Digital Design Leadership: Warren Wilansky

by Richard Banfield

Warren Wilansky talks leadership, confidence, and building teams. Having created Plank, a successful digital design agency, Warren truly knows that business is an evolutionary process. In this interview,  he details his unique “hot potato” path to leadership, giving valuable insight as to how businesses grow and change over time.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed

Transcript

Warren Wilansky: So who am I? I am Warren Wilansky. I am the founder of Plank which is a digital agency, digital studio from Montreal and we’ve been working for 15 plus years on building web projects, mobile tablet but specifically the easiest way to describe what we do is we build websites.

Richard Banfield: Cool. So at what point in your life did you realize that you were actually in charge…

Warren Wilansky: Right.

Richard Banfield:  … that you were the leader of this … this insane thing?

Warren Wilansky: Well, honestly I would say, like we’re 15 years in, the five year mark was when I realized … it took five years. So when we started the company it was with another founder. She left at about year four and about year four when she was in the process of leaving, it became clear that up until then we were kind of running the business with a hot potato we were passing back and forth and neither of us was really owning. We both were communication graduates and we figured we were just gonna run a little company, just not work for somebody else and everything would just work itself out. And then when she left, suddenly I was holding the potato myself and I realized, okay, is this really a company? Am I going to try to run it like a company? And when I got to that point and I realized that, that’s when I owned it and when I suddenly realized I am running a company at that point.

Richard Banfield: And how did you then either adjust yourself as a person …

Warren Wilansky: Yeah

Richard Banfield: … or your leadership style to accommodate for that realization?

Warren Wilansky: Well the first thing is that, you know, I think the reason that I was resistant to running a company at that … up till that point, is that I didn’t see that as a creative endeavor unto itself. And then at that point I suddenly realized the process of running a business was that creative project itself. So it wasn’t the project in the office that I was working on. I was now working on the company as a creative project itself. So once I wrapped my head around it that way, that’s when it became clear to me that I could actually own that and be comfortable with it. And it meant that I would choose to own finance and administration and biz. development and marketing … even though we do so little of it that we barely do any marketing at all but I … I took it at that point and it was … that’s what made me realize it.

Richard Banfield: Were there skills that you didn’t have that you needed to learn and how did you fill those gaps?

Warren Wilansky: The skills that I needed to learn was probably more confidence rather than skills. In other words, I needed to build the confidence that I could do business development. I needed to build the confidence that I could be a leader. Even though I had had experience and I come back to it and I’ve blogged about it before, I learned so much of my leadership skills at summer camp where I learned them through a different prospect. Not marketing leadership, not biz. development but kind of people management. So it took me a while but it’s once I internalized that I realized that I could do it and I built the confidence myself. I was able to run with it at that point.

Richard Banfield: So you didn’t rush off and buy a whole lot of books and … and educate yourself that way. It was more of an evolution.

Warren Wilansky: I mean, look, I did buy books. There’s no question that every so often when somebody recommends a book … I remember the first business book … business book I read was ‘E-Myth’. And that was the one that got me on that path of understanding that I had to learn how to see the company as something to run itself and not just something that I was sitting within and just kind of worked itself out around me. But I’ll read business books, maybe one a year or so. I don’t really overdo it with the reading business books. I find it actually … I’m more interested in … in learning about what other companies are doing rather than sitting through a 300 page theoretical book. Like I find the actual practical of running a company is best dealt with by talking to other people doing it.

Richard Banfield: So tell us a little bit about that talking to other people. Who do you talk to? You know. Do they come from your industry? Or are they outside of the industry? Just give us a …

Warren Wilansky: Well, I mean, I’ve lucked out, I mean, there’s an event that you and I both attend called Owner Camp which another studio puts on and that was a great … that was a great realization that there were other people out there who were just as willing as I was to sit down in a room and share openly. So right now I would say most of my attention that I’m doing towards kind of doing that with similar web or agency related people but it’s a good point. Maybe it would make sense to actually start to do that with people in different industries. Maybe we could learn from each other from, you know, from a different point of view.

Richard Banfield: Right, right. How big is the studio?

Warren Wilansky: Twelve people.

Richard Banfield: Twelve people?

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Is there a point at which you think it will be too much or it’s too little? What’s the magic number for you?

Warren Wilansky: Well I would say the magic number right now is what it’s been. In other words, I know how to run a 10-15 person studio. I’ve been doing it for … our studio’s been about that size for almost 10 years so I’ve kind of got that down. Now the question now is what happens next. Do I just say that’s what we’re gonna do and that’s what we’re gonna be forever? No! I mean I don’t have any grand aspirations to get to 50 or 100 …

Richard Banfield: Um-hum.

