Jeff Robbins is a rockstar. A real-life rockstar. He was part of the team that created the world's first commercial website. Signed to A&M Records with his band Orbit. Toured with Lollapalooza. Ran Ringo Starr's website. Co-founded Lullabot, demystified Drupal, worked with clients including The GRAMMYs, Tesla Motors and Harvard University…
And that’s only about half of the crib sheet.
After he and his co-founder grew Lullabot to 60+ employees, Jeff stepped away to found Yonder as a way to advocate for remote work and bring leaders of distributed companies together. Jeff is also in an indie-rock trio called 123 Astronaut, and helps business owners as a coach and consultant.
What’s the secret to all the success? Making passionate work, and helping others to do the same. As Jeff sees it, owners can run successful and sustainable companies without losing their empathy or humanity. Jeff joins us to talk about life as a business owner and why it’s important to enjoy your life and your company while you have it.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. There's some people that when you start to introduce them, you realize you don't have enough time in your show to talk about all the stuff and that's one of these people that we have here today. First of all, he's part of the team the built the first commercial website in 93. That means he was the first person to have to deal with ads. I think technically.
Jeff Robbins: I have stories, yes.
Carl Smith: Then writes a hit song because why not? With his band Orbit, tours with Lollapalooza. Tours throughout the 90s in North America, whatever. Then decides, you know what? I'm just going to co-found a digital agency that's going to do great work for Tesla and the Grammys and Harvard, whatever. Then decides no, you know what? Actually what I wanted to do was the music thing so I'm going to start a band again. He starts One, Two, Three Astronaut but doesn't want to get out of the business side so he decides to be a coach. Meanwhile, had created this great conference for distributed people with Yonder which is a podcast now. Jeff, I don't know how the hell you have time to be on the show.
Carl Smith: Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Robbins.
Jeff Robbins: Thanks. Thanks Carl, you flatter me.
Carl Smith: Seriously.
Jeff Robbins: And you overwhelm me. You overwhelm me by flattering me. Thank you.
Carl Smith: This is the weirdest thing but I've always felt we were kindred spirits. We're tinkerers. We don't know when to leave well enough alone. We just friggin' annoy people because we always have an idea better than the idea we just had.
Jeff Robbins: And we get excited about things.
Carl Smith: We love it.
Jeff Robbins: The story of my life. I find things to get excited about and then I, yeah, let's do that. Why not? Let's just do that. That'd be awesome if we do that. And I've been saying, I keep finding myself saying this story but it's like oh, I should swim across this lake. That'd be great. Ah man, look at all the things on the other side of lake and about halfway across the lake I usually find myself going like, what the hell am I doing?
Carl Smith: Why did nobody stop me?
Jeff Robbins: Exactly. But then you get to the other side of the lake and everyone's like wow, you swam across the lake. That's so amazing. As I get older it's both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness.
Carl Smith: Talk for a second about starting a band again. Was that an itch that you just couldn't get rid of? Was that something that you just said, you know what? I've been in running this shop with a really great team at Lullabot and now that I've kind of freed myself, I've kind of backed out of that, was it a plan to do the band right away? Or did the band show up after you had the time?
Jeff Robbins: I think the band showed up once I had some time. The thing that happened to me as the founder and CEO of Lullabot was like, you know when you start a small company and it's kind of easy and fun but as it gets bigger you gain more responsibility you kind of feel like oh I should present myself better. Wear better clothes and be responsible because I'm a responsible person. I had less and less time for making music and I don't know, seven, eight years into the company people would say, "Oh you know, are you still playing music?" And I would sort of joke like, "How long can I go without playing music and still call myself a musician?" 'Cause it's starting to kind of get hypothetical.
Jeff Robbins: To some extent I just when I sold the company I had some time and just sort of picked up a guitar again. This used to be fun and it was fun again. All of a sudden I found these, the emotions and all this stuff kind of falling into the music with the political situation and selling my company and all these sort of things happening all at once. It was just this really great outlet for all the angst in my life.
