VISUALHERO / OPEN SYSTEMS TECHNOLOGIES
Andy Van Solkema
Andy Van Solkema is Chief Designer at Open Systems Technologies.
As Chief Designer he is responsible for the practice, vision and integration of design services while infusing human-centered design mind-set with OST’s strong technology experience. Andy is also founder of Visualhero, a midwestern based experience design studio, where he practices on strategic projects as a Principal Designer. Open Design, the official design studio of OST, offers a systems approach to creative problem solving by helping organizations take insights and ideas to action.
Andy combines an intrigue of human behavior with a systems thinking approach and his craft of graphic, information and interface design. As technology, communication and business converge, he works under the belief collaboration, design methods and leadership, and the ability to articulate through making should be the hub of innovation. Although most days are spent in practice, he also enjoys speaking, advocating and educating others of design value, methods and process.
Paul Kortman: Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Agency Connection podcast. Today and all this week, we’re hanging out with Andy Van Solkema of Open Digital, and so I’m going to read his bio here. We’re going to go back and forth between Open Digital and Visual Hero and Open Systems Technology, otherwise known as OST, so hang with us. You’ll understand by the time the week is over. Andy is the chief designer at Open Systems Technology. As chief designer, he is responsible for the practice, vision and integration of design services while infusing human center design mindset with OST’s strong technology experience. Andy is also a founder of Visual Hero, a mid-Western-based experience design studio where he practices on strategic projects as a principal designer. I love how he says he practices there. Visual Hero, the official design studio of Open System Technology, otherwise known as OST, offers a systems approach to creative problem solving by helping organizations take insights and ideas to action. So, Andy, I’m super glad that you’re here. Take a minute and fill us in on something in your personal life or a detail missing in that intro.
Andy Van Solkema: Hello. Yeah, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me. Let’s see. A detail missing? Well, you’re catching this story of mine right at a very important inflection point. You mentioned Visual Hero, OST, and Open Digital. I guess the story is Visual Hero was acquired in 2016 by OST. We’ve stayed Visual Hero for the last number of years. I played a role inside of OST’s leadership and now we’ve recently launched Open Digital, which is a digital consulting team inside of OST, which I can explain more about that.
Paul Kortman: So, as we get through these episodes this week, you’re going to be talking about both Visual Hero, which is basically pre-scale, and Open Digital, which is post-scale, and what it’s like today. Is that correct?
Andy Van Solkema: Yeah. So, Visual Hero was started in 2004 as a graphic design studio that was transitioning to the web and digital world. We adopted the term user experience design in 2006. Grew, and we can talk a little bit about that, and then, once we were acquired by OST we started to realize the opportunity to integrate multiple disciplines together and that’s where Open Digital was really started and launched.
Paul Kortman: So, my first question for you is, what is your agency’s top line revenue?
Andy Van Solkema: So, that varies. From Visual Hero’s standpoint, we were much smaller, two to $3,000,000 range, top-line revenue as OST we’re $150,000,000 IT consulting firm with various services and product sales across the board.
Paul Kortman: Nice. And what’s the typical price to work with you either a median or an average price?
Andy Van Solkema: We have a rate card that varies with our rates. Again, this is using a term called design and I’m going to focus on the design practice here for the sake of most of the conversation because we have so many services, across OST. So, from a design standpoint, you know, we’ve have strategy design, user experience design, graphic design, and then at various levels from principal to senior to associate. So, I would say the average rate right now probably falls into about the 165 range. We’re billing, you know, close to 200 or at 200 for some principal and executive consulting gigs. And then I know we’ve even gone down as low as $125, $135 an hour and that obviously hourly aside from value billing.
Paul Kortman: So, describe your staff and your team. How many people do you have and what kind of specialties are they in?
Andy Van Solkema: So, the design team and the application development team and the analytics team at Open Digital. We’ve got about 25 designers. Nineteen full-time and a handful of contractors at any one time. We’ve got about 50 application development, software development folks and our analytics team, I believe we’re probably around the dozen range and that’s scattered across our Grand Rapids, Detroit and Minneapolis offices. From a discipline standpoint, we obviously have design strategists, design researchers, user experience and product designers with industrial design background, graphic designers turned user experience designers, mobile developers turned user experience designers and vice versa. We’ve got some user experience designers that are working in the development space. Um, we do development for mobile, for a connected product and enterprise software. And then from the analytics team standpoint, we’ve got architects and data scientists and analysts working in that space as well.
