Owl Labs (OL): Tell us a little bit about who you are and how you got to where you are in your career today.
Pek Pongpaet (PP): Sure! I was an engineer by training which later led me to where I am today, and I'm thankful for that. I've always been an innovator and I wanted to create new experiences, digital innovations, and make a positive impact on big companies and brands, as well as startups. This led me to lean into agency work; I always worked at agencies so it's what I know.
Impekable is now seven years in and we're a thriving agency made up of an amazing global team with folks in Thailand, India, Vietnam, and distributed across the U.S. We're an Inc. 5000 company and we were also just named one of Silicon Valley Business Journal's Fastest 20 Growing Companies in the Bay Area under $50 million.
OL: Those are some pretty snazzy accolades! Congratulations to you guys.
PP: Thank you! The team has worked very hard to get to where we are today.
OL: Tell us about the kinds of services Impekable provides and what kind of work you do for your clients.
PP: We're a full-service digital agency specializing in UX/UI Research & Design, Mobile & Web Development, Product & Project Management. We help organizations achieve their business goals through digital user experiences that solve their customers’ pain points. We have an enterprise focus and we make things simple. Our mission is to design, develop, and engineer, world-class user experiences that impact organizations globally.
OL: What types of clients do you typically work with?
PP: In the last seven years, we launched more than 600 products for over 250 organizations covering essentially all industry sectors like hi-tech, eCommerce, insurance, financial services, fin-tech, and others.
We typically partner with large enterprise companies (e.g., Twilio, Adobe, Google and Stripe). Impekable created the Google Sheets for Adobe XD Plugin for Adobe's new design tool XD which was of strategic importance in acquiring new users.
As I look towards 2020, I'm excited to launch Impekable Labs, our Innovation Center, to help organizations incubate their brilliant ideas and concepts, out of the lab and into the hands of consumers. We'll make them a reality.
Our clients love that we're a distributed company because we're available, flexible and scalable.
OL: About 80% of your team is distributed and spread across different countries. Is that something you were inspired to do when you founded Impekable? Or is it something that's evolved?
PP: Market forces compelled us to be an interconnected team. As we continue to grow, I think it's important to have employees close to our clients. Some clients have a tight budget and some have constrained resources, even big companies not surprisingly. Our clients love that we're available, flexible, and scalable.
Whereas other companies still hold very traditional mindsets of having "butts in seats." We're able to attract talent across the globe and offer them interesting and innovative work through our big clients including Google, Adobe, Nike, and Intel. Working with these large, reputable companies is our value proposition that we offer remote workers.
OL: How would you say that being remote and distributed has affected your company culture and team communication?
PP: In terms of culture, Impekable cultivates life-long learners. Our diverse environment allows employees to grow in their respective roles, and execute as leaders, as experts. Our collaborative culture thrives on creating digital innovations and world-changing ideas. Our employees are motivated to work hard and bring their best every day. Our inclusive culture affords us the ability to attract the best talent.
We host video conferencing meetings through Zoom or Google Hangouts, and documents are shared online using communication tools like G Suite, Confluence, and Slack. We recently ordered a Meeting Owl too and we're super excited!
OL: Oh, that's awesome!
PP: I first learned about it at a client meeting and saw the Meeting Owl sitting in the middle of the conference room and thought it was cool.
OL: That's great! Do you guys have a home base office?
PP: Yes, we have one office in San Jose, as well as employees based throughout North America. We recently expanded operations in APAC to include Bangkok, Thailand & Vietnam. We bring employees together twice a year for a summer gathering and a winter gathering. We're working on replicating that experience overseas as well.
Using video is important because it humanizes people. With Slack, we ask people to change their avatar to a real picture but we often have people use video so we can see their faces. It's easy to dehumanize people if all you stare at is a blank screen.
OL: The Meeting Owl will definitely be helpful to connect the people dialing in with those in the office. What would you say are some of the rituals, traditions, and policies you've adopted that have supported your remote work culture?
PP: Using video is important because it humanizes people. With Slack, we ask people to change their avatar to a real picture but we often have people use video so we can see their faces. It's easy to dehumanize people if all you stare at is a blank screen. Whenever possible, at the very least, we get together twice a year. Of course, there are other gatherings. For example, this week a few team members and I are attending a leadership offsite.
When we onboard new people, we fly them in to spend some time at the headquarters here in San Jose. They usually spend about a week with us to meet the local people and see what it feels like to be part of the Bay Area team. With projects, we might kick them off by flying to the client to meet face-to-face because we value face-to-face relationships.
If you're an in-office team member here, there are opportunities to get together with team members at least more than a couple times a year. Due to our distributed nature, many people tend to travel to client sites. For example, we had a workshop in Italy once, so we flew one of our Bay Area team members to Italy. One of our designers lives in Prague so we flew her out to Italy as well. Whenever possible we try to create those connections this way it's not a completely remote, distributed experience for people. And if people do get together like that, we say dinner is on us. It's the least we can do.
OL: It's great that you proactively seek out those opportunities for connection instead of waiting for the regularly scheduled events. When it comes to hiring people to work on your team, what are some traits or experiences you're looking at when evaluating remote candidates?
PP: We look for someone who is self-motivated, responsible, and is comfortable working alone. While some people thrive in an office setting, others might not thrive in that environment. Some people are more comfortable working from home all the time but it can be lonely and it's different than an office environment.
