Heather Hesketh

Heather Hesketh

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on December 31, 2001

Digital Web: I’d like to start things out by taking a step back in history. The year was 1995 and the Internet was booming, this was the year that hesketh.com was born. How did the idea of starting this company come up? How did you go about establishing your business?
Heather Hesketh: hesketh.com started as a single person consultancy. My intentions were much more academic in 1995, consulting on Web projects while pursuing a post-baccalaureate degree in applied anthropology. I quit my job as a technical writer, and my first client was my former employer. Those were heady years, though. We were defining the medium, the business models, the team models, everything. What more could a person with a penchant for understanding how and why people do what they do, ask for?

Working on the Web quickly replaced my academic pursuits, as I delivered successful projects, developed a reputation for solid work, and found myself with more work than I could handle alone. In 1997 I was faced with a tough decision…grow or stay independent.

I always thought of myself as a craftsperson. My craft could be called mediation, or translation. I helped technical and non-technical people understand one another, at least enough that they could build systems together. I helped Web users understand what a company was trying to tell them, and helped those companies understand what the user needed or wanted to know. To grow, my craft would need to be business. Which is why the decision was so tough.

Fortunately, I had a strong community both here in Raleigh–where you find such Web luminaries as Steven Champeon and Rafe Colburn – and online – where dropping names is so ’96 [grin] Long walks and late night talks (email or IRL) convinced me to take the leap of faith and grow hesketh.com. The worst that could happen would be for me to go back to school. The best that could happen is history in the making.

As hesketh.com grew, Steven‘s then-employer went through a rapid growth and burn cycle, finding him at a new media start-up. The new media start-up burned, finding that revenue is a necessity when the startup capital runs out. Needless to say, Steven was ripe for change. One option was for him to land at a company that was so stable, you wonder how they cycle the air out. His second option was to join me and build a vision that was both personal and public.

In 1998, three years after its founding, hesketh.com was incorporated. Steven and I were the first employees. We had an established client base, including companies like Oxford University Press.


Digital Web: Since 1995 has the size of your company changed? How many people work at hesketh.com today? Are they mostly programmers, designers or project managers?
HH: In the first few years, it was just subcontractors and me. When in 1998 we decided to become a “real” business and got incorporated, we doubled in size; Steven joined me. We’ve doubled in size every year since, until 2001. In 2001, the goal is to survive. hesketh.com is 10 people, with a vision of each business unit never exceeding 20. The first business unit is services.

We take a systems approach to Web projects, so our team is very balanced and each person is surprisingly specialized. We have as many visual designers as programmers or sysadmins. We have an almost-dedicated information architect (who also fills a writing role). We have a CRO (Chief Relationship Officer), a CFO, CTO, and CEO (that’s me).


Digital Web: Have you ever had to lay off anyone at hesketh.com? If so, how did you deal with that?
HH: In these economic times, I hate to even have that questions asked, without tapping wood. No, we have never had layoffs.

I have needed to fire people, which is much different than economic layoffs. With layoffs, you have to fire people who are likely doing a great job and are team players. When you just fire someone, it’s because their performance is not up to standards. The two fires I’ve done were very different from one another.

Differences aside, in both cases the employees knew there were issues with their performance. We developed goals and performance plans together and every step of the way, we knew what the possible outcomes could be. I’ve created similar performance plans with employees where the outcome was years of happy collaboration. Unfortunately, that outcome isn’t universal. When it is clear that someone isn’t going to work out, the best thing for the team and the individual is to end it quickly and cleanly.


Digital Web: Tell us about your place of work. How would you describe a “typical” day at your office? How social is hesketh.com… is everyone hiding in cubicles working autonomously, or does is collaboration the Order of the Day?
HH: A “typical” day, oxymoronic though it may be, generally involves both collaborative and independent work. We get together to brainstorm, do peer reviews, refine process, give status, and meet with clients. We then break up and work on action items independently, pulling folks in as needed. The scheduling of meetings are dependent on who’s in the meetings. Some of the groups prefer to finish meetings early and then work on their own in the afternoon. Other groups prefer to meet in the afternoon, so they can prep in the mornings (or sleep in, if they had a long night).

We don’t have cubicles, though I have nothing against them and I’m sure one day at least some hesketh.com folks will work in cubicles. We bring such diverse personality types together that I could see some of them preferring cubicles; most likely the visual designers or production folks or sysadmins might opt for cubicles or open floor plan. The project managers, programmers, information architects, and upper management will probably always need offices for focus or privacy. For now, we all have offices that ring a central meeting area. Here is an artist’s rendition of the floor plan we developed to encourage collaboration, while still giving people the privacy they need to focus.


Digital Web: You have a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, yet today you would consider yourself an information architect (beyond the responsibility of operating your company). How did you make the transition from Aerospace to the web?
HH: When I was in engineering school, we used the Internet extensively, so the technology wasn’t a leap. It wasn’t a passion; it was a tool, like a hammer. Looking at it that way helps demystify it. My passion is understanding what people want, how they place value, and why they think the way they do, from a cultural rather than a neurological perspective.

