Beth co-founded Insight Designs in 1999 during her leave of absence from her role at the paper. Beth quickly realized this was something she wanted to do and took it on full time and has never looked back.
After showing us around their office just off Pearl Street, Beth and I discuss what got her where she is today and has planned for the future.
Brent: I’m Brent Weaver and you’re watching uGurus, the most watched web series to become a more profitable and in-demand web professional. Today I’m in Boulder, Colorado at Insight Designs, hanging out with their founding partner, Beth Krodel. Welcome to the program.
Beth: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Brent: So Beth, how did you get your start in web?
Beth: Well, I was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and my friend and former roommate, Nico Toutenhoofd, was a photographer with the Detroit Free Press. And we were always kicking around ideas for what business we could go in together. And we talked about opening a noodle company, we talked about a shop that would be skis in the winter and bikes in the summer.
Brent: Could you just define noodle company for me?
Beth: Yeah, we actually . . . not to take over anybody’s steam on the whole noodles and company, but we talked about having a business that would actually sell noodles with lots of different kinds of sauces.
Beth: But we didn’t do it, obviously. And that was in 1998 when we started talking about going into business together. And we just sort of realized that web was becoming a big deal. We had both done cross training on the web team at various newspapers that we worked at and thought that that would be an exciting place to be. So we both took leaves of absence from our jobs at the Free Press, came out to Boulder . . . actually, Nico came a few months before me . . . and started Insight Designs. And the newspaper gave us a year off and we, six months into it, decided this is going to work and we’re not going to go back to journalism. So we flew back to Detroit and said, “Thanks for the time off. But we actually are going to pursue this business fulltime,” and so we came back to Boulder and it’s been going great ever since.
Brent: So about a 14 year history with the business?
Beth: 15 actually. We just had our 15th anniversary on March 1st.
Brent: And give me an idea of the size of the business today.
Beth: We have 16 people and we’re a couple million dollar a year business. And we started with just the two of us and that was in 1999 and we kind of had add-a-person-a-year sort of growth.
Brent: Now who’s a typical customer of Insight Designs right now?
Beth: It’s really varied and it has been that way since the beginning. We’ve had very small mom-and-pop-type clients and we’ve had Fortune 500 clients. The same is true today. We have brands that people know, like Crocs and Spyder, Pepsi Americas, which is the number two bottling group for Pepsi Americas was one of our premier clients for many years and then they got bought. They were a client for 10 years. We also have a lot of clients in the outdoor industry, partly because we’re here in Boulder, Colorado. So the Outdoor Industry Association is one of our clients. We work with Montbell, Sierra Designs has been a client, lots of other folks like in the cycling world, we do Garmin, Garmin-Sharp, the cycling team and Slipstream Sports. So a lot in the outdoor world. And then also a lot in the world of education and science and technology. So we work with NASA, we work with Level 3 Communications, we work with Duke University, Brown University, obviously, the University of Colorado and like I said, a lot of others in that science space, too.
Brent: What exactly do you do for NASA?
Beth: We do the NASA Explorer School’s website.
Brent: Very cool.
Beth: Yeah, and a lot of online-learning-type sites, too. So there’s others for the North Carolina Science, Math and Technology Education Center, we do some other kinds of education outreach sites for Brown University and some others, too.
Brent: So how do you guys get these types of customers? It seems you’ve got a wide range. I can make a guess it’s probably word of mouth, but’s what’s your, what’s your . . .
Beth: Yes, yes, it is. It’s exactly that. It’s word of mouth. It’s simple things like when we started back in ’99, we decided to have a holiday party. And the first holiday party we had, which we were just a block away over on Pearl, we invited . . . mostly it was friends. And friends brought friends and one of the people who came was somebody named Laura Orlowski who’s now Laura Wisner. And at the time she worked for Hind and they became a division of Saucony. [SP] And she was like, “Oh, our company needs a new site.” And so we ended up doing the Hind website a few months after that party. And that was our first foray into the outdoor world. And then Laura went on to work for Spyder and then other people from Hind went on to work for Sierra Designs and so that just blossomed like that. And it’s been like that with all of it. We did a project for a think tank in Rhode Island and that ended up leading to work at Brown University, which then led to some work at Johns Hopkins University, which just keeps spiraling in a good way.
