The Story of Infinite Red

Download MP3 (31.11 MB)

Show Links

Episode Transcript

CHRIS MARTIN: Gentlemen, welcome to the first episode of Building Infinite Red, welcome. Why don’t each of you take a minute to share your background and what your role is at Infinite Red?

TODD WERTH: Hey, there, I’m Todd Worth, I am CEO and co-founder of Infinite Red, along with Ken and Jamon here. This is my third business. This is a traditional business, meaning it’s not investor backed. My first business was also similar to this, and my middle business was a venture capital backed business. So, I went through all that fun Silicon Valley interviews with the VCs that we get to see on HBO. I’ve been a developer and I did some design as well for the last 22 years. So, I spent most of my time in the Bay Area working at various startups, some enterprises and that kind of stuff.

KEN MILLER: I’m Ken Miller, I’m the CTO and founder. I’ve mostly done startups in my career. A whole long string of venture-backed startups and that’s what convinced me that I wanted to do something different this time.

JAMON HOLMGREN: I’m Jamon Holmgren and I’m the Chief Operating Officer here, and the other co-founder here. I started my business in 2005 and some variation of that has persisted all the way to today, obviously with the merger that we’ll probably talk about at some point in this podcast with Todd and Ken. But, I’ve been coding since I was 12 but really professionally since then, since 2005. So, 13 years now.

CHRIS: How did the three of you meet?

TODD: Actually, I met Ken when he did a phone interview for me about 10 years ago. Ken was my boss at one point. We worked together at a company called Mamapedia / Mamasource. So, I met him on the phone. He asked me a bunch of very tough technical questions. That was interesting, and then we had an interview, at which he sat behind me, over my shoulder and watched me program. That wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

KEN: Yeah, he’s never let me forget that.

JAMON: And I met Todd and subsequently Ken … I think in person we met in 2014 at a conference down in San Francisco, Fort Mason. We were all three of us were speaking at conferences about iOS development. Todd and I had kind of heard of each other, maybe done a little bit of communication at some point.

TODD: We had been chatting at that point because we both … you did digs at me, and your speech, and my speech came a couple of people later, and I digged back at you and we wouldn’t have done that if we hadn’t already been chatting a lot.

JAMON Some friendly banter. We had kind of hit it off right away, which was kind of cool. Then we ended up a little bit later collaborating on some open source work, which was really fun.

TODD: Yeah, I do believe I won that banter war, during that 2014 conference.

JAMON: The jury’s still out.

TODD: I got more laughs.

CHRIS: So, you all get together and you all meet and you all have familiarity with each other. Why merge companies and form one company?

TODD: That’s a great question. That was a fairly long process. Jamon and I started knowing each other pretty well in the particular tech stack that we were all in. The three of us had very popular open source libraries.

JAMON: That was called RubyMotion back in the day. It was an iOS framework and since we were all Ruby developers it kind of brought us in.

TODD: Correct. We worked with each other in the industry in our local little culture. Not local physically, but meaning in the RubyMotion community. And then Jamon and I just talked a lot. We chatted a lot on Slack or whatever it was at that time, and we just got to know each other pretty well. Then what happened was in an industry where you’re doing client work, it’s very roller coaster-ish often, which means you’re either slow or you’re really busy. When that happens, after a while you start looking for partners who can help shave off the high and low points. We started doing with ClearSight Studio, which is Jamon’s company, and they were helping us work on some projects when we were a little too busy.

JAMON: Yeah, and then we ended up competing on one project, which was … this industry is kind of interesting because most of the time you don’t end up competing directly with people you know. There’s enough work to go around that people tend not to shop around a ton. But, we ended up competing head-to-head on a project and both of us agreed that we didn’t really like competing against each other. We would rather work together, which was kind of cool, and what was interesting was, Todd’s the glue guy here. I mean, he’s a guy that kind of brought everybody in. I didn’t really know Ken. I’d met him at Inspect briefly, talked to him a little bit about …

TODD: Inspect was a 2014 conference we spoke at.

JAMON: Yeah, that was the one in Fort Mason there. I got to know Ken a little bit later when Todd invited me down to San Francisco.

