Friendly Design Co.

A strategic design agency based in Washington, DC.

Meet Friendly Design, a boutique agency in Washington DC run by funny and sincere owners Ross Nover and Geoff Silverstein. They put their digital strategist, Rachael Senning through the apprenticeship and transformed their onboarding process and handoffs, while creating supportive boundaries that made their clients feel safe and relaxed.

Friendly Design Co website

Organization
Friendly Design Co.

Based in
Washington, D.C.

Website
friendlydesign.co

Program
Apprenticeship (cohort LTT-014)

To start off, Ross, why don’t you tell me about the Friendly Design team, how big it is, who does what—that sort of thing.

Ross Nover: Friendly Design Co. was founded about six and a half years ago. We’re a strategic design studio that collaborates with impactful organizations that repair our world and strengthen our communities and hopefully also enjoy puns. So we have clients all over the place. We’re a team of eight right now. That’s a mix of Producers like Rachael, Designers, Developers and a couple of bosses like me.


Rachael, can you give me a sense of what it’s like to work at Friendly Design?

Rachael Senning: Well, it’s very collaborative. We like to assign projects based on what kind of work people are interested in doing and also to give the team the opportunity to work with different people. We have a mix of website projects, branding projects, print collateral, some that do all three of those at the same time. A lot of clients come to us but don’t really know what they need—or they want something specific but they don’t know how to get there. So we do a lot of strategy work before we do any design and development.


What convinced you to give the Apprenticeship a try? Do you remember specifically what stood out to you or what made it seem like a good fit?

Ross: First off, Geoff and I had come from a design background and both worked in different firms. We had been around project managers and tried our best to emulate what worked for them but our strengths are definitely not in project management. The idea of formal training that builds a person into a good project manager rather than just conveying tools or sharing articles about different approaches was really appealing to us—it seemed important that we do it this way. There are PMs that we’ve seen out there—especially when we interviewed for a second project manager—that look at it like ‘it’s my job to sit behind a desk and write timelines and send them back and forth and check in with people’ and that’s it. On another side of the spectrum is an approach that is about people and talking and figuring out consensus through a more integrated approach. That was what we wanted to build into Friendly Design Co., and it seemed like Louder Than Ten was in alignment with that kind of approach. They have the right mindset and the tone we wanted to strike. Signing Rachael up to learn from LT10 would allow us to do project management the way we wanted—where it’s not about checking boxes, but honestly and authentically learning to build the skills and practices and abilities.

And the value part—that was about understanding the ways that good project management can trickle through so many different places in an organization in so many different ways. It can make us more profitable, it can keep things moving on time, it can keep clients happier. Since the different parts of this work are all so integrated, by having good project management, all of these other pieces shine more brightly.

Ross Nover
Founding partner

There is no way you can put some­one in this pro­gram and not have them learn at least five incred­i­bly valu­able things. No mat­ter what their expe­ri­ence is, they will take some­thing away from the pro­gram that they will be able to use on a week­ly, if not dai­ly, basis.

Rachael Senning

Rachael—How would you describe the way the Friendly Design team works and how has that changed during or since taking the Apprenticeship?

Rachael: That’s both an easy and a hard question to answer. I think one of the biggest things is that we just know what to expect from each other. The way we work as a team is more organized and intentional. There is a system behind our project management. There is a lot less back and forth between people because there is more understanding and trust as coworkers and better documentation we can fall back on when we need an answer to a question, for example. We don’t have to talk about every single project detail. It has allowed us to be more collaborative and productive and fluid. It’s more touch-and-go. We get less bogged down in each others’ unnecessary minutia.


That’s a common theme when I talk to people about the impact of the apprenticeship program. Things just seem to flow more smoothly. That’s great. Ross—what else from your perspective has changed about the way Friendly Design does business? Have you seen an impact in other areas like operations or sales?

