Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.
In this fantastic finale, consulting powerhouse Chris Fahey of “Behavior Design”:http://www.behaviordesign.com/ talks with Christina (herself a former consultant-turned-entrepreneur) about the conditions that led to the founding of the firm. He speaks with great nuance and honesty about how the practice developed, what it means to lead the consultancy, and how the partners’ work has changed because of its success.
For those who have ever considered striking out with a few colleagues or are just curious about the path, do yourself a huge favor and listen to this podcast before you jump off that cliff.
Chris discusses the reality of the business world today when it comes to careers. How we start to think less about how we can do well for our clients and more about how we can get involved in larger projects.
Chris talks about how he and his four business partners created his company Behavior Design and the challenges of moving into an office after working virtually for years.
*To hire or not to hire*
Chris discusses the hiring process at Behavior Design and their good fortune in hiring staff. His biggest challenge remains whether to out source work to trusted consultants or hire staff full time. Pros and Cons to both are talked about.
*In through the out door*
Although one of the partners left the organization to take on a dream job at the NY Times as the lead designer, the culture that was developed allowed for a smooth transition for the organization and its’ people.
Christina describes the importance of shameless self-promotion in order to continue to advance your company. Chris describes other important aspects including knowing when to say “No!” and when to be hungry for sales.
Christina and Chris talk about the challenges and advantages of working with several partners when building a company.
Part of the natural growth of the company is for people to walk away to take on new challenges. As Christina points out, we’re human beings, we grow, and ultimately we’re bigger than what we do.
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Female Announcer: Boxes And Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user-experienced design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Chris Fahey from Behavior Design.
Christina Wodtke: This is Christina Wodtke of Boxes And Arrows and we ran into Chris Fahey in the hall of Behavior Design and we thought we’d catch up with him and see what interesting things he’s up to. So Chris, what are you up to over in New York these days?
Chris Fahey: Well, Behavior Design is growing quite a bit, we just passed our fifth year mark, so I think that’s sort of the marker as to whether or not a business can survive, so that’s been great for us.
Christina: Do you wake up every morning going “not dead yet!”?
Chris: [laughing] I wake up very late sometimes, because we’re still working very late. Even after five years, we’re still putting in massive hours and still working as if we’re in our first year.
Christina: So, you know, a lot of folks on Boxes And Arrows are becoming really excited about the articles we’re running about careers, because they’re asking themselves, “Where am I going to go with my life? I’m a designer, and I could become ‘best designer in the universe,’ but maybe I should try something else, maybe I should run my own agency, maybe I should become a product manager.” Do you have some fun thoughts on what brought you here? What made you decide to run your own shop?
Chris: Actually I was just in the hallway having an interesting conversation with some other people about the very same topic actually, so it’s fresh in my mind. Someone said there was a sort of series of ingredients that go into making you a ‘superpowerful’ consultant as an individual, and that is starting a business, publishing a book, and speaking at conferences, or teaching at a university of some kind. So, these ingredients add up to escalations in your ability to make money and get premier clients.
I guess, over the years, we start to think less about how we can do good on our projects for our bosses and clients and more about, “Well, what’s going to happen to me coming up in the future? Am I going to manage people? Am I going to work on bigger and bigger projects? Am I going to work on more and more refined, focused projects?” And, you know, I’m in my mid-thirties right now and a lot of people I think in this industry – while it’s very broadly ranged – I think there are a lot of people in that kind of boat, where there’s a new generation coming but there’s people who are entering the second generation, having started in the web industry in the 90′s. We’re kind of all facing that question, you know, where do we go now?
Christina: So, as a way of thinking of the question, can you tell me what was the moment that you said, “Hey, take this job and put it in a trash bag, and let’s go start our own thing.” How did that happen?
Chris: Yeah, that was an interesting decision for us. At Behavior we started with five partners, including myself, and we all were working together at Rare Medium, which is one of the razorfish-like global consultancies that managed to…
Christina: I actually remember…
Chris: …driving to…
Christina: …Rare Medium, believe it or not, and March 3rd, and…
Christina: …Vividenson [?], Gohan [?]
Chris: Yeah… March 1st, March 3rd is my birthday, actually.
Christina: Oh, must have been in the air.
Chris: Yeah, but we were the last people to work there as they gradually went from a thousand to five hundred to fifty to three… you know, thirty people. Finally it was down to about ten people and we realized we all liked working together, we had clients that like working with us that were going to be upset when their vendor disappeared. So we continued to work with the same clients right away, working from home.
It wasn’t hard for us to decide to continue working together and to serve clients as almost like a virtual agency. What was hard was deciding to incorporate and move into an office and start delegating tasks to underlings and start to, you know, build an organization. You know we had all managed people before, but kind of we had this brief period of time where we were virtual freelancers as a virtual company. It was very awkward.