KEN: It’s a little funny because of that dynamic that those two knew each other, but I was a little apprehensive when we started talking about merging. Because Todd and I had a pretty good dynamic. I was a little worried that those two would outvote me, since they were both a little more front end than me. But, we find when we disagree, it’s more often Jamon and I are the ones who are in agreement.

JAMON: Knowing you now Ken, I don’t know how you ever agreed to the merger.

TODD: Yeah, we did work well together, which mainly consists of me telling bad jokes and Ken rolling his eyes.

JAMON: This is true.

KEN: It’s still how we work together.

JAMON: Yes.

TODD: That is true, and Ken is absolutely right, most often it’s Ken and Jamon voting against me.

JAMON: Yeah.

TODD: That’s fine, though.

KEN: And to be clear, we always have kind of a consensus process, so it’s not like we have a vote and one person walks away unhappy. It’s really more like we just keep at it until we can find the place that we all agree on.

JAMON: Yeah, totally.

TODD: Yeah, I’m technically the CEO of the company but we’re actually all three have equal power and we run the company as basically a council of elders. It’s not just us three, we have some other people on the team that also help us make decisions, plus the whole team also helps us makes a lot of decisions. This system is chaotic. It’s like democracy, it’s messy and chaotic but it’s the best thing we have. It does sometimes require us to vigorously debate each other before we get consensus, but I think it works out really well.

JAMON: One of the things that I think we’re gonna be able to delve into in this podcast that will be interesting to the listeners, is some of the things that we’ve learned being more of a council of elders, like Todd said. So, this sounds very kind of self reflective, here we’re kind of talking about how we met and how we started the company. But I think it’s interesting background. It kind of sets the stage for why we operate the way that we do. What has worked, what hasn’t worked. I think it’ll be an interesting aspect of this podcast.

TODD: Yeah, there’s a lot more to the story of our merge, of course. It was over a long period of time. Maybe we can talk about that more in detail at some point.

CHRIS: What are the benefits of having three founders? Because there’s … oftentimes I imagine that there’s one, so you have that one person view of the world, but now you have three people and you have to come to consensus.

JAMON: Well, I can speak to this probably because I did run my own company as a sole founder for 10 years. And certainly being by yourself has certain advantages because you can kind of pull the trigger and say, “Okay, we’re gonna do this. We’re gonna shift direction. We’re gonna go this direction.” And you can do it very quickly. I’m not very risk averse, I just kind of like dive right into things as Todd and Ken can attest.

TODD: That’s another way of saying, “There’s a China shop, no need to open the door, let’s go through it.”

JAMON: Let’s go right through the door. That’s me. It allowed for certain really great things in my company, like being able to go from, hey, we’re a Ruby on Rails shop to we do iOS apps, never having done one, but yeah, sure, we do them, and jumping right into it.

Had some downsides, too. Being on a wild ride like that is very stressful to most personalities, and I had 12 people with me. And it wasn’t just me. Not to mention my family. So, I can tell you that the difference, the main difference, is that, it forces me to slow down a little bit. It allows me to kind of lean on the strengths of Ken and Todd, which I’ve learned over the past two and a half years, three years really, they’re very strong in certain areas that I’m not. Honestly, I don’t know at this point what I would do without that. It’s really great to be able to say, “Okay, Todd, what do you think about this particular issue, because it has to do with team.” Or something like that, something he’s really good at. Or Ken, for strategy and kind of understanding the deeper implications of what we’re looking at doing.

So, it allows you to kind of add additional strengths to the leadership, to the ownership team without necessarily adding weaknesses because you can kind of identify what those weaknesses are, and say, “Okay, this is a weakness of Jamon. Let’s avoid going down that path.” Let’s do the things that I am good at instead.

TODD: Yeah, I agree with that. Jamon also is our engine. He keeps on going and pushing and going and pushing and going, pushing. So, that’s one of his main strengths that he brought.

KEN: And to be honest, that was a big factor in deciding to merge. Seeing how he just has this natural energy and productivity, that Todd and I are not as much that way. So we saw it as a pretty natural complementarity.

TODD: To answer your specific question, having multiple people. Basically all three of us have two other people we can’t tell exactly what to do. We have to convince them to do what they do, and I’m a big believer that the best leaders are reluctant leaders, and I would consider myself this. I think I’m a pretty decent leader. I certainly work hard at it, but I don’t particularly … it’s not like something I seek or particularly like per se. The reason I think reluctant leaders are better is because they don’t really enjoy the power like enthusiastic leaders do. So, because of that I’m perfectly happy to do things in consensus and that kind of stuff. All three of us can and have in the past led individually.

