With the 20 year anniversary of SEEK this year, my staff has asked me to write a blog post to describe the journey (in 1000 words or less...yeah right). I’m not quite sure how to do that, but what I can do is lean into what I know have been critical inflection points throughout the history of SEEK.
Every company goes through times of exhilaration and times of uncertainty. SEEK is no exception to either of those, but through all of it, there are some key takeaways that have stood the test of time and I think this is where I’ll start.
When I worked at P&G, before time existed, I experienced the unexpected death of a co-worker that caused me to run upstairs to my boss and quit the same day. The thought on my way out the door was, “what if I could build a company where people couldn’t wait to get to work?” You see, my deceased friend hated his job and showed up at work everyday in a rough place. He didn’t want to be there and ended up dying 31 days before his retirement. He was a good man, but was locked in by “golden handcuffs.” Can anyone relate?
I left that day with no plan, really… just an idea of what it would be like to own my own company, be my own boss and add value to the lives of people by giving them employment that didn’t feel like work, but was filled with purpose and meaning. I started moderating on my own and spent too much time away from my kids in the first 2 years. Fortunately, I had a friend who called me on it (we all need truth-tellers in our lives) and I quickly hired my first employee, Greg Hewitt, in 2002. He followed me around the country for about 18 months. Greg was hungry, humble and emotionally intelligent and that quickly became the formula for the type of person we would build the company around. If you had all three of these qualities, you had “IT” (thanks for showing me the way on this one, Greg!). It was now part of our hiring practice. We didn’t always get it right, but when we really honed in on these character traits, SEEK came to life.
This early group came with a lot of passion, a lot of tears and a lot of excitement. They felt everything deeply. This shaped the way we cared for each other and nurtured our culture. A lot of companies would give an eye roll to this type of culture, but we decided to embrace it. It was a harder thing to navigate as a leader, but so worth it as that emotional intelligence would be the key to deeply understanding the humans we were serving, researching and, eventually, telling their stories. As long as we cared and nurtured our people, the business thrived.
The staff began to grow...and we all grew up together. I was only 31 when I started SEEK and most of our staff was in their late 20’s or early 30’s. We were all figuring it out together. Success came rapidly, and so did growth.
Since then, many people have come and gone at SEEK. We have quite a few folks who have been here since almost the beginning, but we have had a great many go on to bigger and better opportunities. What greater compliment can there be to have someone who grew up in our culture find their way into a high ranking innovation position in a large company or decide to start their own consultancy taking the message of empathy and compassion with them? It was yet another thing we embraced (against the rulebooks of business) because empathy became contagious and began to reach into all aspects of the marketplace. I can’t put into words how thankful I am for every person that has passed through the doors of SEEK and made their mark on me and on one another.
Most companies set a vision and establish values early in their existence with the hope that those things will guide and shape the culture to come. Thanks to the suggestion of Jerry Haselmayer, my business partner at the time, we decided to observe our culture for a few years and then give language to what we saw. This way it didn’t feel forced. In year 5 of the company, we decided to write down our values based on what was already there and working so that we never lost the beauty of what made us unique. Our first run at this was a bit messy and convoluted.
Not a bad start. These values started to take hold and were used as guideposts for our staff on how we treated one another, how we treated our clients, and how we would get to where we wanted to go. They were steeped in a belief system that was very different from what I experienced in the corporate world, but they felt fresh, challenging and anti-anything we had ever seen before. Essentially, we codified who we were and then used that to attract more great people, stronger innovation and clients who shared the same belief system. Man, were a lot of them out there!!
At this point, we were on fire (in a good way). The business kept growing, the staff count kept growing and our culture held us together through that growth. We decided we needed to reword our values in 2009 to make them more pithy, easier to remember and actionable. They morphed into the following:
Eventually, these values grew into what they are today. They continue to guide every move we make, how we treat others, how we treat ourselves, how we show up in the marketplace and how we show up in life.
As companies evolve and start to intentionally live out a set of values that everyone can recite in their sleep, a really interesting thing happens...The purpose of your company comes into focus and the vision becomes clear.
