This Thursday, March 27th, we'll be hosting Stephen Megitt and Matt Hryhorsky from Filament Creative. These two will be giving a presentation entitled "We F#ucked Up!", covering the many lessons learned while building Filament from the group up.
Be sure to join our Meetup group and come out to Think Thursday.
We were fortunate to chat with Stephen about Filament this week. Here's what he had to say:
Where did the idea for Filament come from?
The idea for Filament came before I even knew that Filament was going to even be a thing. From a very young age I've had a bit of a contentious relationship with authority. That's generally the case for curious people. If someone tells you that there's a certain way of doing things, you wonder if, perhaps there might be a better way. If you're like me, the issue is an obsession until the desired outcome is reached. Curiosity and compulsion go hand in hand. It's a positive obsession in my opinion — one that's served me well. Anyway, back to filament. The need to question 'why' or to find a better way of doing things didn't really sit well with people that just wanted me to comply — parents, teachers, former bosses etc. It's not easy dealing with someone that is constantly questioning and
To me, a start up was a natural fit; to be beholden and accountable to a small group of peers to try and make something work, together. When it was clear that our original business model wasn't working, we started to develop microsites for Bell and a handful of companies you've never heard of. But then an odd thing happened, we started getting more of this kind of business and I found myself leading strategy, design, and front end development which is to say nothing of managing projects and working with a team of back end developers in Malaysia, 12 hours ahead.
In the context of the original business model, this wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. But, it was fun and more inline with my natural passion of being creative and solving puzzles. Because i had very limited experience, front end development literally became a puzzle to try and solve — and if you've ever hand-coded a website in tables, you know what I'm talking about. Soon, the only source of significant revenue was through web development work.
I recognized that the company wasn't doing well and that our business model wasn't working. We weren't pivoting and so in 2000, I registered a sole proprietorship company and named it something that no one could pronounce and started doing freelance on the side—I'm not telling you the name because it's embarrassing. Maybe after a couple of drinks. In 2001 I registered another business called Filament Creative. It felt right because I'd like to believe that I'm a little more clever than a tired cliche. Though lightbulbs are often associated with ideas, or the spark of an idea, the tungsten filament is the thing that actually creates the light —the thing inside the idea. We were going to be that thing, those people behind the idea. Creating ideas. I felt it was kind of clever then and I still do.
While I had my freelance on the side, I was mentally checking out of the original startup. At one point in 2002 or 2003, the team got together and voiced opinions on which direction the company should go. I voiced mine and I didn't have too many supporters, none in fact. However, they were ok if I wanted to pursue the direction that I felt we should take but insisted that I develop the marketing materials, website, etc. It was then that I had the ah-ha moment and the recognition that if these guys have enough confidence in my ability to produce those materials for them, why don't I just go off and do this on my own? So, I did. I haven't looked back and haven't had anyone tell me to do things a different way in 12 years. For better or worse, I've done things the best way I know how and either enjoyed success or learned from failure.
What was your proudest moment?
I have a few. Being an entrepreneur your business takes up your entire life. If you're young, like I was when I started, you're completely unencumbered and you're happy to be obsessed — sometimes you wear it like a badge of honour. Because it's something that takes up such a significant portion of you're life and it's grown up over 12 or so years, it's unfair to talk about being proud of just one moment. It's like trying to pick one moment in your child's life that you're most proud — it's too hard because you've been there for everything. I will however, give you a few moments that I'll never forget and are a source of tremendous pride.
The moment I was debt free. While I was in my first startup, I had a good salary and and a credit card and financially illiterate. I was so young and so stupid. I racked up around $30K in debt. Even so, I started Filament and was undeterred because I knew I could be successful. I was living with my parents and filament's first office was 2 steps away from my bed in their basement. I set really tiny goals for myself to just be able to pay the monthly expenses, which included loan repayment and cell phone bill. After a while, I met those goals and exceeded them. Got a car and added my lease payments to my goal of 'just pay off the expenses'. I started to build up some profit and felt that I could move out of my parent's basement and move into a house in the Annex with my two best friends. I got rid of my car but now I had rent and utilities to contend with. You get the idea. During this time I was fortunate enough to build a rapport with a woman at Rogers. She worked out of a unique business within Rogers called the Office of the CTO and they were responsible for putting WiFi hotspots in coffee shops and airports etc. There was very little bureaucracy in that group and bless her heart, she and I clicked. We started working together on every piece of consumer facing materials — log in screens, brochures, stickers, billboard advertising, trade show booths etc. I was 2 years into my loan repayment plan and had 2 years left. I remember getting a direct deposit from Rogers in my bank account and later that night making a lump sum payment on the loan and walking out of my bedroom to the kitchen and announcing that I was debt free. It was the first time that I had felt that I was doing something right. It felt really good to know that it was the result of all my hard work and sweat and picking up the phone when the client called at ridiculous hours or driving to Ottawa to deliver brochures that she forgot. It was total vindication for everything up to that point. To this day, Filament doesn't run on any kind of debt other than credit card for office expenses and overdraft protection — lesson learned. Personally, I'm back in debt but it's different kind of debt, one that comes with a home and an 11 month old. I'm told this is normal ;)
Beating out the bigs. In 2008, we were asked to participate in an RFP for the Toronto Parking Authority website redesign. We weren't suppose to win. We were up against Taxi and about about 3 really big traditional agencies and another web agency which has since gone under. Matt, who at the time had been with me for 2 years, had never pitched anything before and neither had I . We didn't really know how. We ended up going in there wearing our big boy clothes and showing off printed boards which complemented a very well-rehearsed presentation. A couple weeks went by and late one afternoon, we got a call from the Toronto Parking Authority letting us know that we won. It was the single biggest contract we had ever been awarded. We celebrated with one of those massive hugs where I leapt in the air and Matt caught me. We then had lots of beer. It was really triumphant. We had beaten out Taxi, a company whose work we greatly admired, and a handful of other heavy hitters. It was incredibly validating. We poured everything into that site and app and in many ways that work really put us on the map. We still have a very positive relationship with them to this day.
