Josh Gross and Matthew Ström are former freelancers that banded together to create Planetary, a studio empowering companies through better design. Their clients include Cannon, Jawbone, McKinsey and Google. Here we talk about building an agency, working remotely and setting client expectations.

I’ve got to tell you—I love the name Planetary. Where did that come from?

JOSH GROSS: Prior to starting Planetary, I had a company called Sub-Orbital. I just felt like sticking with the space theme.

What drove you guys to starting your own agency?

JOSH: Well, we had each been freelancing on our own for a while. Individually, we could get a lot done, but working together we realized that we were much better. Our sets of skills combined made us much more powerful.

Josh you’re in New York, and Matt you’re in St. Louis. How did you meet?

MATT STRÖM: Josh and I both went to school in St. Louis. However, we didn’t meet in school.

A little more than a year ago we got together with some mutual friends for a trip, and Josh happened to be on that trip. And really that’s how we met for the first time.

We kept in touch and talked about our individual freelance work—It came clear that we both have very similar goals, and approaches to design. There was also some interesting overlap in our technical backgrounds.

It just made sense to start working together.

“A brief aside on differences in culture—in St. Louis every event has free beer.”

There is a lot of discussion with Jeffery Zeldman and others in the design community about the death and future of agencies. Where do you think the future lies?

MATT: It is interesting that you mention that. Josh and I sat down and discussed what we wanted Planetary to be—we wanted it to be an answer to the traditional agency model.

Both of us having been freelancers in the past, we wanted to employ some of the same strategies for our clients work. We targeted tasks that we were the right size for, and removed a lot of the organizational overhead—that is important. We don’t weigh our clients down by retaining a huge staff of people.

At Planetary, we build a team that is just the right size for our clients project. If we need others we reach out to our friends and freelancers in our network.

It seems strange to start an agency in response to the death of the agency, but it seemed like an opportunity for us.

I think it has worked out well.

Josh do you have anything to add?

JOSH: Yeah, it is important for us to be flexible at the size and scale of our clients.

But we also didn’t want to be the “Hey, we can do design for you,” or the “Hey, we can do development for you” shop. Design and development shops have become a popular thing, but they are a step removed. We want to be a continual partner rather than somebody that comes in and jumps out.

Do you have any examples of going that extra step with current clients?

MATT: Let’s see if I can answer this question without violating any NDAs. What do you think Josh?

JOSH: Yeah, what about Undercurrent?

MATT: So one thing I was thinking about when you mentioned Jeffery Zeldman’s writing was how most agencies operate.

When I talk with a lot of clients, they expect me to be the project manager. That is true, but I’m also a founder, designer, creative director and developer. This has surprised some of our clients.

We recently did some work with a consultancy in New York called Undercurrent. We were in the room with several people that were in management—many of them at the upper-level.

Planetary World Bank Data Visualization
Planetary partnered with McKenzie & Company to create data visualizations of remittance, credit card debt, and spending. These were created using D3.js and Circos.

There was a series of things we did. First, we sat down and did these rapid strategic thinking exercises. Then we looked at in-depth interviews with their customers, and help them generate ideas around their product.

As this is happening Josh and I are designing and developing prototypes of these ideas on-the-fly. It feels like a magic trick sometimes.

We’re only able to do this, because we’re not managing large teams people with individual skill sets.

How long does something like that take? Also, how far along are these prototypes?

MATT: With this particular workshop we met on a Monday, and by Friday we had left them will a fully-formed, high-fidelity prototypes.

We had gone from a blank slate to an incredibly well-thought-out product in a week.

Planetary is fairly new. I saw that you’ve worked with the makers of Jambox, Jawbone. Where did your first clients come from? How did you get them?

JOSH: The first clients for Planetary came through our existing freelance connections.

We’ve worked with a ton of people in the past. They come back to us, and we let them know that at Planetary we’ve got the capacity to do more than we could on our own. More often than not, that is pretty exciting for them.

“It seems strange to start an agency in response to the death of the agency, but it seemed like an opportunity for us.”

You guys have repackaged your services as products, micro and rethink. Tell us a bit about those products and the decision behind it.

JOSH: Those were born out of previous experiences with clients. For example, the week-long workshop with Undercurrent.

Last year I started this project called onehour.me. I sold one hour of my expertise. The price started at $1, and each time someone purchased an hour, the price went up $1.

It was mainly an experiment, but people were excited that they could get an hour or two of help for a small amount.

We decided to add a bit of structure and repackage that concept.

That’s funny. I remember seeing onehour.me, but didn’t know you at the time. Cool concept.

MATT: You and anybody that has ever worked in any sort of creative roll can attest that there is a certain level of trust that has to be established with a new client.

You have to build a relationship very quickly. The better the relationship with the client, the more trust there is, the more willing they are to share ideas that they might think are tenuous.

We really thought about how to build relationships with clients. We’re hoping to get potential clients to interact with us on a small scale, so that we can then work together on a big scale.

I think you guys have a great blog. Being able to write is incredibly important, and beyond the design, I like what you guys are writing about.

Planetary at Undercurrent
Matt and Josh during a rapid fire brainstorm session with Undercurrent in New York. Photo by Sandra Hong.

“Networking doesn’t happen at networking events.”

