How a creative agency used a social media platform to build its empire.
Whether or not we care to admit it, in today’s world, looks are pretty much everything. The way we are perceived matters, and that’s the bottom line.
It’s time to embrace this reality and start building your business around the idea that at any given moment, you and your business are being judged by your “cover”.
In this 40-minute episode Bill Kenney and I discuss:
- The struggles of working from home
- What Focus Lab is and how it got started
- Why workflow and process matter in a creative agency
- How to handle issues during a project
- What Sidecar is and why it got started
The Show Notes
Bill Kenney on Branding Your Business the Right Way
Brian Gardner: Well, I am in a closet. It’s 95 degrees in here. My wife and kid, they’re hanging at the pool.
Voiceover: One, two, three.
Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. I am your host, Brian Gardner. I’m here to discuss the struggles around being and becoming a creative entrepreneur. Together, we’ll identify what stands in the way of you building and growing your online business.
No Sidebar is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, a complete website solution for writers, designers, podcasters, and other online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
Hey friends, welcome back to another groovy Wednesday. Last week, I gave you a behind-the-scenes look at the growth and the rebranding of No Sidebar. I talked about the first four months of the newsletter and why I decided it was time for a redesign and gave a window into the rebranding process and the new content strategy for the website.
Today, I have the privilege of talking to the guy, the mad design genius who is beyond the new-look No Sidebar. I also consider him a friend. It’s been really fun getting to know him and talk shop over social media, Skype, and so on. Here we go today with Bill Kenney from Focus Lab.
Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill Kenney: Thank you very much. Very happy to be here and talk candidly with you.
Brian Gardner: It’s funny, as creatives, we get into these ruts where all we want to do is create, create, create, and zone everything out. Once in a while, it’s good for me to step outside my routine and my comfort zone. It’s also good to talk shop with people who are like-minded. I’m definitely glad that you took me up on this.
I want to jump right in and talk about working from home, because when I first asked you about being on the show and asked if you had a headset and a mic, you said, “Yeah. No problem, but my kid’s going to be home,” right?
Bill Kenney: Right.
The Struggles of Working from Home
Brian Gardner: We were like, “How’s that going to work with the kid upstairs making noise and stuff like that?” I thought it would be a fun way to break the ice and talk about what it’s like for you as an entrepreneur, as a guy working from home, how does that go for you? I know that most of the agency that you run, which we’ll talk about later, most of them are in the office, but you’re off in your own little world in the basement, right?
Bill Kenney: That’s correct. I work in the dark, cold basement. I think it’s probably natural for me, this whole working-from-home thing, because I freelanced for so long and got comfortable with working out of my bedroom at that point, before Focus Lab officially started.
I’d started to do freelance work for clients in Savannah. I did that for a couple of years, and I got comfortable doing that. My routine was basically wake up at whatever time I wanted at that point and start grinding through the day, but I did my best work at night. I would work long hours through the night, again, in my bedroom.
Eventually, I met Erik. We started a legitimate company. I no longer worked from my bedroom. We worked in the office. We’ve grown that now for five years.
But now that I’ve transitioned back to working from home, it feels normal for me, I suppose, because I started that way. It definitely has its pros and cons, but it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from who I am. And as a designer, sometimes it’s nice to be in a little bit of a cave and just do your thing.
I’ll certainly talk a little bit about what works and what doesn’t. That’s kind of my evolution through that in getting back to this.
What Focus Lab Is and How It Got Started
Brian Gardner: You started out as a freelancer, and you were doing projects working from home. You met Erik, and you created what’s now Focus Lab, the company. Remind me — you were still in Savannah at the time, and you formed the company. For you, you had an office there in town, and it wasn’t quite so much ‘stay at home and work,’ but you were in the office for a while. I think, what, within the last six months to a year, maybe, you’ve moved up north?
Bill Kenney: That’s right. Yes. When we started the company, I would consider the birth of the company when we moved into that office. Erik left his job. I was full-time freelancing. We both started doing Focus Lab as a full-time job the moment that we signed for our first office. We did that. I was there almost 5 years. I only just left. When I was there, I went in every single day. I thrived off of going into the office, being around team members.
