I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Jackson.
Jeremy is the Principal and Founder at NY-based Shift Lab, an agency of design-minded technologists hell-bent on creating truly collaborative and iterative working relationships between designers and technologists. Founded in 2012 with offices in NYC and Lancaster, PA, Shift Lab works with start-ups, design agencies, established businesses, and big tech companies to craft beautiful, user-driven experiences that connect the dots between client ambition, conceptual design thinking, and thoughtful code. Jeremy has worked in product development, UX, graphic design, and development for the web since the mid-’90s and was Director of Technology at the innovative international digital product and design studio, Method. Jeremy works in NYC and lives in New Jersey with his wife and three kids where he enjoys boating, fishing, SCUBA diving, and all things saltwater.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
It’s interesting to take time to reflect on where I’ve been and what I’ve learned, so thank you for having me.
I consider myself a designer and a technologist. In the mid-1990s, I was fortunate enough to have a computer, and I started learning how the web works. In college, I studied “new media” — this was before web curriculums — and, later, graphic design in my post-grad studies. All the while, web and app development was never far behind, so I pretty much grew both skill sets together over the last two decades.
After gaining experience in different agency roles and in-house product teams, I saw value in being able to provide both left and right brain thinking to my work and found myself seeking roles where I could flex those skills across both spectrums. All the while, I became acutely aware of how tightly coupled design and development need to be to create premium digital experiences. In making digital products, design in the absence of technology is meaningless, and, of course, the inverse is also true. More pointedly, I rarely saw meaningful collaborations between designers and developers.
I think what is especially interesting about building digital products is how fundamentally different the disciplines of design and software development actually are. I found designers and developers were often at odds despite working toward the same common goal. It was my desire to create an agency that recognized the importance of healthy collaboration across disciplines, specializing in pairing with design teams, technical strategy, and iterative software development processes.
In 2012, I founded a NYC-based development agency called Shift Lab. Our mission is to help our partners and collaborators build beautifully-crafted digital products, and help them use technology to solve business challenges. Our work tends to be oriented toward very customized and unique technical, data, and user experience challenges. We want to create a truly collaborative and iterative design and development process so that we can help our partners roll out the best possible solutions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, I am a “creative” running a business, so I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. I can’t say that I have a particularly funny example, but I did learn quickly the importance of culture-matching in the client-agency relationship.
I think anyone providing technical services needs to be sensitive to the fact that people procuring those services do not always understand what they are buying. Typically, they have a great grasp of the desired goals, business challenges, and outcomes, but they understandably don’t always know how to get there. That’s why they need us.
It’s our job as agency leaders and experts to demystify this by stripping away the “magic” and helping our partners understand how we use a repeatable process to arrive at those outcomes. That doesn’t mean that you have to be dogmatic or shove the process down their throats, but there does need to be a spirit of openness and transparency, so that you can set the parameters of the collaboration and expectations for all parties involved. This starts long before the project kick-off.
Bringing something to market with even a modest level of complexity is not easy, so it’s only fair that everyone understands what is expected of them to guarantee success. No matter how good we are, if we don’t get access to the right information and decision-makers, we can’t really deliver maximum value. Over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good about identifying potential partners who really want and need this type of relationship with an agency partner, and ones that don’t.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Years ago, books like Don’t Make Me Think, The Design of Everyday Things, and Purple Cow helped to anchor my understanding of how empathetic design, strategy, differentiation, and technology all fit together in digital product development. There are also a ton of development-oriented books that helped me expand my technical skills — far too many to mention.
Now, I tend to read more about emerging technologies or maximizing efficiencies in processes. Books like Blockchain Revolution, The Lean Startup, and Scrum: Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time are a few that come to mind.
I also appreciate the unabashed honesty of Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media in the early seasons of the StartUp podcast. It’s refreshing to hear a successful leader speak openly about doubts, fears, and talking through non-binary impacts of making business decisions.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The impetus behind starting Shift Lab in the first place was simple: Do interesting work with good people. It was never about profitability, growth, or achieving any specific business metrics. Instead, it was based on a belief that we had a unique way of looking at the work, collaboration points, and processes, and that there was a market for this within the agency space.
To me, this means producing work at the highest level of quality and having the opportunity to work with smart and driven people. While my role has changed as the company has grown, I still stick to this fundamental vision when I think about and plan our future.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
If I had to boil this down to one thing, it would be: Surround yourself with talented people and trust them.
Between resourcing, cash flow, performance goals, office logistics, tax deadlines, receivables, and business development, there is plenty to try to keep your head around as a business owner. In the early days, I stretched myself pretty thin trying to be both a practitioner and business owner. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but I never could get the balance quite right on the business side. This is a problem that compounded as we grew. It got to a point where I really had to look at how I was spending my time and figure out where, specifically, I could uniquely provide the most value to the company. For everything else, I needed to “replace” myself.