Ross: For one, everyone understands their roles more clearly. It’s enabled us to build a better organizational structure across the board. It’s helped everyone specialize more in what they are good at and want to do because they no longer have to do so many other things. I am able to not be a project manager and truly be a creative director and work on sales and focus more on growth. Our designers are able to have more time designing because they don’t have to filter through dozens of emails to understand what is needed from them. That sort of thing. I think it’s just allowed everyone to focus more—taking that work off everyone else’s plate and turning it into one dedicated position. It’s hard to measure the exact impact of that in terms of numbers. But my week—and what I am able to accomplish within a week is completely different. And I feel that will be the same for a lot of members of our team. I was doing a lot of project management and now I don’t have to do any and that’s great. I’ve been able to focus more on business development because of that.

Loud­er Than Ten helped us with so many pieces beyond just project man­age­ment. At a firm like ours, every­thing effects every­thing else. Pric­ing effects tim­ing, meet­ings effect mar­ket­ing, work­flow effects pitch­ing. Not only did they help us train one of our team mem­bers into a project man­ag­er, but they helped advise our entire team on how to bet­ter inte­grate project man­age­ment into our entire process.

Ross Nover

You can see the difference in the people as much as the bottom line.

Ross: For sure. And there are ways to extrapolate that out. I mean there was a project we got solely because I was able to pitch and get it for us and do the necessary follow-up. The fact that I was able to focus on that is a direct result of these changes we had been making. We’ve been having some of these outcomes meetings with clients and sometimes it is hard to point out exactly why something happened, but it’s easy to say that since we’ve started, a whole bunch of these kinds of positive changes have happened.


It can be hard to trace causation, but you can see things changing.

Ross: Totally. Things are definitely shaped differently. Projects start with project managers now where they used to have to start with me. I think it lets our team be less siloed on projects because there is always a PM—at least one other person to talk over things with and help keep an eye on things. There are far fewer fires to put out, far fewer stressful moments. And I haven’t measured this, but I would bet that the average amount of late hours worked has gone down. I wish I had a percentage to share, but I can firmly say that people leave on time far more often than they used to. And that on its own is great. It’s making our lives better.

Things don’t sneak up on us anymore. There’s a lot less ‘Oh shoot, this is due tomorrow’ or whatever.


Is there anything you want to add Rachael? Have you noticed an impact anywhere else that stands out?

Rachael: I only knew what project management was through what I had learned from [Ross] and Geoff. So it was this great, granular look into how exactly project management affects all aspects of the business. It went specifically from business development and the numbers game down to our day-to-day tasks. I was really surprised by how much these changes could affect Friendly. Because the way we did business is with a fixed bid with a fixed scope. And a lot of the time, when we got into a project (because we do so much strategy), what the client needs changes. The scope changes but then the budget wouldn’t necessarily change with that. But thanks to what I learned in the program, I started calling that out and paying a lot of attention to—when scope changes happened, or when extra revisions were added—that we were compensated for when those changes happened and when that extra work happened. It allowed the designers to have more time and it gave us more business within projects we had already sold.


Great!

Rachael: I mean halfway through the program—at the point when the classes stopped—I looked at the four months following and the total added budget for those four months was pretty much the equivalent of taking on one more project (given our average budget). Within four months, we added a full project’s revenue onto our current project with­out hav­ing to man­age and onboard a new client.

Ross: That is something I have seen you get even better at as time has gone on. You’ve gotten more comfortable with it and it’s something that, even when I wasn’t managing a project—I was checking in the health of the projects—I felt like I had to swoop in and catch. Now it’s being caught before it gets to me. Now, instead of having conversations about ‘there’s a client with a problem, what do we do?’ we have conversations that are more like ‘this client is over on scope and this is how much I’m planning on charging them, is that good?’

By the numbers

Deeper focus, more revenue, higher project values.

$54k added to project budgets within the year

75% of clients are repeat engagements

27% increase in average client revenue

Okay, this question is for both of you. Looking back over the past year, what’s one thing that you are proud of?