Just recently, while living in Savannah, I was introduced to a beautiful young woman. Right away, got engaged, got married, and now I live in New Jersey. The office, the headquarters, if you will, of Focus Lab, which houses the majority of the team, is still in Savannah, but I’m now a remote employee, a remote boss, if you will.
Brian Gardner: This is something that just came to mind. It was not on my questions-to-ask-Bill list. You mentioned that you were there all the time in the office. As a creative, I think I know the answer to this question, but I will ask you anyway. My guess is that when you left the office, whether it was 4:00, 5:00, 6:00 in the evening, you went home, had dinner, and your work day — or at least your mental day or creative day — then ends there. I’m sure you had family time, but my guess is that late at night, you were there hammering away to get stuff done to then be ready for the next morning.
Bill Kenney: Yeah, absolutely. At that point, to be clear, there was no family. I was in beast mode.
Brian Gardner: You were a workaholic?
Bill Kenney: Yeah, I was really a workaholic. I know that’s a big topic that’s discussed these days. We definitely have a point of view on that as a company, but for me, I was totally fine working all the time. I was building and growing Focus Lab. It was really exciting for me. I had nobody else to give my attention to. I would go home, whether I was actually burned out for the day and I just needed to do nothing but watch movies, or I was really excited about a new project and I wanted to work all the way through until I couldn’t sleep. That was my mentality at that point.
Brian Gardner: I think we all struggle in some fashion. Again, this is probably multiple shows or maybe even an entire podcast, the idea of addictedness to the Internet, the ability to work endlessly.
I know that the job I had previous to what I do now, I loved it so much because of the fact, at 4:00, when I left, that’s all it was. There was nothing I could do at home. It wasn’t so interesting or I didn’t have such passion for it that I wanted to keep thinking about it when I was at home. It’s for sure the number-one reason why I wish — not that I have anything past this reason — I could go back to it.
Bill Kenney: We do the best we can to create a company culture that is like that. We make it very clear, let’s say, when you get off work, whether it’s 5:00 or 6:00, whenever you get your stuff done, you’re not going to hear from me. I’m not going to be calling you after hours saying, “I need you to do this. I need you to do that.” Worst-case scenario, I’m going to jump on and do what I need to do to support whatever needs to happen in the afterhours life of Focus Lab.
Even the type of work we take on and the different paths that we chose not to go down as far as services that we offer are all relevant and related to that decision. We don’t want this crazy, startup, ‘you work 24 hours a day’ culture within Focus Lab. On the flip side of that, if you are energized about a project and you want to work at night, I’m never going to say, “No. I’m going to kill your mojo. You need to stop working because it’s time for your family.”
I want you to enjoy your family, but on your own terms. If you want to work, then work away.
Brian Gardner: We’re the same way at Copyblogger. The typical work week is 40 hours. Most of our people pull 50 to 60 hours, not because we require it, but because they love what they do. Sometimes, I’ve had bouts of 80-hour weeks. I have 20-hour weeks. As long as everybody gets the job done.
My guess is that those who work for you probably fall under that same rockstar-quality, actions-speak-for-themselves types of people. Let’s talk a little bit about that, the formation of Focus Lab, the company. There are companies, and there are really great companies. Everything that you guys do, whether it be audio, video, design, anything, and especially with your new project, Sidecar, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, everything you guys touch is just awesome. It’s not because Bill is awesome. It’s because Bill has built an awesome team. Is that right?
Bill Kenney: That’s exactly right. From the start, I’ve always told anybody that’s worked with us, “This is not about me and Erik. It’s not the Bill Kenney show,” although Dribbble would like to tell you otherwise. It’s absolutely about the team. We should all be doing this for the same reason. We’re all feeding the machine that is Focus Lab, and we all benefit from it.
I sit in that outer circle. We call Focus Lab the nucleus there in the middle. I don’t feel like I am the nucleus. I’m part of the team that helps support and build this thing that begins to snowball and become its own beast in a way.