With these, we started to mature from feisty adolescents to young adults. We all got behind these values and found ourselves living this out in meaningful ways. This led to a realization that, after a great round of consumer work, we would hand off our findings to our clients and say, “here you go, good luck with that.” Of course their response would be something like, “these are great but how do I bring them to life for the people that weren’t on the research with us?” So we started a creative media department within SEEK. These guys bring the research findings to life through print, video and experiential storytelling. So many “good luck with that” moments that led to experimental innovations (mostly embraced by our daring and entrepreneurial clients (thanks, Ali!) who were on the journey with us and were willing to try new methodologies and seemingly unimaginable techniques for getting at the deepest insights possible.
Insights led to storytelling, storytelling led to ideation, ideation led to brand positioning and strategy and we grew quickly leading the way for other companies in our industry to follow suit! We were constantly listening to our clients and looking for ways to create new ways to go deeper, tell meaningful stories and change the marketplace.
We were so immersed in these “good luck with that” moments that we found ourselves eventually bringing some of the world’s best neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, adult theory practitioners together on the coasts for roundtables on Empathy and how we could leverage this powerful tool to understand humans even when they weren’t saying anything with their words. Eventually, we launched our flagship product called Red Door™ and our business blew up. Our clients couldn’t get enough of this new way of gaining insight into the lives of the people they were trying to serve. So much science, so much unspoken understanding that led to hundreds of marketplace innovations, including product innovation, message innovation and service innovation. Since then, Empathy has been the centerpiece of our company and it continues to evolve today.
I don’t know too many people who like to talk about their P&L or their pull marketing strategy, but when you're a thriving business built on the ideas and dreams of the founder, you quickly realize that business acumen needs to be acquired to keep your company healthy. While we were out creating strong and unique research tools, we had to quickly learn how to run a business using the metrics as a guide. I’m not going to lie. This was our Achilles heel. Unfortunately, it took a few big missteps and a lot of hard lessons to get us to give focus here, but we eventually figured it out.
I remember setting up coffees and lunches with every CEO I knew (you know who you are...thank you for the time and energy you gave to a guy who probably seemed clueless with some of the questions I was asking) to help me figure out how to get healthy and stay healthy as a company. It was like drinking from a firehose.
I learned about the 7 essentials of Business from these guys (along with a great executive coach). It's not enough to be great at sales and neglect your finances. You can’t develop leaders and drop systems and processes along the way. These things all work in harmony and once we learned this concept, SEEK got healthy in a hurry.
After getting the company to a strong position financially, we started to look for ways to grow and continue to get the message of Empathy and all of our innovative methodologies out to prospective clients. The best way to do this was to join a firm with a strong client footprint that was different than ours, but complementary. After a couple of years of searching, we found the perfect partner in Directions Research.
This has been a match made in heaven for us. Our message and our suite of unique products has found its way into numerous new industries, categories, companies and brands via some of the smartest and most intuitive Account Execs in the world. Now we collectively continue to change the marketplace by helping our clients create meaningful and transformative innovations that are helping to shape this new economy. Seriously, who gets to do this kind of stuff?
After all these years, I just find myself in awe of the people I have met on this journey.
To the employees who have made their lasting mark on SEEK and me over the years, those that have moved on and those who are building the future: Thank you for all you all have given to this curious collective of artists, poets, musicians, storytellers, journalists, lovers and dreamers. You built this thing called SEEK and we will nurture and grow it into the future with the same spirit you planted here when you left that mark.
To our clients who weren’t afraid to go on the journey with us: You continue to fuel our passion for creating the path where no path exists. We are deeply grateful and humbled by your tenacity, curiosity and grit to create new, communicate beauty, and leave a legacy of helping those you serve to find better. We continue to look for those daring and curious friends who want to make a dent in this world through their work and the things they set their hands and minds to— the courageous...the world changers.
Here’s to the next 20 years and all the stories that will come from this. If you’ve read this far, you likely know there is a lot more to this story than what is on these pages, but I was supposed to have this wrapped up a long time ago. It's hard to stop talking about something that you love...something that has taken on a life of its own, and its heartbeat is the collective of so many of you whose lives have intersected it. In many ways, we celebrate 20 years of you. We are forever changed because of you!!