Originally published in
10,000fton October 30, 2015
In this Two Beers interview, we shared Halloween-themed beers over video chat with Mark Rolston, Founder & Chief Creative and Jared Ficklin, Partner & Chief Creative Technologist and discussed argo’s unconventional approach to engaging clients, creative contracts, and welding steel on their office floor.
Mark founded Frog Design’s digital design team in 1994 and led as Chief Creative Officer for the last 10 years, before leaving to start argo. “Over 20 years, I built something special at Frog, but it wasn’t mine,” said Mark. While growing up as a “really bad programmer”, Mark studied fine art and eventually dropped out of school to become a designer. “I started a design firm when I was 19, and we had grown to 25 people when Frog acquired us in 1994. So, I’ve essentially been doing this since high school.”
Jared spent 14 years at Frog creating products that pushed the boundaries of technology. “I grew up playing with computers in New Mexico. All schooling fell to the side and computers became my occupation,” Jared shared. “After Frog, I wanted to join Mark to get back to my roots and re-focus on product design.”
Mark: When I started at Frog, I’d go to a meeting with the founder, Hartmut Esslinger. He had this beautiful skill which I’ve since – and I think successfully – emulated. He’d go up to a client and say, “Your product is utter shit.” He wasn’t doing it to be rude, but it wasn’t polite, either. He would just say what needed to be said, “Look, your product is a mess. It needs to be fixed.”
But in the way he said it, the client could tell that he was really earnest and interested in fixing it. He wasn’t trying to embarrass or insult them and they knew that. They would totally buy into it. They’d even start to compete and say, “Oh yeah, it’s terrible. It’s terrible.”
It’s an incredibly delicate interpersonal act to go there. Some of the other industrial designers who worked with him would attempt it and completely fail and the client would be upset, naturally. There was a nuance in Hartmut’s presentation that made it believable. In one scenario, they would get off on the wrong foot because it started with an insult, while in the other scenario, the client would be apologizing for their work and saying, “Can you fix it, please?” and begging for Hartmut to work for them. I think argo is in a similar boat right now. We’ve found a package that’s working.
Jared: At argo, we wanted to eliminate the bottle rocket form of project management, which is: this is the budget, here are the people, now take off. In that situation, you’re just tracking burn rate. We wanted to get rid of that because a lot of opportunities get lost. You’ll lose the opportunity to over deliver and do better, quality work. You’ll lose ways to pivot. It’s very hard to steer a rocket once it’s been launched.
You can’t put your team in an iron box. You can’t say that these five people are going to solve this particular problem for three months. In general, that works when you have really smart people, but if you run up against a wicked problem that needs a solution, you need to have the flexibility, presence of mind, and business systems to go get the best person without doing twelve layers of paperwork. If you’re really going to deliver quality, you need a way to be able to do that.
Mark: At a large agency, you have to manage through policy and some very generalized statements about creativity. The dispersion of individuals working on a vast number of projects often means they ultimately have little in common. But in a creative environment, you can’t set up too many policies unless it’s a product you’re repeating over and over. That’s the antithesis of what we’re doing - we’re trying to make new things every day. The policy has to be open for that to work. We’re intentionally not bound by a canned process. I’ve tried to hire people who are knowledgeable in traditional methodologies related to both industrial and software product design. They’re well-trained and they know what they’re doing.
Instead of bringing them into a rigid framework, you simply need to establish a set of ideals, which at its most abstract for us just means a bar of quality. I’d say that’s probably the number one thing creative organizations can do to differentiate themselves. They can change processes, deliverables, or any number of things over the course of their lifetime, but the number one thing that makes them interesting and better than another group is whether they care to deliver better work - whether they set a bar and live up to it.
Obviously there’s some capacity that has the be available to the team - either the talent is there or it’s not there. But the truth is, even talent comes and goes. Frog is a great example. Over the years, there were a lot of different people, a lot of different deliverables and technologies coming through, but Frog maintained an unwavering commitment to delivering beautiful, high quality work. To me, that’s a foundational aspect that everything else sort of fits within or orbits around.
Mark: To me, Jared is the most ideal business partner because he has a way of looking at the world that defies convention. Jared’s lens is that technology is an actor that can disrupt or reframe the way we look at a problem. It’s not simply a means to an end, but also the very spoil to ordinary thinking.
