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Season 3, Episode 10: Transcript


Veanne Smith:    Hello, and welcome to Atlanta Business Radio. We’re your hosts, [phonetic][00:09] Vianne Smith and Sarah [phonetic][00:10] Lodato. We’re excited to have our listeners join us for another episode of Season Three, where our theme is focusing on innovation.


In today’s episode, we’re discussing the importance of branding and design, how to keep those assets relevant, and where your time, money and energy is best focused when building a corporate identity. To learn all we need to know about branding and user experience, we’ve invited [phonetic][00:32] J Cornelius into the studio today.


J is the founder of Nine Labs, a digital strategy and [phonetic][00:37] u-ex design studio, focused on helping startups and innovation teams turn their ideas into apps that people love to use.


Sarah Lodato:    A former drummer and sound guy, J’s tenacity for building businesses has had him creating and designing since the mid-’90’s. Nowadays, J is bringing companies to life through user-experience design, digital strategy and product consulting.


As a sought-after brand strategist, you can regularly find him speaking at conferences around the world, or mentoring startup hopefuls at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Development Center, or ATDC, as most of us know it, and helping corporate innovation teams across Atlanta. Welcome to the show, J. It’s so great to see you.


J Cornelius:        Hey, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.


Sarah:                  Yeah. So, Nine Labs is a well-known name here in Atlanta, and ya’ll have sort of a reputation of being the digital A-team, but even still, some of our listeners may not know what Nine Labs is. So, would you mind sharing a little bit about the work that ya’ll do?


J:                    Yeah. So, you covered it pretty well in the opening there. We do digital strategy and user-experience design, and that’s all really focused around how to make something that people actually want to use.


One of the things that we tell people pretty often, and I get into Twitter fights all the time about this, is that the brand of a company is actually what happens when you combine what the company does with how people feel about it. Some people doubt that, but if you think about any good examples, like Amazon — Amazon has had some trouble in the press, but everyone still loves Amazon because they do a great service, they deliver on their promise, and people love them for that.


Then you look at a company like United. They get you from A to B, but nobody likes United, right? So, even thought they’re technically delivering the service, no one is happy with that brand.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           So, what we do is look at what customers want, how to satisfy their needs, and then help companies build products that do that.


Sarah:                  Awesome. Are you exclusive to Atlanta, [crosstalk][02:33] or are you working for folks all around the company?


J:                           No. All around the country, and even all around the world. We’ve got some clients over in Europe. We’re looking at some stuff in South America, so we’ll go anywhere.


Sarah:                  That’s awesome.


Veanne:                Awesome. Thanks for that description. Appreciate that. Now we want to talk a little more about the “how”’s and whatnot.


J:                           Sure.


Vianne:                So, being in software development here at [phonetic][02:53] SolTech, like we are, we know the importance of following a process to improve the likelihood of project success. I’m curious — at the creative side, is process important there, as well?


J:                           Yeah. Process is very important. Any time you’re trying to achieve an outcome, if you have a process you can follow that makes it more predictable that you’ll achieve that outcome, then that’s a good thing. We follow a couple of different processes, and since we’re talking about branding, our brand and naming process is pretty well-defined.


One of the first things that we do is get an idea of who this company’s customers are, think about what those customers want — what appeals to them — and then we do what we call an ethos exercise, where we go through this card deck — we’ve got maybe 200 cards of different phrases and adjectives. We sit down with the founders, and other stakeholders from the team, and define that company’s ethos. From there, everything else grows.


So, from there, we can think about what type of a name makes sense that’s going to resonate with that target market, and basically demonstrate that ethos. Then we go into mission and values, and all of these other things that you need to build a brand, and then we start looking at what the product actually is going to be.


Contrary to a lot of people’s belief, identity — a logo — is actually really far down in the process. The logo is just a bookmark for all of those other things that we did before.


Vianne:                Everybody always wants to start with the logo, right?


J:                    Everyone starts with a logo, and we tell people, “Hey, that’s totally cool. We get that you want a logo. Go to 99 Designs, pay $99, get yourself a placeholder logo so you feel better, and we can replace it later. It’s not a problem.”


Vianne:                That’s cool. So, in our world, there are kind of standards and methodologies — like [phonetic][04:37] agile, for example. So, at SolTech, we follow agile, but we sometimes  — SolTech is agile, right?


J:                           Sure.


Vianne:                Is that true in your world? There’s kind of a standard approach, but then you put your little twist to it, or…?


J:                           Yeah. We also typically follow an agile process — following, you know, kind of sprints, and keeping things on a schedule — but we say it’s more agile with a lowercase “A”, or agile-ish, as people will say.