Paul Kortman: And how many of those that you just described, I assume they’re all full time employees. Do you work with contractors and/or part timers? Like a percentage wise, how much of your labor are contractors?
Andy Van Solkema: We do work with contractors and we do work with part time contractors at times to support our teams, to support geographically, to round out our teams. It does ebb and flow in terms of how many contractors are involved, but you know, even from the days of Visual Hero, what I like to manage too was about 15 percent employee to contractor where we would have 15 percent of our staff being contractor because it allows us to scale and add people. So, the way we use contractor, quite often is contract to hire. We’re getting to know each other and seeing what we can do, especially in the world today, you have terms like design and development, which mean mainly understand what context we’re working in, but from a capability standpoint it could mean a variety of things.
Paul Kortman: Got you. And what’s your average salary of your employees? I know it can vary a lot from the sea level to initial hire, but can you give some sort of a range there.
Andy Van Solkema: So, what I can give, we work across multiple geographies. We work across multiple skill levels and multiple disciplines. So, that question is quite variable. But what I do appreciate being a part of OST and it was a commitment we stuck with at Visual Hero as well, but it’s very much, there’s a lot more rigor around it because there’s actually staff recruiting and some human resources people that will focus on this, but that is the idea that we want to be at or above market and we stick to it. You know, I was contacted a couple months ago, a person that’s growing really well and maybe was moving up a stage and at the prompting of that group, they said, hey, maybe this person needs to have an adjustment and sure enough, we had a discussion and we made an adjustment within a few weeks and they remained at or above market where they’re at. So, because it varies, you know, we look at geographies like Grand Rapids, Detroit, Minneapolis, and we understand the national average and the plus or minus salary-wise in terms of cost of living in those regions. And there’s an entire series of spreadsheets that that team has to help figure that out but it’s quite remarkable and I appreciate the rigor there.
Paul Kortman: What’s your employees percent billable time?
Andy Van Solkema: Again, that varies, but, you know, someone like me, maybe I’ll be be 20 percent billable one week and then zero percent billable other weeks. But we’ve got various roles. We’ve got a principal role that probably falls in about the 40 percent billable range. Our seniors are probably anywhere from 60 to 80 percent billable and then, you know, associates and designer level that are sleeves rolled up working on projects most of the time. It’s generally in the 80 percent, maybe even higher if it’s a really busy week. One thing I do appreciate about that is that remains fairly consistent as long as the work is there, but also it’s not the only measure in terms of being successful there. We’re not, our expectation is that we’re doing quality work and we’re driving value for the customer, and given that OST has a great culture, it’s constantly in the best places to work in the country. We’re not working 80 hours a week to reach that billable mark, you know, we’re working your standard 40 to 50 hours a week as consultants doing this work. I can’t say that that doesn’t spike here and there we are in consulting, but it has remained pretty consistent and something that the company is very committed to.
Paul Kortman: Can you speak to like an average markup per hour? You were talking about the billing rates and that sort of thing. So are we talking like a four times markup or a, you know, what kind of percent markup are we dealing with here?
Andy Van Solkema: Well, again, I can’t speak to it in terms of exact terms because if you look at our rate card, we have 25 plus roles on our rate card that all have different margin markups that is managed by the principal and the sales rep and the value of the customer, you know? So, it varies extremely in terms of that actual percentage. I mean, we’re not gouging any customers, I know that. We are at market. In fact, I think our billable rate quite often for what we’re doing is below market even though we’re competitive in that range.
Paul Kortman: So, for us to have a better idea, Andy, how many clients does Open Digital have?
Andy Van Solkema: Yeah, so, Open Digital is actually part of a larger, a technology consulting firm, OST, and we’re all OST employees, that’s the basis. So, Open Digital is the digital practice inside of OST. So, from that standpoint, OST has hundreds of clients across the board. If I narrow it down to Open Digital, you know, at any one time I’d say we have 50 plus clients with active projects and that might even be conservative and then from a design practice standpoint because that’s really where Digital Hero started and focused before it was acquired two years ago, we’ve probably got anywhere from 25 to 40 projects live at one time and there’s times when it’s definitely higher than that. There’s times when our projects, our scale make that lower.
