In one sentence, tell us about The Space InBetween.

We’re makers, shapers, and creators, helping to design more human-friendly organizations through user experience research, participatory design, and usability testing.

What made you decide to launch your own agency?

Someone who I once looked up to told me I was in the wrong industry. I disagreed. I’m also a bit crazy. Anyone who starts a business and sticks with it is a bit crazy. Perhaps the craziest ones are those who fail and choose to do it again. This is my fourth go.

It started in 1995, at age ten. My strategy was simple—go through the “Yellow Pages” (remember them?) and fax businesses handwritten letters pitching my web design services. After about a week, dozens of faxes, and no replies, I was forced to shut down shop. My credit with my grandparents’ fax machine had run out.

Twenty-four years later and nine years into The Space InBetween, I like to think I’ve learned a little bit more about business and what it takes to make it work.

Something I know for certain is that it’s easy to start an agency. It’s much harder to keep it going.

Business is a continual creative challenge. It offers great opportunities for self-determination and expression. It’s pushed me to my limits, and I have a much better understanding of myself and other people because of it.

What’s the story behind your name?

In any conversation, there’s a space that exists between people. What you choose to do with that space (what you say and how you say it) fundamentally determines how well you’ll be received.

The same principle applies to conversations in the marketplace. I wanted to create a company that would help other companies have better conversations with people through technology.

You’re based in Auckland, New Zealand. What’s it like living and working there?

I’m originally from Wellington (the capital of New Zealand), and my friends who are from there get a bit upset when I tell them that Auckland is a much better place to live, even accounting for the crazy traffic and property prices. The climate is great (not too hot or cold), there’s a vibrant creative and technology scene, and the city offers a unique blend of Pacific, Asian, and European cultures.

But it’s the proximity to the great outdoors that really makes it special. Auckland’s nestled between two coastlines, so if you’re into anything to do with water (surfing, boating, diving, etc.), this is the place to be.

Did you have a mentor when you were first getting started?

I’ve been really fortunate to have a number of great role models and mentors. The most influential in my professional life has been a family friend who gave me my first real start in business. He ran an export company and contracted me to build him a website and market it. I think I was about fifteen at the time. We’ve become great friends, and he’s provided me with valuable insight and perspective throughout the years.

What were some of the early challenges you faced?

We launched in 2010, just after the global financial crisis. Thankfully, New Zealand escaped the worst of that, but the business climate was still relatively depressed. Budgets weren’t exactly free-flowing and digital was still very much the poor cousin compared to more traditional channels.

I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I’m twenty-six. I’ve got $7k in the bank and I’m about to give half of that to Steve Jobs for a MacBook Pro. This better work out!”

Three weeks went by with nothing. Then the phone rang. An ex-colleague had heard about what I was up to and put in a good word with his creative director. We had our first project, and it was for a well-known brand—we were off! It was incredibly exciting and encouraging and a good reminder that things happen when you’re committed. It was an equally good reminder to me just how important other people have been in my success in life. There’s no such thing as “self-made.”

As for the actual setting up part, that was easy. We didn’t have an office for the first six months, keeping our overhead low and working from home, cafes, or clients’ offices. We scaled our level of risk as we grew more confident in our ability to run the business and to deal with challenges.

What does a typical project look like for you?

Over the years, we’ve mostly helped our clients solve fairly well-defined digital problems, making the solutions to those problems as awesome as possible. In any given year, that’s looked like a mix of corporate websites, campaign sites, and apps.

Recently, we’ve been focusing on helping our clients better understand their customers through user research and usability testing. This has been hugely positive, and it’s helped to shape more successful solutions.

Have you ever turned down a project because it just didn’t fit with what you do well?

Yes, and I wish I’d done it more often. Sometimes you have to take on projects that aren’t a great fit, for financial reasons, or because you want to help out a client, but it’s important to go into them with your eyes open and with a plan to deal with the risk.

Every time we’ve not done that we’ve been burned. No one ends up happy, and the reputational risk is far worse than the financial risk.

How have apps and other mobile solutions changed how brands communicate with their customers?

