TEECOM celebrates our 20th anniversary this year. If we could sum up 20 years of lessons learned in one sentence, it might look something like: Take risks, but make sure they’re informed by strong values. It’s hard to sum up 20 years, though, which is why we sat down with TEECOM founder, CEO, and President, David Marks, to delve into the firm’s origin story. Here’s what we learned.
You founded TEECOM two decades ago. What motivated you to launch your own company?
I always wanted to own my own business. This desire was formed by two of my early employment experiences: Carl’s Jr. and Best Products, a catalogue merchandise warehouse precursor to Big Box retail.
In both of those incidences, I had a strong work ethic but found that the size of the companies and the lack of management’s direct tie to the corporation contributed to an overall lack of enthusiasm and a lack of basic concern for the staff members. This led me to conclude:
A: I wanted to work for a smaller company.
B: I thought I could do it better.
When I fell into this industry I had no idea that this profession even existed. I was finished with my first two years of college, and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be an engineer. I went and looked through the Yellow Pages — those still existed back then, actual physical Yellow Pages — and searched for electrical engineering firms in the Bay Area. I made a list and went door to door, pitching myself as an intern — paid, unpaid, didn’t matter. I just wanted to learn what electrical engineers did.
I probably had 20 or 30 names on the list. I was down to company number 29. The year was 1989, and not many people had work. I met with this gentleman Peter Willkinson from Beamer/Wilkinson Engineers. I remember I arrived around lunchtime. There was nobody there. Peter heard me walk in; he was on the second floor. He shouted down, “Come on up!” and he offered me half his sandwich. So I gave my pitch, and Peter said, “Do you even know what electrical engineers do?” I said, “Uh, design computers?”
Peter explained that electrical engineers design how power gets to buildings. I was fascinated.
After the lunch was done he suggested I go see Chuck Shalley at The Engineering Enterprise, who was a friend of his, and that I tell Chuck that if there was one thing he, Peter, had ever learned it was to hire young kids and give them a chance.
I marched on over to TEE and asked to see Chuck Shalley. I didn’t know he was the president. He happened to be in, which I discovered later was rare. He came downstairs and I said, I just saw Peter Wilkinson and he said if he ever learned anything it was to hire young kids and give them a chance. Fortunately, Chuck thought that was funny.
He spoke to me for about 45 minutes, and asked if I had any special skills. I told him I had just purchased AutoCAD software and taught myself to use it. It turned out TEE had just gotten the Moscone North project and they needed someone to do AutoCAD. So I did that for two years, and then I went back for my degree at Cal Poly. When I graduated I came back to work for Chuck.
Chuck and I talked about my desire to focus on communications within the building. It was my belief that one day the low voltage systems would converge onto a network, and I wanted to be the person who designed all of that.
His reply was, “Great, work on becoming an expert in communications.” I took a bunch of classes, talked to a bunch of people. In 1994, TEE got the World Savings and Loan Customer Services Center in San Antonio, and the project manager there asked Chuck, “By the way, do you design IT cabling systems?” Chuck said, “Oh, hey, yes we do.”
It was my belief that one day the low voltage systems would converge onto a network, and I wanted to be the person who designed all of that.
Then projects started coming in one after another, including Levi Plaza San Francisco IT structure cabling and PeopleSoft IT cabling. By 1996, we had more work than we knew what to do with. We needed to hire more staff, so I wrote a business plan to create a specialized division within TEE called TEE Communications. We were going to focus on network and cabling. I had seen that there were a bunch of individual consultants who only did security, only did acoustics, only did IT, but had no idea how to produce a set of construction documents, how to design pathways, how to talk to an architect… all these things I learned from designing power and lighting systems within buildings.
Chuck had me pitch the idea to the other principals in the firm. I was met with resistance.
Everyone said, “He’s only been out of school for three years.” One owner actually said, “This low-voltage stuff is not real engineering. It will always be design-build.”
Chuck knew I wanted to own my own business. That resonated with him, because it was how he was. He said, “If you want to start your own firm I will totally support you.” I sought a business partner, and in January of 1997, launched TEECOM.
I had negotiated with Chuck to subcontract all TEE’s existing low-voltage to me. I hired my dad as the first employee because I knew I could trust him.
How did the values that guide TEECOM today come about?
There’s a saying to the effect of: “You go on a journey to find answers, only to return home and find the answers are there.” I think that while I had this ideal of how people should be treated and what was important, I didn’t know why. When we started TEECOM we just had gut instincts of what was right. We had no idea how that would contribute to our success.