Paul Kortman: And what verticals or industries are your clients?
Andy Van Solkema: So, we work across many verticals. I was at an automotive company yesterday. We work in healthcare quite predominantly. In fact, OST has a lot of work in healthcare as had Visual Hero. So, now combined we have a lot of healthcare work. But I think our growing industry is really manufacturing companies, companies that make products that want to connect products to the digital world. The connected product space is one of our larger areas of growth. It’s not that we’re only doing that type of work, but strategically we are really well positioned for both healthcare experiences and connected product experiences, IOT, connected products, those types of companies.
Paul Kortman: Thanks. I was just going to throw that out there. IOT and the Internet of Things being the other buzzword for connected products. So, what services do you offer your clients?
Andy Van Solkema: So, this was, it’s a very interesting question because as we relaunched OST’s brand and evolved Visual Hero’s brand into OST and also launched Open Digital, we had to assess that. We had to understand what are our services we actually offer. And there’s a difference between our disciplines where we have design team, development team, analytics team, managed services team, data center solutions team, and our offerings. And this is where they’ve evolved. We offer everything from design to data center in that conversation at OST on the open digital side since we’re focusing there. We offer customer insights, research, strategy and innovation definition, business value definition. How are you going to get value out of that IOT product? We offer experience, design and definition, mobile development, connected product development and enterprise software. And then also on the development side, there’s always a handful of software initiatives that may not be enterprise but are still software based. And then from an analytics standpoint, cloud infrastructure, dashboard and visual analytics and a level of analysis there as well. So, that’s a handful of our offerings.
Paul Kortman: Yeah, it was kind of a fun question because I knew that it would be like, whoa, what don’t we offer? That might be easier to answer. And then could I say the next question is, what services does your agency specialize in? And if we’re talking about, you know, specifically Open Digital, you’re talking about design thinking services, is that correct?
Andy Van Solkema: Yeah, so we’re talking about– so from Open Digital standpoint, we focus on the digital space. So, what does that mean? I don’t think the term digital has actually been fully defined yet, so we’re working as a company to do that. And what I mean by that is to some digital means leaving the technology behind whatever is making it digital, right? So, if it’s a mobile application, what’s the platform or the software it’s built on? If it’s a connected product, what’s the sensor or the engineering or the– is it AWS or Azure type of platform decision. But there’s also the human side of it, of the term digital. There’s the behavioral side that is created. We balance both. So our focus is really in that range of helping organizations digitally transform. However, here’s the situation, nobody buys digital transformation. What they buy is a series of projects and products and experiences that helps their organization shift from a manufacturing company or a healthcare company and begin to leverage these things to better their services and evolve and innovate their company.
PK: And how do you go about finding good clients?
Andy Van Solkema: This is cliché, but the best way is we do good work and we tell the stories about it. And so that’s the thing. Our best client is the clients we have and we build deep relationships with them and we stick with them for a long time. This is complicated stuff we’re dealing with and once we get in working with a company and we start to understand their problems, we can help them move fast, think big, and even start small if they have to have. The other way is we have a sales staff which is building relationships and building opportunities. And we also do a level of thought leadership. We have people who are speaking all over the country, all over the world at conferences and writing articles for national publications or local publications. So there’s an aspect of that. We’ve got a marketing team that’s organizing around creating the processes and the systems to allow that to happen. So from sales support to thought leadership, there’s different methods and processes we use to deliver on that.
Paul Kortman: Can you describe your agency’s most ideal client?
Andy Van Solkema: I would say the enterprise that is looking to transform digitally. Again, they may be healthcare, they may be a product company that manufactures something, but they are getting into the realm of saying, ‘How can technology enhance our company and our experience for our customer?’ I know that’s a really broad statement, but it’s quite true. And they’re also looking at it from a standpoint of, ‘We know that we’re not just doing this widget, but we know that this widget is connected across the board and we need help figuring out how to do that and we want a partner to come in and walk alongside us and work alongside of us on the problem — not go away and then come back and unveil some magic thing that they conceived in their office. But to work in this team’s approach to solving problems.’
Paul Kortman: On the flip side of that, describe your agency’s worst client client.
