Digital Design Leadership: Jon Lax

by Richard Banfield

Jon Lax’s passion and confidence is practically infectious. In this interview, Lax discusses his rebellious leadership style, while energetically detailing how he achieved his goal to “create a company [he] wanted to work at everyday.” This philosophy definitely contributed to the evolution of Teehan + Lax as the successful digital agency that it is today.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed

Transcript

Jon Lax: John Lax, founding partner Teehan+Lax, founded 2002.

Richard Banfield: John when I met you at Owner Camp, one of the things that struck me about your leadership style is that you are probably a little bit on the…the rebel side of the curve. [laughing] It doesn’t sound like your leadership style came out of a book.

Jon Lax: Yes and no actually. I would say that in early days when I first started, so I got thrown into a creative… what I would consider creative leadership role in 1998. Where I was hired to be a creative director of Multimedia Canada. And a part of that I hadn’t really done formal leadership and they had hired me, I was very young, way too young for the job. But it was sort the heady days of the dotcom, and I realized as I was going into this job that I’d never really managed before. And so I went out and bought every possible book I could find on creative management. And a lot of those textbooks were written by former ad people because that was who was writing about that subject at the time. There wasn’t… you know, we have a much richer set of writing and reading that you can do now on managing creative professionals. But at the time there was really like a handful of books. So I read all of those, and I would say that for the first few years I was trying to apply leadership techniques and management techniques from those books, and soon learned that it wasn’t really me. And I think that as I, especially when Geoff and I started Teehan+Lax in 2002, by that time I had formed some of my own ideas about what I felt working and I definitely felt some dissidence between what those textbooks… not really textbooks, what those books were telling me and what I was experiencing in the real world. And so I think that rebellious may…I don’t think of myself as rebellious. I think that what I have done is sort of like internalize some ideas I have about managing creativity, how to deal with people, how to run business, and I have very strong opinions about those that I’m pursuing kind of independent of other forces. And that may came across as being rebellious, but I think it’s just trying to be honest. I mean Geoff and I when we founded the company one thing we said is our goal is just to create a company that we wanted to come to work everyday, and that we’d then find other people who agreed with those ways of looking at the world. And I think that is probably what you maybe seeing when I talk about management and leadership.

Richard Banfield: So as almost like a side note, do you then think that people just starting in this particular industry today would have a lot more resources to borrow from or learn from?

Jon Lax: I think there’s a few things that have happened over, since when I started. One is obviously the breadth of writing and access to information on the internet has grown exponentially. I mean the things that I was reading, I was buying books off Amazon, and I think now you can go into… in our field, you know Smashing Mags and stuff, the US mags of the world, the Smashing Mags of the world, they are writing .net, usually net magazines. They’re writing articles every few weeks about management, what we’ve learned about motivation, what we’ve learned about creativity, there is this, a lot more research and understanding of it. And I think that as the discussion of the business value of design has been elevated in the late 2000s, along with that came a lot of writing thinking about how to manage design, how to manage the process, how to manage design people, so there’s just a much greater body of knowledge that’s there. Some of it exists in books, but a lot of it just exists in articles like blogs posts, writings, pieces of medium. Like there’s just way more out there.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. So which are the things that you thought would work but didn’t work out, that maybe ended up being a mistake or weren’t applicable?

Jon Lax: I think that there was a lot of stuff at the time about how to get creativity, was about brainstorming and almost procedural. That there was this series of steps that you could manage creativity through. And I think what I didn’t understand at the time was that, while there are things that kind of work and things like that, really what need to figure out is that there is a… it’s your job to create a framework, or a place for creativity to happen, but not really to impose your will on it. And I think that I tried to impose my will on it too much, and what ended up happening was, especially for a personality like me, I would sort of come into rooms and suck all the oxygen out of the room. And it became about dominant voices as opposed to more about the process… No, we need to this now. And this the… let’s do this game, let’s do this activity. And I think what I have learned, right now I’m still… I’m by no means an expert at this I’m getting something to work on contentiously, is learning how to create a place where creativity happens rather than a system for creativity. And what I have learned personally, or at least what works for us, is a lot of it starts with having values that are very specific, that you understand what you value, and then you create a culture that values that, And then if you do that sort of creativity, and others will flourish inside of that world. And so it’s a much sort of softer hand that I think I initially came with. I thought about it has managing creativity and you realize that that’s sort of an insane way to do it. Or just, I never figured out how to do it in this very imposed way.