Carl Smith: How's the band doing? I've watched the YouTube videos. I've seen some of the, I think there was a Facebook Live thing or some sort of a live thing at one point that I plugged into. How's all that going?
Jeff Robbins: It's doing great. There was I don't know, a 14 year gap. Orbit did really well as you mentioned in your intro. We were signed to A&M Records and did really well as far as bands go. And then sort of one thing led to another and I started a company. I've kind of been out of it for a while so I'm sort of starting from scratch. I also probably should have just called this new project Orbit. Just kind of pick up with my friends and dinosaur juniors, continuing on. Buffalo Tom has gotten back together again but I've decided to start something new and so I've got to tell everybody about it.
Carl Smith: I just realized Orbit and One, Two, Three Astronaut, that they're related. I'm not that quick on the uptake.
Jeff Robbins:: No. Apparently I'm not either. The name of the band, my son, who's now 14 years old, was about I don't know, two years old and was trying to say three, two, one blastoff. He had a little, something that he was going to throw into the air and instead he said, "One, two, three, astronaut." And I thought, oh, that'd be a good name for a band. I'm going to call my next band that. In the intervening 12 years never came up with a better band name. And also in the intervening 12 years never thought, oh that's kind of like Orbit. It wasn't until like three months after the band had been playing out and stuff like that I was like, oh I've kind of got a theme. But that's okay.
Carl Smith: How much of your time is the band taking up now?
Jeff Robbins: It's about I don't know, maybe 50/50 with business coaching and band stuff. I do business coaching a couple days a week and then play music the rest of the time. Yeah.
Carl Smith: Because you did love business. Eventually business kind of takes over if you're not careful and as things get crazy but you still love it so talk about the coaching thing. 'Cause I tried it once and I got to be honest, anybody listening, thinking about hiring me, don't do it. We're just going to sit there and I'm going to go, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" But talk about that. How do you make that transition into coaching?
Jeff Robbins: Well, I have to be honest with you, I think that owner camp kind of got me started on that track. I tell people this story too and I think I've probably told it to you. The first time I went to owner camp I was, I'm on the airplane thinking like, what the hell am I doing? I just imagine all these people have Harvard MBAs and I'm not going to be able to fit in. There's going to be all this talk about all this sort of like theoretical business charts and stuff like that. And then I got there and realized like, this is all people just like me.
Jeff Robbins: And in fact, at that point, I think Lullabot had 40 employees or maybe 50 employees and we were a larger company than most of these companies and although I hadn't gone to business school and sort of felt a little sort of imposter syndrome around that, we'd gone through and made all of the bad mistakes and learned a lot from it. I basically gotten a MBA on the street, in action. Sort of just picking up voraciously reading book after book after book, just trying to get the knowledge on the job. Found that I had a whole lot to offer the people in owner camp and it was really I don't know, just mutually enjoyable. I felt like I had a lot to share. People seemed to really be soaking up the advice I was giving. It was great to know, to just be helping people. Especially 'cause as your company gets to be a certain size that the sort of percentage of changes become smaller and smaller. There's more inertia. It's slower to kind of move the direction that the ship is heading.
Jeff Robbins: That's okay but it was really nice to be able to sit down at lunch with someone and say, "Oh, well you know what I did? This really helped us." And they go, "Oh my God, I'm going to totally do that. That's amazing." It's like, oh, this was great to be in that role. That role, part of being a co-founder of a company and a co-founder as opposed to an individual founder, is I had people to bounce things off of and my job was ideating and strategizing and getting excited about things. And to work with clients to do that is just super rewarding.
Carl Smith: And so that's one of things that you and I definitely share is that we get stupidly excited. I was talking to somebody yesterday and they said, "How do you feel?" I said, "How do you think I feel? I'm optimistic even though it doesn't look like it's going to work." I can't help it. It's like I'm always think I can just feel good these to fruition. Lullabot was 2006, is that when ...
Jeff Robbins: That when the company started.
Carl Smith: Lullabot starts.
Jeff Robbins: Yes, yeah.
Carl Smith: Okay. And started fully distributed.
Jeff Robbins: Yes.
Carl Smith: Small. Now how big were you when you started?
