Digital Design Leadership: Alex King

by Richard Banfield

Alex King is a true gentleman. Having founded and run his own design studio for several years he eventually created Crowd Favorite in 2007. Apart from being a WordPress guru he’s also a brilliant company leader. Alex shares his wide ranging experiences and talks about what the future holds for his fast growing company.

Transcript

Alex King: All right. My name is Alex King. I started Crowd Favorite in 2007. My background is, I am a designer and developer. I was one of the original developers on WordPress. That’s a good part of what we do at Crowd Favorite, we do large scale WordPress design and development and implementation. The company’s trying to do interesting things with the platform.

Richard Banfield: How long have you been doing that?

Alex King: I’ve been working with WordPress personally since 2002 before it became WordPress. I started doing WordPress consulting professionally in 2006-2007. First hire was in 2007.

Richard Banfield: Okay, so almost a decade now?

Alex King: With WordPress, yes.

Richard Banfield: Yeah, that’s a long time.

Alex King: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: At what point did you start thinking about yourself in a leadership role not just thought leadership. But, hey, I’m managing a whole bunch of people and they’re following me into battle every day?

Alex King: It was about the time that people stopped following the way I wanted them to. Well, you know, it was two, three, four people everyone’s just kind of working in the trenches together. Then once we got up around eight people, I realized the culture of the team wasn’t what I thought it should be and I realized that maybe that was because I wasn’t doing anything to shepherd it in the direction I wanted it to go. And I started to spend a lot more energy focusing on what the team needed to be, what my role in it was, and how people would be supporting each other. And things like that.

Richard Banfield: So when you think about culture, was that a once off effort and now it’s kind of said and done or do you find yourself–

Alex King: Yes, I spent a few weeks on it and that was basically it.

Richard Banfield: How do you keep that ball rolling or the momentum going?

Alex King: Yes, it’s definitely a mindset shift. As sort of a product guy the way I started thinking about it was that the team is my product. And that it working well is a success from that perspective. So I did a blog post about actually where I kind of break it down. Sometimes you have bugs that needs fixing, right? Whether it’s somebody who’s going off in the wrong direction or maybe somebody even needs to be let go. And then you have new feature that you add. Sometimes, it’s by augmenting the capabilities of your existing staff, sometimes it’s by hiring new people with capabilities. Sometimes it’s just that you’ve got bandwidth problems. And scalability is hard and you need to add a few extra bodies to make a business work better. But definitely, the focus on the team and the health of the team has allowed everything else to go much more smoothly.

Richard Banfield: Do you think that as a leader of the focus on the team, that’s your job? Or do you have other tactical things you get involved in everyday?

Alex King: Well, since the merger, my responsibility has shifted a little more towards the technical. I was doing some of that before as well, of course, as that’s in my background. I’ve been able to spend most my time thinking about business development and marketing, things like that. And more time just on the team dynamics and technical leadership.

Richard Banfield: So when you get to the point where you realize you’re in a leadership position, or even if you’re starting the company, it requires more than just technical skills. It requires confidence as well. How did you cross that boundary?

Alex King: Yeah, or lacking in confidence, ignorance works just as well. If you don’t know necessarily what you’re getting into, you don’t know what to be afraid of. I look back at the last seven years, and what I know now about what it makes to run a business. If I had known all of that going in, I don’t know if I necessarily would’ve signed up for it. But you kind of pick it up along the way. And I guess if you don’t have the confidence then, other people do this all the time. This is something that’s certainly learnable and doable. And you surround yourself with good people that support you.

Richard Banfield: So let’s talk a little about that, where do you get your support and inspiration for your job, for being a leader?

Alex King: Well, I have friends that our in similar situations. Actually before we met at Owner Camp the previous year, I’d organized a little retreat with two friends. One runs an iOS development shop, one runs a Salesforce consulting shop. We got together for a weekend and just hung out in a hotel and shared stories. And I’ve been involved in the Owner Camp which has connected me with another number of people that are in similar spaces. And just friends from being years in the business, many of whom have risen to positions in leadership, being able to trade stories with them.

Richard Banfield: So there’s no formal way to do it obviously, especially for our somewhat new industry. Beyond those membership roles, is there another way you can get the knowledge you need?

Alex King: I read a ton, read a lot of stuff online. I don’t read books as much as I read articles and long pieces. I find that whatever problem I’m working on, whatever thing I’m struggling with, I can find inspiration about different way to approach it from a lot of different things. Like recently I was seeing some people on my team were struggling with that initial inertia to get started on things. And I was playing and iOS game called Flow, where you connect the dots and stuff and it’s just all laid out, and I realized that the game was reinforcing, you just have to try, and start, and experiment, because if you don’t start, the dots are just there. If you’re open to everything going on around and you kind of surround yourself with interesting things often times solutions can come from places that you don’t really expect.

Richard Banfield: When you thing about maybe your style, or how somebody else would describe your style, what would you say, this is my leadership style?

Alex King: I would say it’s more leadership by example. I think people would say I’m demanding. There’s a certain level of quality and the way we go about doing things, is expected. If something is not there, we’ll do it again or we’ll work on it again until we get it there. I think that it’s also really important for me that people on the team have enough autonomy that they can do the things that they do best.

And the way we’ve structured our product team, the concept is that we have Project Manager and designer, resources, backend resources, and each one of them is one of the subject matter expert from their discipline. And everyone is supposed to work together, it’s not the Project Manager dictating this is what the developers will do. The Project Manager is there to facilitate the project in coordination with the client, and to champion the client in the room when we’re talking about how something is going to be built. And then it’s up to the designer and developers to come up with solutions on how to solve those problems.

