Jay Fanelli is a client's dream and a boss's nightmare. He's the co-founder and creative muscle behind Pittsburgh web shop Full Stop and trans-national fake union and t-shirt emporium United Pixelworkers. He's also the creative partner at three Pittsburgh food-and-drink establishments: Union Pig & Chicken, Station Street Hot Dogs, and Harvard & Highland. He enjoys cheese fries and terrible pop music.
Follow his tweets @fanelli.
Out of sheer luck—or more likely, procrastination—I have the distinct honor of writing the final Pastry Box post of 2013. So I guess it’s up to me to leave you with some usable advice for next year. Here goes nothin’…
Go get ’em, friends. 2014 won’t know what hit it.
Four years ago, my business partner and I quit our jobs to start a web design studio. We had two new MacBooks, one big (stolen) client, and $0 in the bank. We had no social media followers, no blog, no industry friends, no backup plan. It was touch and go, but we successfully walked the tightrope without a safety net.
Two weeks ago, we quit our jobs again, this time to focus on two side projects we’ve been working on for a long time. Again, we have new MacBooks and $0 in the bank. We’re on the tightrope again. But this time, we have all the industry friends in the world. And if we fall, we hope you’ll be there to catch us.
We’re the most connected industry on the planet, because we’re the ones building the tools that connect people.
My company turned four years old yesterday. We started it as a small, principled, hyper-focused web design studio, founded after a long, unsatisfying career in client services, and dedicated to making the best websites we were capable of.
This year, our company is on track to ship 20,000 t-shirts, so many that we’re considering taking an extended break from website-making to focus on our t-shirt businesses.
If you have an idea, chase it. Keep chasing it. You may be surprised where it leads you.
I have a partner in life. Her name is Michelle. We’ve known each other for eight years and met as co-workers. We are equals, and very alike. We’re both ambitious, unafraid of confrontation, and decisive. We have a shared sense of humor that ranges from “razor sharp” to “total goofball.” We’re fiercely protective of a close circle of friends. We like the same music, the same food, the same travel destinations, the same television shows, the same sports. Our desires both day-to-day and long-term are never at odds. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve grown even more similar. We rarely fight, and our marriage is stronger for it. We are successful because we agree on nearly everything without discussion.
I have a partner in business. His name is Nathan. We’ve known each other for six years, and too began our relationship as co-workers. We are equals in a different way: we’re almost exact opposites. He’s rational, whereas I’m emotional. He’s politically conservative and a man of faith; I’m liberal and a non-theist. His intense focus leaves him aloof; my awareness keeps me from focusing. He relies on study and the experience of experts; I rely on instinct and my own experience. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve polarized even further. We disagree almost daily, and our business is stronger for it. We are successful because every idea must pass the test of debate.
It’s a well-trodden anecdote that 50% of the marriages in America end in divorce. I think about this statistic quite a bit, wondering if my wife and I have done everything we can to beat the odds. But I also find myself wondering if it applies to business as well.
Nate and I joke all the time about being de facto married, and it’s not far from the truth. We spend a third of our lives together. We’re contractually bound to each other. It’s hard for people to think of one of us without thinking of the other. What we’ve learned is, what’s important in marriage is equally important in business: communication, trust, shared goals, familiarity, respect. And just like marriage, it isn’t always easy.
I don’t think it’s necessary that Michelle and I agree all the time for our marriage to succeed, nor do I think that Nate and I need to agree more for our business to stay successful. What is important is that I know where they stand at all times. When an issue arises, I can predict with near certainty how they’re going to react. My personal and professional relationships work because I know exactly who I’m literally and figuratively getting into bed with.
Our industry is full of shotgun weddings and arranged marriages: startups that appear from thin air, sudden acquihires, haphazardly-installed CEOs, messy mergers, and the like. Here’s hoping we’re all on the path to professional matrimony.
Instead of trying to balance your work and your life, wouldn’t you rather be working on something that you want in your life?
Congratulations, recent graduates, you’ve read Mike’s post and landed yourself one of those design jobs he talked so much about. You start next week…now what? Here are ten tips to help you survive your first year on the job and come across as the earnest young go-getter that you are.