Rachael: We recently had a project with a client that we had worked with before. And the point of contact on their side was the same as well and I was managing the project again. The first project was before I took the course when I was just kind of dabbling and taking things off Ross’ plate. The project was fine until the very end when it turned into a big mess. It was over budget and was a big pain in the ass for our developer. With the second project—another website project with the same client and the same point of contact—the same things happened. They were late on feedback and had lots of changes and things like that. But it got done on time, it was super-organized, our developer was much happier, the client was much happier. They were very pleased; every other email was like ‘this project has been great, thanks so much for being so organized and reminding us to give you feedback, and being diligent about deadlines.’ That was a moment for me. That project went so smoothly, stayed on the timeline, stayed on budget, everything. Comparing that to the earlier project was eye-opening. I saw that I had all these skills so that, no matter what came up during a project, I knew I could handle it.

Ross: When I think about how working with us should look from the outside—from our clients perspective—I know that we do great design and development work. That has always been the case. But I don’t think we have always looked like we have our shit together. The processes we have been able to bring to our project management have allowed us to show that not only is our work great, but the way we do our work is just as great. The whole process is as smooth and tight as the finished product.


Rachael—what was one thing that surprised you or was unexpected in terms of your personal learning over the course of the apprenticeship?

Rachael: It’s called project management so you are managing projects. But I think the surprising thing for me was just how much it is about managing people and their personalities and their needs and styles of working. I’m a pretty type-A person so being organized and on top of deadlines and creating documentation comes much more naturally to me. But I think delving into the more human side of project management was surprising as it was rewarding. It was like, ‘of course, I have to deal with all of these humans who are a part of these projects.’ I was also surprised by how much it did end up coming naturally to me once I was able to start parsing through the class content with my classmates. Seeing how they responded to some of the questions and how they would talk through problems and how their different perspectives about approaching project management really helped me learn about the human side of project management in a really nuanced and powerful way. As Ross was saying earlier, different people have different experiences with different project managers. So beginning to understand your own ego and personality can affect a project was as valuable as it was surprising.

This project has been great, thanks so much for being so orga­nized and remind­ing us to give you feed­back, and being dili­gent about deadlines.

Client

What is one struggle or challenge that you no longer lose sleep over? What’s one thing you used to worry about that you don’t have to worry anymore?

Ross: In the last year, I have transitioned from needing to know what is going on and what the status is for every project and, on some level, feeling the need to be checked in on asking about the latest developments and updates a couple of times a week. And this is with pretty much every project we had in some way or another whether I was managing it or not. I felt like I had to keep one eye on those things at all times. And now I don’t. I don’t at all. I can focus on other things entirely. I still get pulled in when it’s needed and we have established the key points of when that should be. But now I am happily unaware of the minutia of what’s going on with our projects because I have complete trust in the health of them.

Rachael: I think when those contentious points happen on projects—when either they make an assumption that isn’t true, or things are going over scope, or we need to ask for more money—dealing with them, with anything more than status updates, can be really hard to do without with right skills and approaches and experience. The course really gave me the confidence to know that I can keep track of a project and also keep track of the relationship I have with a client. So when those moments do happen—when I need to ask for more money or have a less-than-happy conversation—I know that I have already built that relationship and have the skills I need to make that conversation much, much easier than it would have been before.


If I had a company and I was thinking about this apprenticeship—if I was on the fence about doing it—what would you most want to tell me? What’s the one biggest selling point you would offer to someone who is thinking about doing this program?

Rachael: There is no way you can put someone in this program and not have them learn at least five incredibly valuable things. No matter what their experience is, they will take something away from the program that they will be able to use on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Ross: I’ve got two. One is that project management is linked to so many different pieces of an agency. Taking the time to invest in having good approaches can have implications through everything you do. Things you don’t expect that will be so beneficial. The other is that not only does the person going through the course learn a lot, but with the right attitude, the whole organization around them can learn a lot as well–both from the example they are setting but also from the workshops and tools and resources that they can share with the team. Everyone benefits and everyone gets to learn and improve and is empowered to do their part to improve the team, to do things differently. It’s been really great.

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