Lullabot Team Retreat 2019

Smoke Tree Ranch

Our annual company retreat happens at the beginning of each year. It’s a perfect time to think of the intentions we want to set in our personal and professional lives. This year’s retreat was once again at the quiet and unassuming Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, California. It’s a destination that now feels like home for Lullabot, with this year marking our fifth trip to the same place.

It used to be that we’d “maximize business value” by having all-day company meetings while at a retreat. It was exhausting, and the whole event felt like a work marathon. We didn’t leave feeling rejuvenated and inspired. While we’d accomplish a lot, we also tended to burn out and spend the following week catching our breath. So over the years, we’ve shifted the role the retreat plays for us. The goal in recent years (in this order) has been to:

  1. Relax. Making space for creative thought and problem-solving is essential. We need to recharge because our work is intellectually demanding. We also have clients, families, friends and even animal companions that depend on us to be our best when we return. It makes no sense to burn out from a retreat.
  2. Have fun. Forming new bonds and friendships with each other. Building up our emotional reserves, celebrating the year and lifting each other up. We’re only together for 5 out of 365 days in a year, so let’s make them count.
  3. Work on Lullabot. Using the time to collaborate openly on how we work and looking for ways we can improve what we do for our clients and the world.

I’ll admit. It’s still easy to forget to take recharge and self-care time when we don’t get to see each other very often. But we’re doing a better job of building it into the schedule and having the program be a reflection of these goals. As one of our team members put it:

I continue to be impressed by how much closer I feel to my co-workers than I ever did working for a co-located company. Our remoteness has the effect of making us feel comfortable (we're in our own homes and offices) enough to be ourselves and thus are inclined to be vulnerable, speak our mind, tell a joke, share what we love with others. The team retreat, then, is our one week a year to be the way this company has inspired us to be in person. It stands as a testament to the efficacy of our core values, our communication tools, our transparency, that we can effortlessly have fun and feel relaxed with people we rarely see. The importance of this, of feeling human in the workplace, cannot be understated. 

Hunter MacDermut (after his first Lullabot retreat) 
Lullabots collaborating

This year we had 53 people with us physically at the retreat, and one person with us remotely (she’s about to have a baby!). We were lucky enough to be joined by Osio Labs (formerly Lullabot Education) who co-retreated with us this year. Both companies had their individual retreats in the morning, and we were together for meals and evening events. I couldn’t be more proud of the Osio Labs teams and they work they’ve done on Drupalize.me and begin to contribute to the Gatsby and React communities.

Each retreat starts the same way, with a State of the Company talk. This year’s presentation was almost entirely forward-looking, with the recap of 2018 becoming a separate presentation led by Seth Brown. Since we practice Open Books Management at Lullabot, the team tends to know our financials and KPIs well before we get to the retreat. So the 2018 recap serves instead as a “highlights and leave-behinds” conversation with the team.

My State of the Company presentation was emotional and at times visceral. I spoke my heart. I shared with the team my vision for Lullabot in 2022 and 2026. You see, several years ago I set an intention for 2022. I picked 2022 because alliteration is fun and it’s less than five years in the future. I'd like our company to strive for employee ownership by 2022. We've been slowly working towards this for a while, and I want to keep going.

And 2026 will be our 20th company anniversary, so I love the idea of setting intention around an incredible moment worth celebrating. I won't go into details, but take a look at my State of the Company presentation if you would like to learn what’s driving us to do the work we do. As most founders do, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the company I’m creating and why I’m building it. And the first time an employee tells you "I want to retire here," it changes your life, and your role forever.

In terms of how we did in 2018, the first half of the year was difficult, and we did not hit our revenue projections. And yet, 2018 ended up being our highest revenue year so far. We’ve been fortunate enough to welcome seven new team members to Lullabot. We’re so glad to have them here. We also joined our clients in the launch of several new websites this year, including sites for IBM, Pantheon, Carnegie Mellon University, Edutopia and Newsbank. Forty-six percent of our clients were new, 37% of our clients were continuing clients from the previous year, and 17% were clients we had worked with in the past who came back to work with us again.

What does the overall schedule of the retreat end up looking like? Here’s the general format:

  • 9 am-11:30 am / Company presentations and workshops.
  • 11:30 am-12 pm / Client time. We take the week off from client work, but emergencies happen, and new prospects reach out. So we set aside a little bit of time each day, so our inbox doesn’t overwhelm us in the background.
  • 1 pm-3 pm / Free-time. Take a nap, go swimming, play volleyball, chill.
  • 3 pm-5 pm / Open Spaces & BOFs.
  • 7 pm-9 pm / Evening activities

In the mornings, we talk about company things. And by company things, I mean client success stories, new lines of business, our engineering (and departmental) values, and things we’d like to leave behind in the year we just had. In recent years, workshopping has become an integral part of our onsite time together. That work is led by our strategy and design team. Sometimes at the retreat, we’ll try out new workshop ideas on ourselves for feedback and improvement before we roll it out to our clients. Workshopping is one of the best uses of onsite time together because strategy and brainstorming are harder to do as a distributed company.

Team Retreat session

The evening events are planned and organized by the team. And pretty much every team member led or participated in an event at the retreat. This year we had Ignite talks, storytelling, talent shows, awards show for the best moments of 2018 organized by Helena (complete with our own band, The Ternary Operators), trivia night, and we celebrated the launch of the new lullabot.com website with a party on the last night. Our security team put on a capture-the-flag challenge that lasted all week. One group received a perfect score, while another group discovered a root exploit and acquired a beyond-perfect score. Ahem. Chris Albrecht organized a 5K, 3K, and 1K run-or-walk. And Wes Ruvalcaba led our board game night, as a casual way to relax on arrival day.

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Splash and Dash race

One of my favorite experiences of the retreat happens on the last full day. We use that time to find a way to give back to the community. In the past, we’ve built bicycles for the Boys and Girls club, cleaned up the Pacific Crest Trail, and volunteered at an animal shelter. This year there were two activities organized by Esther Lee. Half of us went back to the local animal shelter to build cat beds and prepare treats for the animals. The other half of us went to the desert and pulled invasive plant species with Friends of the Desert Mountains. I love to find ways to connect with the team outside of work while also helping others. Memories like that help keep our hearts full.

Building cat beds at the Palm Springs Animal Shelter
Volunteering for Friends of the Desert Mountains

The feedback so far from the retreat is that we delivered better on our intention to have it become an experience of renewal and rejuvenation. That's phenomenal, and much of that credit goes to Haley who organizes the event for us. I hope we also take away from this experience my call-to-action for 2019, a call for leadership. And yes, "leadership" can be a loaded word with varied meanings. There are three aspects of leadership I want us to embody: courage, include, and give.

Courage is having the authenticity to speak up. Not to put someone else down, but to improve the whole. Inclusion is to bring others with you. To amplify what you have received. And giving is sharing your time and abilities with others to make something greater. If there’s one thing I want this retreat to be remembered for, it’s to work towards a culture which fosters and practices this kind of leadership. It's the world I want to participate in. It’s a community in which I thrive. 

And you? What do you like most about your company retreat? What event or experience do you most look forward to and why?

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