Brent: It sounds like you guys focused on good quality of work, good relationship with your customers, and then that kind of just takes care of itself.
Beth: Yes and as one person leaves the company or a nonprofit and goes to another, it’s surprising and very rewarding to see how many of them actually then bring us along in their next place of business.
Brent: So when you and Nico started out, was the intention to grow a full-fledged business or were you guys just like, “Let’s try to pay our bills and do our own thing,” and not to be journalists or whatever?
Beth: I think we didn’t really know what to expect. We had a list of sort of goals that we wrote down for the business and it included things like have a good work-life balance. It included earning enough money to buy houses in Boulder. That was on our list.
Brent: In real estate here, that’s probably a good amount.
Beth: Yeah, yeah, and we’ve both been able to do that and I think we have 10 or 11 of our 16 people own their houses.
Beth: So that’s not a bad ratio. And then other people rent. But other things on that list were to not work with mean people. They were really simple. I mean, I still have the list. I can show it to you.
Brent: It sounds like a really simple thing.
Brent: But having my own agency for a long time, that is actually very difficult to achieve.
Beth: Yeah, yeah. And we’ve actually, surprisingly, over the past 15 years gone back to that list and like, “You know, that person is really difficult and they yell at people. And that’s just not professional,” or whatever the situation is and we go back to that and we’re like, “We really don’t want to work with someone like that.” Or we go back to other things on that list.
But anyway, work-life balance has continued to be a really big deal for us, too. And that’s one thing that we did know from the beginning, we wanted to kind of be in control for ourselves and as we grew, for our employees. But getting back to sort of what we had expected, I think we didn’t want to be a 500 or 1,000-person company. We never wanted to take investment money from anybody else. We like the idea of sort of being in charge of our own destiny and creating a good lifestyle for ourselves and the people that we worked with. And I think we’ve done that. Did we know what we were doing? No. And have we been surprised at how successful we’ve been? Yes. I remember the first year we filed taxes and we were like, “Wow, this is real. We just made this up.” We didn’t know anything about contracts. We didn’t know anything about registering a business or trademarking and we sort of learned all of it, billing and everything.
Brent: What do you think over that 10 years was the most difficult challenge that you overcame?
Beth: I think one of the sort of ongoing challenges, especially in the web space, is that the technology just keeps changing and there’s so much to know. There’s not just one or two hosting companies or one or two places to go and register your domain name like when we started. There’s tons of companies that do everything. And on top of that, I can’t tell you how many times a client will call and say, “Have you heard of X?” And I’m like, “No,” and I Google it very quickly to see what it is they’re talking about because it’s really hard to keep up with all of that. But I think we do a pretty good job of culling the things that we feel like are going to be important and then learning about those things.
Brent: Any specific tactics of how you make that part of your culture with not just you and your partner, but the rest of the team?
Beth: Yeah, I mean we encourage everybody on our staff to be involved in the local tech community, to take part in meetups and to go to talks and things like to kind of keep up-to-date. Obviously, we encourage everybody to read online and subscribe to appropriate news groups and things like that. We also are really encouraging in terms of taking classes. We have something we call Above and Beyonds, so for everybody on staff there are five Above and Beyonds set for each person each year. And they’re sort of like goals but they’re tasks. And we pay each person $1,000 per Above and Beyond that they do. And a lot of times, those Above and Beyonds include take a jQuery class or sometimes it’s do volunteer work or there are other things like plan an in-house happy hour and have somebody talk on an interesting topic. So it’s not just us saying, “Hey, we’d really like you to do this,” but it’s saying, “Hey, we’d love it if you did it and we’ll give you $1,000 for each of the things that you do in the year.”
Brent: That’s really cool. I’m just even thinking about how I could maybe apply that to my own business. But in terms of a team, so 16 people, so you guys are averaging about one person per year. It sounds like you’re pretty intentional about your growth and your hiring process. Are you guys finding that you’re limited in work based on the amount of clients you have or is it really more of a self-imposed, like team-member-capacity limit that you’re putting on yourselves?
Beth: I think it’s an issue of control of the quality of a product and Nico and I want to be hands-on on everything that we do and have at least one of the two of us touching that project. And so that’s the limiting factor, really. If we were 40 people, it would be really hard for both of us or for each of us to be involved in everything that’s happening. And we’re sort of beginning to get used to the idea of maybe if we do want to grow than the size that we are right now, that we’re going to need to have somebody else take on some of that responsibility, too and be okay with letting go a little bit more.
