George DeMet: On Building A Remote-First, Sustainable Business & Enabling Regeneration With Open Source
42 min 36 sec
Published on September 16, 2021
George DeMet started building websites at a time when the internet was just emerging as a new medium of communication. And ever since for the past 25 years, he has worked in the field of Drupal, Open Source, and digital experiences through his business Palantir.net. His focus on creating a sustainable business for the long haul, reducing the carbon footprint, and keeping the human side at the center of everything is what differentiates him from other founders and organizations. As of now, he is excited to see how businesses evolve and adapt on the other side of the pandemic.
Resources he recommends:
- Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness - Frédéric Laloux
- The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth - Amy Edmondso
- The Regenerative Life: Transform Any Organization, Our Society, and Your Destiny - Carol Sanford
George DeMet is the Founder and CEO of Palantir.net, a full-service digital consultancy that uses Open Source technologies to help others discover, create, and share knowledge. He is responsible for providing strategic leadership and direction for the company and has also supported the Drupal project and community in numerous volunteer roles.
With over 15 years of sales experience in digital services and having hosted exclusive Agency Leaders Dinners for CEOs globally, Piyush has taken his penchant for engaging digital change-makers online with “Humans Behind Digital Experiences (DX),” an Axelerant Podcast. His goal is to host an uncommon conversation that goes deeper than the platforms big organizations run on today, to a level that’s more personal—more human.
So many folks have for years and years thought about companies as machines, right? And really the metaphor we need to start thinking about is companies, as living organisms.
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. And today, I'm going to talk to George DeMet, Founder and CEO Palantir.net. George, welcome. It's great to have you here on the Humans Behind DX podcast.
Yeah, Piyush, thank you so much for having me. It's really a pleasure to get to chat with you.
Let's maybe start from the beginning, if you will, you know, your maybe earlier career days. Tell us a bit about how you started, and how you got here.
So in order to do that, I'm going to have to go way back. So I actually grew up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. For those who aren't familiar, it's a fairly rural area in the middle of or in the northern part of the state of Wisconsin. And my parents owned a disposal and recycling company, a family business. So my mother's father also had a number of businesses, most notably he opened up some of the first supermarkets near Kansas City and Leavenworth, Kansas. My dad actually was an immigrant from Greece, who came over in the very early years of the 20th century, and joined and took over a family candy business, and built that up into sort of a nationally known and recognized candy company. So if you've heard, the company actually is still around. It has not been part of my family for many decades. But it's the DeMet Candy Company, the product they're best known for is DeMet's chocolate turtles. So growing up, you know, in that context of being sort of part of something that ran in the family, with my grandparents as well, I grew up really being immersed in what it is like to run a business. So as I got older, and you know, went off to college and everything, and started thinking about, you know, what my career would be. The idea of actually working for someone else, never really occurred to me, right? Because obviously, I was going to start my own business, right? And really, the question then was, what was I going to do.
And during my freshman year of college, so this is in the mid-90s, at Northwestern University, which is just about a mile up the road from where I am right now, we were in the dorm rooms and everything and someone came over and is like, you've got to check out this cool new software. It's in beta right now. It's a new way to, you know, to find stuff on the internet, right? Because at that time, you know, the internet was Usenet and Email. And, you know, we had a Gopher server and everything. And the software was the beta version of Netscape. And so this was, you know, one of the really first popular web browsers and getting into it I realize, it's like, oh, not only is this really cool, this is something, this is a new form of communication, this is a new medium! And this is something that I think is going to be a big deal. And it's something that I can figure out how to make content for, right? And so, you know, I think I launched my first personal webpage back in the fall of '94. I was building websites for myself, for others, and fairly quickly realized that not only was this something I really loved and enjoyed doing, but other people, you know, would actually pay me to do it, right? And so, in the summer of '96 was when I started Palantir.net. And it's time we call it Palantir Internet Services. And so we're actually celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. Shortly after that, Tiffany Farriss, who's our other CEO, and also who I'm also married to, joined the company. And with that combination of, you know, the skills that she brought to the table, the company really started taking off.
