We started Aten in May of 2000 with a simple idea: some stories need to be heard. Now, twenty years later, that’s still what we’re all about.
My entire professional career is wrapped up in this company. I started Aten directly out of college, where I was studying journalism and creative writing. I loved storytelling. I believed then, as I still do today, that journalists play an invaluable role in promoting positive change in the world. I wanted to be a part of that.
Backing up a few years: my parents were missionaries. I grew up along with my two younger siblings in a very remote part of Ghana, West Africa. The region where we lived was so remote, and the bridges so prone to washing away during each rainy season, that the rest of the country referred to it as “overseas.”
My siblings and I spent several years divided between two incredibly different cultures. On one hand, we were fully immersed in village life. Along with my parents, we were ceremoniously adopted into an extensive West African family, given local names, and even given a home. We woke up daily to the sounds of the village: kids crying and mothers singing; dogs, chickens, goats, pigs and cattle; wives pounding grain; husbands packing up their tools for the farm. We spent hours and hours roaming the village, exploring the nearby forests and savanna, hearing stories about ancestors and anthropomorphic spiders; elephants and lions that had mostly disappeared by the time of our arrival; river monsters that may have been crocodiles or may have been something different, like dinosaurs or dragons.
On the other hand, we were still distinctly foreign and western. My dad was a linguist and a Bible translator, and an early adopter of what was then a cutting-edge, computer-assisted approach to translation. While the other kids were off farming, we were homeschooling. My mom believed firmly in creating a curriculum that followed our interests. I wrote stories and learned to program.
The village was beautiful, and the people there were generous and kind, but there was a lot of suffering. We were healthy and of course, never hungry. Even the simple fact that we had arrived in the village in a car, that we could hop back in at any moment and drive away, was such a contrast. I remember thinking I would eventually share stories of what that place was like, and that stories could make a positive impact.
Growing up in that environment, I learned a few things about myself early on:
- I love storytelling.
- I’m a big computer nerd.
- I wanted to work in an industry with global impact.
In 1996, at age 18, I came back to the states to study journalism at a small liberal arts college in Northwest Arkansas. While still in college I started working at a tiny ad shop making websites for a few local customers. I loved it. For me, the internet was the perfect blend of storytelling and computers. It seemed obvious that the internet was going to change everything and have a huge impact on the world. After just a few months at that ad shop, I convinced a college friend, Jon Clark, to help me start an agency. We called it Aten Design Group, after an iconoclastic Egyptian deity, and dove in.
Arkansas → Virginia
At the same time I was getting things started with Aten, my wife and I were planning the arrival of our first daughter. Jon soon left Aten to pursue other opportunities, and the company was just me. I often refer to that first year as glorified freelance. Really, it wasn’t glorified; it was rather unglorified freelance. I was doing web development solo, under the moniker Aten Design Group, trying to make ends meet.
My wife and I, and our baby daughter, moved from Northwest Arkansas to Williamsburg, Virginia, to be closer to family. Soon after landing in Williamsburg, I hired my sister, Lydia, to help with sales and marketing.
At this point Aten Design Group was two people, working from the third bedroom of my little townhouse, taking whatever projects we could to stay afloat of our modest expenses. Lydia was making a lot of cold calls to local businesses – everything from coffeeshops to car dealerships. One day a friend of Lydia’s gave her the direct number for a marketing executive at Colonial Williamsburg, on the assurance that Lydia wouldn’t say where she got the number. Lydia called. Low and behold, the executive picked up his phone. This was 2001, when people were still answering their landlines. It still felt like a miracle.
Lydia told the head of marketing at Colonial Williamsburg that we – Lydia and I – thought they could do a better job of telling their story. We wanted to help them create a more immersive experience.
They gave us a meeting. The boardroom was full of executives – from marketing and hospitality to education and research. I passed around printed, paper portfolios I had just picked up at Kinkos.
Ultimately, we won the contract, beating out an incumbent ad agency with hundreds of employees and offices all over the world, on the idea that Colonial Williamsburg’s story wasn’t getting through. We wanted to help tell their story powerfully, creating a more immersive experience online.
Virginia → Colorado
That project with Colonial Williamsburg was a turning point for Aten. We hired a developer, moved out of the townhouse, and settled into our first office: a garden-level suite below a dentist's practice. At the time, I was doing all of our design and much of our development work. It wasn’t sustainable, and we posted a help-wanted ad for a designer. A college grad named Ken Woodworth showed up for an interview, wearing a pressed shirt and tie. Ken had just moved from Upstate New York to Williamsburg, Virginia, where his fiance was enrolled in grad school. I think Ken was worried about not being able to find a web design job in Williamsburg, VA. Whatever the reason, he took the job and joined our little team below the dentist’s office.
To this day, Ken is one of the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He has an uncanny knack for zeroing in on the root problem, staying focused on finding a solution, and still creating something unique, imaginative, and beautiful. Ken’s passion was – and is – design, but he’s a gifted developer as well. That combination made him invaluable back when we were getting started, and is still invaluable today.
Over the next couple of years, we won a number of projects with prominent cultural heritage institutions and nonprofit organizations: Colonial Williamsburg, The Smithsonian, World Vision, Christian Children’s Fund, and others. We moved into a bright upstairs office near the historic area in Williamsburg, and hired a couple more people. My brother, Eric, started working for the company. Jon Clark, who had helped me get this whole thing started, came back and took a business development position with the Aten. We started talking about what was next.