Brian Gardner: Sure. Just real quickly, how do you find, for instance, Alicja — how did you find Alicja? How do you find the people who work for you?
Bill Kenney: It’s pretty interesting. Although we’re very intentional with a lot of decisions, it feels like a good amount of the team members have come onto the team completely organically and even some of them arbitrarily.
Alicja, gosh — that was probably about three years ago now, maybe even a little bit more. Erik knew her. Erik led the dev team at a local church, a pretty big church there, so there was a lot of need. He was the key dev member on that. If I remember correctly, she actually ran the graphic design side of that church, which is funny to think about. I can even speak more to this. A lot of our team members, even if they’re not in the design role, have design backgrounds, so that’s also awesome for us.
That was the relationship that led to her reaching out to Erik, saying, “I see that you guys are doing awesome things.” Then Erik had left, started Focus Lab with me, and she said, “I’d like to come join you at any capacity. I’m about to move back to Savannah. I think I could be a good project manager for you guys.”
At that point, we didn’t know exactly what project management was or how much we could benefit from having proper project management. Me, and Erik just stilted everything. You managed whatever clients you built the relationships with, just that early-bird stuff.
She joined the team, and the rest is history. That helped tremendously and shaped what PM and those types of roles started to look like for Focus Lab so that people like myself and Erik could just focus on their craft.
My biggest value in Focus Lab, or one of them, the majority, would be just focusing on design. I don’t need to be caught up in the day-to-day businessy-type things. Although I’m very in tune with them, my biggest value is still the design side.
When you start to think about adding team members like PM or sales or anything like that to allow me to focus, it’s extremely valuable — and for other team members to focus too, not just me.
Brian Gardner: You bring me back to the days when I started StudioPress. I remember I was doing everything, whether it be designing, developing, or answering questions. I remember very specifically, one Friday evening, I was in a tent. I was participating an event called The Breast Cancer 3-Day, which was a 60-mile walk from Wisconsin down to Chicago.
Bill Kenney: Wow.
Brian Gardner: I was in my tent, on my phone, activating forum accounts, because I was the only person who could do it.
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: I was like, “It’s time to scale. It’s time to grow and delegate.” A lot of times, that means a little bit of risk, because you’ve got to hire people.
Bill Kenney: Sure.
Brian Gardner: Man, scaling a team is tough, but it’s also extremely necessary.
Bill Kenney: Yeah. You get to this realization point to where it’s scary: “We’re actually going to hire somebody. That’s scary.” I’ve got to think about how we’re going to pay for that, all those things.
But once you do it and you get past that hurdle, you realize, “Wow. That was extremely beneficial for us to do that,” and think, “Thank God we weren’t so scared that we took longer to make that decision.” You open your eyes a little bit more, going, “What else can we change or add?” At that point, it becomes a lot easier to make all those decisions, and then things start to work themselves out.
Brian Gardner: For me, what it came down to — and I see this probably with you — is, like you said, you were doing things that were not so much in your wheelhouse. They were monotonous duty-type things, and you’re a creative person and a genius. I will call you a genius and anoint you as a creative genius.
Bill Kenney: Stop that nonsense.
Brian Gardner: I was in my own way, too.
Bill Kenney: I think what’s important to remember about that is it’s not that I think or anybody should feel like they are above a certain role within the company. It’s actually that I wasn’t even doing it well. I’m not even serving the position well, and I’m not doing it as good as other people could do it.
I think sales is a great example. I hate even using that word within our company, so we do ‘new business.’ For a long time, me and Erik were the salespeople. We took all the incoming calls and did all that. Some people can look at that position as, “Well, you see the sales guys. You need some guy that gets on and rambles on the phone and tries to lock up new jobs.” But for us, it’s not like that. It’s much different.
It wasn’t until we hired Will, who just started in January — Will Straughn is an awesome team member — that you realize how much better they are at that job. Like, yes, I started the company. I should know the most, the ins and the outs, but that doesn’t mean I understand all the little nuances when you’re speaking with somebody, especially when you have that type of interaction: having the time to follow up appropriately, personality, all these things. He does an amazing job at that.
