Dave Terry: Nonlinear Paths, Answering A Tech Ad In Paper To Co-founding An Agency
47 min 30 sec
Published on February 3, 2021
He started his first business in his mid-twenties, collaborating with a business partner out of a makeshift office: a one-bedroom apartment with a shared computer and one phone line. Years later Dave founded Mediacurrent with Paul Chason, a friend that goes back to his elementary school days, The two of them saw a huge void in the marketplace for agencies that could assist organizations with adopting an Open Source web strategy. Starting in 2008, they began sponsoring Drupal conferences around the nation. Today, Mediacurrent is one of the most recognizable names in the Drupal marketplace and a top 10 contributor.
Resources he recommends:
I thought I could do this on my own. And part of my drive was to be in control of my own destiny.
Hello, I'm Piyush Poddar. And you're listening to Humans Behind DX Podcast, where I talk to leaders from Digital agencies and organizations delivering awesome digital experiences. Today, I'm going to talk to Dave Terry, co-founder, and partner at Mediacurrent. Welcome, Dave.
Hi, Piyush. Thanks for having me.
A pleasure to have you here. Dave. Tell us who you are.
Yeah. So I'm Dave Terry. I'm co-founder and partner of Mediacurrent, I'm talking to you about 20 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia. Mediacurrent as a, as a digital agency with a longtime focus in Drupal and open-source software.
And do you want to take us through your story, you know, maybe back to grad school? What prompted you to get into this industry or anything else that you did, like quick snaps out of your, you know, career journey from there to now?
Sure. So, I went to school to actually study political science and was in graduate school for a master's degree in Public Administration. And, like, most people, my career did not take a very linear path. Because once I started taking some grad school classes, and even considering law school, I figured out very quickly that that's not what I wanted to do. I had always had an entrepreneurial kind of spirit. And I was in grad school and answered a random ad, in the paper for a technical recruiting and staffing consulting company in Atlanta, and I was working for that company, for a few years was doing well. And I always knew I wanted to start my own business and had just had a very successful, you know, commission and bonus period, but I thought I could do this on my own. And part of my drive was to be in control of my own destiny. So that's what led me to starting my first business. So I was, you know, relatively young, you know, the mid-20s, I found a business partner with some like-minded interest, and we literally started out of his one-bedroom apartment, you know, back then, we were sharing one computer, so he would use the computer in the morning, and I would use it in the afternoon, we had one, you know, phone line, we had, you know, pets, barking in the background, but we made it work for about six months. We were doing that until we moved into our own office, and things, um, you know, this gradually kind of took off from there. And so I sold the company, you know, four and a half, five years into it, it was a completely self-funded organic growth, we learned a lot. And it was a great experience. And I had at the time of a non-compete, and I couldn't get back into the same industry. And at this time, too, I'd always kept in touch with a longtime friend. And we actually go back to elementary school together. And he was, yeah, he was, uh, he was a sole practitioner. He was freelancing, doing web design and development, you know, work. And I had started to become, you know, a sounding board for him on some of the back-office issues that he was having, getting, you know, his business off the ground. And after I left had sold the company, we started having more, you know, serious discussions around, you know, what a partnership would look like, and this is the mid-2000s. And he told me, you know, I'm leveraging this technology called Drupal on some of the websites I'm building. And you said I think I'm really onto something with this open-source and Drupal, you know, product. So we did a lot of tire-kicking, you know, we looked at, you know, not only Drupal but other content management systems, other technologies. And we started to put together, you know, business plan around, you know, what it would look like to, to scale a company and looked at, to see if we thought there was a, you know, market opportunity. So, yeah, one thing led to another, we decided to take the plunge, and we moved into, you know, literally a 900 square foot, you know, office, and we're, you know, side by side, for the first, you know, 10 years of the company. And we had the vision to build a digital agency that was predicated around Drupal, and we saw a real void in the market, particularly in our region, and in the southeast, and always say, Piyush that we had two really big decisions, you know, early on, one was that we quickly found out that, in order to bring in the best talent, we couldn't be limited by geographic proximity. So we learned as much as we could about, you know, distributed team, and how to, you know, manage and motivate people, you know, virtually and remotely. So, we were, you know, doing this even, you know, well before the pandemic, and yeah, that was a real, pivotal, pivotal decision, and the other was that we wanted to compete on