The Egotist Interviews: Legwork Studio
In just a few years, Legwork has gone from brand-new agency to becoming a preferred digital partner of Wieden+Kennedy. We were interested in what they attribute their meteoric success to, among many other things. So we asked. And they told us. Get inside the minds of Legwork.
Illustration by designer/illustrator Eric Wedum
Q: What is Legwork's motto/mission?
A: We don’t really have anything official, but we were noticing a shift in the landscape of our industry when we were getting started. Some of the places we worked at previously were built on what we saw as dated models. We thought we could do something different and, hopefully, better. For example, there were ideas that you had to specialize in a particular software language or service offering, protect the IP around proprietary code and closed systems, and retain clients either contractually or by forcing them into a maintenance situation. There were always layers upon layers of management and a lot was getting lost playing games of telephone. Some decisions were being made for the wrong reasons and it could be really frustrating at times. We all shared a vision of how things could be different. We wanted to take full ownership of our work, not push the responsibility of its outcome onto others we couldn’t collaborate with. We wanted to continually learn and grow, not get stuck in one way of doing things that would inevitably die out (sooner than later in our world).
In the end, we like to say that we are built on creativity, innovation and a DIY ethic.
Q: What are the three most important things to which you attribute your success?
A: It's hard to say, especially without the ability to look at ourselves from an outside point-of-view. But in our relatively short period of time as an entity, we’ve been as honest and transparent with our clients and each other as possible, we’ve worked really hard on everything we do, and we’ve strived to be constantly learning new things.
Q: How much bigger can your agency get before you start to lose the attention to detail and craftsmanship you put into your work?
A: Every project we take on has a team that is dedicated from the beginning to the end. We have a very flat organizational structure, so a team typically consists of a strategist and any number of designers and/or developers and animators. Our goal is to simplify our workflow and enhance quality by eliminating unnecessary layers in our company. We are strong believers in communicating early and often and we include the client every step of the way. They usually really appreciate having direct access to the people who are doing the actual work. Additionally, since our owners are also “workers,” there is always at least one involved in every project.
We know this just scales to a point, but we don’t want to get much bigger anyway. Being small allows us to be nimble, more selective with the projects we take on, and continue to be actively involved in creating the work.
Q: How do you estimate projects to ensure that you can go overboard on the output and not lose your shorts?
A: We essentially bill time and resources. It’s a really simple model to track. When we start, a team is assigned to a project and we prioritize the desired features with the client based on their importance. Then we build to a working, base version as quickly as possible. We iterate from there by continually adding features, polish and generally making things better until we run out of time. We all have enough experience and knowledge within our group to know if someone is coming to us with a totally crazy request that would be setting everyone up for failure. We turn that work down. We’re certainly not perfect, but we’ve always finished our projects and learned from our mistakes so we aren’t destined to repeat them.
Q: What influence do metal and punk music have on your work and business philosophy?
A: Growing up heavily involved in our local music scene, we learned the value of DIY ethics and wanted to apply them to our company. We started slowly and we worked nights for the first year-and-a-half saving all of the money we earned. It was basically like doing freelance projects on a regular basis to invest in our own company. One by one, each of us (Sean, Joey and Aaron) took the jump (and a huge pay cut) to quit our day jobs. At first, we worked out of Aaron’s basement. Then, we rented a tiny 10’x10’ room across the street from a homeless shelter. The first year was scary at times, but we managed to always stay in the black and never borrow money from banks, investors or anyone else. We could come up with plenty of metaphors to going on self-booked tours in shitty vans and the like, but you get the point. From the very start, Legwork was a profitable, self-sustaining business. We figured if we could survive during the worst economic collapse in generations, we should be in a great spot once things start to turn around.
Q: Is being headquartered in Colorado meaningful to your output or could you be stationed anywhere?
A: It’s meaningful to us as individuals and for our families, but not really to our output as a business. Nearly all of our clients are out of state (sometimes out of country), but geography has never been an issue. If anything, it’s provided some opportunities for us to travel to some really cool places on a semi-regular basis and a lot of our clients love to come here to take advantage of what Colorado has to offer.
Q: Which is necessary to having a successful office environment: a) Kegerator b) Dog(s) c) Metal d) Ping-pong e) All of the above
A: f) None of the above... see next question.
Q: What is the work environment like at your shop?