I feel like I’m much better suited to be a designer. That doesn’t mean I’m better. That doesn’t mean because I’m the boss, I shouldn’t have to do things that might seem monotonous. It’s just because I’m not as good as them as other people, so why wouldn’t I want to put power players that enjoy that type of position in that seat? That makes all the difference.
Why Workflow and Process Matter in a Creative Agency
Brian Gardner: Yeah, for sure. Speaking of the great team that you have, I’ve had two interactions now with you and your team. I’ve hired you on two different occasions to do things. Before we talk about, specifically, the projects, there’s one thing I wanted to point out. It’s something that, the first time around, I think I struggled with a little bit. The second time around, I was able to, fortunately, for both sides here, embrace this role a little bit better.
You guys have a very specific workflow. It’s very anti-me, which is a, “Hey, let’s just do it and roll it forward and wing it,” kind of thing. Your specific workflow, my guess it’s for various specific reasons. Talk a little bit about that, and I’ll tell you, once you’re finished here, I’ll tell the audience why it was good for me to go through this creative agency workflow.
Bill Kenney: That whole workflow and process is a big part of who we are now. It was not always like that. I’m not anti-process, but if I had to use that word, I’m definitely more of the cowboy. I’m willing to just, “Whatever. We’ll figure it out. I’ll throw some stuff together. No big deal. Timelines and all that, we can keep them fairly loose.” I’m a very everything-is-gray kind of guy, instead of black and white.
As the company has grown, it’s been very clear that process is key to what we do. Without that process, everything else starts to break down, especially if you have somebody like myself leading that ship. You need process to keep everything moving forward.
We have this discussion a lot, too, because when you start to think about creating such a structured process, does that start to work against creativity? What if I’m not creative on a certain day, but I have a deliverable? I’m not allowed to move it. Everything is very rigid and concrete, but that’s just the way it goes, and it’s worked out really well.
We created some strengths that are beneficial. Everybody knows exactly what’s happening. There’s no confusion. My word for the year is ‘clarity’ — for myself and for the company to be extremely clear. “What are we doing? Why are we doing it? When are we doing it?” All those types of things.
Brian Gardner: Sure. I joked about it a little bit because in one of our first calls, we talked about like, “Brian, what are your concerns about the process and our agreement that we have here?” I think I even mentioned that I’m going to be able to stay within the parameters of your workflow because like you, I’m very gray, I’m a cowboy, and I just want to get it done. I think, outside of Focus Lab, you and I would work well together – back-and-forth, hashing things out.
Again, I’m an anomaly sort of customer for you because what we did was probably such a small project. You work with big corporations and massive branding projects that are way bigger, and a bigger scope than what No Sidebar was. Even for what we went through, I think it really worked. I’ll tell you why in a second. For the bigger things, there’s no way you can wing the bigger projects.
Bill Kenney: Yeah. There’s no way that you could do that. To be fair, a little bit about our process, for people that don’t know — we basically have these weekly sprints. Either weekly or every two weeks is a sprint, and there’s a delivery tied at the end of that. In the middle of that, there can still be open back-and-forth.
Brian, when me and you were working together on this past project, there were some really late night exchanges. I’d be working, getting in the group on a certain idea. At 12:00, I’d be shooting you things at Basecamp to say, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” You’d give me instant suggestions back because you’re also a workaholic. That was beneficial to the project, but I knew and everybody knew — you, on your side, the client’s side — the team knows that there’s still a delivery on Friday. This is what needs to be in it.
The process is more of the framing that you live with and live around, but you can still have your organic creative abilities in between. We typically, when we start a project with the client, tell them, “In the beginning, it’s going to feel very rigid, but as we get more into the groove and the relationship starts to build, and then we have more ideas and the project’s moving along, you’re going to see a lot more mid-week chatter, and we’ll become a little bit more fluid and on Monday, not so radio-silent until Friday deliverable.”
We mix both. You play to the project. You play to the client. You adapt a little bit, but there still has to be a process umbrella over the top of all of that.
