Redefining aimClear Philosophies: A Candid Self-Assessment

Posted in Aimclear

Berlin & Minnesota, 2015
This blog post shares candid self-critique of our adherence to what aimClear believes in as a company, and updates our long-standing, published philosophies to reflect a more mature business. We’ve amended, edited and clarified the philosophies and added new ones to codify long-term practices.

The Origin Of Our “Philosophies”

Marty LabovitzIn 2011 aimClear won the coveted Labovitz Emerging Entrepreneur award. Labovitz awards are judged by a superb array of academic, civic and professional leaders.   A requirement for nominees to codify the initial nomination is to write a freeform essay, sharing qualities that make the company deserving.

At that point in our evolution aimClear’s “Philosophies” were largely instinctual, informal, steeped in my surviving cancer, tough lessons learned growing up, the “human potential movement” of the late seventies, 25 years as working musician in a band, the gifts of incredibly giving mentors, years of psychological struggles, New York Jewish business roots, my own developing entrepreneurial instincts and Author Jim Collin’s landmark book, “Good To Great.” True, that’s quite a colorful amalgamate but there’s no denying our storied counterculture works.

The Labovitz award essay documented what we’d actually been doing for years. Later in 2011 we repurposed the entry essay into an aimClear Blog post, “Manage Like You’re Dying: A Humbled Entrepreneur’s Reflections.” Our readers’ response was widespread and humbling. So in 2012 we published an updated version of the outline as our “Philosophies” on the aimClear.com About Us page.

Over the years nearly every prospective employee I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing somehow cited our published philosophies as a key point of their interest in aimClear. It’s surprising to hear and gratifying… every time.

With growth comes challenge. As with most businesses we’ve experienced normal creaks in the floor as pressure, big money and personalities set in. Most every growing business does. In retrospect, our philosophies were mostly spot-on… and only slightly Pollyanna.

Fundamentally aimClear remains the same, even better. Still, it’s important at this point to candidly grade our adherence to what makes us special and become clearer in our more mature perspective. We’re not bad at anything and only seek to improve. It also our fervent hope these writings may serve as a roadmap for any new business leader, seeking to build or rebuild a remarkable culture based on timeless and progressive values.

aimClear - Duluth Office

Our Core Values (Amended), The Format

The original philosophies (2011) are in black. Deletions are noted by strikethrough and additions by red text. If multiple edits get difficult to read, we provide a clean version again in black. Comments and explanations are tendered inline in blue text. Each comments section is prefaced with “Lifetime” and “Recent” self-assessments.

Our Philosophies Edited, Amended, Graded & Clarified

Ok, let’s get started!

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  • Achieve consensus for new hires amongst all as many employees whenever as reasonably possible, more than just the immediate team a candidate will work with. even if it means not hiring a candidate leadership believes to be qualified. Choose employees teammates you will obviously love to be around. Pay attention to signals.

New, Clean Version

  • Achieve consensus for new hires amongst as many employees as reasonably possible, more than just the immediate team a candidate will work with. Choose teammates you will obviously love to be around. Pay attention to signals.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Strong

Our long-term grade is “Excellent” because, looking back, we’ve done extremely well with this value. The short-term grade is “Strong” because it’s hard to be perfect when you’re growing.

Multiple individuals and/or groups have interviewed every candidate we’ve ever hired. In eight years, I personally interviewed every candidate save one-who also turned out to be a tremendous hire. We recall only a couple occasions where we did not undertake interdisciplinary interviews (outside the immediate team which will work with the candidate). We’ve also been great, nearly perfect, at including our Saint Paul office for Duluth candidates and vice versa.

aimClear - St Paul Office Expansion

Back in the day when we were smaller and I made all the hiring decisions, any single person on our team had veto rights. We rejected several candidates over the years that I wanted to hire, because one of our colleagues saw warning signs. That’s how much trust we had. Our thinking was that, given the sensitivity of our cultural values, it was better to be conservative.

Of course at aimClear’s current size and with the demands of growth, it’s not feasible to offer veto power to every individual. However in adding the language, “Pay attention to signals,” let’s remind ourselves to trust our instincts.

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  • Never Avoid hiring at the rate you we can get work, unless the client is so desirable it’s a) worth the noble effort and b) there is a great chance of success. Take The ideal is to work at the speed you we can hire amazing people. There is no reason to ever go to work with people you don’t like.