So yeah, so we've been doing this pretty constantly, for the last 25 years. Obviously, the business has changed quite a bit. Over that time when we started, you know, websites were static HTML in the early, late 90s and early 2000s. We tried building our own content management system, we experimented with some other - both commercial and open source products. And it was 2007, or maybe it was 2006, we had a project that we were working on for Washington University in St. Louis. And they actually hired us to do a CMS evaluation. So we at that point, you know, did kind of a head to head comparison of several different CMSs including the one that we had built ourselves, and including Drupal. And realized and understood that Drupal was actually the right fit for this client, for this project. And then as we got into and started working with Drupal, we realized that, in fact, this was a great product for so many of the different projects that we were working on, and that we aspired to work on. And that because it was open source, and because it had this really vibrant community, we could be a part of it. And we could help, you know, build it and take advantage of not just everyone's efforts, but also help contribute and make it better for others as well. And so that was sort of the real start of our open source journey. And it's the path we've been on ever since.
Very interesting. And this - the first search or you did refer to something - was this NCSA Mosaic? I'm trying to remember. Back in those days...
Mosaic, yeah, Mosaic had been around. Right. So I was familiar with Mosaic, but it was slow, and clunky. And I think it was really that first version of Netscape, which was such a better, you know, and more usable piece of software, that really, I think, you know, kicked off this era that we're in.
Awesome, awesome. That's a great story. And, you know, just curious, is there any connection with the colours and the logo look that you have with the candy factory or the candy business that you ever had?
No, no. Yeah, that's a great question. No, you know, that was completely independent. But it has been really interesting. I have been doing some sort of family research and digging in too. Because my grandfather died when I was seven years old. And so I didn't really know him while he was alive. And neither did my younger siblings, or many of his other grandchildren. And so I have been doing some research. And I came across an article and an interview from the early 1920s. And it was really fascinating, because I'm hearing him describe how he is marketing the candy. To be clear, like at this point in the 1920s, the modern vocabulary we have around marketing and sales doesn't exist, right? And buddy, but he is really talking about things like value proposition and brand differentiators and all of these different things. And it was just so fascinating to read and realize that he's talking about these things that I think a lot of other folks didn't really start to internalize until 20 or 30 years later. Also, interestingly, I came across, you know, one of the anecdotes that, in addition to the candy company, he also had a number of restaurants, lunch counters, in Chicago, and at that time, women could not go into a restaurant unless they were escorted by a man. But also, we're starting to see the beginnings of more women entering the workforce. And so to be clear, I don't think that it was because my grandfather was a feminist, but he saw an opportunity and so he had some of the first lunch counters in the city where women could come, and eat lunch without having to have a man with them. So it's just really interesting to sort of dig into some of this family history and sort of see how, you know, things have evolved in, you know, in different connections between things.
Right. And from that, I think you have been an early adopter of remote working at Palantir. I came across this interesting article about, you know, carbon footprint associated with remote work and really wanted to talk a bit about it with you.
You know, understand what's going on.
It's something I've been digging into. And I actually have a blog post that we'll probably publish as we get closer to Earth Day. It is something that we've been sort of digging into, because we've been a hybrid company with both in person and remote folks since 2007 or 2008. And we have been what we call sort of remote-first, since 2015. So, we have a physical office space that is available if people want to come and work there. But by and large, the company, you know, has been remote. We are distributed across 15 states in the District of Columbia. And really, that space, which we call the outpost, existed, you know, when we would get together for group meetings, or whether it was a team retreat, or a particular group that wanted to come together and work on a question or something in person. But, you know, obviously, we closed the outpost in March. And you know, when our lease expires, we're going to let it expire. So we don't plan to really go back to that space in any real time. So thinking about it from the, you know, carbon footprint perspective, right... Travel, and commuting and all of that is sort of the biggest contributor to a workplace carbon footprint, right. So by getting rid of commuting, that in and of itself brings down our carbon footprint significantly. That said, whether we're on Zoom calls or Google Meet, we're increasingly doing so much of our work online that itself has a carbon footprint associated with it. So I've been digging into, you know, because one of the things I wanted to do at the end of last year was to be able to offset the carbon footprint that, you know, for 2020. But it was, I was finding it really difficult to calculate, because it's depending on, you know, how many calls you make, you know. If you're just tracking travel, that's one thing, but it's like, okay, how do I get to track the carbon footprint of my team members who are working remotely, who I don't know, how the power that, you know, is used for their homes is generated. I know where I'm sitting here, I live in a town that has what we call Community Utility Aggregation. And my city has contracted with a green energy supplier. So I know that my personal energy use is not contributing as much as, you know, someone who might be in a place where they're relying on coal or natural gas, for their power grid. So I've read a lot of papers. And, you know, what I've essentially come to is that the best guess is, you know, I think it's around three to five metric tonnes of carbon per team member per year. And so, you know, we offset for that, for our team. I'm gonna write it up and share it with folks in a future blog post. But it's, I think it's something that we are all going to have to start thinking about. But ultimately, there's going to have to be action at a public level to take care of it, right. Because I don't think it's reasonable or practical for businesses to go through, every business to go through and try and do the calculations, and try and do the estimations that I tried to do. I'm looking forward to seeing and hoping that, you know, now that the US is back in the Paris accords, maybe we'll start to see some substantial action around it that will take the burden off individuals to try and navigate all of this themselves.
