JournalFeb 2015

The State of Hanno: February 2015

Sure, there’s a value to sharing experiences and lessons learned, in the hope that someone might benefit from those. But self-congratulatory posts are far too simple to write.

So we thought we’d take things a step further. We’ve been talking a lot as a team about where we need to improve in the next 12 months. And like most of our internal conversations, there comes a time when we begin to ask “why are we keeping this to ourselves”?

If there’s one big thing we learned in 2014, it’s that communicating openly and sharing with others pays off, every time. When we share what’s happening behind the scenes, it helps us get feedback from friends and followers, connections and advice from new friends facing similar problems, as well as basic publicity and brand awareness. All of those are really important for us.

So let’s learn from those lessons and apply them this year, too. What are the biggest problems facing us as a team today, and where do we want to be in a year’s time?

Where do we need to improve?

. . .

We need to increase our bus count to protect our team

We’ve been having this conversation for quite a while. There’s even a job advert for a designer that is secretly positioned on our site, which we haven’t quite yet pulled the trigger on.

We’re determined to not grow too large, too fast. We feel that jeopardising our team culture would be one of the worst things we could do to ourselves at this point. And while the industry is moving rapidly, we have lots of client demand, and there’s plenty of opportunity to hire and grow the business, we don’t want to get caught up in that growth mentality for the sake of it. There are plenty of design studios out there with 30+ people in them–being smaller than them brings many benefits which contribute directly to our culture. We really don’t want to lose those.

But there are equally, many advantages to being a little bigger. While we enjoy being a small, tight team and still don’t intend to change that dramatically, we do want to increase our bus count so that each of our shipmates has to bear less pressure at certain times. In Arnas, we have a fantastic designer on the team who is great with identity design and illustration work. But there’s only one of him, and that’s a problem if he falls ill while he’s on a project, or is scheduled to take time off for a holiday. We owe it to each other to make sure that no shipmate has to carry the stress of being a single point of failure.

Another, slightly less important factor, is that we also passed up on many project opportunities last year because we were already booked onto client sprints. We’re okay with that, but if increasing our team size a little allows us to do more good work, that’s something we feel we should be open to doing.

The key question we’re asking with every hire is: will this person make Hanno stronger? Each new shipmate brings with them additional overhead, so every decision must be a carefully considered one.

We’re at a tipping point for team culture and diversity

Something I’ve rarely written about in the past is the gender diversity within our team. While we’re very proud of our friendly and inclusive team culture (we’re definitely not a bunch of brogrammers), we’re really conscious that we don’t want to have a team which has the same ratio as the industry as a whole (which is far too white, and male).

At the moment, 7 of our 8 shipmates are male. That’s not something we set out to deliberately achieve: it has simply been easy to hire within our existing network when we’ve needed to bring new shipmates on board. Nearly all of them joined because they built a connection with us in some way (whether online, or in person), and then we later on found a position for them on the team. That’s a trend that often happens in early-stage startups and small businesses, and it often comes down to wanting to bring people on the team who you know and trust, rather than launching a full-on hiring process which will mean you have to gamble on people you’ve not met before.

Nevertheless, it’s something that we’re aware has the potential to be culturally damaging if it continues. Constantly hiring from within networks, when those networks are often male-dominated, is just going to give us more of the same. And that won’t help us in the long-term..

But we’re taking tentative, positive steps. The team are starting to get more involved with organisations that are looking to change the ratio in the tech industry as a whole, and we’re also building a much clearer plan for how to go about making our next hires. That will hopefully reduce the likelihood that gender bias might creep into the hiring process. The first step is broadening those personal networks, and everyone on the team is aware of our responsibility to do that. Bringing a new shipmate onto the team who isn’t a guy, has been a good first step, too.

I’m really against the idea of positive discrimination when hiring–I don’t think it should ever be the case that someone feels they’ve won a job or gained an unfair advantage because of their background, rather than their skills and abilities. That doesn’t benefit anyone. But we know we need to be a lot more proactive so that when we do start growing the team to increase our bus count, we make sure that we don’t just hire from closed networks. Speaking of which, if you’re a talented designer who can code, and you think you can help us make this shift, we’re especially interested in talking to you. Why not say hello?

It’s time to seriously step up our game when it comes to design thinking

As with many of us in the industry, myself and Sergei taught ourselves how to design and code years ago by self-learning, winning projects, and then getting as much real-world experience as possible. We taught ourselves a lot by researching, reading, and exploring, as many self-taught designers do. It worked well, and we soon got a lot better, but it still presented some difficulties. Since neither of us had had any formal design training, we were very conscious of the number of ‘design fundamentals’ we hadn’t fully internalised.

