Onward Into 2021

Now that The Year That Shall Not Be Named* seems to be rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror, the UpBuild team and I are looking forward to the future. With each passing day, I feel more hopeful, excited, and optimistic.

The outlook for 2021 is bright — if not objectively, then at least relatively. And while none of the trials and tribulations that harangued us throughout 2020 evaporated on January 1st, the start of a new year makes a brighter future seem more attainable and within reach. 

In this post, I will — as is tradition — usher in a new year by looking back at the previous year and looking ahead to what’s in store for UpBuild. 

It’s worth acknowledging right up top that this is not a typical New Year Post because last year was anything but a normal one. That’s become even more clear to me as I re-read the post I wrote last year about our plans for 2020. Ah, the youthful innocence. 

For previous entries in this series-in-the-making, check out:

* Using that moniker is easier said than done — “2020” is 87.5% fewer keystrokes than “The Year That Shall Not Be Named,” so I’ll use the “2020” shorthand. 

2021 Looks Notably Brighter

In many ways, I think that 2021 could be the year I hoped 2020 would be. Perhaps I’m feeling this only because UpBuild emerged from last year relatively unscathed. It’s also that I came to view 2020 as a year-on-pause. My motto became, “Just get through this,” and I let go of any expectations of accomplishing anything above keeping everyone on the payroll. Admittedly, it took me until around August to come to terms with that. I developed a ton of anxiety in the first half of the year, stemming mainly from the disconnect between what I wanted to accomplish in 2020 relative to what I could accomplish given the reality of circumstances. However, by September, everyone at UpBuild was able to rally around the idea that “all we have to do is make it to 2021” — if we could keep our heads above water until then, that would be a success. 

And so the year of 2020 was indeed a year-on-pause: we turned inwardwe focused on our clients and our workwe were grateful to be a part of a team together, and we endured. That was enough. 

That was more than enough. 

In 2019, we aced the test of being a great 10-person company. 

In 2020, I intended to put the pieces in place to grow beyond that if we so chose; to find ways to further dial in what we do and how we work; to push into new areas of innovation; to explore whether or not we wanted to grow or stay just as we were. We accomplished much of that last year, but in different and more inward-focused ways than I expected. 

As such, it feels as if 2021 is going to let us take a swing at some of the bigger goals we’d hoped to accomplish in the prior year

In contrast to previous posts, I’d like to explore UpBuild’s direction for 2021 first. I’ll follow that up with a review of how 2020 went for us and talk about everything we learned along the way.

Ideas Carrying Us Into This Year

I can’t say that we have concrete goals for 2021; we don’t. I wouldn’t even say we have a theme, per se. But 2021 is going to be characterized by doubling down on our thesis. This thesis has been revised and rearticulated over time, but the current iteration is this:

By investing in and looking out for exceptional people, an agency can deliver better results, develop longer-lasting client relationships, and build a stronger reputation than any other agency practice out there. 

We began 2020 with a version of that, and this latest iteration is what I’ll be turning my focus toward as we continue into 2021. When I look at the year ahead (and even out to the year 2030), I think the new non-goal is “to become more of what we already are.” To become a more UpBuildy version of the team and company we are today, independent of having a larger headcount, signing more clients, or earning higher top-line revenue. 

What’s become clear to me over the last twelve months is that growth does not equal success. Furthermore, neither does change in the pursuit of becoming something “more”. I think this was the most significant lesson I’ve recently earned: that UpBuild can be what it currently is, indefinitely, as long as we’re contributing to proving our thesis. 

All that said, there are a few concrete achievements that I’d like to see us hit in 2021:

Have a Team Retreat

There are still so many variables that won’t be known for months to come, but I’m desperately hoping that we’ll have the chance to spend some time together in-person before the end of the year. It’s been two years since our last in-person retreat (although the UpBuild team did meet up at MozCon 2019), and there are now four people I work with daily whom I’ve never seen face-to-face. 

Launch a New Website

This project is well underway (with Ruth leading it), and I’m excited about the progress to date. I can’t wait until we can announce that, but we’re not in a rush. We’d rather have the new site be awesome and for it to take longer if it needs to. 

