I grew up loving the game of basketball. When I say love, I really mean it. My passion for the game definitely came from my brother. He was so in love with the sport that he would literally bring a snow shovel to the local park in the dead of winter in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (our hometown) and would shoot for hours with the tips of his gloves cut off. And if you aren't familiar with Wyoming winters, we regularly had 4-6 feet of snow.
I grew up living for those moments of getting to a hoop and shooting. It was what I longed for daily. It was where I could live in my world of possibilities. I was fortunate to have my brother to teach me how to shoot. But besides the basics of shooting, we really did not have anyone else to teach us. No real coaches or mentors to hone our skills on the nuances of the game. [Oh how I long for the younger version of myself to have had access to YouTube.]
The thing I learned about basketball in high school was that being on a team changed everything. I got lucky in being placed with a group of kids that were tough and competitive. What we lacked in athleticism, we made up for with grit and a willingness to win that was contagious.
That group of guys grew together over four years. To cap off our senior year, we ended up winning the state championship in the 5A division by two points. It was a nail-biter of a game that required all of us to dig deep and bring that grit to the court one last time together.
What I learned from that team was that I needed to be on a team to really love and appreciate the game. The individual skills and talents that we brought together made each day exciting. Being around players that were better than me made me play better. It made the sport better. It made the grind of learning and accomplishing something so great.
Building the Team
Those first few years taught Jeff and me that Mobelux was something bigger than the two of us. We knew that we had to trust our gut and follow our instincts. And when you look back, you can see the threads that became connected.
What really mattered that year was our team. That’s what we were building. Those early sacrifices of me keeping a day job and not pulling money from the business didn’t really feel like a sacrifice because I felt responsible for the families that we were supporting, those of our early employees. It was not about us anymore. It was about finding the best talent that we could get and supporting them and growing that.
In 2009, we had hired our core team of developers. They met twice a week at Jeff's house, hammering away on the programming challenges at hand, sometimes working late into the night. They started a tradition of Taco Tuesdays, taking a break from work to enjoy lunch, establishing stronger camaraderie and team dynamics.
Even though we had our team in place, I was still living in Newport News in early 2010. I knew I had to live closer to Jeff and our core team. So, in March of 2010, Ellen and I decided to move to the greater Richmond area. We bought our house, where we still live today. It was 20 minutes to Jeff's house, which made life a lot easier. I was still working at ZelTech. I now worked remotely for them and occasionally had to drive back to Hampton, VA.
Remote vs. Office
It wasn't just that we spent the first two years of Mobelux working from our homes. It was that Jeff and I had spent the last ten years working on our own. When our core team - Jamie, Jason, and Eddie - joined Mobelux, I really enjoyed being around people that were passionate, skilled, and full of great ideas. That resonated strongly with me. Working with them everyday was something that I craved. I wanted to be on a team again where we saw each other everyday. By the fall, Jeremy Greenwood had joined Mobelux, who now leads the native development team and continued our string of hiring great talent.
There has been a lot of debate over the last ten years about remote teams and the advantages that you can gain. What often goes missing are those in-between moments that help you create chemistry and the grit that it takes to ship challenging work. I had always wondered if you got a place full of smart and motivated people, what type of work could really come out of there. Would work still win out and productivity stay high?
Corrugated Box Building
When we met Scott Ukrop and toured the Corrugated Box Building (an open office space about five minutes south of downtown Richmond) in the fall of 2010 we knew we had found a gem. We needed a place that could comfortably hold us, scale with us as we grew, and feel like the type of place where our hip clients from New York would appreciate: industrial materials, bold colors, and not a corporate office cubicle farm.
Co-working spaces were something that we’d only read about in media outlets like Fast Company at that point. The concept started when architecture firms with innovative and ornate spaces wanted to cover their costs. They rented empty desks to cover their expenses. The Corrugated Box Building wasn’t “co-working” per se, but they had plenty of space and a shared office feel, 3North anchored the space and they hosted design firms, marketing agencies as well as a solar company, a photography studio and even a ramen shop (pioneers for Richmond). They also had spaces for hosting creative and collaborative events like designer talks and meet-ups designed to integrate creativity into your everyday life.
We agreed to move into the Corrugated Box Building with Tumblr alongside us in early 2011. With that space lined up, our focus remained on our work.
Building products that mean something are important. It makes up for a lot of things that are difficult and can go wrong. Great work is what attracted our first key contractors. Shipping it is what kept us together.
In July 2010, we released our second iHome app, the iHome + Radio app. The following month we launched another huge product: the Tumblr for Android app.
We battled with the idea of sticking to just mobile and decided in the end that a great opportunity to build something meaningful was too important to pass up. In October 2010, we launched iHome’s new website. This was a huge undertaking for our small team and is still to date one of my favorite projects. We delivered our final product in less than six months, something that would have taken other companies ten to twelve months to pull off. On top of that, we increased visitor traffic by 29%, page views by 178% and website revenue by 90% all while decreasing the bounce rate from 30.5% to 7.72%. I knew then that we had a special team.
At this point in time, we started to understand the metrics of our work. As of September 2010, the Tumblr apps (iPhone, Blackberry, and Android) had a combined audience of over one million daily users. And the iHome + Sleep app had 2.1 million downloads with around 100,000 daily users.
What We Learned
Being part of a talented team is invigorating. Everyone not only carries their weight, but they bring more back to the table and challenge everyone else to improve. Jeff and I knew that we had made the right choice starting Mobelux in Richmond. Would we be able to grow this team and turn ourselves into a company? Would our contractors want to become employees?
Meaningful work is key. Passionate people want to build things that people use. Having Tumblr and iHome as our first clients were invaluable in building that initial team. It was also easy for all of us to get absorbed into our work. When we did work for those companies, we really viewed ourselves as extensions of their teams. We were Tumblr and iHome building the best products for ourselves.
A company that works remotely was not for us. There is just too much conversation needed in building the products that people use. It may end up costing us a few more dollars, but being together just felt more important than ever.
Co-working places are great. WeWork just surpassed JP Morgan, the biggest U.S. bank, as the largest tenant of Manhattan office space, highlighting the growing demand for flexible leases from entrepreneurial companies. Local co-working spaces in Richmond like 804RVA and Gather are essential to small and emerging companies. I am very grateful that we were able to find the Corrugated Box Building as it ended up serving as our home for almost six years.
Garrett Ross is CEO & Co-Founder of Mobelux.