A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Dmitry + Anton

Clay

February 11, 2019

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

Can you tell us about Clay?

Clay is a UI/UX design and development agency with offices in California and Europe and clients around the world. We create digital products—everything from mobile apps to marketing websites and enterprise software.

What made you decide to launch your own agency?

Anton: I’ve been in the agency world for more than a decade, and the most frustrating part is not being able to control the quality of your own work. Things would get rushed, clients would often change their mind, etc. I grew tired of it and decided to start a new kind of digital product agency, one that focused on quality and craftsmanship.

Yes, things are still “ASAP”, but we push hard to make it as great as possible. And it seems to be working well so far!

Dmitry: I was lucky to meet a partner who shares the same approach to business and design. We realized that running our own agency was the best way to achieve our personal goals, as well as unite like-minded designers and developers who share the same vision.

What’s the story behind your name?

Dmitry: Before launching Clay we were working under names like SoftFacade and later SFCD, but that name didn’t work for an agency in San Francisco (where there’s already SFPD, SFWD, SFFD, SFDC, etc.).

We wanted a very simple name that people could remember easily and always write correctly. You can create anything with clay. Also, Clay Street is right next to our office here in SF.

Anton: The name selection was a tough one. As Dmitry said, we had a long history of working under different, not-so-great names, so we really wanted to get it right this time. I wanted a four-letter name (because they always sound the coolest), and I wanted it to be something I could pronounce easily since English isn’t my first language.

Clay does sound creative and flexible too, and that’s exactly what people expect from an agency like ours.

How large is your team now? Is everybody based out of the same office?

Dmitry: We’re about 30 people in two offices now, plus a few more who just love working remotely from exotic locations.

We try to instill a remote working culture as much as we can, because great talent can come from anywhere in the world.

Anton: Of course, there are some difficulties when you have a distributed team, which is why we have two physical offices, and a yearly offsite in Barcelona.

You’re based in San Francisco—a hotbed for design, tech, and other creative agencies. What’s it like living and working there?

Dmitry: It’s cool! There are no seasons, it just rains for a few weeks once a year, so you get used to the same outfit. Compared to NYC a lot more people here speak the same tech language, so it’s easier to explain what we do and why our designs work.

SF is also home to many different cultures, which means all kinds of clients!

Anton: It’s simply the best location for a design agency that specializes in UX and digital products. We were based in NYC for about 4 years before fully relocating to SF. It was very difficult to land new clients in NYC and honestly, most of the projects we got were not as high profile as the ones we get in SF now. We’ve also seen a significant revenue increase after just a year of being in SF.

I can’t say bad things about the weather here, because I’m certainly not missing the blizzards in winter and hot, super humid NYC summers.

What were some of the challenges you faced after launching?

Dmitry: Aside from finding a good location and the best people, just the usual challenges for the new kid on the block. Nobody knows you, it’s hard to earn trust, and you probably don’t have a great website or work processes that represent your brand.

Thanks to our experience with designing super-complex systems, we were able to prove that we could handle projects that other smaller agencies simply couldn’t.

Anton: I run the business side of things, so I was very apprehensive when we started. Luckily, we had accumulated a lot of connections from our previous agency and over the years. Even then, people knew us, but nobody had heard of Clay.

Instead of giving up, we doubled down on our marketing activities which ultimately helped us a lot. We were also very aggressive in how we priced projects, trying to get as much work as possible to stay afloat.

Now that you’re more established, do you find yourself turning down projects because they’re not good fits?

Anton: In the early days we would take on anything that came our way. Looking back now, most of them ended up being huge disappointments. So we don’t do that anymore.

Dmitry: We get so many emails and we just don’t have the time to pretend we can do everything. I’m happy we can afford to do that, but at the end of the day, it also makes our lives easier.

How have apps and other mobile tech changed the way companies interact with people?

Dmitry: I actually believe the mobile app gold rush is dying out a bit and that websites will become even more important in establishing experience channels with your audience. Apps are not going away anytime soon, but these days you can build a much better customer experience if you utilize all the available channels.

Also, animation is the new skeuomorphism. It’s not just a fancy thing to do anymore, but a powerful tool that is crucial for great UX.

Anton: Apps have made people much more connected to brands. Even 8-10 years ago, the majority of digital interactions happened on desktop computers, and now it is constant and omnipresent since we all have smartphones. But looking from a business perspective, most of our clients these days reach out to us about creating responsive web experiences, because native apps are expensive to build and maintain.