Return to Consistent Profitability

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’ll be a real team effort that can serve as a reliable indicator that we’re as great as we think we are. Did we survive 2020 by mere chance or because we’re really onto something with our model and our team?

We just about broke even during the most challenging year in my professional career, so I’m excited to see what we can do in a year featuring a better economic outlook, as well as less turmoil and uncertainty. 

Don’t Be a “Real Business;” Be UpBuild

That phrase is less of a goal (it’s undoubtedly not S.M.A.R.T.) and more of a guiding mantra to use over the next twelve months. In recent years, I’ve often felt a pull to do more “real business” things. For example, hiring a fractional CFO (which we did, though not through the company whose explainer page I just linked to), getting onto a pricey CRM system (which we also did), or spending days and weeks worrying about how efficiently UpBuild managed NDAs (which I did). Maybe all of these things just had to be tried for the truth of it to become apparent, but I don’t think we need as much of that “real business” stuff as I might have thought initially. As but one example, the team has organically refined exceptional ways of using Trello; if Trello, a tool we already have, can also be used as a CRM or as an Operational Dashboard, could we use that rather than signing a 12-month service agreement for a real business solution?

I’m not certain, but it seems likely. I think 2021 is the year to find out the answer.

Do Great Work for Clients We’re Proud to Partner With

2020 was a crash course in focusing on working with the things you can control, acknowledging the brutal facts around you, and persevering through it. In 2021, this theme is going to be a big focus. Not in an overly-stoic sort of way, but simply that we’re all going to be trying to do the best work of our professional careers. That’s what we’re all driven to do and what provides us with the most satisfaction. We want to geek out on optimizing the web and using our skills to help interesting companies grow. If we can keep that going throughout this coming year and do nothing else, that’ll feel great. 

Goals → Direction

It’s been interesting to watch UpBuild’s yearly goals evolve over time. We went from specific and ambitious in our early years (e.g., “Grow revenue by 20% and have eight team members!”) to open-ended and purely directional as we become more mature (e.g., “Be more of what we already are”). I feel good about that, and I can’t deny that it’s more than a little relieving to be okay with not striving for the next bigger and better milestone. 

This post and these goals are just as much for the future version of myself to reflect on in the years to come as they are for the present-day version of myself whose fingers are clacking mechanical keys as he types. So it always has been. So it ever shall be. 

2020 in Review: Highs & Lows

Let’s now take a look back at that spectacular dumpster fire known as 2020. 

Last Year Was Hard

While 2020 was a hard year, I believe that it was also one of the most important we’ve had. It was a year that defined us and showed everyone the kind of company we were. It showed us what we could do and proved the strength of our model. 

Faced with a global pandemic, a shaky economy (that’s putting it generously), and political and social turmoil, UpBuild had a hard time. There’s no sugar-coating that. We didn’t necessarily lose droves of clients, but our lead flow slowed to a trickle. Organizations also became much more cautious about their marketing spend (and investing in SEO can feel speculative to folks, even in the best of times). As a result, UpBuild was solidly in the red for about eight consecutive months.

Nonetheless, we persevered and made it back to profitability in December, with an excellent outlook for Q1 2021. In the spring, summer, and fall of last year — however — this happy ending seemed anything but certain. There was simply no way to know whether or not our clients’ businesses would survive, whether or not the leads would ever come back, or whether the support we received (via a critical PPP loan) would run out. 

It was also unclear if our commitment to our values and the vision of UpBuild would ultimately prove to be warranted. Despite bleeding cash month after month, we ardently refused to use furloughs, layoffs, or salary reductions to protect our vital cash flow preemptively. 

Our belief has always been that the team is UpBuild’s product. We couldn’t make a rational argument for “cutting features” from the product because we were hurting for more customers and cash. Ripping something/someone out is not simple subtraction; its effects are far-reaching and exponentially damaging. In the same way that each team member is a multiplier, making UpBuild something much greater than the sum of its parts, laying off even just one person would leave a massive crater in team morale, focus, and productivity. Our product would become less stable, less valuable overnight. 

