Interview: Sidebar Creative
Published on September 24, 2007
Digital Web: So what is Sidebar Creative? Are you guys a company, partners, friends, or something else? How did this all come about?
Bryan Veloso: We’ve all worked with each other on some level in the past, but it was an idea that has floated around since SXSW2006. I just remember poking Dan one day and saying, “We really need to get this thing started. Let’s at least get a chat going to see what will happen.”
Steve Smith: They asked Jonathan and me if we would be interested. A few Skype chats later, and there it was. It’s a partnership of like-minded individuals that just want to make great websites.
Jonathan Snook: I often refer to it is a “freelance co-op” of sorts.
DW: Dan, Bryan—did you approach the other two because they had the right skills mix, or because they were already friends? Was there an element of, “Damn, we need a hotshot PHP guy on board”?
BV: It was never like that. It was the fact that we all wanted to work on projects together. Then we thought: “Bryan makes things pretty, Steve makes things functional, Dan’s a UI master, and Jon’s a JS guru.”
DW: How does it all work out financially?
Dan Rubin: Since we’re really just an informal partnership/co-op (a bank account is the only real element, and that’s just so we can accept checks payable to Sidebar Creative), the agreement we have is that we each quote what we’d want for our part of the project, just like if it was a regular job, and then there’s a percentage on top for Sidebar so we can pay for things related to our own products.
JS: We take out what we put in.
DW: Do you ever see that arrangement leading to problems?
BV: Well, we all have huge respect for each other and each other’s work, so that definitely helps.
JS: I agree—obviously it’s a risk we take, but we have to respect the honesty of each other.
DR: Exactly, it’s all based on honesty. I think if we ever turn Sidebar into a fully fledged business, we’ll make everything more formal. One of the reasons for starting Sidebar was to attract clients who wanted to work with us individually, but wouldn’t trust us because of the impression we were each too small, and based on the proposal requests we’ve received since day one, I’d say that has worked exactly as we planned. We have a number of proposals outstanding, and a handful of large project requests—but since we also have our own work, it’s a matter of choosing the projects we want to work on, which is nice.
DW: Your request form defaults to a budget of $100,000—is that the kind of high-end client you exclusively want to deal with?
JS: We decided on using a budget slider to set a minimum—and theoretical maximum—so that we didn’t just get a bunch of people asking for templates for $300. So, we set a minimum of $10,000. We felt that was a respectable size for four people to work on a project. Someone then thought to move the slider away from the lowest value, forcing people to think about what they wanted. How did I come up with $100k? For no other reason than it was a random number in the middle. I didn’t think about it.
DR: Since we’re all busy enough with our own projects, it’s nice to set that initial level of expectation before most people contact us. It’s amazing how many requests have come through saying things like, “We’ve followed your individual work for years, and now that you’re together we’d love to work with you.” The nice thing there is that we have a lot of overlapping skills, and our extended network of designers and programmers allows us to expand as needed.
BV: For the smaller things, we’ll sometimes see if one of us wants to take it alone. I like to say that Dan and I are designers that can program, and Jon and Steve are programmers that design.
DR: That’s another thing; our visual styles are all very complementary, so we can each work on the same UI without ruining it—and I think we’re all in very similar places in our careers, even though we’ve each been working on our own for varying amounts of time.
DW: Is everything a collective decision, or do you individually go after bigger jobs than you might otherwise do, because you know you’ve got that backup if you need it?
BV: Everything’s a collective decision.
JS: Whenever an email or request comes in, we all weigh in on it. I’m repeatedly impressed by how fluid the whole process is.
SS: And we’ve had requests to our individual companies that we’ve referred to Sidebar because of the scale.
DR: Everything is a group decision—I’m frequently on our Campfire account asking, “Hey guys, what do you think about this RFP (request For proposal) I just received?”
DW: Do you have any plans to incorporate your own brands into the Sidebar Creative brand?
DR: We’ve talked about that, and I think it just depends on how things progress for each of us—and for Sidebar—but none of us is against the idea.
SS: Agreed. The way we have things set up currently is very flexible, and we enjoy that.
DR: We’re also about to update the Sidebar site to include more information and a few more services, specifically, training and workshops.
DW: Why My Mile Marker? Seems like an odd choice for a bunch of web geeks.