Andy Van Solkema: I think that’s the client that comes in with a preconceived notion of what has to be done. Not that we can’t do that, not that we can’t deliver that, but quite often there aren’t many insights that can be uncovered. If they’re coming to us with simply a list of features and the deliverable, we do those projects, but those projects become… Throughout the project, we learn things. And then when you raise questions to say, ‘Hey, is this really the right direction?’ What would make them the worst client if there was one would them saying, ‘We don’t really care. We just need to deliver this on this date for this budget.’ Because we are a problem solving company. We’re focused on outcomes. We’re focused on delivering outcomes that move the needle for them. And it seems like the deadline and the budget has been prioritized over the effect that this thing is going to be graded.
Paul Kortman: Andy, what’s the worst part of your job and why?
Andy Van Solkema: Schedule management. And I have help for that. No, I say it jokingly, but there’s so many things going on, so many good things going on. And I personally am the type of person that likes to be aware and involved in a lot of them. That’s been a learning curve for me. I have to learn to pick and choose which I’m involved with and what I step away and let people take and grow with, which was an intentional part of this journey, if I could kind of diverge a little bit. Visual Hero was a 10-12 person company when we were acquired. And one of the things that I had concern there was that I was personally the glass ceiling for some really, really good talent and that talent has now jumped in and joined a very, very talented team at OST and is driving tremendous work, tremendous change for customers, change for our own organization. And a lot of times I don’t have to be involved. So learning what I’m involved in, managing my own schedule, and I guess a little bit of myself there is probably the biggest challenge.
Paul Kortman: Speaking of staff and getting them going and all of that, and not being their glass ceiling, how do you find such good staff, especially being in the Midwest?
Andy Van Solkema: Well, it’s really quite astounding the level of talent that is here in the Midwest. I spend a lot of time between Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, and a little bit of Detroit, because those are where the three main offices in the US are. And there is a lot of talent around… The thing that we do best to attract that talent is to tell our story and be authentic. I think people want to work for a place that they can feel like they belong to. It’s not all glitz and glam and unachievable to be a part of it. It’s real and we’re solving real problems for people. And I think when you go into those relationships and you express and exude that as a genuine organization to work for that is also, like I mentioned before, the best of the best to work for in the country year over year, it goes a long way. And it really is a great place to work. Family is prioritized. Our number one value for our company is to value our employees, and we do that and we do that well and it’s showing in some of the culture and the perks that happen here.
Paul Kortman: Anybody else want to apply at OST? How do you go about staffing a project? Different people, different agencies will put an account person, a design person, and then an actual coder, and put that together and there’s a team for a specific project or a specific client. I have a feeling that OST and Open Digital kind of do it a little differently. Would that be true?
Andy Van Solkema: What’s different is how it’s becoming cross-disciplinary. About a year and a half ago, we made the move to create our delivery practice — well, we had a delivery practice, but it lives within the software team. Now that delivery practice spans the entire organization. We have resourcing meetings within our practices, design being a practice, that discuss the various opportunities and projects that are going on, but those delivery folks then communicate that across the organization. And if we need to resource and staff a project with multiple disciplines, we can do that from that discussion. I think this is the dance. I think this is the biggest challenge in the dance that is consulting. You have really good people, you have people learning, you have really valuable clients, you have new clients you want to impress. All of those things are at play and you just have to work it. The reason I say it’s a dance is because you don’t dance to have it to be the end. I don’t think you’re ever going to get resources to have the perfect process or thing that works for consulting because it’s constantly changing. And so you constantly have to keep dancing with it and keep working it. Our team meets every Thursday morning to talk resourcing, but throughout the week there are discussions about, ‘Hey, this project is going to start next Monday, who are we thinking for it?’ And that is the discussion because clients don’t want to lose good talent on their projects. But then again, some of the designers or people working on the project aren’t the strongest person to be had there. So, there’s this evolution on a project that happens, whether it’s a one month project or a two year project that’s going to be done really just by working and constantly having those discussions with the leadership of those teams and having a great resourcing and delivery team.
Paul Kortman: Do you offer continued training to your staff? And what does that look like?