Yeah, I mean definitely a very relevant and interesting subject to dig into, especially into the software ecosystem. And that too now. I remember reading this article a while back, I think last year, which was talking about, you know, the carbon footprint or the CO2, you know, consumption of things like Bitcoin is almost 10 times more than...
Oh God, yes!
Banknote, right. So.. Big, big, responsible software developers find that, within the open source ecosystem, I think, you know, a very relevant topic. Maybe, you know, we should listen to you sometime at one of the DrupalCon Sydney to talk about this a bit more. Just a suggestion.
Yeah, no, I could definitely submit something along those lines. It's maddening, just sort of like the fact that this can't be easier for more people. Right. And I think that is, if I think about the single biggest blocker to climate action, right, is that so often, you know, it gets pushed back down to people as an individual responsibility. Oh, you know, you should be doing home composting, you should be recycling, you should be doing this, that and the other thing! Well, okay, yes, that's all well and good. The reality is the vast majority of our carbon footprint is created by a very small number of very large companies, who are not particularly interested in taking, you know, the steps that would be necessary in order to address the impact that they're having.
Yeah. All right. Okay, now... And you know, I wanted to talk about, and, you know, just understand from you, based on your early career. You talked about your family, and, you know, everything that you have at Palantir. What's your, in general, philosophy of success and purpose in work and life? And, you know, how has it shown?
Oh man, that's a huge question! Well, let me talk about just sort of how we think about, what it means to be, for Palantir to be successful. And to be successful within our organization, I think that's probably a more manageable...
Yeah yeah absolutely.
Scope. It is a philosophy, you know, that we've grown and evolved over the last 25 years, right? For us, we are not looking at... A lot of companies, organizations are very focused on growth, right? And, you know, we definitely were in that place for a while, but what's become really clear to us, the focus that we have right now is really on building a sustainable business. And what I mean by that is a business that is going to be stable, is going to be the size, whatever size it needs to be, to do the work that we want to do, but is going to be a business that exists for the long haul. We've been doing this for 25 years, we're gonna keep doing it for at least another 25. And one of the things, and this really comes from that background and that experience, right, with family businesses, because family businesses are built for that durability, that stability and in, you know, being able to be something that grows and continues beyond, you know, the original founders. So that's really what we're looking to do at Palantir. So a lot of the work that we've done internally within the company over the last few years has really been focused around making sure that we have a very solid and sustainable business model. You know, making sure that we're continuing to support and build connections between team members, between us and our clients. You know, what we want to do is optimize the organizations. The team members have the freedom to bring their best selves to their work, right. And part of that is ensuring that connections, support, learning, development, are not just characteristics of the organization, but they are integrated into everything we do. In that way, we as a company can have a positive impact through the work that we do and through the clients that we work with. And that to me is what success looks like, rather than, you know, saying, oh, you know, we doubled our profit last quarter or, you know, we added 20 new team members or anything like that. I mean, that sort of focus on growth just is not sustainable. And you know, and I've seen it happen with other organizations that grew too much too fast, and then found themselves in a very challenging position. We're here for the long haul. And that's something our team members appreciate, that's something our clients appreciate. It just brings security and stability to everything that we do.
