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  • February 16, 2012

I Went to Site Week and All I Got Was a Better Future.

I grew up in the small farming town of Palmer, Alaska. Aside from Alaska being Alaska, not much happened that made the evening news. Not even our weather was exciting enough to ever be called out as “the coldest spot.” Decorative Illustration That honor was always reserved for villages hundreds of miles up north. We finally landed on the map one winter when a group of developers, contractors, plumbers, electricians, painters, interior decorators, and furniture store owners attempted to break a world record by building an entire house in 24 hours, just across the street from our high school.

It was a big event on a very cold day. Camera crews and equipment were everywhere. Big construction lights formed a perimeter around the site (during the winter the sun comes up around 10:00 a.m. and dives back down around 3:45 p.m.) and trucks of every make and model were in constant movement. We went to watch all of the action, but it turned out to be pretty boring. While they were working quickly, in tandem, and seemingly on track, it didn’t make for a very entertaining event.

As I recall, they finished the house with little more than an hour to spare. While the paint on the walls was still drying, the keys to the “24 Hour House” were handed over to a “lucky” family who had won the home in a contest. Later that night, the evening news showed everyone cheering wildly as if they had just performed their own Miracle on Ice.

Months later, news crews came back to the 24 Hour House to find it full of problems. None of the developers or contractors had a plan to come back and fix any problems that might arise when you’re slapping and tacking together an arctic home in a day. Turns out building a quality home was never a priority. Eventually, the lucky family moved out and that house sat empty for a long time afterwards looking nothing like the world record it used to be. What a waste of time.

It’s Tuesday evening and I’m finally on my way home to Austin after spending last week in Philadelphia for a little event we called Site Week. For those who missed our previous announcement, most of Happy Cog banded together in a single room and cranked out everything we needed to begin evolving our brand in a week.

Starting nearly from zero, we ended up with a brand new website, a new content strategy (with all new content), a new social strategy, and a new hand-built content management system running on Ruby on Rails platform. Not too shabby for a few days worth of work.

Did we end up with the perfect site in five days? No. Did we end up with everything finished so we don’t have to touch it again in six years? No! Next question. Did we end up moving into a new home with wet paint on the walls, potentially leaky plumbing, and windows that let in a little draft? Yes we did, but that’s what we set out to do. We didn’t sit in a single, musty room for a week just so we could make headlines. This isn’t the end but only the beginning.

Our goal for this week was to reset Happy Cog. We set out to create a succinct experience with a design and message that would appeal to our old friends and family while speaking clearly to the industry and future clients. Our old site had succumbed to the typical bloat and wear most sites do when they’re not cared for properly. A good, strong site needs constant tending and trimming, otherwise messages get blurred, links go bad, and you end up with a five hundred page mess with all the curb appeal of an 80’s Buick missing a hubcap.

Everything about our new site is intentionally simple. While we used a lot of gray matter to create what you see, we did everything to avoid overthinking problems and solutions—which we have all had a tendency to do in the past. On the surface it may have appeared site week was all about “damn the torpedoes!” when in reality it was “how many torpedoes do we need and what kind?” We set out to reshape how we stay focused and on target while executing quickly.

The bigger victory for us may have been in our decision to allow ourselves to make mistakes. After reflecting upon the results, I gotta say, I’m very pleased with the new Happy Cog. From here on out we’re not treating our website as a sacred cow as we once did. It becomes too easy to second-guess new ideas and avoid any level of risk. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality is a mantra of slow death to creative people. In some ways Happy Cog fell victim to this, but not anymore.

Last Friday, after we launched our awesome and slightly imperfect website, the team marched off to celebratory beers and BBQ. Within minutes, the bug reports started to fly in from across the globe via email, SMS, and Twitter. Our friends and family started to notice everything from minute to large problems with our “24 Hour House.” A year ago this would have been enough for some of us to rush back to the office in order to make things right as rain, but for the most part that’s all changed now.

As part of our rebranding project with Helms Workshop, the company founder, Christian, gave us a pretty big compliment. He said, “the folks at Happy Cog are the same in meetings as they are while grabbing a hot dog and a beer at Frank. They take what they do very seriously, but not themselves. They genuinely love what they do.”

We really do genuinely love what we do. We love what Happy Cog has become. And we hope that our project will serve to inspire you to shake off what prevents your businesses from taking that big step forward. Next Wednesday we have scheduled a two-hour postmortem for Site Week. During this meeting we’ll talk about what we did right, what we could have done better, and where we failed. After we’re able to fully process and reflect upon the outcomes, we’ll be sharing a lot more about Site Week through the lenses of project managers, designers, and developers through blogs, podcasts, presentations, and professional gatherings.

Meanwhile, keep watching as we continue to work on our new home.

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