Four Kitchens

5 lessons learned in 15 years of Four Kitchens (a clearly non-exhaustive list)

6 Min. ReadWork life

Fifteen years is a long time. In technology terms, it’s just shy of forever. Back in 2006, Chrome was just a gleam in some Google developer’s eyes, PlayStation 3 was the hottest console, and Facebook was being introduced to the wider public

And, of similar importance (around here, anyway), Four Kitchens was born

Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot since then. From honing our process to serve our clients better to building an understanding of how to manage people and projects, we’re miles away from where we began. And with no centralized office and a fully distributed team, we can say that literally

Where we are now is right where we want to be. Here are five points Four Kitchens has learned about business and management that have been 15 years in the making.

1. Silly rules erode trust

Four Kitchens is built on a culture of empowerment. It was a big part of our thinking when we opted to become fully distributed 5 years ago, because empowerment is the foundation of all successful teams

I used to give a talk about the idea, and one of its core lessons grew out of an experience in the dot-com bubble-era startup. Back then, as an impressionable young adult, a break room filled with snacks and soda was the pinnacle of luxury. Then, over the summer, the funding dried up. As a way to tighten their belts, the company instituted a policy limiting everyone to two snacks a day

Two snacks a day? Even as a teenager, I knew they’d blown it. Not because we’d get fewer snacks—a minor bummer—but because this arbitrary limit created a policing culture in their organization. How would the policy be enforced? Who would enforce it? Without a central Snack Authority keeping track, employees eyed each other, resentfully wondering who respected the rules, who didn’t, and why we were all out of snacks

Tough times require change, but silly rules and half-measures will alter the character of your business. Instead, you have to opt for bold action and transparency. If you have to cut expenses, it’s better to go all the way, explain what’s being eliminated and why, and underscore how everyone is in this together. Treat your team like professionals, and the minor troubles will be forgotten as you preserve a sense of unity

Overhead view of the Web Chefs at a team retreat
As Four Kitchens has grown over 15 years, rituals like our annual retreat have created a sense of unity

2. ‘Fear is the mind-killer’

Sometimes, you have to defer to the wisdom of Dune:

I must not fear.rnFear is the mind-killer.rnFear is the little-death that brings total obliteration…

While the idea of avoiding fear sounds simple, it’s often the hardest thing to do, especially while running a team or business

Whether you’re a manager or owner, you have to know yourself. Running a team is difficult, and your perspective shifts once a sense of dread has set in about the future. As your mind gravitates toward the worst-case scenario—or is sucked into the black hole of existential dread—it’s easy to make work personal. If you’re prone to operating from a place of fear, you have to know when not to be the decision-maker. Otherwise, you’ll make stupid decisions

Years ago, when Four Kitchens had an Austin office, I was working late. At some point, another team member knocked on my door and asked for advice: A client needed urgent work done, which was no problem to complete that night, but so did another client. He wanted to know which one to choose

This was an impossible choice. My answer—as I’m the one holding the bag as an owner—would be to work extra hard to finish both. But realistically, that was too much to ask for this person. An unfair decision like that chips away at relationships on a team, and that’s the worst thing you can do

Fortunately, our Director of Technology walked by, and I deferred to him. I don’t know what they decided—I never heard about it again. But they made the right call because they weren’t operating from a place of being afraid to make someone unhappy.

3. You can’t do it all

Some 10 years ago, I was on a road trip with a friend who asked me the biggest lesson learned from starting a company. After some thought, it came to me: “Hire a project manager.”

That’s a pretty wonky answer when you try and broadly apply it to life. But let me explain: It’s really hard to do the work and manage the work at the same time. Even if your organization is fairly small, by the time you realize need help, you’ve probably needed it for a long time. You can’t accurately observe a system from the inside

As Four Kitchens has grown, I’ve come to appreciate Michael Gerber’s idea that there are three types of people at an organization: technicians, managers, and leaders. Those titles aren’t tiers, nor are they meant to imply any higher value to certain teams. They refer to fundamentally different skill sets

The people who do the work should not manage the work. Similarly, leadership isn’t the same thing as management, and management requires a different set of tools from doing what’s necessary to complete a project

If your organization has shortages among those skill sets, you can bring in outside resources to fill the gaps. But if you confuse those roles in your organization, your system will break—sooner than you think.

4. Less is always more

From the size of your teams to the amount of hours they put in per day, higher numbers don’t always translate to better quality. For a small company, it’s easy to fall into the trap of building for growth. But smaller teams get more done.

As organizations grow, you have to avoid the network effect. The more nodes you have in a network, the more energy you have to spend keeping those nodes in sync. In human terms, if you have two people on a team, you need one conversation to keep their work aligned. As the number of people multiply, so do the number of conversations

Though smaller teams truly get more accomplished, you can’t expect to pile on more assignments and see the same results. Once your teams start working beyond capacity, they grow fatigued and less effective. Working less is simply more efficient than working more

Overhead photo of DrupalCon Seattle attendees with the Web Chefs highlighted
We practice ‘coopetition’ daily and welcome the opportunity to share and learn at events

5. Embrace ‘coopetition,’ not competition

In business, particularly the technology industry, you can easily default to a cutthroat view of your competition. While many organizations function that way, Four Kitchens believes there’s a different way to move through the world

We surround ourselves with other agencies that do the same or complementary work. Rather than solely taking pleasure in winning a job, we’re having conversations with competitors behind the scenes. For example: “If we win this bid, we’ll subcontract with you.” It’s a really effective way to run a business because you can expand each other’s capabilities. Life is better with friends rather than enemies

Within the Drupal space, Four Kitchens has reached out to other firms to see whether they felt the same way about “coopetition”: cooperative competition. In some cases, I could tell within minutes whether we were meeting with a like-minded organization. After speaking to one Drupal shop, the CEO said at the end of the call, “I guess there’s no getting around that we are competitors.”

To me, that’s a nice way to say something we typically try to avoid in our working relationships. That’s fine if you want to leave it at us being competitors. We don’t need to talk. But I feel like that world is small. I’d rather live in a bigger world

After 15 years, the way Four Kitchens approaches its clients and competitors continues to expand. I can’t wait to see what this big world brings us next.