Two Beers with 10,000ft: SOAPOINT
In our new interview series, we sit down over drinks with leaders of companies we admire to talk about design, innovation, and how they balance team creativity with the complexities of running a business.
In true rule-breaking fashion, Mike Hornbeck, Founder and Creative Director, and Kat West, Art Director, kicked off our video interview not with beer, but with tequila shots before we got started talking about their Denver-based design agency, creativity, office game hyperboles, and giant foam middle fingers.
Tell us how SOAPOINT got started.
Mike: I always drew stuff as a kid and went to art school after I graduated high school. I was doing a lot of art shows and weird apparel, then I started helping out at a sign shop. I was punching out stickers all day and laminating things. It was the lowest end of the totem pole, but I was super happy. I was more of a designer at heart though, so I started doing my own thing and it spun into this almost eight years later. The name Soapoint (pronounced soap-point) came from college, when my friend and I used to do a lot of…extracurricular painting…and it spun into some paid work. He signed his work "Soap" and I signed mine "Point." For a long time, we were just a garage studio where people would drop by to do artwork, and the name stuck.
Kat: I got involved when Mike and I were on the board for AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts). I told him, "You need an art director. I'm coming over there." And it just kind of worked.
Mike: Up until that point, it was just a bunch of people helping me, and then Kat came on and helped us develop some infrastructure and spin it into a full-on agency. The growth here has been exponential ever since. It's crazy, we can hardly keep up.
Kat: Our team has grown by 300% in the past year and a half.
Growing that quickly, how do you build the company culture you want while still holding onto the garage roots you started with?
Kat: Well, we still have garage doors.
Mike: We all cuss like sailors. We're very studio-oriented and try to keep a work environment that isn't too structured. Everyone is just themselves and we encourage that. I think that helps keep the street mentality.
Kat: We have bunk beds, skateboards, and dogs everywhere. We're truly a work family and everyone is super passionate about what we're doing.
What do you think drives that passion?
Kat: I would say a combination of our work and culture. We're lucky to do cool work with cool clients who are doing new things. For example, one of our clients is our local street mall— we're trying to bring them targeted design. We all relate to the work, so there's a lot of immediate passion.
Mike: We want our team to put themselves into their work. We don't say, "This is what I want you to do." It's more of, "Hey guys, here's the goal we have to accomplish. I need you to bring your experiences to this. Last time you were walking through your local mall, what did you hate? What did you like? What typefaces did you notice?" They go out and live and then incorporate it back into what we do everyday. We depend on that. It's how we keep things fresh. Our best meetings go down in our giant conference room. There's plexiglass everywhere and everyone gets markers and they just start chatting and drawing. We encourage the banter. Write it all down, photograph it, catalog it – all the random bullsh*t. It might be gold later.
How do you approach innovation? Do you try to give enough boundaries and structure so your team has a process, or do you just open the door and see what happens?
Mike: I think it's about pushing ideas absolutely as far as possible, then choking the idea back to something that makes sense. If you push the idea so far that it turns into something extreme, it allows you to come back and approach it with a light enough heart to make it really well-formulated. We try to blow everything out of the water, but we still have to keep the work practical from a creation standpoint.
We're really interested in that balance; you can push ideas out into unchartered territory and find amazing work, but at the end of the day your client still has a budget and deadline and you have to be respectful of that. How do you navigate that line?
Kat: It depends. We have some designers who we give one teeny bit of information and watch them fly with it. Then there are others where we need to give a little more guidance towards the end goal. As directors, Mike and I are responsible for foreseeing what the outcome should look like. While we encourage our team to put their creativity to each project, we also know what the client needs, what the budget is, and how many hours we can realistically spend.
Mike: Let 'em run left and right, but always bring 'em back to center.
Kat: It's a tricky line.
Mike: On the creative side, we want to let them run free but we still need to function within a set of guidelines. Sometimes we have to step in and say, "Hey, we're taking this too far right now, there's no way we can build this." That's just the nature of the game.
Before this interview, you mentioned that you intentionally only schedule your team for 6 billable hours and two projects per day. Isn't that unheard of in your industry? It seems that a lot of companies push their teams to work as much as possible and do as many projects as clients will give them.
Mike: We could do that and our margins would probably be higher, but our turnover rate would also be higher. We don't need that here. We try to keep things really simple and show enough value to our clients that they don't want to leave us. We bust our asses as a team to answer their needs.
Kat: We're very transparent about why we do what we do. In turn, I don't think the team thinks, "Awesome, I only need to work 6 hours a day. I'm just going to screw around." They come in every single day with amazing new ideas.
Mike: We get 6 genuine, hard-working hours out of every person here every single day. They're more than happy to give it.
Tell us about fun things your team does together.
Mike: Alright, I'm going to give you the super conceptual breakdown of the games we have in house. We use to pool to break up bad ideas and tension in the building. Ping pong is good to bounce ideas off each other. Darts help you hone in on the target. And corn hole teaches you to be lofty and expansive with your ideas. We try to get them to do a little bit of that every day.
You rehearsed that, didn't you?
Mike: [Smiles] Maybe. Honestly though, sometimes they get that sh*tty email and it can be frustrating. So they go play ping pong for a bit to take a breath. It lets them release the energy instead of being at their desks all tight and anxious. That's not good. I tell them, "You're here for 8 hours. I only expect you to do 6 hours of work a day to keep the business successful and keep you in a job with benefits. Everything after that is gravy."
Kat: It's definitely a balance. Having such an open office also can mean constant distractions, which can get in the way of productivity. We created these [holds up a giant foam middle finger]. Everybody has one to attach to their desks in case they just need get some work done without interruptions.
Mike: If the finger is on the desk, you leave them alone.
Do you feel like all of the fun, cultural team building ends up benefiting your clients in the end? Is that the goal?
Kat: Our staff told us that yes, it relieves their stress and clears their minds, but the biggest benefit is that they create real relationships with their coworkers. They're thrilled with what we produce, because they care about the work and they support their team wholeheartedly.
How else do you help foster relationships and innovation?
Mike: We're planning a new creative night in-house this year where everybody can come to the table and hang out after hours with drinks.
Kat: No computers!
Mike: No computers. We'll talk about something we want to make together or paint a wall together or something like that. We'll also invite our clients because we want our employees to be invested in them and we want our clients to understand who is behind their incredible work.
What's one of the biggest wins you've helped your clients have recently?
Kat: We just did this amazing local newspaper cover wrap for one of our clients that helped them sell more than $100,000 in products in one day. The photography and the messaging spoke to a different target market than we've reached before, and people were rushing to the stores.
Any final thoughts?
Mike: I was always so scared to tell people we're an agency. I used to just say that we were a sign shop. But Kat helped us take it to the next level and turn it an agency. I'm not nervous to say it anymore. In fact, now when people think anything less, I'm like, "We're a #$!*ing agency, man."
Kat: We're thankful to you guys for understanding what we do everyday. Our relationship with 10,000ft makes our jobs work. Let's cheers to that!
SOAPOINT is a creative agency located in Denver, Colorado. They work with different media to create unique, custom graphics for their clients. The SOAPOINT team has over 35 years of combined experience in printing and installing services. Learn more at www.soapoint.com.
Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.