A Brief History of Fulton Works
I officially started Fulton Works in 2007, shortly before moving to Brooklyn from my hometown of Chicago. While I had a company making album art, t-shirts, and websites for musician-clients while attending DePaul University’s School of Music, this one was going to be done right. This one was going to be focused solely on combining excellent experiences with functional systems. That meant making things beautiful, but also functional. As I moved my boxes into my apartment in Clinton Hill on Grand and Fulton, I used the move as a way to shift my multiple side-professions of performing music, DJing (the source of my seed capital) and teaching music to just coding.
Finding First Projects
I didn’t know many people in New York so I worked for anybody who would hire me. Relying on some trusting and unbelievably helpful friends, they referred me my first gigs as a freelancer. Fulton Works at that time was busy because demand was high for engineers that could work on all aspects of the tech stack. I would agree to take nearly anything on and learn anything I didn’t already know. It was anxiety-inducing at times but exhilarating to meet tough deadlines.
Relocating and Scaling
After a few years in New York I decided to move the company back to Chicago. Although I loved New York,I had a few reasons that influenced my decision to relocate, the first of which being growth capital. While the business was able to grow in New York, I was still working out of my apartment. I looked around at office spaces big enough for a few new hires but I couldn’t afford a long-term lease. I bootstrapped the business and being new company I didn’t have the reserves for New York commercial real estate. I was getting burnt out working constantly out of my house. It was a recipe for disaster. Having a bodega downstairs that made cheap (but delicious) sandwiches, hot coffee and beer made it easy to work long hours (keep in mind, this is before the times of WeWork). The second reason to relocate to Chicago was the cost of hiring junior talent. I wanted to expand to a few engineers to help with the workload. While I could find contractors, I needed consistent help that met my standards and processes I was developing. Finally, and most importantly I got back together with my future wife Elizabeth. We had dated for a few years during college and knew we were right for each other but the timing wasn’t. While all the other options were important for the business the opportunity to live close to Elizabeth was the most important for me.
Back on Fulton
Back in Chicago, I quickly found myself working with exceptional talent and located back on Fulton Street (and Aberdeen). I was colocated with a local digital agency called The Material Group. They had phenomenal design talent and were building their technical capabilities. We teamed up on a slew of projects for companies like American Family, Nike, Nintendo, S.C. Johnson and other consumer brands. It was a continuation of the work I was doing in New York for agencies like R/GA but this time with some staff to help.
Growing Out From Under
The company grew steadily during this period eventually outgrowing The Material Group space. They built up their own internal technical capabilities and we worked to establish direct clients of our own. During this time (2009-2012) we were starting to see a shift away from agency clients to startups. We were shifting the work away from “rich internet” (read: Flash) experiences and towards iOS and Objective-C projects. We released our first few apps the year that iOS 4 came out ,and most notably released Shoebox in collaboration with a Silicon Valley based startup 1000memories. We worked closely with the 1000memories team, spending time in San Francisco embedded into their team and collaborating with them. The app helped bring great exposure to 1000memories through their fantastic marketing and PR push. It represented a major shift for 1000memories as their member count grew massively.
Startups & Mobile
After that experience we continued to push our mobile capabilities and developed talent to continue learning. Developers that came in as “back-end engineers” were taught how to style and work with front-end systems. Everybody had to be able to play multiple positions because being a small company meant that we didn’t have the ability to be choosy about where we fit in the client’s needs.
In the next 4 years the business grew in size and capability. We added dedicated project and product management support as well as design resources under the same roof. We expanded the trusted team of contractors that helped us flex up and down to meet our client’s needs. We had everything you needed in order to build a great product.
We started to try out new types of engagements with our clients. Mixes of cash and equity in their companies. It gave us a sense of ownership for the project as well as the ability to align our own interests with the interests of our client, a position which we relished. We started to change the way we thought about our role. Moving away from longer-term projects, we shifted to make technical recruiting and training part of our business. Building a tech stack for a client while also helping them hire our replacement. On one side, this practice cannibalizes short-term profits but also increases customer lifetime value. When we both architect the system and help hire a CTO we create more opportunities down the line to help evolve the product.
Helping Find Product Market Fit
As we continued to work with companies for equity, we started to realize the problems that our clients were really facing. It wasn’t design or development, rather it was finding product market fit. In just a single year we worked with a few businesses that started up, built a “perfect” product and failed to find a fit in the market in the next year. The majority ceased operations after two years which left our team feeling disappointed with the outcomes with our early stage clients. While we balanced these companies with more established companies that had longer-term trajectories, the early stage clients were the exciting ones. Early stage clients are where we felt we could make the most impact. We started to orient our service offering towards validation of product market fit ahead of development. We found significant resistance to this in the market. People were calling us to build their product, not to validate that their product would work in the market. The philosophy was at odds with how we made money.
This made us think about how we position Fulton Works moving forward. How do we partner with companies that are asking the right questions. The business started and grew on the philosophy “You name it, we build it”, an eagerness to add value and build the thing. We look at each engagement as an opportunity to put our name on something that lives on and grows. We can’t control whether the market accepts a client’s project but we can identify our assumptions that make a business model work, a website useful or a mobile app push user adoption.
That leads us to today: Our team has never looked better and more capable. We’re a team of self-motivated and self-managing contributors that work harmoniously together. Our focus and culture has evolved with the contributors. We’re moving the conversation from “Can you build it?” to “Should you build it?”. This has turned around outcomes around significantly. The vast majority of projects we’ve taken since 2015 not only are still around but are flourishing. This credit goes directly to those in charge of those teams. Nothing gives a maker more humble satisfaction than seeing their creation live on.