value. And, you know, expertise versus rate, you know, when when we were doing our research, one of the things that we observed was that a lot of agencies particularly started out being more of a generalist, and, you know, when you're bootstrapped, you can fall into the trap of almost taking, you know, revenue and money, any way you can, but it starts to impact your long term positioning, if you don't have you know, a specialization. So, for us, we really wanted to, you know, hitch our wagon to Drupal, and immerse ourselves as you know, experts, you know, in the, in the marketplace, so, yeah, when so we started the company, Piyush, Mediacurrent in 2007. And something that might be a little different or contrary to other entrepreneurs that you talk to, is that we were very intentional, you know, we did have a build and sell kind of exit strategy from the beginning, you know, sometimes I'll hear from other entrepreneurs, that they're just focused on, you know, building a great company, and if, if an exit happens, it happens. But, you know, for us, we always did want to have an exit strategy in mind. It was important and the reason why is we wanted you know, that Northstar, I'm generally a very goal-oriented person and we felt like having an exit strategy would give us you know, that basis to make a lot of, you know, key decisions when it came to you know, financial targets and hiring and you know, what the right you know, staffing models, staffing model was so, we, we incorporated that exit strategy, in the business plan, and then it really comes down to, you know, execution. I wish I could share with your listeners some silver bullet, you know, that I have or some you know, big idea, but it really comes down to, you know, being able to execute once you have, you know, an idea or a plan You know, in mind, so we put together this, this business plan for Mediacurrent. Again, it was, so your listeners know, it was completely self-funded, we even had trouble getting, you know, a round of friends and family money, you know, we like to joke now, but we, we just had this, we always had this belief, you know, in ourselves but more importantly, in this open-source, you know, movement and you know, the timing was was was obviously great, as you know, and we did a lot of grassroots marketing and something that I know, Axelerant believes in, you know, strongly as well. So we got really involved with, you know, camps and meetups, and, you know, just, we felt strongly when that, that when this crowdsourcing, you know, happens that we can make the make an impact, you know, on the world and in, you know, people's lives. So, um, so yeah, so, so we, we had the exit strategy, we began to, you know, the next phase of usually an entrepreneur's journey is when they start to hire people. And, you know, always say, Piyush, that managing and motivating people is the single hardest thing that I know, I'll ever do professionally. And I think, you know, for most, for most of those in leadership positions, you know, especially, it's, it's the hardest thing, because everyone's you know, just wired differently, and what motivates one person may not the next, and you can provide the same kind of training and onboarding for one person, and, you know, they may act, respond, you know, completely differently. But that's also what makes it makes it challenging. So, if you, if you fast forward, we began to have, you know, some success, we started to develop our expertise within the Drupal ecosystem. And we felt like the timing was right to look at that exit that had been, you know, always, you know, top of mind when we reached a certain, you know, threshold in, you know, finances and so, this around 2014, is when we started that process to, you know, sell the company, and we've had some real, exciting momentum, we just launched weather.com, which times is the highest traffic website, you know, literally in the world, when there's, you know, inclement weather. Yeah, you can imagine that we've all probably used the weather.com app or a website, and it was this tremendous validation Piyush that, you know, open source and Mediacurrent and, you know, Drupal have had really arrived, you know, when, when we were starting, you know, open source was almost seen as being kind of, you know, trendy, you know, and there was a lot of polarising debate over, you know, is this something that can be, you know, mainstream and, you know, and for companies, how can you monetize, you know, a service services company or product company in open source and, you know, with the weather.com launch, it helped, I think, really dispel a lot of those, you know, myths, that that might have been, you know, out there and it was, it was very much a David versus Goliath, you know, we were competing on the deal versus, you know, the usual proprietary CMSs, and Oracle and Adobe and, you know, the incumbent CMS that they had, right. You know, we, they, that what really resonated is just the flexibility and the power, you know, of Drupal. So, I say that mentioned, you know, that it around that time, we felt like we were really hitting on all strides and had reached, you know, this, this Pinnacle. But we had this realization that in order to continue to scale, as you know, in professional services, you essentially have to just, you know, add net new headcount. And, you know, we felt like we could have, you know, continued to, you know, crawl along, and I don't mean that in a, in a negative way, but