We knew Williamsburg wasn’t the right place for Aten long-term. We wanted to move to a city where we could more easily grow the kind of team we wanted. We considered nearby options like D.C., Richmond, and Raleigh; and farther possibilities like Austin, Seattle, and Denver.
Ultimately, we picked Denver for a few key reasons:
- Denver is centrally located in the US, facilitating easy travel to both coasts.
- With 300+ days of sunshine annually, generally mild winters, and beautiful summers, the climate in Denver is incredible.
- The city offers everything one would expect from a sizable metropolitan area, plus access to the Rockies and a healthy, outdoors-focussed lifestyle and culture.
- The tech scene in Denver was vibrant and growing, but far from saturated.
In the summer of 2007, we moved from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Denver, Colorado, where we have been ever since.
Drupal & Open Source
At about the same time we started preparing for the move to Denver, we won a project with a large nonprofit organization that had asked us to help them evaluate a number of content management systems and recommend the best choice for their needs. We reviewed half-a-dozen different platforms, including Drupal, as well as our own custom CMS that we had been developing for the past year or so. Drupal came out as the strong winner. We were very focused on design, and felt that Drupal offered the flexibility to create exactly the kind of custom digital experience we wanted. Further, Drupal had a large and growing user base, and was well-supported by the open source community.
That was back in 2007, with Drupal 4.6. Since then, we’ve supported the Drupal project in just about every way possible – sponsoring events, speaking at conferences, writing code, donating time and money.
Drupal has been really good for us. Drupal’s high rate of adoption by nonprofit, higher education, public sector, and cultural heritage institutions has closely matched our agency’s vision: to help make positive change by telling stories with global impact.
Open source itself is a model that closely follows our passion, empowering people everywhere to work together to solve interesting and difficult problems. Over the years we’ve expanded into a number of open source technologies: Wordpress, React, and Gatsby, among others.
In 2010 we were a small team of seven people, working almost exclusively with nonprofit, education, and cultural heritage clients. I wasn’t thinking much about team size or growth. We knew we wanted to do work that matters, and we didn’t feel that our size was holding us back. We loved the flexibility of being so small. The entire company could go to lunch (without a reservation!), throw a frisbee, or even take turns cooking breakfast for the weekly Monday morning status meeting.
That same year, we had a shot at a major project with one of the world’s best-known nonprofit brands. We poured everything we had into the proposal, then flew the team to Washington D.C. to make our pitch.
Ultimately, we lost to a widely respected agency 10 times bigger than we were. The strong message from the prospective client was that the risk of undertaking such an ambitious project, with such a small agency, was too great. We were too small.
In 2010, two things became clear:
- We were getting to the table, pitching ambitious projects for organizations making an impact all over the world.
- To win consistently, and have the kind of impact we wanted, we needed to grow.
Over the following year we grew from seven people to twenty. We invested heavily in project management. We formalized our team structure, appointed managers, and created more specialized roles within each discipline. That year we also added a dedicated line of service for ongoing support, a direct reflection of our commitment to developing productive, long-term relationships with our clients.
Our newfound focus on growth was effective. We won major projects with prominent nonprofit, university, public policy, and government clients. It was incredibly exciting and rewarding: recognizing our size as a barrier, deciding proactively to grow, and experiencing the direct impact on our ability to do the kind of work we wanted.
Focus on Values
For me, one surprisingly difficult aspect of growth was having confidence that we were bringing the right people onto the team. It was easy enough to identify the skills we needed, but challenging to gauge alignment and fit more holistically. Clearly defining our values proved to be a critical step for growing and sustaining a highly effective, collaborative team. To articulate our values, we adopted a process described in Gino Wickman’s widely acclaimed book, Traction. I love the framework, as it helps describe core values by focusing on the team. It asks the question: what are the most valuable attributes your most effective people exhibit? It helps crystallize in very clear terms the characteristics that are most valuable to an organization. Our values aren’t arbitrary platitudes. Our values are the specific qualities that make our team work so effectively together.
As an agency, we are:
We’re direct and transparent.
We’re willing to connect dots in ways that aren’t obvious.
From clients, to colleagues, to end users: our team cares about people and puts the needs of others first.
We’re flexible, up for anything.
We deliver. We take initiative and follow through.
Work that Matters
While a lot has changed over the past two decades – from team size and structure to technology and tools – one thing hasn’t: we’re still passionate about doing work that matters. Team size – and directly related, revenue – is important, but only as it supports our vision. We serve clients helping build a brighter tomorrow. We continue to grow, add new services, and expand into new technologies. Twenty years later, our drive remains: help clients tell important stories with global impact.
To my colleagues: thank you so much for your hard work, for being all-in, and for showing up with such creativity and dedication to your craft. I appreciate each of you, and am honored to work with you.
To our clients: we literally couldn’t do this without you. Thank you for such meaningful projects, for the chance to help make the world a better place, for trusting Aten with your important work. In this digital age, I know you have choices; I thank you deeply for choosing us.
It’s been an amazing journey. Here’s to the next twenty.