Hugh Francis has just over two months of payroll in the bank, and he doesn’t care who knows it. That’s because the founder of the New York City technology studio Sanctuary Computer has little to hide from clients and even less to keep from his own employees. The company’s policy of radical financial transparency means its profits and losses, its employee bonus structure, and even its carbon footprint are all available for anyone to browse online.
In addition to being a live experiment in organizational design, Sanctuary Computer is a boutique digital development firm sought out by global brands and pre-seed startups alike. Sanctuary numbers under 20 developers and designers working on projects that range from fast-casual ordering platforms to the Light Phone, though the team collaborates internally with multiple “sister studios”— the design and branding firm XXIX, an interface design team called Manhattan Hydraulics, and a new sustainability consultancy named Seaborne. Rather than consolidate under a single agency, each team works with a degree of independence to pursue specialized projects and minimize the need for dedicated project managers.
Francis started Sanctuary Computer after stints as a technology lead for design agencies shaping the rise of e-commerce. As an independent thinker with a foothold in the world of customer-facing product development, Francis saw an opening for a development shop that understands design. But he was also looking for an alternative to traditional agency life — one where technologists could serve customers and their own creative interests. Francis framed going independent as a choice to be more intentional about long-term business goals: “Do you want the company that you’re building to be a vessel for you to make as much money as possible? Or do you want it to be something that has notoriety, creates incredible work, and has longevity as something you can do without getting burnt out?”
Transparency and documentation are two cornerstones of Sanctuary Computer. Throughout Sanctuary’s Substack, numerous Medium articles, and Github pages, Francis hammers home the precept that transparency is “just easier.” And while it may sound alien to an agency partner, Sanctuary Computer has built sustainable business growth by giving employees and clients as much insight as possible into its financial operations.
“Do you want the company that you’re building to be a vessel for you to make as much money as possible? Or do you want it to be something that has notoriety, creates incredible work, and has longevity as something you can do without getting burnt out?”
Francis describes transparency as a tactic to reduce the push-and-pull of negotiation, which translates to stress, and ultimately to years off one’s life. “If you can figure out a way where you don’t have to negotiate, then you’re going to be a healthier person and you’re going to have more longevity and sustainability to run the company in a lighthearted way,” he said. “Transparency has been really important to us because it has reduced negotiation to almost zero and created a world where money stuff is set deterministically based on rules that are designed to be as fair and egalitarian as possible.”
In addition to leveling the playing field internally, Sanctuary operates on the bet that sharing internal financials also makes it easier for employees to make strategic decisions and build a sense of ownership for the studio’s success. “Developers are intelligent people; they’re entrepreneurial by nature and they can reason about more things than just computer code,” said Francis. “That’s what I asked for at other companies and never got, so when I started Sanctuary Computer, one of the founding principles was ‘Treat developers like business owners.’ Allow them to manage and optimize themselves. Give them all the information they need to do that and they will.”
By the time COVID-19 disrupted the working world, the company had built up a resilient internal infrastructure that balanced transparent pricing for clients and generous benefits for employees. Sanctuary offered to cover 100% of employee healthcare costs, allowed flexible start times, and in a page taken from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, gave everyone the last Friday of every month off. It also spread the wealth by capping salaries at $120,000 and adopting a profit share model in which employees split a significant portion of net revenues according to seniority.
But instead of reining in these experiments in response to the pandemic, the team decided to rethink operations from first principles. The company has moved entirely away from a single time zone, using asynchronous tools and setting new communication policies to make sure work can still be coordinated. Project management has been distributed into more decentralized, self-managing teams, with backstops for reporting and support from the full team. And the company created a democratic internal policymaking process to guide major decisions.
“We didn’t want to just tweak a couple of things to make it work online,” said Francis. “We wanted to reimagine our workplace to improve it and improve retention. We put in place a system that anyone could prod and poke and light a fire in, and allowed them to take the responsibility of getting [their idea] passed. In some ways the newest people have been bringing the most change because they come in with fresh eyes, from stuffy old agency or product jobs, and they’re like ‘Holy shit, I can change this?’”
To demonstrate, Francis pulled up a Notion page labeled “Experiments” where any employee can propose a new company policy by filling out a card on a kanban-style board. Through a process called “integrative decision-making,” they make a detailed argument for its implementation, accounting for how the change will work and how it will impact the bottom line. The full company then votes by consensus to pass the proposal or not, amending the proposal to account for feedback and resolve objections.
According to Francis, the studio passed nearly 25 experiments by at least 13 different employees in 2020, ranging from abandoning Slack to retooling the work week. Most recently, they adopted a generous paid family leave proposal put forward by Isabel Münter, a Producer and Studio Manager, which offers 16 paid weeks for primary or secondary caregivers of any gender. Conor Davidson, a developer, put forward a policy to allow employees to opt for a four-day week by trading a proportional slice of employee benefits in exchange for extra time to work on personal projects. Because Sanctuary’s books are open to all employees, Münter and Davidson were able to make their case using a detailed analysis of the costs involved.
Francis jokes that Sanctuary is “a bubble of socialism” in the middle of the cutthroat American labor market — and these most recent experiments indeed offer employees rights that would be more at home in a social democracy. But the team’s overarching vision is simultaneously simpler than that and slightly more ambitious. On the one hand, Sanctuary aims to be a twenty-first century workplace where employees can build a fulfilling, long-term career— “like the modern, tech equivalent like the post office,” Francis jokes.
Sanctuary aims to be a twenty-first century workplace where employees can build a fulfilling, long-term career – “like the modern, tech equivalent like the post office.”
On another level, the company continues to ignore the strictures of traditional agency life and instead co-creates experimental processes to fit the ever-changing professional landscape of interactive design and development. Instead of pursuing internal growth, Sanctuary has linked up with like minded design studios (and even spun off a sustainability consultancy) to form a loose ecosystem of mutualistic businesses. And while Francis says he has no plans to form a cooperative, the studio does plan to offer an ownership stake for anyone who stays at Sanctuary for four years and opts into a partner role.
Sanctuary may operate on a slim runway at any given point, but the studio has also shared an increasing percentage of its profits while becoming more selective about its clients and remodeling its business approach in real time. The positive feedback from those decisions instill confidence beyond the balance sheet. “Instead of me shouldering that burden alone, I’m distributing that amongst 30 people and we are all taking that into account in our day-to-day,” Francis said. “That makes me feel less alone, and it makes everyone else feel more in tune with what’s happening in the business. That in itself is a strong culture that I’m not even in charge of anymore.”