s across the street from Michael’s Deli and Restaurant, quite possibly the worst Deli/Restaurant and watering hole on the West side of Toronto. Behind us was a building that was the target of a Swat team takedown when a meth lab was discovered in the basement. To our East is the half block that burned down in a *fire* the winter prior, and West of us was the ‘Big Bop’, which was well past its expiry date as a music venue. The neighborhood was still trying to figure itself out, but the Burroughes building was everything we had been looking for; a building with character, wood floors, brick walls, a roof-top patio, and it filled with other interesting creative people like Tegan, Dave and the crew at Pilot Interactive, Philip Sparks the fashion designer, Taylor Gun and crew at StudentVote, Jordan, Athena and their posse over at Anglemedia.

At the Burroughes, TWG began to stretch its community muscle by hosting tech and social events. Our ‘Good People Drinking Wine and Talking To Each Other’ events were soon followed by occasional presentations by Mike McDerment from Freshbooks, and other technology leaders in the Toronto scene at our #nerdlearn meet ups.

We had a lot of fun times in the three years that we stayed at the Burroughes and we’re happy to report that the building carries on a tradition of being one of the downtown hubs of technology and social media activity, housing both Extreme Startups and the Toronto Standard. But big changes were in store when a little meetup group called LeanCoffeeTO started up…

Stay tuned for Part III as TWG joins LeancoffeeTO, woos Chris Eben away from his enterprise kingdom, creates a mobile development division with Jeremy Bower at the lead, partners with Jet Cooper, grows our senior team with the superstar additions of Tom, and Derek, and begins incubating Startups in our new studio..

Ten Years Later: The TWG Story from The Working Group on Vimeo.

One Response to Part II: The Burroughes Years – a decade of TWG

  1. Awwww, thanks for the shout out Dom! We miss everyone at TWG immensely! Cheers to a great future =)

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