Brian Gardner: I’m thankful that I was able to work within that process this time because I’m extremely pleased with what we came up with, what you came up with for No Sidebar. Of course, the biggest issue I had was understanding that it was going to take a month to get through.
That was hard to digest, but one thing I loved most about that was that it helped ground me a little bit because I’m so volatile in my thinking. One day, I’m this way. One day, I’m that way. What it did is it trained me to get outside the sprint a little bit and say, “Look big-picture rather than just ‘what are you thinking and feeling right this very second?’” I’m very thankful about that.
Let’s talk a little bit more about No Sidebar, the branding project we did. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the podcast. I think I’ve mentioned it to you. The interesting thing and the circling-back thing for me here is that you, from a design standpoint, and Allison Vesterfelt, kind of more from a philosophical standpoint, helped formate … Formate, is that even a word?
Bill Kenney: I don’t know.
Brian Gardner: I’m going to leave this in. I’ve always loved transparency.
Bill Kenney: Leave it.
Brian Gardner: People — unedited, unfiltered — this is what happens when you podcast.
You guys were the foundation of the No Sidebar movement here. Allison’s book, Packing Light, helped challenge me on an intellectual level: removing clutter, being intentional, and so on. The work that you guys have done — you, specifically, and others, like Charlie — there at Focus Lab, and stuff that I’ve seen on Dribbble from you, even years ago, like, “Man, this stuff.”
I’ve said this to you before on our calls, but not of course here on the podcast, that this idea of spacious design, breathability — these are, from a visual standpoint, the things that helped shape the No Sidebar movement, which of course, started with my own website. A lot of the iterations I’ve had there and themes that I’ve designed for StudioPress have been inspired by the work I’ve seen you guys post on Dribbble. I’ll put a show note link to your Dribbble account there as well.
I’ve had Allison on the show. Now, I’ve had you on the show. You’ve actually been a part of No Sidebar, the branding. This is very … I wouldn’t want to say, ‘Kumbaya,’ but it’s cool, crunchy, organic. Those who helped inspire the movement are now part of the movement, and so that’s been fun.
Bill Kenney: That’s very cool. I appreciate the love that you’ve given us over the years. We certainly were not always good in our trade. Everybody has a starting point.
I can clearly remember the transition of when I went from ‘crappy’ to ‘almost-average’ designer. I got inspired by a clean look, and a clean feel, and then I started to move it that way. It felt so much more natural to me. I was able to get into projects that much more. They looked great. I wasn’t struggling anymore: “I don’t know what to do on this tri-fold brochure.” It’s like the old-school work that you do as you’re climbing the ladder in going toward that clean look. And then it became flat design, and it became uber-trendy, and all these things.
That’s not to say I was ahead of the trend. I was probably right when it started, I suppose, in calling it flat. It was all about space, like whitespace. Things can breathe, proper hierarchy in contrast and balance of elements, and not having crap everywhere. When we pushed out — I guess that would’ve been our first version of our Focus Lab website — we went for this all-white, single color, just one color — red — and not crazy elements everywhere. We did the black-and-white photography thing. That became who we were at that point, and I don’t think that we’ve ever even got off that.
Things are getting a little bit more playful now. We’re almost going more artsy with some of the projects to push some boundaries and not just be another flat, minimal website.
That is definitely a key ingredient of who we are. Probably 90 percent of the reason we get hired on all of our projects is because they see that type of work, and people also want that type of work.
Brian Gardner: You just mentioned the flat, minimal website. When I came to you and said, “Hey, look, I’m looking to rebrand No Sidebar. This is kind of what I’m about.” You probably saw a little bit of, since we’re friends online, things I’ve Tweeted and shared and whatnot. When I came to you and said, “Let’s rebrand No Sidebar,” and this is … I do this in English a lot. I say things that might not necessarily get translated well, either from a creative design standpoint or when I talk to Nathan about Genesis stuff, I’m always talking in English and asking him to code that.
Bill Kenney: Sure.
How to Handle Issues during a Project
Brian Gardner: When I first came to you, what were your first thoughts on, “Brian’s coming to me and asking me to do this,” and the things that I had mentioned on our initial call? You had some concerns. You expressed them.