CHRIS: So, what about the challenges? You’ve mentioned a lot of benefits but what kind of challenges present itself when you have to convince two other people?

TODD: Sometimes there’s yelling. Not too often but it’s happened. Jamon came up with something … I don’t know, I’m sure you didn’t come up with that but Jamon’s company, they did something where they have a gafo, which is give a frick…

JAMON: G-A-F-O.

TODD: But basically this system works really well because a lot of times if you’re discussing any subject and your job is to add your opinion to it, whether you’re particularly interested in that subject or not, you do. And a lot of times people argue with each other over things that one of them doesn’t really care about and they’re arguing as if both of them have equal degrees of their opinion. So, what we’ll often do is say, “What’s your gafo on this?,” which is one to 10, and if I’m arguing, not arguing, but if I’m expressing my opinion on a particular subject and Jamon says “What’s your gafo in this?”, I’d say a two, and his is a nine, then Jamon automatically gets that.

JAMON: Yeah. And what you find is people don’t really abuse it. Like, most of the time you find out that two people are arguing over something that they both have a two or a three, versus once in a while you’ll get a situation where both are a nine or a 10. In that case you know that you’re dealing with something really important and it actually, even just saying that, like we both really, really care about this, is still an aid in doing this. It actually came from an article, I don’t remember who wrote it but we can put it in the show notes, Chris. I’ll give it to you after the show and we can put the link to the article in the show notes.

TODD: Just to give you an example, I brought up the other day that I deserve a much, much larger salary. Now, I had a high gafo on this, about a 10. And it turns out Ken and Jamon both had a one. So, I won. And now I have twice the salary. It’s a good system.

JAMON: I was not informed of this event.

TODD: This may or may not have happened only in my mind. I rarely can tell.

CHRIS: Has there ever been a moment where the gafo on all three of you was very high?

JAMON: Yes.

CHRIS: And, in that case what happens?

TODD: We have a very large closet where we keep the dead horse, and since we can’t agree on that and there’s lots of vigorous debate we bring that dead horse out and beat it regularly. Which is fine. That doesn’t happen too often, to be honest, but we do have some things where it keeps coming up over and over again.

KEN: We have had some pretty heated conversations, sometimes, and I’m not gonna call it a disadvantage of having three people, because I actually don’t think that it is. So, I’m personally fairly risk averse, and tend to sort of make decisions cautiously. So, for me, having three people, and we can hash this out, actually makes it easier for me to make decisions with more confidence, but sort of ironically. Right? Because, having sounding boards whose perspectives I know will be different and yet exist in the context of some shared values, from my point of view that’s pretty much unalloyed positive. Even if it doesn’t mean that there’s a few uncomfortable conversations.

CHRIS: So, Ken, how do you deal with uncomfortable conversations and disagreements that inevitably happen?

KEN: Well, I think the emphasis there is on relationship building and after care, as it were. We treat the tripartite relationship as one of the most important things that we can work on. So, we make a point to meet in person more regularly than the whole team meets. We have founders’ meetings on Zoom several times a week. Sometimes those meetings are just kind of chatting about the news of the world or something like that. I mean, often there’s plenty of business but we also make some time to just shoot the shit, as it were. That creates the container in which that happens.

So, even if, in the heat of the moment, as people do, you might forget that these people are on your side. There’s that container to return to, so that when the fight is over and when the sort of tempers have died down we can come back and say, “Hey, you know what? I get where you’re coming from.” We’re all on the same side here and we can kind of take that and look through the ashes for the refined bits of ore that we wanted to take out of that conversation. That’s pretty much how it always happens.

JAMON: One of the other things that we do is, we know that if things are starting to get heated in Slack, because we are a remote distributed company, and we use Slack a ton, if things are starting to get heated in Slack, we’re supposed to increase the bandwidth, which means essentially go into Zoom, get face to face, look each other in the eye and talk. We don’t always do that. There are situations where we look back and we say, “You know what? We violated our rule there where we were supposed to go to Zoom and we didn’t do it.”