New, Clean Version

  • Avoid hiring at the rate we can get work, unless the client is so desirable it’s a) worth the noble effort and b) there is a great chance of success. The ideal is to work at the speed we can hire amazing people.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Sufficient
Recent Self-Assessment: Needs Improvement

Lifetime we’ve graded ourselves as “Sufficient.” When you’re smaller it’s harder to turn down work. The recent grade of “Needs Improvement” is because, even though we’re stronger at choosing only great clients, we’ve gotten numerous opportunities and taken on awesome clients we simply would not say “No” to. We’re handling the load and we’re super busy.

It’s Pollyanna at aimClear’s level to turn down highly desirable work only because taking the job would require adding teammates more rapidly than usual. Growth is normal and comes in many flavors, including spurts. The solution is that now we’re always looking for great team members so that we are ready when opportunity strikes.

The last sentence of the original philosophy was removed because it was out of place in this entry and covered elsewhere.

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  • Understand that luck and the actions of others have as great an impact on the outcome as . Know that personal action by being visible in the industry and community, offering thought leadership, networking and attending events can manufacture luck. Also, luck requires action to take advantage of opportunities. A key metric for our business is “Return On Luck.”

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Needs Improvement

Overall aimClear gets a “Strong,” because several of us have been out there for years. The recent grade of “Needs Improvement” is because we can always use more action, more luck, more teammates in our communities as ambassadors of aimClear and their own personal brands to help create more luck! This aspect of our company needs to scale too. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, and we are working to teach the next generation to look down the road and how to manufacture more luck.

We’ve worked here to make this this precept clearer. Famed business author Jim Collins wrote that great leaders look in in the mirror when things go wrong and out the window to credit external factors (including other people and luck) when things go right. Luck is a huge component to success. In fact, luck is prerequisite to success. We need to manufacture more luck.

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  • We are committed to thought leadership, to sharing what we know with our industrial community so long as doing so does not compromise our business. We blog, present webinars, speak at conferences, undertake illuminating studies, write books, share strategies and tactics.

Social Marketing Redefind

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient

This is a new philosophy to codify what we know to be real and already practice. We get a lifetime grade of “Strong” because, to date, aimClear (atypically) has no “Salespeople” and we thrive on inbound inquires as a result of our thought leadership. That’s awesome.

Manny Rivas - Hero Conf 2015

The recent grade of “Sufficient” is because in order to continue growing, more of our team needs to be aggressive in building their public persona, industry thought leadership and personal brands. We have plentiful, even radical talent and we know the will is there. The international digital marketing community is in for a treat with our next generation of aimClear geniuses.

It is said that one has to step up to the plate to even take swing at the ball. Get out there and do it! We are looking forward to more of our team engaging with the greater community to ensure our future position.

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  • Take jobs you can succeed at and don’t kid yourself by taking jobs you can’t win just for the cash. Life is too short.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

Lifetime, we’ve been good and not snowing ourselves as to what type of work we can comfortably handle. The lifetime “Strong” grade comes as a result of some early learning mistakes years ago. We learned our lesson.

The “Excellent” grade aimClear has grown over the last few years in this regard. We readily turn clients down when signals indicate a potential client would not be a good fit. Let’s also note that our ability to “Succeed” means clients are ruled out for being assholes during the intake process. One of our VPs quips, “If they treat us like shit BEFORE they pay us….” True, true…

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  • aimClear means “We,” “Us” and “Our,” not “Me, My” and “I.” Period.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Needs Improvement

This is a new philosophy systemizing that we’ve always done things –we are a team, not an office sharing arrangement of individual practitioners. When aimClear was smaller, it was easier to reach for and accomplish this ideal. Hence, the lifetime “Excellent” grade is appropriate. The recent “Needs Improvement” assessment is because we’ve started to slip in our rigor. In our defense, it’s harder to install this value across teams of people in a larger company.