In 30 seconds or so, what did you think about the project and how it went out? Were you happy with where we started and where we ended and all the in-betweens? I hope I know the answer to this, but I’m going to ask you anyway.
Bill Kenney: When you came to us about the project — I think I look at every project after the client says, “This is what I want.” You can look at it through the easy route, like, “I can literally do exactly what you want. You’re already calling out typefaces. I know enough about you as a person, a client, just to say like, ‘I could give you this,’ and you would probably be very happy. That serves you well.” Ultimately, that’s the goal. I should be serving you. That doesn’t scratch my itch or the need to push you further than you think you need to go.
That’s typically how I would look at a project. That would say, “I know what you’re telling me, and ultimately, I know what you want, but I’m still going to look at this through a different lens that might bring something to the table that’s not exactly what you want. We’ll work through that together.” That’s part of the relationship and working with a client.
It was really clear. I knew exactly what you wanted. I see you interact on Twitter. I see the stuff that you like that we do, but I still wanted to find a way to do it that was at least going to be a little bit different and not feel like every other solution that’s out there. That is exactly why we went with the, “We’re not going to open with a giant image and put text on top. We’re going to open with nothing. It’s going to be pure white, and we’re going to have some nice, clean text in the middle.” I thought that looked great. I was really happy that you jumped on board with that as well.
Brian Gardner: It’s funny. I guess I’m a little bit atypical in the sense also as a client because I’m capable of doing my own thing to some degree.
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: Obviously, not as the same level as you. You had mentioned that you like to, in most cases and especially in ours, push the client and get them to think outside of their either comfort zone or whatever, and that’s actually the reason why I came to you. Because I knew I could have done something that would have been average or mediocre or like everything else out there, but I think I even said this, “I don’t trust myself here. I don’t trust that I’ll be able to put it into that next level,” which is what I wanted to do with it.
Yet, sometimes — and I get that No Sidebar is about simplicity and minimalism and all that, but I still look at the home page now with nothing but just white space and a little bit of black text, and even the opt-in form is very minimal. I look at it, and it makes me wonder, “Is this intriguing, or is this dull?”
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: I don’t think it’s dull, because I can appreciate good design, but I always wonder, I’m like, “Man,” I’m like, “This is like a statement that I hope people get.”
The response I’ve seen so far from people on social media has been great. All the stuff that you were posting on Dribbble and Instagram — I linked a number of them last week on the show notes — all of that stuff was so positive. I’m like, “This is something that I’m going to love and I do love, and it’s something that is still working because the signups are still happening, and so I haven’t seen any kind of decrease or anything like that.” I’m like, “We nailed it there.” I’m really, really happy with the way it turned out.
Bill Kenney: I’m happy to take care of that. Probably, one of the scariest things, even just as a whole in our industry, is working, doing work for another creative person. That’s like an instant, humongous red flag because you know how hard that project could be. They’re already going to have their own thoughts. They’re going to have their own ideas in mind. Maybe they’ve done a good job in putting those all on the table, or they’re reserving some of those because they want to see what you’re going to come up with.
Ultimately, if you don’t come up with what’s in their mind and they don’t like it, then you’re like, “I wish you would’ve just told me what was in your mind.” That can be a huge scare card. We already had the relationship with you, so I’m able to look past that red flag, but that’s definitely a scary thing to enter into.
The reverse of that is somebody that has no creative ability, no eye. Anything you make for them is awesome. That’s also not the best, either, because it’s almost like you can’t lose, so there’s no pressure to even push the boundaries at all.
Working with creatives is tricky, but we did good, both of us.
Brian Gardner: Yes, we did. I know you saw this Tweet because you favorited it, but I did want to point out that my friend, Emily P. Freeman, says this in her Tweet: “I’ve already signed up for the No Sidebar newsletter, but this page makes me want to sign up again.”
Bill Kenney: Right. That’s winning right there, when I saw that. Because for me, first, I want to make sure that you’re happy. I want to make sure that it’s converting and working. Then I want to pass the social test. Two people will like it. Of course, there’s going to be some critics out there, and that’s fine. We’re old enough to know that now.
