Owl Labs (OL): What's the mission and the work you do at Fastspot?
Tracey Halvorsen (TH): Our mission has always been to bring a high level of creativity, innovation, and strategic thinking to the digital space. There are so many opportunities to push boundaries in interactive design, and anytime you create something for a client, you're telling their story. When you do that in the digital space, you're creating a story that people can interact with on so many different levels.
It's a huge undertaking to get it right and to earn the trust of the client, but also to help them communicate everything they need to share with their audience. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts, I'm a painter, and there's an abstract nature to digital that I can relate to. At the end of the day, you're trying to get human beings to form connections and make decisions and build trust and have experiences that feel as authentic as they can in a digital space that doesn't really exist. It's very surreal. It's not too different from how you experience music or painting or any of the arts. We've always brought that artistic underlying approach to everything digital that we do for our clients.
OL: You co-founded Fastspot and your title, which is very cool, is Chief Visionary Officer. How did you go from getting your BFA and your MFA to here and what does being the Chief Visionary entail?
TH: I've always been a super nerd when it comes to gadgets and technology. I was always fascinated by it when I was a kid, but in art school in the late 80s and early 90s, there were no computer classes. Personal computers and the early Macs and the internet and AOL started becoming mainstream right after I graduated from college.
When you were a painter back then, if you wanted anyone to see your work, you'd have to get a photographer, go to your studio, set up the lights, shoot a bunch of different exposures, send it off to the lab, get your slides back, pick the best one, tape it up, put it in a new slide container, label it, stick it in some carousels, and mail those off to apply for grants or shows or whatever you were trying to do. It was tedious and so ineffective. When I heard about the internet, and how you could scan images and work in Photoshop to touch things up, I immediately saw the opportunity there from an artist's perspective. You could get your images online and anyone could see them anywhere in the world, 24/7.
It was a no-brainer for me, and it beat the crap out of the slide carousel process. I was fascinated with what was possible with the technology. I saved up my money valet-parking cars at a restaurant as a starving artist, and then I got my first Mac and started to learn how to use the programs.
A couple of years later, I went to grad school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which brought me to Baltimore. I started learning more about how to program, how to write HTML, and how to develop in flash, and I realized I enjoyed writing code and working on the design side of things, too. That propelled me into getting some early jobs in my career.
This was in the late 90s, when everything on the internet was blowing up and you could make a good living if you could write HTML and work in Photoshop. I took some odd jobs and worked at a few startups. With my background as a creative person, I realized that a company has to foster that kind of spirit for it to thrive as much as it needs talent to execute the work, and I worked for a lot of bosses and leaders that didn't get that at all.
In 2001, I decided to start my own thing, and Fastspot began with just me and the co-founder working out of the first floor of a rowhouse in Baltimore. Now, here we are today, almost 18 years later.
I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts, I'm a painter, and there's an abstract nature to digital that I can relate to. At the end of the day, you're trying to get human beings to form connections and make decisions and build trust and have experiences that feel as authentic as they can in a digital space that doesn't really exist. It's very surreal. It's not too different from how you experience music or painting or any of the arts.
OL: Does being Chief Visionary Officer mean you get to be in all the brainstorms for the pitches? Are you looking over creative in different steps in the process? What is a day in the life look like for you?
TH: I've always been a big-picture thinker. I don't do well with the details, but I've always been good at looking outward by talking to other colleagues and our clients to try to figure out what the challenges are, or where people are starting to shift processes. There's so much about running the company that fascinates me as much as the work itself.
I try to split my time between thinking about how the company is running and the culture, including some of the bigger aspects of how we do the work, how we talk about the work, and what's important to us. I do a lot of the pitching and meeting with the clients initially, and I support the team during the early stages of strategy and design on new projects.
I'm focused on making sure we're not missing an opportunity to be as innovative as we need to be. I'm good at hearing what the client wants and needs, and making sure that we stay aligned around that. If we need to push the client because they're asking for something we think is a bad idea, we want to be consulting them as much as listening to what they need.
It's all about trying to understand why we're facing the challenges in the project instead of becoming order-takers. In the service industry, it's very easy if the team sits back too much for the client to have to tell them what to do. That's ultimately not what they're paying you for.
I work mostly in those two arenas, but what I love most about my job is thinking about and nurturing the company itself and where we're going, and being able to connect with the clients and form relationships with them. I love to try to move the needle for their organizations or their businesses or their careers, because so much can change in a website project. It can change the whole organization, internally and externally. It's a lot of responsibility for us, and I love seeing it work successfully for them.
OL: Do you work remotely?
TH: Yes, lately I've been traveling so much that I need to be out of the office more often than not. I work a lot from home and from the road.
OL: Fastspot is based in Baltimore, right?
