What It Takes to Work at Work & Co:
Meet Co-Founder Joe Stewart
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
If you haven't heard of Work & Co yet, you will soon. You've already seen their work. Founded in 2013, the agency provides a ton of design and development for companies like Apple, YouTube, LVMH, Marriott, Aesop, Planned Parenthood and more. And if our annual "Top Companies WNW Members Would Kill to Work for Full-Time" survey is any indication, they're on the rise, making the list for two consecutive years. Work & Co has also worked with plenty of companies that typically handle their design work and development work in-house. So what makes these companies want to break from their tried-and-true methods to work with Work & Co?
Below, we talk to Co-Founder and Design Partner Joe Stewart about the external trust that Work & Co has quickly earned. "Since we focus on digital products, we don’t bill ourselves as 'full service.' We are a design and development agency. We’re never going to have a million different practices. We are laser-focused in our capabilities because we think it’s better to be good at just a few things than average at a bunch of them." Joe also talks about how Work & Co was born from him and a couple like-minded folks wanting to shed their managerial roles and get their design hands dirty again, and the internal trust that exists within the agency. It's refreshing to have leadership who is learning and building alongside you. There are no CEOs or department heads. This may explain why Work & Co's retention rate is around 93%.
While Joe is based out of Work & Co's newly opened and airy Portland office, they also have offices in New York and São Paulo. If you're interested in working at Work & Co, Joe offers up a ton of great advice below on what it takes to work there, as well as what he looks for in prospective hires and their creative portfolios.
Photography by WNW Member Bridget Baker
Tell us about your background, and your path to co-founding Work & Co.
The usual path people describe when it comes to digital design is one that’s meandering --sort of “falling into” it. Mine was the opposite. It was definitely linear.
My father was a developer who worked on Photoshop and Premiere, so I grew up with an appreciation for engineering. My passion was more in art, but his influence was heavy and I felt drawn to blend my love for design with software. Like a lot of engineers, he was always a fan of self-teaching methods. He encouraged me to get out of my textbooks and do more learning by doing. It was also necessary: there was no real curriculum for “digital design” back then.
By the time I was 18, I was freelancing, working on user interfaces for software companies. Since I had been studying in Silicon Valley during the Dot-Com boom, my skills were useful to a number of area companies. So I dropped out of college to focus on digital design full-time. My first agency position was at a small digital agency and I loved it getting exposure to all kinds of projects and industries. After that first job, I was pretty hooked. I just kept with it, slowly working my way through the ranks, honing my craft all the time.
The defining moment for me was when I’d worked my way all the way to the top, in a really big agency, and I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t touching the work every day. I missed the craft. I didn’t want to be just a manager. So, along with a group of folks I really trusted, we started a company where the senior leaders still get to stay on projects and be designers or developers or strategists. I took the advice my dad gave me and never let go. You have to learn by doing.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs in launching your career?
Dropping out of school was the best way to learn digital, but I missed out on a lot of the really important design fundamentals and philosophy that you learn in school. So I’ve had to devote a lot of time over the years to catching up, and studying design history to understand its roots. I’ve never stopped this learning, and it continually cements my love for design.
It should also be said, that when I started doing this in the 1990’s, digital design was seen as a very, very lowly job. It was embarrassing to say you designed websites. Books, posters, magazines, that was considered real design. People literally scoffed at me when I told them what I did. That was hard. So, without support initially, I got really good at listening to my gut, and that has served me better than I would have imagined, in design and in business generally.
Describe Work & Co in three words.
Focused. Honest. Hands-on.
What are 3-5 projects that have come out of Work & Co that you’re proud of and why?
We’re at our best when we’re not just designing but also building products. That’s sort of the secret of Work & Co… yes, we have good designers, but our development team is unbelievable – better than our design team, and that’s saying a lot. Aldo and Aesop are two recent examples of what I mean.
Apple is one of my most significant clients. That work is incredibly satisfying and rewarding both from a design perspective and a human-impact perspective. Of course, I can’t talk about any of it, because it’s Apple – but – boy, it’s been a great few years and that work continues.