Andy Van Solkema: I think that’s really a life lesson aspect of things. We are all learning. I mentioned a little earlier some of the things I’m learning. But we do. We have continued training, we have formal training. Internally, we’ve done some things like IO University. We’ve also sent people to classes. We’re discussing bringing a class to one of our locations. It’s actually a class out of the San Francisco Bay area and we’re talking about having it brought to our area. We’d probably primarily staff that but would also offer it to some in the community. We do that intentionally. When we joined OST, they had four values that we focused on, and a fifth value was added last March, and that is the value of learning — constant learning through empathy and curiosity. So the organization prioritizes that. From a mentorship standpoint, we do our best to do in-project mentoring. We stay very, very involved in that discussion. I know on the design team, quite often, that’s a point of discussion where we have resourcing — ‘Hey, maybe we should consider putting this person with this person because they would learn in this project something new.’ One of the things I did at Visual Hero, which I thought was very successful in regards to mentorship, was everybody had a personal contract that they prepared and signed and gave to the organization. And that was a ‘this is what my objective is and where I want to grow; these are the three ways I want to do that; and these are the three reasons why I think it’s important for Visual Hero.’ What that did — and we kept it on file and anybody could pull it up at any time — was allow two people who maybe hadn’t worked with each other very often to go pull each other’s information and look at that and say, ‘Oh man, so and so wants to learn more UX research. I’m going to get them involved in that here.’ And that intentional serendipity that happens because of being aware, I think is really important. As we grow, that’s a little bit harder. But it’s the same, kind of a similar process. It just takes constant work.
Paul Kortman: And what do you do if a team member or a staff member fails at their position or at a project or a specific task?
Andy Van Solkema: I think the right thing to do, first, is to look inwardly and say, ‘Did we give them enough support? Do they have enough knowledge to do their task?’ There’s that old adage of the three A’s when you’re hiring somebody: attitude, aptitude, and ability. The ability piece is about making the time for someone to grow in that area and have the capabilities to do so. The attitude — that’s the thing you likely can’t change, not unless you’re able to set new context, it’s likely not able to change. So attitude is one of those things that, if they fail for that reason, then we have a different problem than ability. The aptitude is the area that gets gray where we want to understand whether or not they even have the ability to learn this new discipline, this new capability. I think the ability one is the easiest; we spend the time with them, we get them the training. The attitude sometimes you can’t change. And the aptitude is the one that you have to talk about. So, letting everybody know where they have to work, how we can help get there, and looking first at the leadership of that project and say, ‘Did we give them those things for them to be successful?’ And if we did or we didn’t, then that will drive the next step in the discussion, which is now addressing it with a person.
Paul Kortman: And this is kind of a weird question and maybe even more difficult in design thinking, but how do you provide success to your clients? We’ve had different agencies that bring in lead generation, or they’re just dealing with marketing or whatever the case might be, or sales, but you’re dealing in design thinking and design philosophy. How do you provide success to your clients?
Andy Van Solkema: So, success looks like a number of things — successful projects left, successful deliverable ideas. I think when you start looking at design, you get ideation in alignment across teams. I think that’s a really important thing. Momentum within an organization. Those are all markers of success. But if I’m going to look at it from a standpoint of ‘How do we measure it?’ If we’re getting rehired, that’s a marker of success. If they’re passing our name along to somebody else, that’s a marker of success. If they’re getting a promotion or they’ve been able to convince their boss’s boss of something because of the work we’ve done, that’s a marker of success. So they’re very qualitative in nature, I know. But I think it ends up being quantitative in nature toward the bottom line and the pipeline itself because what you’re really doing here is, whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re making, it’s speaking to the hearts and minds of customers. So if we can capture those hearts and minds through those qualitative metrics, and they believe in us and they know how to utilize us, and we know their business well enough, that’s going to breed some of those metrics,.
Paul Kortman: What makes Open Digital different from your competitors?
