Donovan McNutt, Founder & President of GeekDesk, on his company’s story:
This business started when I was a 17-year-old kid — I went innertubing in the snow with a friend of mine, the snow was icy, we got off course and ended up flying across a ravine in an accident bad enough that it broke her pelvis and darn near broke my back. I ended up with a rib broken loose from my sternum, and the vertebrae connected to that rib pretty much knocked silly. It didn’t affect me that much until I was older, but by the time I was in my 30s, back pain was a fairly recurring problem for me. That was what drove me to look for a better way to work as a programmer.
When I first started looking for better ways of working (in terms of sitting/standing), I kept coming across these fixed diagram pictures showing “the proper way to sit at a computer” — usually spouted by supposed ergonomic experts. You know the type I’m talking about — feet flat on the floor, elbows at perfect right angles, etc. For me, my body was saying something much simpler: “MOVE!” It was telling me to change position once in a while. I pretty much had to ignore the experts at the time to trust that intuition.
GeekDesk started with around $20,000 and some well-leveraged relationships. I already had a reasonably steady stream of income from a small consulting business, and long ago learned how to live pretty modestly. So we didn’t need to make a whole lot of money right out of the gate. We don’t share revenues or employee count figures, but we qualified for this profile (profitable and over $1M in revenues) last year with significant room to spare. And so far this year, sales are averaging between two and three times what they were last year.
I love who we sell our products to. Every week, it seems like somebody I’ve heard of buys a desk or we get some great feedback from someone whose life was changed by just being able to stand up once in a while. I can’t really name names but some of my personal programming superheroes have purchased desks from us. It’s all I can do to not reach out and say “Hey, thanks! We think you are really cool!” It’s fun to be able to produce something that people you greatly admire find useful.
How we work
We don’t have a conventional “office” of any kind. Our work environment is what I’d describe as flexible, down-to-earth, and human. I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life (I’m in my mid-40s now) and never cared much for the typical corporate environment. Our culture reflects that. I’d like to think Scott Adams wouldn’t find very much fodder for his Dilbert cartoon strip here.
In general, we try to give our team a lot of room to move and encourage people to think for themselves, focusing on the overarching values and vision more than policy and procedure. I’m not much of a taskmaster — in fact, I actually hate telling people what to do all day — so I have found that it helps if I surround myself with people who “get it,” are generally proactive, and can think for themselves. They can take my occasional “sidelines coaching” input and run with it in such a way that, given their specific gifts and talents, they completely blow out of the water anything I would ever be able to do by myself.
I like to keep the organization as “flat” as possible. Wherever possible, I like to see people working side-by-side rather than over/under. Sometimes this frustrates people, because they want positional authority; It’s more “efficient.” I prefer relational authority. It’s more effective.
Most of our customer service and support team works from home, and many of them have tremendous flexibility with respect to their hours. Because our team is very distributed, we use online communication a lot, as well as conference calls when necessary. Our main phone system is Internet-based, allowing us to route calls pretty much anywhere. A lot of our face-to-face administrative time as a team takes place in cafes or shared co-working spaces, but it seems like most of our management and advisory team’s deeper planning and problem-solving time typically takes place outdoors while going for a good walk somewhere interesting, or sitting by a river. Here’s the view from our last session (see photo).
My advice for someone considering starting a business: Take into consideration what age you are, what stage in life you’re at. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’m a very different person in some ways than I was when I was in my 20s. Things that were worth pouring tons of energy into when I was 25, I may not find nearly so interesting or enticing now.
Starting a business takes a tremendous amount of energy — far more energy than most people who have been employees all their life typically even imagine — so it’s really important to pay attention to what it is you’re pouring your energy into. It needs to line up with what you want your life to look like.
So with that, I think I would say one of my axioms these days is this: Make sure you own your business, rather than your business owning you. There’s an article I read about once a year that relates to that: “The Good Life and How to Get It.”
Make sure you own your business, rather than your business owning you.
Take retreats, by yourself or perhaps your spouse or business partner if it’s appropriate, regularly. I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to pay attention to where it is you’re going. If you don’t step out of the intense stream of the day-to-day, it’s very easy to find yourself on a path you don’t really even want to be on.
You need to zoom out once in a while and take a look at the map and your own little “you are here” star, and see if the path you are on is the one that will actually get you where you want to go. I don’t think you can do that smack dab in the middle of running things day-to-day. You have to get away, turn things off, be still, and just think and ponder and reflect.
It takes time, and time is inherently an investment. I try to take at least two retreats a year. Absolutely at least one no matter what. And when things are “in sync”in terms of the balance between external demands and internal navigation, I tend to take more (along the lines of three or four). I’m happiest when I have a sense for where I’m going, and I suspect that is probably true of most successful entrepreneurial types.
You really only have four resources to work with: Time, Energy, Money, and Information. They each have distinct properties, strengths and weaknesses. In many cases there are sort of “exchange rates” between them. For instance you can often spend money to save time, or, like most people do when they work, slice off little parts of their life (time) and trade those slices for money. Information is unique in that it is primarily a catalyst. If you use it well, it can really leverage the other three. Energy tends to be related to time, but they are not fused directly together — it’s possible to spend time without spending much energy and it’s possible to spend a tremendous amount of energy in a very short period of time. That little framework helps navigate all kinds of planning, deployment, and execution decisions. I tend to think of my job as stewarding the four of them well, with good synergy.
This is part of our “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series which profiles companies that have over one million dollars in revenues, didn’t take VC, and are profitable.