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Format

On building products for creatives and scaling a team sustainably

Our first encounter with the team at Format was an email from Jillian Lockwood, the team’s PR manager. We often get emails from teams who are interested in having us visit, but this one caught my attention. In four short paragraphs Jillian explained who they were, what was interesting about them, and included two photographs of their space in Toronto. I had heard of Format previously via their InFrame documentary video series and was immediately impressed at the level of content the team was producing in addition to building a product.

If you don’t know, Format is a self-funded Toronto-based team that offers an online portfolio platform for creative professionals. It was founded in 2010 by Lukas Dryja (CEO) and Tyler Rooney (CPO). Since then they’ve grown from 2 to 35 employees. Ten of those employees joined in the last year, and six employees are completely remote. The team had recently reached a milestone of having a user in every country in the world when we visited them. In addition to developing their product, the team at Format produces an editorial magazine aimed at informing and inspiring their audience. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know: how were they dealing with growing so quickly, managing a partially remote team and building a successful product in such a competitive space? With Toronto just a quick trip down the road, Matt and I took the opportunity to spend an afternoon with them, talking to the founders Lukas and Tyler, as well as members from the design, support and marketing teams.

We walked into Format’s fairly inconspicuous office in Liberty Village, an older industrial-style building with tons of light and exposed brick like many of the buildings that surrounded it. We were met by Jillian who gave us a quick tour of the office, the layout is entirely open, with the majority of the office concentrated in one large room, minus some breakout meeting rooms on either side of the main space. I first sat down with Lukas and Tyler to learn more about the beginnings of Format.

I learned that Lukas graduated from OCAD (the Ontario College of Art and Design) in 2004 with a Bachelor of Design and explained that he was shocked at how few of his classmates were showcasing their work online. Lukas pitched the idea to Tyler who came from a software engineering background, previously having worked at Amazon. Both agreed there was an opportunity to help creative professionals by giving them the tools to showcase and promote their work online. After a couple of years working on the idea part-time along with freelance work, they jumped into building Format full-time in 2010, with neither of them taking a salary for the first year.

“In 2010, we decided to abandon consulting and jump into Format full time, and we basically had no salary for about a year. It was risky but it’s paid off.” —Lukas Dryja

Both Lukas and Tyler explained that from the very beginning they decided to be a self-funded company and not seek external investments. Lukas expressed that being a tool for creatives they wanted to make sure that every decision they make focuses on the needs of their users, and didn’t want to risk bringing on an investor that might have different goals. Tyler added that it allows them to build the team more sustainably too, there’s no rush to grow and they can add people as needed. It’s this aspect that has more than likely contributed to maintaining a strong office culture as they’ve grown. I asked what some of the biggest challenges were currently and Lukas admitted that growing the team is one of them: “Building an amazing product, making sure that it works, and making sure people use it is a challenge, but if you don't have a team that works well together and that shares the same vision, you cannot accomplish those goals.” He continued with the challenge of hiring the right people at the right time, “making sure that we don't hire someone on support versus design and bottleneck development because of that decision.”

From a product perspective Tyler talked about the challenges of prioritizing what to build next or improve on, “The real challenge for me is to understand what can wait and what is priority? Is this something that can wait six months, is this something that can wait six years, is this something that is the kind of pain point that makes someone leave a product, or is it a kind of pain point that they endure with, and when all things are considered it's not a big deal?”

“People sign up for a portfolio because they want their first gig, another gig or a better gig. They want to quit their job because they want to be a full time photographer.” —Tyler Rooney

On user feedback and a remote team

Customer support and feedback is an obvious channel for helping to answer those questions, so I took some time to talk with Stefan Pintaric, the team’s support manager. He was Format’s first hire outside of the founders and manages a remote team of five. Stefan explained that the support team faces a lot of the same challenges any support team does: being proactive and solving problems before they happen, and what to do when software services that they rely on fail - something out of their control but that still affects their users. A unique challenge for the support team is the fact that they are often dispersed across multiple time zones, which Stefan explained has ended up being beneficial in a lot of ways, “because we have people around the world, that doesn't just mean that we can fill different eight-hour time slots. It also means that we can capture something that's unique to those areas, and those people's personalities, and their background, and how they can bring some personality to their support interactions.” The team often handles a wide variety of requests, including the occasional second opinion on aesthetic choices for a user’s portfolio, writing code to help users customize their websites, and even requests to be featured in Format Magazine.

