Letter from the founder 2021
I have a large piece of art hanging on the wall in my office, just behind my desk. Its words serve as daily inspiration.
“Which do you want: the pain of staying where you are, or the pain of growth?”
As I considered what to share in my annual letter, these words continued to come to mind. And looking back, it’s easily the theme of 2021 at Tiller.
Everyone talks about the fact that growth happens outside your comfort zone. No revelation there. But what I’ve learned is that to really grow – to push the boundaries and accomplish things you never thought you could – you can’t just wait for circumstances or external factors to push you outside your comfort zone. You have to intentionally go there and embrace the pain of growth.
There are two concepts that have inspired us to step outside of our comfort zone this year.
It might sound trivial, but this was really freeing for me. I often feel keenly aware of my own shortcomings. Thoughts like “I’ve never done this before”, “This isn’t my strong suit”, or “Someone else would be better at this” run through my mind.
But embracing full participation means recognizing that we all have gaps. And that’s okay. As long as I’m willing to reinvent myself and become the person I need to be to get the job done.
The second concept, “No ceilings”, is a Tiller principle that was actually inspired by the above definition of full participation.
Reinventing yourself isn’t easy. But growth demands that we step out of our comfort zones and become who we need to be to solve the problem in front of us.
I’m sure you can relate. Maybe you hate making presentations and you’ve had to practice in front of your dogs to get comfortable with your own voice. Or maybe your worst nightmare is going to a virtual networking event and talking to a complete stranger at one of those weird virtual “tables” – but you turned on your camera and did it.
Participation. Reinvention. Discomfort. Growth. These words form the anthem of the past year – for Tiller and for me personally.
5 big growth moments in 2021
1. When we officially adopted a hybrid work model
Sure, everyone’s been doing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Since March 2020, our team worked entirely remotely for a grand total of 10 months. Prior to COVID? Not a single day.
Some people loved it and fully embraced the “business on top, sweatpants on the bottom” life. Others really struggled with it. And at the business level, while we saw certain benefits – our productivity, creativity, and culture suffered.
We agonized over how to move ahead. We had to come to terms with the fact that there was no way to make everyone happy, but we were responsible for finding an option that was healthy and productive for all. We did extensive research, surveyed our team, and crafted a policy that, prior to COVID, I never dreamed Tiller would have. We rolled out an official hybrid work model in September, joining the ranks of businesses around the world that are reinventing themselves to adapt to a post-COVID world.
2. When we made significant changes to our organizational structure
Almost exactly one year ago, Brandon and I sat down and talked about the new roles we might need to add to our team as it grew. It was more of an “In the future, we could hire this person” type of conversation. But those decisions came around a lot faster than either of us could have anticipated.
For example, we hired a Marketing Manager, an Art Director, and a Technical Director. We also shifted to an Account Manager and Project Manager model (previously our project managers also functioned as account managers). These organizational shifts demanded extra time, energy, communication, and patience from the whole team as we re-defined roles, responsibilities, reporting structures, and more.
Uncomfortable? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely. Our entire delivery model has radically transformed. And these changes have enabled Tiller to continue to scale and deliver better service to our customers.
3. When we rolled out a company-wide bonus and RRSP program
This was a big one. The “We don’t know how to do this” voice was screaming in our ears. But we wanted to do it so badly.
From the inception of Tiller I’ve wanted my team to feel that when Tiller wins, they do too. Our exponential growth over the past 2+ years created space for a bonus program to become a reality – but figuring out how to execute it was a whole other animal. Research, conversations with the bank, cash-flow analysis, goal mapping, and progress tracking – turns out there isn’t a how-to manual for this stuff! I was afraid to get it wrong. But I was more afraid of not trying at all. So we rolled up our sleeves, stepped out of our comfort zones, and figured it out.
In October we announced that every member of our team was bonus eligible, could opt into an employer-sponsored RRSP program, and would receive upgraded health benefits in January 2022.
This was a big “coming of age” moment for our little agency (though not so little anymore). I’m really proud of these big steps we have made. And more than anything, I’m excited to elevate our programs and incentives for our incredibly hard working and smart team. My hope is that each employee will see the value of their contributions in a fresh and rewarding way.
4. When we shared ambitious goals openly and transparently
July was a slower month for sales. And because we had set an ambitious OKR (Objective and Key Results) for the quarter, we were way behind our targets in August.
We were transparent with our entire team about how far off of our goals we were. We shared how much we needed the entire team’s support as we doubled down on sales, and committed ourselves to do everything possible to reach our goal.
In the final hour (literally, the last day of the entire quarter), our efforts finally paid off. We closed several large, long-cycle deals and rocketed past our original goal. This victory was sweetened by the fact that the entire team knew the full story. They knew how far we had to go. They knew the odds were slim. But still, they cheered us on and did everything they could to help our sales team focus.
It can be tempting to hold goals close to your chest. After all, if people don’t really know what they are, they won’t really know if you fail. But that mindset is counterproductive to growth. Because when our team is transparent with our goals (regardless of whether we smash them out of the park or miss them by a mile), we build accountability and trust with one another. And (not so surprisingly), the likelihood of us hitting our goals goes up significantly.
I’m so glad we didn’t keep our goal and our challenge to ourselves, because on October 1st when we shared the good news from the quarter, every person on our team knew that anything was possible.
5. When team members stepped out of their comfort zones
This past year we’ve witnessed the most growth in the history of our agency. Revenue, yes. Team size, also yes. But most importantly – personal, individual growth.
As a leader, there’s nothing that brings me more fulfillment than seeing someone on my team challenge themselves to grow. There have been so many of those moments this year.
Like when I’m sitting across the boardroom table from someone and listening to them confidently pitch a new idea that they never would have shared a month ago. Or I hear how someone researched and learned a new skill in order to deliver the best solution for a client.
We recently had one-on-one meetings with everyone on our team to discuss their growth goals for 2022. It was incredibly rewarding to hear each person share. I admit a number of responses filled my eyes with tears.
One particular conversation stands out. This person shared how they feel that their growth has dramatically accelerated since joining Tiller – specifically referencing their soft skills. They’ve gained so much confidence from having the opportunity to take on new challenges and present their own work. Brandon and I couldn’t agree more! We couldn’t be more proud of how this individual has repeatedly stepped outside of their comfort zone in the name of growth.
As a leader, there is no greater measure of success. And there is no greater privilege (and responsibility) than building and investing in a culture where people can show up, be challenged, and grow.
Everyone is leading someone. And it’s rarely comfortable.
The thing about comfort zones is that you never know who sees them. I imagine there are times when someone looks in on some of the things I do at Tiller and thinks it’s no big deal – but inside I know it’s a big deal for me.
I’m learning a lot about being open about what’s stretching for me. I want our team to know that it isn’t always easy. I want them to know when I’m stepping out of my comfort zone – not because I want praise or credit – but because I want to inspire them to do the same.
“No ceilings” isn’t just a Tiller catchphrase. It’s a deeply-rooted belief that there is nothing our Tiller team can’t achieve. All we have to do is keep moving, step by step, beyond the edge of our comfort zone – again and again and again.
To wrap – 2021 has been an incredible year of growth. I’m thrilled with the growth of our agency. But I’m infinitely more proud of the growth of our people.
From all of us at Tiller – Merry Christmas!