Brent: What’s your position within the business?
Beth: I wear a lot of hats. I mean, you know, I’m sure, you’ve had your own agency. So I would be, if we went to the traditional titles, I would probably be the chief marketing officer and head of HR and the CFO and probably the CEO and maybe the COO. And Nico’s definitely the CTO. He’s always been the more technical of the two of us. And then we both do business development and project management. And then we have, obviously, on our team, we have a group of people who are mostly designers, visual designers, but they also do front-end development. And then we also have a group of heavy lifting programmers and we do mostly PHP and MySQL. And then we also have sort of an in between group that are sort of crossover between front-end development and production and sort of lighter weight PHP. We do a lot with Open Source now. That’s been more in the past four or five years. But when we started we did everything custom. Anyway, we also have a quality assurance or testing person, too.
Brent: I’m curious if you have any daily practices or weekly practices or life habits or things that have helped you to get to where you are today.
Beth: I walk to work every day and I live two miles away. And I know that’s sort of weird. That helps you? But I have a husband, I have two kids, I have pets and it’s nice to have that two-mile walk into the office and then that two-mile walk home to kind of transition between life and work. I also end up doing a whole lot of work on that walk. People laugh at me but they see me walking up and down Broadway and I’m always head into my phone, texting or I’m on a conference call or I’m on a conference call and I’m texting. It’s kind of laughable but I really appreciate that sort of fresh air and chance to transition from one thing to another. So that’s one of my personal practices. I’ve been doing that for three and a half years. I’ve only driven to work like 10 times in three and a half years.
Brent: That’s great.
Beth: Yeah, and then also, if I have meetings here in Boulder, I walk to those meetings. If I have meetings in Denver, I just hop on the bus at the bus station.
Brent: That’s really great.
Beth: Yeah, hence, I wear funky shoes to work so I can walk in them.
Brent: Just say, walking to work in Boulder, I mean, sometimes it’s snowy.
Beth: It’s below zero and it’s snowing. It’s a lot of the time this winter, right? But yeah, I walked in the rain. I got to work soaking wet the other day. I thought it was going to snow and it rained instead. But it’s okay. It’s just a little bit of discomfort.
But anyway, other things that we do as a business are we do a weekly meeting, stand up 9:15 on Monday mornings, and it gives us a chance to talk about all the projects that we have going at that time, and who’s doing what during the week. And we can kind of see who’s going to be a little more available or who’s really slammed and needs some help. And it just kind of creates a little bit of a connection with the work for everybody, not just for me and Nico.
And other things we do, we do a staff retreat. I think that’s really important. So where we take a day or two and shut down the office and go and just sort of work on our relationships with each other, and we talk about what’s working as a company and what’s not working and what we need to improve on. We have some fun. We get to know each other personally and we play a lot of games and things like that.
And another thing that we do, which small businesses, I am surprised to hear, don’t always do, is we really believe in staff reviews. And so when somebody’s been here 90 days, we do a 90 day review. We talk about what their first three months were like, what they learned, what they brought to the table, what they need to do better at, what they’re doing great at, and then we do an annual review every year after that. And it’s been surprising to me how many people who’ve come to work here have said, “I’ve never had that before.” And I think from our background in journalism, we worked for Knight-Ridder, which was a huge company, and places like that you expect to have that all the time. And so we just expected that to be a part of our business. But I think it helps our staff to give them a chance to really reflect on their accomplishments and also a chance to think about what it is they really want to learn in the coming year. And I think that has a direct positive impact on our company.
Brent: Very cool. So what do think you’re best at in the business?
Beth: You mean Insight Designs?
Beth: I think we are very good at communication and I think that to me, that’s not just talking to somebody or returning phone calls or returning emails the same day. It is that but it is also when we’re creating a website or an app or whatever we’re creating, even just a banner ad, is to be really clear and to be concise and to be user friendly. And all of those things make up good communication.
Brent: And then you, in particular, within the business?
Beth: I think I’m very good at efficiency, sort of making things run smoothly and finding this person’s strength and that person’s strength and making sure we’re playing to those in juggling the 500 clients that we juggle every year. And so I think just finding efficiencies and then also clearly communicating with people, both with my staff and with our clients.