Warren Wilansky:  … but, you know, I’d like to see, to challenge myself to maybe go 15-20 and see what that feels like and then see what happens after that.

Richard Banfield: Right. When … when you think of your leadership style or the … maybe how other people would describe you, give us an indication of what that style might be in a phrase or …

Warren Wilansky: Lead by example.

Richard Banfield: Lead by example.

Warren Wilansky: That’s the first and foremost way I see it. In other words, I want my team to know that I’m willing to do anything that they’re doing. I’m not above anything. I’m not above any task. And I want them to feel that I’m with them and I’m just as willing to do it. And I think by doing that, people understand that there’s … there’s not a real, that leadership for me is not separate from the team. In other words, I’ve always seen us as a really flat organization so that I happen to be the leader by default. And I happened to be there first, I happened to be the one who’s … who’s just there but it doesn’t mean that … that I’m above or beyond where anybody else is in our team.

Richard Banfield: Okay. So part of that taking … even if you are a flat business, you still need some direction.

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Tell us a little bit about how you figure out what that direction is, how you plan for that. What does strategic planning look like for you guys, if anything?

Warren Wilansky: Yeah, no, well, I mean there definitely is and there is more and more. I mean I think as I’ve learned more and more, getting what I would call an ‘on-the-job MBA’ you start to pick up those things as time goes on. So you start to learn “Oh okay, so here’s what business development …” so you know business development is a word … two words … then you start to learn about how other people are doing it. And you realize, okay, so these are the things I’m doing right, these are the things I’m not doing. These are the things I can improve on. Same thing with marketing and different elements so it’s constant evolution and constantly learning to figure out how to get to get better at the different parts of what you’re doing.

Richard Banfield: Are you primarily responsible for planning or is it a company wide thing?

Warren Wilansky: I would say that I’m responsible for it. I … I completely involve key members of the team and sometimes everybody in getting their opinions. But a lot of the times the team is there to do their job. And they’ve been hired to do a job and when I hired them I didn’t say “Oh by .. part of the job is helping to run the company”. So people who have opinions are totally welcome to give them to me, but there are a lot of times I’ll ask a question and I won’t get anything back and when I don’t I take that as they’re saying to me “we trust you to make that decision for us as a team”.

Richard Banfield: So let’s talk about team…

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield:  … ’cause that’s obviously a critical part of a service business like yours. How do you get that team together? How do you keep them together? Tell us a little bit about the culture of that.

Warren Wilansky: Yeah, so one of the things I’m proudest of is how long a lot of members of my team have been serving. So I have … just now … I’ve just over … just recently brought on as a partner the longest serving employee we have. He’s been with us 14 years. So he’s been brought in as a partner because he pretty much now runs the company, like on a day-to-day production. So when it comes to production and running the office, that’s his baby. And as far as getting team together, we’re very selective. In other words, when a job comes open we don’t kind of rush to fill it with the first person who comes through the door. We’re willing to first of all take the time to interview the person. So usually I interview them, other members of the team and eventually more members of the team, you know, bring them on. I also, the culture I try to instill is that … the way we describe it is “If we’re hiring you, we want you to stay”. In other words, we want people to be there for a long time. So different people come through, I understand that’s part of the deal, having them. In this 15 years there have been tons of people who’ve come through the business but I have three …I have three people who have been with us over 10 years and I have another three to four who have been with us over five years. So I’m trying to keep people for the long term.

Richard Banfield: That’s amazing. So let’s talk a little bit more about culture.

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Did it … was it something that evolved on its own? Was it something that you crafted very specifically?

Warren Wilansky: I don’t … I mean I guess you can force culture by doing certain things. But putting a Foosball in a room doesn’t create culture. You know, taking people to a restaurant doesn’t create culture. Culture is created by the people in the room at that time. So if you have a room of people who are non-political and have each others backs, that’s the culture the company is gonna be. And that’s the way we are. I would describe to my benefit or detriment, we’ve generally hired more introverted people and maybe that’s a little bit more my personality although I’m trying to get out of that mode. So the team is really kind of calmer, quieter, it’s not an aggressive team. It’s a real team of people helping each other. But yes, if we got x group of people together, the culture would be very different.

Richard Banfield: Yeah, okay, good. So let’s then come back to you.

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: How do you find some balance in your life? Because, you know, running your own business can be stressful. What’s … where do you get your peace and quiet and how do you find time for yourself?

Warren Wilansky: Well, I mean, even when there’s busy time … so right now we’re having a really busy time where my hours are really … I’m working longer hours over the past few months. That’s how things go, up and down. What I ensure for myself is make sure that when I have time to myself, it’s very isolated time. So as more of an introverted person I thrive on down time, I don’t thrive on up time. So the up time is an energy suck for me, so that I need to always have very specific down time to recharge my batteries. So I’ll ensure that I will always have a certain amount of time during a day on a weekend that I can recharge myself and have that energy so that I don’t deplete or stress myself out.

