At FiveFifty, we’re always on the lookout for industry trendsetters in the marketing and advertising world. Today, we have the pleasure of introducing you to Keith Roberts of Zenman, who founded the company in the late 90’s. They are a Colorado web design and development agency, specializing in cutting edge web techniques. Keith talks about his company, the state of the industry and what they are looking forward to in the future.
FiveFifty – So the first thing that I wanted to ask you is about the name “Zenman”. Could you tell me a little bit about how you came up with that name and what the background is?
Keith – Definitely. When I first started the company, it was just me and “Zenman” just sort of referred to me; it was a bit of a nickname. My background religiously is that I am Buddhist and try to apply the same ethics and principles and basic laws of karma to business that I do to my personal life. And it just stuck. So now we are the “Zenman”.
FiveFifty – That’s cool. So applying those religious principles into doing web development, how do you think that influences you guys?
Keith – We always do the right thing. One thing it has probably caused us to do is…we are way too nice. We give away a lot of stuff. But doing the right thing, putting good karma out, putting good energy out, things come back in a positive way. Honestly I couldn’t say it has always worked out the way that it should. Still, taking on the right projects or over-delivering here or there, even just following through with what you say you are going to do and delivering when you say you are going to deliver, that goes a long way in our business.
FiveFifty – Yeah definitely. So you guys have been around for 15 years?
Keith – April will be 15 years. 13 and a half of them here in Denver.
FiveFifty – That’s impressive.
Keith – Yeah it’s kind of crazy. The first couple of years I actually had a full time job and this was what I did at night. Then when I got the opportunity, I jumped at it. That was in ’99 and it’s all I’ve done since. So I’ve been pretty lucky.
FiveFifty – That’s pretty much the entire history of when people have been developing web sites, or for the most part, right?
Keith – It’s just after the bubble. If I had been “web” when I started the agency (in the beginning I was more “design and photography”) it would have been pretty much the entire time…and I probably would have been retired for about 13 of the years! But we evolved into “web” and we sort of saw a few different things, you know? It was challenging because it was a different medium, but also it was a much more profitable medium and it was the future.
FiveFifty – I’d love to get your perspective on how the web development industry, and what web developers are doing for clients, has evolved over that time.
Keith – Oh yeah, it has changed dramatically. One of the things that has helped in the change is the limitations being removed. With current browsers and some of the things that you can do, you can really develop sites that are penetrating to the target audience that are impactful, that are intuitive to use at any screen size all the way down to a mobile device that is web enabled – a smart phone like an iPhone. We do a lot of Responsive design now, which is a big difference here for us. Being able to control your experience (when you are walking down the street looking at your phone, or if you are browsing in front of your desktop, or sitting at the coffee table with your iPad) and presenting the content that’s relevant to the device you are on. It’s really powerful.
FiveFifty – What do you think about how the hyper-local, or the locality, of being able to use mobile devices is going to change things moving forward?
Keith – I think it is actually even going to go a step further than that. I think that eventually there will be no screen involved at all. This year at SXSW there was actually a speaker that talked about the UI coming off the screen: you walk in to Nordstrom’s and they know that you like Converse and John Varvatos, and they know that you are a size 44, and that you typically buy stuff when it is at least 33% off. The associate will be able to tell that you walked into the store because of your loyalty card or your phone or whatever GPS enabled device alerts them and actually gives you that same customized user experience that you’re getting, which might be annoying to some people, but you know…
FiveFifty – That sounds pretty exciting to me as a marketing person.
Keith – Oh, I think it’s really cool.
FiveFifty – What would you say is the most exciting thing that you are doing for your clients right now? Is it Responsive, or a combination of things?
Keith – It’s a combination of things. Responsive is what we are really geeking out on right now the most. We’re having the most fun with it. It has definitely enabled a lot of our SEO strategic partners to get really great results. I love the fact that if you Google “web design in Denver” we come up number 1, above Wikipedia. It’s having those great strategic partners that are SEO geniuses, but also responsive web being Google’s preferred method for delivering mobile definitely has given us an advantage. We invested really heavily early on in that last year, redoing our site. We have probably done 15, going on 20, Responsive sites. So that’s definitely the most exciting thing.
FiveFifty – Where do you see things next year? Do you have a feeling for what the most exciting thing you will be?
Keith – I think that with more and more limitations going away, as older browsers become obsolete, it really allows us to be more creative and do more things that are out of the box. We’ve got a pretty awesome single-page parallax Site that’s going to be our Zenman 15 year timeline that we are going to be unveiling at our anniversary party. One of the things that is exciting for the creative and the development team is that more of the print style format has come back. Because search engines require so much content, it’s really not plausible to have everything above the fold, like was the goal not too long ago in our industry. Now it’s more print based, it’s responsive. We’re minimizing content as the device has less screen space, and then on a desktop or laptop experience we are able to present a ton of content in a really elegant way in a site that has a decent amount of scrolling. We’re redoing some sites right now for companies like BWBacon, Wynkoop and The Colorado Innovation Network website, which was a cool new responsive site that we just rolled out.
FiveFifty –Seems like as the limitations are stripped away and you are able to do more of these types of projects that creativity would be something that is really important to your organization. What do you do to encourage that sort of creative thinking? How do you stay ahead of making sure that people don’t get stuck in a rut of doing the same things they have always done or what everybody else is doing?