Virgin America was the first big piece that launched out of Work & Co, and I still love that work. It was such a great mesh of engineering, UX, and strategy. It worked great for the business, and for users. It validated our new company’s model of working more closely with clients in a unified team and proved that we might be onto something from a process perspective.
And I think the other projects I’m proudest of are to come, in the cause space, like our work for Planned Parenthood and Breastcancer.org. We are in an amazingly fortunate position to be able to partner with --and even invest in-- causes we believe in. It’s strange to me that corporations in the US are wielding increasing power, but here we are, so might as well use that power for good.
Work & Co has worked with so many kinds of companies --especially Silicon Valley firms-- that handle a lot of their design work and development work in-house. What makes them want to go outside of their companies to work with you? What do you think they see in Work & Co that makes them so ready to break their tried-and-true methods?
One really common thing we hear from clients is that we are hyper-collaborative and informal in a way they’ve not experienced before. We keep things very simple. We just focus on the work. We’re always wholly transparent. There isn’t much in the way of fancy presentations, just constant check-ins and a lot of Zoom calls and Slack messages so everyone always knows exactly what’s happening. We are allergic to alarms and surprises.
We also stay really focused on solving one problem at a time in a way that a lot of clients haven’t seen before. It’s fast, iterative, even messy. But it works. You just start building prototypes on Day 1, and by Day 100 you are going with the best ideas from the 1,000 you’ve tested. You have to have a strong senior team to work this way, but the results are stronger.
Working for such high-level clients also means just about everyone has seen Work & Co’s work, whether they realize it or not. What are some of your considerations when it comes to carefully building the right kind of reputation for Work & Co?
First and foremost we want to create things that launch. We have to be choosy about the projects we pick so that our teams are happy, motivated, and able to do the work they came to Work & Co to do.
We say "no" a lot and won’t work on projects that don’t match our values. For example, we’re not interested in pharma business. It’s just not for us. We’re also not interested in flashy things, but rather in developing utilities for people. The things that make life better and easier.
“Sell airline tickets” – that’s a great brief, that’s a project we would take. My dream project is to do an email app. It’s the most base product – constant use – constant consideration… it’s like water or electricity, it’s in the air. That’s the most interesting work to me: the most basic products… which are also, by far, the hardest to do.
What separates Work & Co from other agencies?
In general, it’s gotten harder and harder for agencies to carve out a distinct niche for themselves. And everyone thinks they’re different, and tries to be, with varying degrees of success.
I’d say there are two things that separate us from other agencies that are pretty plainly obvious. First, we don’t do any advertising, so there’s that. People still get a bit tripped up on that, like “Really? No marketing?” But it’s true. We genuinely don’t derive any revenue from ad campaigns, and our work is 100% focused on building core digital products for brands.
Second, since we focus on digital products, we don’t bill ourselves as “full service.” We are a design and development agency. We’re never going to have a million different practices. We are laser-focused in our capabilities because we think it’s better to be good at just a few things than average at a bunch of them.
Those are just the facts but there’s a third thing that separates us that requires taking a bit of a closer look at our model and what we’ve been doing in the past few years. And that’s the the level of talent we have attracted, and continue to attract. And keep. Our retention rate is about 93%. And we’ve never done a round of layoffs in our history. Part of why we have tried to have such a flat structure is that there’s not such a vast rift between the senior-most and junior-most talent in the company. Having this level of talent means you don’t stagnate. You keep learning.
What about the culture of Work & Co makes it a desirable place for potential hires to work?
Honestly, I think it’s really about us getting out of the way. This funny thing happens when people enjoy what they’re working on. You don’t have to force a “company culture” to convince them this is a good place to be. We try very hard to get the company out of the way of people’s ability to do their work. We don’t have timesheets, for instance, because they just get in the way. What most people describe as perks -- free lunch and snacks, generous vacation -- we have it all but it’s not something we actively market to talent because it’s just necessary things that help people be their best selves.