That’s my final pat-on-the-back moment, is when I can see something like that, completely unsolicited. I didn’t put something out there, saying, “What do you think?” I was like, “Ahhh. It really did work,” like “We did it.” That’s a great feeling.
Brian Gardner: The cool thing right now is, I’ve been able to take what you came up with. As I’m adding more content and growing the site, which of course, was always the intent, it’s fun to take a little bit of what you’ve done and add my own flair to it. We have recently started adding more blog posts and articles. There’s been some things that, at the time, were outside of the scope, that I get to have a little bit of creative freedom in adding. Hopefully, I’m not butchering your design.
Bill Kenney: No. I think you’ve done a great job. I told you that last week. It’s nice to see a handoff go smoothly and then see new additions that I wouldn’t have thought up, to even say, “Wow. That was really well-executed,” even if it’s just a tiny little element as you’re scrolling down the page and how that top bar is interacting now, and what you’ve chosen to put up there and all of that. It feels really nice. The foundation is there. I’m excited to see you building more on top.
Brian Gardner: All right. No Sidebar has a shiny, new coat of paint. It seems like we’re all thrilled with that. One of the things that I talked about, when we were trying to come up with the general gist of it, and this will move us into the homestretch here, is the use of photography.
With a minimal website, and a desire to not do the status quo or what everyone else is doing, that was the biggest struggle I had, which was, first of all, whether or not to include photography in the articles. If so, how that can be done? I think photography is one of those things where a good photo could theoretically make or break a page or an experience for the user. I’ve seen too many distorted, stretched-out images because users don’t understand things.
One thing I’m very thankful of, and I wish you guys could put out 30 more of them, is something that you guys offer now through your new project, which is called Sidecar. Of course, the show notes will have a link to that as well. Made by Sidecar is their new project.
It’s two-fold. It’s design assets, design stuff from those who design, but also, there’s an educational piece to it, which I’m really, really excited about, being able to share to those who are in our community, because we have a ton of designers in our community.
The really cool thing, at least in the last few articles I’ve been able to do, is to use some of the photo bundles that you guys offer there on Sidecar, which are great photography. Most of those shots, I think, are from Alicja, who we talked about earlier. A lot of that stuff goes well, because the mindset that Focus Lab has — which is not cluttered — the simple, very effective use of objects goes really, really well with my content.
I’m thankful that there’s that, but I have a fear that at some point, I’m going to run out of opportunities to use photo bundles, so I’m going to take you up on the offer you guys have on the website, which is, “Hey, would you suggest something for us, and maybe we’ll make it for you?”
How is Sidecar going?
Bill Kenney: I want to take one step back, for a second, about the lack of photos on the site. I think that was a very intentional and good move. I think we all get caught up now in wanting to have these huge images everywhere. It’s not until a little bit further down the road, you realize, “Crap. I need to find another awesome image for this post.”
The fact that we did not rely on that for the home page to tell the story and that we didn’t rely on that for the header of each journal post for you, it makes for a better experience for the site. If you want to put pictures in the actual post, go for it. You can still capture the essence of that, like, “Wow, this page is beautiful. It had some nice photos.” It doesn’t need to be at the top.
Going to Sidecar, which I now often get confused and say, “No Sidecar,” and I say, “Oops. I mean … ”
Brian Gardner: Or “Made by Sidebar.”
Bill Kenney: Right. It’s very confusing.
What Sidecar Is and Why It Got Started
Bill Kenney: Sidecar’s going great. We launched, we’re coming up on two weeks ago, I believe. This Wednesday will be two weeks in. I’ll speak, too, a little bit about the mission for Sidecar. For us, as designers, you often need assets. That’s obvious. We see a lot of stores out there, whether it’s to buy new typefaces, whether it’s to buy photo bundles, icon sets, UI kits — there’s a lot of this stuff out there.
It’s kind of a free-for-all in a way. You’re going to some sites. Maybe they have a bigger name. They seem slightly more trusted or you’re going to some other random person’s site and you’re getting an icon set, but that’s like the end of the experience. You’re buying an asset. You might or might not ever interact with that person or that brand ever again.
