At the end of 2019, I predicted and hoped that 2020 would be a big year for SuperFriendly. I didn’t know the half of it.
I certainly can’t talk about business in 2020 without talking about COVID-19. This global pandemic had a major impact on SuperFriendly this past year, and I’m surprised to say almost all effects—at least the ones that are typically tracked in a spreadsheet… more on this later—have been positive. Financially, 2020 was SuperFriendly’s best year by far; some of that was because of plans we’ve made that manifest this year and some of that was actually because of COVID. That makes me feel relieved, proud, hopeful, sad, and ashamed, all at the same time. I’m conflicted about feeling successful in a year that’s been so devastating for so many people on the planet. (I’m actively working on this with my therapists and coaches.) What keeps me distracted from being consumed by that emotional conflict is focusing on using SuperFriendly to continue to create better opportunities for our SuperFriends and clients.
At the beginning of the year, we were working with lots of clients in the travel and hospitality industry, like United Airlines and Marriott. When the pandemic hit in March, those companies had more existential issues to focus on than their work with us (rightly so), so most of that work dried up quickly.
While our travel and hospitality work was dwindling, it’s really only by good fortune that our work with healthcare, entertainment, and education clients was ramping up, some actually because of the needs that a global pandemic was causing. For example, our work with clients like Herman Miller and Harvard Business School turned toward topics like helping people make a transition to remote work or forming opinions about what events look like in a socially-distanced world. We created “response teams” to brainstorm with our clients about things that might be helpful to them and their customers, from creating new products and offerings to discounting our own services or offering pro bono work to help them through a tumultuous time.
When people asked me earlier this year how SuperFriendly was doing, my typical response was to include some mention of volatility. COVID made our business more volatile: more clients were stopping business with us all at once than ever before, but our pipeline was more full than ever too, so it was mostly more activity than we were used to.
Now, at the end of the year, I can say that the volatility has worn off a bit, but our pipeline remains more full than it’s ever been and we have more prospects, projects, and accounts lined up for the new year than we’ve ever had at the end of a calendar year.
Those familiar with SuperFriendly for a while probably know the SuperFriend model: I’m the only employee (as I’ve been since I started it in 2012), and every project we do is a custom-assembled team for that client. That said, I’m not a fan of using the royal “we” like many do when talking about their offerings; I try hard to say “I” when I’m talking about what I’m doing personally and use “we” to refer to a larger group of SuperFriends.
When I talk about what we at SuperFriendly did in 2020, I do mean it’s the effort of a group of extraordinary people that’s more than just me. In the world of enterprises that need and use design systems, a common model is to have dedicated teams working on separate products or features and then having a more central “design system team” that serves each of the product/feature teams. For SuperFriendly, instead of product teams, we have project/account teams that serve each client, so we established a “Systems” team in 2020 to serve each of those project/account teams.
On our Systems team, we have roles for representatives from these disciplines: executive, business development, operations, administrative, and legal. They support our project teams in all of these areas. The people that represent each discipline work primarily on SuperFriendly, as opposed to other SuperFriends who work primarily on client work. Without these people, SuperFriendly wouldn’t be nearly what it was this year:
In addition to these folks, we hold 2 spots open for SuperFriends that primarily work on projects to weigh in on how SuperFriendly can better support teams from that perspective. For the last 6 months, Lauren Deal and Dontae Benn have been invaluable in providing their insight on what a good balance between support and autonomy can look like for teams.
Over to some quantitative fun! Here are some numbers that illustrate parts of what SuperFriendly looked like all year.
I’ve generally been a proponent of the “work smarter, not harder” adage, so I’m often looking for ways to spend less time working without much significant impact on my productivity.
Here’s generally how my detailed time spent breaks down.
This is the first year since I opened SuperFriendly in 2012 that I spent more time on Administrative things (documentation, reviewing, planning, etc.) than either Creative Direction or Business Development. This affirms and confirms my decision to want to spend more of my effort on SuperFriendly itself than on client work.
We did significantly more projects this year than any other. We average about 9 projects/year. In 2020, we did 19 projects, a 111% increase from 2019’s 9 projects.
We worked on some cool things, like:
SuperFriendly made more gross revenue in 2020 than in any other year. 2019 was the best year to date, and we increased that by 145% in 2020.
However, we only made 11% profit on our revenue in 2020, which is down 17% from the 28% profit margin we had in 2019. I haven’t dug in closely enough to know exactly what the cause of that drop was, but my hunch is that our significant increase in overhead this really ate into what would have otherwise been profit. That’s definitely something to correct for 2021.
I saved the most important one for last.
SuperFriendly’s purpose is to create better opportunities for creative people to flourish. (I’ll be revising this in 2021, but more on that another time.) If we have one metric that matters, it’s creating better opportunities, whether that’s helping SuperFriends meet financial goals, learn something new, work with a specific client, gain mentorship from more experienced folks, and more.
At the end of 2019, we made a commitment to do a better job in hiring more women, people of color, and other groups of people typically underrepresented in the tech industry. And especially with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people in 2020 and over the previous few years, we renewed that commitment to creating better opportunities specfically for Black people at SuperFriendly. We also raised $13,770.70 for community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers.
Here are some of the specific goals we set last year in who we wanted our SuperFriends to be and how we did against all of them.
I’m incredibly proud of all of those things! But there’s still a lot of work to be done and things to fix here. For example, we paid 12 SuperFriends above our average of $42,418.90. Of those 12: 10 are white, and 10 are men. So, while we’ve done a better job of hiring more women and people of color, having them be on the lower end of our pay scale isn’t enough. In 2021, I want to be able to say our highest paid SuperFriends are women and people of color. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do that yet, but I’ll be working on that immediately.
One of the biggest changes I’m going to work on is around culture. In 2020, SuperFriends spent a lot of time focusing on how to do good work/good projects. That’s nice, but they didn’t focus as much on how to work together better. We spent too much time on the “project” part and not enough time on the “people” part. I think some of that is the default culture of freelancing, which is inherently tied into our model. Unlike an agency where you get hired full-time, freelancers default into the “hired gun” mentality where you come in, do your job with your head down, and fly out. I want SuperFriendly to be about teams. I want it to be a place where freelancers can rely on others but can still exercise the value of being independent that attracted them to freelancing in the first place. We haven’t done a good job of creating the environment for that, so I’ll be actively working on that in 2021.
That’s not across the board though; 2 of our teams did a particularly good job with not just acting like a bunch of freelancers but actually being a team. One of our teams saw their project come to a halt because of COVID, but the bond they created lasted long after their project was over. Another one of our teams was very intentional about developing their own team culture. They created their own team shirts, regularly eat together over Zoom, and build each other up on a daily basis. It’s no surprise that this team’s work is some of the most exciting at SuperFriendly right now.
In short, we didn’t spend enough time on people in 2020. (And partially justified too; for some, “doing a good job” was all they had to offer in 2020, and that’s absolutely enough.) Still though, 2021 will be about SuperFriends. We haven’t done a great job of sharing much lately about our process, our work, our values, and our purpose. A big project for me in 2021 will be to share more about how we do things, recruit even more SuperFriends, and create a culture where taking risks is safe and fun.
Overall, I’m glad 2020 is over and I’m also grateful to have gone through it in a way that could still create great opportunities for SuperFriends.
Bring on 2021.