Keith – A few different ways. We really try to encourage creativity; from little things like Rubik’s Cubes, or we’ve got a Zenman corn hole game the guys will pull out front, or Nerf basketball, things like that to just take a break and let your brain rest. At the same time, we are totally aware of the fact that once you are actually in the zone, if somebody disengages a creative or a developer from what they are laser focused on, it takes them 15 minutes to answer that phone call or answer that question. So we actually have a daily standup where we flesh everything out, meetings are scheduled, but for the most part the creative team and the design team are totally left alone during the day, so they can be focused. Then when creative opportunities present themselves, like the 15 year timeline for our anniversary party, we’re internally working on it for two weeks and the only requirement there is that it is kick ass and awesome. The guys are having a lot of fun doing it. Everybody here is a huge Walking Dead fan, so a few weeks ago they had an ultimate fan contest. The whole staff got together and did a Walking Dead video which was pretty funny. We just do those things together and cultivate creativity. The one thing that is absolutely critical here is that we’re not naysayers. If there is a problem, by all means we want to know about it, but I want it to be presented in “identified this problem and this is the solution that will fix it.” For me it’s much better to instead of just “um this doesn’t work”… “hey, we saw this is a weak link and here’s how we fix it”.
FiveFifty – What would you say is your biggest challenge as an agency?
Keith – Getting content from clients on time is honestly probably the biggest one (and we do a lot of things to try to mitigate this)! But I think really the biggest challenge, and one thing that is critically important, is cultivating collaboration between the client and the team; and that’s a very delicate balance. We don’t want the client sitting over the designer’s shoulders 8 hours a day nagging him, but at the same time there’s that proper buffer in place with project management and account management so that the right feedback makes it to the creative or the developer. One thing that we really do diligently at this agency to try to mitigate that is, we schedule the meetings so that if a content review meeting is happening, by all means the creative and the developer that are building that project collaboratively are in that meeting. So that when we do sit down with that client and go over content, everybody will know what is going on. We try to eliminate any “go off into a vacuum and do this”. Everything is signed off along the way. We are coaching our clients along the way so that they know what to expect and what our needs are from them. We set those expectations in the inception meeting, or discovery meeting, and manage them all the way through to “we’ve launched your site and now we are helping you evolve and get better ROI based on the analytics.”
FiveFifty – That makes a lot of sense. One thing that I was impressed with in my first exposure to your company was your process of identifying what it is that the customer needs and setting those expectations and timeline; and you did that in that initial discovery meeting. Can you talk about that process real briefly?
Keith – Oh yeah, definitely. Discovery – we have a very laid out formal process that we go through with an agenda, “here’s all the items we want to answer” and some of those questions are very well designed for starting that discussion. Like: if your brand was a band or a song what would it be? Others are very strategic for other reasons, like discussing the brand guidelines, or features and functionality. We do it in an order that flushes everything out and then we actually regroup at the end. We start with just who’s who, then we go look into the statement of the work…“this is what we said we are going to do for you, and sign these” and “that’s great,” and everybody is warm and fuzzy. Then we get into the vision, risks, and goals; that’s really the brain-dump. “Here’s everything, lay it on me, let’s digest it.” There’s a lot of IQ points in the room, so let’s start to get the synapses firing, get people thinking in a creative way. Then we go into the features and functionality; they are going to reinforce or make possible those goals and mitigate the risks. Then we get into the information architecture, if it’s a website; if it is something else we would be talking about a slightly different agenda. But if it’s a website we get into the information architecture, “how’s the user going to experience this? Let’s talk about the user experience.” Then we get into creative, which is really the fun stuff. We get to design direction through, again, a series of questions geared toward getting people to give us, not the answer…but to flesh out their style, their preferences. We look at a lot of sites. We come to that meeting with, “if we weren’t going to talk to you this is what we would build,” not in a fully designed and baked way, but “we’ve done some research and here’s your competitors and here is the direction we think you should go.” Which actually goes a long way. Then we hear from the client as to what research they have done, what their thoughts are. Then we close with revisiting the timeline and statement of work. That way, as they do many times on these projects, if the scope changes, before anybody leaves we are able to help the client distill back into what their expectations and budget were. Or we let them know “these great ideas, we can phase these things out, as we bootstrap it with the ROI, or we are happy to re-scope this for you…and hey, we think this is absolutely beneficial and should be in phase 1, so let’s get rolling on it.”
FiveFifty – It seems like that process really helps the clients get excited about the content that you need and know where their contribution fits into the overall scope of the project.
Keith – Yeah, because they are a partner. We can’t be successful without engagement of the client.
FiveFifty – Not necessarily somebody in the same field, but can you give me an example of someone’s work that you respect?
Keith – Oh yeah, a couple. Pivotal Labs, absolutely I hold in the highest regards. Their overall process, methodology, execution, and absolute unwavering in their process, constantly yields repeatable sustainable results. From the creative, Hillman Curtis has always been my personal favorite on the web. He’s been around forever, a lot longer than me. Just some of the things that he does: if they go into a pre-pitch and creative is showing him something – if there is absolutely not a reason why a feature or an image or an icon or anything – if you can’t tell him a business case why things are put in the way they are, he says yank it. It’s not fluff.
FiveFifty – 2013, what are the goals for Zenman. What do you hope to achieve?
Keith – We want to set another record for growth, so that is my first and foremost goal. We want to continue in both revenue and team. Right now, we have by far the best team we have had as far as our creative, our operations, and our development. So we want to be real methodical and sustainable in that. We want to add to the team the key people.
FiveFifty – What else should we know about Zenman that I haven’t asked?
Keith – Our clients range from small mom and pop businesses to Fortune 50 companies. We don’t do a ton of large work; I think we are a more Colorado-centric agency. Large work we’ve done include AMEX, Sony, BASF, but we are not the agency of record; we are pulled in to very specific projects that are good strategic fits for us. But really we are a Colorado agency, from the Bonanno’s and Shanahan’s and all the local businesses; real estate developers – we have been doing those forever. It’s kind of a fun part of our business to drive around and “see the truck for that,” “we did the site for these guys,” or “that’s a logo we did.”