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

Justin + Josh

Turtle

May 2, 2018

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In one sentence, can you tell us about Turtle?

Turtle is a UX and UI design partner for awesome product teams.

What made you decide to start your own agency?

We’ve known each other since our first jobs in the design industry almost ten years ago and have worked on a number of side projects together during that time. Over the years we both became increasingly interested in the business and strategy side of the industry—we found that we didn’t just want to design, but to build teams and run a studio. We also wanted the flexibility to develop our own product ideas.

We felt that if we didn’t start Turtle when we did, it would soon get more difficult to put in the time and effort needed to start our own studio. We also believed that we had gained enough experience and developed a large enough network that made the leap seem less scary.

Ultimately, we just asked ourselves, “What’s the worst that can happen?” There really wasn’t an answer that scared us! 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced since you launched? 

We’re a new studio so we are definitely still in the midst of early challenges. Even looking back a year ago, some of our biggest challenges have come from not knowing how to define our studio. We knew that we wanted to specialize rather than start off full-service, but we didn’t know how to articulate the value we could offer our clients. We also didn’t have a clear picture of who our ideal clients were, so we worked with anyone and everyone at first. That led to a fractured portfolio and made it hard to differentiate ourselves in any meaningful way.

You mentioned that you guys are focused on design and UX. Do you think that specializing in those areas gives you an advantage over other agencies? Have you ever had to turn down a job because it didn’t jive with what you’re best at?

Yes, we 100% believe that focusing on specific areas gives us an advantage over other agencies of our size. Obviously, larger agencies have enough people to be killer at a wide range of things like strategy, design, content, and development. We think it’s pretty rare to find a smaller team like ours that can offer the services that we do at such a high level.

We have turned down lots of projects because they’re not a good fit. We want to do great work every single time, and if it doesn’t fit into our focus then we can’t guarantee the quality we’d like to offer. Turning down work is always painful, but ultimately it’s better for our studio and the client in the long run if we say no.

How large is your team now? Does anybody work remotely?

Our core team of design leads is three people and we have a great roster of collaborators that brings us up to around ten people at any given time. We do work with some people remotely, but most of the time there’s been plenty of talented people in Vancouver that we’ve wanted to work with.

What does a typical project look like at Turtle?

Most projects start out with a quick discovery process to get ramped up followed by collaboratively working towards a visual prototype.

Our clients tend to be people on product teams at medium and large tech companies—i.e., designers and strategists that already speak our language—which makes working together pretty seamless. We’re not into the whole “big reveal” thing, and we’d rather work closely with our clients as one team.

Who are some of your mentors? Who else do you look up to in the industry?

We were very lucky to have amazing bosses and coworkers from previous jobs who we’ve really leaned on. These are people who give us extremely practical and tailored advice. We also look up to agencies like Ustwo, Metalab, Ueno, and Huge.

Tell us more about your Design Workshops and how they differ from a typical agency-client meeting?

Design Workshops are basically the working sessions from our discovery process. They’re a way for clients to apply some design thinking to their problem and get to know our team before making a larger investment. We found that a lot of our clients had a general idea of the challenge they wanted to solve but they didn’t have clear goals or an established scope of work. 

These working sessions differ from typical client meetings in that they’re very interactive. We have a lot of exercises we do together (like card sorting and experience mapping), and all of the stakeholders are involved. It’s usually a mess of sticky notes and scribbles all over the place.

Some of our clients even use the workshops to educate their teams about design thinking—treating them more as a training exercise rather than for problem-solving. 

What’s something you wish your clients understood better about your business?

We want our clients to understand that we use our design process because it’s the most consistent and reliable way for us to solve their problem. Sometimes clients want to carve up the process in an effort to save money, which often results in a poorer solution that has to be fixed later on. They’re not actually saving money!

How do you measure progress as an agency?

We tend to measure progress by our portfolio and client roster. Our focus is set on the portfolio of work we are building and, of course, being profitable so we can keep the lights on.

It’s not overly important for us to hire people just for the sake of increasing our headcount. We’ll grow our team if it allows us to work on the types of projects and with the types of clients we want to.

Are there any technology trends that you’re particularly excited about? How are you implementing those into your projects?

One exciting technology change is with the tools that we are using for design. We’ve already seen a big shift with the rise of Sketch, but we’re also experimenting with Webflow, which is helping us design and output usable code without relying as heavily on front-end development. This has translated to greater control for our designers and a lower cost for some of our clients.

Other than that, is it lame to say blockchain? We’ve been working with a few blockchain companies and crypto-currencies lately and we love the enthusiasm and vision surrounding this space. We also accept payment in Ether and ICO tokens which has turned out great so far.

If you had to predict one big change in advertising over the next decade, what would it be?

We’re already seeing this to an extent, but we think that advertising will become even more reliant on function over form. People want things that help improve their lives in a functional way. We’ll probably see more brands start to advertise through useful products and services that align with their brand story, rather than through more traditional elements like billboards and TV spots.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking of starting their own agency?

Make sure that you are clear on the type of agency you want to run. There are so many different ways to run a successful design business, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Do you want to have a small and tight team of experts? Or do you want to grow a large agency with offices all around the world? Whatever your answer is, make decisions and take work that will help you progress towards becoming that type of agency, and say no to things that don’t.

And of course, if it all falls apart, you can always get another job!

A big thanks to Justin Tan and Josh Zak for spending some time being interviewed. Check out their awesome work at: turtleinc.com.

Share this Interview: