#IMakeaLiving is a series of free, traveling events powered by FreshBooks that focuses on bringing together an eclectic group of small business owners for a lively, candid, and often hilarious, conversation. In light of the series’ second year, we’re interviewing business-owning designers on how they brought their companies to the next level.
Some businesses start on a whim after days spent dreading a desk job, while others grow organically based on a successful side project. The latter is the case with Few, a design agency co-founded by Arlton Lowry and David Hudson. The pair met in Little Rock, Arkansas during Made by Few, a design conference run by Lowry at the time. After deciding to work on multiple projects together, turning their efforts into a company a couple years later was only natural. Today, Few’s client list includes everything from Ritz Crackers to Wells Fargo, and the 11 team members are spread across almost five different time zones.
Traveling and adjusting to new environments is nothing new to Lowry, so we sat down with him and discussed the realities of managing employees while working remotely and how he’s able to minimize distraction while abroad:
Core77: Can you tell us a little about Few and how you guys came to be?
AL: Few is a design development agency. We mainly focus on building products and on large-scale enterprise websites. We’ve worked with a number of startups but also with large organizations, including Budweiser, Ritz Crackers, 7-Eleven, Nebraska Furniture Mart and Wells Fargo. It kind of runs the gamut. We also build out internal products that we’re really interested in and we really enjoy using. We are heavily focused on community engagement and being active in our own community. Clients come to us looking for solutions around problems or ideas that they want to explore, and we build those out for them.
We started Few in 2014, and this month is actually our four year mark. I started with organizing a conference called Made by Few in 2012. The intention of the conference was encapsulating entrepreneurship, development and inspiration with a heavy focus on design. The conference quickly expanded and gained more attendance, and during one of the events I ended up meeting my co-founder, David Hudson. We hit if off very well and started working on projects together. He helped me out with some of the developments on the Made by Few website, and we really enjoyed working together.
At the time, we were both working for companies outside of the state remotely. I was working for a company out of Denver, and my client that I was focused on was in Vancouver. I was organizing a conference, working full time and teaching web design at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The company David was working for was out of Dallas, and I think the company that he focused on was in Philadelphia or something.
The right opportunity to quit our day jobs and start this company eventually presented itself. We took a big leap doing so because, honestly, our jobs were pretty comfortable. There’s so much you can learn by starting a company, but even through all the ups and downs, here we are, four years in.
What are some examples of more interactive projects you’ve worked on?
We’ve done kiosks for Nebraska Furniture Mart where users can choose the different things they want to fill their living room, kitchen, etc with to see what their space could look like. We also worked with Wells Fargo on an interactive kiosk on the streets of Philadelphia called Smiles Program. If you smiled at the kiosk, it donated a dollar to a local library. It recognized your whole face, and you were able to interact with it—it was like you were floating through a virtual world. I was actually just in Singapore, and while I was there I saw two kiosks of a similar nature. In the future, there’s only going to be more and more of those kinds of interactions when it comes to advertising.
What would you say is the main difference between working with large enterprises versus startups?
There’s definitely a different dynamic at play when you’re working with large organizations versus a startups. There’s a different mindset and different objectives. Sometimes when you’re dealing with startups, there’s a lot more fluidity and flexibility with projects. Typically, with more corporate projects, it’s very rigid—there’s already a process in place and you follow that process. Not to say that there isn’t some kind of flexibility or creativity and decision-making, but it’s more challenging.
With startups, you’re able to mold it a little bit more and really build up the idea, occasionally even from scratch. Sometimes clients come to us not necessarily knowing what they need or what they’re wanting, and we’re able to take those ideas and help them figure out exactly what they want to do. It’s definitely a different process, but no matter who the client is, there’s obviously going to be a strong rapport back and forth.
Since you met your co-founder at your own conference, do you have any advice for interacting and meeting people at large events?
I think the after parties can actually be the most helpful parts of these events. At the parties, you’re able to engage with these entrepreneur and startup individuals face-to-face versus hearing them talk from a distance. Those kind of interactions are pretty important, and you don’t necessarily get them during the day at the actual event.