It wasn’t until ten years later that I was reflecting on why are we successful, why do people hire us? I was looking at staff members who were doing really well and had clients calling them over and over again, like John Pedro. What did he do that was different than other project managers? John said, “It was easy, I just did what you told me to do in terms of becoming a successful consultant, and it worked.”
I went back and re-read the keys to becoming a successful consultant that I had written. Things like demonstrating that you care, building trust with people, finding ways to add value. Coming back to look at them with experience gave me a completely different perspective. Not only are these the right things to do, but there’s a definite business impact when you do them.
That’s how the core values evolved, from a gut instinct to reaffirmation.
Over the years people have asked me what our mission is. I have to say that it’s never really been about the work, although I think that we’re all fascinated by the work and everyone here has a common desire to do things right, to do it well the first time, to design great buildings, to contribute to systems designed well that the client gets value from — we all collectively want to do that. Although that’s what we’re doing, the more important thing to me was going back to my belief that I could build a better business that treated people well and bucked the norm of how people did things. Really it’s more about providing a place for people where they feel valued, feel like their work is meaningful, they’re given an opportunity to learn, and that they’re appreciated and rewarded.
We’ve done a number of things I think are very unique, like our Incentive Compensation Plan, which is a way of rewarding employees who contribute more financially to the company, people who put in more than 40 hours a week. I wanted to find a fair way of rewarding them.
Really it’s more about providing a place for people where they feel valued, feel like their work is meaningful, they’re given an opportunity to learn, and that they’re appreciated and rewarded.
Sometimes when you put a plan in place you don’t know how it will affect the bottom line. For example, last year we handed out about a million and a half in bonuses to staff members. In a traditional business that would have gone to the owners. The thing I never really liked about the typical annual bonus program is that one year you got X amount of dollars, the next year you’d get a different amount, and you never really know why. Did it increase because the company did better, because I did better, or because the market did better?
Early on we put a fund share program in place, and a generous PTO policy. We were one of the first firms to get rid of the sick and vacation distinction and just put it all in the PTO bucket so you could use it however you wanted.
We put in a requirement to go to 80 hours of training every year, and we pay for everything — your travel, lodging, and expenses associated with training.
There’s always been a theme of constant improvement. How do we get better all the time? Rewarding employees for taking time to find a way to contribute, like the VR Challenge.
One of the things I love most is our Employee to Employee awards, when staff members acknowledge other staff members at our monthly General Office Meeting and hand them an award — I love those moments.
Are we perfect as a company? No. But the foundation of who we are recognizes that and allows us to evolve and improve.
Where do you see TEECOM 20 years from now?
If you would have told me 20 years ago where TEECOM was going to be now, with 80-plus employees, I would have said you’re crazy. Having four offices? I would have said no way. Working on buildings all over the world? I would have said that would be nice but I don’t see how that’s going to happen.
TEECOM has doubled in size roughly every four years. I’ve found that growth is important to continue to allow upward mobility for employees, the ability to move up in the organization. If you’re always a 30-person firm, there’s a very limited path to growth. It’s going to take you a lot longer to become a principal because you have to wait for people to leave or retire for positions to become open or vacant. To continue to allow people to move up in the organization you have to create more positions. By growing you can do that.
So we’ll continue to grow. I would like to see us continue to double our size every four years. While I think it’s been really aggressive in some periods, it’s been manageable. It’s made us a better firm. I think the next 20 years are going to be very different than our previous 20 years. When you start out in any industry, your tendency is to follow the traditional ways of doing things, using the tools that have always been used. But with size comes the opportunity to reinvest in a meaningful way in the firm. So the next 20 years won’t be focused so much on “how do we grow” as on “how do we completely innovate the delivery model?” “How do we create our unfair advantage in the market, doing things better, faster, cheaper?”
I think we see a way to do that by leveraging machine learning, big data, everything connected. Everything that we do as a firm for buildings is applicable to us changing the way we work.
So the next 20 years won’t be focused so much on “how do we grow” as on “how do we completely innovate the delivery model?” “How do we create our unfair advantage in the market, doing things better, faster, cheaper?”
In 20 years, TEECOM will be doing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, be maybe a thousand people, have offices all over the world, using cutting edge tools and delivering projects at levels that are unprecedented in the industry.
And maybe even changing the industry itself.