When aimClear was actually only one person (“I”), the company undertook pronoun phrase density analysis of the most popular digital marketing blogs of the day. The results indicated that great bloggers shy away from shining light on the author’s first person. aimClear rigorously adopted this team position in our writings, emails, promotional materials and, as a result, came off as a deep, humble, teamwork-oriented company.
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  • We travel to support our domestic and international work and encourage employees to piggyback vacation time surrounding business trips so that the company pays air expenses.

aimClear Travel

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Strong

The lifetime and recent “Strong” grade is because we’re great at this at this value and leadership very rarely or never says, “No.” We’d like to see more of our staff take advantage of this value. It’s an awesome perk. Hey aimClear, we want you to experience the world! Let’s get this one up to “Excellent.”

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  • Achieve buy-in for the financial and product-development missions. Everyone As many of us as possible need to be on the same page: determined and committed to the process. We are committed to being an “Open Book” company — meaning transparency of financials to employees at all levels and a stake in the outcome.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

The lifetime “Strong” grade is because we’ve always practiced this value, to my great pleasure. In the early days of aimClear, I’d walk the mail over to our staff to enjoy opening envelopes with checks from clients. Still, every client contract we have is visible to every employee.

The upgrade to “Excellent” is because in recent years, we’ve invested more in the process of being Open Book, which was pioneered in Jack Stack’s famed book, “The Great Game Of Business.” GGOB is an organized system to actualize the financial transparency we strive for. We have full company meetings regularly to discuss our P&L, budgets, etc. The only line drawn is in sharing salaries. It’s been amazingly cool to institutionalize our core belief with the GGOB system.

In the philosophy we’ve changed “Everyone” to “As many of us as possible” because it’s not realistic to legislate that everyone be involved in learning about our finances though it is offered company-wide and we try hard to get everyone involved.

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  • Be totally willing to change your mind in light of feedback from employees and customers. Face the actual odds. Kick butt. Do personal reality checks often and assess if you’re open-minded enough to truly consider the perspective of others

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient

In the past, we’ve been “Excellent,” enjoying a unified team that was extremely flexible and open-minded. As we’ve gained dozens of employees, the company on average seems to have become a little less flexible. This is normal for a growing company. I’m guilty of this myself because sometimes it takes me a while to let go of my position and old beliefs.

Believing you’re open-minded can be much different than being truly open minded. The measure is to ask, “Do I change my mind often?” Truly open-minded people are steadfast in their beliefs and change their mind often. Anyone who thinks they’re right all the time or misses that their talented teammates sometimes have a better take- is headed for a fall.

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  • Apologize when you are wrong, and don’t give ground when you are right. Say you’re sorry often. Don’t be codependent when you think you’re right. Keep the slate clean with everyone as if there is not another chance tomorrow. Remember that there will be another chance tomorrow.

Apologize

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient

Over the lifetime of aimClear, on average, we’ve been great at this fundamental. In the early days we actually needed to push each other some to take a bit of well-deserved credit. That’s because we were always looking for the way we personally could have caused a problem and focused on being part of the solution.

Lately we earn sufficient marks because we’ve noted occasional unwillingness to own being part of the problem. This is natural and not unexpected. It takes training to learn how to own and learn from mistakes when and how to stand your ground when it needs to be stood. Just know that this is the safest place to make a mistake so long as there is a reciprocal willingness to grow and improve.  Since ownership, forgiveness and growth isn’t a common system in many businesses, it can take some people time to learn aimClear’s “normal.”

This core value is solid in its simplicity. As a company we do this fairly well. It would be good to get back to our roots a bit.

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  • Pay it forward. In the technology space, daily training is crucial. A person can’t live unless their mind is active and questing. This includes systematically gaining the perspective of thought leaders outside our company by daily reading, virtual and live attendance at conferences and specialized trainings outside of aimClear.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient

We get a strong grade because for many years we were fanatical in keeping track of the industry. Nowadays we still get the job done and are sure our clients are prepared for changes and updates. Still, no matter how much we study, I always want us to study more.

It’s critical to avoid arrogance. There is no way for an individual or even an agency our size to know everything about everything. It would be overconfident to think we do. There has never been an era at aimClear where we did not wish for even more training time. You will always see us seeking out more training, asking more questions, researching further and farther ahead.

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  • Be conservative financially Hire employees who complement your strengths and weaknesses. Be brutal in your assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s completely essential to understand your own powers and vulnerabilities.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

When I founded aimClear and started hiring teammates, I literally viewed each person as a co-CEO. I’m not good at a lot of things. Having started a number of businesses before aC, lessons were learned the hard way. Our current leadership, which has assumed much of the responsibility for the concepts surrounding how we staff and scale is doing a wonderful job…showing great vision.