Richard Banfield: So the place that you’re talking about obviously is both physical and cultural. Tell me a little bit about the culture here and the physical space and all that, how all those things work to create the framework.

Jon Lax: Yeah. So what Geoff and I… Once again, these are some foundation ideas we have. We said we want a company that we want to come to work at, and when we asked ourselves you know, what do we enjoy doing? There was really one conclusion we came to very early on, was that we wanted to make the work that we did really the centerpiece and say, look at the end of the day there’s a lot of distractions in this business, and what we are going to value above all other things is the work that we do. We want to do work that’s interesting, we want to do work that we think people are going to use. I think that when Geoff… I know for myself and I’m sure Geoff would say something similar, and all the principles here would have a similar story. The charge that I felt the first time in 1994 when I coded a web page, and I put it out and then I checked the log filings and like 100 people had looked at it or had used it, had accessed it. I think I have been chasing that drag in ever since. Like wanting that charge, and that’s what I like doing. I like creating things that ultimately going into the world and that get value from it. People go, wow that was amazing, or I really enjoyed that, or I used that thing you made and it made my life better in some way. And I think that for us was this very formative thing that we wanted to continue to do at a greater and great scale. And so we decided that the value of this company was going to be… it won’t be about profit maximization, it wouldn’t be about aspiring to have global offices, it wasn’t about… and those are, look I’m putting a subjective, saying such things are bad things. I think for different entrepreneurs and leaders, they aspire, some people aspire for some global domination. And that’s cool, it’s not just what inspired us, or motivated us. And while we were happiest was doing work that we thought was good work, that we thought we used a few tests. Internally one of the tests was will we stand up among our peers and claim this work as our own. It was kind of a test we’ve always asked our self, like wouldn’t we proud to say that we worked on this? And if the answer was no, we kind of would go back and see why and all that. We also wanted things that were fundamentally functional in nature rather than story telling or emotional. Like advertising was less interesting to us. And so the values that we started to instill in this organisation, I think actually even though we said these things, Geoff and I said these things to each other very early on in the business. I think it was like a few years and then had to look back and go, yeah wow we’ve created this culture where the work is the number one thing. And I think that when you create a culture you have a set of values, what you’re really saying is, when I have to make decisions, I’m gonna make decisions that optimize this dimension over another dimension. So that what we’ll do is, we’ll leave a lot of money on the table, we’ll say no to a lot of projects that would be very lucrative but we’d just perceive as not really going to do great work on it. We made choices around staff, the kinds of people we would hire. For example we learned very early on that we weren’t that great at hiring junior staff and coaching them up, that we were just better off when people had a little bit more maturity, and as a result we tend to hire people who are maybe in their third or fourth year of their career before they come here. You know, it shaped a lot of who we are and how we work. In terms of the physical space, I think that, no disrespect to people who evangelize remote working, I think that makes a lot of sense for a certain personality, but for us we enjoy coming into work and being in a group of people. We enjoy in the interplay of conversation, of dialogue, of standing at a whiteboard together. For us that works as part of the creative process. And so we wanted a space that encouraged that. You know we staying all together, a lot of white boards, there’s a lot of glass in our offices, like transparency. And think it just feels more comfortable to us than maybe other physical environments or even remote working as a thing. So I think your values really set up a whole bunch of decision making and the kind of company you’re going to build, the kind of culture you’re going to build. And I think that what that means is when people come to work, you know if we say to people that work is the most important thing, and this is gonna work, people then come in understanding this is what gets praised and rewarded in this culture. And I think that, I mean it’s hard to be objective and look at your company in the work, and things like that. But my guess is if we’ve been successful at anything,  it’s really for delivering high quality of work, like we aspire to that value. And I think we do our best to try to live up to it everyday. People here, when we poll our staff, there’s a general consensus that if you’re working here you are probably not only the best in the city but probably one of the best in North America, maybe even in the world and that’s cool, like, I like that, you know, I think that’s a good thing for us.

Richard Banfield: So in terms of culture..

Jon Lax: That was a really long answer by the way.

Richard Banfield: It was. [laughing]

Jon Lax: Sorry.

Richard Banfield: In terms of culture is it something that you create as a function of those values, or is it something you have to maintain and curate as you go a long?

