CounterMarch Systems is 5 today! I have spent the last few days thinking back over projects we've done, clients we've worked with and what I've learned simply by living it. It's been the most challenging thing I've ever done, not always fun but I can't imagine working any other way. Self employment, given the option, is an opportunity everyone should have for themselves at least once. Steep and sharp curves are the most fun!
So here's CounterMarch Systems, a retrospective, at 5 years old:
CounterMarch Systems started on a couch in a 3rd floor apartment in Langhorne, PA in September 2004. At the time it was just me (Steve), three clients, and my trusty IBM T41 laptop. I even had a little routine - work from home on Monday and Friday, work on campus with a client Tuesday and Wednesday (crashing on a grad student friend's couch overnight) and camp out at my dad's office on Thursday. It felt like I was living out of my car. All of my client files were in a crate in the trunk right next to my sleeping bag. I think having a routine yet varying work environment kept me sharp, though I'm pretty certain that my coffee/latte intake was fairly extreme. Weekends, well, let's just say those were a blur too.
Those first three clients led to almost every single client and project we've had since. Lesson learned: don't underestimate the power of working your ass off and having someone else talk you up!
Through a series of fortuitous connections I was introduced to Matt Cass later that year, who started as a pseudo-intern and very quickly got tossed into the deep end of one of our most important projects. By January we had a comfortable workflow going, so much so that it didn't make sense for him to be anything less than full time. The "offer" was made at a career networking reception in Philly after which our circle of friends adjourned to the bar to socialize and celebrate (something that became a repeating event in our work week). Through every single project since Matt has been my partner and friend, developing technical chops and helping to beat some sense into my ideas that have been absolutely key to our success. Confidence in our ability to work together has allowed the company to consistently take on bigger and better projects.
I'd be entirely remiss to complete this section without mentioning those who worked with us but have since moved on. Chris Hamilton, our first real intern and indespensible Linux resource, is absolutely brilliant. On one project he had to work out a very tricky integration that we could only theorize would work - he didn't quit until it was working. He's just like that. Graduation took him away from us, but we'd hire him away from his current employer if we could. He likes playing with hardware too much. Chris, be warned...we're going to keep coming after you until you cave! Also on our team for an extended period was Dayne Mickelson. I can't say enough about the fanatically disciplined approach to software development that Dayne brought to the task. I'm pretty sure that if I printed out his code and shot it that the bullet wouldn't go through the paper - it was, literally, bulletproof. He contributed to two of our most important projects, one of which was responsible for a good deal of financial processing so it had to be good (and was!) The good news is that Dr. Mickelson will be coming to a hospital near you in a few years - we wish him well and miss our weekly cheap pizza lunches that we discontinued in his honor when he fled for Washington. Both Chris and Dayne came to us from client referrals too!
The connections that led to Matt's employment (and full partnership) and our other employees has led to the growth of the company in ways I could have never expected. Lesson learned: choose your partner(s) wisely and recruit without recruiting.
We've operated through five years of projects, finding our focus, adjusting to follow the market and getting a lot better at what we do.
ColdFusion was always a staple technology with us, but now we've added proficiency with Flex and AIR. From a business standpoint, we've developed a deep understanding of alumni relations, fundraising, benchmarking, CRM and (oddly, but only from a thematic perspective) semiconductor manfuacturing. You can't pick up a single book and be good at any of those areas. Only the experience that comes with either being a practitioner or working side by side with a practitioner in those areas would you ever know enough to implement the right solution. We have been able to do that on every engagement by being fully present when listening to our clients and playing "idea volleyball" back in the office on the best technical solution to the issue at hand. It's great fun to solve a persistent problem with a combination of technical wizardry and clear business understanding. I'd say that our athletics recruitment system is the finest example of this, bar none.
Long term client engagements have led to in-depth business knowledge, which has in turn allowed us to develop software that meets the business need and hits all the technical requirements of the project. Lesson learned: listen fully, question gently, debate vigorously and implement wisely.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Much like golf (which we never have time to play), it's important to swing through the ball. In our case, just becoming good consultants and the maintainers of software we've delivered is not the final step of our engagement with any of our clients. No good developer (or development shop) should ever stop sharpening their saw, no manager should ever stop seeking out ways for staff members to improve and no salesman should ever let the phone go cold. We have clients who have been with us through all five years, working through several projects and the challenge of brining new code to life. I don't think we'd be in a position to do that if we weren't great technologists, if we weren't great self-managers or if we weren't great at standing behind our work. The better we get at learning the more proficient we are and the more value we can deliver with every project. That's terrifically exciting and I intend to keep up the pace, delivering better stuff every single time. It's FUN to do what we do and if we didn't love it we couldn't be nearly as effective.
We learned that in college and it's just as true in business. Lesson learned: work hard, play hard.
Now for our next act...
Five years is an awfully long time to be doing anything and far exceeds the typical lifespan of a startup. That we have been fortunate enough to be successful at it through the highs and lows is due to the trust, guidance and (let's be honest) money of those who think we're worth it. We're proud of the company and reputation we've built.
Matt and I have a few really big, exciting goals for the upcoming year and a very full pipeline of projects to get done (plus a big announcement very, very soon). I'll be sure to blog about them as we get there; Twitter isn't great for everything!
So from two guys in an office with more PCs per person than OSHA would think appropriate, thank you for your support and your business. We look forward to working with you, learning with you and enjoying whatever comes next!