ZURB turned twenty years old this month. That’s nearly half my life. Even at the start of this in 1998, my goal was to build a great company. But looking back, I had no real understanding of all it takes to make that happen. What originated as naivety and a "can-do" spirit, actually became the quirkiness of ZURB and formed our values that keep us moving forward: stay open-minded, build on opportunity, fail fast, make it happen, find wins together and be a coach. It hasn't always been easy, and I'm most proud that we've done it our way. Now, twenty years later and with our team's dedication and support, we still have the opportunity to continue learning.
In many ways ZURB is more than a company, it’s an idea that has provided our team the opportunity to stretch our imaginations. I’m most grateful for our customers and fans who have given us the flexibility to challenge our assumptions about what makes design great. Our customers are the reason we’ve been able to do so much good and push for so much change. It’s also why our purpose is to change the way people design connected products and services.
Grateful for a great team
I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to lead this company and inspired by the work we’ve done with this team. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people at ZURB, too many to thank everyone in this post, but I do want to highlight a few people who left a lasting impression.
Jeremy Britton, ZURB’s first employee and design lead for eight years, helped set a tone for the culture that continues to live today. He helped us work through some of the early growing pains of pairing design leads with designers to shape the way we do product design. As a result, ZURB has been instrumental in bringing product design thinking to the web.
Amy Hooker helped shape the voice and design work in our early days - her infectious energy inspired many crazy ideas. Somehow she made you feel normal while filling a kiddy pool with water in the middle of a tradeshow, and then dumping a bunch of yellow ducks in it to attract people to your booth.
Robert Konves helped elevate our visual design, and along with Jeremy, contributed to our first product effort, LuckyOliver. Even though it fell flat, it contributed to our learnings and pushed us to build more products. The process of owning and building products has had a tremendous impact on our ability to help our customers understand the pitfalls of designing products.
Matt Kelly, Mark Hayes and Jordan Humphreys brought an engineering mindset to our team that today pushes our design team to think logically. Jordan embodies what makes ZURB great - he started as a marketing intern and moved his way into an engineering role. Matt, in a similar ZURB way, shifted from an engineering focus to build out our training program, and sent our team on a world tour to share our knowledge across four continents.
Jonathan Smiley, Chris Michel, Mark Hayes, Jordan Humphreys, Geoff Kimball and Brandon Arnold all led and pushed Foundation through six releases. Jonathan was instrumental in helping us get the first responsive version out the door before anyone really knew how to build responsive sites. Foundation is an amazing story and I’m thankful for all the Yetinauts and 961 Contributors that have turned it into one of the most important open source projects on the web. Over the years we’ve contributed a ton of open source work and much of that work came from the desire to push the boundaries. Mark Otto, creator of Bootstrap, and Ryan Wilke were also those guys who made great ideas happen and contributed heavily to our Playground.
Dmitry Dragilev, our first marketing hire, was instrumental in helping us reach a global audience. Dmitry made the impossible seem like just another day - I remember talking with Walt Mossberg, the famed tech writer, within a week of Dmitry’s first day at ZURB. Somehow Dmitry tracked him down over a weekend and had Walt on the phone with me that Monday.
I’m grateful for all of our Design Leads who’ve been tasked with pushing our customers to make bold design decisions and which ultimately helped them drive their businesses forward - Jeremy Britton, Alina Senderzon, Tanya Breshears, Ghaida Zahran, Jonathan Smiley, Brandon Arnold, Chris Michel, Matt Kelly, Jon Nemeth and Tim Hartwick. Anthony Tadina and Jackie Ngo were our first senior designers that raised the quality bar in our sketching and interaction design. Anthony perfected the marshmallow man found in many of our sharpie sketches.
I’ve been fortunate to work with Hunter Block, Roeland van Krieken and John Leenane who all worked hard to uncover and sort through the difficult business problems that our customers asked us to solve. Roeland guided us through our early growth with nerves of steel and a solid consistency.
Shawna Moser, our Team Lead, continues to help our team run smoothly and looks after all the small things that make work great. She’s kept me sane through the ups and downs of helping people on our team grow.
Rene Hight, a rock for our team and one of my strongest supporters, has been at the center of our financial success for a decade and half. I’m most proud about the work she did in managing our building renovation, shaping my thinking about cash flow and always trying to find the truth in an answer. She was the first person to wrangle invoicing from me and told me I couldn’t use Illustrator to create invoices.
Our current team is amazing and I’m excited to embark on this next part of the journey - we’re doing unbelievable things together. Over the last year and a half, we made some big changes to position ourselves for the next five years. I’m incredibly giddy and can’t wait to share our learnings from advocacy and Helio.
Be open to change
Things haven’t always been been rosey and can’t be when you shoot for the less obvious answer. We’ve hit a lot of dead ends along our journey, but I’m thankful for having people on our team that have pushed us to be exceptional and to fight for the better answers.
A few years ago I commented on the rising challenges design companies face. Many of my peers have exited their companies or simply decided not to keep pushing forward over the last few years. But who can blame them? Companies were never made to last forever, and today’s companies are battling to remain relevant with the pace of change happening faster than ever. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. Most small businesses shut down within five years.
So how did ZURB get to this milestone? There are many reasons that would seem obvious, but it’s not always clear why some companies live longer than others. A negative economy has little effect on the survival of a business, and ZURB has had tremendous success in down cycles. Survival rates are similar across industries, and while I’d like to think technology oriented companies have faster deaths in Silicon Valley, it’s not the case. Surprisingly, a company’s mortality rate is not affected by its past performance or even its products.
The number one culprit of a company’s death? Cashflow. Having a system in place to manage cashflow has given us a clear direction, even in the worst of times. Having a system can bring clarity to tough decisions. It’s the most unglamorous parts of running a business, but it’s incredible important to every decision a business has to make.
A reminder for the next twenty years
Make it a purpose to wake up each morning knowing you can do more good than you did the day before. Each day should feel like an adventure, filled with challenges that need to be overcome. Keep your eye on the future while you focus on each day. It will keep you moving in the right direction.
Good things will happen in your life, more than not, when you stay true to this goal and find purpose with your coworkers. And if the good you aim to create is too far out of alignment with the future you envision, it’s time to make an adjustment. Listen to your inner voice and stay focused on the good you create with your team. Most of all, embrace the people around you. The memories and influence you create will have a lasting impact that gets passed on to your customers and coworkers, while the artifacts you produce will eventually be erased.
I’m incredibly grateful for everyone that has contributed to ZURB and given us an opportunity to push into the unknowns. Last of all, I’m grateful for my family and wife, Karynn, for supporting this journey and giving me the space to pursue this dream with all the wonderful people we serve. Thank you.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998