4 Lessons Growing A Company 735% in 3 Years

Sean Johnson

Sean JohnsonPartner at DI and Founder Equity. Kellogg professor. Very pale.

We found out this week that we are #620 on the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing private companies.

While I’ve learned by now that nothing changes when you get accolades or achievements like this, it did present an opportunity for reflection on what I’ve learned over the last five years and the factors that drove the modest success we’ve had so far.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I can tell you firsthand having a fast growing company usually brings with it a ton of chaos and messiness. But the following are some things I’ve picked up going on this crazy journey that might be beneficial to anyone starting out and looking to grow something special.

Find a Compelling Vision

I used to think the vision stuff was silly. That it was a way to avoid doing actual work by piling into a conference room and brainstorming about a bunch of fuzzy stuff that has no bearing on your business.

But six months into our company, I learned I was wrong.

We had been operating as a traditional product development firm, providing UX and web and mobile development. We had assumed our clients understood the intricacies of business strategy, business model design, and how to get traction. In many cases this wasn’t true.

We learned the gap between where someone wanted to go and where they were now often couldn’t be crossed by plopping an app in their laps and wishing them good luck.

They needed a true partner. One who could help them validate whether customers would want their idea before building it. One who could help them hone in on a specific market with the right characteristics to maximize their chances of success. One who knew most of the hard work happens after you launch, not before, and who was willing to go on that messy, stressful journey with them. One whose litmus test for success wasn’t “on time and on budget”, but rather “users love us” or “we’re getting legitimate traction.”

We knew creating an organization willing to embark on that journey with clients would be hard and messy and complicated. But the vision of building a company that could do that, of creating a startup factory, was too compelling to not pursue.

A compelling vision makes everything worth it.

Building a company is hard. You will lose the big client. You will lose that essential team member. You will get sued. You will worry about how to make payroll. You will get hit, hard and often.

That vision, the ability to do meaningful work and create something that didn’t previously exist is what makes it possible to get up in the morning and go at it again with vigor. It’s what grounds you and provides a compass that allows you to make hard strategic decisions.

It’s also what makes it possible to have talented team members be willing to leave larger companies and more lucrative jobs for a chance to do something special, even if the first year in business is conducted at various coffee shops and features meager salaries and zero benefits.

It’s still staggers me those initial team members were crazy enough to go on this journey with us. I’m proud to say they’re all still with us. I don’t think it’s a testament to us as people, but rather a testament to the power of a compelling vision.

Cash Covers a Multitude of Sins

In many ways, Digital Intent has been a mess. The partners have very complimentary strengths, but happen to share almost all of the same weaknesses.

We’ve been disorganized. We’ve been too nice too often. We’ve comped clients hundreds of thousands of dollars in work to do them a solid, and have kept nonproductive team members on far longer than we should.

We’ve learned our lessons (sometimes in very hard ways), and have managed to keep things afloat in spite of our weaknesses. And the biggest reason has been revenue.

Ringing the cash register gives you margin to screw up and learn. It can mean the difference between a bad hire and a disastrous hire. It allows you to survive hard seasons.

Cash is your lifeline. And while lines of credit and loans can certainly be beneficial, there is no replacement for revenue.

People often talk about how you shouldn’t prioritize growth over everything else. How not tending to the underlying culture and infrastructure will inevitably catch up with you.

But the reverse is worse. You can have an amazing culture and fantastic, well documented processes. But nothing happens until there is a sale, and not prioritizing revenue risks having to put those great documents in boxes in your basement.

Learn to love sales. Learn how to find people who love sales. Learn to do something every day to bring in sales.

Focus On The Work

We haven’t had a very deliberate approach to creating a great culture, and that probably shows in many ways. But in spite of that we have very low turnover, have managed to pry extremely smart people from companies known for great cultures (and keep those folks happy), and have almost no politics (unless I’m totally deluding myself. But I don’t think so).

The reason this has worked, I think, is our commitment to doing great work. While we have a management structure in place for mentoring and review purposes, in the context of project teams, everyone’s an equal. If the young woman with 6 months of experience has a better idea than the guy with 15 years experience, the team goes with the best idea.

At the same time, we’ve tried to avoid the bloodthirstiness that can come with a blatent meritocracy. We didn’t want to create an environment where people are jockeying for position to do the most visible work and avoiding the hidden, tedious but essential work in hopes of more upside. The work isn’t the thing you do to get a reward. The work is the reward.

A client is entrusting us with their idea, their money, and several years of their lives. That’s an awesome responsibility, and we’re obligated to do everything in our power to make their vision real. We get the honor of working on interesting problems and trying to change the destinies of our clients. We’ve tried hard to find people who are humble, don’t crave the spotlight, and are intrinsicly motivated to do great work. They’re hard to find, but they’re invaluable when you can find them.

Work as Meditation

We talk a lot about how work is an opportunity to practice being the best version of yourself. You’re in the office more than any other place, and it presents the perfect confluence of factors to make it a fantastic training ground for life.

If you choose, work can be the place to learn how to be patient with people, to learn empathy. It can be the place to learn focus and discipline, to avoid checking the internet every 5 minutes and crank on the task at hand. It can be the place to learn how to avoid cutting corners, taking an extra couple minutes to add polish to something no one will notice but you. It can be the place to learn what hard work feels like, where you can sit down on your couch at the end of the night and binge watch House of Cards because you know you earned it.

We’ve tried to create a place where people work on themselves as much as on the clients. We reinforce the importance of constantly learning, of taking on side projects to improve skills, and how to leverage every meeting or conversation or project as a chance to practice some aspect of yourself you’d like to improve.

The result of this emphasis is you attract self motivated people. You attract thoughtful people. You attract people who know their success can be created, not just handed out. You attract people who have a growth mindset, who actually work on killing their desire for power or their tendency to be lazy or their habit of not listening. Which kills politics, and makes an environment where people care about clients and others.


A downside to the focus on the journey is you can sometimes ignore the need to celebrate wins along the way. While our rate of growth might sound neat to the outside world, and might look like we’ve got everything all together, the truth is when you’re knee deep in it you don’t feel that way. It’s mostly a slog.

Given that, I’m grateful Inc. recognized us. It disrupted the flow of things enough for us to take a minute and be thankful for what we’ve been fortunate enough to build with our team. This isn’t the destination by any means. But it’s a marker on the journey, and one we should be proud of.

My partners and I are immensely grateful we’ve had the opportunity to serve our clients and our team. We’re grateful we’ve managed to keep the wheels from flying off as long as we have, many times in spite of ourselves. And we look forward to the next five years of the journey.

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