#UnderdogChallenge—my 23-year journey from soloist to agency principal and back in under 500 words

I love the 37signals #underdogchallenge. I don’t consider myself an underdog, per se, but here’s my story.

In 2000, in my only full year of university, I started Lucid, a one-person design studio.

I am a self-taught designer and design thinker who strives for elegance and intentional, rational simplicity, based more on fundamental principles.

I’d never had aspirations to run a company and resisted for years calling Lucid an “agency”—maintaining a team size of 5 or 6 for a decade or so in the middle.

I stumbled across Shopify in 2006 and am one of the original 12 partners. There’s a lot of pressure in our industry to grow for growth’s sake. And, to cut a long story short, I did build an agency—growing Lucid to 17 people with offices in New Zealand and New York City.

I loved the people, and I loved the work. But I never loved managing it all.

I think I was a good people-leader but not a great manager or company visionary. I lacked the clarity, discipline, focus, and courage to thrive.

Over time, the process of constant change became the work. It wasn’t fulfilling for anyone, it was more stressful than it needed to be, and it wasn’t financially viable.

In early 2022, I finally accepted with unusual clarity that my heart was not in the agency, and I sold the New Zealand half of Lucid. Less than a year later, I downsized completely to just me.

After nearly 23 years, I’m back to being a soloist, and I have never felt so energized by the work.

I’m back on the tools, working directly with amazing clients—designing and building beautiful, elegant, highly functional Shopify stores—learning and growing and achieving things I’d forgotten I was capable of.

I’m now often asked how I’m coping with the workload. The truth is, I have more time as a soloist, doing the work myself—while serving more clients than we were as an agency.

With a more pragmatic, “low-code” approach—guided by core principles, objectives, and goals, I’m far more nimble and move way faster than we ever could as an agency.

Instead of hiring people to do the work, I’m engaging other specialists who know more about certain fundamentals than me—to guide and “unstick” me when needed.

Many have advised me to work on the business, not in the business—and agencies have their place, for sure.

However, in 2023, as a solo practice, Lucid will have its best year ever—with less stress and more fulfillment than I can remember.

So, for now, I’m content to be again working in the business—doing the work, collaborating, learning, and growing in new ways.

Does this resonate with your journey? It can be a lonely one! Reach out any time if you’d like to chat.

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