This led me to think about and plan what our company might look like at scale — the beginnings of adopting a truly strategic mindset to the business — and consider what type of people I’d need to pull it off. For me, this meant hiring people into roles and responsibilities I had tried to cover in the past. Unsurprisingly, when given the freedom and space to run our client work, they do an amazing job. This in turn gives me the freedom to lend a hand on projects strategically when I’m needed, and to focus the rest of my time on running and growing the business for the benefit of both our clients and team.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I work in New York City and live in New Jersey — areas that have been global hotspots for COVID-19. Personally, I know dozens of people who have fallen ill and a few who have succumbed to COVID-19. Many more have lost employment or businesses, and are struggling with economic insecurity.
All things considered, my family and I are weathering the pandemic relatively well. Keeping our three kids focused on virtual learning, preparing all of our own meals, staying sane in close quarters, and loss of routine are certainly challenges, but there are silver linings as well. Hitting pause on our normal busy lives and having uninterrupted time together isn’t a bad thing. Through it all, I am grateful that my family is safe and healthy.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have understandably had clients pull back budgets and pause work due to the economic factors and future uncertainty. Fortunately for us, the vast majority of our clients have stayed resolute during the pandemic, and work has progressed as normal, thanks to our long-established culture of remote work. Sure, we have seen revenues impacted and are paying rent on two studios we cannot use, but we have not been thrust into chaos as many other businesses have.
For me personally, my job is to run a transparent and ethical company for the benefit or our team and our partners. It’s easy to do this when times are good, but far more important when things are not. I think it’s only natural to worry during these times, and I’ve tried to be especially empathic to the personal strain on everyone, knowing they’re both trying to stay healthy, seeing their home and work lives forcibly intertwined, and are watching friends and family members lose their jobs and battle economic insecurity.
So, it’s important for me to let them in on the health of the business, and provide reassurances where I can while recognizing the uncertainty we’re all feeling right now. Historically speaking, we’re in uncharted waters — some level of uncertainty inevitably comes along with that.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Not to go too far on a tangent, but I think our news cycles and basis of what we collectively consider to be fact in the U.S. is problematic. I think overindulging in the news cycle is a supreme waste of time. At its worst, it breeds confusion, fear, anger, and hopelessness.
I chose not to consume content from network news sources or any organization that has a political ax to grind, and I recommend others do the same. I seek out organizations with journalistic integrity and check in on the news once or twice a day. I only need enough information to stay informed so that I can make the right decisions for myself, my family, and the business. Any more than that is a waste of my time and energy.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Since its inception, Shift Lab has enjoyed the benefits of a booming economy. So, to think that changes to the economy would not impact us would be naive. That said, I anticipate that the types of problems clients will ask us to solve may change, but the need for both businesses and technologies to constantly progress and adapt, will not.
No matter what, tech will find a way to keep pushing forward. As it does, companies will need people like us to interpret it for them and help them find ways to apply it to their business.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We are still in the thick of this right now, so I don’t think anyone is in a great position to predict what life might look like on the other side. If I’m just guessing, I think people will probably be pretty wary of their proximity to others, and I think this could last for some time — especially in the most hard-hit areas. Standing here now, it’s difficult to see how things like working in the office, public transit, bars, restaurants, live events, and travel will return to any semblance of normalcy anytime soon.
Eventually, though, I think the science and medical fields will provide us with solutions and the answers we need, and we will re-embrace life as we knew it. Also, I just think people’s desire to live a normal life will begin to outweigh their fear of the virus.
On the business side, I think many industries will be looking to insulate themselves from this type of turmoil moving forward. For some, this may mean embracing remote work more, looking for different systems and tools to minimize disruption, or even shifting their business and revenue models.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
First of all, I really have no idea what to expect, in terms of the economic outlook post-COVID. I think it’s reasonable to say that we are not in a position yet to fathom the damage done to the economy, on the local, national, or global scale. In all likelihood, this will cut in ways we can’t yet understand.
We miss our desks and lunchtime haunts but are still on track to meet our goals for the year. Looking ahead, I think we can safely assume there will be an indeterminate economic hangover from all of this. We’re preparing for that by looking at unnecessary expenses or maybe kicking a few internal initiatives we had planned a few months down the road.
No matter what, our culture is about the people and the work. We are very fortunate to have an amazing team and awesome clients, and that’s what’s special about our agency at the end of the day. My job is to create the best possible work environment for our team and to get better every day at providing the highest level of quality and thinking for our partners, and the economic outlook doesn’t change that.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I expect that everyone’s pandemic experience is a bit different. As the weeks of the lock down progress, this way of life is beginning to feel normal. I have to remind myself that things are far from normal, and many, many people in and outside of our immediate circles are suffering greatly. The impacts and way we respond to this are uniquely personal. I think we would all do well to remember that and aim to be just a little more compassionate and empathetic in our personal and professional relationships.
How can our readers further follow your work?