The structure of the company itself is designed to simplify things. There is no CEO or department heads. There are just a series of Partners who are very senior people working, alongside you, on your project. So – no internal hoops – just your project check-in. Almost everyone is only on one project at a time, so that leaves people with lots of time to focus on what they’re actually good at. If we have a culture at all, it’s probably best described as minimalism. People who are interested in making things, and getting better at what they do like working here.
Is there a good amount of interaction between the Portland, New York, and Sao Paulo offices?
Every day, all the time - and that’s highly intentional. When we were creating the company we set it up with a single P&L for this very reason. It’s cooperative not competitive, which isn’t usually the case with bigger agencies, especially the ones owned by holding companies. It’s great for talent too. They get to work across offices and co-locate for periods of time. Recently we had one of our first employees, an incredibly talented designer who’s been based in Brooklyn, decide to relocate with his family to our Brazil office for a year.
What does it take to succeed at Work & Co?
Be a good listener. Talk with your work, not with your mouth. You have to want to learn new things all the time.
You need to accept that the user, not the client, is in charge.
Don’t be too precious. Be open to others’ points of view, because good ideas come from lots of places.
You need to understand the power of throwing away your ideas and starting over. Accept that having a good idea is easy – launching a good idea is what’s really hard.
What qualities are most important in a prospective hire? What are you looking for in the portfolio of a potential hire that's unique to Work & Co?
First and foremost it’s about the craft. At any level, from intern to design director, the level of craftsmanship is what allows us to do what we do, so that’s always first. Attitude is incredibly important. Ego is not valuable in a world where the user is god, not you. So, being humble is pretty important. Anyone who’s user-tested hundreds of their designs is always very humble. Last, we like working with people who have worked on large-scale products in the past. It’s not required, but it is a lot less ramping up.
Is there a good balance of bringing on people who send in resumes and people you proactively reach out to? Or are the scales tipped toward a certain tendency?
The people we most commonly chase are those who our current employees recommend. They know instinctively who’s going to be a good fit and be able to work the way we work. Because we’re never looking to “fill a role," we very actively recruit certain people with a specialized skillset. We’re relentless but we’re patient. We’ve been known to wait years.
Are there certain portfolio and applicant trends that you wish would go out of style?
Oh man, yes. The current trend that drives me crazy is applicants making these long case studies of their “design process.” It’s a bunch of photos of sticky notes and pencil sketches, and it’s like 15 pages long, filled with stuff about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and the focus groups and user interviews… then two hours later you get to the bottom of the case study and the work looks like shit.
I’m a designer, I know how good work gets made. Just show me good work. That’s it. You don’t even have to show me that much. If you have 3 strong pieces, that’s really hard to do. Show me that.
I have no idea where this trend started. I heard design professors are telling their students to do this. It’s horrible advice. The best portfolio possible? Send us links of live work. That’s the real test.
What’s one piece of advice that our members need to hear?
Growing in your careers isn’t just about “managing.” Particularly in digital, the best way to ascend is to continue creating. If you lose that you’re no longer relevant --to your teams and to your clients, and most importantly you’ve lost a critical piece of yourself. Also, don’t rush. Design is a marathon career. Slow down and enjoy it.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I love working out problems through prototyping. It’s a medium that works really to process and evaluate potential strategic and design directions. I love having an idea, and being able to see how a user would interpret that idea almost instantly. It’s a really fast, fun, and satisfying way to solve problems.
I also love seeing young designers come into their own. I am so proud of some of the people I get to work with every day who have just become absolute monsters in what they do. Watching someone grow from ‘good’ to ‘holy fucking shit she’s good’ brings me a tremendous amount of joy.
What do you do when Not Working?
My family is super important to me. When I leave work I get to be who I really am, which is a dad and a husband. I love cycling. Like most people, especially in Portland, I try to spend time outdoors and stay healthy – so I work on eating well, reading, exercise, and meditation.
Design is an incredibly rewarding career because you are able to create and constantly improve yourself. But it can also be a very taxing career filled with constant decision-making, self doubt, and stress – so it’s a must that you allow time for yourself to recover and get stronger every day. It’s good for your life, and also good for your design. There’s a symbiosis there.