An interview with Tom Lloyd: On starting an agency

I had the pleasure of chatting to Tom Lloyd, Co-founder & Creative Director of Bluegg, a web & branding agency based in Cardiff. We dig into how he started Bluegg, hiring their first employee, personality and company culture, and more.

I hope you enjoy it!

MJ: Hey Tom, thanks for taking the time to chat today.
TL: No problem, thanks for having me!

To get started, can you tell us a bit about your origin story? What was your path to starting Bluegg?
I went to an old fashioned art college after doing my GCSE’s. I did a GNVQ in Graphic Communication which touched on all types of design like print and branding. I was more interested in digital design – Flash in particular was massive at the time.

I freelanced throughout the second and third year of my degree. I mainly worked on branding and print projects and some little web projects for friends, family, or anyone who wanted any sort of design.

In my class was Mike, who ended up becoming my business partner. He went off to London straight after University. He didn’t have any luck finding a job. I was also sending my CV off and doing interviews but at the time it was really hard to get a design job. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities around. After about 6 months of job searching, Mike rang me up asked if I wanted to start our own thing.

And that was the start of Bluegg?
Yep. Neither of us had managed to land a job. I only had the freelance work I had done as experience. Mike, who took over the business development side of things, only had experience working at Calvin Klein and Comet. That was our total experience of work life.

Do you think your lack of experience helped shape the way you did things?
Yeah, it certainly helped shape Bluegg. We weren’t tainted by anything we learnt before hand. We’ve had to make all our own mistakes and we’ve made loads and loads of mistakes throughout the years. I definitely think that has been a big factor in how things turned out.

Why did you decide to go into business with a partner?
When we were in Uni, Mike managed to talk his way into really good grades. He was an ideas guy, perhaps not the greatest designer (and he’d be the first one to admit it), but he’d be able to explain the concept brilliantly and sell it. Where as I wasn’t great at presenting work but it was good enough that I didn’t really have to. The lecturers would say to us: “Tom, you should definitely go into the design side of anything that you do and Mike, you’d be really good at selling it”. So it made sense that Mike would be the right person.

I’m not sure how I would have done just on my own. I would have stayed freelancing, unless I had got a job, and I don’t know whether I would have had the the ambition on my own to grow it. Taking on that first member of staff would have been a much more daunting thing to do. With another person there was always someone to bounce ideas off. It meant we didn’t make stupid decisions. It was by far the best decision I had made at that point.

What was the most difficult thing about starting Bluegg?
Getting work was tough. We were actually really fortunate because we picked up a few pieces of work from colleagues and friends which quickly led to other work. On the first day, we got the phone book and Mike started ringing random companies. Once we had a few clients on board, that made it a lot easier because they had connections and word got around. Our first couple of jobs came from London, Sweden, Portugal and Belgium and it just went from one job to another.

Paying ourselves was also tough for the first 6-12 months. We kept our costs to virtually nothing. We worked from my parents house in a little room. We had our Macs from Uni so we had everything we needed. We didn’t spend a lot as neither of us had houses or mortgages or kids or wives and that sort of stuff. We lived on £250/month for a few months. That was tricky.

“I like bringing in disruptive people. I don’t want people that just fit snuggly in and don’t shake the place up.”

Did you ever think about quitting and getting a job at that stage?
I can’t remember really ever thinking that we should pack it in or that it wouldn’t work. We were pretty much out of options at that point, though, as we’d already tried to find jobs. We were enjoying working together. Being able to go into the garden and play frisbee in the summer was great. I remember thinking this is cool; it’s not work, we’re just having fun.

After about 6 months, one of Mike’s friends said they had some office space which we rented for a cheap rate. That was a big moment. Now we had an office of our own, a place to go to work and we could make it a bit more formal. That was good timing. We wanted to decorate the office and put furniture in there, so that was a motivator to make more money.

How long was it before Bluegg hired their first employee?
It was about 10 months. We did 6 months in Mum and Dad’s house and then a few months in our Newport office before we started to realise that – well – I wasn’t very good at building websites. We got by from what I had learnt at Uni and hacking stuff together. I was only doing very basic frontend stuff. I needed someone to take over the web side so we could build more complicated sites. We also had a lot of design work coming our way. We knew we needed at least one person, if not two.