TH: Yes, our main office is in Baltimore. Our Director of New Business is in Vermont, and one of our Senior Strategists is in New York. We have people working all over the place, but we're not fully distributed. It's been six years or so since we've at least had one very senior member of the team working remotely.
What I love most about my job is thinking about and nurturing the company itself and where we're going, and being able to connect with the clients and form relationships with them. I love to try to move the needle for their organizations or their businesses or their careers, because so much can change in a website project. It can change the whole organization, internally and externally. It's a lot of responsibility for us, and I love seeing it work successfully for them.
OL: How can teams make sure remote workers feel included and stay in the loop? I'd love if you could share any best practices you have or roadblocks you've encountered.
TH: You need to make sure that everyone is consistently keeping the remote team members at top of mind. For example, Katie, our new Business Director, works remotely. We have a practice of ringing a bell in the office when we get a new contract, so now, before we do this, we dial Katie in on Zoom so she can be a part of that in-office ritual.
It's wise to have a few people who are tasked with keeping remote people in the loop, because otherwise, you assume everyone else is going to remember, and that doesn't always happen, which ends with people feeling left out. On the flipside, I've seen it go too far, where folks in the office decide to treat the entire company like they're working remotely all the time. I don't think it's necessary for the entire team to log onto Zoom for a meeting that only has one or two remote participants. That type of remote-first strategy takes it too far and can actually be a distraction.
If you have remote folks who are senior members of the team, or people who really need to be spending time with their team or clients, you need to be willing to invest in travel time for that hire, which is something to consider from both perspectives. If you're trying to get a job with a company that's not fully distributed and you want to be remote, you need to be cognizant of the fact that you're asking the company to take on a bigger financial burden to cover your costs for travel.
On the flip side, if you're looking to bring on remote employees, travel is an important thing to consider too, because you're going to want them to be able to come to the office or go to client meetings when they need to.
OL: Do you have any tips for remote conflict resolution and communicating tough feedback or pushing back on expectations? Do you have any suggestions for doing that remotely or via email?
TH: Most of our clients are not local, and that's been the case for 18 years, so we don't always have the opportunity to swing by someone's office for coffee or lunch to hammer something out. When you're going to have tough conversations in any way, shape, or form, whether it's with a client or a direct report, it should not be via email.
Video conferencing is the best for these situations because you can really look into people's eyes. So much tone is lost in email, and sometimes even if it's just a phone call. Seeing people's faces makes a big difference, and so I've had a number of hard conversations via video conference. No hard conversation is easy, but they need to at least happen with a video connection.
We had a client who was upset with us a year ago or two after we made some mistakes, and I thought it was best that we, myself included, got on a train and went up to New York to meet with them. There was nothing much to say at that point, but to show her the respect of sitting down in person and hearing her feedback in-person. And while you can't always do that, email is the worst medium for tough conversations and feedback.
OL: Have you seen your clients' expectations evolve since you founded Fastspot? Or are the expectations of in-person pitching and wining and dining prospective clients still consistent?
TH: I've seen it change a lot, even in just the last three years. We work with a lot of higher education brands and universities, so they're a little behind the times, but almost everyone is used to video conferencing at this point. We've done more and more remote pitches, which is great because we don't have to take everybody out of the office for an overnight and fly places for pitching. I still think that for your new business opportunities, people like to hire people they like, and it's harder to get a sense of someone if you're not having the opportunity to spend physical time with them, so it's still valuable for us.
OL: You work with lots of colleges and universities, and my initial thought is that could be a challenge, because those brands and those missions are so old – much older than the average company you're working with. What is that process like to convince them and help them to modernize such an established mission for a different medium?
TH: A lot of our clients have very established brands, like Yale or Brown or other Ivy League universities, but most colleges and universities these days realize that they can't just put their mission or tagline out on the website. We try to help them understand that there are all of these different channels now that a brand has to operate on. Digital is a huge highway of channels, from the site to social media to how they're communicating via email to any number of other things.
Their brand has to evolve for each channel, which has a ton to do with content strategy and a lot less to do with the things that people think of with the brand that people typically think of, like the logo or the mission statement. They also realize that saying things like "We create the leaders of tomorrow," or "We're globally conscious" – these taglines all sound the same, and universities are starting to realize that. Most of our education clients understand that we need to get more nuanced with the brand attributes and then apply them to those digital channels.
They're usually more open than not to letting us take it and run with it as the people who know the digital space. We spend so much time studying and researching the different users and the different audiences that come to a school's website to help guide our creative decisions. What's going to resonate with a 16-year-old, the parent of an 18-year-old who is looking at schools, or a guidance counselor will be vastly different. There are so many things that you need to think about when you're building a digital identity for educational institutions that are wildly different from a company. We get to dig in on that and try to align those things in the right way.
OL: I hadn't thought about the different audiences and groups of people coming to the site, that's fascinating.