One of the things that surprises people, about our process, is deliberate pauses. When you’re doing something that you’re going to have to live with for a long time, you want to make sure that you’re thinking about it in two ways. I’m one of those people who strongly believes in the two different ways that your brain works, and it’s proven by science, so it’s kind of hard to dispute.


If you think about things with your cognitive brain — like the brains that we’re using right now, to speak to each other, and to listen and digest and have this conversation — that’s our fast-thinking brain. Then we have this other brain, which is our subconscious brain, or our slow-thinking brain.


We need both of those things, both of those thought processes, to really make a good decision. That’s why some of your best ideas come to you in the shower. It’s because your slow-thinking brain, the one that’s been working all night, is the one that’s active, and so it’s bringing ideas to your fast-thinking brain early in the morning.


We build in this thing that we call “the soak,” which is, we give you a list of options — so, this might be for the name, it might be for identity work, or really any other deliverable — and we want you to sit on that for at least 10 days. So, let it sit and soak in the back of your mind, as you go about the rest of your work, because your first impression, sometimes, is right, but sometimes it’s not.


What’s going to happen over those 10 days is, you’re going to keep going back to something. Something is going to keep bubbling up as you go through your daily work, and the chances are pretty close to 100 percent that that’s the right choice.


Vianne:                That’s cool. I like that.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                I can’t imagine your clients being okay waiting for 10 days. You probably have to get them disciplined to sit and soak it in for a while, right?


J:                           Yeah. Kind of. It’s something that we tell them very early on. Like, “This is the process we follow,” and we tell them why we do that, and once we explain the methodology to them, they’re still not really…most people want things fast.


Vianne:                Especially today.


J:                           So, just sitting around feels like it’s not working, but once they’ve been through that process, they thank us every single time.


Vianne:                Did you come up with the soak?


J:                           I don’t know that I came up with it. I first heard of it…there was a guy named Michael [phonetic][07:01] Laub, who was an engineering director at Apple I met many, many years ago. He introduced me to the concept of the soak, but he applied it in a different way. We’ve started applying it to creative work, and it’s just turn out to work really well.


Vianne:                I love it. That’s really cool.


Sarah:                  That’s awesome.


Vianne:                Yeah.


Sarah:                  I feel like you probably have to train your clients pretty well on being intentional. During that time, what should you be thinking about? What should sort of be rising above? I should probably be exercising that in some way.


Vianne:                I feel like I have the fast brain, because I don’t do my thinking in the shower. I must not have that slow brain. That’s not where mine comes to me.


J:                           I wrote a post — I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago — called “Monotony Breeds Creativity.” You can find it on my website. It’s basically that the less you charge your fast-thinking brain with doing, the more that you can outsource to repetition, or to monotony, the more it frees up the creativity. The more you can kind of shovel or push some of those processes down to your slow-thinking brain, it takes longer to process, but it does a better job processing them.


Vianne:                It’s great having you in here. This is why we have people like you in here. This is really good stuff.


Sarah:                  I feel like I’m having a therapy session.


Vianne:                Yeah. Good stuff. Yeah.


Sarah:                  Clearly, you’re full of great ideas. I’m a personal, major J follower on Twitter, but you probably don’t base your suggestions just based on the work and the experiences that you’ve had, and your own opinions. So, Nine Labs uses a method called psychology-driven design, and I’d love it if you could explain to everybody what that means.


J:                           Sure. When we think about someone trying to accomplish a task, they have a motivation to accomplish it. People don’t just do things, necessarily, because they see something that needs to get done, and they do it. They have to have some motivation.


What we try to understand first is, what is their motivation for trying to accomplish that thing, whatever it might be? It could be balancing a checkbook. It could be buying some shoes. It could be any number of things.


Let’s take buying shoes for an example. You’ve got some old shoes, and you want some new shoes, or you’re going to start doing some activity, and you need some running shoes, or tennis shoes, or whatever.


So, the first thing you do is, you go and search for some shoes that might be good. Well, is that really the first thing that you do, or do you ask some of your friends? “Hey, what kind of shoes do you have?” Do you hop onto social media and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about taking up running. What kind of shoes would be good?”


You start looking for recommendations before you ever hit a search engine. So, we need to understand what people are thinking at the point that they’re in a process. What mindset do they have? What are their motivations? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What have they heard from other people?


We use a tool called an empathy map to do that. That helps us understand much more about what their particular — not just demographics, but psychographics are around their purchasing decisions. Do they buy things based on emotion? Do they buy things based on fact? Do they buy things based on some combination? Are they a deal-seeker? Are they looking for quality? What are the things that motivate this person to make that decision? Then we create an experience that supports that decision, and work in conjunction with that decision-making process.