We still didn’t have enough money and we couldn’t turn work around fast enough to afford to save enough to get someone in and make sure we could pay them for a while. It was tricky but as soon as we had those people in we knew we’d earn more money because we could do more work and take on bigger projects.

I was still supplementing my income. I started doing 1 day a week doing software lecturing where I was going into University and teaching students Photoshop and Illustrator. I was doing that for 5 hours, 1 day a week just to give myself a little bit of stability. Which was a good idea, looking back.

I met one of the students who I was teaching. It was obvious these are the guys we needed to be speaking to. One guy joined us and basically came on as an intern or whatever you want to call it these days. He came in on a small amount of money to begin with. We had a friend who was the year above us in University – he’d done well, got a first class honours degree, he’d gone off and was doing development. He didn’t like his job. We offered him a job, even though we wasn’t able to pay him much, and lucky enough he accepted. And he’s still here (12 years later).

They came on for a couple of months, helped us turn around a load of work, which then meant we were able to start paying them more.

You’re up to 9 staff now. Are you happy at that size or do you plan to grow?
Yeah, we’re happy at that size. We’ve said for a while that less than 10 is a nice number for us to cope with without needing additional management to start managing teams. Between 10-15 is perhaps our upper limit.

We’ve grown incredibly slowly over the last 13 years or so. We typically hang on until there’s basically 2 people in the studio doing the work of 3 people. Once we see there’s enough work to bring on another person, we’ll do it. We’ve always been very cautious about bringing people in. The thought of having to fire someone or let someone go because we haven’t got enough work for them is terrifying. I’d hate that. So we’ve always hung on much longer than perhaps we should have. I’d rather do that than have the shame of saying ‘Sorry, we hired you too early and we haven’t got enough work.’

What do you look for when you hire people?
It depends on the position. Experience is key if we’re looking for someone in a senior role. Looking at what they’ve done and how they’ve built up a portfolio and what they’ve got out there.

Culture fit is an important part of it. We like bringing in people who compliment each other. We don’t want to have a studio full of loud shouty fun-loving people because the whole place would be a bit of chaotic mess. We’ve purposely brought in people we think will fit culturally but maybe they’re on the quieter side or perhaps they’re a bit more sensible.

I like bringing in disruptive people. I don’t want people that just fit snuggly in and don’t shake the place up. I’d much prefer people to come in and say ‘you’re doing it all wrong, why don’t you try this’. If someone comes in and says there is a better way to do something, I want to hear it. Staff tend to stay with us for a long time so you get used to things and you get into your patterns and systems so when someone comes in and shakes it up a bit, it invigorates everyone. Everyone gets excited and then everyone brings new ideas to the table as well.

When I think of Bluegg, I think of the personality that you pack into your work (the about page and 404 page are great examples). How do you think that has impacted business? Do you think that has attracted or repelled some clients?
I think it does both. I can’t remember at what point we realised it would be a good selling point but for a while we became known as an agency that could inject personality into a brand or into a business corporate image.

We used to work with corporate clients, accountants, solicitors, really blue tie stuff, and a lot of the companies would say we need a new logo or a new brochure or whatever. So we’d say we can either do something that fits in with your industry, or we can try and make you stand out. If you ask a client that, the client will always say they want to stand out. No one wants to blend in. Often the best way to make them stand out was to add some personality into the work and into their messaging. And quite often, even though they’re corporate businesses, the people behind them are good fun and like a joke. So we’d say if that is you guys, why don’t you try and portray that more and soften the image?

We got known locally that if you want a bit of personality in your work, go speak to Bluegg. Which was great. That was a combination of us wanting to make our clients stand out but also the fact that we practiced what we preached and tried to do that for ourselves. That was just a natural thing for us, to make ourselves look different and do exactly what we were doing for our clients. We wanted to be open about the fun we were having and not try to make us look like some serious corporate design agency that doesn’t have a soul or personality.

We’ve probably been more honest as the years have gone on and opened ourselves up more and more. We have a page on our website dedicated to doodles. We’ve probably had that for 8 or 9 years. No one would put a page of doodles on their site back then. We often have people ring us up and say they’ve been looking at our website – to which you hope they say ‘we love your work!’ – but they often say ‘we love your doodles!’ Everyone comments on the doodles.