Andy Van Solkema: I’m going to take us back in time a little bit, back to Visual Here. Visual Hero was a user experience design firm that was acquired by OST. And the differentiator for us at Visual Hero was to really focus on solving the customer’s problem in their context, in their space, where they are, whether it’s alignment — and we’ll use design thinking for that, we’ll use product development. The thing was was we found that the differentiator was eroding. Back in 2007-2008, user experience design was fairly new. We were in the game, but the market of design was catching fire and everybody’s using it and, if everybody’s going to become a designer, what does a design company representative? So, we looked at what that meant and we joined forces with OST and created Open Digital, and we now look at that and we say we have the ability to actually address the true problem which was the same differentiator we had with Visual Hero when we were not just looking at the quality of the graphics we were making, but looking at why we were making it for the user. But now we’ve expanded that from a capability standpoint too, from design all the way through to data center. And now when we look at an organization that’s trying to add technology to create a customer experience through some digital transformation initiative or just simply a digital project, we have the ability to look at that project, say, ‘We really appreciate what you’re doing here — you want to do a mobile application, for instance. But did you consider this? Did you consider this? Did you consider this? Did you consider this?’ And those things may be, ‘What do your customers actually need in terms of features here? Did you consider which platform you want to collect data on? Are you considering how this is affecting your ability to support this mobile application once it launches? Because you’ve never had a piece of technology out there that you have to update in your customers, you know, you’re creating a symbiotic relationship with your customer.’ So the differentiator there is that we feel we can get to the heart of truly what the problems are by being an organization that is prioritizing outcomes through problem solving from design to data center.
Paul Kortman: Why would I use Open Digital over a smaller agency?
Andy Van Solkema: Over a smaller agency? We still carry the nimble nature of organization, of the ability to solve problems. We have two-person projects and we have large projects with 25 people on them. But from a smaller agency standpoint, I think the reason is because you’re getting the depth of mastery of this space. I think that’s really answered in the aspect of why visual hero wanted to become part of OST. We were the smaller company. And sometimes we would win out because we can move fast. The problem is our solutions a lot of the times wouldn’t solve the true problem. We would hand off what we did to someone in the organization and it would not go anywhere. It sat at a desk. It would be held up in whatever the next round of budgeting. Our ability to continue to layer on expertise, to help support wherever that conversation needs to go in an organization, will help you actually launch something and get something done. Likewise, and maybe I’m alluding early to the other question, why would you go with Open Digital or OST instead of a larger firm, a large consulting firm? We seem to be finding that we’re displacing those firms because of our ability to be hands on. We’re not coming in with a preconceived playbook. We’re coming in and listening to where you are as an organization, to what your problem is, assembling a team of scale and being able to move along with your team on a hands-on approach and create innovation solutions that do so. So we like the middle, we’re like where we’re at right now.
Paul Kortman: Thanks for putting me out of a job and just predicting the next question and going ahead and answering it. Does Open Digital offer a service, a price, or package that no one else is currently offering?
Andy Van Solkema: So there’s an element that comes along with having the ability to go in very specific, offering a mobile software team or offering customer insights research, and deliver that project in a short term space. There’s also a value in doing large, multi year initiatives to launch new projects or new programs for organizations. The thing that I think is really unique about us is that we may have multiple initiatives going on in an enterprise or a client, but the ability to connect dots for companies, to help their siloed departments work with each other, because we’ve got a number of OST team members working within their organization, or we have seen the pattern multiple times at other organizations that we can provide them, whether it’s academic resources, we work with a couple of academics at Stanford and other universities that support our work. We want to be able to provide the things that help organizations keep momentum going and a lot of times the silos that they’ve created that allowed them to create the value for their business are now becoming barriers. And so we have created some offerings, some ability to bring in resources to help them learn. We’ve got a governance change consulting offering that we quite often offer to help those projects along.
Paul Kortman: And the Elevator pitch, you have 30 seconds, you’ve identified me as an ideal client, now convince me… and go!
Andy Van Solkema: At OST and Open Digital, our intent is to help you change how your organization connects with your customer, how it connects across your organization, how you exchange knowledge. And our intent is to do that together through hands on projects, right alongside of your team, working on the same goals. We can help your IT team understand the technology decisions that need to be made to support the business, initiatives that are going on business innovation, and we can help your business to understand that its customers, to be able to define what experiences should be in, could be created. And with that, that allows us the ability to help you move faster and be more impactful for the future.
Paul Kortman: What do you personally do for fun?
Andy Van Solkema: Well, I enjoy skiing. Right now I’m looking outside and there’s lots of snow. I spend time with friends and family. Traveling is always a joy for me. So, you know, doing that with the people I cherish in my life is really what makes it worth it.