And then we have one of the things that’s really important to me is that throughout that process we are identifying new things that we can do to improve all the original ideas and feeding those back to the client. And that part of that process in the implementation planner.

Richard Banfield: So that’s the project level, how would you then describe your approach to planning at company level?

Alex King: Well, up until recently it’s been very–We started with a few developers, with me doing project management without really realizing that’s what I was doing. I realized we need to add some project management and just as necessary to keep running efficiently. And then, last summer, started to get exposed to kind of a larger image vision of what a shop like this could be and the thing that we were seriously lacking in to take that next step was account management and business development. And so I knew we could stumble our way through it just like we had done everything else. We would make mistakes and learn from them and get better at it and build the skill set internally. But then I had an opportunity to join up with Karim’s team. That was where is forte was. It made a lot of sense to just skip those couple of years of fumbling and making mistakes and try to see if we could leapfrog that process by joining.

Richard Banfield: So you spoke quite often about some of the mistakes you made along the way, and maybe some of the ones you avoided in the future. Is there one of two that stick out in your mind as really really big turning point for you, well maybe were just big learning moments?

Alex King: Yeah, there have been lots of them. Well, early on one of our first projects we did with about three or four people, we were working for a financial company in New York and they asked us to build a WordPress theme for theme for them. And we worked on the theme and we packaged it up and delivered it to them. And they said, I don’t know what to do with this. What they were expecting was a staging server where they could review code etc., etc. We had been working largely within people in the WordPress community that were accustomed to passing off code and having them applying it themselves. And that really opened my eyes to, okay, if I’m going to be working with clients outside of this space, I need to have a much better understanding of what their expecting our regarding expectations so I can meet those and hopefully, exceed them, and they have a better experience working with us. So that was an early light bulb.

Richard Banfield: So now a big transition is happening and Crowd Favorite, since you have merged with Karim’s group? What’s that like and any scary stories, or exciting stories to tell about that?

Alex King: It’s very early on still. I think that we bitten off a lot–my team which is now the Denver office at Favorite is merging with his teams where there are multiple offices, so we’re learning how to work remotely better. We also at the same time rolled in a two person company that was also remote so it was really three sets of best practices coming together. So that’s just human problem of figuring out these things or the things that are most important to us, and this is how we want to go about doing X, Y, and Z.

There’s also been a certain amount of hesitancy that comes out of that because now all of a sudden, people aren’t confident that they know the right way to do X, where X used to be very clearly defined. We’re working with everyone to try to get back to a more efficient state where people say, “Oh, X!,” and just go and do it. We’re also creating a separate division within the company to allow us to work more efficiently with ongoing, more retainer based clients versus project clients that have some large investment or a large project that we’re taking on and that’s really helping, reducing some of the load on our Project Managers and things like that. But at the same time, it’s one more moving piece as we’re trying to do all this stuff together. Trying to do all of it at once has been a little bit of a challenge, but I feel like all of the moves we are making are the right moves, it’s just a matter of getting through this initial pain process.

Richard Banfield: Just starting to follow the dots, right?

Alex King: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: You obviously are now a distributed kind of company, but you still have these physical spaces. What is your perspective on remote versus having a physical office? Do you lean either way, do you think it’s important?

Alex King: I think that physical offices can support developer growth more directly than remote environments can.

Richard Banfield: In terms of knowledge transfer and–

Alex King: Yeah, it just–much lower friction. Somebody can say, “Hey, I’m having trouble with this.” And two people can turn around and hover around the desk and it’s right there. I found that–I’m still learning as part of this process. I found that there are people that I need to coordinate with remotely and I need to be much more intentional about reaching out to them and getting them on video and talking with them. Whereas, if I just come into the office, I feel more casually connected to all the people that I’m looking at and bumping into on the way to the kitchen.

Richard Banfield: Now, growing a business and certainly merging a business is just quite stressful, how do you deal with stress, how do you relieve your stress?

Alex King: I divest myself of responsibility as much as possible. Having people that you really trust to take care of stuff I think is the biggest thing, not feeling like you’re doing it all by yourself. And then, you know, get out on the golf course every once in a while.

Richard Banfield: In terms of talent, knowledge, you are growing and you’re going to be looking for additional features to your product, which could be a lot more people. How are you going to do that? How are you going to find them and create the opportunities for this?

Alex King: We’ve actually been talking about that over the last couple of days. One of the things I’ve done is write semi-formal document about how I’ve personally gone through the vetting process of candidates, to try to share that with the people that are going to be sharing that responsibility going forward. We also have talked a little bit more about tailoring our job postings, make them ore specific to the types of responsibilities and goals people will have in those roles, to try to help people self-select out if it’s not a good fit for what they want. Then, also trying to make hiring more of an ongoing process, rather than something that we do just whenever there’s a need. I think that those three things are what we’re going to be trying and hopefully we’ll be successful.

Richard Banfield: And then, final question: What’s on your mind as the next thing that Alex needs to learn. What’s the most important arrow in your quiver you need to add?

Alex King: That’s a good question. I don’t have an excellent answer for it off the top of my head.

Richard Banfield:4t It might be more than one.

Alex King: I think that one of the things that I know I need to do a better job of is, making sure that when I’m communicating something, people are hearing enough of what I’m trying to say, there’s not a lot ambiguity. And that I figure out a better way of identifying when I have left too much ambiguity so that I can kind of close the loop with those people and make sure that they don’t feel like they’ve been asked to do something with only half the information.

Richard Banfield: Good. Alex, thank you for your time, really appreciate it.

About Richard Banfield

Richard wears the strategic hat around the office and never met a whiteboard he didn’t like. He's worked his way up the web marketing food...