We tend to attract clients that who are looking to be challenged. We’re unlikely to get someone who is a complete dictator because they can see that we like to inject personality and fun into our work. That’s only good thing for us. We don’t really want to work with clients who are super controlling and very prescriptive. We want to work with clients who are open minded and want to hear different options and different ways of doing things. A lot of massive companies are very prescriptive with what they want. We’ve worked with a couple of big companies and they all have guidelines: tone of voice, brand guidelines, etc. That limits the creativity that we can put into stuff. We pretty much came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t get to work with those really big companies but that’s fine with us. We’re very happy working with companies who want to work with us.

Do you tend not to work with larger clients who already have brand guidelines then?
We’ve got a couple of clients who are quite big, a couple of billion dollar companies, but we tend to work with quite small teams within those companies. A really big company like that will have lots of marketing departments and work with lots of agencies. Those clients only tend to come to us when they want to push their brand guidelines more than they normally want to. They’ve got us on a special list of a) we’re a bit more expensive and b) we’ll push us them more than they normally go.

“You can’t create culture. Culture creates itself. It just appears from the accumulative environment that everyone works in.”

It seems that being fun and being open about who you are is part of Bluegg’s culture too. Is that something you try to actively encourage?
As far as culture goes, we do try and build a fun environment in the studio. We try to encourage people to have breaks, relax, and go and sit on the sofa. We don’t have an overly pressured environment. We don’t set ourselves crazy deadlines or give huge work pressure to the guys because we just feel like that’s not us. Mike and I never put ourselves under a huge amount of pressure to turn out work at a really fast rate or to work to deadlines that are unrealistic. That’s a really important part of our culture.

When we first started out, one bit of advice we regularly got from lecturers and business advisors was “if you’re gonna make a go of this, you’re gonna have to work until 2-3 in the morning and turn out a huge amount of work”. And we were like no way, we’re not doing that. We work 8.30-5 and that’s it. That’s pretty much a rule for the studio. The guys tend to go straight away and very rarely do we have to hang on and work after hours. That all adds up to the culture.

We try and go out and have dinner or drinks whenever we can. We try to go to conferences and different designery events as much we can which is great as Cardiff is starting to offer some really great meetups and events. We’re always looking for stuff to do with a design background, like last year we did a letterpress workshop in Bristol which was great fun.

I think culture stems from the top. I’ve seen places where the management want to have a certain culture but because that’s not who they are, it doesn’t work. It’s great that you and Mike have fun, are laid back, and are comfortable about that. I think that trickles through.
You can’t create culture. Culture creates itself. It just appears from the accumulative environment that everyone works in. I do agree that it comes from top down but when you hire people, you look for a fit. I know when Mike and I aren’t in the office, the culture doesn’t change.

Like you said, personality sells. I think there are people out there who are scared to put personality into their work, or perhaps scared to reveal themselves to the world. What advice would you give to freelancers or agencies that want to better show off their personality?
The biggest thing is to be honest and authentic. There’s nothing worse than a company that pretends to be a fun company when they’re not. It also needs to come through every part of an experience – everything from what the office looks like, to how they sound on the phone, or how they write on email or communicate on social media. It’s got to be consistent in how that personality comes across.

I also don’t recommend anyone try and copy someone else’s personality. When Innocent launched with their huge personality, I remember at the time clients were saying ‘look what these guys are doing, we want to sound like that’. But they might be completely the wrong type of company to do that. They were blinded by the praise that Innocent were getting at the time.

When we work with companies on branding projects, we spend time trying to work out what their personality is. It’s so important that you’re honest with it.

It’s very easy, especially when you’re early in the game, to work with everyone who knocks on your door. How do you vet clients and what does your on-boarding process look like?
I totally understand that people work with anyone in the early days. I wouldn’t say we turned down loads of work at the beginning because we pretty much worked with whoever came to us. There was also a certain type of client we would never go after. We would often just charge more for work we didn’t really want to do.