As we go through the process of creating a product, we have to look at what their behavioral patterns are, we have to look at how they’re going to gauge success — what does success look like for them? What does failure look like for them? Then we can start building a product around what is going to satisfy their outcome.


Sarah:                  Right. Yeah. I feel like that is a process that could be applied to any sort of design. You know, when you’re planning a team, when you’re planning the services that you provide, and things like that. That sort of psychology-driven way of thinking, versus imposing things on somebody, or, obviously, making assumptions.


J:                           Yeah. It’s really easy, especially in software and apps, and all the digital stuff that we make — it’s really easy to get focused on an output.


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                    “This is the UI. This is the look. This is the product that gets shipped.” What we should be thinking about is the outcome. What is this going to help somebody do? It’s great that we made this app that you can download on whatever phone you’re using, and you can buy shoes with it, but is it actually satisfying the users’ goals? Do they enjoy using it?


Sarah:                  Yeah. It’s an argument, too — I remember when there was the big transition between paper — you know, print items going digital. You saw a lot of websites that were designed — they had splash pages and things like that, that were very editorial, but it wasn’t actually appropriate for Web, and sort of thinking about, “Okay, the user is actually in an entirely different headspace when they’re [crosstalk][11:57] interacting with this.”


J:                           Exactly.


Sarah:                  It’s just kind of fascinating, and very apparent when somebody has just designed print for Web, or…


J:                           Yeah. Super obvious, and you’re not thinking about — not just the person, and who they are, and what their mental state is, but what’s their environment like? I’ve been in New York, and seen people shopping Zappos on the subway. Who knows what that experience is going to be unless you’ve thought about it and planned for it?


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           Right. Intermittent Internet activity, [crosstalk][12:27] maintaining state across multiple IP addresses — there’s all kinds of technical things that go into how you make an experience seamless for somebody who’s just trying to buy shoes on their way to work.


Sarah:                  What are the distractions…right. Yeah. I love that.


Vianne:                I’ve done that. I was so proud of myself the first time I did it. A new pair of shoes arrived, and my husband and son said, “When did you get those?” and I said, “When I was sitting in the back seat of the car, riding.” It was the first time I’d ever done that. I was pretty proud of myself.


J:                           As people become more mobile, more and more things are being shifted to places that are not traditional. You’re not just sitting behind a desk doing stuff anymore. I answer most of my email when I’m in the back of a car, or when I’m on a plane, or when I’m doing something else. I’m not just sitting own and focusing on one thing as often as we used to do, because we’re having to be all over the place.


Like today, I’ve got six appointments in six different parts of town, and I still have to accomplish all my daily tasks. It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a lot of talking to Siri. It’s a lot of those kinds of things that don’t fall into the way that we used to think about building apps and services.


Sarah:                  Right.


Vianne:                So true.


Sarah:                  Yeah, and that [crosstalk][13:35] one more port — yeah.


Vianne:                No wonder why we look like we’re always ADD.


Sarah:                  Exactly. Yeah, I’m a chronic hall-walker. I’ve got my phone, and everybody’s always like, “Sarah, you’re going to bump into something. Sarah, you’re going to bump into something.” I’m like, “No, I’ve got this. I do this all the time.”


I notice — my Outlook app on my phone recently did a whole redesign, and now they have the email reply at the bottom, exactly like a text message. I was totally blown away, and I didn’t realize how — I’m responding to emails faster now, because it feels much more like [crosstalk][14:06] text message.


J:                           It’s more fluid.


Sarah:                  It’s more fluid. I don’t have to open a new message – like “compose new”. It’s always there. That’s one of those “aha” moments that just kind of ties you back to, “What is this person’s environment? Where are they truly using this?”


J:                           Exactly. What’d be interesting to see is, go back and look at the actual composition of the messages you sent with that other interface. Bet you’re going to send more casual messages.


Sarah:                  Yeah. Exactly.


J:                           It’s a more casual [crosstalk][14:32] interface.


Sarah:                  Yeah. Exactly.


J:                           So, that —


Sarah:                  As a chronic procrastinator, it’s much better for me to just send that quick, casual message, [crosstalk][14:39] than to over-think it, you know?


J:                           Sure. Yeah.



Sarah:                  Yeah. It’s been great. So, I want to talk about brand a little bit — how companies come up with their own brand identities, and things like that. It’s always fascinating to me. There are entire companies dedicated to creating and perfecting a company’s brand, and kind of end there, in many ways.


I think it’s safe to say — especially, your United example — brand maybe is everything. I’m curious what your perspective is. Is there more to it than the brand? Is, you know, brand sort of the heaviest weight of a company’s success? Can you kind of talk about that?


