10 Years of SuperFriendly

Published on — Around 8 minutes to read

My birthday was two days ago!

Ten years ago—also on my birthday… February 1, 2012—I got myself the gift of my very own agency called SuperFriendly. Now, I’m just on the other side of a decade of running it. What a journey it’s been! It’s the longest job I’ve had by far; every other job I’ve had prior was no longer than 3 years. I never thought I’d be at the same place for 10 years, much less a business that I’m in charge of. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

A decade of making a living

I recently shared that 2021 was a less-than-ideal year for SuperFriendly, but, on the whole, it’s been a pretty great business over a decade. I started it in 2012 as a way to be in control of my own pace of working so that I can be as available for my wife and newborn daughter as possible. Financially though, I was prepared to make less money than I ever have and even had a secret plan B to ask my parents if we could move into their basement to keep our expenses low. Fortunately, even year 1 of a new business made me more money than I’ve ever made up to that point in my career. There have been up years and down years, but on average, SuperFriendly has been a great living for me. I make more than I’d make at a Silicon Valley tech startup without a need for any complicated RSU vesting or crippling VC pressure, and it’s allowed my family and I to travel the world together, invest in running an apprentice program for years, buy our dream house, donate significantly to causes we believe in, support my sneaker collecting hobby, and much more.

Financially speaking, my pricing approach for SuperFriendly has been built on value pricing from the start… the idea that any price we charge must be “worth it” for both the customer and the service provider. One thing I’ve learned over time that many people miss about value pricing is that the idea of “worth it” isn’t solely confined to the dollar amount of any individual transaction. When I look at SuperFriendly at a more zoomed out level—say, over a quarter or a year—it’s much easier to spot what financial decisions have been “worth it.”

To prove my case and also because I like getting gifts for others on my birthday, I put together some more detailed information about how we’ve done this over the last decade. Inspired by Self Aware’s recently released document, here’s a decade of SuperFriendly’s project information including price, deliverables, duration, and team. (The details have been abstracted to protect our clients’ and SuperFriends’ private information and also because they’re not contextually important here.)

I’m noticing that I’m nervous about sharing this info so publicly, mostly because it shows that SuperFriendly has generally done well. I don’t want it to come off as bragging, even though I’m proud of what it shows. I hope that making this information public provides some helpful context into things like:

I’m tempted to share even more, like adding columns for profit margins and number of hours worked among other things, but I’ve always had a personal policy to try to be as transparent as possible without sharing others’ private information. Sharing more than what’s here starts to get uncomfortably close to crossing that line. Still though, I do hope that something is better than nothing in this case.

The main domain

I first launched SuperFriendly in 2012 at the URL superfriend.ly. At the time, new TLDs were starting to be created, and many adverb-y companies opted for the .ly domain too. I decided to ride that trend.

Over the years, SuperFriendly’s work started to evolve more and more into design systems. In 2018, we took the plunge and made design system work our primary value proposition. We launched a new website saying so at superfriendlydesign.systems and have had that one ever since. While it makes clear what we do, it’s certainly a lot of letters. That hasn’t been a problem from a website perspective; most of our traffic is inbound from referrers like Twitter and LinkedIn and other websites, so the actual URL isn’t something that’s terribly important. However, a .systems domain isn’t very familiar to any non-techy, so I’ve kept my superfriend.ly email address the whole time (which still occasionally gets confusing when I have to give my email address over the phone to some hotel front desk or airline customer service agent).

From the beginning though, I’ve chased the .com. When I started SuperFriendly, the domain was taken, so there was no decision to make. But I still check occasionally. Last year, I noticed that the domain was available, but for significantly more money than I’ve ever paid for a domain. For big purchases that I can afford, I have a soft policy to not buy it on the spot, but if I’m still thinking of it frequently a week or more later, I get it. I thought about the domain at least once a week for about 8 months.

On Christmas morning, I woke up and purchased the domain. SuperFriendly’s unlike any job I’ve ever had. On the dawn of 10 years of doing it, I wanted a symbolic gesture to celebrate that.

As of yesterday, SuperFriendly has a new website at superfriendly.com!

I’ve long liked the idea of starting over when something gets too convoluted and overloaded. (I call it “declaring bankruptcy.”) Though there’s some work involved that isn’t trivial, as a volatile, there’s something invigorating and exciting about the blank slate of a new website and the empty state of a new email address inbox.

Time to fill them with possibilities.