These days, a lot of our work comes from referrals from clients we’ve worked in the past or it’s repeat work or we receive briefs from clients who have seen us around. We’ll always have a conversation with them on the phone or in-person if possible. We get to know them a little bit to see whether we we’re a good fit for the project or if they’re a good fit for us. The only reason we turn down work these days, unless they’re a complete dick, is if they don’t have any money. We don’t really get contacted by war companies or drug companies, maybe we’d have an issue with those. We don’t have a list of clients that we definitely wouldn’t work with. If they’re nice people, and they have enough money to work on the project, and we like their business, it’s usually straight forward.

Most of the time, we have to put some sort of proposal together. We occasionally get RFPs which is a bit more dry and box ticking, which we hate. We would much rather spend more time with them, get to know them, and then get to know what their problems are and what their overall aims for the project are, and then our proposal can be directed at those problems.

The last part of our on-boarding would be the discovery phase. That is a more in-depth workshop where we establish the aims and goals of the project and the nitty gritty of what they need.

And the discovery phase is billable?

At the end of that discovery phase, they presumably get something they could take to another agency if they wanted?
We give them a list of the deliverables they’ll get at the end of it. We do say that if you want to take our discovery findings to another agency, there’s nothing stopping you.

There’s normally a technical scope outlining the technical necessities for the site. It could also be user journeys and structural stuff like a sitemap. We’ll do a report on what their measures of successes are, who their audience is, what their audience goals are, and what their business goals are. It’s quite a big chunk of work at the beginning but it gives our clients confidence that we’re thorough.

We often get clients that are skeptical about doing it because they see it as a big chunk of money that has no immediate visible outcome other than a load of documents. But later on when talking about the project and making decisions they totally realise that it was valuable. It’s really insightful later.

“We’re trying to get clients away from seeing that websites are finished once they are live.”

How do you price projects? Do you do hourly, daily or weekly or value based pricing?
The bigger the project the wider the scope of pricing. We do a lot of design support services where it’s iterations on websites which could be anything from an hour to a day to a week. We have an hourly rate, which we times by 8 for a day, and that by 5 for a week. We charge hourly technically. We don’t really do value-based charging.

If we get approached by a company that has a much larger budget then we see that as an opportunity to have more time on the project. It might be that a client has twice as much budget as another client that comes to us for a brand or web project. We’ll quite often charge more or work to a bigger budget but that’s because we can put more into it.

We always ask for budgets as quick as possible. Right at the beginning of a project, the first question is do you have a budget? If they won’t give us a budget upfront, which a lot of people don’t – a lot of people think that either if you give them a budget you’ll spend it all or they don’t want to put their cards on table first – if they don’t give us a budget, we’ll give them a guide. We’ll ask them if they are thinking £5-10k, or £10-20k or £20-50k+. That places us in a ball park. Someone who is looking for a £1k job will obviously immediately know where they stand. Those markers usually give us some kind of impression of what they think about those prices.

If we don’t have a budget, we’ll base it on our discovery stage findings. We’ll bring individual members of the team who are going to be working on a project to see how long a piece of work will take. If it’s unknowns, we might need to do research for the estimate. A lot is still guess work, we don’t really know how we are going to build that thing, it might take a week, or it might take 2.

We’ve approached a lot of projects in phases. As soon as phase 1 is done, we’ll look at phase 2. If stuff doesn’t fit into the budget, that’s fine, we’ll just leave it out and do it in phase 2. That has worked well for a lot of our clients. We’re trying to get clients away from seeing that websites are finished once they are live. It’s something we’re really focusing on at the minute.

What tools do you use in your team?
We use Slack for internal communication. We would do a lot emailing to each other so our inbox’s would be full of internal emails. If we weren’t emailing each other, we were tapping each other on the shoulder and asking stuff so Slack has replaced that. Basecamp for clients. Harvest for invoicing, estimates and time tracking. We’re also trying out Forecast by Harvest for scheduling. We use Wunderlist for todo lists. We all have it on our Macs and phones. Every morning we have a morning catch up where we stand around the breakfast bar and the project manager runs through everyone’s tasks for the day. Having Wunderlist is really handy as we can all see each others lists. We use Bugherd for bug tracking.