Christina: What made the decision hard?
Chris: I think it was just sort of the change of focus. It was sort of transitioning from working out of your home, to spending money on an office. I think it was financial difficulty. We grew organically. We did not have any investment. I think we all lived off of credit cards for a few months in the early stages when we had unemployment. [laughter]
Gradually I think we made enough money in our first year to be able to afford the down payment or the deposit on a space. We started with folding tables, worked our way up to buying actual doors that we could then varnish and make into real tables. Now we’re actually getting furniture built for us from friends of ours. [laughter]
I think the hard part is financial but its also just sort of cultural, understanding yourself to be not the person the client hired, but you are the embodiment of the brand that the client hired. So clients don’t necessarily get Chris Fahey 100 percent on a project. They get me leading a team, and my selection of that team. My course correction of that team. My standardization of the deliverables that we do. That’s been hard. That’s been tough to do because I really like working on stuff too.
Christina: You know, I was talking to another entrepreneur who just made his first hire and he was talking about what a terrifying moment that is. Can you talk a little bit about what it meant to change from five guys who are all kind of responsible for their own troubles to being responsible for a team of young people who you have to grow and nurture and keep your brand going.
Chris: One of the hardest parts about that was when people started sending us resumes from outside of New York. Then we have to say to them, yeah, OK you’re going to come work for us, and relocate and move all your stuff, and move your wife or your family to New York. That was a big tough decision. I think hiring other people…
Christina: And then you might have to fire them two weeks later.
Chris: Exactly, that was the tough part, was sort of feeling comfortable enough in our pipeline and our growth and our stability that we could make that kind of commitment. We’ve never made a wrong decision in that regard. We’ve hired people that weren’t great, and that sort of works out eventually.
We’re generally very, very careful about who we hire. Most of our interviews don’t, you know, end up really short. [laughter] Because we want to hire the best and so we wait a long time to hire people. It takes a long time.
Christina: It’s got to be tempting when you’ve got this incredibly fat pipeline and the market is red hot. You’re like, gosh, if we had three more people, boy, that would be a lot of leverage.
Chris: We looked at a pipeline recently that said if we got every single client that we could get, and we felt like was a sort of a good nibble in this business development, we could hire up to a hundred people.
Chris: [laughter] Over time, that shook up and we decided, we said no to some clients. Some clients said no to us. It turns out you don’t actually have to grow that much.
One of the hardest parts though, is deciding between freelance and staff. We have a lot of freelancers working for us as well as staff. I like staff better, because they grow our competency and enable us to have an organization which has institutional knowledge which you don’t get from freelancers quite as much. Except that our freelancers, we like to keep for a long time, in a long-term relationship. So it’s virtual staff.
Christina: Almost staff. And you can flip them sometimes, right?
Chris: Yeah, we’ve done that a couple of times and hope to do more of that.
Christina: So are all five partners still with you?
Chris: No, one of our partners, Khoi Vinh, took his dream job at the New York Times as the design director. I think it was the one thing that could possibly take him away from us, literally of all the jobs out there in the whole world. I think he spoke to some other companies that at some point were interested in him, and the New York Times was his dream job, and he’s loving it.
Christina: Well I would be. If the New York Times comes knocking sometimes… but it’s still got to be hard right? You’ve got this core five, and you’re seeing your company turn into something that isn’t about you five guys but is its own entity.
Chris: Yeah, and actually we thought that would be a difficult transition, and while we miss Khoi very much, we were able to do it because the company had been abstracted enough away from the personalities and to the communal culture. And that culture is embodied not just in our methodology and our deliverables, but also in the zeitgeist of the group of people.
There’s five partners, well, four partners now, and there’s 16 additional employees working around the office and that’s the culture. We’re bringing people at every level and that’s great too, so we’re actually transitioning from bringing in people that we’ve known for a long time with the same experience as us, to bring in people from other cities, from recent graduates. We’re sort of nurturing that, so the culture is constantly evolving and that’s really exciting.
Christina: So let’s say that I’m a practitioner in my late twenties and I feel pretty good about my craft and my game and I come up to you and say, “You know, I’ve been talking to a couple friends and maybe I want to start my own thing.” What would you warn me about? What would you ask me to think about?
Chris: You want to start your own thing? You mean as an entrepreneur?
Christina: As a consultant. I’m going to start a consulting gig, a consulting company. I’m going to go out and there’s so much work right now I feel kind of brave and I might be able to get together with a couple friends and start a consultancy.
I know what I’d say if they wanted to be an entrepreneur and it’d be a very different story.
