I incorporated NGP Software on January 15th 1997, after giving up on a search for a whimsical or clever corporate name for a new Democratic political campaign software firm. I started by loaning $10000 to the newly formed entity, wondering how long I could go without a paycheck, happy not to be working for anyone else.
Just over eight years later, this last weekend, I was organizing old documents and other items in my attic. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ella was rather helpfully holding a large black plastic garbage bag for me to toss things into, when I came across a slightly faded piece of paper that for a long time during the early days was tacked to the wall near my desk. On it I had written:
1) HELP RIGHT SIDE OF THE FORCE
2) CREATE EXCELLENT PRODUCTS
3) DO ENJOYABLE WORK - HAVE FUN!
4) KEEP UP COMPUTER SKILLS
5) CHOOSE GOOD ASSOCIATES
6) BE HONORABLE IN CAREER
7) LEARN "BUSINESS OF POLITICS"
8) WIN IN COMPETITION
9) AVOID OFFICE POLITICS, HIERARCHY, ETC.
I stopped for a moment to contemplate that piece of my history. I was struck by how little time I have taken to think about how I, and my company, got to where we are, or to give ourselves credit for what we have accomplished to this point. We are always, it seems, too busy with current work, or too busy contemplating the future with its various business threats and opportunities, to engage in such reflection.
I typed in the text of my "exhortation" and send it as an email to "NGP ALL." Two of my employees replied.
One wrote: that's awesome- "learn 'business of politics'"....CHECK. Another said That's way cool. Excellent exhortations! You've been true to them all.
Have I, or we, been true to them all? On reflection, the record is a bit mixed, but generally gratifying.
· Help right side of the force. It would be easy to sell to the other side, or form a shadow company to do so, but we have worked only for Democrats and their allies. That feels good. And I think we have made some difference.
· Create excellent products. I am always impatient to make our products better, and can be very critical of them, but we have worked very hard and have many devoted users of our software. I am proud of what we offer.
· Do enjoyable work. Have fun! Along the way we have had a lot of fun. I think of throwing a football with Louis when we took breaks in the early days, or our company trips to Vermont, or even late nights waiting for FEC filers while eating pizza. Last year, with the pressure from presidential campaigns, more clients than we expected, and the attendant growing pains, was not easy. We had more fun when we were a smaller group that could all go out together and play a game. This year feels better and I am trying to schedule more fun for the team and for myself - including even some vacations.
· Keep up computer skills. I started as the chief (only) programmer, now it is years since I have written a line of code. I must therefore read this exhortation now in a different light - to think of computer skills more broadly for myself at least, and to take pleasure from talents and efforts and growing skills of my employees, many of whom are now more advanced and more knowledgeable and more orderly than I ever was.
· Choose good associates. There is nothing that I value more than the ability to choose those with whom I work, and I have been very happy with the team at NGP. I feel extraordinarily fortunate in that regard. Almost all of our clients and associates and business partners have been good to work with as well. Perhaps I should be quicker to disentangle us from the few bad eggs out there and better in staying in touch with the many great people I've met around DC and in campaigns and organizations around the country.
· Be honorable in career. I'm pleased today that to remember that this was so explicitly on my list. When I wrote it, it meant something very different to me than just helping the right side of the force. It meant doing business honestly, making our way a sharp contrast with others in the market who in my view were less ethical. It meant, and means, treating people fairly, being a good corporate citizen, going above and beyond in supporting clients, making what we sell affordable, and more. It meant not just doing things for the money. I said this sort of thing so frequently in the early days that I know we all internalized it. Consequently, I have been very pleased when on a couple of occasions an employee has come to me and questioned whether some recent business decision lived up to those standards, and I have had to stop and think whether they were right and I had slipped.
· Learn "business of politics." I've been interested in the "business of politics" since I was a graduate student in political science (actually since before that). I had thought I would write my doctoral dissertation on that subject. Instead, I'm learning by doing. Even though I have been at it in one way or another since 1987, the new folks entering the field always seem ahead of me.
· Win in competition. NGP needs a continual flow of new clients to continue as a company, and each one is obtained in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It feels good to be successful, and it stings when we lose one. This ongoing dance is a sometimes stressful but also an essential aspect of job satisfaction for me.
· Avoid office politics, hierarchy, etc. I was always allergic to these things and preferred to work alone -- building my own little cabin in the woods. I have tried to avoid the complications of bigger offices. We have done pretty well, but it gets harder as we grow.
It is not a bad list of exhortations. I think if I were to go back, however, I would add a few more. Here are a couple of candidates:
10) DON'T WORRY, BE OPTIMISTIC
11) CONTINUE TO TAKE RISKS.
Those two might serve us well in the next eight years.