Say “please” and “thank you.” Learn everyone’s name. Talk to everyone in the office. Look people in the eye. Hold the door for others. Shake hands firmly. Be gracious. Smile. The quickest way to gain a reputation as a nice person to work with is to be a nice person to work with. This not only applies to interactions with co-workers, but also with receptionists, restaurant staff, office janitors, etc.
Be proactive and anticipate needs. Look for opportunities to fill gaps. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Step up.
Don’t avoid meetings. In fact, ask to sit in on as many as you can. It’s a chance to show your face to people who have no idea who you are. It’s also a chance to receive news first-hand, and to observe how your managers and co-workers communicate with each other and with clients. Don’t avoid happy hours either. Letting loose with your co-workers builds camaraderie. Just don’t get shit-faced. Not yet, anyway.
Keep your ears open to the tides and rumblings of the office. Awareness is your friend.
Never be the last one to arrive in the morning, and never be the first one to leave at night. People notice.
You’re about to make some money, likely more than you’ve ever made in your entire life thus far. Learn how to manage it. If you’re in a place like New York or San Francisco, most of your salary will exit your bank account in the form of rent. Adjust accordingly. Note: for a while, you will likely be earning less than almost everyone else in your office. This is not a grievous injustice.
You just spent four years explaining your work to students and professors—people who know color theory, who know who Paul Rand is, who know exactly what “vertical rhythm” means. Be prepared to explain your work to clients—people who might not even know what a typeface is—because they’ll be paying you from now on.
The ability to communicate effectively is a powerful skill, so stop writing like a student and start writing like a professional adult human being. Poor writing is bad, but “awkward formality” isn’t far behind.
Difficult conversations are better had in person or over the phone, not via email, chat, or text messages. Learn to embrace one-on-one communication with co-workers and clients, particularly when delivering bad news. This is also important when you want something (like a nicer chair or a new monitor), and especially when you want something bigger (like a promotion or a raise).
Be assertive. A lot of people might tell you to keep your mouth shut—and that’s not a bad idea at first—but long-term that will earn you a reputation as a pushover. Voice your thoughts positively and constructively, especially if someone asks for it.
Good luck out there. Your education is just beginning.
Here’s a semi-exhaustive list of the things we’ve tried as a company over the past four years that failed (or never got off the ground):
Here’s a semi-exhaustive list of the things we’ve tried as a company over the past four years where the jury’s still out on whether they’ll ever succeed:
Taken together, that’s a lot of failure. I’d go so far as to say that we’ve gotten used to failing.
By most measures, my company is successful. We design and build nice websites, we have a side business selling t-shirts, and we earn enough money to comfortably support three people full-time. But we’ve clearly screwed up. A lot. The lists above represent an overwhelming majority of our non-client services efforts over the past four years. And the precious few efforts that have succeeded have only done so after significant time and modifications.
The thing is, failure gets a bad rap. If you’re an individual or a small group like us—and most of the web design industry is—failure is rarely catastrophic. You try something in your spare time, it doesn’t work, you move on. It’s not an all-or-nothing, “bet the farm” proposition. Our industry is so successful because it’s comprised of people who aren’t afraid to take chances. We encourage and reward experimentation, and with experimentation comes failure. Almost everyone we consider successful is only afloat because they’re standing atop a raft built from their own failures. Here’s someone we’ve always considered a model for our business, Jim Coudal, talking about failure in a Design Glut interview:
We’ve had a lot of things not work, and that’s OK too. If it’s a good idea and it gets you excited, try it, and if it bursts into flames, that’s going to be exciting too. People always ask, “What is your greatest failure?” I always have the same answer – We’re working on it right now, it’s gonna be awesome!
We launched a new internal project not too long ago. It’s big, it’s ambitious, and it’s taken months of planning and sketching and designing and building to get to this point. Who knows if it’ll work. If it does, it has the potential to fundamentally change what we are as a business. If it doesn’t, we’ll shed a tear and throw it on the junk pile. And then we’ll try again later with something else.