Brent: So you’ve been at this professionally for 15 years.
Brent: What have you learned that you could tell somebody else that’s just starting out?
Beth: Wow, I would say a couple things. I’d say don’t spread yourself too thin. And by that I mean sort of pick your poison, pick your platform. Like for us, it was PHP and MySQL. That’s been the backbone of our firm for 15 years. So when people came to us and said, “Can you do this ColdFusion project?” or “Can you do this .net project?” or “Can you do this Ruby on Rails project?” we say no and we have a good network of other firms that we can recommend people to if they know that they want to use that platform. But we really want to be great at what we do and if we’re trying to do all of those things, it’s going to be too hard to keep up with all the different changes. And it also presents problems with hiring people because if you take on a ColdFusion project and you only have one ColdFusion developer and then that person leaves, who are you going to have maintain that ColdFusion project, right? So that would be one thing, is don’t spread yourself too thin. Pick your platform and stick to it from a development standpoint.
And the same is true from a design standpoint. We very early on started designing in Fireworks, which was then bought by Adobe, and now Adobe is essentially going to phase out. So we have a change ahead of us. But our custom design has always been done in Fireworks. And we’ve had clients come to us and say, “We want it done in layered Photoshop files,” and we say, “Well, actually, that’s not our process and we’re more efficient if we do it this way, so you’re going to get better value,” and the client ends up appreciating that and we hand them layered PNGs instead of layered PSDs. So picking your plan and trying to stick to it is one.
And then I’d say another thing is really picking great people to work with, to build a team that is varied in their talents and that works well together and cares about the end product.
Brent: So what kind of trends are you following right now in Web?
Beth: Obviously, responsive and for people who don’t know what that is, it means that when you create a design of a website, traditionally we’ve done that for desktop. Well, now we obviously need to do it so that it works not only on desktop but on tablet, landscape tablet, portrait, fun, landscape fun, portrait, and that’s been a little bit of an educational process with our clients. And also it’s been an education for us in the past year just really trying to create design that can be easily made into responsive design. So responsiveness is obviously important. There are changes and lots of growth in the ecommerce world. We typically use Magento Commerce, which is an open source ecommerce platform. Traditionally, or historically, I should say, we created our own. In December of 1999 we created our own custom shopping cart using PHP, and we used that for years. And we actually still have a few clients that are running off of that, which is slightly scary, but hopefully they’re PCI compliant. But anybody we’ve done in the past five years, we’ve put on a Magento platform. And just keeping up with tax rules, thank goodness there are companies out there like Avalara and people who are tackling that. But tax rules and integrations with in-house, point-of-sale systems, and integration with CRMs, it seems like everybody now is using Sales Force or Sugar or some other CRM so those are some of the things that we’re just trying to keep up with. And then there are the other pieces with app development and things like that we’re following, too.
Brent: Very cool. If you weren’t doing this, if you weren’t in the Web space, what would you be doing?
Beth: That’s a funny question because it was just last week my son, he crawls into bed with me every morning. That’s how I wake up in the mornings. And I was asleep. He crawls into bed and he’s like, “Mommy, if you couldn’t do Insight Designs, what would you do?” And I thought, I was like waking up and was like, “Oh, that’s a big question. I’ve been doing this for 15 years.” So I spent all day that day thinking like, “What would I do if I wasn’t doing web?” And he actually added that money was no object. And I went through a list of things. I went through, like, it seems like it would be nice to have a bed and breakfast because I like making breakfast and I like meeting people from around the world. And then I was like, oh, but then you have to clean the rooms and I’m not so into that. And then I thought, “Well, I’d like to work with a nonprofit and help a nonprofit with a cause that I really appreciate.” And then I thought, “Oh, that might drive me crazy.” No offense to the nonprofits out there, cause we have a lot of nonprofit clients, but there’s a lot of efficiency issues and I think that might get to me. So I actually never came up with a great answer. I wanted to say, “Travel the world,” right? But I think I really love what I do and I’m very lucky to get to do it.
Brent: Well, that sounds awesome. Well, Beth, we appreciate you taking the time to hang out with us today.
Brent: Wish you all the best. Hopefully, we’ll maybe catch you again on the program sometime soon.
Beth: Sounds great. Thank you.
Brent: All right, well, stay tuned for more great content from uGurus.com.