Hello! If we haven’t met before, my name is Russ Starke, CEO of Think Company since 2018 and Thinker since 2007. If you’re not fully familiar with Think Company, we’re a digital design and development consultancy—one that places great emphasis on upfront research and strategy, critical process points for the kind of large scale digital transformation, and service design work we do with our clients.
We’re proud to have officially turned 15 years old in September. We know from experience that it has proven to be rare for a company that does what we do to 1) grow to the size we are ($30m / 150+ Thinkers), 2) do so while remaining independent, and 3) hold fast to their core values as they scale. But then again, there is no company really like Think Company—and that has always been the point.
Never shying away from opportunities for reflection and introspection, this anniversary really got me thinking—and that thinking essentially breaks down into two broad perspectives for me.
My thoughts as a CEO
In the early days of Think Company, each year felt like a major milestone. We marked them as such every winter when we’d hold our annual “Open House” events—proudly stating that it was our Second! Third! Fourth Annual Open House! We still have these printed invitations framed and hanging in our Conshohocken office. Before the events, we’d huddle together before our guests arrived, share an emotional toast between “just us Thinkers”, and smile and laugh as we marveled at the fact that we’d successfully been doing it for four years!
Although I look back on that now as somewhat quaint, it doesn’t diminish what we felt at the close of each year; that despite the difficult economic conditions in which we got started and the uncertainty that is somewhat inherent in the consulting services model (especially in those critical early years), we were growing in size, revenue, and reputation. That close-knit original band of Thinkers was indeed “making this thing fly.”
At the five-year mark, that feeling didn’t change like a light switch, but by then, we were all openly agreeing that “we’ve got something special here.” We knew we had an established foothold, but to scale it, we’d need to begin investing in things like internal operations and sales in ways we hadn’t needed to previously. The days of getting by with grit, determination, and a little providence had to give way to more repeatable, reliable processes and practice.
At the ten-year mark, we were approaching $14m in annual revenue and had most of those operational functions in place. Despite others openly attempting to follow our lead—sometimes using materials we had shared with the greater community and sometimes by say, stealing the code to our website and creating a new instance of it with a different name and logo—nobody could. What we had developed by that point in our people, our core values, and our innate understanding of how to do things “The Think Way,” was so differentiated that it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere—no matter how much of our playbook was out there in the wild.
Once that reality set in, we realized from there it was going to be about doubling down on what we knew we were the best at. We needed to honor the core offerings while growing them according to market demand, actively work to stay sharp and current, and “tweak the dials” operationally to maintain that market position of being who you call when you want to do it once and do it right.
And now… fifteen years. I can proudly report that in the past five years we’ve doubled the revenue it took us the first ten to achieve. And we (the collective we, all Thinkers present and past) did that despite the turmoil we’ve all experienced in the marketplace, society, and the world at large over the past few years in particular. So what are we focused on now?
Well, that would be what has been clearly communicated, with lots of detail, as an output of our now finely-honed strategic planning process. But at a high level? We’re going to continue doubling down on what we know makes us different and makes us great, but at scale. Further developing our brand recognition at a national level. Continue evolving within our relatively recent hybrid operating model to provide the best possible Think Company experience for everyone despite many different personal preferences and work scenarios.
If history has taught us anything, in five years we’ll have done that, and then some. I look forward to what I’ll have to say about what we’ve got our sights trained on at the 20-year mark.
My thoughts as a Thinker
As I say on LinkedIn, “I was lucky enough to be involved in the conversations that led to the creation of Think Company, became the first employee, and currently serve as Chief Executive Officer.”
After a series of experiences that left me pretty convinced I had to exit the corporate world or risk my physical and mental well-being, I still kinda can’t believe that sentence above is what actually ended up happening. As I regularly say, although I’ve been here basically from the beginning and have this title now, I am not Think Company, and Think Company is not me. It is something that some of the most daring, smart, funny, hard-working, and caring people I’ve ever known have built together.
I am part of it but remain fully in awe of it. That has never worn off for me. I expect it would have if this whole endeavor were purely transactional, but that was never the aim. It was, and remains, an attempt to “create the kind of company where we want to work”, to treat both clients and employees in a way we weren’t seeing or experiencing, and to be an example that despite the hard work necessary to do so—it can be done. We’ve done that at all of the different sizes we’ve been, and we’ll do it at all the sizes we have yet to be.
Fifteen years has a different kind of weight to it, though. I’ll spare you exposition on the various existential crises that are sparked in me whenever discussing the passage of time (although I would highly recommend “4,000 Weeks” if you’re interested in a framework for productively moving through them in our modern age), but just a few facts that are true:
- I have now spent significantly more than half of my 25-year professional career at Think Company. When all is said and done, I imagine that percentage will be a lot higher. This is something I would have had a very hard time even imagining for myself in 2006.
- Both of my kids only know their dad working at Think Company. The company, the people, our culture, our offices, our swag… it’s been a source of stability and consistency their entire lives, and my oldest is starting junior high. Think Company has been the backdrop for many of the most important moments of my life.
- I still have notes that were attached to bouquets sent to me by my dearly departed and sorely missed grandmothers, who graced us with their presence when we celebrated our first year in business.
The people who have walked through these doors, physical and virtual, have helped shape us. We brought so many of our family and friends with us along the way, officially, unofficially, sometimes even just for the parties, that list would truly read like a “This is Your Life” for me. I’m not usually at a loss for words, but I am at this point because I can’t imagine how I could encapsulate all that I’ve done and experienced here alongside all of those remarkable people. Every range of emotion and life event. All that it has meant to me over these years.
I’ll just say this. A little over 15 years ago, I had lunch with Brian and Carl in a little restaurant in Conshohocken, and they said, “hey, before you just walk away from this career that you’re really good at… what if we actually started that theoretical company we always talked about? Would you hang in there for that?”
After all that was sparked by that conversation… you know where I was this afternoon? In a little restaurant in Conshohocken, having lunch with Carl and Brian. We talked a little about the business and then about our families and current events, had some fantastic burritos, and then with no fanfare, said our goodbyes and that we’d see each other next week.
So it’s been, and may it continue to be.
For the next 15? Let’s go!
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