Jeff Robbins: It was just Matt and I, my co-founder and I.
Carl Smith: Yeah, so just two.
Jeff Robbins: Yeah, just two of us. Yep. Yep.
Carl Smith: And then you do a lot through Drupal Education.
Jeff Robbins: Yes. When we started Drupal was not a household name. There was very little out there in terms of, it was very by developers for developers so there was not a whole lot of front end friendliness. And there weren't really much, wasn't really much for documentation and no books. My business partner Matt Westgate co-wrote the first Drupal book. Well, kind of the first full length Drupal book and then Lullabot we immediately started just talking. We started a podcast about Drupal and Lullabot. Was like, hey, let's start a consulting company. And then we'll also start a podcast and every week we'll tell everyone who's listening everything that we've learned that week. Everything that we know, we'll just share it.
Jeff Robbins: Seems like potentially something they would tell you not to do in business school.
Carl Smith: 'Cause they're things that work.
Jeff Robbins: But it really worked. Yeah. It just, I think it created a siphon effect as we shared more, we learned more and people came to us with more and said, "Oh, you should talk about this." Then we started doing Drupal workshops and eventually that all sort of morphed into a video series which morphed into a website called Drupalize Me, drupalize.me which was a Drupal video training website that has split off from Lullabot. Separate business entity from Lullabot now.
Carl Smith: And then I remember I went to Yonder and I think that's the first time we really got to know each other. I don't know that we met before that, I can't remember.
Jeff Robbins: No, I don't think we had. About an hour into ...
Jeff Robbins: No, I don't think we had ... It's like about into meeting each other it felt like we had known each other for a long time. So it's kind of confusing time-wise.
Carl Smith: But two of the things I remember from that were ... Because we were a distributed team, obviously we were at yonder and you were, and we had so many experiments we were trying to do to help the team get to know itself as we grew. At our height we were about 40, most of the time we were in the mid 20s. But we had that same type of thing where we're trying to figure out how do you have a company call when you're in eight timezones, right? All this type of stuff.
Carl Smith: And I remember you had first of all the weather report which I thought was brilliant. Just this way of sharing how the company is doing with everybody. And then the serendipity calls. This was when I started to fall in love with you because I was like, "Oh, man!" It's like those are great ideas and I just didn't have enough time to come up with them. I'm sure those were my ideas. But that they weren't and that you stuck with them and that sort of thing.
Carl Smith: So when you're going in and doing your coaching now how do you find out kind of the soul of an organization? And I guess I'm just wondering obviously you're going in and listening, but what is that value that you're giving to that owner?
Jeff Robbins: Well often times I mean if it's an individual owner of a company that doesn't have a business partner it's really nice to be able to have someone to check in with. I mean you often times think that your employees are your peers and you can kind of talk about anything, but you can't really talk about anything. You can't say, "You know, I've been thinking about layoffs and I'm still kind of on the fence." That's not a conversation you can have with your employees. There's a whole lot that's in that realm. So to just have someone to kind of check in with is great.
Jeff Robbins: And then my experience running a distributed company, you need to communicate more proactively. Actually running a podcast you also need to learn how to ask questions and kind of dig deeper with people. It's a lot of related stuff there, yeah.
Carl Smith: I mean what I learned ... And I was making a joke about not being a good consultant, but it's because I wasn't a consultant, I was what you just described. I was like a virtual partner, right? Like I would get on the phone with people and they would sort of explain to me something bad happened and I would be like, "I don't even know why that person works here." Because honestly, all I do every week is hear you say, "That person is holding things back," and I've heard no value, and so why are we not firing that person? And then it would just be, "Well, um ..." and I'm like, "Yeah, all right. If you want to have another call we need to address getting rid of that person because I think everything is going to get better."
Jeff Robbins: And maybe that's good advice. I mean sometimes people need to be called to task. But you also need to know that it's not your company, it's their company. And so maybe the conversation isn't, "Hey, you should fire that person!" It's, "Hey, what is it about that person that you still hold of value? What's got you stuck here? If this person is not functioning at the company why are you keeping them around? Is it that you carry ..."
