Business Design Oddbee

Business lessons from Covid (So far)

Oddbee is fully remote. It wasn’t a conscious choice at first — it happened over time.

Oddbee is a creative digital agency specialized on branding, websites and product design for tech startups.

In the early days of the company, when I was working my way up from a freelancer to an agency, friends would sometimes refer their friends who were looking for work to me. Having lived in two countries and travelled a great deal, I naturally built a network that spanned 4 continents. Candidates would come from all over the place and I simply said yes to the best, no matter how remote. 

An introvert and an immigrant I know what it’s like to spend days and nights chatting with family and friends overseas. In my 20’s I studied, worked, partied, played Need for Speed and managed a long-distance relationship – all online. Working with a remote team didn’t scare me, but it always felt that we were missing a personal connection.  

March 1. After a month-long offsite in Playa del Carmen, tanned, fit (from frequent workouts – thanks to my accountability partner and our amazing developer Yulia👋), tired (from intense work) but well-spirited (as in good spirits and equally good amounts on margaritas in my system) we arrived back in Toronto. I had ambitious plans to grow the team, got a few projects lined up and was generally looking forward to the new year to unfold. 

On march 10 everything started to shut down.

First came fear. Uncertainty was in the air, same as the pressure to move and make decisions fast. Three of our regular (and some of most cherished) clients got hit hard – one of them went out of business soon after. I checked my bank accounts to see how far we are from running out of cash and took a deep breath. Ever since then 2020 has been a marathon. 

Now, almost a year into Covid I want to pause and reflect on this unusual journey. I’m very grateful that our industry was mostly spared but this is not to say it was an easy ride.  

Here’s what I learned in 2020 (So far): 

Confidence in Remote. Before Covid I always felt like an outlier. The second question I’d hear at every other business event (after “Hi, I’m Kat, I run a design agency”) was – “where is your office”? I would start mumbling something like… Toronto, something Bali, something Russia… It sounded cooler than ’no office’ but nobody took us seriously in the end. I got a space at a hip downtown co-working place just to skip through this step.

First week of the lockdown – everybody ‘moved’ into my office! The question whether to continue building the team remotely or getting a corner of a brick and mortar office  ceased to exist.

The more global the better. We hired two designers in the beginning of Covid. This time I was intentionally shopping in the global talent pool. The first position I posted got 400+ responses which seemed like an impossibly long list of resumes to go though… I would spend 5-10 seconds on every new email – find a link to the portfolio, click, check, sort. While most of them went to trash, there was an astounding number of great applications. I wouldn’t have got as many options by hiring just in Toronto.

Closer as a team. I like to joke that the world went into a lockdown and shrunk to a 13″ rectangle of my screen. Suddenly there was no difference between chatting with a colleague from High Park and a friend from Tel Aviv. As distance lost its relevance, time was the only thing that kept us apart. Launching a new branding project in April we had a team call with Seoul, Kiev, Odessa, Simferopol and Toronto – 12 time zones – on board. Some 10 years ago I’d think it sounded corporate as hell – in 2020 it’s me describing my small distributed team. Besides the work in common, we’ve also got a common enemy – the pandemic. Just like in war times it made our lifestyles, hopes and aspirations very similar. As countries were shutting the borders one after another, we were getting first-hand Covid updates at weekly stand-ups. Remember, how people really meant it when asking ‘How are you?’ those days?

Limitations equal focus. As designers we like to say that we always work better with limitations (mind you, that doesn’t apply to budgets) – they force us to think within specific boundaries and challenge us to come up with creative solutions. Drawing board aside, with no distractions I’ve developed a higher internal motivation to focus on work. Day in and day out, at roughly 9am I’d come down to my desk and pull off a full productive day of work. Not having to go to in-person meetings also freed a ton of my time.

Digital got (even more) real. The core of our portfolio is built of tech companies. Before Covid we were focused on branding and marketing websites – this year we shifted more to product. We were also able to get more digital-native clients (aka crypto/blockchain) and continued building our design muscles in UX.
We got deeper into digital both by the nature of our projects and the kinds of companies we work with. Don’t get me wrong, if a cool coffee shop comes to us for rebranding, we’ll still do it – as long as they have ambitions to be the best in their category.

It takes a hive. Most of our business comes from referrals and repeating clients; a smaller but important share would normally fall onto the new business – connections made through networking (mostly offline). Going out, meeting people, making new friends, learning about what’s happening out in the world used to be part of my business routine. With traditional offline channels cut off, attracting new leads got harder.

I attribute the fact of Oddbee staying busy through Covid to our network – all the wonderful people I’ve accumulated over the years: design colleagues, creative directors, marketers, startup founders, product managers and many more. I’ve been pushing pixels for literally half of my life, working in various capacities for design shops, agencies, large corporations and startups. When the outer world shuts down – your hive is what keeps you alive. 

Tools matter. Our processes had to be refined under pressure. We finally adopted Slack as our main go-to office space (thanks to all the integrations) with Trello as the task manager, Zoom as a board room, Invision as our presentation board, Harvest for time tracking, Dropbox as a storage solution, Xero as our accounting department, and Google Docs, well… as docs.

From the outside our process may seem more corporate than agile, but in a good way. Because we only have 4-5hrs a day of reasonable time overlap, we have to make good use of it. Communication is crucial – everything we do (except for the smallest changes) needs to be documented on Trello or slack channels. We have regular team meetings and almost daily one-on-ones. Most calls are scheduled, very few ad-hoc, mostly short and always with permission. #millennialstyle

I’d say, Covid gave me a good kick in the butt. Although I like to see it as positive, I’m genuinely looking forward to the pandemic to end. In 2021 I’m hoping for more clients, interesting projects and growing the hive. Right now we are going through our own rebranding and building a new website which I’ll be thrilled to share publicly early next year.  But frankly, the thing I’m looking forward to the most – is taking my grown team to another sunny off-site. 

Ps: Oh, I’ve also learned to make killer margaritas at home 🙂