BV: Steve brought up the idea, actually. He needed something to keep track of miles on his lease vehicle, right?
SS: OK, well, here’s the story. I leased a new vehicle in February, and I wanted something to help me keep track of the mileage so I wouldn’t go over after twenty four months—something that would let me know my usage was going too fast, and I needed to drive less, or if I was doing fine. I looked around, and couldn’t find anything, so I pitched the idea to the guys. After some discussion, we figured out that limiting the app to just people who lease might be a little narrow—others may be interested in tracking their mileage also, and more specifically, their fuel economy. So the idea for M3 was born—you would track your fill-ups on your car. The app would track your mileage and usage, and tell you your fuel economy, while providing projections for a year out, or a specific date, to let you know estimated mileage and estimated fuel costs for that time period. Something simple, but ultimately useful.
JS: I love using it. it’s such a simple app. And the Twitter integration is particularly brilliant.
SS: Yeah, the Twitter integration was an idea I had in the middle of the night, and actually had to get up to write it down so I wouldn’t forget it.
DR: Paying for an SMS gateway is cost-prohibitive for us—especially since M3 isn’t making money yet—but we realized that only offering a mobile version wasn’t enough, especially for folks who don’t have internet plans on their phones. Steve had the idea to create a Twitter account for M3 users; add M3 as a friend, and then send a direct message with your mileage, price per gallon, and number of gallons. Add your Twitter username to your M3 account info, then M3 polls any direct messages every two minutes and pulls the data into the your M3 history. Additional brilliant details: If a user has multiple vehicles on the M3 account, the correct vehicle is auto-detected based on the mileage, and even better, if for some reason M3 can’t figure out which vehicle is the target (e.g. the mileage is too similar between two), it will send a d-message back with the data, explaining what happened, so the user can input the info later. Steve also added the ability for users to add part of the vehicle name at the end of a d-message, to specify the target.
DW: Is the plan to monetize it fairly soon, or do you hope that these sort of apps will act more as a branding and awareness tool for Sidebar Creative, particularly to pick up app development work?
SS: To be perfectly honest, we made this app because we want it. It it’s profitable, even better.
DR: If the income is based solely on advertising and sponsorships, we’d just put it towards other Sidebar projects so we can pay for things that would otherwise come out of our own pockets.
DW: Going back to team discussions, how do you manage them?
JS: There are no structured meetings right now; we all just hop into Campfire and discuss what needs to happen, and then the next time one of us comes in, we’ll respond.
SS: Campfire is our tool. We just leave messages in here, and we all respond to threads as need be.
DR: And we all tend to be on Campfire every day.
BV: It’s usually a maximum of three of us—actually, the whole three-out-of-four rule applies to many things with our group.
DW: What does the future hold for Sidebar Creative?
JS: We have ideas as to what we want to do, but we haven’t set any specific goals like one million dollars by next year.
SS: I think we’re just going to see what comes out of it, and see how it goes.
DR: Bryan and I have been making all the plans—we’ll let Steve and Jon know when we feel they need to (laughs). Definitely no growth plans, though we’ve discussed areas it might make sense to explore. I think we’re all interested in training, so we’ve discussed running workshops and other very specific education-related ideas.
DW: Do you think this banding together of individual freelancers is the way to go? Would you recommend it over setting up an actual agency business?
SS: I think it’s a great situation that I would recommend if you find a group of people you really get along with and really trust. There’s no way this would work without that. Oh, and we all have the ultimate respect for each other’s work.
JS: I definitely think the traveling band of web developers is great for small groups who don’t want to form a big company. The trust definitely has to be there, but it’s great to know that there are people who have your back when you need it. There’s not this constant feeling like somebody is pulling the rest of the pack down.
BV: This model just fits our lives at the moment. We’re not bogged down by legal stuff, we just have fun working with each other. These are the only guys I know of who’ll actually live with my lovely sleeping habits. (laughs)
DR: I also get the feeling that we would all enjoy working in the same office together. The few times we’ve been in the same physical space, we all got along comfortably.
JS: Absolutely. We all enjoy each other’s company, which I think helps.
DW: As a group of established creative professionals, do you ever clash over ideas and concepts? How do you resolve your creative differences?
DR: That’s where the mutual respect comes into play. We’re not afraid to toss an idea into the mix, because if it ends up not happening, it is because three other insanely smart people didn’t like it. How can you not work comfortably within that environment?