Jared: It boils up to our creed of “think by making”, which is a big creed and can be applied many ways, but one way we apply it is by acknowledging that it’s okay to use technology itself as a tool for exploring solutions. It might sound a little weird, like using a car to design a car, but it’s not like that at all. When you’re working inside of a system that you’re trying to improve, technology makes it a lot easier to understand where the viable moments are. That’s the secret.
We try to simulate one small part of whatever we’re trying to do so we can see how it feels. Right away, you eliminate massive amounts of speculation and find where the real value is and begin pursuing that in a product or a flow. A lot of our processes revolve around eliminating theoretical thinking as soon as possible and getting tactical as quickly as possible. This is why we want senior people who are quite good at their toolset and their talent, and like jazz musicians, they can now play with it.
Mark:When design is too declarative, it can be like trying to create a granite sculpture - you can’t do it without imagining a good answer to begin with, otherwise you’ve cut away the wrong part. For us, we think of it more like clay, where you’re constantly shaping and the material is talking back to you. We allow the technology and the team the freedom to go wayward a bit, as long as they know the tools really well. There’s a certain level of dependency on people knowing what to do.
Mark: Look, the general part is that you try to bring a lot of good, quality people together and do interesting work – that defines you. But the thing that’s been most different and most memorable about us so far is that we’ve set up a very unique business framework with our customers.
First of all, many of our deals have been equity-based. In that sense, we have skin in the game. This gives us the faith in the project to take risks with staffing when you would normally be asking the client to cover those risks. Otherwise you get boxed in. As Jared talked about, we avoid the bottle rocket that takes off to no return. It allows us to be flexible and pivot. As a designer, if you get boxed into little tasks, you get upset because you don’t really get to be involved in the outcome, and it all goes south. We wanted to get rid of that.
We also have contracts that don’t focus on deliverables as much as is typical in this industry. Rather, we lay out that our goal is to create certain things. We structure our contracts so the customer pays for using a certain number of resources for a certain amount of time. The formula is simple: people and time. We can be fluid if we figure out the challenge is more complex than we originally estimated, or if they want more or if they want less. It also means there’s an even-handed understanding and we’re not having to apologize for making those changes. They know we’ll do everything we can. We’re partners with our clients and we’re going to bend over backwards to get this product right, but the reality of scope and changes must be something we both share.
Mark: It allows us to have honest discussions about what it will take to build something, which means we have more relevant creative output. It means they realize we’re truly a partner in this equation and we can say, “No, that’s maybe not a great idea.” Which is something you need the freedom to say, right? It also helps the client understand that they’re better off if they respect your role. We tell clients from the beginning, “Look, ultimately, in the end you’re paying us. We’ll do whatever you need us to do.” But that’s only at the far edge of the line. Until then, you’re paying me for my expertise. By setting up those boundaries early on, you end up winning the freedom that tends to be essential to do a good job. When you have that moment of inspiration, and think, “Oh man, this would be amazing,” you can actually do it.
Mark: The equity part has been the most important lever in changing the entire mindset and framework of traditional business. By not having deliverables-focused contracts, we’re able to align on objectives on a constant basis, as opposed to an arbitrary three-month deadline with a big presentation and lots of slides because it’s ceremony. F**k the ceremony. We want to ship something.
Mark: Initially, most clients aren’t open to the equity conversation. But as we demonstrate that we understand the structure and the different kinds of equity and shares, they start to listen and realize that it’s often a better arrangement than the cash flow alternative. It’s part of helping them understand how critical design is to their business.
Several of our startups are very well-valued now and it’s easy to recognize that design is central to that valuation. One of our partners, Wrap.co, is doing fantastically. At the start it was just the founder - Eric Greenberg - and us, working together. We designed the product together and built it out. Today it’s been invested in by Salesforce, ProSieben, and a lot of other top names. That sort of thing doesn’t happen without the client understanding the value of design in the first place. Some folks simply won’t be our customer because they don’t value design enough. Luckily, the atmosphere is changing and more companies are waking up to that idea.
Jared: A little reputation, a little resonance - there’s a space you have you get in with people. You’re going to be in a very tight partnership with these folks. When you’re at the table of a startup, there can be no dead weight. You have to be all-in for the journey. You can’t approach it as you might with normal design services, thinking, “Oh, this is going to end in six months anyway.” This isn’t like that at all – it’s your soul, your culture, your spirit.