Building a Team. I've done a lot on my own but I've always wanted to have a team that could just flat out execute. It's taken me a while to get to the team we've got now but I'm really, really proud of them. We've got the the right people doing the right things and caring about the right stuff. Together, we have fun and have built a culture filled with laughs and hard work. People love coming to work because the work is fun and we all really and genuinely enjoy working with each other. Sure, we have good days and bad days but we care about each other and want to make sure that the bad days aren't so bad. I'm amazed at how much they contribute and have taught me. I've always loved the quote that in order to succeed surround yourself with people that are smarter than yourself — being a designer, developer and everything in between, I don't think I ever reached my full potential in any of those disciplines but I'm surrounded by people that consistently strive for perfection and finding new, better ways of doing things.
Just Because. The last moment of pride came when one of the founders of my first startup called and had asked me to quote on some work. He and I had parted ways on less than awesome terms and he could have used anyone, but chose to work with filament. The contract was larger than my salary at the startup — if there was ever an indication that I had made the right decision in leaving rather than sticking it out, it was this.
What is the best piece of advice that you've ever received?
I would have to say that one of the best pieces of advice i've received was to put 20% of each check away for taxes and other things. In my first couple of years running Filament I wasn't doing this. My accountant at the time would tell me I owed this massive number in taxes and of course I didn't have this money on hand and so I had to pay it off in instalments. After this accountant tried to tell me that I needed to consider the government a partner in my business I fired her and found someone that would actually help me with my business planning. My current bookkeeper, who is just amazing, gave me this piece of advice and now tax time isn't stressful because I've already prepared for it. It's one less thing to worry about and I appreciate that.
A lot of the advice I got or sought out was on running a business rather than anything else. If I can turn the question on it's head and maybe offer up what I think is the best piece of advice for anyone that wants to start a business, I'd say that if you're aren't prepared to make mistakes, go do something else. Making mistakes is single best thing you can do because as long as you're making them, you're learning. Being afraid to make mistakes is stifling and won't open you up new opportunities and new experiences.
When did you start coding? How did it go?
I started coding in my late teens, during the late 90s, while in my first year of university. It wasn't pretty but it was HTML. I began by reverse engineering other sites and picking them apart to find out how a particular thing was done. This became habit. I would go out with friends, have a good time, come back to my apartment and fire up the modem, which made that wretched yet sweet sound of when logging on to the 'information superhighway' as it was called then. I'd spend the next few hours surfing sites that I liked (k10k.com) and picking things apart. I didn't know a lot but I knew enough to be dangerous. The more I learned, the more I loved it and wanted to do it more. I should note that all the HTML I wrote was table based and the sites that I produced had little notes in the footer that told the user that a site was best viewed in Internet Explorer 5 at 640x480. Insane to think I'm that old.
The most interesting part of building a digital agency is that the moment you think you've got something down cold, the internet goes and invents something new and awesome that you've not only got to contend with, but have to be able to perfect. I went from Tables to XTHML to HTML and CSS and now I've got pre-processors and frameworks and responsive design and content management systems and APIs. It all changes so fast. Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge the change and I certainly don't lament for a simpler time. I love the new technologies its part of the reason why I love what I do — there's always something new to learn and share with the team.
We do "Lunch and Learn" on fridays and it's where we get to show off things that we've found or learned and that we think the rest of the team should be aware of. It cam be anything. Over the past 6 weeks, we've shared our resources on Emet coding in sublime, Git, Icon Fonts, Pathfinder tool in illustrator, Adobe Edge, and project management techniques. When everyone is committed to learning, it makes for a very open and flexible team that's willing to take on anything.