You wrote that “10 percent of a project is work and 90 percent is communication.” What steps can be taken to help communicate with clients better.

JOSH: One of the most important things you can do on any project—and this is from making these mistakes many, many times myself—is set the expectations upfront.

When should they expect to hear from you? What should they expect on that day? Then make sure you actually deliver to those expectations.

Early on in my freelance career I made that mistake a good dozen times before I realized clients weren’t happy with me because I wasn’t communicating.

Setting expectations is incredibly important, and sometimes something that can be difficult to do.

I’m curious, do you guys have a philosophy that you stand by?

MATT: I wouldn’t say that we have a Code of Hammurabi that we consult every time we sit down to a new project. Every one is different.

We’re flexible. We look at the true needs. We don’t approach things with an ego.

One of the posts on our blog was about asking the deeper questions. Sometimes clients ask you to do a specific task for them. Some will do it, but we look into the subtext of that to try and find the problem they are actually trying to solve.

Josh, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

“I’m an aspiring astronaut. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of amateur astronauts out there.”

NASA Mission Control
A favorite picture of aspiring astronauts Matt and Josh. Reactor control room at NASA Headquarters circa 1959.

JOSH: It’s true. We approach our project without any predispositions. Every client, every need is different.

We try and look for the question beyond the task. What is our client ultimately trying to achieve? Why do they want to redesign their site? Why are they rebranding this product?

What is their goal? What is the underlying purpose?

Once we get there—that’s when we lay out the steps for our project.

Got it. So the client says, “we need X.” You guys take a step back and ask “why do you need X?

Do the two of you work alone? Do you hire other freelancers? What is the team like?

JOSH: Matt and I are the face of Planetary right now. There is a small set of freelancers that we work with frequently.

When things get busy we have everyone on board. When things quiet down a bit many of them will go back to working on their own projects.

As we grow I’m sure we’ll have people join us on a more consistent basis.

As a project comes to a close what types of things to you reflect on?

MATT: For me personally, one very important part of this project is measuring if it was a success. There are so many things that help define that, and the last thing is “Did we get paid?”

Don’t get me wrong, getting paid is a success.

I do think that as an agency, a startup, a young company there are things that we need to be aware of. When we’re done with a project, we can have a happy client, a fat paycheck, and there still may be a reason that project isn’t successful.

If it took two weeks of all-nighters to get to that point, it wouldn’t be a success. If it causes Josh and I to get really mad at each other, it wouldn’t be a success.

Sometimes you need to consider if you’ve succeeded, and whether or not you’ve done so on your own terms.

Matt Strom Planetary
Matt works from a booth while in New York for Planetary’s rapid prototyping session with Undercurrent. Photo by Sandra Hong.

JOSH: What could we have done better, or done differently the next time around?

It is important to figure out how to do things better the next project. We always end up sitting down and making notes to see where we failed and where we succeeded.

Josh, you’re in New York and Matt, you’re in St. Louis. What is it like working remotely?

MATT: It hardly feels like we’re remote.

We use a piece of software called Sqwiggle that helps make sure Josh and I are in constant communication. It takes a picture with your webcam every minute or so. I can see if Josh is at his desk, chat with him, or jump on a video call.

Sometimes it may be better than being in the same room, because you aren’t incessantly tapping someone else on the shoulder.
Difficult enough where you guys aren’t constantly bantering, but easy enough to get in touch when you’ve got a question.

MATT & JOSH: (Laughter) Well, we still do our fair share of banter.

Matt, earlier you talked about the importance of building a network. How does someone go about doing that?

MATT: Resilient Effort.

JOSH: (Laughter)

MATT: A brief aside on differences in culture—in St. Louis every event has free beer.

That is incredible. I’m living in the wrong town.

MATT: It is a blessing and a curse.

Go ahead Josh. Now you get to give a serious answer.

JOSH: Matt and I were talking about this earlier. You don’t want to be networking just for the sake of networking. Make an effort to connect with people on a regular basis.

You may meet someone at an event, and then run into them in a few weeks at the bank—it is really those times in-between meetings that make a relationship work.

It’s something that is hard to do, but it is key.

“Sometimes you need to consider if you’ve succeeded, and whether or not you’ve done so on your own terms.”

MATT: The most important connections that I’ve made have happened outside of pre-determined networking events.

I might have meet them at a happy hour, or a Meetup or a professional event, but it isn’t until I see them out the next time that a relationship is really built. That is where the real networking happens, not at a networking event.

I like that. Networking doesn’t happen at networking events.

We are reaching the end of the interview. I do have to ask, are you guys going to be building a space ships anytime soon?

MATT: I’m an aspiring astronaut. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of amateur astronauts out there.

Well, are there any last pieces of advice that you’d give to freelancers or people starting an agency?

MATT: It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.

I think that sometimes the way media works, and the people you see talk on stage at big events like to promote a glamorous, savant-like attitude. They make it seem like everything is presented on a silver platter.

A lot needs to be said for the hard work that it requires to be a professional in this environment.

Everyday I wake up and realize how much it pays to be relentless when it comes to pursuing a career in the creative industry.

JOSH: The only thing I have to add is that your phone will become your best friend and your worst enemy. When you’re two steps into the subway, you’ll get a call from a client needing something desperately, and have to run to the nearest coffee shop to try and deliver it.

Matt is right, it is a lot of work.