I’m buying a new car (a 2013 Mini Countryman S, thanks for asking). Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I’m trying to buy a new car. You see, I went to my local Mini dealership with a very clear idea of what I wanted and what I had to spend, and came to an agreement on a new car…and yet here I am more than two weeks later, still driving my 6-year-old Volkswagen with no clear timeframe of when that’ll change. So what happened?
Not so fast. First, let’s look at the process of buying a car. Buying a car follows a relatively predictable arc. You do your research, you find a model you like, you go to the dealership, you test drive a car or two, you decide on features, you work out financing. Hopefully they have your car on the lot, and you drive it home. If not, they find one at another dealer and get it there in a few days. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Worst case scenario, this takes a week. At least this was my expectation.
Got it? OK. Now let’s look at the process of selling a car. Selling a car is a lot like fishing. A fisherman casts his bait, waits for a nibble, sets the hook, and reels the fish in. Quickly. Once the fisherman senses a hint of commitment, there’s tremendous urgency to the process. The point is, once a buyer is ready to buy, the salesperson needs to close the deal. There are tens of thousands of dollars at stake in a car purchase and fierce competition for those dollars. It’s not much of a stretch to say that sales people need to sell cars to stay alive. At least this was my expectation.
Now that we’re all on the same page, here’s what actually happened (the names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Monday, March 4: I enter Mini of Pittsburgh at approximately 9:30am with a mission: I am going to buy a 2013 Mini Countryman S. I know what colors I like. I know what features I care about. I know what I can afford. I know what my trade-in is worth. I know what other cars I’m considering. I am ready to swallow the bait. I am ready to be reeled in.
I am greeted by Justin, my salesman. Justin is a bald, spectacled, stubbly fellow, not unlike myself. Justin compliments my jacket. I like Justin. Justin and I sit down to discuss features. Justin and I test drive a few models. Justin and I return to the dealership to talk business. Justin introduces me to Carl, the sales manager. Carl and I come to an agreement on payments. Carl has me fill out a credit application. Justin and Carl and I shake hands. I leave the dealership, confident I’ll soon be driving a new 2013 Mini Countryman S.
Tuesday, March 5: Good news! My credit has been approved. Bad news! My desired vehicle is not in the dealership’s inventory, so they’ll need to locate one. A “locate,” that’s what they call it. I am led to believe that a locate takes a few hours, maybe a day, and from that point it’s another 10–14 days before the car actually arrives. Hmm.
Wednesday, March 6: Justin emails me to say that they’ve found a few vehicles that match my desired car. They’re “moving forward with the locate.”
Thursday, March 7: I call Justin, inquiring on the status of my locate. “I’m pretty sure we got one,” he says. “Pretty sure?” I ask. “Pretty sure,” he says. I am not so sure. Justin says he’ll call me the next day.
Friday, March 8: Justin does not call me.
Saturday, March 9: My wife and I visit the dealership unannounced. Justin is busy with other customers, so we pass the time by taking another test drive. Upon our return, we bump into Carl. Carl barely recognizes me. I jog his memory. Carl asks if they ever located my car. “You tell me,” I say. (SPOILER ALERT: they never located my car.) We sit down in Carl’s office to properly locate my car. He gives me three options; I choose one at a Mini dealership in Louisville, Kentucky. “You’re in luck. I know the sales manager in Louisville,” Carl says. Carl is confident he’ll have news for me by the end of the day. The end of the day passes. I hear nothing from Carl.
Monday, March 11: It’s midday. I have still heard nothing from Carl. I email him. Carl replies that he has no news, but a few hours later, he emails again. “I got it!!” he writes, with double exclamation points. “Great!!” I reply, with double exclamation points, “do you need anything from me to make it official?” Carl does not respond.
Tuesday, March 12: Justin calls to confirm that yes, the locate has been completed, and no, they don’t need anything further from me. I ask if he knows when my car will be picked up. He does not. I ask if he knows the route of the truck picking up my car. He does not. I ask if he’s in contact with the truck driver. He is not. (SIDENOTE: it’s 20-goddamn-13. This truck should be a real-time dot on a map, but I digress.) All Justin knows is that my 2013 Mini Countryman S will be here in 10–14 days and that once it arrives I will be “the second person to know.” He’ll be the first, you see.