The support team uses a tool called Full Story that allows them to observe all the ways users interact with the product, and like many teams, they use Slack, and frequent video chats to stay in sync and connected with one another. However, there are still definitely challenges with making sure the remote team feels a part of the culture that Format has built in the office. Lukas mentioned that some things they’ve been doing to help with this is monthly all hands meetings, and celebrating milestones together. For example, he explained, “we'll have a company Christmas dinner, but then we'll set a budget for a Christmas dinner for all the remote team members to grab dinner on us with their loved ones or their partner, or a friend... The little things.” The support team works closely with developers and designers back at the office to make sure they’re both handling issues quickly and and applying insights from support interactions to product developments.

“I think, always, the biggest challenges are the ones that you have the least control over. When a service provider that we rely on is down and that impacts our product, how do you convey that to a user?” —Stefan Pintaric

On design at Format

I sat down with one of the team’s designers Lauren Barless to learn more about how the design team is structured and how they work alongside developers and support. She explained one of the main challenges the design team faces is making sure they’re designing features that will be really useful for someone’s career but not alienate another group of users. For example, not designing features that would only be useful for photographers. In determining what users want, Lauren elaborated on how they work with support for this, “they have everything logged. It's as easy as looking up keywords and seeing what people have said from the beginning of the product pretty much. If I was interested in seeing people's complaints around customization, for example, I could look that up and see what people have had issues with. We can make improvements based directly on what those bigger trends are, on what people have found to be difficult or cumbersome.” She added that another challenge for the design team can be that the bar is set so high, since they are designing for an audience that is so design savvy. As for how new features are implemented, designers work closely with the development team and the number of designers and developers on a feature can vary based on the size of the project. “There's usually one designer and a front-end developer and a back-end developer, possibly more depending on the size of project. We basically try and have a tight knit group so there is a lot of communication between all of us, we try to keep it really collaborative.”

“Because we're creatives designing for creatives it can be a bit of a challenge because the bar is quite high. You really want to do your best because our community is a very savvy group of people.” —Lauren Barless

On different ways of communicating with creative professionals

Naturally, since we run an online publication ourselves, I wanted to know more about the decision to create Format Magazine rather than a simple company blog and how they were managing that along with other marketing initiatives. Some of Format’s current marketing initiatives include Format Magazine, a documentary film series called InFrame produced with filmmaker Bas Berkhout, long form PDF guides, and ebooks in addition to the standard email marketing and social efforts. After talking with Yousuf, a marketing strategist on the team, it seemed to all relate back to the fact that Format’s audience is creatives and so the high bar for communicating with them plays into marketing as much as it does design and support. Yousuf explained, “I think as we focus on our purpose as a company, the projects that we define in marketing become natural extensions or examples of that,” he continued “we're actually providing value to people, or inspiration to people. It's a more genuine connection than simply promotions or features or benefits and things like that.”

Format Magazine is run like a lot of publications, it has a dedicated editor Lydia Pawlowsky. The content spans from interviews, Q&As, discussions and anything else that might appeal to creative professionals. They often feature their own users but Yousuf explained they don’t limit it to that, the main goal is to create content that will appeal to their target audience. “It's more about how long did they stay on the site, what sort of value did they gain from this content, are they talking about this content?” By positioning themselves as a source of inspiration, education and career development, the goal is that they’ll be top of mind when creatives are looking for a way to showcase their own careers.

“From a marketing standpoint, no one wants to hear you talk about yourself as a brand. I don't. I don't like being marketed to.” —Yousuf Afridi

After finishing up interviews with members of the team we spent entirely too much time on (and took too many photos of) Format’s two office dogs Snapple and Andy. One of the biggest observations from our time with the team at Format was that they really are creatives building products for other creatives. Lydia and Jillian told us about a recent office hackathon where the whole office took part. They both spent the time editing and producing a print version of Format Magazine, while Mohammed, a product manager on the team, spent that time producing an episode of a podcast.

The online portfolio space is no doubt a crowded one, so it was definitely interesting to see the ways that Format is differentiating themselves. At the very least, they seem to be having fun doing it. Thank you to the team at Format for inviting us in and sharing some insight into the people behind the product. Interested in having us spend a day with your team?
Shoot us a message, hello@wayswework.io.

Format is looking for people to join their team.