Jeff Robbins: And it's a lot of the same stuff with ... I think there is this feeling and that feeling I had on the airplane headed to that first Owner Camp was that to be a good business person you need to be a bad human being, right? And I think people get hung up on that, that if I'm a good human being I can't be a good business person, I can't be assertive, I can't kind of do what needs to be done for the business. And I think that they're not mutually exclusive. I think that you can both be compassionate and caring and pragmatic and realize ...
Jeff Robbins: I mean for me a big realization was by protecting my company I'm protecting the employees at my company, right? By ensuring that we're profitable enough to stay in business I am protecting people's jobs. And so if I don't fire someone that's not working well at the company it's dragging everyone down and it's endangering everyone's jobs. And even to have that conversation with that person, to be kind of open about that, like, "You're not working here and it's endangering the company and I need to protect the company because I care, not because ..." I think that people kind of ... Because there's a lot of difficult emotions around all this, right? And I think a solution is to kind of go Asperger's on it, to kind of just like pull out all the emotion and go to them and say, "I'm letting you go and I don't care about you, I never cared about you. I don't care about anyone that I am a good business person." And then the company is no fun to work for because you're working for an asshole.
Jeff Robbins: So I think this is kind of the area that I live, is kind of trying to find the ways that people can both bring their whole self to the business not just their business self.
Carl Smith: So what is it that you're finding? Just roughly how long have you been doing the coaching?
Jeff Robbins: About two years now. I started doing it I think actually during ... I originally started my exit from Lullabot, Matt and I were kind of testing the waters on how the company would do without me.
Carl Smith: I hear it's going great, by the way.
Jeff Robbins: Yeah, the company is doing really well.
Carl Smith: I hope that doesn't make you feel bad.
Jeff Robbins: I will be emotionally honest with you, Carl, I am both elatedly happy and also a little bit sad.
Carl Smith: It does make you sad. "I thought I was so important." And you were but you built a great team, you had a great partner.
Jeff Robbins: Well, that was the thing. From probably year four of the company I started a mantra of "replace yourself... often". Like find the areas where I am a bottleneck and find someone else to do that. And I'm an ideas person, I have a lot of skills around marketing and branding and positioning and stuff like that and I'm a pretty decent writer, but when I'm trying to do everything at once I'm not doing anything very well.
Jeff Robbins: And so we found a really great person who eventually moved up into the COO role, a great CTO, design director, head of sales who's now the president of the company. And honestly, my business partner Matt Westgate is like the best business partner I ever could have chosen. We were able to have those deep, open, kind of vulnerable conversations with each other that kept that communication honest the whole way through and didn't sort of bubble up. And I think my experience being in bands and having done other sort of entrepreneurial things over time helped me kind of see that. When I met Matt I was like, "Oh, this is a guy that I can really talk with."
Carl Smith: So two years in, what are some of the common themes you're seeing with the clients that you're consulting with? I mean obviously don't share anything super confidential unless you don't care, in which case just spill it.
Jeff Robbins: I will speak in aggregate.
Carl Smith: But what are some of the high level things? Like what are you seeing?
Jeff Robbins: Well a theme that I see a lot ... I mean some of it is this kind of feeling, almost sort of a fear of success. That belief that like, "Well, if the company grows I'll have to be an asshole and I just don't want to be an asshole." Or another one that happens a lot is, "In order for the company to grow we need to hire an asshole." And you're not going to be able to mark this as a clean podcast anymore, I apologize.
Carl Smith: Oh no, no, it's totally fine. We've dropped some heavy stuff.
Jeff Robbins: And then all of a sudden now you've got this asshole who's working at the company because you thought that that's what you needed to do to grow. But I think overall, people ... And I also have this theory that growth in companies happens in powers of two. So going from just being a single person with an idea for a company to either hiring your first person or often times finding a business partner is a really difficult thing, and then that four point, and that eight point is that's where you start feeling like, "Whoa, I really need to be responsible." And 16 is the next point, it gets really ... These inflection points, they're just markers in the road. I lost my train of thought, Carl.