We’ve also built ourselves an internal tool called Yolk which is kind of like a CRM which acts as a bit of an overview of all these other tools that we use. It gives us a bit of an audit trail when working with clients. We’ve found that the more clients we’ve worked with and the more people in the team, the more we need a way of being to look back and see when key decisions were made if any sticky situations come up.

Any plans to release Yolk?
We are making a service called Blocks, which we announced ages ago and then didn’t do anything with. That is still firmly on the table and we talk about it weekly. It’s just a case of opening enough development time to get it built. Our goal is to eventually replace all those tools that we use with one set of tools that all talk to each other. The biggest pain is that all those tools I just mentioned, you add notes into at some point so you end up adding 5 notes. We feel like there is a better way of doing it.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice when starting Bluegg, what would it be?
Probably to not to be so safe and to take more risks. We’ve never really gambled or taken many risks. We’re quite cautious as people. We’ve always been cautious to grow slowly, cautious not to get ahead of ourselves, cautious not to take on work that was well beyond us.

How do you deal with work/life balance?
I think because it’s been key since the beginning, we’ve got a pretty good balance. We don’t work in the studio past 5pm. Some of the guys in the studio have kids so making sure they are home in time to have dinner and put the kids to bed is really important. Mike and I both have kids so that’s important to us, so it’s only fair that is important to everyone else. That helps. We don’t work weekends and don’t expect anyone else to work weekends too.

Not being unrealistic with deadlines helps too. A lot of people who suffer from burn out maybe suffer it from it because they’re putting themselves under a lot of pressure to get things done and to stick to client deadlines. We’re very open and honest with clients. If a client deadline isn’t realistic and that means it will put us under too much pressure to get it done, we’ll just tell them. That very rarely comes back as a problem. As long as you’re upfront with them, we find most clients are open to you pushing back and making an alternative suggestion.

Are there any books or podcasts you’d recommend?
I don’t really read books, I listen to audiobooks. My commute has decreased lately so I listen to less that I used to. I’ve recently listened to the Becoming Steve Jobs book which was really good, which I enjoyed more than the first one. I listened to the audiobook of Rework by 37signals. Podcast wise, I kind of dip in and out of podcasts, and listen to a podcast for a week and then get bored. One podcast I’ve stuck with for ages was Bootstrapped. Although, honestly, I think that’s part of the burn out thing as well. When people aren’t designing stuff, they’re listening to other people talk about design.

Yeah, that’s me.
I can see why. If you’re constantly listening to other people talk about it, then you’re constantly thinking about it. You don’t get chance to rest.

Agreed. I should take note. What are you currently working on and what are your future plans for Bluegg?
We’re currently working with two guys who were on Masterchef a couple of years ago. They’ve started a chain of takeaways. We’ve been working with them for the last 18 months on their brand identity and interior. That has been great as we’ve been able to be really creative and they’ve allowed us do what we want.

We’ve recently won the project to redesign the Celtic Manor website which is one of the biggest hotels in Wales where the Ryder cup was held. They’ve got a really high profile so it’s good to get involved in that. It’s full of challenges as the website hasn’t been redesigned for a number of years. That’s going to keep us busy over the next few months.

We have an equal split between branding and design for print and web. I’ve considered if we should go fully digital and whether we should become more specialist. When we first started we wanted to do the whole thing and we had good reason to. At the time there were only agencies who really did branding or digital, no one really did both back then. So we wanted to be the one that did. It just feels natural to us to offer the whole package.

Longer term, I’m sure every agency says it but we want to build products. We’ve got loads of ideas. I want to get in the position where we can hire a person or two who would solely work on our own stuff. I think we’re a creative bunch with a lot of experience and I think there’s a few problems we could solve for other people. Long term we want to get some products out there. They’re all based on problems and pains we have ourselves.

Do you ever see yourself doing a 37signals and shifting from client work to just focusing on your own product?
Possibly. I’d feel uncomfortable about shutting down some of the studio which would mean getting rid of people. We’ve got a couple of guys who would love to work on one thing, but we also have a few guys who would hate working on one thing. I think some people like to have their attention on the long game on one thing, and others like to work on something, get it done, and then move onto the next thing.

You can follow Tom on Twitter and be sure to check out the Bluegg doodles.