Bob founded Vermilion shortly after moving to Boulder, CO out of desperation to support his hopeful magazine career focusing on design in the early 1980’s. Vermilion slowly grew into a full design agency and evolved into the successful design and interactive agency it is today.
After showing us around their unique sun lit office space, Bob and I sat down to discuss the difficulty of evolving Vermilion over the years.
Brent: I’m Brent Weaver, and you’re watching uGurus, the must watch web series to become a more profitable and in-demand web professional. Today, I’m in Boulder, Colorado at Vermilion, hanging out with their founder and CEO, Bob Morehouse. Welcome to the program.
Bob: Thank you, thank you. My pleasure to be here.
Brent: So Bob, why did you start Vermilion?
Bob: Desperation would be one word. I moved to Boulder and I’d been in the film business, I’d been in landscaping design… a very checkered career. And I tried to start a magazine here with some friends, and that turned out to be kind of a bust. But to sort of support myself in that project, I just started doing design for friends. This was around 1980, so we’re talking way deep in the last century here. And I found I really loved the work.
I was not trained in it. I was always the kid… if you ever to belonged to a little club, they say, “Can somebody make a brochure?” and I was the one that did that. And I always drew, obsessively drawing little cars or houses. And so I loved it, but the lucky thing for me… and this is just me… I wasn’t starting a company, I was trying to pay the rent, but having fun in the process. What happened, in spite of my lack of talent, is that a few more clients came in, and a few more clients came in, and I had to hire somebody to help me. And it was almost the accidental kind of company, in that sense. But that was a good fit for my personality, but I wasn’t really particularly trying to prove anything. I sometimes said it was like being paid to be a third grader or something, you know? It was a joy. I think that back then it was also not as complicated as it is now. The different media were much simpler then.
Brent: So 30 year history. What makes Vermilion special today?
Bob: What makes it special is first of all an amazing group of people that we’ve attracted. It really goes without saying that it’s the talent here that’s selling us every day. People ask me, “What’s your approach to sales?” And I say, “Just do brilliant work and people will see that, and they’ll figure it out, and they’ll beat a path to your door.” Did you see them lined up here in the front of the building here?
Brent: Around the block.
Bob: Around the block. But that’s number one. You just have to get really good, talented people to work with you. I say “talented,” we do say we’re not looking for jerks or for messianic major ego. It’s people who understand, “What does a client need? How can you create something that really solves a business problem, or amuses a client, or informs the public about a very important policy?” for example.
So that’s number one, but I also think we really are passionate about the clients that we get. It’s pretty simple, for me, when we take on somebody… and we try to be fairly picky. We kind of have this thing about we just work with people that are making a positive impact. We’re in Boulder here and so we have this slogan, “We grow the good.” A lot of people have slogans like that, but we really are serious about it and we have found if we actually take on clients that we don’t believe in particularly, it’s hard. It’s real hard.
Brent: How do you filter out that? At what point in the initial prospective, if you will, do you say, “This client’s doing bad.” Is that even something you tell them? Or do you just say, “Hey, we’re not a good fit?”
Bob: We wouldn’t say, “You’re doing bad.” We would try to say, “This isn’t a good fit.” And it may depend on the cash flow that month. It gives it a little shading. We’re not pious about it, I don’t want to say that, but I’m finding more and more and I realize with people here, they’re very vocal. The reason they come here, and people who interview here say this all the time, “We love the clients you have. We want to work for those clients. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”
And so I’ve always made it a point to try to have a real fun mix of clients, not just one vertical. If we just did medical technology every day, I’d go crazy, right? But we have a real wide mix of clients. But the other side of it is we really get involved with them, we care about them. And we’re working with non-profits, with foundations, with health food companies, with education groups, and their mission, we really take personally. Am I answering your question? I’m trying.
Brent: Sure. So what’s the current make up of Vermilion? So you guys started 30 years ago, just you. And now where are you guys at?
Bob: There are about 25 of us. There are sort of four main groups. There’s the, what we call, creative group — although I think everybody here’s creative, certainly all of us on the business side, or the account side. But really what I would think of is the design team. And then we have the interactive team, the developers. They do all of the builds of the websites, or our Facebook campaigns, or a lot of the technical work. They have a digital marketing team that creates and strategizes Facebook, and social, and SEO and all the sort of digital pay-per-click campaigns.