TH: They're coming at different times, under different stress levels, for different amounts of time, and for different reasons. What a 16-year-old is going to come and do one day versus six months later when they're ready to apply for colleges, they need a whole different experience. Similarly, the experience is different for a parent who visits the site for initial research or when they visit a site to figure out how much tuition costs, or if their child will be safe.
College is a huge decision. You're making a huge decision when you don't know what you're doing with your life yet. It's such a huge decision, and nobody wants to get fed a bunch of BS on these websites. We have to help the client understand how to be authentic while still providing the information site visitors need.
I still think that for your new business opportunities, people like to hire people they like, and it's harder to get a sense of someone if you're not having the opportunity to spend physical time with them, so it's still valuable for us to travel for those pitch meetings.
OL: It must be challenging to communicate the value proposition of a university degree, which are tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
TH: It's also a four-year or two-year experience that will impact the rest of your life. There's a huge dollar value, there's a huge timeframe, you're most likely going to be living there, and the decision you make will impact the rest of your career. There's so much wrapped up in the college decision. There are so many facts and stats about higher education, like school rankings, how competitive they are, how much they cost, what classes you can take, or what the dorms look like. What we try and do is convey a sense of the place to the work that we bring online.
When we talk to students or their families, they always say the visit is so impactful because so much of the decision is made based on how they feel when they are around the people and in the space. Suddenly, it'll click for them, and students and parents will get a feeling for if the college is right or not. There's no tagline or value proposition that's going to make that happen – it's all in the experience they have when they're there. We're trying to take that feeling and experience online and make it just as compelling of an experience for prospective students who can't be there in person to help them make that huge decision.
We spend so much time studying and researching the different users and the different audiences that come to a school's website to help guide our creative decisions. What's going to resonate with a 16-year-old, the parent of an 18-year-old who is looking at schools, or a guidance counselor will be vastly different. There are so many things that you need to think about when you're building a digital identity for educational institutions that are wildly different from a company. We get to dig in on that and try to align those things in the right way.
OL: Do you have any advice or tools that you use specifically for project kick-offs and creative meetings and brainstorms, where traditionally we rely on the energy flow in the room to guide the progress, when team members are remote?
TH: This is where remote can get challenging, and it's why when we look at hiring designers versus developers or strategists, we look at the creative process a little bit differently, because you can lose things in translation. It's hard for one remote team member of a design team to be as much of a participant in a creative session, which can set up a challenging situation.
I don't think it's impossible, but when we have needed to do this kind of brainstorm with remote team members, we set the rules and the boundaries and the process up front. We make sure that, if we sketch anything, we set the camera on the whiteboard and take a picture for remote participants to look at afterward. We make sure everyone can hear each other, and when a remote person wants to chime in, we make sure to have a facilitator, because it's so easy for a group of people not to notice the person on the screen if they're having an issue hearing or speaking.
Making sure that the acoustics are good even in our physical space so that the remote person can hear and it's not too echo-y or too quiet is also critically important. Nailing the experience hearing, seeing, and communicating before you actually hold those kinds of meetings is key.
OL: What's missing that would get you to the point where you would have no hesitation about having a fully-remote Fastspot?
TH: That's a good question. I don't know that I'm against it now. There are a lot of benefits that outweigh the cons. You can tap into a talent pool that's anywhere in the world or country. There are a lot of amazingly talented people who don't want to live in Baltimore, or New York City, or any other cities where creative agencies are usually based.
I don't think we need different technology to catch up to the point where companies could transition to be fully-remote, but I do think your process and your culture have to be designed around it. The more distributed of a company you become, the more you need clear, documented processes and plans in place. You need to have a clear plan around how often you're holding team stand-ups, how often you're checking in with each other via video conference, and how often you're spending time with each other in-person. There has to be a lot of structure there so that you don't end up wondering what your coworker who you haven't seen or spoken to in two weeks is up to.
You don't want to run a company by looking at time sheets and holding people accountable for bean-counting, especially in a creative business. In a creative business, you get ideas all the time, and I believe in flexible work schedules for that reason. I want people to work when they feel like working, as long as they're getting everything done by their deadlines and making the meetings and obligations they have scheduled. I don't care when people are sitting at their computers. It's a little tricky if you have a fully-distributed team, because you want to have enough structure within that flexibility that you can bring the right people together for enough constructive, valuable time over video conference, and a couple of times a year in real life as well.
OL: Nothing can replace in-person interaction, not just for work but for the fun, too.
TH: Exactly. Humans are social creatures, and we're not designed to work and live by ourselves and forgo that human connection. For you to really have a good team, you've got to spend some time forging some friendships. That's hard to do if you don't ever see each other in real life.
OL: What advice would you have for building a remote team culture if you're starting a company that is fully or semi-distributed from the start? How do you maintain that culture?
