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Digital Design Leader: Ethan Smith-Gillespie


Meet one of the smartest and down-to-earth agency leaders around. Ethan is the founder of The Program, a Portland based, digital design studio focused on creating remarkable retail and interactive experiences. Keep your eye on this guy; he’s going to make waves.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed:

Carl Smith: An Experienced, Smart, Funny, and Enlightened Gentleman

Peter Kang: Young Blood With A Vision

Tracey Halvorsen: Infectious Passion For World Class Work & Doing What’s Right

Jason VanLue: Made The Leap From Design Agency Leader To Product Owner


Ethan: Thanks for having me! My name’s Ethan Smith-Gillespie from Portland, Oregon, and I run a digital agency called The Program. And we focus on Anywhere-Brand as a digital touch point from interactive installations to large scale web and mobile applications to more immersive digital experiences with large format touch and single board computers and all sorts of things like that: from events, to retail, to purely in the internet space.

Interviewer: Cool. Well, welcome Ethan.

Ethan: Thank you.

Interviewer: Thanks for coming all this way. You found yourself now at the helm of a business, sixteen people managing these big projects. How did that happen?

Ethan: Good question! When I was in high school, I was a partner in a clothing company and did that for several years where I stayed more on the design side, more on the interactive side of the company, and got to the point where I just don’t like fashion, or that industry. And through a series of events I’m reading to start a small studio, design studio, focusing really on engineering because that was more of my background, so I did that for several years, bringing in contractors here and there, freelancers, one or two staff, just to really embed ourselves with different brands and get that experience we needed, and also be very, very agile, and stay small.

About three years ago I decided it’s time to grow a company, and so– it’s really kind of a contextual shift from being a one, two, three person studio that kind of
goes and embeds themselves with clients, to actually taking
a step back trying to do less of the business but truly run
the business and grow a company, and through that exercise
we’ve scaled up now to about sixteen people and we’re
really focusing this year on growing our design side of the
company and growing our creative side, because we feel like
we’re very strong on our engineering side, and frankly we
are delivering on creative, but I know that’s an area we
can really grow.

Interviewer: Okay. So, one day you wake up and you find that you’re in
charge of 16 people’s lives. What’s the personal
transformation that happens?

Ethan: You know, I’m still figuring that out. I think one
of the biggest things is truly trying to get away from the
minutia and the day to day of doing the business and truly
running it. I feel like that is an obligation I have to my
team to make sure that I’m providing environment and
facilitate an environment where they can all grow
individually, come together as a team to really kind of
find I guess you can say fulfillment in what they’re doing
by creating these really innovative experiences for our
clients. But I’m still truly understanding the impact of
that, and it’s certainly has it’s ebbs and flows every day.

Interviewer: So when you made this transformation from what you were
doing to creating the program, what was the plan that you
had? Did you even have a plan?

Ethan: Yeah, I knew I didn’t want to be– I never wanted to
grow into a full service company. My roots again,
background is in engineering, over the years bringing on
better engineers, I had gotten much more into experience
and interface design, so through that it’s really shed
light on what I want to be doing.

Interviewer: Did you ever write a business plan, have a strategic
direction or did it kind of evolve?

Ethan: Strategic direction, yes, no business plan. The
direction was never get into print, never get into events
unless we’re part of a digital activation, don’t become an
ad agency, and don’t scale based on body count, scale based
on quality of service, and obviously revenue, and then the
body count will grow to support that.

Interviewer: So, that’s an interesting perspective on growth. So,
growth as a strategy has never really been important to

Ethan: Yeah. I look it as as I have– certainly we have
numbers that we want to hit, but my goal is to create the
most innovative and really killer engineering and design
work that we can to help our clients grow their businesses
and their brand presence on a global scale. And to me
that’s the most fulfilling piece. As long as I’m paying the
bills and providing an environment that people are truly
enjoying coming to work, and not feeling burned out, but
feeling challenged all the time to grow their skill-set,
that’s really what my goal’s been. And again, I don’t want
to work for– I want to work for our clients rather than go
work at part of a larger organization.