That's a great thought really, and, you know, just wanted to share that back that at Axelerant also, because of some of the, very few of the projects that we will be working with, some of them have been in the voluntary sector, charity sector, and larger organizations as United Nations. And, you know, they have been, you know, giving a lot of fulfilment to the team and organization on the whole so much so now that we are actually starting to have conversations around... Now is the time to set up a foundation. And let's start doing some more good. Growth is anyways gonna happen because we built a good, great team and, you know, everything is in place. But this other part, the human side, is also important.
I would go further and say that the human side really should be at the centre of everything a business does. Right. And yeah, I mean, I think that thinking about and choosing who you work with, and the kinds of projects, and they they don't all have to be...
Ofcourse, yeah yeah.
Like, charitable causes, right. But if you think about it, I mean, we had a project, a large project that we did last year for a company that makes data visualisation software, right. And their product was being used by so many different organizations and cities and municipalities and state and local governments to help communicate and understand the impact of COVID on local communities, right? And so, you know, being able to help that company be successful and achieve their mission, right, even though this company is not like some of our other clients, right, who are hospitals and healthcare institutions or large institutional non-profits. This is a for-profit company, but they make a product that is helping bring clarity to so many folks who are looking for information about the impact of COVID, whether it's at their immediate local levels, state level, national level, etc.
Yeah yeah, totally. And, in fact, in this last year, I joined a few additional platforms where a lot of other agency leaders, you know, come together, and interact, things like Bhima, and Bureau of agencies, etc. And, you know, really fascinating to see that, due to COVID, you know, a lot more empathy and thinking about your people and the situations that they are in, et cetera, et cetera, has become, you know, a lot more important than just the money and the growth aspect. That's absolutely amazing. I mean, you know, probably that's one thing I feel that has come as a positive side of this troubling challenge, you know, the whole world is facing right now.
Yeah, I mean, in our case what COVID did, we already had a lot of things sort of in progress in terms of organizational improvements prior to COVID hitting. When COVID hit, we had that foundation that we were able to build on. We also took that situation, because of that situation, we accelerated some stuff that was sort of already in progress, right? And because we were starting from that solid, sustainable place, we were able to do things that would not have been possible for us earlier, or would not have been possible, you know, if we were a different organization. So for example, we had, I think it was the month of May. We recognized that a lot of team members were feeling a lot of stress and strain due to all the different shutdowns and schools being closed and everything that was going on. And so we said, you know what, we're not touching anyone's salaries or compensation or anything, but we're going to dial things down. So you don't have to work for this one month.
We're gonna cut back the number of hours that we expect everyone. So they were able to take that time, take care of themselves, take care of their families and loved ones. And that's something we were able to do, because of the work we had done in a year, year and a half leading up to it, making sure we had a very sustainable solid business model and taking care of some of our organizational things. We also did, with the other thing we were able to do, and this was kind of building on again, some work that we had done earlier is we were able to bring in some folks to help our team members, just learning some coping and resilience. So we had a consultant who we came in, who not only helped our team members learn how to practice mindfulness and meditation, but she also was able to explain a lot of the science and biology behind the thing, which our team members very much appreciated. We were able to leverage the different, you know, the CARES Act, you know, package. And really Tiffany was the one who helped untangle and figure all of this out. But being able to give folks if they needed to take some extra time, or leave for taking care of a family member, or dealing with the fact that we have a lot of folks in our team who have kids, and, you know, and if they're out of school, and the time involved in helping folks with that. So I think we, as we're heading here, right, into sort of year two, see the hope on the horizon, but also understand that, you know, things are going to be different.
On the other side of COVID, and what organizations look like, and how they focus and take care of their teams, and each other is something that I think more and more folks need to and will be thinking about.
Okay, and what's one most important thing you accomplished since last year, that you really feel happy about during this pandemic?
Getting through 2020, which was a very challenging year. I mean, not just because of the pandemic, to be clear, I mean there's a lot of political instability and everything going on. It's sort of an overwhelming time...
Right now, or at least 2020. And being able to take care of our team, we did not have to, you know, lay anyone off because of COVID. I'm incredibly proud of that. We were able to take care of everyone, give them what they needed, as much as we could, you know, to weather things through. And I think that, that itself, is going to help us be a stronger and more resilient organization moving forward.
