Today is not just a Friday, it’s also Wholegrain Digital’s 14th birthday. Yay! Bake yourself some wholegrain cake and celebrate with us (ask Vineeta if you need a recipe!).
It seems like a really long time ago now when Vineeta and I quit our own jobs in product design and engineering to start our agency. It was just the two of us with a tiny pullout desk inside the wardrobe of our flat, and a vision to help positive organisations thrive using good design and technology. We didn’t know how to run a business, we didn’t have any contacts and our backgrounds were not in the brand and digital services that we wanted to offer. In hindsight it sounds really naive, but we just believed that it was necessary, believed that we had something unique and valuable to offer, and believed that we could do it.
We also wanted to answer a question that I felt was fundamental to a positive future.
Could a business really be sustainable?
With so much environmental destruction happening through the actions of businesses, this felt (and still does) like a question that needed answering, yet we could see few to none examples of businesses that we thought were truly sustainable. We thought that the best way to find out if a business could be sustainable would be to start our own and try to run it in a sustainable way. In this sense, Wholegrain has always been an experiment in sustainable business and it’s why we’ve tried to push so many boundaries over the years.
Reflecting on this experiment after so many years, we have certainly kept ourselves busy! We became a Certified B Corp in 2017, joined 1% for the Planet, embarked on an ambitious programme to fund native tree planting and ecosystem restoration, introduced a no-fly policy, experimented with an internal carbon tax, voted on a vegetarian food policy, open sourced our sustainability policy, created incentives for our team to use renewable energy at home and a whole lot more.
Not to mention taking leadership to get environmental sustainability onto the agenda of the web design sector, working pretty relentlessly over the past few years to spread the message that the internet can be a part of the solution, but that we must also be careful not to make it a big part of the problem.
We’ve done this through content, presentations, public facing projects such as WebsiteCarbon.com, the Sustainable Web Manifesto, our collaboration with MightyBytes on SustainableWebDesign.org and the Digital Declutter Toolkit with Business Declares, not to mention our open-source WordPress development framework Granola and my recently published book, Sustainable Web Design.
I think it’s fair to say that we have gone above and beyond to be a sustainable business and prove what is possible, but it is also true that this experiment in sustainable business still has a long way to go if we are going to honestly be working in harmony with nature.
Designing a life
When we started the business, we were also very much embarking on a personal journey. Coming from a background in design, I have a strong belief in the concept of “lifestyle design”, whereby you apply the design process to your own life in the pursuit of health and happiness. Vineeta and I wanted to be able to spend our days together, create something special together and have freedom to live where we wanted.
Furthermore, I faced (and still do) my own health challenge that made it very difficult to be employed in a normal job where I didn’t have full control over my own day-to-day environment and mode of working. All signs pointed to us starting our own business.
Although the relentless intensity of being an owner-manager of a small business has on numerous occasions not been optimal for our personal well-being, it has on balance given us many of the good things we had hoped and we are immensely grateful for that.
Nothing, nothing, something
The first few years were tough as quite frankly, we didn’t know how to run a business or how to get clients. But as with many things in life, it can often appear that nothing is happening until something actually happens. Our perserverence through those first few years eventually translated into forward motion and we picked up momentum. Our reputation for truly caring about our clients, our positive ethos and our specialist expertise in WordPress began to spread.
Since that beginning 14 years ago, we’ve grown organically as a business, and as people, to where we are today and I couldn’t be more proud. We’ve not just survived, but thrived, while pushing ourselves to really deliver on the original vision. And we haven’t done it alone. We’ve done it with the support of a team of talented and kind-hearted people who are a true privilege to work with and have transformed the business into something far more fulfilling than I could have imagined. We’ve worked with dream clients including Ecover, Oxfam and Unicef. In the process we’ve had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, see inside their worlds and learn from them, while also delivering successful projects to help them achieve their own goals.
I never thought I would say this, but we have achieved almost everything that we set out to achieve.
So where next?
At this point, most business owners would present some bold commercial objectives, such as “to grow our revenue by 200% over the next 5 years” or “to achieve world domination” in some arbitrary niche. But a birthday is no time to think about such dry (and if I do say so, vain) objectives.
Instead, I want to use this birthday to step back and ponder the bigger things in life. In this spirit, my attention now turns to two big questions.
Firstly, how can we become more in tune with nature as modern humans working in the digital sector?
It seems that no matter how much we push our sustainability initiatives, the elephant in the room is that all of us in the modern world are completely disconnected from nature to a far greater extent then we even realise. If we are to truly solve the ecological crisis and find health and happiness as humans, we must find ways to restore our sense of place and participation in the natural world. How we will do that I don’t know, but I feel it starts with looking more closely at ourselves as humans, which brings me to my second big question.
What is a company?
On the surface this might sound like a simple question, but the more I think about it, the more fascinating it becomes. Most of us have visions in our heads of some abstract entity called “The Company”, but a company in modern terms is really just a legal construct that defines laws, taxes, liability and governance. It isn’t actually a living creature that has any mind of its own. A company in a true sense is just a group of people working together to achieve a common goal.
I have for some time had a utopian dream of a company that is a community (or dare I say family?) in the true sense. A community where everyone cares deeply for each other, puts the needs of the group before themselves as individuals, shares equally in the successes and failures, without any of the awkwardness and unnatural limitations of corporate hierarchies and employment culture. Furthermore, this utopian community has developed ways of working that are aligned with our natural cadence as humans and the rhythms of the seasons.
I’ve yet to see a company that has achieved this, although I see exciting glimpses of businesses taking small steps towards parts of this vision. I feel that as a team at Wholegrain, we are now walking in this direction together, even if we have a long way to go. Our recent high workload has certainly not been aligned with our natural pace as humans, but equally the way we have bonded together and developed a culture of ever growing openness is creating a true community where we can solve such challenges together.
The introduction of our team coach, Chris Hardy, last year was a key step towards this vision. Chris’s coaching and group training has been helping us to grow as humans and understand the complexity of ourselves, each other and the world around us in order that we can function better individually and as a group. The benefits have already been profoundly positive, even if in many ways also quite intangible.
Onwards and upwards
We move forward into our mid-teens as a business continuing to explore how we can build on our original goals and continue to deliver work that we are proud of for positive clients. At the same time, we are now building on that foundation to go on a new journey together as a team, to find better ways of working in our ever changing and complex world. Ways of working that are more aligned with our needs as humans who, whether we realise it or not, are very much rooted in nature. We are walking into unknown territory just like we were 14 years ago, but just like then I believe that we are walking towards something special that must be explored. No doubt we will face many challenges but I am excited to do so together with such an amazing group of people.