TH: The old rules of what makes a great team still apply, whether you're a remote team or not. You can't build a culture if you don't have trust, accountability, and mutual respect. The best way to kill a culture is to stop trusting people and stop giving people the respect and the responsibilities they most likely want in their jobs.
When you're remote, if you're a manager or a product owner, you have to resist the urge to not being able to look over people's shoulders and see what's on their computer screens. You have to hire people who you trust. In most cases, no one is going to betray that trust, because most people want a job where they're given authority and accountability so they can do great work. If you're hiring high performers, it doesn't matter where they are, as long as you give them those tools and recognize the work they're doing.
Building in opportunities for remote recognition is important for culture, too. We've found Slack to be a great tool for us to bring everybody together, whether they're remote or co-located. We use a little plug-in called Hey Taco, and we award each other tacos for core value recognition. What's nice is that when somebody has a great conference call with a client, or does a great deliverable, or tackles a hard problem, the team praises them. Colleagues are praising them on Slack and awarding tacos, and every now and then, someone earned enough tacos to have a taco party at the office.
It's symbolic stuff, but getting that recognition from your peers is almost more important than from your managers in a lot of ways. Communication presents a great opportunity to build culture and community.
OL: I love that you celebrate with actual tacos!
TH: We've done taco parties, and ice cream and Mario Kart parties, too. That gets hard to include the remote people, so we'll ship off a basket of goodies so the remote person can celebrate as well. The hard situations for remote people are when they can't be there for every office happy hour or taco Tuesday, so you need to create ways to include them in a version of that.
OL: It's easier to be inclusive in the meeting or working on a project, but it's harder to be inclusive when you're chatting on the fly and getting coffee together or having a beer after work.
TH: We had a remote member of our team, Fran, who would be live via Zoom on a screen on a desk one day a week in the main office, and you could just stop by and chat with him. He was working from home, but he was live on Zoom all day long so people could stop by and chat with him from time to time. It was great.
I don't think we need different technology to catch up to the point where companies could transition to be fully-remote, but I do think your process and your culture have to be designed around it. The more distributed of a company you become, the more you need clear, documented processes and plans in place. You need to have a clear plan around how often you're holding team stand-ups, how often you're checking in with each other via video conference, and how often you're spending time with each other in-person.
OL: What do you think the future of work in your industry will look like 5-10 years from now?
TH: A lot of work in our industry is getting commoditized, and I think the nuts and bolts of what we do will not be as valuable in the coming years. But I do think that the ideas and the creativity and where you're going to push boundaries or do something new is going to be critical for our industry. I see it shifting into a more of a strategic consulting role, and the execution could be done any number of ways.
You could help develop an idea, and the client might do it themselves or hire an in-house person to do it. We usually see this pendulum shift every couple of years. Everyone tries to hire an in-house team, and then the in-house team gets bored because they're tired of working on the same projects every day, and then they go back to working with an agency. But as technology gets more powerful and as what matters to people changes, I anticipate it's going to be less about the programming and the design and more about the content and about how we're communicating using the technology.
That's going to require people to re-learn what they're un-learning right now. They've got to learn how to be good communicators and good writers and good storytellers. We're seeing that dumb down to a massive degree right now, because everyone thinks that it's all about the tool or the channel. At the end of the day, most people aren't going to be able to thrive on technology alone – it has to go back to the content.
History repeats itself all the time, but technology is the one thing that just keeps advancing. It's not necessarily getting better, but it's getting faster, more powerful, and more people are getting access to it, more are getting comfortable with it, and more people know how to use it. As that happens, the value of the technology, to some degree, decreases. But that should then propel the idea of the thinking, the strategy, the creativity, the content, and the ideas because those things can never really be generated by technology.
1. Use technology to include remote employees on a day-to-day basis, but don't forget the value of in-person connection.
Although there are plenty of technologies and tools hybrid companies can use to include remote workers in the day-to-day of the office community, Tracey recommends infusing plenty of in-person connection for important or special moments. She advocates for regular in-person meetings with teammates and clients and finding ways to share in fun celebration events like taco parties with remote employees, such as by sending them a basket of treats in their location.
2. The same culture-building rules apply whether your company is remote or co-located.
Remote work shouldn't distract leaders from the basics of building a strong company culture. Tracey advocates for trust, accountability, and personal responsibility to help remote and co-located employees work successfully.
3. Leaders need to consider the needs of their audience at different stages of the customer journey when communicating their company's value proposition.
Tracey explained that part of the challenges of building a digital identity for colleges and universities is creating resources that are helpful for the different audiences that come to the website at different times of the college application process. By considering not just your audience but also what they’re thinking and feeling during their journey on your website, you’ll be able to make them feel positive and understood.
To learn more, read our interview with Antonio Rodriguez, General Partner at Matrix Partners, next.