There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel and ‘re-discovering’ all these fundamental design principles from scratch, when there’s so much out there to learn, and so many people better than you. That’s why we all think that a formal, rigorous design process and teaching is a really important thing to bake into Hanno’s culture.

In 3 years, our intention is that someone can come into Hanno as an inexperienced designer, and receive the sort of deep design schooling that you’d get from going to study at Hyper Island. To do this, we need to make sure we’ve got fantastic designers on the team, and we need to create a very strong learning and teaching culture.

The good news is that we’re making progress, here. Last year, we introduced design thinking and pair design into the way we work as a team, and it gave us a huge step up. We were fortunate enough to get to know Hiong, who is hugely experienced as a design thinking trainer, and he’s been working hard to help us build a really strong framework to run our projects with, which makes heavy use of the design thinking process.

It’s working brilliantly so far, and having a structure that we can depend on while running sprints has been really valuable. Trying to solve a complex design challenge without knowing where to start is very tough. So design thinking gives the team a set of really powerful tools to help them be better designers, without limiting them and imposing a frustrating and rigid ‘process’ around what we’re doing.

Our next big step is coming up later this week. The whole team will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina for one of our team retreats, and we’ll be spending a full week running design thinking workshops and sprints, to try and understand how we can do an even better job of practicing design thinking.

There are going to be challenges. There are relatively few people practicing design thinking remotely. Many have assumed that since the process often has so much face-to-face communication, it’s not even possible to do it effectively while working remotely. Of course, we disagree: Laila is even researching and developing a thesis for Hyper Island on how it can be done remotely. But it will definitely be a challenge to figure out how to adapt many of the design thinking processes to work remotely.

Diversifying our client base

In 2014, we worked with a lot of startups, many of which were in the US. This in itself is not a bad thing. We love working with startups because they’re fast-moving, lack the bureaucracy that bigger companies often have, and can massively benefit from the help we can give them. That’s why the relationships we have with them are really strong.

But equally, we need to make sure we don’t become over-reliant on a specific market (tech startups in San Francisco) to the point where we’re at risk as a business if that market turns out to be a bubble, which pops. Or even if it just shifts entirely.

It’s hard to predict exactly how the SF design market will evolve. I think we’re currently seeing a major shortage of talented senior-level designers who can lead design teams over there. That’s why bigger companies are trying to poach or acqui-hire hire this sort of designer, and bring them into their teams. But perhaps this need will change in the future–nothing is ever certain, and politics and industry shifts can always play a role. It makes sense to protect ourselves here.

Our revenue in 2014 was roughly split between the UK (45%), EU (5%), Worldwide (excluding US and Canada) (<1%), US and Canada: (49%), so there’s plenty of room for improvement here, especially in the ratio of work which comes from outside the EU and the US. Asia: I’m looking at you.

We need to put more effort into marketing our content

We have to battle a constant ‘field of dreams’ mentality when it comes to creating content. When you put a lot of time into writing blogposts and producing case studies, there’s a strong temptation once you’ve finished them, to just hit the publish button and sit back. But we all know that the “if you build it, they will come” approach doesn’t work. It’s no good creating a good ‘product’ if you haven’t figured out how to distribute it.

Sure, we do fairly well with some of our content marketing. We’ve won major projects off the back of blogs that we’ve promoted in quite a targeted way (when we actually put the effort into figuring out how to promote them). For me personally, 2014 was the year I really got back into writing and improved my own skill here a lot as a consequence. Many other shipmates have done something similar. The impact that writing has had on our visibility as a team has been huge.

We’ve had a few moderately viral posts, and some which made it to the top of the Medium front page too. But plenty more posts are simply published, and then languish, unloved, with minimal attention. We’re going to fix that.

On top of that, we use our Twitter account in a pretty sub-optimal way. We made the conscious decision to not just retweet content, and instead, to focus on creating our own unique content so that we could add valuable contributions to discussions online, rather than being an echo chamber for the sort of news everyone else is sharing. But still, we know we need to work to make our profile more engaging, especially given how much great visual content we have available to share. There’s plenty that we’re missing out on, here.

And unquestionably, our biggest goal is to start doing more good

We worked on some amazing projects last year, with some clients we love. Several of these will make a really positive difference in many peoples’ lives, and we’re proud to have worked on them. But we want, and need, to do more.

This is something that the whole team feels like they need, both professionally and personally. We can’t be in this for the long run unless we’re making a really meaningful impact with the skills we have.

So this year, we’ll be taking steps to work on projects where we can use those skills to make a huge difference. That doesn’t just mean volunteering to be the webmaster on a little non-profit website, though. We’ll be running subsidised cost, and free sprints, when we find teams and products which could genuinely benefit from our help, and where we feel there’s a good fit between us.

It’s going to be a fun ride!

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.