Plus, people no longer download a lot of apps because it’s easier to just type in a URL in your browser. That’s true for a lot of startups, but as you grow, you’ll inevitably need an app for a more connected customer experience.

What role does behavioral science play in the work that you do?

Dmitry: We see how big companies utilize a plethora of tricks to hook you up to their social networks, services, and video games, so these techniques are known and available. So, like with a knife, you can use it to harm or to do surgery. We’ve been lucky to work on multiple products where user engagement has not just been a metric or a way to make money, but a crucial tool to help people going through difficult times.

For example, we worked on a project for patients with different conditions going through clinical trials. It is very hard for patients to keep going to these trials (you have to fill out a bunch of forms every day, follow strict rules, deal with pain, etc.) and motivation drops for the majority of them really quickly. We were very happy to see that simply through design, we could make their experience suck less and motivate more people to keep pushing on. 

We strongly believe that creating experiences for people in need is where these tools should be applied.

What does a typical project look like at Clay?

Anton: I deal with new business inquiries and have been running some stats on the types of projects we take on. These days, it’s usually either a marketing or corporate website for an established company, a redesign of a B2B/enterprise software, or a consumer-focused mobile app.

Dmitry: It’s always about finding a solution to a client’s problem. Even for very different projects (thematically and technically) we still start with the same design approach. Design is logic and there is only one logic. A typical project usually involves the creation of a tool and/or delivery of a message, so we start by asking questions like “What is the real problem here?”, “Who is affected?”, and “Who is going to use the tool?” After that, I think the process is more or less the same for all design agencies—planning, wireframing, prototyping, researching, talking to people, testing concepts and so on. And then pushing the most beautiful pixels at the end!

That said, the real work usually starts after you launch the product. Everything before that is just preparation.

Is there any difference in your approach when the client is an established brand versus a startup?

Anton: Working with startups is great but can be challenging at times. Things can change in an instant, and a lot of stuff we have to figure out as we go (which is totally normal). That said, when projects get canceled because of some rushed decisions or money issues, we take a big hit as a business.

In contrast, when you work with an established company, there are rarely any changes over the course of the project because big companies always plan and budget in advance. However, there’s a lot more paperwork and bureaucratic stuff involved.

Dmitry: The difference is usually in how well the client knows what they are really trying to achieve. Some clients are all about metrics, and some just have an idea. Both are good, as defining a goal is also a design challenge, and we get to have fun with it! Big companies or small startups are just locations and rules of the game. People are doing their work and following their dreams regardless, and it still comes down to working with other human beings.

What type of project excites you the most? 

Dmitry: What excites me is taking on new challenges. Learning new tools, new industries, new ideas, and concepts. So in that sense projects like 3 seconds of the Iron Man 3 movie, our recent Reel, our website and working with Google on their touch-sensitive jacket were all insane rides for me.

Anton: I love when we get to launch websites because it’s something that you can easily share with others and there’s no need to download anything. We recently launched a web project for Slack, an interactive product website for Facebook, and are currently working on a new product for the legendary Corsair.

How do you measure progress as an agency?

Anton: It’s about growing across the board, all the time—hiring more people, making more money, investing more in our own projects, and expanding our capabilities. If our profits are growing and the team is happy, it makes me feel good.

Dmitry: There are always numbers (money, visitors, views, etc.), but the more important thing for me is the level of trust we see from our new clients. I see the shift in our work, as we move from executing an idea to being more about finding solutions to complex and abstract problems. I think that means people trust us more. 

Are there any technology trends that you’re particularly excited about? 

Anton: It’s fascinating to see self-driving electric cars on the streets of San Francisco. It makes me feel like I live in the future. Bike-sharing, scooter-sharing, and anything else-sharing makes our lives and cities better.

Dmitry: I’m a nerd so I just love smart people and all the incredible inventions they come up with. We’re using and working with all the fancy new AR/VR/AI stuff.

Recently, I’ve switched from MacBook to iPad Pro as my only portable machine and everything is so cool (and sometimes challenging) once again. Many iOS apps are just more polished and detailed compared to MacOS. I hope in the future we will see the same level of design and execution everywhere, as it just brings us closer to a Her (the movie) level of skeuomorphism, and we are so ready for that trend!

What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own agency?

Anton: Make sure you have a good accountant and all your paperwork in place. Then you can focus on doing great work!

Dmitry: Fail faster and try to find a partner you can trust. And a mentor! Focus on love and self-care rather than on tech and numbers.

 

 

Thanks to Anton and Dmitry for the interview. Check out all of the cool things the Clay team is working on at: clay.global.

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