Hike Your Own Hike

David Poteet at McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia

My Big Takeaway from 2023

I’ve never thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail but I live 20 minutes from it. My wife and I help maintain a 2 mile stretch with some of the most spectacular scenery on the trail. I spend a few days on the AT every year, joining the flow with folks who are out for a weekend or treading all 2,190 miles, sharing stories over ramen at the shelters. Everyone who spends much time on the trail ends up with a trail name. Mine is “gadget.” I might have a small gear problem.

Curiosity about backpacking often leads to Youtube, where you find no shortage of folks telling you all about the latest gear you MUST have if you want to be comfortable, eat well, stay dry, or travel light and fast. But if you spend any time talking to thru-hikers you’ll hear someone say “You’ve gotta hike your own hike.” You’ll find tremendous community on the trail, but it’s also something you have to do with your own two feet. Ultimately you have to decide what’s best for you and follow that – no judgment.

Running a digital agency now for 28 years, I’ve benefited at every step from the wisdom of others. My early mentors helped me understand what it means to run a business, manage cash flow, and create a strong culture. I’ve also learned invaluable lessons from our higher ed client partners as we’ve supported them and advised them through the organizational changes they’ve made. We’ve encouraged patience and persistence, focusing on the fundamentals to build momentum. But putting theory into practice can be hard for any organization, especially when it means significant change. By 2013 as NewCity grew past 25 people, I found it increasingly hard to balance all the forces and help the company run with consistent profitability. 

Why? Most of the projects we do are custom and complex, depending on leadership from our team and close collaboration with our clients. To scale, you need an approach that is 1) easy to teach to new team members, and 2) allows for changes to the plan as you learn more about a client’s needs. You also need 3) back office operations that run without drama so you can focus on client work.

We sought out ideas and models that might apply to our situation. We’re part of a community of other agencies called the Bureau of Digital – fellow “thru-hikers” who generously share their stories and hard-won lessons. We found a wealth of authors, consultants, processes, products and business gurus, each with abundant examples of how their approaches held the secret ingredient for success.

Between 2015 and 2021 we tried several of the most promising ideas. We hired a factional CFO company to run our financial processes, then brought it back in house, then outsourced parts again then brought it back in house, AGAIN. We moved to a new software platform to track project time and budgets, then another, then ANOTHER (yeah that’s 5 platforms in the span of six years). In 2017 we hired a trainer to teach a new way to plan and run our projects, which turned out not to fit our situation the way we’d hoped. You can imagine the toll all that change took on company morale. At some point people just want calm and consistency. Turnover went up and our financial performance was a rollercoaster.

The biggest lesson I learned through these years of trying to redesign our engine while driving is that you can’t just lift an idea or tool from one organization and apply it to another, expecting the same results. You have to “hike your own hike,” taking time to:

  1. truly understand the context where it was successful 
  2. compare that situation to your context
  3. consider how those differences might impact your success

All of these ideas have value, but I’ve found that every solution carries the DNA of the problem it was designed to solve. If you don’t understand that original problem you can misapply the solution.

Of course processes and tools are only as good as the people behind them. Sometimes gurus will tout a solution and overlook the importance of the people who made it work. That was certainly true for us. A fractional CFO can work well if you have the right person, it can be a disaster if you don’t. Great project managers lead well even when the process isn’t perfect.

So through the pandemic years we did our best to take the good from these lessons and figure out what really works for NewCity. We focused on the basics:

  • recruiting and supporting excellent leaders in key roles like project management and operations that enable the rest of the team to do their best work.
  • finding a flexible project management platform that works the way we want to work (we’ve been on the same one for nearly three years!).
  • establishing sustainable weekly and monthly rhythms to stay on top of our project budgets and performance.
  • streamlining and clarifying our process to build confidence and collaboration at each stage.
  • being the most valuable partner we can for our clients through expertise and clear-eyed focus on their success.

These are all things you have to do faithfully day by day, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that perseverance will be rewarded. We started to feel the momentum of our efforts in early 2022 with improved sales under the leadership of Matt Simmons, our VP of Client Strategy and Bizdev, which fueled significant revenue growth in 2023. At the start of 2023 I promoted Jessica Catto from Director of Project Management to VP of Delivery over all our production team, and watched them blossom under her leadership. Turnover dropped to almost zero. Our client relationships grew stronger in part because we proved ourselves such a consistent and dependable member of their teams.

2023 was a tremendous year for NewCity, and it was at least ten years in the making. I’m proud of the NewCity team for the dedication they show to our clients, and I’m grateful to our client partners who are willing to take this journey with us. As we start 2024, I can say we’re confident in our ability to hike our own hike. We don’t have all the answers, and sometimes we stumble. But we’ve proven to ourselves we can figure it out. 

If any of this resonates with you, I’ll share one last piece of advice: Don’t let some misfires stop you from being open to new ideas. Just make sure you really understand them before you bet on them. Give yourself space to be grateful for the lessons you’ve learned the hard way – that’s where wisdom and perseverance are forged, which are MOST IMPORTANT for going the distance. There’s always going to be better gear, but it’s your hike, and your heart and your feet have to get you there. 

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