All projects involving the creation of a digital experience have a mobile component. Most often that’s a responsive website or web app. It’s been that way for at least the last five years.

Mobile has changed things in a couple of key ways. Brands can now reach people wherever they are, so it’s given them an opportunity to create more personalized and intimate experiences for their customers. It’s also forced them to think about how to be more relevant and provide greater utility. That’s led to communication being less about, “Hey, you! Buy my stuff.” and more about, “Hey, I’ve made this useful thing for you. (P.S. Buy my stuff).”

Is anything different when your client is an established brand versus when you’re working with a startup?

Not always, but it’s generally a trade-off between less financial risk and less creative freedom and more financial risk and more creative freedom.

What we prefer is to work on projects with people that believe what we believe. This is a people business. Chemistry is key.

Are agency awards still relevant?

Awards are still relevant, even if it’s just an opportunity for the industry to get together and celebrate each other’s success. A shit-ton of energy goes into making the things that we make, so it’s nice for people to be recognized for a job well done.

Can you tell us about a cool project that you’re either working on now or finished recently?

There’s plenty of cool stuff on our website—the website for PLN Group is a recent standout for me—but the thing I’m most excited about at the moment is the complete redesign of the agency that we’re in the middle of.

There’s a lot of talk about being customer-centric and the importance of user-centered design, but for a lot of companies, their customers just aren’t real. There’s no tangible connection between the persona and the person. To create great experiences for people, the customer can’t be abstracted. They have to be real, and to be real, they have to be involved in the process. So does the client.

So we’re shifting our focus from creating better design outputs, to creating better design inputs. This means bringing people together—client, agency, and customer—so that different kinds of conversations can happen, and unknown unknowns can be discovered.

I have no idea exactly when they will tip, and we’re not using them yet to a massive degree, but I’m keeping a close eye on AI and automation and the role they play in the production aspects of design and development.

I’m excited about them because they can remove a lot of the low-rent and, frankly, unenjoyable work from the process. This should free people up to focus on more important challenges. But it’s also concerning, as some will not catch this wave and be left behind. The tension emerging between technology and people has occupied my mind a lot lately.

As designers and technologists, we have to ask ourselves: “What kind of world do we want to create?”

I think the pendulum has swung too far and we’ve lost a bit of our humanity in the process. Just look around and you’ll see people mesmerized by their devices when they’re supposed to be driving, out to dinner with friends, or playing with their kids at the park.

If you could start your agency over, what’s something you might you do differently this time around?

The “how” and the “what” of an agency are straightforward, but the “why” is less obvious. So I’d spend more time figuring out and articulating the “why.” It needs to be deeper than making money, or something spineless like, “Our success is our clients’ success.”

Running an agency can be hard, so having a clear understanding of your purpose makes the hard times easier. It also makes it possible for your people (your clients and team) to connect with the work you’re doing.

How do you measure progress? How do you know that you’re on the right track?

You’ve got to make enough money to stay in the game and to do better work, so the financials absolutely matter. This is a business, and every owner needs to decide what level of reward they need from their agency. You’ve got to be happy with the opportunity cost you’re paying.

If you’ve got the financials sorted, it’s much easier to pay attention to more important things, like whether you are working on projects for people who believe what you believe and whether the work is creatively fulfilling.

You certainly know when you’re not doing that. Nothing takes a toll on an agency’s culture quite like an owner prepared to let their people endure an asshole simply because it’s lucrative. I’m speaking from experience.

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

I’d start by spending some serious time coming up with meaningful answers to the following questions:

  • What is my why?
  • What is my model?

Knowing why you’re getting into business helps you find the people that believe what you believe. It’s also one of those decisions you make that removes a thousand other decisions.

Understanding how you’re going to deliver value for your clients is also critical. The majority of work these days is project-based. This gives you little visibility over long-term cash flow, and you can easily end up going from feast to famine. That’s not a fun roller coaster, so get your fixed costs covered on a recurring basis, as quickly as you can.

I’d also encourage you to take what you’re doing personally. That might sound counterintuitive, but your agency is a reflection of who you are and what you value.