J:                    Yeah. So, like I said earlier, a brand is really just kind of this ephemeral thing. It’s the intersection of what companies do, and how people feel about it. Enron was great. People loved Enron, until Enron sucked, and now nobody likes Enron, right?


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                    United could be a fantastic airline. Comcast could be a great cable provider, but they have to deliver something that people want first, right? Then, the public’s perception of that has to change. So, the customers actually control a brand more than the company does.


No amount of advertising or marketing is going to convince you that Comcast is great. They spend a lot of money on advertising, and their advertising’s really slick. Their marketing is really good. I look and it and I think, “Hunh, maybe I should get cable again,” and then I remember how crappy their service was, and I don’t do it.


Sarah:                  Yeah. Yeah.


J:                           No amount of any kind of message that comes from a company can overcome the public’s perception of what that company does, and how well they do it, and how well they take care of their customers. One of the things that we think about when we are talking about brand positioning is making sure that we’re satisfying the right set of needs for the right set of customers. You don’t have to be everything to everybody. You don’t have to be the best brand in the world for every person in the world. That’s unachievable.


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           You do have to connect with the customers that you are serving in a way that’s meaningful and durable. The best way to do that — I mean, sure, you can have a marketing message, or you can send emails talking about how good you are, but the best way to do it is actually to deliver a product people want to use.


Sarah:                  Right. Yeah. Over and over again I hear — like, the whole Amazon thing is all about their customer service. I know I can return this thing if I really have to. If I tell them I didn’t get my package, they’re going to trust me, and they’re just going to [crosstalk][17:13] immediately send something else, no questions asked.


J:                           Yeah. Take care of it. Yeah.


Sarah:                  That goes a long way.


Vianne:                I guess as we think, over time, along that vein, a little bit different. So, is there a strategy for making sure that your brand, and the design, are keeping up with your company over time, and as the company grows and changes? Is there a strategy for that?


J:                           There kind of is. It’s a little bit more organic than you might think. You kind of feel when a brand needs a visual refresh, or when a brand needs a visioning update. A lot of times, that can be PR-driven. So, there’s been some event that happened, and the brand wants to take advantage of that, or the brand wants to diminish that in some way. That’s where marketing and advertising really come in, to help spread a message, but the spreading of a message only does so much if the product isn’t good.


I prefer to tell people that they need to continually think about making sure that their product is good, making sure that they’re delivering good service to their customers, making sure that they know who their customers are, and that they’re listening to them. If you do that, your brand will evolve with your customers over time.


You can change your identity. You can change logos and colors and typefaces and all of those things, and you’ll start to feel that need for a shift as that evolution takes place.


Think about personal style. Everybody in the room here has had a different personal style at different stages of their life. At some point, you know, I used to be punk rock with a mohawk. I’m not doing that anymore. It doesn’t [crosstalk][18:48] work for me anymore.


Vianne:                Tall bangs with shoulder pads.


Sarah:                  Oh, man.


J:                           We all had a thing that we did when we were younger, and our personality was a little bit different, but as we have matured, and as our personalities have changed, our personal style has changed with it, and it hasn’t been like a binary switch from A to B. It’s been an evolution, and brand evolution is kind of the same way.


Sarah:                  Yeah. I assume it’s an exercise in always listening, always paying attention, not [crosstalk][19:14] making assumptions about those things.


J:                    Absolutely. Yeah. Assumptions are the most dangerous thing you can have in a business.



Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                That advice is no different than what we should have been doing 10 years ago, so that real basis is something that we always should be doing.


J:                           Yeah.


Vianne:            You just layer the brand and the awareness behind it. Be listening to your customers, make sure that you’re deliver. It’s the same tried-and-true advice that we should have all been listening to 20 years ago.


J:                           Yeah. Exactly, but people over-think it.


Vianne:                Yeah.


J:                    They think that now because we have Facebook, we can be more clever, and that’s just not true.


Vianne:                I guess that’s my point. Yeah. Yeah. It’s not like this magic thing that happens now. It’s really the same thing that we’ve all been doing for 20 years, 40 years, whatever.


J:                           These are fundamental truths.


Vianne:                Yeah.


J:                    Yeah.


Vianne:                Yeah.


Sarah:             Yeah.


Vianne:                Good.


Sarah:             So, the aesthetics of a website or application — the fonts, colors, layout, those visual assets that you choose — it’s kind of the fun part, and the part that catches your eye when you first arrive. I feel like it’s what makes a lot of websites memorable, and a lot of people really rely on that entirely. So, I’m curious to know if you think consumers are willing to overlook subpar usability for the sake of really great design, or if that design is spectacular.


J:                           Maybe in the short-term. So, if you’ve got something [crosstalk][20:25] that looks fantastic, but it doesn’t work, they’re going to figure out that it doesn’t work pretty quickly.