From what I’ve read, your team is based in different locations all around the world. Can you tell us a little about why travel is so important to you?
Within a month or two, our company will be spread over five different time zones, all over the world. We use contractors and we use other individuals, depending on the project. I’ve been quite a bit of places, but this year, traveling is a passion of mine. I love new cultures, being in new environments and meeting new people. I know this sounds very lovey-dovey, but there’s something beautiful about having all those different backgrounds, all those people from different cultures and ideologies in one place and being able to share ideas and feel like there’s a common thread between us all. Having a connection with people that may not happen otherwise is something I really enjoy about traveling.
How do you manage to run a business where everyone’s working remotely and on their own? Isn’t that overwhelming?
There’s no way you can run a business like this with people in multiple time zones with just a phone call or an email. If it wasn’t for software solutions, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We use different software for everything. Let’s see, we use FreshBooks, Quickbooks, Slack, Gusto and Zoom. These softwares are what allow our company to actually be remote.
Maintaining a connection with your team is important, and you don’t want to lose it. It’s very important for company culture and morale to know the people you work with and have a good understanding of what their interests are, what they’re into and if they are having a bad day. If it wasn’t for the ease and use of this software, we wouldn’t be able to do that.
“We really put emphasis on trying to attract the most talented people possible, no matter where they’re located.”
I was just at this co-working space in Bali, Indonesia called Dojo Bali. It was 24 hours, and there’s no door—it’s completely open, you just walk in. During the day, it’s packed, and there are people there from all over the world. If this software wasn’t available, if people hadn’t created it, then there’s no way this type of work environment would be possible. I think that’s an interesting dynamic for any type of startup or company that does what we do.
It’s also about self-management. I always use the phrase, “I am my own worst boss”. Nobody is going to be harder on me than myself. That goes for being on time for meetings, making sure that the work I produce is in a timely manner and of the highest quality possible and making sure that communication is clear and concise. If you’re unable to manage yourself very well, then you probably shouldn’t do the type of work we do.
What’s your best self-management advice?
Well, I’m in Melbourne, and I’ve never been here before. It’s a cool place, and there are a lot of really cool things I could do for fun. The area I’m staying in has tons of music venues—you wouldn’t believe how many bands are playing here. There are a whole plethora of options. So I have that… and then I have work. Just like anywhere else, if I’m working from home, there has to be a strong balance. I can’t just say, “I’m excited about this show, so I can leave early from work and push off that meeting.”
You need to set boundaries and give yourself a strong understanding of a schedule to stay on. For instance, I’m going to get up and I’m going to start working at 5 am every morning, and I’m going to work at least 8 hours a day until around 2 pm. After 2 pm, I’m free to do whatever I want. That way you have time to be productive. Some people think the work we do can be done any time, anywhere. That’s fine, but if you open the Pandora’s Box of “any time,” then there’s no structure or consistency—it’s just chaos.
It’s interesting to imagine the future of all workplaces being completely remote and the possibilities that could create.
Yeah, and we’re actually trying to push it even more for our employees. We’re a small company, so we really put emphasis on trying to attract the most talented people possible, no matter where they’re located. Designers and developers have a plethora of options—they can go to San Francisco or New York or basically anywhere they want to. They can work at a cool place and have a cool job working for a large company or organization.
So, how do we compete with that as a small company working out of Little Rock, Arkansas? We do so through culture, through our community engagement, and through the ability to work where we want and be very self-managed while doing so. We try to trust people and hire people that can manage themselves really well. That’s how we’re able to achieve this ability to work so remotely. Think about it. You’re talking to somebody from Little Rock, Arkansas that’s in Melbourne, Australia, who’s been around the world and has a company of eleven people all over the place. Isn’t that great?
Interested in listening to more start-up stories? #IMakeaLiving Powered by FreshBooks will be hosting their next event on March 28th in Toronto. Learn more and register here, and in the meantime you can listen to the #IMakeaLiving podcast here.