I was prepared to make a lot of sacrifices before losing any team members, yet my complete belief in what makes UpBuild unique and valuable served to get me through a lot of mental turmoil. As I’ve said elsewhere, having our values as a guide also made hard choices much, much easier to make

Five Years in Business, FTW

2020 was also a milestone worth celebrating in and of itself. Independent of all the happenings of the world, UpBuild turned five in 2020. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 50% of businesses (with employees) survive past the five-year mark. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve not only been successful for this long but also that there’s no end in sight. I see no reason why we couldn’t keep this going for another five years, another ten, indefinitely. 

Paycheck Protection & Reducing My Salary

I feel like a direct acknowledgment of how much the Paycheck Protection Program helped UpBuild is in order. While stories of misused funds or PPP applications of questionable merit are easy to come by, I’m pleased to run a business that was unquestionably helped by the program. We benefited in the exact spirit of the CARES Actour PPP loan is quite literally what allowed UpBuild to protect the paycheck of every employee on our payroll. 

Nonetheless, I was wary (and continue to be) of counting on those funds as “our money.” To the best of my knowledge, the SBA has yet to forgive any PPP loans, so I’m very much treating that as a liability — a loan that must eventually be repaid. To that end, even though we had more money in the bank than we would otherwise, I reduced my salary to 80% of normal for each month where we were unprofitable. That wasn’t an easy call to make, and I couldn’t say I was entirely comfortable with it, but it let me demonstrate to the team how seriously I was taking things, and it also put my head in the right place to focus on rebuilding our cashflow.

Laying Out the Worst Case

UpBuild has made great efforts to be transparent since Day One and perhaps the most challenging task in this respect was laying out the worst-case — painting the picture of what it would look like for UpBuild to die. I reviewed this timeline with the team in March and provided updates throughout the year. Fortunately, we managed to stay near the left-most end of the timeline. We were helped out by the PPP, as well as my taking a reduced salary far before we ran into serious financial trouble. 

The One Goal in 2020: “Keep All The Hammers on the Wall”

On March 3rd, we made the call to cancel our yearly team retreat, cancel our team’s attendance at Engage, and eat the sunk airfare and lodging cost. For better or worse, this was long before most of the country began to take COVID-19 seriously, and we ended up burning something to the tune of $10,000. Our thinking was that we were either going to look back on that call as either A) appropriately cautious or B) as an overreaction in the interest of our team’s health and safety that we could live with even if it ended up being unnecessary. Well, we all know how the pandemic progressed from there.

When our team retreat shifted to a virtual format and was held via Zoom a few weeks later, I did my best to convey the seriousness with which we were approaching the coming months or years (who could say at that point). I also attempted to encourage the most optimistic outlook within reason. A COVID-19 post I wrote shortly thereafter captures my thinking at that time well. 

As explained to the team that day, my overriding priority was to “keep all the hammers on the wall.” What?

UpBuild has outstanding team member retention for an agency. To date, we’ve never had a senior SEO leave the organization. Over the past nearly six years, we’ve seen just four team member departures. When UpBuild employee number one left the team in 2017 to pursue a career in urban planning (he’s crushing it, BTW), I wanted to send him a parting gift. Since construction jokes and metaphors are never far from the mind of UpBuild’s CEO, I naturally found someone who could laser engrave actual hammers for us. One side of the hammer’s handle has our logo etched into it. On the other — “Thanks for building with us!”

Cheesy? You bet it is. 

After that, it became a tradition, and we now send a custom hammer to every departing employee. In early 2019, when it came time to say goodbye to another team member, I placed a bulk order and got a box of them. In much the same way that I readily acknowledge that we will lose every client, I also know that we will lose every team member. No one will work here forever, not even me (in fact, I hope that UpBuild can exist long after any present-day team members are here). 

Once that order came in, I grabbed a hammer for each team member and mounted all of them on my office wall. Every day, this provides me with a visual reminder of each person who is a part of UpBuild. Throughout 2020, it became my mission to keep every hammer on that wall. That is, of course, unless someone no longer feels like they want to or can be a part of this team. 