Sarah:             It will get them there. Yeah.





J:                    You could have – I think we’ve all probably worked with people that had a fantastic resume, they had a fantastic interview, and then they start actually doing the job, and they can’t do the job.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           That person does not last very long.


Sarah:                  Right. Yeah.


Vianne:                [joking][chuckling]We’re all mouthing, “That never happens,” right?


Sarah:                  [joking][chuckling] I have no idea what you’re saying.


J:                           The same thing is true for a website. You could go to a website, and it could be beautiful, but if it doesn’t help you get your task done — if it doesn’t help you do what you’re there to do — you’re probably not going to go back.


Sarah:             Right.


J:                           The opposite end of that spectrum — and this example’s been badgered for two decades now — is Craiglist. It’s [crosstalk][21:07] ugly, but people [crosstalk][21:08] still use it, because it gets jobs done, right?


Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                But they still like it. Yeah.


Sarah:                  Yeah. Honestly, the two that came to mind, for me, are Craigslist and Snapchat. I still can’t get it, because it’s so hard for me to use.


J:                           It’s very gesture-driven, right?


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           That interface was designed for a certain type of person, who was really gesture-centric.


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           So, it’s fine. I mean, it gets the job done, but it gets the job done for a certain demographic.


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           It doesn’t get the job done for everybody. Many people prefer other networks. That’s not necessarily a visual-design thing. Snapchat’s visual design is fine.


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           Facebook’s visual design is fine. The way that they’ve been used, and the way that they’ve been implemented — the experience of how you use those different apps is different, and is targeted at different people, who are trying to accomplish different things.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                    That’s why you see that difference.


Sarah:                  Right. I do think — and you know, I was kind of thinking about that, and I do think that sometimes if your brand precedes whatever that usability is, that it can kind of get you over that hump. I remember when the New York Times started putting content online and stuff, it felt like a newspaper, and it was really hard to find the articles that you want to read. You know, I mean,  it looked like looking at a newspaper, [crosstalk][22:18] but on a much smaller screen.


J:                           But the content was good.


Sarah:                  Exactly.


J:                           Right.


Sarah:                  You had the brand, and you had the identity that you already relied on, and you just kind of keep using it until…then you cross your fingers that somebody’s going to realize, “This needs a redesign,” or whatever.


J:                           Yeah.


Sarah:                  [crosstalk][22:31] It’s the same exact content, [muffled/inaudible][22:31].


J:                    It’s kind of an interesting exercise. You know, you already have brand trust in the Times, because they’ve been producing great content for years. The experience of using the website was substandard, but maybe it was fine for the time, but not as good as it could have been, but the content they were delivering was still good. You were still getting value, even though it was a little bit of effort.


Sarah:             Right.


J:                    That takes me back to this little diagram we use called the risk-reward matrix, which is essentially looking at how difficult a task is to accomplish, versus the value you get from accomplishing that task. It’s a quadrant chart. So, if something is easy to accomplish, but it provides low value, it’s not very memorable. If something is difficult to accomplish and provides low value, you won’t go back. [crosstalk][23:24] That’s usually not going to happen.


Vianne:                It’s memorable, but terrible.


J:                    You’re not going to use it again.


Vianne:                Yeah.


J:                           If something provides a lot of value, and it’s easy to use, then people are going to really like it. The interesting quadrant is that upper-right one, where you provide a lot of value, but it’s also a little bit difficult to use. If something provides a lot of value, and the user goes through doing that, they can feel a sense of accomplishment. Think about going to college and achieving a degree. That was not easy, but now you have it, right?


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           If you went so far as to get a doctorate, you probably put that Ph.D at the end of your name, because you’re proud of that. It was really hard, but it provides a lot of value. So, if you can get into that quadrant, where you are helping people feel like they have a sense of accomplishment — they’ve accomplished a task, they’ve achieved something — and you’re giving a lot of value for that, that’s a really, really powerful piece.


Sarah:                  Yeah. That makes sense. We do similar at our software-grooming, when you’re sort of prioritizing features and things like that. It’s that sort of agile process of figuring how, “How valuable is this?” and, “How much effort is it going to take?”


J:                           Yeah. Things like discoverability, adaptive interfaces — so that maybe things change as the person evolves through their knowledge and sophistication of using that interface — those types of things are interesting mechanisms to use, because that’s a lot of what the power of Snapchat is. You discover this new feature that you didn’t know was there, and you’re like, “Oh, wow. Check out this thing that I found.” You didn’t find that. Somebody, a year ago, put that in the software intentionally so that you would have this discovery moment, and you would build affinity towards the tool.


Sarah:             Yeah. Yeah.