[Eight days pass]
Wednesday, March 20: The phone rings early in the morning. I recognize the number; it’s Mini of Pittsburgh. I answer, breathlessly anticipating what is no doubt news of my car’s arrival. Instead, it’s Justin “just checking in,” telling me the same thing he told me eight days ago: yes, my car’s still definitely on the way, and no, he still doesn’t know when, and no, he still doesn’t know if it’s been picked up yet, and no, he still doesn’t know where the truck is. But as soon as it arrives, I’ll be the second to know.
So now you’re all caught up. One of these days—who knows when, certainly not Justin—I’ll receive a call that my car has arrived. And when that day finally comes, I’ll drop what I’m doing and drive to the dealership and shake everyone’s hand and sign a stack of papers and write someone a check and give them the keys to my Volkswagen and get my new keys and drive my new car home. I’ll be elated. Three months from that day, I’ll probably still be elated, and all that elation for my new car will almost be enough to make me forget about the runaround and lack of communication and dropped balls and interminable wait that I had to endure to get it. Almost.
What’s the difference between buying a car, or enjoying the process of buying a car? “Almost” is the difference. “Almost” means that I might not recommend my Mini dealership to a friend. “Almost” means that if I had a stronger constitution, I’d tell Justin and Carl to go pound sand while I bought a competitor’s car. “Almost” means that I might not go back a few years from now and buy another Mini. “Almost” is the difference between a customer and a customer-for-life.
But we’ll see about all that. For now, I wait. My new car is “almost” here.
Here’s my recipe for garlic bread: I make a thick, pungent paste out of minced garlic, softened unsalted butter, extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, grated parmesan cheese, coarse black pepper, and kosher salt, and spread it liberally onto a split loaf of local ciabatta. Then I place it into a 450°F oven for about 10 minutes, until it’s just browned around the edges and studded with roasted garlic bits. It’s delicious.
I first started making garlic bread when I was a kid, maybe 10 years old. In fact, it’s one of the first things I remember cooking by myself. Here was my method back then: I took whatever ancient jar of garlic powder my mom had stashed in the spice cabinet, mixed it with some microwave-melted butter, poured it onto white bread (cut into triangles with the crusts removed for presentation; I wasn’t a savage), put it into an indiscriminately hot oven, and made sure it didn’t burn. Back then, I thought that was delicious too.
Comparing the two, they’re barely the same food, and I can’t imagine eating (or forcing someone else to eat) my childhood garlic bread today. But what’s strange is, it feels to me like I’ve been making garlic bread the same way for the last 20 years. Why? I guess it’s because I never really made any major leaps in technique; every change I made over the years was small. At some point I replaced the garlic powder with garlic from a jar, then started mincing my own. I swapped the white bread with Italian bread, then a baguette, then ciabatta. I introduced the olive oil. I added complementary flavors one by one, and removed ingredients that didn’t quite work (looking at you, rosemary). I may have even gone backward a time or two, reverting to previously abandoned methods. It was a constant, iterative path from my immature proto-garlic bread to my modern, sophisticated garlic bread.
Enough about garlic bread; let’s talk about web design. We work in an industry where change happens at a breakneck pace. What’s true today may not have been true six months ago or even six weeks ago. The internet is a juggernaut, and we’re all powerless to stop it. But design is different. It progresses at its own pace, and it’s not always fast. Sometimes design happens deliberately, glacially, almost imperceptibly. Sometimes, you might not even know you’re designing.
“Why would anyone put this button in the upper-right?”
“That blue is hideous.”
“Whoever designed this animation should be fired.”
If being a part of this industry has taught me anything, it’s that small decisions aren’t made by entire companies. It’s easy to shake our collective fists at the foibles of monoliths like Google or Twitter or Instagram, but the reality is that none of them are monolithic. That new feature you’re trashing was likely designed and developed by a small handful of people sitting together at a table trying to make the best decision they’re capable of…and those people are listening (and so is everyone else). Remember that the next time you take to the Internet to let off a little steam. You may think you’re standing outside the building, harmlessly yelling at the front door, but you’re really standing next to someone’s desk embarrassing them in front of their colleagues.