Agency Journey Episode 23 (Y16M2)

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Reflecting on the past few months, the most important change at Barrel was having our Director of Software Engineering report to our Chief Experience Officer Lucas Ballasy, away from our Chief Technology Officer Wes Turner, consolidating all team production functions under Lucas’s supervision as the Experience team. The level of cohesion has improved greatly, and I feel like the different disciplines are starting to get on the same page with daily stand-ups and increased knowledge sharing. Much credit to Lucas for his leadership and working closely with the team leads to build accountability and produce results.

Wes, freed from managerial duties as CTO, has had the bandwidth to tackle thorny issues that have plagued us in the past (e.g. analytics tracking and site performance) and has been more involved in the sales process. The speed at which he’s been able to plug existing gaps has been impressive, and I can sense a growing confidence in the way we take on technical challenges.

This scenario reminds me of how structure and key leverage points can make all the difference in an org. We didn’t proclaim any bold new initiative or map out a complex 3-year plan. We simply redefined a couple of roles and had one person report to a different manager, and yet, this has had monumental impact.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings at my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Launching Projects & Winning New Work Boosts Morale

Throughout late June and July, the energy level at Barrel felt high as we successfully launched projects and won new work.

On the delivery front, we launched websites for:

  • Oishii, the company behind the coveted Omakase Berry® and their indoor vertical strawberry farm.
  • The Nue Co., a supplement company that merges science and natural innovation to interconnect the health of people and the planet.
  • Ramy Brook, a fashion brand and long-time client whose Shopify Plus site we rebuilt from the ground up to improve architecture and performance.
  • Algorand Foundation, a not-for-profit, community organization focused on protocol governance, token dynamics and supporting grassroots, open-source development on the Algorand blockchain ecosystem.
New client website launches

We had a strong run of new website launches for clients. Clockwise from top left: Oishii, The Nue Co., Algorand Foundation, and Ramy Brook.

We worked through a few delays and bumps for these projects to finally cross the finish line. I’m really proud of the team for their efforts and attention to both the work and the client experience throughout these engagements.

I’ve mentioned in the past that in this business, we’ve often find ourselves experiencing streaks when it comes to new business. Some periods, it’s as if we can’t close a single deal, doomed to an eternal drought. Other times, we end up signing a quarter’s worth of work in just a couple of weeks. In July, the latter has been the case, as we landed some new and exciting clients. These include:

  • A global brand that’s best known for its lifestyle and home improvement products.
  • A popular video game controller brand.
  • A unique clothing and gifts brand with a philanthropic mission.
  • One of New Orleans’ premier designers of fine jewelry.

Some of these deals have been in the works for many months with the prospect going dark at times only to come back later. There’s a bit of scrambling that happens internally when a number of deals hit all at once, but I always view this as a good problem to have. We’ve been leveraging some freelance contractors on some projects or shuffling teams internally to make more room. Even with all the new work, we’re trying to limit full-time hires unless we’re absolutely sure there is enough work for the foreseeable future.

What’s promising is that aside from these wins, we’ve also been winning add-on work from existing clients and continue to get a steady stream of qualified leads each week. Even in the past week, we participated in what felt like “final round” presentations for some very promising prospects.

I’ve been savoring the upbeat feel of the past month. We still have our fair share of client-related crises, team-related stresses, and other challenges that come with our work, but having a backdrop of successful project launches and new business wins is an encouraging reminder that the agency has momentum and is doing some things right.

Quarterly Meetings with Team Leads, Partners, and Barrel Holdings Portfolio Companies

We kicked off the new quarter with a day-long session with our team leads at the Barrel office. It was great to see folks in person again and outside of the Zoom window. It was also the first time we all got to be in-person with our Director of Client Services Kate Fulks.

Barrel Team Leads Q3 All-Day

The Barrel partners and team leads group pic at The Edge in Hudson Yards and an all-day session at the Barrel office in Soho.

The team leads came prepared with a report on their respective disciplines, sharing what was working, what could be improved, and any feedback or questions their teams had about anything. We came away with some helpful themes around workflow and some gaps that we’ll be looking to address in the coming months. After the day-long session, we went to The Edge at Hudson Yards to take in the NYC views and get in a group pic. We then had a very nice group dinner before calling it a day.

The next day, the Barrel partners came in to the office for our all-day session. We spent time talking about our takeaways of Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys by Joe Coulombe and Patty Civalleri (see the updated blog post of transformative books we’ve read as a leadership team). We agreed that while the book was fun, it jumped all over the place in chronology and was not as emotionally resonant as other business memoirs we’ve read in the past.

After our book discussion, the partners shared the results of a vision exercise that I had assigned for our meeting. We were to come prepared with vividly written stories by our future selves 1 year from now, reflecting on 3 different scenarios. The theme of the scenarios were around the business, our individual leadership development, and something to do with our personal lives. We took turns sharing these, being excited and inspired by the possibilities. One thing I would do differently next year is to have each person read their answers from the previous year. I glossed over this part, but I think it would have been powerful for each person to have re-read what they wrote the year before to see how much of it has come true or how much our thinking has changed since.

Barrel Holdings

After a session of Barrel Holdings presentations, enjoying dinner and drinks afterwards.

In the afternoon, we invited Jason Fan of Vaulted Oak and Jacob Sussman of BX Studio for our quarterly Barrel Holdings check-in. Each portfolio company presented their results of the previous quarter and outlook for the next one. We talked about our respective challenges and shared ideas for tackling them. We then headed out to dinner together and enjoyed additional conversation around work, clients, and life.