AE’s systems-based design approach has served me well in working on large projects that require varied specialists. AE’s are trained in the various fields that go into building an airplane and are generally the engineers who lead a design project and bring together the materials engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, etc., so I had experience in translating amongst disciplines. Now I work with IA’s, interface designers, visual designers, programmers, and sysadmins.

Besides, I was a “different” engineer. I liked liberal arts, placing out of most of the humanity requirements before I started college. Even though I’m good with technical subjects, I don’t consider myself a left-brain thinker. If I were, my right brain would get into all sorts of trouble from boredom. I like to organize things. If you’re the sort who just gets around to it “whenever,” you might be frightened at the sight of my spice rack, cupboards, and closets. My bookshelves are arranged by subject, author, and title. Organization frees you to think about what really matters. Pair an obsession with organization with a passion for how people think and value… and you get information architecture.


Digital Web: Looking at your biographical info, it’s clear to me that when you talk, people listen. You seem to be able communicate in a very friendly and sociable way, as if we were the closest of friends. Taking into account the obstacles that are most often posed to effective client relations, could you summarize what you do to make the client comfortable as you’re herding a project toward launch?
HH: Well, it’s not just me. In fact, more and more it is not at all me. That’s the key to the success of a business, to not rely on the strength of a single individual, but to empower and educate the team. The processes and best practices we have are definitely informed by my style and experience.

The key is to communicate. Clients are assigned a single point of contact, their producer, or project manager. They also have an account manager that they can talk to about relationship issues, or just shoot the breeze with, independent of any active project.

Our Producers give clients written status reports at least once a week. We document each step as much as possible without holding ourselves back from getting the job done. We review key milestone documentation, including information architectures, visual design comps, and technical specifications with the client, ensuring that they understand what we’re doing and why. Then, we ask that they sign off, literally. I’ve found that people read more carefully when they’re attaching their signature to a document. Of course, we have some clients that we’ve been working with so long (some since 1995) that signatures are no longer needed except for “big ticket” items, like contracts.

Client meetings are documented in contact reports. We documented both in-person and teleconference meetings and post the notes to the client extranet with the schedules and deliverables. These are invaluable if a client’s point of contact changes, and a new contact has to get up to speed quickly. It also helps ensure that we’ve heard what the client was trying to say, by repeating back what we accomplished and the action items that were defined.


Digital Web: The thing that amazes me the most about hesketh.com is that you have put a lot of thought and effort into defining your process, effort that shows through. For our readers, could you explain your process and how you use it on your projects?
HH: The process is a living thing, learning from every project. The core doesn’t change, though. The core involves discovery (where we ask a lot of questions and document project goals), elaboration (where we elaborate on the goals defined during discovery, including developing an IA, visual design, and technical design), development (where we build an alpha and beta), and deployment (where the project goes through final system testing and goes live). We start each project with a sunrise meeting and end with a sunset meeting. In the sunrise meeting, the project team gets the scoop from those who do business development. In the sunset meeting, the project team talks about what went right, how to repeat it, what could have gone better, and how to ensure that we learn from our mistakes as soon as we’ve made them.


Digital Web: Tell us more about Nerve.com. How did you approach this project? What were the goals and what were the solutions?
HH: Nerve.com was exciting in many ways. For me personally, it was exciting because it was the first substantial project that hesketh.com delivered without any involvement of mine beyond signing the contract. For the team, it was exciting because Nerve is a highly recognized name with very sexy content. The project was in Wired and dead-tree media is still mighty sexy, even in our industry.

Nerve called us on referral from Fearless Media in New York. Emma at Nerve had talked to many new media firms, including some of the biggest in New York. They all told her the project couldn’t be done. Leslie Harpold from Fearless told Emma to call us, and basically told her that if we said it couldn’t be done, Emma could trust the answer. If it could be done, we’d do everything in our power to make it happen for her.

Nerve had selected all these community feature vendors because of their “best of breed” status, including CyberSource, Homestead, Critical Path, Webcrossing, and Eshare. What they were faced with and what we did for them was integrating all these technologies into a seamless user experience. We put together a project team and a project plan, defined requirements (which included how each software package stored user data and how you could communicate with them), and integrated our hearts out.

Nerve was a particularly daunting challenge, because they had already settled on the software they intended to implement. When the choices were made and contracts signed, no one had researched how these packages could talk to one another. They couldn’t… at least, not without a lot of help. I think we used darned-near every programming language that was being used back then, to execute that project.


Digital Web: If you could highlight a single project that hesketh.com produced that could be considered an ideal case study for how a web project should be handled, which project would it be, and why?
HH: It’s funny that you should ask… A few months ago we were asked this same question by an author who is updating a book on project management which includes case studies. She used our project as the case study for her book proposal. The publisher loved it and the contract is being finalized as I answer your question.