And lastly, we have the account team, which is really the interface. That’s really the voice of the client into our organization. They lead the projects and they’re at the center. They take the heat from the client, they try to scramble for resources internally, and they guide the projects through. So it’s really those four main groups. And they’re pretty equally divided. Well, I will say this, we’ve started — we have a group of one, but we’re going to build this out — the insight research strategy side. We’ve always had strategy as part of it. Sometimes we bring in experts to help us with that and sometimes we do it ourselves. But that’s becoming more and more fundamental as well. So I guess there are five, now, groups that we’ve got here.
Brent: So a couple of those were digital in nature. I assume in 1980’s the amount of digital work you were doing was close to zero percent. How has that transition been? It sounds like you’ve been able to evolve the business from probably a very traditional sense into doing some more interactive stuff. How has that evolution taken place for you and why were you able to do that while other companies just weren’t able to get it?
Bob: Well, you’re right. Our roots originally, in Boulder, we had companies like Spyder Ski Wear or Case Logic — do you know what a CD or a tape cassette is, by any chance? — Allegro Coffee, a lot of really wonderful Boulder brands, but then computers started coming in. I remember the little Macintosh SE’s, and I think it held 30 kilobytes if I’m not mistaken, and I was fascinated with what these computers can do. I always tell this joke, though, that I didn’t see the reason to get a color monitor. I’m really dating myself, but I couldn’t see getting a color monitor, because we’d never be able to print in color, right? So why would you even need to see it in color?
But slowly, I got fascinated with what the computers could do. And that tool set was terrific in terms of changing the way we — but we were still producing for print. So if we were doing packaging for Case Logic, we would then be able to integrate all of the packaging into our computers and we would send these files. We originally had to do these big manual things, you’d paste up all of this, cut Rubylith, send these huge, huge packages to China for printing. Now we could just send files overnight.
And then I remember it, it was 1993, there’s all these labs around Boulder. And at NCAR, which is an atmospheric science lab, they were demonstrating something called Mosaic. And this was the very beginnings of this thing, I think they were starting to call it the Worldwide Web. This was brand new. It was very ugly, my memory — I could be wrong — but it was like a green screen with lots of little words on it. And it was weather data that these universities were sharing among each other. But they were saying, “Look up, guys.” I don’t know how I ended up in that room and go to see this first demo.
Brent: That seems very close to ground zero of the Internet.
Bob: It was very ground zero of the Internet, but it totally fascinated me. I don’t claim to think I had any idea where that was going to go, but I wanted to be a part of it. And I stayed in with that group of techie people who were fascinated with that. And we, from the very beginning, said,
“We’re going to integrate web design.” It was pretty primitive for us, but where were we going take our communications skills — which we’d been designing packages, or annual reports, or brochures — and start working in this new media? I’m not an engineer, I’m not a coder, I’m not that good at that. I love that stuff. I enjoy being around people who love that stuff, but it wasn’t my skill. So we were sort of trying to graft a new mentality on to, essentially, this free floating creative firm, and it was challenging.
I remember back, and so we’re talking about in the 90’s, it was the boom time of the high tech companies. Every week, somebody would walk in here with more money than brains saying, “Would you make us look good?” I remember a lot of firms in our shoes said, “We need to separate these.”
That you should have a digital group and just have it in a whole separate, start a separate company. Keep your, what I call, traditional design in one spot. “Do not try to mix these.” A lot of people in our shoes did that.
I had this foolish notion that you could mix these, that you could take oil and water, or I don’t know what the metaphor is, but you could put these two different cultures together. For me, it was partly a challenge, it was part of the fun of it. I would say, it’s a real ongoing experiment. I would love to know what a lot of your viewers have experienced with this. I feel for me, personally, it’s been worth it. But I would be lying to you if I said it was just a natural fit, like a glove. They’re different, very different mentalities, different points of view, different skill sets, and different goals. But I feel I’m just really proud that Vermilion is a real hybrid of these two different sides of the brain, if you want to put it that way, and that we get to offer that to our clients.
Brent: How do you guys foster some level of experimentation into all the new technologies, all the new channels that are out there? It seems like you’ve been able to evolve and continue adapting new stuff. How do you build that as part of your culture?
Bob: It’s actually an ongoing, it’s a real big question to us. We just went through a thing of clarifying with everybody in the company what our values are as a company. Sometimes I kind of poo-poo all this stuff, and I really got a lot out of it. It was very fascinating. But I was really happy that one of our team members said one of our values is curiosity and that was a critical juncture, I think, to foster that. It’s one of four values and it’s a really high one. So curiosity. We’re really trying let everybody devote more time to exploring.