Ideally, we find someone who is familiar and comfortable working asynchronously because we're now a global team with members in Colombia, Prague, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and across the U.S. We look for someone who has awareness and empathy of people's time and schedules. Meeting people halfway versus having to stick to your specific 9-to-5 schedule is important. Team members need to have the empathy to say, 'I'll do a call at 7:00 PM because it's your 8:00 AM' versus 'I want to have an early call even though it's 5:00 AM for you'. That's definitely not the culture we're trying to set.
OL: Speaking of culture, we heard about your inspirational quotes called "Pek-isms." I'd love to hear one!
PP: Yeah! I caught myself repeating stuff over and over again throughout the years and someone said I should save them so they've become these Pek-isms. In recent months, I decided to collect stuff I kept saying over and over as the philosophy and values of our company.
Here's one: "Culture is the company's personality, its values, its moral compass, and its standards; it's what people do when nobody's looking. So, good culture must be shown, it must be taught, and it must be passed down."
OL: I love that one. Going back to the agency industry, I was curious to hear if you think anything is lost or gained from the growth of remote work. Do you think the agency world will become more remote as the years go on?
PP: It's interesting. My father comes from a time when a lot of business was done on the golf course. I can't imagine spending a whole day golfing like that! Of course, we value as much face-to-face time as possible with clients. As our company grows and our client base grows, having interconnected teams throughout the world is helpful to our success. We offer our customers a better experience being closer to them. I truly believe in the value of face-to-face relationships.
User experience isn't just about the user experience or product we're designing; we consciously think about the experience the customer will have with us. While a person might be remote to Impekable's headquarters, but they're local for the customer – it's a better experience for not only the customer but the remote worker. They can connect with the customer directly whenever possible. They might work from home a few days a week and then they might go to the client's office once a week to have a face-to-face meeting.
OL: Since working with agencies is inherently somewhat remote or asynchronous because people work on different schedules, are there any good techniques, tools, or meeting strategies you've learned from working with your clients that you've brought to Impekable?
PP: Going back to best practices, we've learned how to be a remote-first company and asynchronous whenever possible. We want to have client meetings face-to-face – whether it's video or in-person – because you want to be able to read people. Meaning and intention can be lost through email or Slack when communicating requirements.
Once you get into a cadence and once you've worked with someone for a long time then you can better understand short-form communication. Initially, it's all about spending quality time with the customer and the person you're dealing with so that you can learn the nuances of the relationship.
We've learned how to be a remote-first company and asynchronous whenever possible. We want to have client meetings face-to-face – whether it's video or in-person – because you want to be able to read people. Meaning and intention can be lost through email or Slack when communicating requirements.
OL: When you're hiring, do you ever think about where a remote employee is located as a consideration factor? For example, would you hire someone who works remotely from Minnesota because you know you have a lot of clients in that area? Or is Impekable location-agnostic?
PP: In the beginning, we were location-agnostic. Nowadays, we think more consciously about where we're trying to grow our business and where many of our customers are located. Our saying is the "two-hit combo" when we can achieve multiple goals – that's great for us. The more checkboxes it ticks, the better.
We're currently looking to expand to Latin America because we see potential not only for growth in Latin America through our partners and channels but because we have so much of a distributed team that's based in Asia and both sides of the world suffer. We get up early to do calls and both sides stay up late too. By creating additional teams in Latin America, at least on the American side, we'll be dealing with less time zone differences and in some cases no time zone difference at all. So, we think consciously and we're trying to think more strategically as we grow.
OL: You're in the San Jose office now. What's your schedule like? Are you usually splitting your time? Do you work from home sometimes?
PP: I love my work and my personality is such that my work-life is definitely this spectrum where I don't necessarily have a 9-to-5. I also work with time zones like Vietnam and customers in Bangkok and Singapore, so I have a lot of evening calls.
My day-to-day is usually filled with morning calls and I usually work until 6:00 PM. This is just me – this is no way a reflection of everyone in the company. I might hit the gym and have dinner with my wife and chill out a little bit before hopping back on to do some emails and calls at night. Then, I usually like to unwind for an hour before I go to bed. If I have a stressful call with a client, it makes it hard for me to go to bed so I have to have that little unwinding for an hour where I just read or catch up on some TV or something just to get my mind off of work.
OL: That's a great hybrid work style. I'd love to know your thoughts on what the future of the agency world looks like 10 years from now.
PP: I have peers in agency and some of them are still very much in-person and in the office. For example, I have a friend who has an agency where everybody is based in Chicago. That's one model that's already dispelled as not just agencies but companies – even VC-funded companies – it's proven or shown that the future of work looks distributed.
With bandwidth as less of a concern and as you get more and more high-fidelity communications across the internet, the fact that somebody's butt is on a seat in the office 9-to-5 is going to matter less and less. We're also reaching a point where the cultural norm is trust and the output of work.
A friend of mine owns a mentorship company where they provide coaches to build leaders and one of her LinkedIn posts just went viral. The gist of the post was giving people trust, leeway, and ownership in an agency with their own schedule and time. She's a mother of two and had to leave work at 2:00 PM to take care of stuff for the kids, but she was still getting her work done and hopping on the computer back at work later. So, just giving people that trust and ownership so they can get the job done.
You can see many examples of people who are in the office 9-to-5 and maybe are not as productive. If anything, people often say they get more focused work done when they're at home because they don't have any distractions.