in order to have more accelerated growth, we felt like we needed to partner with the right, you know, buyer. So, in late 2014, we had started having discussions with, you know, cross-section of different, you know, suitors, and we've really felt from the beginning that Code and Theory, an agency based in New York City, was the best, you know, match for us. And they just, they, they understood, you know, our culture, they understood, you know, open-source, and they had seen the direct impact that, you know, Drupal is having on a lot of their, you know, customers. So, I always think a good acquisition is where there are voids that are filled by each party, and, yeah, we were able to, you know, accelerate our growth. And they were also very willing to continue to give us, you know, autonomy, and goes back to what I had mentioned earlier, you know, had been willing to give us that, you know, control over our own, you know, Destiny within, you know, their umbrella. So, we something that is probably a, you know, unusual or where we're certainly, you know, in the, you know, minority is that, you know, most sellers of a company, you know, have some kind of, you know, earn-out period, and some kind of, you know, runway, for some, it's, you know, maybe more aggressive, but we never had that it was always very, you know, open-ended, we did have, you know, an earn-out, but almost six years later, you know, we're still here, you know, going strong, it's been a, you know, if we wouldn't be here if it wasn't, you know, still have a great, you know, partnership that we have, you know, with Code and Theory, and, you know, we're, we're continuing to, you know, push forward.
Very interesting. And you, you actually took us to write to the roots of it. But, you know, a couple of questions there. So when you said, When Mediacurrent started off, it was primarily Drupal, that you built the company around it, does that stand true even today? Or have you further diversified into, you know, a lot more other stuff? Like, how core do you think Drupal still is as part of your offering or tech stack? And what's the sort of a vision that you have in?
Yeah, yeah, that's a, that's a great question and one that I get a lot, so I think Piyush for us, like most, you know, Drupal centric, digital agencies, we started out more on the technology side. And, you know, when you begin to grow, you begin to kind of broaden your capabilities and fan out into other areas. And, you know, especially as you start taking on more, you know, complex, you know, customers and projects, you need those, you know, full-service capabilities. So we started doing, you know, more digital strategy, creative UX. And we've, you know, become a turnkey solution for you know, customers. I am a fan, one of my favorite books is Good to Great by Jim Collins, and I know, you may know, in Good to Great they talk about this something called the hedgehog concept. And the short story in the point in the book is that if you think about a fox, they are, you know, animal and they are cunning and fast and fly enough and to outrun outmaneuver any larger prey, and they're, you know, just big enough to be able to, you know, kill smaller animals. So, you know, people don't think of them as like, top of the food chain, but, you know, they talk about this, the fox in the book, and there's only one sort of animal that this fox hasn't been able to figure out. And it's the, to this ugly looking, you know, porcupines if you've ever seen a hedgehog will roll up into a ball, and the fox will come, you know, approach the hedgehog with ease. But when it sees the hedgehog rolled up into this ball, they don't know what to do, they usually they turn away. So the point is that the hedgehog has perfected doing one thing really well, and they are the best and the, you know, wild about fending off, you know, a fox and Jim's point is in business, we try to become best of class at one thing, and don't get kind of diverted by, you know, shiny objects, you know. So, for us, we always wanted to be the best of class in Drupal. Now, what we have learned is that you know, customer expectations go up to where they may not want, you know, a standardized on a, you know, think singular CMS, for example, or, you know, always say dribbles a tremendous, you know, integrator with other complimentary, you know, technologies, so, we have to have our antenna constantly up to figure out, you know, what are those other technologies that, you know, will play well, with Drupal? So, we're certainly, you know, thinking about that, but just, the short answer to your question is that we're going to continue to, you know, have an overarching, you know, focus on, you know, triple going into 2021 and beyond, but, you know, continue to explore, you know, those other, you know, emerging technologies as well.
And, you know, one other sort of question I had when you talked about open source, and you know, how it was rooted within the culture that you created, I believe, you know, you are a big proponent of culture and an open source and building community. And you often talk about the notion of giving back, I think I've heard you know, some of your previous Drupal con presentations and blog articles. So, you know, the whole notion of giving back and contrast this to the usual corporate culture, right, where it's all about capitalization and capitalism. How do you think open source aligns with business growth and success? And how has it helped you?