Vianne:                Speaking about investing time and things, kind of shifting a little bit here…obviously, a lot of time, money and thought go into creating an identity for a company as they work through that design and branding process, right? I’m curious if you see companies spending too much time anywhere along the line in that process. Do you ever see that happen?


J:                           Yeah.


Vianne:                Are there any strategies that just don’t work?




J:                           Particularly with early-stage companies, one of the biggest mistakes I see is, they go out and they get a logo and a name right away, before they even have a product. I’ve seen a few companies where they had a product, and they didn’t have a name, and it was really easy to find that fit, because, “Oh, this does this thing for this group of people,” and some phrases and terminology starts just coming out of that conversation.


When they have a logo and a name, and they’re the CEO of this new startup that doesn’t have anything but an idea yet, I’ve seen it happen where, as they develop the idea, the name that they chose is actually a terrible name, but they spent all this time creating this [crosstalk][26:07]  identity around it.


Vianne:                I see that all the time. Right.


J:                           I tell people, “Don’t worry about that. We’ve got this six-step process, or six-phase process, and naming and branding is phase five of the six.” The first phases are customer discovery and solution validation, and making sure that you’re actually building the right thing for the right people in the right way. Then worry about what you’re going to call it.


Vianne:                I’m sitting here dying to say, “I’d love to do a hands-on case study exercise. Let’s talk about SolTech.”


Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                [chuckling] I’d love to hear what J has to say, but let’s not do that live. I might not like the answer.


J:                           We can talk about that once we’re off-air.


Vianne:                It would be fun, though. We should have done that.


Sarah:                  That would be so fun.


Vianne:                Yeah. We should have taken a few and said, “Okay, let’s go through this process. What do you think of this name for what we do?”


Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                That’d be kind of fun.


Sarah:                  So, design is expensive — or can be, certainly — and not all companies, especially small companies or non-profits, can afford to hire a big design firm to assist them. Maybe they kind of have to piece things together. What other options would you share, that folks like that have, if they’re looking to create an identity for their company — you know, maybe a little bit more of a grass-roots effort?




J:                           Sure. There’s lots of low-cost options out there. If you just need a logo, like I mentioned, there’s places where you can buy a logo for $99. You can go on a [crosstalk][27:29] handful —


Vianne:                Are there statistics on how many of those logos stick? Do you know?


J:                           I don’t know.


Vianne:                If you don’t, that’s fine. I just wonder.


J:                           I don’t know, and I think there’s probably a little bit of a bias, that if you had a logo that came off of one of those $99 sites, and your company ended up being really big, you might not want to tell [crosstalk][27:47] people that you paid $99 for it.


Vianne:                …to tell people you spent $99.


Sarah:             Yeah.


J:                           But then there’s the famous story about — Nike paid $15 for the swish.


Vianne:                That is really cool.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           So, anyway…yeah.


Vianne:                When you reach a certain point, you can start bragging about that.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           Right. So, there’s a variety of ways that you can get assets — deliverables — done cheap. There are people all over the world that will do stuff for not a lot of money. It’s probably not going to be super high-quality, or very durable. You can replace it later. That’s fine, especially if it’s an early-stage company.


There’s other ways that you can get involved with people like me, people like SolTech. We do open office hours. We have a program called Experts on Demand, where you can basically go online and tell us what you need, and we can hook you up with somebody on our team, and you just pay a couple hours at a time.


Sarah:                  What’s with Nine Labs? Cool.


J:                           Yeah. They can just go and book a couple hours at a time. Instead of spending $20,000 to go through some exercise to figure something out, they can spend a couple hundred bucks and get some feedback from somebody that really knows what they’re doing, and then go down the right path again.


Vianne:                Did you offer that out of the gate, or did you come up with that later, after knowing your customers more?


J:                           That is a direct result of customer feedback. We have some clients who clearly have — I mean, they’re Fortune 100 companies — who have plenty of budget, but their problem is that it’s really difficult to get through procurement for something that’s super simple.


Maybe they just want some quick feedback on something. They just want to get somebody’s second opinion. Maybe they just need help answering one question, and it’s something they can expense. They can just put it on an expense card, and get it back later, and it’s really super simple for them to ask us a question, we can give them the answer, and everyone’s better for it.


Vianne:                That’s great. We’ve done something similar here at SolTech. We do solution design, which typically is three to four weeks of effort at, you know, let’s call it $20,000 or whatever. We saw so many prospects coming in that just needed something quick — same thing. They could write a check for a couple thousand, but not something over $10,000.


J:                           Right.


Vianne:                So, we came up with the idea of a “day of design.” Many times, a client simply brings a check or cash — [chuckling] we’ve even had cash come in here — but we’ve done a lot of those. It was really just truly listening to the customer, and starting to look at, “Okay, what can we do for those people that need something quicker and less expensive?” Most of them become clients, and they spend a lot of money later. They just couldn’t do it at the time.