And if I ask, you know, going forward this year, is that the same thing you're looking forward to maintaining as the one of the key accomplishments or anything else you have on your mind?
I think we will grow in 2021. One of the things being able to take that perspective, right, is understanding okay, as we take a look, you know, into '21-'22 and beyond... What does the market look like? What does the ecosystem look like? And, you know, so we're seeing opportunities for new service lines, new products, expansion, whether both through hiring and if we are able to find the right fit, you know, we could acquire or partner with someone else, as well, to really expand and make more robust our current service offerings as well as, you know, potentially new ones as well.
And, in general, any trends that kind of excites you, as you look to the future, when it comes to digital experiences, content management systems?
Yeah, I mean, I think one thing that, you know, we were talking a little bit earlier about remote work. And I think that's a trend that was starting before the pandemic. We have several clients who, you know, we had one client who we started working with, almost literally like, as the pandemic was coming down. So, you know, we started working with them in March, and they were really struggling because they're used to working together in person. And so this whole remote thing was a huge shift for them. And, you know, so we were able to come in and say and help them not just with building their website, right. But also help them learn how to work remotely, learn how to collaborate remotely, learn how different tools that, you know, we might normally do in a physical room, whether it's card sorts, or whatever, how to do that, without being in the same room. And so, you know, so I think that is an area where I see companies that understand, already understand how to work remotely, who understand how to work with others, who may not be as used to working remotely. I think that is going to be really interesting to see. I mean, lots of companies are going to go back to, in person. But now that folks understand and see what it's like to work remotely, I think we're just gonna start seeing a lot more people doing it even on the other side of the pandemic.
Yeah. Moving on. Let's switch gears a bit. And see. Yeah, what have you been reading right now? Any books, authors? Except 2001: A Space Odyssey! I know you love it.
Yes, yes. So, yes. Right. So 2001 space out, that was actually - the first website I built was a 2001: A Space Odyssey fan site. There is a version of that site that I still run and maintain. It was also a subject of my undergraduate honours thesis in college, talking about the cultural impact of the film, and the different ways that different audiences have interpreted and understood and taken lessons away from it. So yes, science fiction is clearly an area of interest for me. So I could talk all day about that. But this is not a science fiction podcast. I will talk about some of the business books. And business books for me are kind of a challenge very often. I kind of feel like when I'm reading a business book, it's like, okay, you've explained the entire thesis here in the first chapter, and a lot of the rest of it is filler, right? There are a few books that I've read recently, in the course of reading that, that I find have helped me question or challenge or adjust some of my ways of thinking and those are the ones I really value. So the number one book I think I would recommend to anyone who's looking to build a better organization is Frédéric Laloux 'Reinventing Organizations'. And that is an amazing book. And he talks about the different stages of organizational developments, and how we move from organizations that are built around power and structure and hierarchy to ones, you know, so that's one level. You have a level of organizations that are built around meritocracy, accountability, innovation, achievement. You have organizations that are built around people, purpose, values, empowerment. And really the goal is to get to what Laloux calls a Teal organization. And that is one where there is little to no hierarchy. People are able to bring their whole selves to their work, they collaborate with each other to solve complex problems without being told what to do. So really the metaphor, right, so many folks have for years and years thought about companies as machines, right? And really, the metaphor we need to start thinking about is companies as living organisms. And so he has a really fantastic model there. Amy Edmondson is somebody, so she's the one who popularized the idea of psychological safety, has done a ton of fantastic research, groundbreaking research in the field, helped, you know, a lot of organizations, you know, improve psychological safety, improve team member performance. So I've been reading, like, very directly reading her research papers, but she has several books as well. And so 'The Fearless Organization' which came out a couple years ago is probably a really great place to get started. She's got tons of great case studies in there. The other person who I took a workshop with recently, and I've started reading her books now. So Carol Sanford, and so she's the author of several books, you know. So the one I'm currently in the middle of is 'The Regenerative Life'. But she's also written a number of books about how companies and organizations can become regenerative entities. And so it's similar to some of the ideas that Laloux expresses, though, you know, Sanford is talking about going, having companies that go beyond doing good, to companies and organizations that exist as positive life regenerating forces in the world. Right. And it is fascinating as I read, it sounds very out there, right.