The “Excellent” grades come because IMHO aimClear has always been great at strengthening the foundation and filling any cracks that occur. We can be proud of our organization.

There’s new language here so as not to only focus on weakness but strengths as well. We should not hire people only because they are “Like us.” We should hire on the principle of 1+1=3.

“Be conservative financially” is moved to its own philosophy. aimClear has nearly always been a creative company when it comes to defining roles, building towards evolution and remaking ourselves.

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  • Be conservative financially. Spend smart money without hesitation. Run with little or no debt. Admit when the investment did not work and cut our losses. Learn from wins and losses.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

This is the more fleshed out, “Be conservative financially” The “Excellent” grades are because money stability has always been one of our greatest strengths. Our internal money team is awesome as are our external partners.

Our good friend friend Anne Kennedy told me once that “Running an agency is no time for being cheap.” I took that to heart and spend money we think to be smart without hesitation. We also are brutal to assess the rare occasion when and investment in time and/or money failed. Self-assessment is crucial so we grow in corporate knowledge. As a result we are not often wasteful.

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  • Never allow customers or vendors to treat your employees badly. If they do, fire them. Always have your employees’ backs. Don’t accept anything behavior from clients that drains your life’s-energy.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

The Excellent marks are because we’re great at making sure interactions stay appropriate. Always have been. Since the beginning I’ve always seen my personal role as enforcer, watching our employees’ backs.

We pretty much don’t take any crap from anyone external. Human rights are so important. Though we usually avoid absolutes, the word, “Never” is germane in this case.

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  • In the technology business, you can’t have customers unable to understand and implement your team’s recommendations. Be real in assessing potential clients’ ability to handle our counsel and communicate the reality to the client in as nurturing a message a possible.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Strong

We’re “Strong” at this and not “Excellent” because we get the job done. We can always be more supportive in telling clients a hard truth. You would be surprised how receptive clients can be to information they trust will ultimately serve them. If nurturing is not possible because a challenging client just won’t take feedback, “As possible” means cutting our losses and exiting with as little damage to aimClear and the client as possible.

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  • Don’t try to be something you’re not. A company has to be aimClear’s size before it’s reasonable to take on areas of expertise not core to the founders. Teach your employees teammates what you personally know, slowly expanding our knowledge base with the addition of specialized employees. Pass your personal knowledge on to the next generation unselfishly. We will support our team in learning specific methods and tactics to pass their knowledge along.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Strong
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient/Solid

This was hard to grade because it’s easy to teach when a company is smaller and more challenging as systems are put in place. Once systems are in place, teaching the next generation gets easier. This philosophy in the early days was fundamental to our success. Now we get the job done and growing to our previous level. All things considered we’re passing knowledge along well.

We gave ourselves “Strong” marks because over time we’ve figured out how to get the essential baton-passes done. The “Sufficient” is because as we scale it’s been a bit bumpy at times. This is to be expected in a growing agency.

Duplicating your talents by empowering others makes you even more valuable. In addition to fear, what makes this challenging is that not everyone who is highly talented is also a gifted teacher. We need to provide teammates with actual methods and tools to pass their genius to the next generation, without judgment.

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  • Customer service is everything. Provide both clients and our aimClear teammates proactive and empathetic customer service. Spell out expectations as detailed specifics as written policy.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Sufficient
Recent Self-Assessment: Strong

In the past we ran with few systems because we didn’t need them. We needed to be able to wear multiple hats at the same time. That got the job done but was not scalable. Now we’re better, more solid, with the advent and growth of service systems.

To rise to the “Excellent” level we’ll need to continue to grow process documentation. In order to follow procedures and meet expectation, we all have to know what they are. Overall our internal and external customer service procedures are great. We are learning to communicate, communicate, communicate.

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  • When employees struggle, personally or professionally, we work them with from a place of patience and compassion. We provide specifics, training and coaching. We operate within ethics and the HR law. If aimClear is not the right place for an employee, we know that we’ve tried everything possible personally and as a team to help them succeed.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Excellent

HeartWe get an “Excellent” grade here because we treat employees with integrity. We take human resources seriously. We take every human even more seriously; with the same understanding I’ve needed to survive myself a few times.