It's interesting when I first started, there isn't this sort of misnomer that you can't pair You know, purpose and profit. It's almost like we thought of those as very, two, you know, distinct things. But yeah, and, but just one of the things about being involved with an open-source community, is that, you know, this, it's the transparency and the principles that make open-source, what it is and why you and I like it so much. Those things can trickle down throughout your company. And you know, we always say that culture is three things at Mediacurrent. And one is that it's really about people. And that's really cliche ish because you'll hear a lot of, you know, people in leadership roles or CEOs say you know, people are our greatest asset, but they don't maybe back that up with their higher-end you know, practices or sometimes, you know, friends that will get a job after, you know, one interview or company doesn't, you know, check references or so, you know, for us people and who we hire is the first part of our culture. The second is really around accountability. It's when you have a distributed team, as we have for, you know, 12-13 plus years, there's just a lot of trust that has to be bestowed on someone. And, you know, it's also, you know, accountability is just who we fire. So, everyone looks at me, like, I'm a little cross-eyed, sometimes, you know, when I say that, but it's not just who we hire, but who we fire. And that can be, you know, best illustrated through there, there has to be, you know, a standard and a commitment for the people that are here doing their job, you know, an example would be, if there's a daily Scrum, you know, meeting, and four out of the five people are always on time, and there's one person who's, you know, you know, what, late consistently, there has to be some kind of accountability, because it's not fair to those people that are always on time. And the third and final part of our culture is, you know, how do we professionally grow and develop our people. So, you know, that just been from, from day one, a really important part of our culture is we want to make sure that, you know, we're investing in our team, and, you know, the more we do that, we feel the better off we'll be, you know, as an organization. So that is, those are the three kinds of tenets of our, of our culture. And then, you know, I think it just, it, it, leadership then has to really believe in the concept that the more you give, the more you'll get in return. And, you know, it's, we believe, you know, strongly in and sharing and getting involved, you know, with the community, and it's not just for purely, you know, altruistic reasons, I think that we've also seen, you know, a tremendous return on our investment from, you know, becoming, you know, involved in the Drupal community over the years. And, you know, we want to make sure we're backing up those statements I just made with, you know, action, and we feel, you know, a great way to, to be able to do that is, you know, by staying involved with, with the Drupal community, right.
Being in the Drupal community for so many years, Mediacurrent has a reputation, which a lot of companies, a lot of individuals look up to, and, you know, the, the amount of insights and experiences and stuff that you guys share is, you know, really great. So, so, again, you know, thank you for being who you are, and, you know, a company that we all kind of love. And walking the talk is really, you know, what, what, what I would kind of summarise there. So, with that, let's switch, let's switch gears a bit. And talk about this year, right? So the world around has almost shifted dramatically this year. On a personal front, or maybe on a professional front, what's one most important thing you feel you have accomplished in 2020, something that you're really happy about?
We made a commitment to our, you know, team that we would put, you know, safety and health as number one, you know, priority that we wanted to get through this pandemic with everyone you know, safe. So I'm glad we've, you know, accomplished that we've, you know, obviously cut out you know, travel. We did have a Small centralized office that, you know, people are going into, but and we also put, you know, I think more of an emphasis on, on people's mental health. And, you know, a lot of those issues came to the forefront with, you know, just the amount of, you know, stress and anxiety and, you know, that the, the pandemic, you know, created. So, you know, one of the ways we, we tried to evolve is, you know, being more empathetic to just flexibility. You know, probably one of the many mistakes that I've made is just not realizing how important, you know, having not necessarily work-life balance, but just work-life kind of integration, and, you know, making sure that we focus more on, you know, the value that we create, for customers, and how we go about doing it, whether it's, you know, late at night, or early in the morning, you know, and is less important in for an entrepreneur like, me, that's just probably counterintuitive, because very much used to, you know, structure, and, you know, discipline and still think you need, obviously, some of that, but, you know, flexibility, I think is definitely, you know, one of the ways we evolved, as you may know, that we also, even though we're in 3031, different states, our culture was really impacted by not having, you know, the connectedness of seeing people in person. So, you know, a couple of examples are just be, as you know, you know, DrupalCon, we, we usually send, I think, last year, we sent 38, people, you know, for not having any client kickoff meetings, we would have company retreats and leadership gatherings, and we would bring people, new hires into Atlanta for, you know, three days of getting to meet the team. So, we, a few weeks ago, you know, pivoted to having our first virtual retreat, and, you know, all the credit goes to, you know, the Mediacurrent team for really pushing and advocating for this, but, you know, we just, we took a half a day, you know, to get together as a company, I think one of the, you know, unfortunate things with, you know, the pandemic is that probably created more like silos and, you know, just, you get exposed to a lot of the people you work, you know, directly with, but others within the organization, some people have never talked to, you know, and so, part of just the virtual retreat was to be able to have, have fun, and be able to, you know, give people an opportunity to meet folks that they, you know, otherwise may not, you know, have a chance to
Now, this sounds interesting, and a virtual retreat. So, this was everyone connecting virtually using Zoom or something similar for half a day, right?