J:                           Exactly.


Vianne:                Maybe [crosstalk][30:15] they needed to take —


Sarah:                  Or don’t know that they have to, you know?


Vianne:                Yeah. Yeah. Maybe they just need something to take to a group of investors, and they need something in their hands. So, we’ll do a little proof-of-concept in a day of design, which is kind of cool.


J:                    Yeah. We do the same kind of thing with wire-framing and prototyping of ideas, and helping people through value-proposition analysis and real fundamental stuff. “Hey, I’ve got this investor meeting, and I need something to show them. I need a quick little wire-frame or prototype. Can you guys help me out?”


We can typically do those, depending on the complexity of the application — if we sit down in a session, we all get together and kind of jam out for a couple of days, we can do those pretty quick and pretty inexpensively. Then they can go and get investment, and then they come back and want to build out the entire application.


Sarah:                  I feel that that’s so good to know, though, because I think that a lot of the gate, the…what is it? The effort of entry, or…I don’t know the…[crosstalk][31:10] I can’t think of the phrase.


Vianne:                The gatekeeper?


Sarah:                  You know, the…


J:                           The barrier of entry?


Sarah:                  The barrier of entry. There it is. The barrier of entry is so high when you think about hiring a firm to build an application. It’s just like, “If I walk through that door, I’m going to have to get this thing build,” you know? I don’t even know — this is coming from me — I don’t know if it’s the right thing, so it’s good to know that you have that sort of piecemeal…


J:                           Yeah. We actually advocate, “Don’t build your first idea.” You’ve got to prototype things first, and take it out — even if it’s just paper prototypes or low-res stuff on an iPad, or whatever. Take it out, and test that with your target market, and make sure you’re building the right thing before you invest a bunch in an application.


Sarah:                  Right — that no one’s going to use, or be frustrated with, or…


J:                           Exactly. We tell a lot of people to think of us as architects, not construction. So, if you go to an architect and you say, “I want to build a custom home,” you don’t expect them just to start work right away, right?


Sarah:                  Right.


J:                           They’re going to go, “Well, where do you want it? How big does it need to be? How many bedrooms do you want? How many floors? Do you need marble floors, or wood floors, or carpet?” There’s all these questions that have to get answered before you can build the right thing, or you can end up with some weird franken-monster house that’s not going to serve anybody. No one’s going to want to live there.


By figuring out what should be built, first, and making sure that that’s what needs to be built by going and talking to actual customers, you’re going to have a much better chance of building something that’s going to be successful, and you’re going to spend less money doing it.


Sarah:             Right.


Vianne:                Most important secret sauce, you know. Many times people — again, it’s kind of like, you just want to get that logo first. You want to see the two-by-fours going up, but you’ve got to do that first phase.



J:                           Yeah. You have to.


Vianne:                Otherwise you’ll build a house that somebody else likes, but not you.


J:                           Right, and if you don’t have the budget to do that, you know, rent a house. There’s ways to do that, where you can basically leverage work that’s already been done to make sure you’re not going to build something that nobody wants.


Vianne:                Yeah.


J:                           On our podcast, I was talking to the Senior VP of Design at Sales Force, and he was saying that internally, one of their mantras is, “The ROI of an app nobody uses is $0.”


Vianne:                Zero.


Sarah:                  That’s good.


J:                           Let’s not build something nobody uses.


Sarah:                  Yeah. That’s great.


Vianne:                You made mention of this, and I know we’ll talk about this later, but don’t let us forget to talk about your podcast at the end of this.


Sarah:                  [crosstalk][33:33] Yes, please don’t let us forget to mention that.


J:                           Yeah. Sure.


Vianne:                Don’t let forget that.


Sarah:                  It’s been so great to catch up with you, and kind of pick your brain on design, and all of the things ya’ll are doing at Nine Labs, but we’re not cutting you loose just yet. This season, we’ve started playing a little game of Two Truths and a Fib. Since you’re in the business of designing websites, we thought we’d tell you about three strange sites we’ve recently found, and you just need to guess which one we made up.


J:                           [chuckling] That’ll be fun.


Vianne:                [crosstalk][34:02] First, I’ll tell you, I guessed wrong when we did this before you showed up.


Sarah:                  Perfect. Yeah.


Vianne:                I’m like, “Okay, I’m wrong.”


Sarah:                  Yeah. I feel we’re always [muffled/inaudible][34:08].


Vianne:                This is a tough one. These are getting tougher as our season goes along.


Sarah:                  Yeah. Alright.


Vianne:                As J is quickly reading. He’s trying to get ahead.