TODD: That actually causes quite a few … not quite a few, but I would say a majority of our intense arguments came because we didn’t switch out of Slack into Zoom, which is what we use for our video calls, which I highly, highly, highly recommend over the rest of the crap out there.

One show note for the audience, if you’re listening, if you feel like you have to look up many of the words Ken says, don’t worry. I do that all the time.

JAMON: Before I met Ken, Todd told me, “Don’t worry if you feel dumb. He talks like he swallowed an encyclopedia.”

TODD: Which is great. We love Ken just the way he is, but …

JAMON: I don’t know if people know this, but Ken went to Harvard. Todd and I did not go to Harvard.

TODD: I liked how you phrased that. I will now say, I am Todd, I did not go to Harvard, which places me much higher than what I actually did.

CHRIS: So, how do you think the relationship that you’ve strived to continually build as the trio affects the greater culture of Infinite Red?

TODD: I think it’s paramount. When you get to a certain size, well, even in smaller, but especially when you get to a certain size, the entire team has just as much power to set the culture as we three do. Ken said it really well that basically we’re like a black hole, where we kind of set the culture and we pull the team in and they orbit around and if we put in a little extra effort we can pull them in tighter to our culture, but ultimately it’s not a destination. We simply pull them in a direction. So, the way we interact with each other, the way we interact with everyone else, and the way we interact, really, in public, I think completely sets the tone for everyone else.

KEN: I’d say we pay more attention to emotions than your typical tech company founders. In terms of like the whole health of the organization. We talk about feelings. It comes up in the work we do in design and that sort of thing, but we certainly value intellect and litigal ability very highly, but we also will check in with, like, “Well, how does this feel to you?” Like, “How does that land?” How does it …” right? And we value the subjective and emotional as coequal with the intellectual.

JAMON: Yes.

KEN: And that probably doesn’t make us unique but it is a little unusual.

JAMON: I think to the degree we do it, it’s fairly unique and that stems out of some decisions that we made early on in this partnership. One was obviously what we talked about before, that the biggest existential threat that we face is that us three, Todd, Ken, and I, is that we would have a falling out. And then coming out of that is we have to be talking about our feelings a lot. We have to be talking about how we’re interacting, we have to be thinking about it. We have to really resolve differences because if we don’t, we kill the golden goose. It’s gone. Beyond that, then we’ve also made some decisions around what kind of company we wanna be. One of the big things is we wanna be the type of company that we would wanna work at. It’s an easy thing to say. It’s a much harder thing to do.

TODD: I think a lot of people wanna be that, but they don’t actually put any effort in. I want to have the body I did when I was 24, but the amount of effort I put in, I have the body I will have when I’m 84.

The short of it is tech bros need not apply. We each have different skills. I’m definitely the heart of the company. Ken’s more the brains and Jamon’s the muscle of the company. I would say, I don’t know if you guys agree with that, but, I talk about feelings more than some people, I’m sure, like.

CHRIS: So, building on that heart, mind and muscle analogy, how do you inspire and empower one another throughout the day and throughout the weeks and the months and the years?

JAMON: One thing that I think is important is that we understand that we’re not always going to have a high level of energy, individually as well as a founder group. We’ll have periods of high energy, where we’re really pushing hard on something, and then we’ll have periods of time where we’re kind of coasting a little bit more, and that’s okay. That comes out of our decision that we wanna have a company that we would wanna work at, that we can stick around for a long time, maybe that everybody can retire at. This isn’t a company that’s here for the short term.

TODD: I’m super proud of the fact that since we merged and became Infinite Red we’ve had no one leave. No one’s quit. A few people we let go for various specific reasons. But, I’m super proud of that. My specialty is dealing with the team and I do something called management by walking around, which I try to say good morning to everyone.

KEN: From HP, right?

TODD: I don’t know … I saw this elderly gentleman talking about how he did this to his company on YouTube, and that’s where I got that term, but I’m sure other people used to… we’re 26 people plus, some freelancers. I try to talk to everyone at least every couple of days, if it’s nothing more than just saying hey and that kind of stuff. I take great pride in that.