Some companies say, “Hire slow and fire fast.” aimClear’s philosophy is to hire slowly and fire patiently. Many of us have temporarily lost it, but aimClear puts such things in the context of how that person has contributed, can continue to contribute, their ability to accept feedback, acknowledge their weaknesses, and ultimately their willingness to learn and change. We also assess our personal role in contributing to the problem and if as a company we’re to providing tools to succeed.

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Place the foremost emphasis on culture, fun and gorgeous space. Nurture the whole employee and human needs.

Minnesota Top 100 2015

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Strong

Documenting our incredible culture is a lifelong practice that we’re finally putting into writing as its own philosophy. We certainly get an excellent grade because aimClear has been a fabulous place to work since day one. We’ve been cited as a Top 100 Place To Work In Minnesota three times. Our recent grade is lowered to “Strong” because we’d love to see more participation from this now-larger staff.

In the hallway of a building where we had a cool office in for a few years, the landlord hung a sign that said, “Make money but let’s make sure to have fun at the same time.” I walked past that sign every day, giggling and thought the opposite: “Have fun and let’s be sure to make money while we’re doing it.”

aimClear Coffee Break

aimClear places a higher emphasis on culture and creating an exceptional physical atmosphere. Why accept less? We have fine wine tastings and can salsa. Our office is centered on a Food-Network-caliber gourmet kitchen, which we stock with healthy (and decadent) eats. Our team often eats breakfast, lunch and dinner at work, with great food we keep stocked at our expense and cook together. We have incredible coffee tasting sessions. We love family-style meals and hold kitchen-table conferences all the time.

Community Building

We’re also committed to physical health. Our team uses treadmill desks, standing desks, and a stationary bike. We have body sculpting classes, art classes, a Pilates program and other healthy pursuits. We have a washer and dryer so employees can do their laundry at work to avoid a little stress and incredible art from all over the world everywhere. There are numerous other lifestyle perks.
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  • Manage like you are dying. Be determined to leave this earth with all emotional and personal ledgers even.

Lifetime Self-Assessment: Excellent
Recent Self-Assessment: Sufficient

There’s been a lot written about my journey. aimClear has always been special because there were few layers, no onion to peel back for the truth.

The “Excellent” grade is because when aimClear was young I had just lived through cancer. In 2011 I had my heart valve replaced. The company was small and closer knit. Gratitude, even second hand, was easy to come by.

The sufficient grade is because I believe we’ve lost some gratitude as a unit. The dynamic has changed with size, which is expected and normal. We work hard to minimize the natural cliques (and feelings associated with cliques) that come with size. We sometimes get so busy we forget to say acknowledge the random and planned acts of kindness.

My prayer for every member of the aimClear family is that you don’t have to survive cancer to learn what I’ve learned. We can strive for humility, gratitude, patience and adherence to the philosophies herein borne on wings of cancer.

 

Copyright: Nickolya, mtkang, Kotenko Oleksandr

  • Janet Driscoll Miller

    Marty, that was really great. Thank you for sharing. Great core philosophies, and so smart to learn and evolve them over time. Much respect for you, my friend. Keep up your awesome work!

    • Marty Weintraub

      Thanks Janet,
      This means a lot to me, especially coming from you.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Thanks Janet,
      This means a lot to me, especially coming from you. We’ve heard wonderful things about your company over the years.

      Let’s have a cup of coffee and compare notes sometime soon when we’re on the see city.

  • George Revutsky

    Great post Marty – thank you for sharing as you so often do! We’ll be referring to some of these while we revamp our own principles next month.

    • Marty Weintraub

      George, That’s cool. It’s wonderful that you would consider the ideas as you craft your own company’s course. Most successful businesses have some measure of “Things they believe in.” It’s great to think a lot about what those special attributes are and organize them. Good luck in your process and let us know when you publish them.

  • Tom Wilkowske

    Marty, this is amazing, candid, compassionate, real. The more I read, the more I like. Have a great Zenith!

    • Marty Weintraub

      Tom, great to see you in these threads. We check in on your LinkedIn profile from time to time to see your trajectory. You’re a wonderful, natural writer with true journalist’s heart and mind. Compliments from you mean a lot to aimClear. Hope to see you at #Zenith2015.