Paul Kortman: What does your staff or agency do for fun?
Andy Van Solkema: OST is a fun place to work. The culture is very open, very approachable. But we have a number of things throughout the year for our employees, events at the Orchard or we’ll hold events at various locations and be doing things like that. We do a number of Habitat for Humanity, or volunteering events. It’s actually part of me as an employee, I can do that. But since it’s coming up here, we’ve got March Madness that happens in our Grand Rapids office, and that is an event that happens on the NCAA basketball tournament where we invite all our customers and we take over the entire headquarters here in Grand Rapids, and all of the floors have different things, whether it’s frozen yogurt or food or beer, we have breweries come in and it’s a great day. It’s a great fun day, a way to kick off the NCAA Tournament, watch some basketball and get to know some new customers and see some old faces. So that’s a fun event.
Paul Kortman: So outside of March Madness, what does your agency do to incorporate fun into the client relationship?
Andy Van Solkema: So March Madness is a great example. I think it’s really not one thing, but the way we work. We know how to have fun. We do a lot of work together, either in client’s offices or our office. Very collaborative, which makes our jobs more fun. So I think actually being a partner helps that. So that’s a part of it. But the events throughout the year is obviously a great driver. I’ll add one more. We recently kicked off the newest Star Wars, with inviting all of our customers and all of our employees to an event on opening night of Star Wars in December and watched the movie. So that was fun.
Paul Kortman: Tell us a story about the most fun you’ve had working for a client or doing your job?
Andy Van Solkema: So, two things come to mind. Not a specific thing, but projects where we get to become a team. Projects where you’re collaborating in a conference room and the whiteboard’s going up and there are sticky notes everywhere, and you realize that three hours have gone by and that everybody’s been working on the problem and there has been no distinction between senior designer, junior designer, customer, intern, CEO, anything. We’re all just working on the problem. There’s nothing better in my world than that. I love doing that. And likewise the day to day building of relationships and kind of this serendipitous, the joking around that can happen. I mean, I know everybody loves that, but there’s something really nice and wonderful about a culture and a team that can do that, in both respects, both examples. So to me, that’s what makes work very fun.
Paul Kortman: What are your goals for your agency? 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
Andy Van Solkema: Growth is an interesting term. Growth is an interesting topic and one that we talk about quite often, because growth is necessary. If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking, but it’s also for at what cause, right? At what cost? So one of the things I love about OST is that it’s not for growth’s sake. We’re not doing growth for growth’s sake. We are honestly and intently growing to create a better organization, stronger people, and bigger wins for our customers. And I know that seems obvious, but that is a really important discussion point, because it’s not only for the bottom line. We do need to grow as an organization so we can invest and do things. We had a few stories this past year where there were some of our employees that needed either time off or had certain needs from a family standpoint, and our organization identified that these are the reasons we grow. We grow so that we can support the family and the community that we are. And that kind of expands not only employees, but the culture and what we are able to offer to our customers. So that’s why we grow. In terms of growth plans, the design team has seen a lot of growth this past year and we anticipate more growth. We’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Minneapolis, as is all of OST. And so we’re looking from a geography standpoint how we can continue to evolve our services in all of our locations. But I’m really begin to tack some of our other geographies where we’re gaining quite a bit of traction already. So that’s part of how we’re growing and where we’re growing. We also have begun to a prioritized thought leadership and our national voice. Paul, you know, growing up, living in this community, that OST has a wonderful reputation in west Michigan. Likewise, we want to start building, we want to build on the national reputation we already have, but we want to continue to do so. So that’s some of our growth strategy.
Paul Kortman: What does your new client pipeline look like?
Andy Van Solkema: From a design practice standpoint, we’re full. We’ve got some room elsewhere. But we’re also growing. We’ve been interviewing quite a bit and we are adding to all of our teams. So we do a good job of staying ahead of that. We’re not afraid to say no, we’re not afraid to say we can’t start it for four weeks, six weeks or whatever it is. But for the most part, our pipeline looks very healthy, but we’re not turning away work on that cause either. Because a lot of the times the project in the works are so intriguing that we find a way to resource it and get it done.
Paul Kortman: How long does it take for a potential client to become a client?