However, what I’m not sure I’m good at is things like strategy, and Ken, as you’ve all noticed, talks a lot less than Jamon and I. But, when he talks about strategy, and truthfully, when he talks about anything, it’s pretty gold, and I really pay attention. I know I ran a company for nine years, and I’m not particularly good at the strategy at all. So, I really wouldn’t want to do, any company, this company or any company, without Ken and Jamon, to be honest.

JAMON: That’s an interesting point. Todd’s our CEO and he doesn’t feel like he has to be the strategic mind. A lot of times you think, okay, CEO, has to be like setting the course, leading the way, at the helm. But, it goes to our priorities. Our priorities are our team, and Todd’s really great at that. That’s our important thing. Strategy, it’s a supporting thing. It’s not the main thing.

KEN: One of our inspirations, I remember Todd talking to me about this, was Richard Branson. He at one point said that your shareholders don’t come first. Your customer doesn’t come first. Your employees come first. And the reason is, it’s their job to take care of everybody else. That ethos kind of starts with us, which is that we take care of each other and make sure that we’re supported, right? And we take care of our employees, make sure they’re supported, because they’re the ones, who, at the end of the day, are taking care of the customer or not. And if the customer’s taken care of, then the financial health of the company is taken care of.

In some ways that’s a harder way to work. It’s much quicker and easier to just sort of feel the customer, okay, yeah, well, we’ll do whatever you want, and then take it out on your employees. And that is a very typical way that consultant companies end up.

JAMON: I think we’re gonna do some more talking about that in future episodes, for sure, because that-

KEN: We can bookmark that and talk it as a whole topic unto itself.

JAMON: I didn’t mean to cut you off on that, Ken, I just kind of wanted to make a note that that’s something that’s really core to who we are and-

TODD: It really is.

JAMON: … and we need to do more time than we have right now, but where there’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen around that.

KEN: It is, but in terms of like … I said that shared values, that container of shared values is also partly what makes this work, and that’s one of those values, that taking care of your employees is never bad for business, and it’s never bad for your customers.

TODD: I would pile on to something Ken said. It is much more difficult. I have a lot of problems. I had a lot of problems as an employee, of leadership, and I still have a lot of problems with leadership. Some people are just literally jerks and they’re just sadists, they like to abuse their power and make people miserable. But disregarding those people, in quotation marks, just disregarding those, most leaders fail just because they’re just lazy leadership. They take the easy route. The easy route is to make processes and jump on people, and be what we call seagull manager, which is you fly in and you crap all over everything and you fly away.

We’re not perfect, we’re human, we make mistakes and stuff, and sometimes our team points out mistakes and we try to take it super seriously. But, it takes a constant weekly, if not daily, effort to put your team first. It’s not easy but I love it. I love our team. I consider them family, to be honest.

JAMON: Yeah.

TODD: Sometimes talking about clients, they have a problem dealing with clients, that can be nerveracking and I don’t look forward to that. I never dread talking, having any meeting or having any conversation with any of the team.

JAMON: This is also why we haven’t added a lot of additional people to Infinite Red. We’re 26 right now. We could add a lot of people. We’ve had the opportunity. We have the work. We have people in some ways beating down the door to work with Infinite Red. We’re a consultancy and people wanna work with us because of our reputation. We also have a lot of developers coming to us. Every week I’m getting multiple messages saying, “Hey, do you have any openings there at Infinite Red? I’d love to work with you. I love the ethos. I love what you do.” And yet, we’re only 26 people.

TODD: Plus some freelancers.

JAMON: Plus some freelancers, for sure. Freelancers is one way that you can kind of increase your capacity without necessarily bringing on a huge commitment. That’s nice but they’re also very hard to find, as far as reliable ones.

TODD: And it’s challenging. That’s not an easy route.

JAMON: Right. We’ve had a few misses on that and …

TODD: That’s another show.

JAMON: It is.

KEN: Yeah, that’s another whole topic.

JAMON: But that’s why we’re not much larger, is because we wanna grow very purposely and we wanna make sure that we’re making the right choices along the way.

KEN: We don’t wanna grow any faster than our culture can absorb.

TODD: Yes.

KEN: I’ve been at enough startups, and watched them grow from small tight-knit, great culture, and then there gets this point where there’s pressure from investors, usually, to grow as fast as possible. And there’s a rate at which that happens, that the culture gets overwhelmed and diluted and destroyed, and you can never get it back. So, we’re very, very keen to stay out of that trap and grow only as fast as the culture can absorb and as we as leaders can adapt to the increase in scale.

