Since founding Table XI, I’ve only become more skeptical about professional services companies launching products. We built and sold Pegmo, a customer engagement platform and a modest success. But for the most part we’ve stayed away, wary of ending up stuck with an unpaid drag on resources that doesn’t do anything for us or our clients.
And then last year, I passed my position as CEO of Table XI onto COO Mark Rickmeier, in part so I could launch Table XI Labs — and do exactly what we’d been avoiding. Labs gives us a chance to support the people at Table XI who want to build products, effectively putting us back in the startup business.
We decided to try our hand at products again for a few reasons, which I went into in more detail here. We have brilliant people who have great ideas, and we wanted a way to keep them close while allowing them to scratch their entrepreneurial itches. More importantly though, we thought we had some unique perspectives to bring to products people would want to use.
Now we’re two products deep. The first, a B2B lead-gen solution called Modern Web, already piloted an idea, failed to find traction and decided to disband. The second, a company culture app called Everyone Onboard, is just starting its pilot, and the results are incredibly promising. Here’s how it came about, and where we hope it’s going.
Creating software that actually helps company culture
Most HR software is the equivalent of an icebreaker game — awkward more than anything, occasionally insensitive and definitely useless when it comes to building company culture.
We know, because so many of our clients ask us how they can build a culture like Table XI’s, and we have nothing to recommend. Our only advice is to create an environment where people are encouraged to know and treat each other as humans. Every day our staff chef makes a family-style lunch, and we give everyone an hour to sit together, eat with each other and talk. It seems to work.
Last year, we were talking with a client of ours — a massive data analytics firm experiencing huge growth — about those lunches. They pushed us to think of a way we could bring that admittedly hard-to-implement approach to more traditional corporations. We spitballed a few ideas, and landed on a simple piece of software that would allow HR to pair any two people in the company for a coffee date, a lunch date, or a walk. The only thing employees would see was a calendar invite.
The client immediately latched onto the idea, promising that they’d be the first customer. So we decided to take them up on it.
Building a product while running a software firm
One thing though: we’re a services company. We make software to grow other people’s businesses, not our own. Pegmo was a modest success, but we ended up spinning it off from Table XI pretty quickly, because it didn’t feel like it meshed with the business. Since then, we’ve assessed every potential product with the same question: Can Table XI’s existing relationships or assets be leveraged? If so, we might do it. In all other instances, we’re not interested.
The idea for Everyone Onboard passed the test. We had clients who already wanted to use it. And one of our senior developers, John Gore, wanted to build it. He’s worked at Table XI for nine years, and while he wouldn’t admit to liking anything, he wanted to bring the parts of our culture that work really well to other companies. We just had to make room for it to happen.
Making sure our clients and our staff benefit from us building products
When we ask whether a new product benefits from our assets or relationships, we’re really asking one thing: Is it good for everyone? Is it creating an ecosystem of aligned energy where people are working on interconnected problems for interconnected stakeholders? When the answer is yes, everyone inherently wins.
Everyone Onboard was particularly appealing because it came out of a client’s request, so we knew our clients could directly benefit from the product. Right now all of the beta customers who have signed up are existing partners. I expect that will be how most Lab companies start: We see a problem that affects one or more of our clients → then we invest our own dollars in solving that problem → so our clients can reap the benefits without having to take the risks.
Even when the product isn’t for clients, though, they indirectly benefit in a lot of ways. With Labs, we’re giving our people a safe space to transition from consultant to founder, and all the guidance and support and cheerleading they need to get there. That has huge recruiting value. We’re going to be able to continue getting the best talent to come work with us. And we’ll get them to stay for long tenures. John Gore is technically working full time on Everyone Onboard. But he’s still in the building regularly. When we need answers about his old projects or help with a tough problem, we can just ask him.
We’ve just implemented Everyone Onboard at the Table XI offices, and so far things are looking great. Once we’ve worked all the bugs, we’ll move the product from alpha to beta, and start setting it up in our clients’ offices.