So long, SuperFriend model

Speaking of fresh starts, one thing that’s always been around since the beginning of SuperFriendly is the SuperFriend Model, the idea that every team is composed of expert freelancers from our SuperFriend Network. I was the only full-time employee of SuperFriendly for the last 10 years, and, if I could have figured out a way for even me to be a freelancer for SuperFriendly, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

The SuperFriend model was integral to SuperFriendly. It became a competitive advantage. It was a part of every pitch. We’d win big and lose big because of it. But that competitive advantage has been long disappearing. In 2012, the idea of a distributed collective of experts, assembled ad-hoc as the need arises was unique. SuperFriendly certainly wasn’t the first to do it, but not many were doing it, so it was a major differentiator.

Nowadays, so many agencies our size have some version of “a team, custom-built for your project” as part of their value proposition that include a combination of full-timers and freelancers. It’s different than how SuperFriendly does it, but it looks identical on paper.

Also, the last two years of COVID-19 has seen the professional world move even further into a distributed, gig-economy-welcome mode. A thing that made SuperFriendly different is no longer a differentiator, so it’s time to evolve.

That’s not an easy decision, nor is it easily executed. One of my current fears is that the SuperFriend model has been so ingrained in SuperFriendly over the years that new potential clients would have a difficult time reconciling a SuperFriendly that doesn’t work that way. For the past few weeks while working on the new site, I’ve also been simultaneously working on a version of SuperFriendly rebranded: new name and new identity for the new decade in business. Just about everyone I ran the new name by hated it, most of all my wife (who originally came up with the name “SuperFriendly”) and my kids. As much as I liked the new name and putting aside that any new name wouldn’t hold up to a decade of familiarity, I simply can’t run a company my family and friends can’t stand.

Ultimately, I’m ditching the rebrand version and sticking with “SuperFriendly.” A recent Twitter poll and LinkedIn poll I issued about the topic has given me a bit more confidence in that decision, though I have to say that a rebrand is almost never far away.

Thank you, SuperFriend Model, for the role you’ve played in the last decade. SuperFriendly couldn’t have been as successful without you.

Crystal, clearly

I first met Crystal Vitelli in 2012, when she worked for an agency that hired SuperFriendly to do some work for them. In fact, Crystal was SuperFriendly’s 4th client, hiring us just 35 days after we opened for business. I was instantly impressed with how she ran projects, so when she decided to freelance a few years later, I knew I wanted to work with her. Her first project was producing a project in early 2015 for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, some of SuperFriendly’s best design system work ever. Over the past seven years since, Crystal has been integral in every successful SuperFriendly design system engagement (except one, because she was on maternity leave). When I’ve been out for extended amounts of time, I’ve left SuperFriendly running in her care, and it’s always been in better shape when I got back. Crystal is one of the few people I’ve worked with that and I can fully trust with every single thing at SuperFriendly.

To start a new decade at SuperFriendly, Crystal is joining full-time!

A new SuperFriendly

It’ a lot of change all at once, but that’s the kind of opportunity that gets me fired up. A new decade of work is a blank slate to try new things for another decade.

One thing that we’ve been leaning into lately is the design system coaching, advising, and consulting. Because a lot of SuperFriends (myself included) are practitioners first, many clients have hired us for some deliverable output, like a component library in code or design files and artifacts or fully built websites and native applications. While we’re good at that, we also see our output retired sooner than what internal teams might make. My hypothesis is that our work doesn’t last as long because it didn’t include the people who have to take it over in the creation of it. Providing training at the end of an engagement isn’t truly inclusive design.

In the past, I believe our work has persisted because of the quality of it. But, as enterprise organizations are attracting and keeping better talent in-house, the in-house team’s work quality often can match and sometimes exceed ours. What they often lack, though, is the knowledge and practice of how to do good systems work, a thing we have a lot of experience in.

We’re doubling down on that. Hiring SuperFriendly means hiring Crystal and I as coaches for in-house teams. I work with teams on the Design and Engineering fronts, while Crystal works with them on the DesignOps and Production aspects. And every once in a while when we need it, we bring on a specific subject matter coach around topics like collaboration, accessibility, performance, motion, and more. We’re there to impart to teams what we know about how to do successful design system work. In the past, it’s been a lot of “watch us do it first, then you try.” But honestly, that plan often falls apart for lots of reasons. Sometimes, there’s only time for the first part. Sometimes, there’s too much of a gap between us doing it and them doing it. Sometimes, it’s too easy to fall into the temptation of us continuing to do it while everyone there is just sitting around watching.

So we’re constraining the options as a forcing function. What would happen if we led with “you try from the start?” We’ll let you know, though the initial tries at this way of working have already been very promising.