Carl Smith: 16 is lock the door. I think 16 is an amazing size.
Jeff Robbins: Yeah, right. So this is the theme, you were asking the theme. And so it's usually about that 16 point where people start feeling like the company is running them, they're not running the company anymore.
Carl Smith: Yeah, the company becomes an entity.
Jeff Robbins: Right. It's between eight and 16. That eight point is like, "Oh, I'm responsible now. I'm actually kind of responsible for these people's jobs." And by the time you get to 16 you've given up a lot without quite realizing it. On the one hand you see potential like, "Wow, we could do so much more as we grow." And certainly by the time you get to 32 you can, that's when that starts really happening. But I think as a company grows people, particularly in agencies, sort of lose, if you'll kind of excuse the turn of words, agency in their agency, the control of their company, and feel like their company is running them.
Jeff Robbins: And so a lot of the work that I do is just kind of helping people to realize like, "Well, okay. Let's just assume that you could do anything you want with your company. What would you do?" And then remind them, "You can do anything you want with your company including shutting it down tomorrow if you want." I mean it gets different if you've got investors and stuff like that. But I mean for the most part, having been to ...
Jeff Robbins: For the most part having been to-
Carl Smith: The day I realized that I didn't have to review the insurance options.
Jeff Robbins: Well that's another thing.
Carl Smith: That I didn't have to look at the 401k.
Jeff Robbins: Replace yourself. Yeah, yeah, Yup.
Carl Smith: Oh, it was, I hated it. I used to tell people, "I hate working here because I have to look through this, just slog of paper and try to decide what's best for people who aren't me." That's horrible. But then you find somebody who loves that stuff.
Jeff Robbins: Oh yeah.
Carl Smith: And you're like, would you like to work here?
Jeff Robbins: Well, and what's more, they don't put it off. They don't regret it. They don't come at it obliquely, they just do it. They make sure that payroll gets paid and the taxes get paid and every i is dotted and t is crossed and they love it. And it's such a great feeling to have that happening, especially when I don't want to be doing that.
Carl Smith: So if you were going to give a piece of advice that people listening, right, I figure we get a lot of shop owners listening.
Jeff Robbins: Hi everyone.
Carl Smith: Great. Hey everybody. What's up? I make jokes that I know the three people that listen, but we're actually, we're getting upwards of a thousand downloads now. It's kind of fun. So what would you say? You've got a lot of people out there listening and they're running their shops. There's some small ones, some big ones, but if there's just one little nugget that you've picked up in all of the crazy stuff that you've done, what would you say to them?
Jeff Robbins: Well, I think it's going to be some of those things that I've said already. You don't need to lose your humanity in order to have success. Yeah, I would say that. That's the main thing.
Carl Smith: I think that's so strong. I remember being asked by my kids, how I want to be remembered, I said, I want to, "I was a nice guy, but I was successful." I don't know why that seems like such a strong goal.
Jeff Robbins: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's been my experience that you can do both of those things. There's certainly, as the company grows, you start looking at the forest more than the trees. Which is good. And you realized that you can't keep every individual person at the company happy and you stopped trying to do that, which is good. It's kind of freeing. What it means to be a nice person, in terms of, I think oftentimes a lot of us come at that almost as a fear place. I want people to approve of me. And there's some, I think you need to become your own gauge on that. On whether you're a nice person or not. And ultimately you've got to live with yourself. So that's-
Carl Smith: That much is true.
Jeff Robbins: That's the thing. And I'm not saying, that sounds like some sort of a sociopath kind of way of justifying anything, but I don't mean it that way. I just mean-
Carl Smith: My kids are going to leave, my wife may leave, but the day that I leave myself, that's a big day.
Jeff Robbins: Well, yeah.
Carl Smith: It's going to be a challenge.
Jeff Robbins: But I think people do that. I mean, that's the deal with the devil, right? That's that, all right, I'm giving up my soul, for-
Carl Smith: Wait, is that how you did all this stuff?
Jeff Robbins: [crosstalk 00:04:00] or to learn to play guitar, I guess was the ...