The project in question is TogetherSoft. The “why” behind its selection is that without strong project management, the project would never have seen the light of day. Thanks to effective project management, the project was launched and a strong relationship was built. We started working with TogetherSoft in April 2001, to redesign their corporate site. The road to branding the global company was bumpy because of their rapid growth and big needs, but the trip was well worth it.

We’ve since consulted on a corporate-wide CMS and a community project, and built a multimedia product demo that has been translated into four languages.


Digital Web: A few years ago when the economy was booming and the Web was growing like a teenager in adolescence – growing too fast to keep up with – we saw lots of money being spent on poor ideas with little or nothing in the way of business plans and few sources of revenue beyond the venture capital used to start them. Today we see companies dying off faster than the common housefly. hesketh.com, however, is still running strong. How are you managing to survive in this economy? What do you think were the key reasons as to why hesketh.com is still around today?
HH: We survive because we don’t get caught up in the churn. We know what we do, and we do it well. What we do is the Web. We build mutually respectful, and beneficial, relationships with our clients. We also know how and when to say no, sometimes before ever going to contract.

From a purely financial standpoint, we’ve added personnel only when we knew we had projects to sustain their costs. No one client accounts for more than 20% of our annual revenue. And we don’t go crazy. Yes, we have Aeron chairs, but only after you’ve been with the firm for a year. [grin]


Digital Web: One thing I’ve noticed about the projects that hesketh.com creates is that they have a good balance of form and function. The technology is definitely present on the back-end and it is used in major ways but it doesn’t overpower the simplicity of the site. The same can be said about the design, the sites have a lot of visual appeal yet they are not overwhelmed by eye candy and in-your-face design. How do you find the balance?
HH: Focus on the user and you can’t go wrong. Focus on the office politics or the latest bell or whistle and you’ll fail every time. hesketh.com does the former and we say no to the latter, even when it’s not what the client wants to hear. They thank us in the end, when their product not only works with every click, but works on the bottomline, too.


Digital Web: Okay… this may be a more challenging question: what are your favorite web sites, and why?
HH: Wow. That is tough. Especially because so many of them have gone away recently. Also, I don’t surf for fun. When I surf, I’m either a user or a researcher, so most of the sites I visit are because they offer me something I want or need. Why I like them will be because they have what I want or they give me what I want in a way that’s easy for me. Of course, I have a lot of opinions about what makes a good web site, but it all depends on the site’s purpose.

I love(d) AdCritic, because it had content I wanted. Advertisements are the only reason to watch television. They’re entertaining and can be conceptually inspiring.

Amazon is doing a lot right. I could write a series of white papers on Amazon, but that’s not what we’re doing today. Their success is owed to the fact is that they focus on their customer.

hesketh.com is a challenge, because our team is our harshest critic. We ditched a lot of comps during the last visual redesign, but once we forced ourselves to design for our customers instead of ourselves, we did a great job.

What inspires you? What motivates you? What makes you strive to not only accomplish something but to do it better than it has been done before?

I’m fundamentally lazy. My thinking is that if I’m going to do something, I might as well do it right from the start, so I don’t have to do it again.


Digital Web: In your own words, how would you define creativity?
HH: Pass.

Seriously, that’s the question. Creativity is making something from nothing. It’s looking at old things and seeing new ways of using them or rediscovering the old ways. Creativity is self-reliance and knowing when to rely on others.

Creativity is not limited to a single field. Creativity can be found wherever there is thought. Creativity may be in words, pictures, code, or actions.


Digital Web: If you had to define it, what would you call beauty in design?
HH: Balance, and meeting the needs of the user.


Digital Web: If you were talking with a young entrepreneur who wanted to get into the web “industry” despite the current state of the economy, what do you think would be the best advice you could give them? What have you learned from your experiences?
HH: Today, I’d tell them that if they have a job and unless they have a really, really good idea and funding, stay put. Every sector, except US flag sales, is highly competitive right now. Work at your job by day (provided it’s a day job), by night network and write your business plan. Tomorrow, when the economy picks back up again, you’ll have your business plan in hand.

If you don’t have a job or if the urge is just so great that you can’t focus on anything else, then ask yourself what you have to lose. If you can afford to have little or no income for at least 3 months and you’re not afraid of hard work, then go for it. Don’t forget your business plan, and network like mad.

Remember, a business plan is not a bible; it’s a guide. Unless you’re trying to get money from someone else, your business plan doesn’t have to be fancy. For those of us who bootstrap, business plans are tools for focus, not funding. You need to answer basic questions, like why people will want to pay you, what you’re going to do, how you’re going to get paid, and who you’re going to target first. Set targets. Set aside time to reassess your plans and targets quarterly and yearly. When things are busy, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of a little navelgazing. Make the time, and you’re more likely to be around when others are taking down their shingle.

Be flexible. Be honest. Be true.

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Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.