For us, we wanted to be much different than that. It will take some time for it to be totally clear that it is going to be something much different than that. Right now, on the home page, we’re leading out with products, so it might feel like just another store, but the vision is much bigger. We want to pair the learning and the knowledge side with the assets so that they’re very equally matched, so that it’s a 50/50 type of operation. We want to be able to teach somebody how to create a great branding delivery and then at the end say, “By the way, you can buy some templates here to help you with your layout.”
That’s not to say, “Just buy that, and take everything out and put everything back in the same, exact place,” either. Every designer’s going to use that asset differently, so we’re going to strip it completely bare because they just wanted to know the flow of how we’ve laid that out or the sections, and then they’re going to rebuild with their own guides and structure.
Some are literally just going to do plug-and-play, and that’s totally fine, too. We don’t care how people are using any part of Sidecar, whether it’s the tangible assets that they’re buying — which I guess are not so tangible, not all of them — and the writing side, so that we are creating actual value for people to learn and to make them a better designer in that moment.
Less surface-level, like this deeper, intimate type of experience — that’s what we’re shooting for. When we launched two weeks ago, we gave the small version of that story, with some assets, some blog posts, but it’s going to be much more than that. We’re actively working to grow this into — not a community, a community is a word that will get people confused — more of an overall experience.
We want you to come to us. We want to give back our knowledge from all these years at Focus Lab — what we’ve learned doing client work, what we’ve learned as designers using different tools — and start to brain dump all of that in both forms, assets and pure knowledge, back out to the community.
Brian Gardner: I know for a fact that I was one of those people standing in line overnight on the streets of Manhattan with a sleeping bag, waiting for Sidecar to open its doors. I was thrilled when finally you guys did. I know that it took a lot of work. The quality of everything is excellent. Just call me an Apple fan with you guys. I’m just waiting for the next thing to come out so that I can charge the credit card and have one more thing from the guys at Focus Lab and Made by Sidecar.
Bill Kenney: I really appreciate that. When you’re putting something out there like that, especially we’re so closely tied to Focus Lab. That was a big part of this thing. We want to make sure that people knew Focus Lab created Sidecar. We are the people behind it. Nobody else is making it. Anything on there, this is us.
When you’re doing something like that and you have the reputation that our team does and the expectations that come with that, it can be a little bit scary when you start to put things out there that people can download and open and say, “I wish this was a little bit better.”
I’ve been extremely active — basically, boots on the ground — reaching out to people who are buying assets, setting up calls, asking them about the entire experience from download to opening a file, how are you using it, is it what you wanted, how can I make it better. That part is really exciting to me, too.
It’s a much different world than I’ve been living in, as far as Focus Lab, where you work really hard. You create a deliverable. You share it with the client. Then you talk through it. It’s a different experience with Sidecar, so all really exciting stuff.
Brian Gardner: I hope that I can take a sliver, like a 1-percent piece of credit for at least the initial motivation to build Sidecar, based on conversations you and I have had about selling digital assets.
Hopefully, what you guys are doing continues to grow and continues to flourish. I personally like to know that’s going to happen because then that means I have more stuff I can use on my own website and other things that I can recommend from an educational standpoint to those who follow me, many of which are writers and designers who are ripe for all of the assets at Sidecar.
I’m going to wrap this up. We’re well past what I had promised you and the expected time of episode for our users. I’m going to rephrase that because they’re not my — design and development, everyone is just users. These people are my listeners. They’re not users, Brian.
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: Maybe I’ll leave that in, too, because hey, this is how it goes.
Bill Kenney: Transparency.
Brian Gardner: It is.
Bill Kenney: We live by it at Focus Lab. Everything’s transparent, all the way through.
Brian Gardner: The heat in this closet is now getting to me.
Bill Kenney of Focus Lab is the genius behind the branding of No Sidebar, not to be confused with No Sidecar. Bill, thank you for being on the show. Thank you so much for everything you do, for the design community, what you’ve done for me as a friend. We look forward to conquering the world together.