A Founder's Thoughts on 25 Years of Business
A Founder's Thoughts on 25 Years of Business
Tony founded zu in 1995 with Ryan, right about the time the Internet started to get traction. Tony’s role is multifaceted but he gathers facts and develops strategy, whether financial, communications, usability or to make folks laugh. As an executive sponsor, he has a relationship with many clients, divided with the CEO. But his main focus is on zu's performance as a business, which keeps clients coming in and team members staying long term.
June 11, 2020
Whew, 25 years!
It doesn’t seem that long ago we decided to take the leap into business as a printing start-up called ProPrint. The Internet was then only a tiny, tiny sprout of what it would become, and what it would mean for our future as zu.
In two and a half decades, there have been hundreds of employees, dozens of children born to them and the founders as well as many extended family members who are no longer with us but who helped along the way.
Driving around Saskatoon, there are few buildings where at some point we didn’t have business meetings, a pitch or presentation or dropped off a proposal. Many became landmarks in our corporate journey that we’d return to regularly once we’d established the initial successes and they became long-term clients.
In the various locations where zu has operated lurk the ghosts of a thousand late nights of deadlines, heated discussions and laughter. A blizzard blowing outside while hard choices on opportunities, risks or challenging personalities on the team keep it warm inside. With hundreds of projects completed, we took many “business classes" via the tuition of cost overruns, failed experiments, out of control changes and other details to be taken into account “next time”. With property and renovations, we experienced a few near-bankruptcy events, though so far all sidestepped.
Once or twice, the market has made switches, catching us off-guard and complacent, so we had to hustle to get ourselves re-aligned and focused on our strengths. We can thank our clients for feedback as to what they value zu for, allowing us to strengthen or further expand those capabilities.
All of these things seasoned us as entrepreneurs and honed our skills as a team that gets things done.
In reflecting on how we came to be what we are and where we are, it seems that some of the biggest questions that shape an organization are quite basic, almost philosophical:
- “How important are growth and size?”
- “How aggressive do you want to be?”
- “What’s the endgame of this approach?”
It seems that aggressiveness in business usually calls for using a lot of “other people’s money”. We’ve observed the businesses that wrestle it out of their employee's hands, their suppliers or their customer’s hands. Many successful giants are like that. Pursuing growth above all often means selling your control until the decisions made are not the ones you would have made, and soon you and your core team are on the sidewalk looking at what you created–but are no longer allowed in. That’s not been the zu way.
We’ve likely “bonsai-ed” our business to some degree, making something perhaps smaller than it could be, but exhibiting a unique character and producing a rarified experience for both employees and clients. We’ve engineered our own little zu-econo-biosphere that has its own rules about how things should be done – not dog-eat-dog but dog-help-dog-learn-new-tricks.
It crosses my mind to think in binary scales.
- On a scale with “Work” on one end and “Club” on the other, our needle is definitely closer to "Club" than 90% of the places we could be working.
- On a scale with “OT and Emergencies” on one side and “Family Life” on the other, we lean more to “Family Life” than most companies.
- On a scale of “Compensation, Benefits and Flexibility” vs. “Average Remuneration and Strict Rules” we’ve achieved a better set of rewards and benefits with creatively flexible rules fitting the needs of busy young families.
- On a scale that puts “Events involving food, competition, learning and general socializing” against “Infrequent special staff occasions” I’d put our busy schedule of unique happenings concocted by zu’s SAC (Socially Awkward Committee) against any and all comers.
- On a scale that compares delivered projects for “Citizen Life Enhancement” vs. “Money for Money’s Sake” I’d say a lot of our work is about making the things we citizens of Saskatchewan all use work better. These could include government effectiveness, the efficiency of healthcare, your awareness of disease statistics and many other web and mobile apps used by our neighbours. There’s plenty in our project roster for me to feel good about when stopping to think about the point of my career.
During this pandemic, with 29 of 33 zu folks working from home, I’d throw in another scale: “Miss My Coworkers” vs. “Don’t Miss My Coworkers”. I’m certain–even without double-blind testing–that zu would also score much higher than average towards the “Miss My Co-workers” end of the scale.
In summary, after 25 years, I think our greatest accomplishment is that zu is a highly effective company that feels like a family. We’ve perhaps inadvertently sought business sustainability over growth. And this has fostered a culture that has been the cause (or effect) of zu’s identity, which is shown to offer uniquely effective results for clients. Each project is a collaboration with our clients, delivered via a very personal service relationship, and containing the secret ingredient baked-in: the Integrity of zu’s like-minded people.
Perhaps zu’ll be like the 200-year-old pizzeria: delivering consistent excellence, uncompromising in approach, with a staff that is undoubtedly well-fed.