Yep. Yep, exactly. We did a, did a customer panel, which was great. We had, we had six or seven higher ed clients, do a panel, and they, you know, talk to us, we did a team-building exercise with a virtual, you know, escape room, and like some, some problem-solving. So, people got together and, you know, four or five-person, you know, small teams. We did a company lunch where we would as if you were in like a cafeteria, or you know, a restaurant where you had tables, you go in, you know, we have eight to 10 people able to do you know, lunch together and we kind of pre-coordinated ordering the lunch and provided some company updates, but yeah, it was, it was really interesting. Yeah, a lot of fun.
Awesome, awesome. Yeah, you know, lately we've also so we have our annual retreat every year in February. And lately, we've started talking about it, you know, should we do a virtual? If yes, and how long and you know, try to figure out the structure and components would love to connect with you offline? And you know, maybe take some tips.
Yeah, pretty happy to help with that
Things that worked and things didn't. I mean, definitely, you know, many things have taken a backseat, right? And that personal FaceTime, in different situations, different use cases, definitely. I'm hoping that with, you know, with some of this positive news coming in from the world of vaccines, etc, you know, people have started slightly feeling positive about it. And, you know, hoping to see the beginning of the end, if I may.
The timeline, of course, is unknown yet at this point of time, but we'll see. Do you want to talk a bit about, you know, the digital experience ecosystem? And, like, what I mean, do you see, are you excited about any trends? For 2021? Or do you foresee anything happening more versus how it was this year, or maybe earlier?
I'm probably not the best person, just from a technology perspective, to be able to look around the corner, but I'll tell you Piyush, like, what I'm excited about heading into next year is that a lot of the things that, you know, we've been talking about for years, were really put to the test and validated, you know, during pandemics. So, you know, you just mentioned that the obvious example is, you know, there's been a lot of drum beating around the importance of, you know, digital transformation, and, you know, improving, you know, digital experiences, but I'm not sure, companies really believe that, you know, until now, and, uh, you know, the perfect example is probably a lot of your listeners can relate to is this look at the restaurant, you know, industry, the ones that sort of figured out how to pivot and adapt to, you know, not having any dining rooms, you know, the ones that were able to figure out the curbside pickup, and maybe how to sell their excess, you know, inventory online delivery service, and a really compelling, you know, commerce and online, you know, checkout process, like, there's such a big gap between those restaurants that have kind of figured that out, versus the ones that, you know, may be going out of business, you know, as a, as a result of this. So, I'm excited about the validation of the importance of, you know, just the digital experience needing to improve. And then the second is, um, the, we all know, you know, it's all about data, data data. And I think there's a much more of an awareness around data, I think the challenge going into next year is more around the predictive analytics that, you know, data can generate. So, you know, I think we, most companies have either like, their own, you know, homegrown version of a dashboard, where they look at metrics and KPIs, or they may use a tool like Siteimprove, you know, for that. But what we've seen is, you know, a struggle for how to create actionable items when it comes to leveraging the data that they're seeing to increase, you know, conversions on their site. So, you know, I think we'll see much more of an emphasis around how companies can make more informed decisions through you know, these, you know, predictive analytics. And I'm interested, you know, another thing on my mind in terms of trends, like you know, chatbots are interesting. You know, there's some studies that have come out that, you know, if people can get, you know, a responsiveness or, you know, answers to common questions, you know, they're okay with, you know, having that virtual experience with a chatbot. But I'm interested, you know, to see how much of it does still need to be, you know, personalized, or, you know, a one on one conversation, I've also seen, you know, companies that, you know, leverage that personal experience to their, you know, advantage. Right, you know, that'll, that'll be interesting, you know, to see as well as we go into next year, but I think there's the if I were to do bottom line it for you, I think customer expectations are really increasing, they're as high as they've ever been. And they want, you know, a seamless user experience more so than ever, they want to feel secure and safe when they do a, you know, transaction, they value their privacy. So, you know, those companies that can figure that out, are really going to be ahead of the curve, you know, in years to come.