Carl Smith: I gotta tell you if you gave him your soul based on the movies I've seen, you got a raw deal. This is an impressive list.
Jeff Robbins: It never ends well.
Carl Smith: You should have been Carnegie Hall, man. I had dinner with my brother last night, my brother's 60, and we're sitting there and we're talking about what changed, what changed from ... He's a scientist and he was getting published and pulled into all these meetings and he was the one person in the room that everybody was like, "I can't believe he'd say that," and now he's the person in the room, they're like "Oh, it's just somebody else saying something." Right. And we boiled it down to this. We had been creating things, and we loved that process of creating, and then our lives changed and we shifted to protecting.
Jeff Robbins: Yup.
Carl Smith: Things we had created, and we lost our love of what we were doing because we weren't creating anything anymore. We were suddenly in this protection mode and it was just horrible. I today had a great talk with Brett at the Bureau and I was just like, "I had to find a way to have fun again, man." It's a ton of fun to hang out with everybody and it's a ton of fun to be at the events. If it wasn't for the events, this would be really, really frustrating because like I told you, I'm in a room by myself, right? But once I realize and I see the connections between people, I have to find a way to engage in that and, and to lift that up because that's creating, right? That's just ...
Jeff Robbins: Yeah.
Carl Smith: So good.
Jeff Robbins: Well, and you know, you need to be competitive. I'm a very competitive in my band. I'm competitive in my company. I am a very competitive person and I think as the company grows or as you have success, there's also a sort of a level of paranoia. You become the chief paranoia officer.
Carl Smith: There you go.
Jeff Robbins: And that's okay. You should be, this is the sort of the warrior mind. You need to be keeping an eye on the horizon to make sure, keep the tribe safe, but I think you also need to find the creativity in that, and the opportunity in that, and the ability to kind of grow and change and ... Yeah, I don't know, but I certainly can relate to that moving from creating to protecting. But I think as we grow a company you want to engineer for that, you will kind of kind of strategize for like, "Okay, how can we keep this creative as we go? How can we get into a place where we're not going to be quite so vulnerable and just sort of sitting and waiting for attack."
Carl Smith: Because you can ride off into the sunset and not realize that it's actually a supernova. This is not gonna end well. But as long as it looks good as the closing credits are coming up, I think you're fine.
Jeff Robbins: Well, that's kind of true. It's the inherent morbidity of everything. People have lifetimes, companies have lifetimes, you need to enjoy them while you're doing them and not get obsessed with the inevitable future. Your company may last well beyond your death. There's really no reason to worry about it, but I think people can get really caught up in that and it becomes very myopic, right?
Jeff Robbins: Well, maybe it's the opposite, right? It's, you're so focused on everyone else that you're not focused on yourself and you're still trying to keep up with the Joneses, trying to match what everybody else is doing that you're not really innovating and applying that creativeness to your company.
Carl Smith: Oh man. Jeff, I need like a week. Just you and me, a week.
Jeff Robbins: Let's do it.
Carl Smith: We'll get, I think, you start your sailboat?
Jeff Robbins: Can we go somewhere where we can sit in hot mud somehow?
Carl Smith: Yes. With rose petals on our eyes. I think that would be lovely. Well, dude, thanks for swinging by today. It's just always so good to talk to you and excited to see how the coaching goes and I'm going to keep watching-
Jeff Robbins: Yeah.
Carl Smith: 23 Astronaut.
Jeff Robbins: Definitely. Well-
Carl Smith: Keep making good stuff.
Jeff Robbins: If people want to find me for coaching, jjeff.com is where you can find, that's my coaching page. And 123astronaut.com for music. I oftentimes feel like these things, like the more credibility I have as a musician, the less credibility I have as a businessperson, but it's all just me.
Carl Smith: Well, here's to having zero credibility as a business person because 123 Astronaut get signed. I think that'd be fun.
Jeff Robbins: We'll see. It could happen.
Carl Smith: It could happen. All right, brother, I'll talk to you soon. Everybody else, we'll see you next week. All the best.
Photo via 123 Astronaut