Lessons From Our Experiment

Since we founded altr back in 2014, we’ve always referred to the company as “an experiment that keeps working… and growing.” Through the years we’ve worked with over 25 different companies, ranging from new start-ups to established Fortune 500 companies, collaborating on everything from product and user experience design to brand creation and marketing support. And thanks to reviews from our clients, we’ve been named a top global design agency by Clutch.co.

We started with a hypothesis for what the agency of the future looks like, now here’s our top ten observations that keep proving to be true:

1. You don’t need account management, if everyone manages the account 

We promise lean, highly efficient and effective teams to our clients. What that means in practice is that every person staffed on a project is responsible for one or more deliverables – there’s no middleman (or woman), there’s just the people doing the work. But while we never staff an “account manager” to a project, the responsibilities of an account manager don’t go away. Instead, every member of the team is responsible for managing their work against a timeline, communicating transparently and collaborating with each other and our clients, and most importantly, knowing how their work impacts the overall project objectives and the client relationship.

2. Effective collaboration starts before the SOW is signed

Project planning is key, and all parties have to be invested in spending the time to figure out what it’s going to take to get the work done before the work kicks off. Developing a project plan as part of the new business process is a crucial step to gaining clarity around goals, process, constraints, and most importantly, needed outcomes. Ultimately, failure is typically the outcome of not defining success upfront.

3. The right number of people on a project can usually be counted on one hand

Too often the production mentality of “many hands make light work” (and heavy billings) infiltrates agency staffing models. Most projects don’t need a lot of people, they need the right people: someone who can understand, represent, and draw conclusions from customer and user needs; someone who can design solutions to serve those needs; and someone who can build and launch those solutions. That can be one person, three people, or five people – but it’s rarely more than ten.

4. Clients want a team, not a department

When companies hire an agency, they don’t care who gets a W2 or a 1099 at the end of the year. What they care about is hiring a team that will deliver. They want confidence that the people selling the work will actually stick around to do the work, and that the people doing the work are exactly the right people for every task. It’s just like how Hollywood works. We’ve found that there’s no good way to maintain these teams internally and remain nimble: you can’t hire everyone you might need, but you can maintain a core team of executives and custom staff projects with a small, curated bench of freelance talent whose experience, capabilities and interests align with the specific needs of a project.

5. Meetings should be about creating, not perseverating (or pontificating)

A general rule, but one that becomes more critical with lean teams and accelerated timelines: meetings are opportunities to get together to support and inspire each other and most importantly, get work done. If more than 2 minutes have gone by and that’s not happening, then it’s a waste of client dollars and people’s time.

6. A good idea is a good idea, no matter how built-out it is

Truly great ideas don’t rely on perfect design or fully functioning interfaces to shine through as great ideas. The genius of an idea should be apparent in early sketches. If you need to invest in high fidelity design or fully functional prototypes to get an idea across to a client or prospective customers and users, it’s probably not a great idea. Ultimately, great design and execution are critical for launch and market success, but in early stage testing the least polished concept can often tell you the most about its usefulness.

7. Retainers are outmoded, but relationships still matter

Having seen the inefficiencies of traditional retainer-based client / agency relationships, we focused completely on project-based work, so much so that we ultimately realized that we overcorrected. While clients appreciate the ability to plan and budget for project-based work, they also want to know that their partners are there (or can be there) for continued support after the work has launched. It’s not surprising that they don’t want to be re-briefing new teams or always searching for additional resources for incremental work. Now we think we’ve found a good balance: we always deliver the agreed upon work within the context of a project, but then we offer clients ways to continue to work together with anything from additional projects to time and materials agreements that help to make sure we can be there when our clients need us.

8. Hire employees like clients hire agencies

Projects are a great way for clients to test the fit of an agency partner. The same is true for agencies to test the fit of a potential full-time employee. Before hiring anyone full-time, we work with people on individual projects. Interviews, past experiences and references are helpful ways to get to know someone, but you never really know how a person will contribute until they are a part of the team.

9. Never stop working for your clients

Since we work with clients on a project by project basis, we have a lot of former clients. But just because we aren’t under contract with many of the companies we’ve worked for, that doesn’t mean that we’d ever stop promoting them. Whatever the status of our contract is, our clients’ success is our success. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of having now been around for a while, is that we get to see the continued evolution and impact of companies that we knew “way back when.”

And finally:

10. It’s a marathon, not a sprint (and it’s definitely not all about screens)

When it comes to the work, no matter how crazy the timeline is, it’s never too rushed to slow down enough and take the time to think about whether or not you’re headed in the right direction. And walk more… hike, camp, row, cycle, meditate, dance, sing, paint, or whatever you do to ground and unplug yourself. Every aspect of our human condition is increasingly subsumed by screens, but our best future selves and shared world rely on us to be present, aware, and collaborative like never before.