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Sago Sago

Inside the Toronto-based app design team

Ways We Work has featured over 60 interviews with individuals doing amazing things in all different industries. While there are tons of inspiring people doing incredible things, we also know that some of the best projects, products and work come from teams. Which has inspired us to tell their stories. Teams are multi-faceted and complex but by taking a photo documentary approach using photography and interviews with team members, we hope to offer a glimpse into the inner workings of some of our favourite teams. We want to put a human face on the products people love by getting to know the team and the process behind them.
Photography & writing by Matt Quinn.
Edited & produced by Amandah Wood.

Sago Sago is an app design company that wants to set itself outside the pack and focus on creating honest, fun apps for toddlers. They are a team of 20 located in downtown Toronto, Canada and they graciously accepted our request to come in and document a day in their offices and give a glimpse of their culture and how they go about making these consistently well crafted apps.


Intro

The environment was bright and the staff was incredibly welcoming. As I wandered around the office snapping photos, some of the team were diligently working on their projects while others took some time away from their desks to get inspired or connect with their co-workers. There was this sense of autonomy around the office and the team seemed to know what they needed to do without having to be told. Even though they were closing in on an app launch, the mood was relaxed and inviting. It was refreshing to see.

As one app neared completion another one was just getting started. I sat in on a team meeting where they discussed the scope of the project and witnessed how they fleshed out ideas. The team followed a very organic process of picking a topic and playing out the details of how it would be brought to life. The meeting included everyone from product design all the way to programming. The inclusive process allowed them to bat around ideas and let everyone air their pros and cons of ideas to ensure a sound process and quality end product.

We were also able to chat a little with Jason Krogh the CEO and founder of Sago Sago who gave us a little back story on the company and the team that's helped build it.


Q: Tell us about how you got started. What inspired you to start the company?

Jason: I got started through a series of happy coincidences. After graduating from university I found myself working for a non-profit group creating educational materials for children. I’d always had an interest in computers and design and really enjoyed working with a wide range of experts. I worked with artists, illustrators, writers, educators, scientists and of course kids.

In the early days I did all my work as a freelancer. Over time bigger opportunities started to present themselves and as a result the company was founded so we could start taking these on. We worked on a wide range of interactive content - all within the kids space. For one project our team designed a set of online games for preschoolers. We put a lot of effort into creating them but when we presented it to the kids we discovered most 3 year olds simply couldn’t use a mouse. It’s just really hard for kids this age to make the mental connection between a hunk of plastic on a desk and a cursor on a screen. And at the time there was simply nothing we could do to address it.

This all changed when Apple introduced the original iPhone in 2007. We instantly saw that it offered a completely different experience for young kids and we came up with the idea for what would become Sound Box - a digital sound toy for the iPhone. Sago Sago was founded when we made the leap from an agency to a product company. We went all-in on our preschool apps and we have never looked back.

Q: How did you go about building your team? What things do you look for when adding someone?

Jason: We have always been able to attract talented people because of the work we do. Each successful project brought a bit more attention to our studio. It has also helped that several people on the team had part-time teaching gigs and took on interesting side projects. This is how we found new people for the team and also how we landed a lot of our early contracts.

But it hasn’t always gone smoothly. We made a few bad hires and then waited far too long to part ways. We have an exceedingly nice team here and no one enjoys letting someone go. But that said, keeping someone around who isn’t contributing can have disastrous effects. Each time this happened it would force us to rethink how we go about hiring.

We’re a lot more organized now. We always do 2 or 3 rounds of interviews. We always have candidates interview with more than one of our team members. And we also set up specific exercises as part of the process.

In terms of what we look for we start with specific skills and past projects. But then focus in on motivation and independence. Does this person really want to be here? Are they able to thrive in an environment where no one is looking over their shoulder?

Q: What is an important part of your team's process? What do you do or don’t do that makes a big difference?

Jason: Play testing is our magic ingredient. We bring children in to the studio nearly every month to try our apps. We’ve integrated it into our whole design process - it’s not a separate step that happens at the end.

Part of the play testing is very practical - we need to know if the kids are getting stuck or frustrated. But a lot of it has to do with being able to empathize with a child’s point of view. Young children have a fundamentally different view of the world and the visits really help inform the designers as they work.

Q: Was there a particular challenge you faced when you started the company? How did you overcome it?

Jason: We faced a lot of challenges. But our biggest was staying focused. We had so many ideas and so many decisions to make in the early days. It was overwhelming and many of us felt pulled in too many directions.

The solution was to just get to work. We immediately started work on the first few apps and then set aside blocks of time to work through some of the bigger questions. The work gave us momentum as we worked through the process of defining our company and roadmap.

It’s a lesson we’ve carried forward. Too much thinking about something can have you running in circles. It's much better to roll up your sleeves, get to work and then step back from time to time to reflect.


It was such a great experience to see how the team at SagoSago brings their visions to life. The culture, people and creative perspectives all add up to the creation of some of the best apps in the App Store for toddlers. Their approach to nurture exploration, adventure and creativity via their apps certainly uses their access to young minds with great responsibility. Thanks to the team for welcoming us in and allowing us to be a fly on their wall.

Company Stats

Drink of choice: Coffee
Number of office pets (permanent or not): 3
Productivity Apps Used: Sunrise, Pocket, 1Password, Slack, Scanbot
Apps made per year: 6
Approximate time to build an app: 4-6 months
Number of people it takes to build an app: It takes a village (of about 8)
Years in business: 2
Number of team members: 20