Mark: Well, it's been very risk-worn. We've been lucky though, because we're taking a reduced margin in cash for equity. We've had two investments go flat, but we also have several that are achieving very high valuations right now, so that's the upside. It's a potential pay day that equals our annual revenue. So I think the risks will have turned out well worth it. Fingers crossed.
And, look, that's the economic argument. The truth is, underneath this is ultimately a creative argument, that this kind of relationship breeds a better, more respectful engagement with our customers so we can turn out really good work. With consultancies and even in-house design teams, I'd say 80% of the argument about whether a good job happens or great work gets made rests on a framework to be able to do that great work. It's not necessarily the talent, because I've been able to demonstrate that you can take someone who was doing average work at another agency, bring them in here, and they start doing fantastic work. Not because I've coached them in some magical way, it's simply that I gave them permission to do better work. To me, that's everything. We could talk about a lot of other stuff but, if you're going to walk away with one juicy bit, that's it.
Jared: It means that even our project managers have to be creative and find solutions just like our designers. We don't want someone who comes in and only runs by spreadsheets - you have to solve problems daily, to the benefit of our team and our clients. I've been at places where it's like, “Nope, that person is ours until this day because that's the date on the contract." That doesn't produce the best work.
Mark: Look, it's permissive strategy. It's not something you could standardize. But I don't know the answer to that. It would be cocky to say only we can do it, but it has to be a whole company strategy. It's not just, “Hey, let's add that to our contract…you know, here's our bill, and…please give us a piece of your company." It's the whole package.
Jared: There's another layer, too. Technology has been shifting and enabling a whole new development cycle where people can attack markets without a billion dollars in their pockets. In fact, they're attacking them in their garage accidentally. Oculus Rift was like a Kickstarter that people just started as a passion project. Three guys and some crowdfunding took advantage of everything from open source software to micro-manufacturing to modular microelectronics. What used to be a $10,000 computer now sits on a small stick. That has really changed the landscape and a lot of categories aren't as vertical as they used to be. $100 million markets are happening more now because set up costs aren't as big as they used to be. The world is changing and we're trying to change right in front of the wave.
Mark: Practically, we make our team create a lot of artifacts quickly and display them frequently. We use the hell out of our printer and plotter.
Jared: Let's say you're going to do a bunch of wireframes for a software interface problem. You can make a lot of quick decisions and steer yourself way off course before you've realized it. Whereas, if you quick and dirty the entire experience into a moving, interactive form and put that in front of somebody, you know really quickly if you're hitting your attained goal. If we have questions, we're going to ask those with a motion or interactive study so we can find out, “Does this feel good?" Rather than, “Is this theoretically good?" If it lands in someone's hand, it better feel good even at that surface aesthetic level, and if it's a technology like voice or gesture, this multiplies even more.
Mark:Feel has become a real factor and we're trying to figure out how to capture all the design processes that expose feel early enough. Wireframes were a great methodology when things were purely aesthetic, but that doesn't hold up nowadays when most of the innovation in something like a mobile app is really around feel.
Mark: We imagine that we'll give ourselves a ceiling in order to enjoy life. There's kind of a nexus where you can be large enough to be meaningful to the clients you want to engage, but small enough to shut down on a Friday and go play mini golf with the group. That's the sweet spot. I can say that confidently because I've been at every size for 25 years.
Mark: When we started, Jared and I were sitting together in my living room with the other two partners, and we really committed to a “maker" attitude. It's all about showing what you want instead of saying what you want. Well, in doing so, we're all sitting at computers way too much. So a maker's studio is a great answer to that. It inspires us to recognize that we're living in physical world. I'm an avid race car builder and driver so I thought, “Hell, let's build one of my cars in the studio." It makes us get up from the computer.
Jared: You can't just sit and stay in a virtual space all the time, where you're asking for constant changes. When you're sitting at a car and wrapping dead bolts, the piece just has to fit. Steel is unyielding. CSS is yielding.
We have another thing where when you start at argo, you get wobbly Ikea desk legs. Once you've been here awhile, you go with me into the garage and you learn to weld and you actually build your own desk legs. It takes a good, solid 8 hours. It's really brutal work.
Mark: All of the furniture, including this table we're sitting at, we designed and built ourselves. Our conference tables, the cabinetry. We're trying to build just about everything. That physicality is the perfect antidote to the sterile computer space that we normally exist in.
Jared: The really important rule is to not lose the place in the car book. It's like a Lego manual, but I guess a little bigger and more important. Please don't lose our spot.