A: We set out to create an environment that represents the personality of our brand. It’s not fancy here — we keep it pretty casual and fun. We are aiming to make the office comfortable, not intimidating or full of ego. We really want the studio to feel like a second home. We see each other more like family than colleagues. Though it is essential to our business model that every person here takes responsibility for themselves and the work they produce, we’re all in the weeds together and do everything in our power to help and support each other, especially when things get tough. The rest is pretty fluid. People show up and leave when it’s comfortable for them. They are free to manage their time however they see fit. As long as someone is reliable and available when they are needed, the rest is up to them. It’s all based on a foundation of mutual respect. We also don’t think we can overstate the value of a balanced life enough. We all have things and people in our lives that are more important than a job. To not acknowledge that is ignorant and short sighted.
Q: Does Legwork have nicely sculpted quads and calves, befitting of your agency moniker?
A: Everyone here uses their feet instead of their hands to work. It takes a little training, but our name is very literal.
Q: How have you dealt with your rapid growth — specifically from a hiring and resource delegation perspective?
A: We’re guessing many people think we’re a lot bigger than we actually are. We’ve been very conservative about growth and overextending ourselves financially. After we brought on Matt, Matt #2 and Andy to round out our ownership group, we knew we were capable of executing high-profile projects for big brands without outside help. Each of the six partners are still actively involved in creating all of the actual work we produce — which gives us a unique perspective on what we actually need as a company. This allows us to be very deliberate and thoughtful about the employees we want to add to the team. We’ve since grown very organically, scooping up friends and people we respect professionally along the way and developing talent through internships. We just added number fifteen to the team. He graduated from Boulder Digital Works this summer and was interning for us the last three months. We also just moved to a new office. We’re still finishing some things up, but we’ve been working towards this place for a long time. It’s been a dream come true to design a space that gives us some room to breathe, better facilitates the way we work, and embodies the vision of our brand.
Q: Look Colorado agencies straight in the eye and give them your best advice.
A: We’ve given a few talks about how we like to do things and these are some of our favorite parts:
Less talk. More rock.
Get your hands dirty as soon as possible. This means less documentation and more deliverables. Through prototyping, storyboards, motion tests and design explorations, you get far better insight than you ever could from a book of requirements or long talks about theoretical possibilities. We also find it essential to not work in silos. If you’re handing things over the fence, you’re doing it wrong. Collaborate with your team and client throughout the process.
Everything in the digital space is evolving faster and faster, so you have to embrace change — not fight against it. If you don’t like constant learning, iterating and experimenting, then you will quickly become obsolete.
Give a shit.
Put in the time and effort to be a master of your craft. This should be one of your biggest passions in life. You can’t stop learning and improving when you think you reach a certain level either. There’s always room to get better. On top of this, you have to care enough to see your vision through to the end. You have to love the process. That last 10% is always the most difficult to get through, but it’s also the most important part. An idea is only as good as its execution.
Q: What effect has winning awards had on your business and how do you recommend the rest of us win more of them?
A: Since a lot of our work comes through ad agencies, winning awards has been a simple and inexpensive way for us to get our name out to a wider audience. We also know that it feels good to be recognized by your peers, which, in turn, contributes toward a positive morale within the company.
When we finish a project we’re proud of, we try to get the word out to everyone we can think of and hope for the best. We haven’t figured out any secrets. We just post links to the work.
When we collaborate with an ad agency, they’re usually the group in charge of the submission and PR process. So, in that case, we leave it up to them.
Q: What's your biggest secret to doing great work?
A: If we take on a project, we will do everything in our power to make it the best it can be. Budget helps estimate resources, time and features — but it should never dictate quality.
We live in a small world and you never know how one thing can lead to another. That’s why we work the way we do. For example, early on, we took a project to build a new website for our friends at the Union Station Neighborhood Co. Though it was a small project for a local real estate client, they gave us the freedom to make it something really special and we all believed in its potential. Shortly after its launch, word of the site organically spread and eventually caught the eye of the Chrysler team at Wieden+Kennedy. They invited us to collaborate on a really cool project for their Imported From Detroit campaign. That work has lead to countless opportunities not only with them but a lot of other people... like Google.
Q: What mistake have you made that we can all learn from?
Q: What other agencies do you admire and why?
We first met about 4 years ago when the two founders randomly hit us up to hang out during SIA. They started in a really similar way to us and we’ve been able to learn and grow together. It’s been cool and encouraging to see some of our friends follow a similar path and be successful at it.
The Clark brothers were a big inspiration to us forming. They came from a similar background, as well, and showed that starting your own small design company was possible and sustainable. They have consistently produced some of the best work in the world on their own terms.
Q: Describe your ultimate client.
A: Since we have a fairly unorthodox workflow, our ultimate client has to be willing to fully embrace this process. Sometimes it feels too loose for people. It’s predicated on making real-time decisions with the client and each other. There should be direct contact with a few key people that can make decisions. At the end of the day, everyone has to truly trust and respect each other.
Q: Your company is going to die tomorrow. Describe the party you're having tonight.