It Wasn’t All Struggle and Anxiety

While the year was a slog, there were a lot of great things that happened. I think the fact that the world seemed to be on fire all around us makes these successes feel all the more meaningful. We accomplished great things in 2020 despite 2020. Take that, year! 

Some significant wins we saw in 2020 included:

  • Growing the Team
    The year 2020 was meant to be one of growth, and we’d set hiring in motion before the full fallout of the pandemic began to take shape. Despite COVID-19, we brought on not one but two new Technical Marketing Specialists on a part-time basis. Both were so great that we made each of them full-time offers at about the same time that our cashflow went negative. If this wasn’t putting all our chips behind our thesis, nothing was. If we count part-time staff, UpBuild began 2020 with nine and ended with thirteen. Payroll was an expense I was genuinely proud to see go up significantly. 
  • Making Donations that Matter
    Doing what we can to give back, whether in big or small ways, has always been important for us. Despite the uncertainty of our financial situation, we make donations we felt proud of in 2020. Notably, UpBuild donated $4,405.38 to the NAACP’s Empowerment Programs to recognize this spring’s events (we also granted everyone two days of paid time off during that difficult month). 
  • Remote Teams Rule
    As the whole Knowledge Work sector transitioned to remote work seemingly overnight, UpBuild’s remote set up went from being a novelty to the standard for how work had to get done. My heart went out to the teams who struggled with the transition, but we were happy to lend our moral support and home office setup advice to our clients and community. I think everyone here also felt grateful that, if nothing else, they were already well-equipped for and experienced with remote work. 
  • Preparing for Parental Leave, Times Two
    There’s no better way to test whether something is truly important to a company than to see what happens when following through on it is hard. I’m proud to say that we didn’t even consider the possibility of changing up our parental leave policy in response to financial hardship; we just figured it was something we had to figure out a way to make it work. 2020 brought the announcement of two babies on the way! One arrived healthy and happy in November 2020, and the other should be here literally any day now! Both new parents are going to be taking full advantage of UpBuild’s family leave policy.
  • We Continued To Turn Away Poor Fits
    Even during the times when we really could have used another client (or four), and our lead-flow was minimal, we continued to vote on potential clients, and we continued to turn away those who ultimately weren’t great fits for our team. More than at any other time, this was the best thing for our team and the kindest thing we could do for those prospective clients. Now that didn’t mean it was more comfortable and, in fact, it was harder to write those emails than it ever has been, but the decision simultaneously felt more right than it ever has. 
  • A Calm in the Midst of a Raging Storm
    What I think I’m proudest of was that in 2020, UpBuild got to be one stable thing that people could hold onto throughout an incredibly tough year. This sentiment came up multiple times during our latest round of performance reviews, and I got choked up every time it did. I wish circumstances weren’t what they were, but the fact that someone could say their workplace and their team was a place of solace for them during incredibly challenging times left me awestruck. 

It’s been a good nine months since the world started falling apart. I can still recall worrying in the early days about this “Coronavirus thing” and wondering if I was seriously overreacting. I’ll always remember not being able to sleep due to the fear of our bank accounts going to zero. I feel like I can still smell the smoke from when Oregon’s wildfires seemed dead set on barrelling straight into Southwest Portland, where Will and I live. I can recall the horror, hopelessness, and anger sparked by pretty much everything on the news since the beginning of spring. 

But the feeling has sort of receded into memory. I know those terrible things happened, but the memory no longer consumes me. Time continues to sand down the rough edges, and as a new year begins, I feel my cautious optimism giving way to unqualified excitement for the future. I’ve been so conditioned by last year’s events that it almost feels wrong, but I’m going to choose to embrace it (I’m not sure that I could continue to bear the alternative). 

If luck is with us, UpBuild has a strong 2021 to look forward to, and I hope the wider world fares as well as we do. I’m looking forward to seeing where we all go from here. Up and to the right, I hope.

Until next time, happy optimizing. 

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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