Christina: “Are you mad?” is what I’d say.
Chris: I don’t want to say it’s luck, but I think there’s a lot of faith you have to have in your own personal connections and their ability to drum up business for you.
I think you have to be shameless in certain ways. You have to tell people what you’re doing more often than you might feel comfortable with, in what they call shameless self-promotion. You have to be gentle with that too, you can’t just spam everybody, but you have to keep in contact with people, have lunch with people, something I’m really bad at.
But don’t get too caught up in your work that you forget that business development is… I’ll be honest with you, business development has and always has been, ever since we started this company, probably a third of what I do. Defining our process in a way that is digestible by clients, that is sellable, actually going to pitches, working on proposals, having a business developer on staff and helping her craft our pitch, marketing ourselves, writing press releases, editing press releases.
That’s a lot of stuff you don’t have to do when you’re working inside of an organization for someone else. I’ve seen you doing it too, a little shameless self-promotion!
Christina: Of course!
Chris: It’s the hard part, I think. One of the hardest parts.
Christina: Oh, absolutely. Well, I was at South by Southwest where you were, and I was tired, it was eight, nine in the morning and I was a little bit hung-over and I was like, “Oh, God. Am I really going to stand up and try to ask a question that promotes my company, and yet doesn’t do it in a really horrifying fashion.
I felt really guilty and shy and tired and like drinking water and laying down. But I did it anyway because you don’t actually have a choice. You think you have a choice, and you don’t actually have a choice. You just always got to stand up there and have a way that your company’s name gets in front of more people.
Chris Fahey: Yes, and you have to make your presentations very sleek, and even to the point where they go beyond doing what they have to do. They have to put on a good show. Another piece that I thought was interesting is really defining what you’re aiming for and knowing what your target is. We don’t say no a whole lot to clients, lately maybe more so just because of the saturation of the market.
But, you have to understand when to say no, and when to just be as hungry as possible. I can’t say that I’m not practicing what we preach, because we’ve taken a lot of almost everything that we got, but we have to decide what to pitch for, we have to decide who to contact, who to send our marketing materials to.
I guess, it’s a good idea, especially if you have partners, to have constant communication. We have summits with our partners twice a year where we just go outside and we’ll hang out for a while. It’s surprising how you’ll realize that you haven’t actually spoken to your partners one-on-one in weeks or months sometimes. Especially when you start getting a staff and you start getting kind of into your projects. So when you communicate internally with your partners, sometimes you’re surprised as to what your company vision is and then the company vision gets embodied in how you pursue business.
Christina: Interesting. I got to say, I’m very impressed that you started the company with five partners. I started the company with five partners, but we had never worked together. So a huge amount of our time was just trying to figure out how we’d relate to each other. So there wasn’t as much time that we could spend with clients or, if we were spending time with clients, we weren’t working through those details. So it was just a tremendously hard thing to do.
Chris: I can’t imagine doing that. I think we had all worked together for five years before we started Behavior or almost five years, maybe four or five years, at Rare Medium. Two of my partners had worked together for four or five years before that at IO/360, a Web design firm in New York that was pretty influential, from day one of the Web.
Also, two of my partners that I’d gone to school with in college, so we all know each other very, very well and we’re able to–I think we’d shaken out a lot of our kinks early on. Every partnership has kinks, and we still have disagreements as to how we want to do things and personal styles and stuff like that, but I think we shall grow out of it early and that was a really big event.
Christina: OK. Well, you know, MIG and Adaptive Path are both two partner companies now.
Chris: Oh, really?
Christina: Yes, absolutely. So I think that’s something else I would say, when they were starting up, it’s like start with one person and get to know them really, really well or start with somebody you already know really, really well and build from that. I got to say, those early years, as you were talking about not having any money, being scared about rent, that’s a lot of stress for any relationship, friendship or otherwise.
Chris: I would say also that part of the natural growth of a company is for partnership to break up and then people go on. There’s no guarantee that everybody, especially if you have three, four partners, wants to spend the rest of their lives doing that. People move on, Adaptive Path has had a very organic changes and behaviors, we’ve had one. Then we don’t see anymore coming, but six years have passed and we’re still together. We all put our vision, like we want to do this for the rest of our lives, that’s just how we say it, but you’ll never know.
Christina: Yes. I think that’s part of our lives, is just to remember that. We’re human beings, we grow, we change, you do one job, you do another job, you become partners and then you go off and get to be the Design Director of New York Times. That’s not personal because we’re human beings, we grow more bigger than what we do.
Well, thanks, Chris. It’s been really, really wonderful.
Chris: Thanks so much. It’s great to be on the podcast for my first time.