We’re not like Google, I think they’ve come back, but they’d let you do anything you want on the fifth day of the week or something. We certainly don’t have that kind of luxury, but I do think there’s a sharing culture here where people find something and say, “Hey, look at this.” We have little Lunch and Learn sessions where we really encourage people to share things that they’re fascinated with or encouraged by. The digital marketing team has really been good at getting us all together and exploring. Sometimes I think, “Hey, is this a billable hour that we’re all sitting here?” but it’s good, because it keeps people’s ideas moving around and sharing things.
I think it’s “innovate or die” on many levels. It’s a challenge, especially when you’ve got clients and deadlines all the time, to be sure that you foster that. If somebody would say, “Give yourself a grade on this scale,”
I give myself a D, but I’d give a lot of the people a B here at least, because it’s got to be central. Clients demand it. They really expect you to know what’s around the corner.
Brent: So over your 30 year tenure with Vermilion, I’m sure you’ve had some speed bumps, maybe some blockades, some tough times. Just my agency, having half of that tenure, we had some issues, right? Is there any story or situation that stands out to you as being the toughest thing that you had to overcome growing this business?
Bob: Well definitely, I could — how long do we have? One thing I would focus on, and it’s partly my fault, lack of a real perspective of technology, right? So we’ve had a number of people in our technology, which is over there, and sometimes they come with a particular agenda. I remember very clearly, there was a crew we had for a while that was just set that we had to be in Ruby on Rails. “Oh, you’re not even cool if you’re not in Ruby,” right? And I said, “Okay, tell me why.” And I’m not knocking Ruby —
I think there’s some great Ruby shops, and Rail shops, and it’s an amazing language — but what we found, we started building a lot of things in it and then our clients said, “Wait a minute. We can’t find people to work in that language. We cannot support that.” It became kind of a dead end for us.
That’s hard for me, and hard for a lot people to see. There’s all these new languages, all these apps, all these new platforms. What’s going to be here tomorrow? Because a lot of our clients, they’re not just start-ups, they have a lot of infrastructure. And so, we went through a lot of heartache on that, because in a way, I’m a big fan of Rails. I think it’s a great, smart language. I think it has a place, but we had to unlined that. We had a handful of clients that forced us to pull it out of Ruby, and into a more public space. I certainly wouldn’t say that traumatic technology things are the main impediment, they’re just the most vivid for me.
Brent: It sounds like that kind of an issue has some cultural implications of your team, it has some potential market implications with your customers, there’s some financial impact in going down a rabbit hole that doesn’t materialize into a return for the business. Is that something where you personally make the decision and you just force it into the business to make sure it balances with both the clients? How do you work through that with your customers and then with your team?
Bob: It’s hard. It’s a judgment call. I try to read and see if I can get,
“Is there any consensus out there that would help me understand where does the community come together on this?” I mean luckily there’s a million blogs and I really trust our team. We have a great team now, and I really think they’re not just, “This is the language I want to work in so let’s do that.” Their perspective is very, very accurate about, “We’re building things for clients for the long run.” I mean, long run in this culture is three years or whatever, but we’re going to be stuck with dealing with that, too.
And so, I have felt that open source — we even tried to do one dot net site. Can you see this grey hair here? That was a big mistake for us. And we’ve at least learned that we’re in the PhP space, we love WordPress, we work with Drupal. We’re working with other platforms, but mostly, we want things that we know are going to be easy to support. But I do have to continually rely on everybody’s judgment. It’s certainly not something I can lift the hood and say, “That’s the right answer.” And these are tough questions. And they have business implications, no question about it.
Brent: Do you have any daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly practices that you’ve kept up on over the years that have helped you get to where you are today?
Bob: One of the things when I came out — you know I was talking about when I came out to Boulder and I was trying to do this magazine — what had happened is I fell in with this wonderful group of Buddhists. Boulder was a very hippie town. This was where everybody came to get their trip together to go up into the mountains. And I just had the luxury for maybe 15 years of studying Buddhism, being a Buddhist practitioner. I would do month long retreats and you would go out and stay in a little cabin and do practices for a month at a time on your own, solitary retreats. And you learn, it’s not just all easy stuff, but you learn to take things lightly. To me, the word enlightenment’s kind of a bogus word, but it does mean lighten up, like, “It’s not that serious,” you know? And you kind of roll with the punches.
