It was 2008. Products in the software world were generally mediocre and rarely intuitive to nonexperts. Onboarding a new user to Oracle apps, for example, required a rigorous training program. Consumer websites were slightly better off as they had begun to develop rich experiences, migrating away from being basic information portals. The release of the first iPhone, however, brought about a paradigm shift in software design—demand for user experience and interface design skyrocketed. Despite the raging financial crisis, it was actually a good year to start a technology business.
Five founders started Devbridge in a basement of an old, run-down two-story office building in Bensenville, Illinois. The partially obstructed hopper windows offered no view. Our neighbor’s seedy, underground dentist’s operation serviced anyone courageous enough to sit in the cracked and yellowing chair and brave its pedal-operated drill.
We were an odd group. Martin came with a bachelor’s degree in finance and had previously worked at a fluorescent lamp recycler, a large typography company, and a pizzeria franchise. Tomas, a self-taught engineer, worked as a developer at a boating association. Marius was our network and hardware guy, having previously worked at a small tech consultancy. Gediminas, Marius’s older brother, lived in Lithuania and worked for a major automotive oil distributor and also wrote code on nights and weekends. I was the only member of the group with a formal computer science degree under my belt, but I had no hands-on training. My previous employers were a life insurance company and a cable manufacturer—not exactly a great stepping stone for a career in software development.
One weekend, we had an unexpected stroke of luck. Our basement office flooded during heavy rains, submerging much of our hardware in the process. The landlord, after Martin loudly threatened to sue him for not having backup pumps, moved us to the second floor with legit windows and a view, even if it was only a bleak suburban landscape. We were moving up in the world!
This era and environment produced some of our fondest memories. To get things off the ground, we all took major risks: quitting stable jobs, taking pay cuts. Not easy things to do, especially if you have a newborn at home, as Tomas did. The stakes were high. And yet we were sitting in an office we rented, from money we made, building things our way for our clients. Websites that were better. Websites that were not mediocre.
We spent many fourteen-hour days together without feeling fatigued, surrounded by the predictable clicking of keys interrupted only by the Jura espresso machine producing another shot of java. That now-iconic espresso machine cost us more than all the office furniture combined. Back then, the office was outfitted with pieces scavenged from our friends or garage sales.
We were perfectly aligned with our intent and our values. We pursued the American dream. We were creating a company that rejected mediocrity, pursued mastery, and was transparent with its clients and employees. These were values that were absent in our previous endeavors at various large corporations where we were cogs, and the companies were too large to care about the process, the work, and the people.
Our first clients were companies and people who had employed us before we started Devbridge. A recycling company had us build e-commerce websites that sold recycling boxes and tracked recycled elements for corporate property managers such as CBRE. A small yet demanding pizzeria franchise built multiple tools for back-office process automation. The original manufacturer of lava lamps needed a website to showcase their products. Now that I think of it, there’s still evidence of this work in our office! The Colossus, a four-foot lava lamp that weighs nearly two hundred pounds, rests in the corner of our lunchroom. Unlike the Colossus, these early projects were tiny in comparison to the work we do today.
Our tradition of Friday team lunches also started in Bensenville. There was never a debate about where to order food from. Nathan’s Noodles in Elmhurst was the de facto standard, serving two dishes that we fell in love with: drunken noodles and panang curry. We would specify the spiciness level upon ordering the food—it went up to seven—and would sweat profusely each Friday for two continuous years. The level of heat applied to the dish was always the subject to compete over while sucking down delicious noodles and extinguishing the esophageal fire with cold soda. Rounds of intense chess matches followed lunch, often spinning out of control and requiring us to stay extra late so we could finish the work for the day.
Martin has said that an office move is one of the most positively disruptive events—routines change, environment changes, the new office feels like a fresh page in the book. In 2010 we had outgrown our space in Bensenville not only in terms of space but also credibility—how or why clients mustered the courage to pay a group of immigrant kids real money puzzles me to this day. We collectively agreed that clients and money were in Chicago proper, and after scouting Martin was ready to show us the options available. After a few site visits we settled on a renovated loft above a triathlon gym in Ukrainian Village, packed a single moving truck with our worldly possessions, and left Bensenville without looking back.
Since day one we aspired to have recurring revenue sources outside the services business. One such property was SearchFreeFonts.com—a typography website that used optimized landing pages to drive traffic to affiliate partners who then licensed commercial typefaces. In these early days of search engine optimization, we were able to generate enough in commissions and cover one of our salaries through this passive channel. This same mind-set led to the creation of BisonOffice.com—a dropship e-commerce website. We would facilitate the sale of office supply products and a third party would take care of the rest: inventory, warehousing, packing, and shipping. The BisonOffice.com website was created by Tomas in a good week and, with surprise and delight, we were watching the first orders start to trickle in. We sold both BisonOffice.com and SearchFreeFonts.com several years later, but that’s a story for a different day.
We quickly realized that BisonOffice.com had potential and that our little group of outlaws had neither the focus nor the e-commerce chops to pull this off on our own. We partnered with a gentleman in Lithuania who had successfully developed and led one of the largest Lithuanian e-commerce portals. He would oversee the reseller strategy, customer support, and roadmap of the platform. In addition to leadership, BisonOffice.com would also need software engineers. It made sense to hire them from the same part of the world we found the new leader.
In 2011 Marius moved back to his hometown, Kaunas, and together with Gediminas opened the first Lithuanian office. While hiring engineers for BisonOffice.com, Martin met Viktoras Gurgzdys. Unfazed by the prospect of working for an e-commerce company, Viktoras rejected the job offer but continued his dialogue with Martin. Shortly after Viktoras, Paulius Maciulis, and a few others joined Devbridge and established an engineering practice that to this day flourishes with hundreds of the best engineers in the country, and perhaps the world.
I could wallow in nostalgia for pages, but I’m telling you this story because I want to make a point: It’s easy to stay aligned when you’re fighting for your survival, and there’s only a handful of you in a room. It’s harder to execute when the team is hundreds strong, spread across offices, operating within multiple disciplines and industry verticals. I’ve written this book to help us all stay true to our origin. I’ve written this book to document our unique way of thinking and our delivery process that enables us to exceed the expectations of our clients.
Thank you, team, for helping me with content and perspective and for your passion in the disciplines you represent.
Good luck on the journey to make great things and seek mastery!