Andy Van Solkema: I think it depends on the project type, but I don’t think it’s anything for us to have a meeting today, scope it, get you an estimate within the next week or so and start the project within two to three weeks. So we could turn that discussion around pretty quickly.
Paul Kortman: What’s a typical turnaround? Is that a common thing or is it more common to be a six month process?
Andy Van Solkema: From initial contact, I’d say it’s three to four weeks. I’d say that’s pretty common. Now, that doesn’t happen all the time because we’ve got approvals with customers. So we’re also seeing three to four months sometimes. If I had to be absolute, I’d say there’s nothing for an average to be four to six weeks turn around for us to get started on something, especially if the client was motivated. Then it’s going to be less than that.
Paul Kortman: Tell us some shame, or gossip in your local market?
Andy Van Solkema: I think the most intriguing thing, and this is not as much in the community that I live within, but the most intriguing bit of gossip that’s floating around, because I was just at our Minneapolis location, is the conversation of what is happening with Amazon and Target, if anything’s happening. I don’t know. We’ve seen some speculation that Amazon is actually going to buy Target, but just the consideration of what that would do to a community or region, I think that’s the most intriguing topic that I can conjure up. If Amazon were to actually make their second location Minneapolis because of the acquisition of Target. Now that may all be speculation, but there are some folks in that area that believe it will happen. So that was an interesting discussion last week when I was there. So I think that’s a fun one to the dream about, right?
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest challenges to working with your agency?
Andy Van Solkema: I think there’s a number of things we don’t do. And not everybody defines strategy the same way, but I think strategy is really understanding yourself well enough to know what you say yes to and what you don’t. So from that standpoint, as our strategy becomes clearer, we know that there are some clients who already have a preconceived notion of what they want, have the features defined, and want to come in the door and do that work. And it’s not to say that we can’t do that work, but if they’re not listening to what the opportunity is or what the real problem is or we’re not solving the real problem, we’re going to voice that. And I think that can be a challenge. That was the thing from a very tactical standpoint, there are things we don’t do, like firmware engineering, hardware engineering, industrial design, that are very adjacent to what we do in the connected tronic space. It’s very intentional. There’s some really great partners we have there. And not only that, we think a lot of the firms we’re working with want to own that and want to do that work themselves. So we are better partners there.
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest professional mistakes you have personally made?
Andy Van Solkema: Well, the list is long. How long do we have? I think the one that sticks out there is a, I really enjoy the people side of my work. I believe in people and then there’s this aspect of trust that I give away very early. And what ends up happening is when this, that adage of hire slowly fire fast, it’s the latter one that’s really hard and there’s a lot of situations where I was either an employee or I worked with certain employees or even clients for a long time that we knew that maybe they weren’t the best fit for us, but the relationship got in the way. And so what comes to mind there is not being real with the situation and saying, you know, maybe you’re not the best fit for us, maybe we’re not the best fit for you, but still trying to make it work. And just the amount of energy and resources you use to do that is a constant struggle. If I focused more on a specific mistake, I was really young and I went into a job as a design director, and this relates to the whole ‘not the right fit’ thing. As a design director, I thought I had more experience than I did and I think I acted like it. And that was one of the things where when me and that agency decided to part ways, I realized that learning is really going to be a bigger priority in my life because I don’t know everything.
Paul Kortman: Have you arrived yet? Do you know everything yet?
Andy Van Solkema: No.We never know everything.
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest mistakes your agency has been involved in?
Andy Van Solkema: Nothing really pops into mind, other than, I ran Visual Hero for 12 years before coming apart of OST. And I think one of the things, looking back, especially after talking with some colleagues who had worked at Visual Hero or worked with us from a client standpoint, sometimes I think we were too conservative in what we were going after. We were maybe too concerned about not having the work in house or not having everybody busy or if we would keep our doors open for another six months. And I don’t think we had to have that fear as much as we did. I think we could have ran harder, maybe not overly hard, but we could have probably taken a few more risks and benefited from it.
Paul Kortman: Where can people go to connect with you or to find out more about any of the businesses that you’ve been involved with?
Andy Van Solkema: They can find me on LinkedIn. That’s a good way personally to find me. You can go to OSTUSA.com, that’s our organization website. We also have a website of OpenDigital.com which is the digital consultant group inside of OST.