Swimming with Razorfish
By Lucas Daniel
Last in a three-part series on design shops in New York.
In the large pond known as the Web-design industry, one name perpetually surfaces. All designers know about Razorfish (www.razorfish.com). What they might not know is that this year is crucial for the Razorfish vision, or that the company is planning some heavy broadband and mobility projects. Peter Seidler, chief creative officer, recently spoke with us in the company's New York offices, giving his opinions on Razorfish's internal workings and how it's approaching the future of Web design. With the recent flurry of shop consolidation, Seidler explains how Razorfish keeps its head above water.
Web Techniques: How long have you been with Razorfish?
Peter Seidler: Well, I started a company called Avalanche, which was very similar to Razorfish. A couple years ago we were probably the leaders in New York. We decided that we were a lot stronger together. Avalanche was about 40 people and Razorfish was about 60 people, and together we were a big company of 100 people, so we put the companies together. That was two and a half years ago. Since then we've acquired a lot of companies. We are now 1300 people globally, and about half of our business is in Europe.
WT: Do you know approximately how many companies you've acquired?
PS: Well, actually, the acquisition isn't the way that we've grown the most. Mostly it's been through organic growth, but we have acquired specific companies in different markets for different reasons. The most recent acquisition is i-Cube, and they are all back-end systems integration.
WT: So your motive behind all the acquisitions and organic growth is really just to offer more talent to your projects?
PS: With the acquisition of i-Cube, we finally have all the pieces in place to do what the vision was, which is to really deliver unique user experiences across platforms, networks, and devices. We want to be able to do everything from stuff for Game Boy to back-end billing operations, and to make sure that we can deliver this across every platform. So 2000 is an important year for us, because we have all the pieces in placewe didn't up until now. And now it's just growing all these capabilities deeper and also getting better integrated.
WT: Is integration a difficult challenge?
PS: Yeah, and it also relates to the market. We're actually ready to do broadband projects.
We're working on a couple of really interesting things right now, but it's market driven. Broadband is just not ready, and the same is true for mobility. We have mobility knowledge, but if you look at what is really available in New York for mobile services, it's crap.
WT: You were saying that with the acquisition of i-Cube, the pieces are complete. You also said there was a strong vision that drove the company's growth. Will this acquisition end your big-fish-eating-little-fish approach?
PS: No, first of all there are a lot of markets that we're not in that we want to be inyou know, Italy, Spain, other places. Each one of our offices is continuing to grow at a pretty fast pace, so each individual office is growing. In San Francisco, we're spinning off additional offices, and there are a lot of cities where we don't have offices yet: Chicago, Atlanta, Austin. So there are a lot of places for us to be.
We'll grow geographically, and we'll grow in size for each office. Our capabilities though, this notion of end-to-endit's a complete picture now. As I said, we just need to develop deeper offerings in each of these areas. It's like we're growing deeper in terms of the offering, wider in terms of geography. The pace will probably be just as fast this year and for the foreseeable future, or for the next couple of years at least.
WT: Razorfish is known for acquiring a lot of boutiques, and I wonder what the cultural process of change is. In other words, a company like iXL has a reputation of acquiring and imploding. I don't know if it's because it's an imposed corporate culture, but I visited i-Cube, and it was a very different feel. You know, cubes; it was quiet.
PS: We're going to change all that [laughs]. i-Cube was a little different than many of our acquisitions. When we sat down in a room together and met with i-Cube's management team for the first time, it was clear in that first meeting that they had the same aspirations and they actually saw themselves becoming more like Razorfish. And we really shared some values.
It's an emphasis on learning or honesty. That's hard to talk about, but it's important that we demand a certain amount of honesty from each other and from the clients. With these kinds of things we had the same group values, and they had this aspiration to become a little cooler [laughs]. So there was a really good fit. The tone was set from the Avalanche/Razorfish merger; we were the same culture. I mean, it was fundamentally over a weekend that we moved in. Everybody shuffled around and we moved everybody in and the next day it was very natural. That's because the companies we've chosen to acquire are very similar.
When an entrepreneur starts a business and creates his or her own brand and has that kind of identity with [an existing] brand, he or she is personally identified. There are individual and collective subjective aspects to that event that need to be honored and appreciated, but not dwelled on.
Because this business is moving so fast, we reinvent ourselves every three months. There's no time for getting caught up in stuff that doesn't mean anything.
WT: When you say, "reinvent ourselves," what is that process like?
PS: In December we took everybody to Las Vegas. We had all these break-out sessions to reevaluate things like our values, what's working and what's not working. Collectively, through this work process, we recreated ourselves. The name is Razorfish, the identity is what it is, but it's like refining, or the next stage. A company with 1300 people is just a different animal.
There's also an emphasis here that is sometimes difficult for people [to grasp]. You're expected to be self-motivated, to drive something. So it's really up to people to invent their own thing.
There was a group of people that just decided through email globally that they wanted to bring together all of our branding initiatives. This group of people just decided, and it wasn't like a mandate, like "you are now in charge of figuring this out." It was this grassroots thing where bunch of people were really motivated, got together in London, and started working on it. Now we have a really specific process and in-depth substantiation of what we mean by brand, and what we mean by the branding process. This was made up of people from all over, who go back and can instruct and adopt that decision with all kinds of clients and client solutions.
That's very much a cultural attribute of Razorfish. I think maybe that's why we can be the size we are and still be fairly nimbleit's about that sort of entrepreneurial energy. If you see a problem, it's your problem to fix. It's not like you have to report up through this system to get permission to fix something. You see a problem, fix it. And there is a high expectation. For someone who needs a lot of guidance, it's tough.
WT: For a company that's looking at being acquired by Razorfish, what's the motivation to sail under that brand?
PS: I think it's access to great infrastructure. The business is run really well, so there's access to everything from finance to operations and so forth. There's just a tremendous advantage there in adopting these tools so that people are freed up to do creative work. And then, in addition, we have a permanent process team constantly revisiting our process and disseminating improvements. It's a very process-oriented business.
WT: This is internal?
PS: Actually, we bring the client into the process, but it's how we do things from beginning to end in terms of a project. Because these projects have gotten incredibly complex, a small company can drown in that stuffjust maintaining, being able to handle these complex multifaceted projects. So they're freed up from having to do that. They get access to this very flexible, well-thought-out process that they can use. It's there, they can take advantage of it. Also, you get to work with other smart people, and then there's the ability to travel and work in these different offices. And we're known for our parties [laughs].
Lucas is an associate editor for DesignShops.com.