Overall, these two days were action-packed and productive. I did feel like the back-to-back scheduling was a bit too intense and both mentally and physically draining by the end. Next time, we will split these at least a week apart.

Top of Mind

Doing Some Hands-on Work

A little over a week ago, I received an email from a client asking for a quick call on a Saturday morning. It was for a project that had, in my mind, had been very close to launch. We were in the QA phase and working through a bunch of content-related comments. There was even a meeting on the calendar to do a walkthrough with some important stakeholders on the client side as a last step before launch.

I had a bad feeling about the call request and braced for the worst. Sure enough, it wasn’t good news: our client, having gone through the built out website closely in its pre-launch state, simply felt we missed the mark from a design perspective. This was months after we had a very long and extended design phase where we shared 3 design directions and went through multiple revision rounds. The client agreed there was “sign-off” then but because we used placeholder imagery and content during the design phase, they assumed things would look different and more like what they had in mind closer to launch. Ruh-oh.

The tricky part was that this client had gone to bat to have us do the website project internally and was feeling the heat to “get it right”. They wanted to feel confident that we had delivered something clean, elegant, and worthy of the budget they had procured for the work. The site in its current condition did not feel up to par.

A part of me initially grew very frustrated because our team had been hustling nonstop to get the site to where it was and had been telling each other that the finish line was near. However, another part of me realized that maybe we had indeed fallen short of delivering on designs that our client could feel really great about if they felt compelled to have a heart-to-heart conversation like this expressing their disappointment.

I immediately knew that pushing back and invoking our statement of work would be the wrong move. It would antagonize our client and break whatever trust had been built over the past few months, however tenuous that trust was on that Saturday morning. I checked the project financials to ensure we had some buffer to accommodate additional designs. Luckily, we still had some room, so I made the call to offer up a redesign.

The rest of my weekend was clouded by the stress of how we’d deliver, especially as I knew that we had practically zero design resources available to hop on this project ASAP. The designer who had worked on this project was fully committed to a different project and would be impossible to borrow.

I got critical help from Jacob of BX Studio, who’s been partnering with Barrel on this project, to quickly activate a couple freelancers to explore new directions that very Saturday. Come Monday morning, we had a bunch of new looks of the homepage that provided some fresh ideas. I started picking and choosing some elements and then lucked into having our Design Director Christine be available to hop on a Zoom call with me to workshop a homepage in Figma together. By noon, we had a homepage that felt good enough to send over to our client.

Thankfully, our client really liked the new direction and gave the green light for us to apply the new look and feel to the rest of the pages. Because I was familiar with the content and had direct communication with the client, I decided to stay close and do as much of the work on my own as possible. For the rest of the week, I hopped into Figma in-between meetings and knocked out more pages. It was probably the most design I’ve done on a client project in nearly 10 years. I also got help throughout the day from Christine, who also jumped on in-between her meetings and after work, to tighten up my sloppy spacing and to add professional polish to all the pages.

There are still some more pages to complete, but I feel a hell of a lot better than I did a week ago, when the situation felt grim. I’m also glad that I went through this process because it’s been a great reminder that client work is often filled with unpredictable turns and the best thing we can do when these things happen is to rally to support each other on the team and try to debrief on lessons learned afterwards.

I’m not advocating for me to be hands-on with client work moving forward. In fact, I’d very much prefer to leave actual design work to our talented design team. However, what I hope to never shy away from is being able to take client feedback, to get a true pulse on a client relationship, and do my best to make things right. In some cases, this might mean I’ll have to jump into doing some of the work in order to steer it in the right direction. In other cases, it could mean making some financial decisions that negatively impact margin but allow for satisfactory delivery. And in certain extreme cases, it could mean making the call to part ways and deal with the fallout that such a decision entails. In this particular case, I’ve bet on inserting myself to try to make things right and getting to a place that will ultimately benefit us all.

Shared with Partners

“Skill-building programs will require the identification of classic client situations, the development of role-play scripts, and the design of materials. In some firms, these include a critique of current programs on “how to handle a meeting,” “presentation skills,” and the like (assuming the firm has these).” (David H. Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm)

One of the most impactful training and skill-building practices that our team leaders engage in is helping our account leads or project managers review their emails to clients, especially around sensitive situations that have to do with timing, budget, or their dissatisfaction with our work. Oftentimes, the edits are around clarity, specificity, and tone. These are great opportunities to help team members learn more effective ways to structure and write out client-directed communications.

“Time is a choice; work hours often have nothing to do with how much you could be doing.” (Laura Vanderkam, Off the Clock)

I’m a firm believer that many things that we experience in life are choices: stress, fitness, happiness, etc. I feel the same way about time because I believe that if I am deliberate and strategic with how I spend my time, there is more than enough. When I am careless or mindless about time, time seems to slip away. The tricky part is that talking openly with people–friends, family, employees, etc.– about time this way can trigger people in negative ways. Many people default to saying they “don’t have enough time” or are “too busy” and treat time as if it happens to them. Try reminding them that perhaps it’s because of their choices that they feel this way, and I guarantee it’s a great way to make enemies. Hence, I keep this belief mostly to myself and mind only my own relationship with time.

“If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take.” (William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life)

I find these lines very comforting because even during stressful situations, I’m reminded that I have a great deal of power to choose how I want to feel about things. In the case of the client situation I shared above, I initially felt blindsided and wrote off my weekend as ruined, but thankfully I snapped out of feeling sorry for myself quickly enough to take action and get things moving. And in retrospect, I ended up enjoying an active weekend of entertaining visiting family members and attending a wedding.

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