Jon Lax: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think in the early days when you’re a smaller, culture just sort of happens very organically, and it’s primarily through the people you hire. So when you are five or eight people, you’re just sort of making decisions about who you want to work with and a culture and it happens almost by accident. As you get larger, somewhere around the 30 person mark, that’s where you have to step in and start managing it in a willful way. And you have to start writing things down, and you have say that out loud a lot, like this what we value. You need to, when there is things that are good, you need to say this is good, and when things are bad you go, this is bad. And it has to be really, it becomes more explicit. And that feels really weird I think to a lot of us, because a lot of what we value, in our culture is very internal to us. We just know it when we see it and you have to put it into words and kind of scale it, I guess it’s the way I would put it. And that’s why I feel that a lot of those like corporate missions statements, and value statements are cheesy, because you are taking something that’s very internal in sense and trying to put words to it. And it’s tough to do without really turning into BS, but you have to do it at a certain point.

Richard Banfield: Right. So I think the challenges that we all face are sometimes amplified by the fact that we don’t necessary have people we can talk to about it.

Jon Lax: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Solving a lot of this problems is something you’d find out by accident. Tell me about that in your life and how you solved these problems and where you get that support from?

Jon Lax: Wow! I would say until a few years ago it was awful. I didn’t have anyone, Geoff and I… Geoff and I are partners and we have other partners and so we would often just be having internal discussions, and that helps, just having other people. I think that that’s been helpful. I would say that Michael Lebowitz who’s the president of Big Spaceship in Brooklyn, I camped with a few years ago, and whenever I was in New York we would sort of have… that was the first kind of peer conversations that I started to have, and it was really helpful because his company is very analogous to ours, they’re a little bit larger, they’ve been around a little bit longer, they are obviously in New York, a larger market. But we share all the same values, and I would be able to go in and say, this is what I’m seeing in my business, and he would bounce things off me on it.. he doesn’t have a partner, so he doesn’t have anyone else in his business, he owns all the shares. It’s also the first time I started having peer discussions, and then I think Owner Camp had been very valuable for me, it was a really valuable exercise in terms of hearing what other people were working on, hearing what you were working on, hearing how you looked at problems, having that wow it makes a lot of sense I never thought of it that way. But it is difficult I think. As a entrepreneur business owner you are on your own. And you don’t get a lot of feedback, and you don’t have a lot of sense about whether you are doing it right and I think that that’s okay. What you need in that case is have a good sense of where you think you want to go and you make decisions that try to get you there, rather than just validating everything a sort of external, other business owners. I think that’s helpful, it makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you are not alone, but at the end of the day you are going to have to make your own decisions for your business, your people, your clients, all of those things.

Richard Banfield: Right, okay. At what point in your life did you think, “Gee I’m a leader, I’m responsible for all these other folks?” And how did that change your personality, if at all?

Jon Lax: I remember a day around 2006 or 2007, somewhere in there, when we were not in this office, we were in our old office. Where I walked into the office and I just, it just hit me, I looked around and there were these people, I knew Greg over there has two kids and a wife, and Pete is married and has a kid on they way, we were probably about 20 people at the time. And I suddenly realized that this was a business that had to care for not just myself and Geoff, and maybe the employees, but families and there were people’s livelihoods that where in my hands. That I was making decisions that had broader impacts. And that was the first time it became real for me, I think that what I did was I started to understand internally that I had to act as leader and what they were looking for me for was leadership. I think I struggled with it at different points because I think that my first reaction was to be very stoic and withdrawn and distant, and that I needed to maintain this aloofness so that I can make the tough decisions, that I could be perceived in a respected way. And I think that I never liked bosses that were like trying to my best friend, and I didn’t think that that was appropriate, and I still don’t. I think that I’m trying to find a balance, I also realized that I kind of swung that pendulum way too far in one way, and trying to find a balance where I take this seriously at making decisions that need to be made for the health of the business, for everyone that’s not personal but simultaneously not being so abstracted and cold and aloof, that I’m unapproachable. And think that’s a tricky balance. I think some business and especially entrepreneurial ones are probably too friendly with this. I think there’s a respect issue there, and some that are way too disconnected. And I think that’s a continual tight rope that we walk. As leaders I think that the other thing too is that the biggest challenge for people going into leadership role is really that transition from being the best player on the field to being a coach. And that is a transition that I think people need to acknowledge that you may not be able to make. I think that we tend to get into business in a creative profession as really good at what we do. Right? And then because we’re really good at what we do people start hiring us and then we need to like help us to hire other people to help us do that, and eventually your job switches to be I don’t have to be the best designer in the company, what I need to do is make all these other people really great designers. And it’s just very different set of skills. And I think that we are learning ourselves that it’s okay for some of us to say I’m just not a great coach. It’s just a different set of skills, and motivation, and understanding how to encourage and nurture someone, and understanding that leadership from a management standpoint is something that you have to work on very specifically. And I think that’s misunderstood in this business a lot.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. So one of the things that’s interesting from a personal point of view is how people like us find work/life balance. How do you take care of yourself?