DW: Aside from the training, any plans to broaden your reach and start organizing conferences? It seems to be the thing to do these days.
SS: I know the conference arena is getting pretty full, but we’re not opposed to jumping in if we feel we have something to add.
DR: We’ve talked about offering more niche events—again, similar to our application philosophy, we want to do something that hasn’t been done before. Without giving away details about specific ideas we’ve chatted about, picture something like a single day, very hands-on event, much more workshopesque, but with an element of fun that a lot of conferences lack.
DW: When working on a project, do you find that one person automatically falls into a project management role? Does someone always act as client liaison, for example?
SS: Whoever has the most interest in the project takes the lead. If nobody has interest in the project, we’re not going to do it, so it works out well.
DW: And the same for actual work on the project? With such a crossover of skills, isn’t there the potential for fights over who gets to do the UI design, or the scripting?
BV: Nope, we’ll usually give way to the person who has the most experience at said task.
DR: Like Jon said earlier, it’s amazing how smoothly that has gone. And it’s also, again, interest-based.
JS: Yes—as much as our skills overlap, each person seems to know where he stands on a project.
DW: How do you handle collecting client requirements?
JS: Up until now, we’ve basically surveyed each other for what we feel we need to provide an adequate quote, or what we need to start the project, but to automate the process, we’re moving to a questionnaire to help us be more thorough. We’re actually thinking of using Wufoo for that.
DR: So far, the mixture of email and phone communication to determine project requirements before creating a quote has proven fairly similar to each of our individual processes.
DW: With design work, how strict are you on revisions/versions? How many concepts will you submit?
BV: I honestly think Dan has more of a structured process than I do. Off the bat I’d submit the first thing that comes to mind and then allow for two, maybe three revisions of it, unless the client specifically asks for more concepts, but that doesn’t usually align well with the way my mind works.
DR: My process is one initial mockup, with two rounds of revisions. If a client wants more revisions, or more initial comps, that’s an extra fee, but we find that we usually hit the nail on the head with the initial version—we’re all perfectionists to a certain degree. We’re the kind of people who like to submit final versions instead of first drafts. I think the amount of thinking time you put in initially is the most important part of any project. We don’t just start designing right away. or even sketching, at least in my case. I let it simmer in my head for a period of time, let it soak into my subconscious for a while. Content is very important too—designing for unknown content makes for a less-relevant end result—but discovery typically changes slightly for each project. Doing things the same way for every project and client ends up being too cookie-cutter.
DW: what goes into that discovery phase of a project for you?
SS: Getting all the content arranged—information architecture, page-description diagrams, and even full content—is the discovery phase in some cases.
DW: What can we expect from Sidebar Creative next?
JS: Continuing on client projects as they come in, of course, but we have a couple of new web app ideas that we’re working on.
DR: Version two of the Sidebar site will be launched soon, and we’ve got some interesting proposals outstanding that could result in some fun projects.
DW: Finally, what would you say to people who are considering going this web collective route themselves right now?
BV: It really is all about the trust and the friendship—you have to have fun together first before even thinking of undertaking something like this. It’d probably be a lot harder if we didn’t know each other as well as we do. The main thing is, take the jump.
SS: Yeah, I’d say the kind of dynamic amongst us all is relatively rare, but it’s turning out to be successful and fun. Go for it if you have the folks to back you up.
DR: I’d say it has to be based on mutual trust, respect, and goals. Ultimately, if you think you have the right mix of people, go for it; especially with this sort of partnership, you really have nothing to lose by trying.
Bryan Veloso is an enigma, wrapped in an egg roll, gently placed over chicken fried rice. He's one-fourth of Sidebar Creative, one-half of Revyver, and all of Avalonstar. When not working, he loves joking around, throwing bowling tournaments and seeing people have the time of their lives. He's kept alive by his future-wife Jen, DDR, boba and his 5 cats.
Jonathan Snook is a freelance web developer and consultant. When not working on one project or another, this proud father can be found spending time with his son and wife in beautiful Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Dan Rubin loves espresso, Macs, graphic tees, his iPhone, and is a published author and speaker on user interface design and web standards development. His portfolio, writings and various side projects can be explored via superfluousbanter.org.