Sarah:                  So, everyone knows the Internet can be a vicious place sometimes, but not at If you’re looking for an emotional pick-me-up, then you’ll be happy to find a continuous stream of strangers giving your computer screen a big old hug.


Vianne:                Door number one.


Sarah:                  Door number one.


J:                           That sounds pretty cool.


Sarah:                  Yeah. I want that. Number two is It’s exactly what it sounds like. In an Instagram-like forum, you’ll find hundreds of side-by-side photos of kitties and their owners, who share an uncanny resemblance to one another.


Vianne:                Okay. Door number two.


Sarah:                  [chuckling] Also want. Alright. Number three. So, you’re hungry, but are you hungry for a corn dog? You could be, if you head over to To get your mouth watering, you could stare at two beautifully-fried corn dogs and a smattering of mustard, while listening to 8-bit funk music.


J:                           If that’s not true, I want that to exist, just because of 8-bit funk music.


Sarah:                  [chuckling] Exactly, which clearly pairs well with corn dogs.


J:                           Of course. It pairs well will everything.


Sarah:             Alright. What do you think, J? Which one do you think is a fib?


J:                    I’m going to go with the


Sarah:                  How did you know?


J:                           I’ve seen it.


Sarah:                  [chuckling] Oh. Alright.


J:                           I’m not sure that I — I didn’t see that website, but I saw something that could easily have been that website.



Sarah:                  Been something similar?


J:                           Yeah.


Sarah:                  Yeah. There is some serious cat fandom out in the world. I don’t know if you guys have seen the Jabba Cats Cafe?


J:                           I have not seen that.


Sarah:                  It’s a coffee shop on [phonetic][35:55] Memorial in Grant Park, that has cats all over the place. You just get to go and have coffee, and hang with a bunch of kitty cats.


J:                           I did hear about that. Yeah. I thought that was like an Onion article. I didn’t know that’s a real thing.


Sarah:                  Right. No, that’s real.


J:                           Yeah.


Sarah:                  Exactly.


Vianne:                That’s wild.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


Vianne:                Alright. Well, this has been a lot of fun, guys. I appreciate it. Alright, J. Thanks for coming in. Let’s go back to that — you’ve got a podcast, we learned today. So what is [crosstalk][36:22] what is that?


J:                           I do.


Vianne:                Tell us all about that.


J:                           It’s the Design-Driven Podcast. It’s all about how using design in all the processes that we just talked about here today lead to building great companies and great products. It’s at


Vianne:                Excellent. I love that. So, tell us, now, more about Nine Labs. How can folks find you there if they’re looking for some creative work, a new brand, [crosstalk][36:44] and they want to do it right, how do they get ahold of you and learn more about ya’ll’s business?


J:                           Sure. The easiest place to find us is N-I-N-E Labs dot com. We’re on all the social stuff, so if you’re into that, you can find us there. If you want to find me personally, it’s at The easiest thing to do is probably look me up on Twitter — just JC.


Vianne:                JC?



J:                           Yeah.


Vianne:                Lucky you. That’s good.


Sarah:                  That’s awesome.


Vianne:                Alright. The last thing I’m going to ask — if creative people are looking for a place to hang in Atlanta, with like-minded people, where do ya’ll hang?


J:                           There’s a few places. We actually just opened up a hot desk in our office, so we can have — if you are into any of the kind of the stuff, the work that we do, and you want to come by and just hang out, and work alongside us for a day or two, you can totally do that. There’s not a formal way to request the desk yet, because it was just launched Monday.


Vianne:                Cool.


J:                           So, there’s that.


Vianne:                You’re constantly innovating over there.


J:                           Well, I mean, it’s just…


Vianne:                Well, we are talking innovation this season.


J:                           Yes. We just like to expose ourselves to ideas, and so the more diverse group of people we can have around, the better.


Sarah:                  Yeah.


J:                           So, what better way to do that than just have a lot of different people come through the office and hang out with us? We want to give that a shot.


There’s a number of different ways that we get together. We’ve got the Atlanta Web Design Group that we have meet-ups for. We are starting up some very role-specific meet-ups. There’s an agency-owners meet-up that you need to come to. There’s a creative-director, a product-manager — all those different kinds of roles are going to have different meet-ups and things, where you can just talk about what’s happening in your world, and how you’re dealing with daily work.


We are planning another conference for 2018, so that’ll be a good spot to get together. There’s all kinds of stuff happening.


Vianne:                Excellent information. Thanks for being generous with all that. Thanks for all you’re doing in our community, and sharing today. I’ve learned a lot.


Sarah:             [crosstalk][38:41] Yeah.



J:                           Likewise. Thanks for having me.


Vianne:                It was a lot of fun. Thanks so much.



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