I actually, it was interesting, I was studying with this Trungpa, Ch?gyam Trungpa is his name, who founded Naropa. And I once said, “What do you think? What do you see in my future? Should I go off to a cave or something and meditate?” And he said, “Bob, the best practice for you is to be in business, because that’s where all the [expletive], excuse me, of life comes up. You have to learn patience, you have to learn generosity… you have to learn how to work with what’s going on now.” I just feel very, very lucky that I had that foundation and that I had a teacher who could help make it clear that being in business is a practice, that it is constantly throwing curves at you every day, and learning to enjoy those and to stay focused on what’s going on now. So I would say, for me, that’s the main thing, because otherwise business can be stressful. Well it’s still stressful, but it can be arduous.
Brent: It can kind of take you over, consume you.
Bob: That’s right, exactly. If you get too caught up in all of the, “This and that, this and that,” and, “He said this, and she said that,” it sometimes isn’t worth it. Whereas if you can let that be just the energy, almost like the clouds going through the sky and they keep passing through. I don’t want to pretend like I’m some sort of advanced person here, I get as emotional as the next person. But on another level, I do think that I was very, very lucky to have many, many years where I could build that into my being so that hopefully, people around here feel some of that, that there’s maybe more patience or something that is not necessarily just because I’m lazy or whatever.
Brent: So do you still take a week or a month off to do any kind of meditation retreats?
Bob: I don’t. I always say I really, really want to.
Brent: Because my next question was going to be, “How do you take a month off? How do you take an extended period of time off?” But I didn’t know if that was still something you do.
Bob: Now for me, it’s travel. I did take a month off. I took the month of November off. I went to Australia, something I’d really, really wanted to do for a long time. And I planned it many, many months in advance. It was sort of like a little sabbatical. I’m very, very envious of companies that build in the idea of every five years or seven years — I wish I’d have done that to begin with, where even if it’s just a month — but you tell everybody instead of just little tiny bits and pieces, you have to leave for a whole chunk of time.
And that was wonderful for me. It really kind of cleared the air and it was so great to be in another country. Nice they speak English there. I would love to do that more. One of my pieces of advice for people running businesses, if you can encourage people to take a bigger chunk and not just eat it away three days here and two days there, I think it’s a very healthy way to regenerate what you’re trying to do.
Brent: I know for me personally, I’m planning a month, September 2015, taking some time off to go live in France for a month.
Bob: There you go.
Brent: Maybe we can trade some notes on the pre-planning for that.
Bob: Totally. Yes, exactly.
Brent: So, you’re one of the earlier followers with Web, and that was how you were able to go from print and traditional and expand into digital. So I’m really curious what kind of trends that you’re currently following. Do you think that you’re going to have to do that again? Is there something new that you guys are wondering about, it’s going to be the next big thing or the next iteration for Vermilion?
Bob: Well I definitely, I think it’s a great question, and I think we’re all seeing that there was a period where the Web was everything, right? And we know that’s not the case now. When we put a digital program together for a client, there may be six or eight different things that we’re considering at once. Hopefully, we can use the Web as a hub. But even then it’s not always the case. It may be that you just go to the Web to get certain kinds of hardcore detail on projects that you might not find elsewhere, but people are maybe aggregated out in social media. We’re finding that Instagram is a terrific place to see what people are talking about in our clients. We’re working with Door to Door Organics, one of our clients.
Brent: I’m a subscriber.
Bob: Are you really? Oh, good. Do they do a good job?
Brent: Shows up on time, it’s good food. No complaints.
Bob: We’ve just been through a great strategy session, understanding what people like you think about this and, “How do we find more customers like that? And where are they hanging out? And how do we reach them?” And one of the things is there’s a ton of images on Instagram of people opening a box, their kid grabbing the things. We practically didn’t have to do a lot of work.
We’re using the language of people — all these little hashtags and everything — in a new campaign. Which I think breaks tomorrow, so I’m probably not supposed to be talking about it. The website is where you go to order your stuff, but there’s clearly a lot of new places. And you know better than I, every day there’s another platform, right? So yeah, we have to really, really stay up on all of that. We’re also finding though that even websites are changing pretty quickly in terms of much lighter copy, bigger headlines, vertical pages, because I think tablets really switched people’s viewing of how they look at things on screen. And they can just quickly pad through a whole string of things.
Brent: It’s kind of like with magazines, you get the page flipping, but with tablets you get the page scrolling.
Bob: That’s right. Instead of clicking and waiting for it to reload, clicking and waiting for it to reload, it’s almost like you put six or eight pages in a row vertically. And I think as we track — we track pretty carefully the usage — and we’re seeing, just like everybody else, more and more mobile, more and more tablet, less and less desktop. And we’re pretty much designing everything as [responsive], because it’s just critical that you be able to see it on all these small screens.