Richard Banfield: What … just explain to me like what down time looks like. Are you, you know, is it meditation? Is it something less exciting than that?

Warren Wilansky: I would say it’s less exciting. I mean, you know, it’s like I live in a city so I love to go for long walks. And I can just walk for a couple of hours, clear my air … clear my head and maybe it’s also meditative at certain points. Like video games still, you know, I still love to sit down and spend a couple of hours and just remove my mind from the day to day work and that works great. I know other people it’s different things but those are the kind of things like … you know reading, reading is another big one where I spend a lot of time just like turning off from digital and going … and even though it’s on an iPad just sitting and reading a book and trying to read as much as I can.

Richard Banfield: Good, so as somebody in a leadership position, as a mentor you could even say. Those people that are up and coming both within your organization and in the industry …

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield:  … probably are thinking “How can I do this?”. What … what might you say to those people?

Warren Wilansky: Well, I mean the … I’d say the hardest thing is to be … is to really be able to honestly look at yourself and decide if that’s something you can realistically do. Not everybody is a leader and I think that’s fine. I think that, you know, maybe when you get out of school or when you get into the business world, you’re all hoping you’re gonna be a leader. You’re hoping you’re gonna run a business. But the reality is it’s important to look at yourself and say “Is this really what I want to be doing?” If it is and you feel passionate about it, then I think it’s something to do. If you’re doing it because society says that’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to run a business to get wealthy but it’s not really part of who you are, don’t do it. Find another thing to do, work with somebody where you can grow your skills in different ways. In my case, I didn’t really see it as a leadership thing at first. I saw it more as I just wanted to work for myself and that was the first thing. And I just felt like I would do better in charge of my own life rather than having somebody else, you know, kind of lay it out for me. And maybe that’s a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of inability to want to work for somebody else, even though with clients we are working for somebody else. It’s just that feeling of control of your own … your own destiny.

Richard Banfield: Okay. What … what do you think is still missing from your quiver of talents or skills that you need to do a good job?

Warren Wilansky: Without a doubt the thing as a company I feel we’re still weakest at or I’m weakest at is marketing. And I think the marketing ties into the image around myself as being more introverted … that my first natural reaction is when somebody says “Hey, you did a great job!” to say “Thank you” and humbly say thanks. Not to say [pop] “Not only do I agree with you, I did the most amazing job possible!”. So it’s, it’s … I’m not a natural self-promoter. So I’ve been trying to learn and figure out ways we as a team can find a style of marketing and promotion that suits us. So, you know, the thing I’m looking at is probably, of the past few … over the past year has been looking at doing kind of low key events, looking at doing some low key thought work. And trying to find things to bring out the community around us that really fits us which isn’t being loud and boisterous but being quiet and considerate and concerned and that’s … that’s the way I see it.

Richard Banfield: And if we take a step back and think about the industry as a whole …

Warren Wilansky: Yeah.

Richard Banfield:  … what does the industry, you know, have for us? What is … what’s in store, what does the future of digital design have in store for us?

Warren Wilansky: That’s a big question!

Richard Banfield: [laughter] It’s a tough one!

Warren Wilansky: No, it’s a big question. I think specialization would be a good way to look at things. In other words, in talking with other … other company owners, we all … we all can say things like what I said before which is “we build websites”. Great … we do … there’s hundreds of thousands of other companies that do. The question is why should somebody work with us? And that’s the one that I think I personally find that we all as an industry have to … have to get better at answering. In other words, what is it that makes working with Plank better than working with another company. And it isn’t even better, it’s a “what is it about our team that fits best with that client”. And some people do it by focusing on an industry, some people do it by focusing on a specific service. And I think the more that we specialize, the better the stories are going to get. And I think it’s that story telling that we all need to get a little bit better at.

Richard Banfield:  Any … any future trends in technology or design that you think are going to affect us in positive or negative ways?

Warren Wilansky: Well, I’d love to see movement away from flat. I’m sick of flat. [laughter] I mean I think the iPhone was the … I think the iPhone was hopefully the death knell in flat design. I think we’re hopefully moving off into multiple different trends after that. From a design perspective I think that’s probably the first one. I think interaction design and now that the web, the internet, is not just a series of flat pages, it’s a living, breathing experience that I think interaction design is … is gonna be the key to understand how people will move differently through the internet.

Richard Banfield: Good. Warren, thank you very much for your insight and your time.

Warren Wilansky: Thank you.

Richard Banfield: Hopefully we’ll see you in Boston soon.

Warren Wilansky: Yes, all right, thanks.

Richard Banfield: Thanks.

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...