April marked Lincoln Loop's 10th anniversary in business. As I reflect on that, I find myself going through all the typical platitudes: it's been a roller-coaster ride, how proud I am of the team, looking forward to another 10 years, and others. Instead of writing about these things in generic terms that could apply to any company, I'd like to share a little about our history and how we came to a decision that really exemplifies what Lincoln Loop has become as a company.
We've made many unorthodox business decisions over the years from open book finances to letting everyone set their own salary. One of the most important decisions we made came during our 2014 company retreat in Mexico. At the time, business was booming. We had just launched our biggest project to date, published a book, and spent the last year trying to scale up to meet the demand. Over a long dinner discussion it became clear that growth and profit might actually contradict the values we had built the company on. Sure we needed profits to survive, but Lincoln Loop was always focused on the happiness of our people over money. At best, growth would have no effect on our happiness, but more than likely it would serve to undermine it.
To understand why we decided to stay small, it helps to understand where Lincoln Loop came from. It was less a spur of the moment decision and more a realization that we have operated that way from the beginning.
Lincoln Loop started with me as a lone freelancer, but I always envisioned building it into a team of highly-skilled experts. To get there, I had to overcome a few major obstacles:
- I live in a small mountain town (~12k residents) 150 miles from the closest big city. Finding a team of Django experts locally simply wasn't an option.
- As a bootstrapped company, there was no money for an office, relocation package, salaries, etc.
- I needed to build up a client base big enough to keep a team busy.
Since I couldn't provide big salaries or a fancy office with an Xbox and ping-pong table, I needed to find other (less costly) benefits I could provide. Rather than the tradtional perks, I discovered Lincoln Loop could offer perks that were unique and focused on removing stress while increasing happiness:
- The freedom for people to work their own hours from anyplace in the world.
- Removing all the risk and back-office operations of contracting -- invoicing, sales, collections, etc. (a boon for freelancers)
- The opportunity to work on interesting projects with an up-and-coming Python web framework, Django.
That last item may come as a surprise, but the Python/Django landscape in April, 2007 was very different than today. This was post Django's magic removal, but pre 0.96. The widely accepted recommendation was to work on a checkout of
trunk from Django's subversion repository. Python's packaging tool,
pip, was still four years from its initial release and
virtualenv would not be released for another six months, at which point it "might still be buggy, but it’s worked well for some of us". PyPI wasn't heavily used and Django "reusable apps" were all the rage. The typical installation instructions for a Django app were to checkout the code from a Google Code or self-hosted subversion repository (GitHub was still a year away) and manually place it on your
PYTHONPATH. In contrast to today, these were dark ages indeed.
As you can imagine, the enterprise was not yet ready to bet the farm on Django so career opportunities for Django developers were few and far between. For early commercial adopters of Django, Lincoln Loop was one of the only shops offering professional services in the area. In hindsight, the timing couldn't have been better. We had a first-to-market advantage and could grow our client base as interest in the framework grew. When we had the work available, there were plenty of developers in the Django ecosystem who were excited to get paid to do what they were already doing in their free time. No more paying the bills with PHP, Zope, etc!
As both Django and Lincoln Loop matured, we started taking on larger and more complex projects, but we never lost sight of the original value proposition we offered our team.
Today, big companies like Mozilla, Google, and Instagram are eager to snatch up good Django developers. Despite the competition, most of our development team has been working with us for more than 8 years. That's an eternity in an industry that is known for chewing up and spitting out developers in a couple years. I attribute that longevity to choosing happiness over profits. The decision to stay small, being just one of many we've made to preserve the culture we've built. Of all our accomplishments, the fact that people are happy working here is the one I'm most proud of.