Brent: I’m going to jump back to the Door to Door Organics example. When those boxes are empty at my house, my cats jump in them and play with them. I don’t know if you’re seeing photos of that kind of stuff on Instagram.
Bob: Yes, yes.
Brent: My wife is convinced that it’s worldwide problem of cats using the boxes as play toys. Let’s say you have some content around this.
Bob: I want to make a note of this. This sounds like another campaign in the making here.
Brent: So if you have that kind of content on Instagram, it’s silly, it’s brand engagement, it’s something that’s kind of random. How do you go to a client like that and quantify the benefit? Because you always got that person in the room that says, “Well, what’s going to be the ROI on this Instagram campaign?” How do you go back into them and build value of that, outside of just the grunt work to scour Instagram and find the stuff? Where does the value get built with stuff like that?
Bob: Where we start with this is, “What’s the emotional connection? What’s the real underlying connection that motivates you, or your wife, and who’s making the decision? What is the story there?” Now the cat in a box could be part of that emotional connection that you guys have. And we would try to understand, is that universal enough? Can we roll that out? We found that a sense of joy was a keystone here. I would say Door to Door’s been doing a really good job of the functional qualities. “Well we deliver, it’s on time, it’s convenient, it’s saves you time,” functional things.
For us, the real point is what’s the emotional tug? How do we get beneath that? And we found in all of this research we did, which is really comments from users is, “I feel like a better Mom. I feel like I have a partner in health. I feel like it’s a gift to my family, and my family feels like it’s Christmas when it arrives,” you know? Somebody actually said, “Joy delivered.” And we’re going to use that as a tagline. That’s an emotional idea, if you see what I mean. So if the cat fits into that, I would say with all the other cat stuff out there maybe we’ll leave that one alone for right now.
We see a lot of interaction with the imagery we’re using with families. It seems like that it’s busy moms juggling a lot of things, trying to make ends meet, trying to be healthy, and how can Door to Door be your partner there? And so, it’s clearly, there’s an ROI [inaudible 30:49]. They’ve hired us to bring in a lot of new customers. And we’re going to be judged on can we do that? And it’s a very extensive, ten market, and digital campaign. We’re just rolling out a test now, so we’ll see what works. We’ll try to continually optimize it and find ways to get through the clutter, because there’s a lot and people have a lot of choices in this area, but I’m very confident we’re onto something and it’ll be a home run. So we’ll see.
Brent: You said something earlier that you look past, whether it’s the technology or the copy, and you really look at the business problems, like,
“Are we really providing a solution? Are we solving a problem that the customer has?” And it sounds like, even with this door-to-door campaign, you’re really transcending the platform. You guys are getting into the basic human element of what’s going on with the brand and then looking at the different technology platforms is just little tools within your campaign. I think a lot of web pros and folks that are getting into this space, they get really wrapped up in the technology. They’re like, “I can’t sell a website for more than a couple thousand dollars,” and its like,
“Well, stop selling websites, sell something bigger. Sell the bigger vision.” It seems like you’ve been able to do that highly effectively over your time.
Bob: Well that almost circles around to one of your first questions, “What is unique about Vermilion?” I think at heart, we’re communicators, we’re story tellers. I was in the film business. To me, the technology, it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to put it in a magazine, I’m happy to put in on film, I’m happy to put it in the Web, or on Pinterest or whatever. You’re totally correct, you’ve got to get deeper than that.
And then all these different tools in the toolkit are fun to play with, and test them and see what really works. And you’ll find that with a lot of our customers, we really try to understand where are they spending their time and meet them there. You just let them play, engage them where they’re happy. And sometimes it’s a pure technology play. It is fairly likely to be
[age-banded], but they’re surprising gaps, or changes, or quantum leaps where 50-year-olds are much more digitally savvy than we might give them credit for.
Brent: Very cool. Well Bob, this has been incredibly insightful. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. You’re welcome anytime on the program. We’d love to have you back.
Bob: Hey, thank you.
Brent: So, we appreciate it.
Bob: My pleasure, and I thank you for what you’re doing and sharing people’s ignorance like mine with your audience. So thank you very much.
Brent: Appreciate it.
Brent: Well, stay tuned for more great content from uGurus.com.
How has it been [promoting this agency]?
Bob: What do you think, [Polly]?
Brent: What’s your number one culture factor?