Right. Yeah, and those are, you know, great, great advice for our listeners, especially if you are working or running an agency, you know, things to look into, if you're not have yet have started looking into things like data, conversational interfaces, and those things. I mean, one thing is for sure that this whole year, everyone has interacted with systems, applications, websites, IT way more than they would have ever, especially when they have stayed home, and, you know, everything is virtual. So there's a lot of testing and a lot of interaction that has already happened, I would say the experience expectation has definitely raised the bar and a company that agencies who are able to align their innovation strategies and product evolvement to those levels would be able to probably, you know, continue to grow and sustain themselves.
That's right. Exactly. Right.
Yeah. So with that, you know, would love to share any books or any your favorite references on the internet? You know, some anything that might have had a huge impact on the way you work or live?
Yeah, yeah. So, um, if I were to just, um, you know, recap for your, for your listeners, there's one thing I'm particularly passionate about right now is and something I know you can relate to and appreciate is, you know, how do we recruit that next generation of Drupal and open source, you know, enthusiasts, so, you know, trying to, to stay involved with doing that. And, in terms of, you know, books I mentioned, Good to Great by Jim Collins, if I were to do it over again, if we started a few years ago, being disciples of open-book management, and The Great Game of Business I, I highly recommend that for any, you know, aspiring entrepreneurs it's nothing like the title sounds, it's really just trying to create a culture of, you know, transparency when it comes to you know, financials and avoiding, you know, surprises and working collectively as a team to solve the problems so that's a good one. We also several years ago, adopted feedback loop system that was inspired by Kim Scott's book, Radical Candor. So, you know, what would put a plugin, you know, for that book. If I went further back, I still enjoy drives the book Drive by Daniel Pink. Great book, and then I'm a huge fan of Simon Sinek. Anything that he does he's got a really popular you know, TED talk that people might be familiar with but he's been coming out with a lot of great content as well.
Yeah man, phenomenal authors and fundamental books for sure. Some of them are my personal favorites as well you know, Drive and Radical Candor being... Radical Candor, is again, you know, something that we consciously chose to, you know, add to our sort of USA leadership, onboarding, kind of an activity. So every leader is, you know, given the book and expected to read through it, again, because, you know, the the whole culture of remote and distributed and open source, there's a lot of alignment between the strategies, and, you know, how do you do those things. So, thank you for those recommendations, Dave. Where is the best place people can find more about you, your writings or your work, etc?
Yeah, so just on, um, you know, mediacurrent.com um, you know, we'll, I don't blog as much as I used to, but on there and then yeah, I'm on LinkedIn. If anybody has any follow-up questions or would like to connect, LinkedIn, it'd be a good, good place to, to hit me up.
And I could add one, you know, you could find Dave at DrupalCons you know, once
Haha, that's right. You're right. Hopefully when we're back in person soon, right.
Absolutely. Looking forward to that. So awesome. Dave. I think this was great. Really appreciate the time. And all of those sharing your story and those good nuggets of wisdom. Just wish you know, good health. Happy holidays. Happy New Year and hope to connect with you so when I get offline.
Yeah, absolutely. If you shot I appreciate the invite on the opportunity and you as well have a great holiday and Happy New Year and hope to see you at DrupalCon or somewhere in person soon.
Yeah, absolutely. Likewise, thank you, Dave, and have a good one. Bye.