Jon Lax: So a lot of people ask me, like oh you must work crazy hours. And the way I see it, I don’t really work crazy hours. I think that the work/life balance problem for me and I’m gonna project it onto others, is even if we might go home at 6 o’clock our brain doesn’t shut off. And really the challenge is learning how to live work at work. It’s not about, I don’t think it’s really about hours put in. It’s that on the weekend are you able to enjoy something else and not be consumed with whatever is going on at work? And I think that is something I’ve struggled with, I think it’s just difficult, it’s a skill to learn how to just say for the next five hours I’m going to be present in this other thing. Whether that’s skiing or going out with a friends or sports, things like that. So for me personally, I work out with a trainer twice a week and sometimes three times a week. And that’s really important because in those moments I go and someone just, someone makes all the decisions for me. That’s what I can to do, lift that, push that, and I don’t make any decisions. I don’t even know, I’ve worked with this guy for like four years, I don’t even know what I can bench-press, I just like, he’s like lift that, and I’m like okay lets do that, and I find that really important, obviously that exercise relieves stress and has benefits, but physiologically it’s really important. I’ve tried to keep that very sacred in my schedule, where I just, you it’s at 5:30, I’m living here at five to go to the gym to do that. I would say that that’s one thing that I do. I say I try to learn the guitar for the past year. Once again I work with a teacher, he gives me things to work on and so one way that I deal with it is I give myself things where it requires my attention and focus for mastery. And that has been good for me. I think I do need to take probably more vacations, learn how to shop. But yeah, I don’t… I’m just going to point it. I think people often have a work/life balance and they put it in terms of time at the office, and I don’t think that’s what its about. It’s about can you leave the office in your brain, can you give this attention if you have kids, to your children, to your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend? Even just to yourself, I don’t do it, but I can understand why meditation or mindfulness becomes a very important skill for a lot of people now a days. They are starting to use that as a technique.

Richard Banfield: In my life a lot of people come to me and say hey… you know just finished building of something, it looks good, help me understand how to do that. And it secretly encouraging as it is frustrating. If you were to be approached by somebody today and they were on that path, in moving towards something interesting, what’s the direction to give? What’s the advice or the mentorship you give?