Interviewer: Got it. So, when you’re having a tough day, something did
go quite the way you expected. Where do you turn? Who or
what guides you to the decision that you need to make?

Ethan: Yeah, you know, I have a few local people and a few
people outside of Portland who I really look to who are
just– they’re older than me, they’re more seasoned than
me. I fully understand that I don’t have all the answers,
nor will I ever, nor do I want to. I know areas that I’m
good at and areas that I’m not as good at, and for that I
look to both my team, to just– again, enabling them to do
their best works, being that sort of, you can say, chief
enabling officer, right? I think we talked about that in
the past. But who do I go to? Again, just various advisers,
both in the industry, outside of the industry, I think it
also really depends on the problem of the day.

Interviewer: Right. Have you ever considered things like getting an
MBA, or a formal education as a solution or is that just
not going to help?

Ethan: I haven’t thought of that as a solution, it’s funny
that you ask that. I got out of high school pretty early, I
was homeschooled in my younger years. So I was able– this
is why I picked up a lot of engineering stuff, I was able
to learn what I wanted at the pace that I could. So I sort
accelerated through a few things, went to college, and the
whole goal is that I’m going to have my MBA by the time I’m
21. Well, I think it was the first year of college that I
started a business, and so I was doing the night school,
the weekends, that kind of program. And eventually four,
five years into it, I’m talking to my counselor and realize
I have all these credits, but I don’t even have enough to
get my degree, because I’m taking classes that I want to
learn, not necessarily classes that are part of the
business degree I was looking for. So I took a few other
classes, got my degree, and I just realized there’s no
reason for me to get my MBA now as long as I’m still in the
learning mode all the time, talking with the right people,
reading the right articles and periodicals. I really
realized that if I ever wanted to get my MBA it truly be to
probably pivot my career and do something else.

Interviewer: So somebody that’s starting out in this space, where do
they go to get the guidance and the direction they need?

Ethan: I think from a design and engineering perspective
there’s so many fantastic resources out there right now,
even Jason with NV and his team in code school, and Tree
House and all these great tutorials and books, I would, if
it was me starting over again, I would forego — focus on
engineering and school– or engineering design– I’d forego
school. I would try to embed myself– I would read a bunch
of books. I would do a bunch of fake work or real work, or
cheap work. I’d try to get an internship and I would just
start working, and learning from people who have been
around, people who are seasoned and finding one or two
mentors to really look to, to grow that.

Ethan: On the business side, however, I’m not really sure
the best way to approach that. It kind of just evolved over
time, I studied business in school, I can’t tell you I got
a tremendous amount of value from that, I think the most
value I’ve received is this real world experience and just
kind of being forced to make decisions.

Interviewer: Right, right. So, from a macro perspective, looking at the
industry, where are we heading? What are the trends? What
are the obstacles and opportunities ahead of us?

Ethan: Oh man, so many. So many. I think digital and retail
is a huge one right now. I know that’s a big area of our
focus. The industry’s a weird one, I’m still trying to
understand it. It’s so trendy. Right now we’re talking
about [a flat] design for the last two years, maybe three
years ago responsive design came into play; all of these
kinds of key words and buzzwords. I don’t know. I really
don’t know, I’m trying to figure that out. I am personally,
and our company we’re very interested in where physical and
digital collide, whether that’s in a museum, at an event,
in a retail environment, so that’s where a big focus on
ours is.

Interviewer: Okay, cool. So final question is if you had to describe
your individual leadership style to somebody, how would you
do that in a short phrase?

Ethan: I think patients and– patients is a big one, and I
think that maybe compassion yet still holding people
accountable and then just enabling people. Identifying the
right people who I think would fit with the company, but
also who I just think are great individuals but also
skilled at what they do, and then give them a platform to
do their best work, and try to get out of the way.

Interviewer: Great answer! Cool, well thanks for your time, I really
appreciate you coming all this way.

Ethan: Thanks, Richard.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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