Digital Design Leader: Peter Kang

by Richard Banfield

Peter Kang is a young-blood with a big vision. He and his partner Sei-Wook Kim have created one of the most talked about interactive agencies in NYC: Barrel. In this interview Peter reveals some of the challenges of growing an agency in a very competitive market and how he manages the day-to-day challenges of leading a growing company.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed


Transcript

Peter: My name is Peter Kang. I’m a principal at Barrel we’re an interactive design agency in New York City.

Richard: Peter, you and I met about a year ago now, and your company has changed and evolved and moved, physically moved recently as well, tell us a little bit about the last couple of years.

Peter: So, we went from- So, two years ago we were about 10 or so people, and we hit a nice growth spurt and ended up almost tripling in size and as a result space constraints happened so we had to move. Now we’ve been in our new space for about over a year now, and also along with that came a lot of changes
internally with culture with the way we communicate as a team, also just in terms of leaders or managers as well. We’ve had to learn so many more things.

Richard: Tell us a little bit about some of the things. What are the biggest challenges going from 10 to 30 people?

Peter: Yeah. I think when we talk about communication, when it was a smaller group it was a lot easier because we were so tight knit and during the course of the day and touch everyone is some way and have a conversation catch up with them know what’s going on. And as we got bigger it is very easy to get caught up with certain projects going or certain types of fires that I need to put out and so it was very easy to not know what was going on or kind of loose the pulse of certain things. So when that started
to happen with us, you know, I would only hear things through back channels and like through after the facts of instances. So it almost felt like I was always put in a defensive and reactive position and it really it was a an awful kind of climate because it was like I come to work and I’m always scared that someone’s having a rough time with a project or someone is unhappy with some decision that we made.

So this is something that, you know, my co-founder and business partner [inaudible 02:24] talked at length about and we were like we need to take management into our own hands and become proactive. We explored different avenues of how we can do this, be more proactive in communicating with the team and we built a few different channels for this. One of them- One of the things that we really take seriously we call it the principal update. So you know-

Richard: The principal?

Peter: The principal update. It’s a weekly e-mail that we send, we take turns sending, and in it, and sometimes these emails go really long, but in it, it just touches upon a specific topic or a major decision that is going to made soon about the company and all the thinking that went into it. just laying it out for the whole team. Like, these are the things that we took into considerations, these are the conversations, this is what we’re hoping to achieve with it and we’re open to any feedback from you guys and also here is a link to our anonymous feedback form too if you don’t feel comfortable.

Richard: So you can get feedback to as well?

Peter: Exactly. We open that up but we’re taking that first stab at being like hey this is what’s going on.

Richard: Instead of being on the back foot.

Peter: Exactly. Because for too long it was like we would make a decision and we would hear a couple of months later “Oh my God I can’t believe they did that, like what were they thinking?” Well, now they know what we’re thinking.

Richard: Yeah.

Peter: That’s helped tremendously and the other thing that’s been tremendously helpful is our one on one lunches. We schedule Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we’re in the office, I take somebody out and Steve would take somebody out and we just have an hour and a half conversation lunch, where in New York a lot of great places to eat so it’s always like people are always excited to go out and try different places too so it’s a good energy and it’s time to really delve into what are you working on, what are things that excite you, what are things that are challenging to you and it unearths a lot of things that we can actually act on. That’s another kind of- It feels great because now we’re the ones kind of constantly seeking the information.

Richard: Yeah. So doing one on one lunches sounds like a really good solution except when you’ve got like maybe 100 employees. Does that mean that you intend staying at about the size you are and maintaining that ritual or do you have other plans.

Peter: Yeah. I mean, I’m never opposed to the idea of growing bigger. I think we’ll make informed decisions when the opportunity presents themselves but, you know, so yeah there’s the whole
scalability element, right. But for now we have with about 20 or so people the two of us taking turns taking 4 people out a week it’s a really nice pace for us.

Richard: Sustainable.

Peter: It is sustainable at the moment. And so I think we understand that things that worked for us at 10 don’t work for us now. Things that might if when we get to be 50 or 75 might not work.

Richard: So there’s no one willing to change [this]?

Peter: No. For us it’s the approach, it’s the idea that let’s open as many different communication channels that we can manage effectively and consistently. So it can’t be a one off thing and
you forget to do it. it’s got to become a habit that we develop.

Richard: Now, during all of this change you personally must have changed?

Peter: Yup.

Richard: Can you open that door to tell us a little bit about how it changed Peter?

Peter: Yeah. So, I started the company really young. I was 23, Sei-Wook was 21. We were headed into our 8th year, so we didn’t know better about a lot of things, you know. In terms of working with each other working with our first employees. Everything started, we were scared. I mean that’s the best way to
put it because we operated a lot from a place of fear where it’s like we’re paying these people to do work for us can we trust that they’re doing it? It’s an awful mentality, sometimes I’m like man I should have at least worked somewhere where I at least learned more but over the years you understand that the best work comes when people feel like they have the room to grow they’re given the support and there’s an environment where they’re not being looked over. There’s no looking over their shoulder but it’s more we trust them they’re going to do their best job. Understanding that took a long time and I think once I got comfortable and I was like things can happen and I’m nowhere near it but I know that I helped to create that environment. That feels like a great personal achievement because for so long I always thought I had to have a hand in it or I had to be the controlling factor.

Richard: Sounds like it’s less stressful as well.

Peter: Definitely less stressful and that’s the thing. Now, when I’m thinking about what is my role as the leader of the company it’s no longer to be in the trenches in design with my team but it’s to design the environment and the kind of systems and processes that will enable them to thrive and flourish.

Richard: So, what’s next for you, personally? What’s the next challenge?

Peter: Yeah, I think for me I really want to share and definitely play a bigger role in our industry and also be able to write down a lot of things that I learned and get it out there.

Richard: Leave a legacy?

Peter: Leave a legacy I suppose. More so what I’ve been doing that I’ve really found to be effective personally for me is no matter what I try to write at 300 words a day of some topic.

Richard: Wow, great discipline.

Peter: I was like I have to do this because I can’t- If I go I’m going to write 5 blog posts by the end of the month it never gets done but if I go if I write just 300 words a day it moves the needle a little bit in the direction and after- So, I’m on like day 60 something right now and I look back and I’m like whoa that’s a lot of words. Most of the times it’s like 600- 700 words. So I’m like I can do 20,000 words.

Richard: So is there a book in your future?

Peter: That’s like maybe, hopefully, but it’s more like it helps me organize my thoughts better and it helps me to have… it’s like building assets. I have these things that I can put out there
and people can [inaudible 09:25]

Richard: So, it’s cathartic and you’re building some marketing our business development assets?

Peter: Yeah. So those are going to be great byproducts I hope; but at its core it’s about ensuing a good habit and also just giving myself the time to organize my thoughts and clear my thinking.

Richard: Peter, thanks for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Peter: No…, thank you!

About Richard Banfield

Richard is a the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil. After completing a degree in Biology, Richard was attracted to the...