Jon Lax: I think the most important thing is having a point of view. Is having some ideas for yourself that set you on a path. And while not understanding specifically how you’re going to get there, saying I just want ideas that I want explore in the business. So for example, like I said before for us we like, hey let’s build a company that we want to come to work everyday. What’s that company look like? Well it’s very focused on design, those are the things we really think are important. I mean in 2002 really the competition Geoff and I had without understanding where the industry was going to go, we had some ideas about it. But we just saw that what we were calling user experience, which really in 2002 was not a well known term. It was a very very early… it wasn’t as widespread as it is now. We just had some sort of ideas or had a point of view that user experience was going to become increasingly important as technology would commoditize. So that was literally one of the things we just said we believe this is going to happen. We are going to build a company that is going to optimize user experience, not technology. And so we had a point of view about that, we could explain it, and we could say this is what we see going on in the industry, and why we think this is happening, long before it actually played out . And I would say like right now for the next 10 years for our company we have points of view about where we think the industry is going, and we are just going to pursue those. And I think what my advice to people is to not get so hung up on the tactical stuff, right. Like reading these articles, like 10 things you can do to growth hack your business, or you know, things like that. And just say like you got to have a point of view about where you think, some ideas about where you think the industry that you’re in is going, and what your role in it is, and what you are going to do and not do, and what you value what you don’t value. Try to have conversations like that. Not about like, what’s our billing rate or what is… what are the five clients we want? Or let’s do… what Java script framework are we going to use. I think that too much energy is wasted on this things, and not enough energy is put on the other stuff. How are going to be unique in the market place? Why will people seek you out to do what you do versus maybe a competitor or others in the market? And that’s what we talk about. And the other thing I talk about with advice is, I’m very weary of giving advice, because you go to someone for advice right. Like your collective experience has shaped what’s worked for you, and that was formed at different points in time. And you know, especially in this market, it evolves and moves so quickly that things that worked for you 10 years ago, not only may not work at this point in time for someone starting in this marketplace, but it may not be right for them. And we had one quick story. Geoff and I very early on, in like 2004 I think it was, the second year of our business. We created this thing called PVR Report, where we were really frustrated with our crappy cable company PVRs that we got, and we couldn’t get Tivo here which at the time was the industry leader for UI and UX for PVRs. And we created this report where we broke down why it was so bad, the screens and the flows and maintenance apps and then we proposed what would be on the PVR that we wanted. And it become a very, at the time it was the first thing we ever did that got us some notoriety or some recognition. And we had this idea, we had a whole bunch of ideas about connected television, that was like in 2004, and what we though the interfaces would look like. And we started talking at work and saying maybe we can do this, maybe there’s a way we can actually build this things. And we went, we put together a presentation and we went to a venture capitalist. And this venture capitalist looked at it and he said, okay what are going to do when Microsoft does something in this space and destroys you? And we both kind of looked to each other and we like, I don’t know, who cares about Microsoft? It’s a crappy… And so he talked us out of doing it, and then years later like Boxee kind of came out and did a lot of the things that we were doing and Plex, and this sort of a lot of start-ups in the connected TV space. And we were kind of there, we were there very earlier on, and this venture capitalist kind of convinced us not to pursue it because Microsoft was going to come in with XBox Media Center and destroy anything that we had done. And what I realized years later was that, this guy’s experience developed and formed in the late 90s when Microsoft was this company that could just knock you out, but by 2004 Microsoft wasn’t the same company. It was sort of, it had all these anti-competitive fighting going on in the EU, Apple was on the ascendancy, it was losing a little bit of it’s luster, Gates was retiring right around that time, and it just wasn’t the big bad Microsoft it had been in the previous years. But this guy’s experience had taught him, when he looked at any opportunity he instantly said what is the threat from Microsoft? And it was at that moment I realized that advice could be really crappy. [laughing] That you have to kind of take it in the context of the person giving the advice you know. And there were other time too in the early days of the business, I would go out with president of advertising agencies who I had known sort of from my previous life that had been more involved in advertising, and they were giving me all this advice about how to run my business, how to run clients. And I would listen to it and I would say, I don’t think that’s true anymore. And they were really basing their advice that had worked very well for them, but it had been shaped for a different era. And I’m always very conscious of that, when giving advice. That’s why the advice I tend to give is not very practical advice in terms of do this, this, and this. It’s more of, you see that with a point of view, and you’re going to pursue that point of view. That’s what transcends time, I guess, or what the current market space.

Richard Banfield: So the disclaimer for this interview is listen to the entire interview and go and do your own thing.

[laughing]

Jon Lax: Yeah, what would say is that the only thing I can kind of abstract that’s worked for us having some points of view that made sense to us, and that like I said, we wanted to build the company based on the work. We wanted to… we were just really interested in making things that people used. And we weren’t really that descriptive about how that was going to happen, and whenever we make decision we we just kind of go, okay will that allow us to do this? Okay then let’s do that. And you know for example in our business when we started we only did design, and by design I mean Photoshop files. For the first few years of our business we didn’t wanna do any technology and the reason for that was that at time most of the tech was still very like ATG Dynamo. We didn’t want to code, like weren’t interested in that. We saw that front end design and back end tech were two very different businesses. And for a long time we were able to design really good system and hand it to IT groups and they would tear it apart and then rebuild it in whatever system. And then over time we saw our work get bad, it wasn’t being translated in the way that we wanted it to. And we slowly started doing more and more code. And now we do a lot more of up and down the stack because the technology has evolved to a point where we are not messing in ATG Dynamo systems anymore. We do things in a much more modern way, more new ways. And the only reason we are doing tech up and down the stack is not because I want to like pursue higher billings or diversify our offering, its because it does better work, it’s because if we can control the means of production, we can control the quality. And so we made those decisions to get better at technology entirely based because it made the work better. Now it had some other benefits in terms of billings and the financial elements of it. Being able to unlock customers who wanted us to help them more in a more fulsome way. It had all these other benefits, but the initial decision was entirely about the quality of work. And so that’s what I mean by like maybe using a point of view to shape your decision making.

Richard Banfield: Cool. So, this is it. Excellent. Thank you very much for your time.

Jon Lax: Awesome! 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...