In one sentence, can you tell us about Gravitywell?
Gravitywell is a boutique design and technology agency with a focus on start-ups and innovation for existing businesses.
What made you decide to launch your own agency?
It was always a dream of mine when I was in school. After a year of work in the real world, I arrogantly assumed that I could do a better job of running an agency than the people who were actually doing it. Not surprisingly, the first few years were the hardest!
More recently, I partnered with our Technical Director Jack Hayward, who is the main reason that we’re able to compete on a level playing field with technology agencies many times our size.
What’s the story behind your name?
A “gravity well” was something cool that I remembered from physics lessons at school, and I felt it had a nice mix of mystery and science, which fit the atmosphere we were going for with some of our more technical work and our emphasis on R&D.
Did you have any mentors or people you looked up to when you were first starting out?
Back in 2001, Bob Mytton, (of MyttonWilliams in Bath) gave me my first break and then later some office space too. I admire him for his very calm approach to project work, but more importantly, for his honesty and integrity.
What were some of the early challenges you faced when you first launched?
We launched in the early days of the internet, so client expectations were all over the place! Their understanding of what was possible on the web at that time varied wildly, so it was definitely challenging.
We often partnered with more traditional design agencies for the first few years, and we had to help print designers bridge a few gaps—like understanding that for the best results, design needs to be integrated with the development process.
Does each project require a different strategy?
We tried to lock down a process for all of our projects, but every solution we came up with became too restrictive. We were spending too much time refining the template and not enough time tackling the unique details of the project.
Our projects are pretty varied—which is hugely enjoyable and keeps things fresh—but it also means that it’s impossible to use the same approach every time.
These days we use our micro-processes as more of a toolkit, picking and choosing what’s needed for the job, and even swapping in alternatives after the project has begun. Flexibility is crucial.
How large is your team now? Is everybody based out of the same location?
All ten of us are in Bristol, which is a very cool place to live and work. The design and development community here is very friendly and collaborative.
We’ve been extremely fortunate with new team members, as their caliber has been very high.
Have you ever turned down work because it wasn’t a good fit?
We turn down projects all the time, even for relatively big names. It’s actually very cathartic, and I would highly recommend it!
Future you will be grateful for it, even if you’re terrified you may be making a mistake at the time.
How do you know that you’re on the right track as an agency?
Some key things that are important to Jack and me include:
- Having team members that like working here.
- Making sure that we’re always learning new stuff.
- Not needing to do free pitches.
If we’re achieving these, then we’re happy knowing that we’re moving in the right direction.
How do you figure out what a client really needs versus what they think they need?
There are lots of stages in a client relationship that can trigger doubts and it’s important to explore them further, albeit in a positive way. For example, it’s very common for the initial brief to feel a little “off.” Difficult questions usually expose future problems and give you a chance to course-correct right from the start.
In general, it’s important to challenge the client and propose alternatives that can be supported by evidence.
For us, the process is very simple. We take the time to have in-depth conversations with our clients and don’t take things for granted.
Sometimes this will result in a very different (but hopefully much better) solution for the client. We’ve even told clients before that they don’t actually need us and would be better off using an existing online service. I think Squarespace owes us some commission by now!
In addition to your client work, internal projects are a big part of your culture. What’s your team working on now?
Hacks and R&D are a key part of Gravitywell, and we make as much time for them as possible. As we’re free from client distractions, we all get to work together on a project that we have full control over.
Right now we’re on our annual Hackathon. We’ve moved everyone down to a grand house in a Cornish fishing village to work on a single project—starting and launching the finished product in just one week.
It’s intense but hugely rewarding.
The team-bonding benefits are obvious, but it’s also an opportunity to try out new technology and learn new skills. From scratch, we’ve designed and built a video lesson building app for fitness instructors and a client app to watch the personalized lessons.
Check out our blog posts about Gaku.app to follow the action!
What percentage of your work involves a mobile component? How have apps and other mobile solutions changed how brands communicate with their customers?
It’s at least 80%. Even when producing a short film, we must consider that some of the audience will be viewing it on a pocket-sized device.
The ubiquity of mobile devices has caused us to be much more succinct regarding copy, but also the user experience in general. Users are more fickle than ever, and with just a small thumb gesture your message can be left behind.
Are there any technology trends that you’re using in your work or that you are particularly excited about?
We’re just on the edge of what Machine Learning can do, but the potential is incredible.
In the short term, we’ll be able to use ML to provide users with content and functionality that’s much closer to what they’re really looking for (whether they know it already or not). For apps, that means more personalized and useful features, but it could also mean generating and analyzing content on the fly.
What’s one thing you’d like potential clients to know before working together?
Hiring us to explore an idea or solve a problem is almost always better than trying to define everything yourself and asking us what the cost for that is.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own creative agency?
- Stay on top of technology changes.
- Don’t be afraid to turn jobs down.
- Retain and protect your intellectual property.
- Work with people you can trust completely.