But as I'm reading it, and talking about and everything, I realized that one of the things we're trying to do with open source is create that kind of regenerative entity, where you have all of these people coming together, and different reasons, different purposes, but we're all coming together to build a thing, that is able to work as a positive force in the world in so many ways, and enable growth and regeneration for so many. So that's what I'm reading lately.
Those are, you know, some real powerful, especially the last one, you know, Carol Sanford, you know, would love to check her books out sometime.
Yeah, she is, I think her, you know, one of her past experiences - so she did a lot of work consulting with a seventh generation company that makes green household goods back several years ago, and so, and really helped them internalize a lot of the values that they had, right. Because you have so many companies and organizations that are like, oh, you know, we have our business, and then we've got our corporate social responsibility, but it's over to the side. Right? And the question is, how do you bring that in? And how do you integrate it throughout the entire organization? And so that's when she talks about a regenerative business. That's one of the things she's talking about. And it's very inspiring.
Awesome. I mean, those are great recommendations. I'm sure your listeners would love to check out some of those books, and I myself. And, in fact, you know, one of the books, which is not very, you know, from these authors, but similar, I would say, I am reading through and I have promised myself to finish it this weekend is 'Ownership Thinking' by Brad Hams. And it's all about, you know, how to end entitlement and create a culture of accountability, purpose, and kind of, you know, profit.
Yeah, no, that sounds fascinating. I will certainly check that one out. I think I have heard of this book. But it's not one I have yet read.
Yeah, something we at Axelerant, you know, some of, you know, leaders have been recommended this and we are all reading it together. And we're hoping to, you know, come back in a couple of weeks and re-strategize on a couple of things that we do here. Make it a more fulfilling experience for everyone. But yeah, I just wanted to share that. And with that, I would like to ask you my last and, you know, one of my favourite questions, which is - post COVID-19 when the world is back to normal, where would you like to travel or do anything exciting that you would like to share with the listeners?
Oh, my, so what I will share, I'll share the first place. I've got a couple of young kids and we had a trip to Disney World planned, force planned for spring break 2020. Obviously, that did not happen. And so we were able to push it, first we initially pushed it to last fall, realized that was not going to happen either. So now we have, and fingers crossed, knock on wood, and you know everything. Hopefully we will be able to take a family trip to Disney in Florida in the fall in November of this year. So that's sort of the first place, you know, we've been doing a lot of talking and everything as a family about sort of places we would love to go dream vacations, things like that. My kids love to play Nintendo games. And so we've been following. So there's a Nintendo section of, I think it's a universal theme park in Tokyo that is just opening. And so they're very interested in that. As well as we love Studio Ghibli movies. And so we know that they're working on a theme park around Studio Ghibli as well. So in Japan, we're thinking maybe at some point and a couple years down the road, we might try and do a family theme park trip to Japan, which would be, which could be a lot of fun.
Yeah, I don't know when or if that will happen. But we're, you know, we're talking about.
Right, yeah. It kind of, you know, makes me think... My son has lately been talking about Japan, and he's also started playing video games. So could this be something that, you know, behind his thoughts there? I don't know. That's something I'd...
It wouldn't shock me. I mean, you know, when I think about, sort of the cultural influence that, you know, Nintendo and Sony and all of those companies have had on my childhood and my children's childhood, it's pretty great.
Amazing. George, where's the best place people can find more about you, your writings, your work, etc?
Oh, sure. So follow me on Twitter @gdemet, you know, you can also of course, @palantir on Twitter or our website Palantir.net which is also where I occasionally post blog posts related to what we're doing at the company, other folks as well. Yeah, I think that's probably the best place to go. And thank you so much Piyush. This has been a wonderful conversation. Really appreciated it. And yeah, looking forward to anyone who wants to reach out to Twitter, whatever. If you have questions, if you heard me say something new, want to explore further, I'm always happy to chat.
Absolutely. And likewise, George, you know, this was fantastic. A pleasure to have you and speak to you. I guess we've met so many times in the past, but we've never spent close to 57 minutes together. So that's amazing. Yeah, I got to learn so much about you. And surely you are, you know, such a nice person. With that, once again, thanks for your time and sharing your story with our listeners.
Absolutely. Thank you.