TODD: My arms aren’t very large and whipping the team all day, it really gets sore. I couldn’t handle many more. In all seriousness … I don’t think I’ve ever been all serious …

JAMON: Never.

TODD: … but I’ll try. Ken and I, when we first … one of the things, having worked at startups, having owned startups and that kind of stuff, there’s nothing against VC, venture capital based startups and investor startups. It’s a different type business and it’s a very specific business that works very well for certain type businesses. Ken and I enjoyed doing that for a long time. We just got a little tired of it, and we don’t have an exit strategy for our company. We always say that our exit strategy is death. We also want a company where people can retire in, whether designers, developers or people in leadership, that kind of stuff.

JAMON: This is really unusual, by the way. If you talk to other tech companies.

TODD: Yeah, and they don’t have to switch to management, which isn’t moving up. It’s a different job. You should be able to be a designer, developer your entire career and become a master and retire. So, long way of saying we’re not going anywhere for a very long time. As far as what direction we’re going in, I’ll let these two talk about that.

JAMON: I think that kind of flavors the decisions we’re making. I’m not a huge fan of making, like, very specific targets way out in the future, because just like building software, it doesn’t work very well. You’re making your decisions when you have the least amount of information. The further back you can delay decisions, the better, but you really need a framework to make those decisions in. That’s the important thing. So, we work on the framework. We work on how do we make decisions when opportunities arise? How do we decide whether to do something, whether to not. I think it’s Steve Jobs said that one of his greatest strengths was the ability to say no, and that’s important for us, too. But, like Chain React, our React Native conference we had an opportunity to create that, to make that happen. It fit our framework and we went for it. It was a success, and we have the second one coming up here in July.

That’s the sort of thing that I think I really focus on, is the framework through which we make decisions. We obviously have some longer term plans, some of which the team knows about, some of which not, but the main thing is that they will look at the decisions we make, and know why we’re making the decisions, because of that framework.

TODD: Yeah, and if the team doesn’t have buy-in or they don’t agree, it won’t happen, because Jamon, Ken and I aren’t gonna do it.

JAMON: Yeah, we don’t do it.

KEN: Questions like this are sort of like, on this long car voyage that you’re planning to take, when do you plan to turn left? Right? When the road tells us that we should turn left is the answer, right? Jamon happens to be right that it’s about setting a framework, it’s about having a certain set of values, it’s about being prepared for certain kinds of opportunities so that when luck comes our way we can take advantage of it. But we don’t have a five-year plan. We don’t have a master script for where we’re going, and that is very much on purpose.

TODD: Well said.

CHRIS: Any closing thoughts?

TODD: I would say that Ken’s extremely good at making very eloquent remarks on why he didn’t do his homework.

KEN: It’s worked well for me so far.

TODD: It’s true.

JAMON: It’s actually true.

TODD: That’s a fact.

JAMON: I think that what Ken said about our company will also apply in some ways to this podcast. We’re not necessarily going to have a very specific thing that we hammer every single time that we release an episode. There will be a little bit of kind of organic turning left and turning right as we go, but we have a framework around this podcast. So, I’m hoping that the listeners got a lot of value out of this. I think that this is gonna be a lot of fun for us, as a founder group, and hopefully they’ll join us for the ride here.

TODD: I would also like … the reason this podcast came into existence was Jamon was reaching out to new founders or founders that have been around it for a while or entrepreneurs or business owners, and he just said, hey, if you have any questions about that, fire it off, and a lot of people did ask Jamon, and Jamon and Ken and I would discuss it and kind of come with an answer and we’d post it on Twitter. People really seemed to enjoy that. You think you don’t have too much to share, but then when you share and people give you a good response, you’re like, “Oh, I do have more to share.” So, this is a direct result from that, and the reason I bring it up is, I think we’re gonna continue doing that, so feel free to reach out on Twitter.

JAMON: My Twitter handle is @jamonholmgren. Todd’s is @twerth, and Ken’s is @seriousken. We’ll put those in the show notes as well.

TODD: Yeah, and Jamon’s a great person. He’s a great person to reach out to, and the three of us.