This week we meet the big kahuna – Tamara Olson herself! I’ve known and worked with Tamara as a freelancer for several years before she started Studio Simpatico – and she has remained a favorite client (and now boss) ever since. Tamara talks about running her own agency while maintaining her skills and interest in the web.
And though my musical theater ambitions have waned over the years, I’m always up for a K-town karaoke night extravaganza.
Hey everyone! And hey, Amber — thank you so much for moderating this series!
I’m Tamara. I am, as I often say, a “child of the Internet.” I spent a good chunk of middle school in a sleepy Montana town teaching myself HTML, and from 1995 on you’ve almost always been able to find me building some sort of website. After college and a brief stint in magazine publishing, I moved to New York and got my Master’s from NYU Tisch’s delightfully quirky technology program, ITP. After a summer on the apple.com team in California, my love for New York brought me back, and I spent several years as an interaction designer for Google. It was there that I honed my UX chops, first leading a design team in Ads, and then serving as the interim design lead for Google Classroom.
Simpatico is fairly all-consuming (in the best way), but I treasure Friday nights with my husband and dog, enjoying craft cocktails, and I am slowly getting back into running. And though my musical theater ambitions have waned over the years, I’m always up for a K-town karaoke night extravaganza.
What’s your typical day at Simpatico like? What are some of your duties?
A typical day at Simpatico … Amber, you’re hilarious.
Alas, the entree changes day to day, but the ingredients are consistent enough:
- During intake calls, I dig into prospective clients’ businesses and what they’re trying to accomplish. Together, we explore the role that design and technology might play in helping them achieve those goals. If I think the studio is in a position to help move the needle, I assemble a project proposal for their consideration.
- I help clients define their brand: what makes them special, how they differ from their competitors. It’s kind of like being a therapist: our clients subconsciously know these things, but they’re often too entrenched in the day to day to articulate them succinctly.
- I conduct UX and marketing research. (Over the past years, I’ve enjoyed discovering how much the two disciplines’ methodologies share.)
- I design user experiences, choosing the best tool to tell the story I want/need to tell: site maps, wireframes, user flows, decks, whiteboard sketches, etc.
- I hop in to help the dev team with WordPress projects.
- I do what I recently learned is “business development” — a fancy way of saying I keep up with friends and colleagues who are working on interesting things. I love hearing people’s stories and unrealized visions, especially entrepreneurs’.
- I manage contracts, invoices, payroll, and “Simpatico HR” (health insurance, government paperwork, taxes, etc.)
- I brainstorm how to market Simpatico and drive new business. This includes managing internal advertising spend and campaigns.
- I ensure our shelves are stocked with the team’s preferred fuel: salted nuts, cold brew, pretzels, Fruit By the Foot, and Newman O’s. (Yes, those are the most in-demand items.)
Why did you decide to start Studio Simpatico?
In 2014, I left an incredible project and colleagues at Google because a) I missed getting my hands dirty in both design and development, and b) I wanted to start a business (#YOLO). After a few years of working solo as Tamara Olson Designs, I had a revelation surprising to an introvert: I missed working with people, the energy and banter I’d had on past teams. At the same time, many clients were encouragingly asking me if I had plans to grow.
When I met Sinan in 2015, it only took him sending a few of his design files and giphy-laden emails to know I wanted to work more with this guy. He takes his work seriously but not himself, and that work always comes from a place of deep intention, analysis, and intelligence. (Also, it looks freakin’ amazing.) We were simpatico from the beginning, and officially became Studio Simpatico in February 2017.
How do you balance running the business with actual client work?
It’s hard. I’m still learning.
I try to automate the business as much as I can. That includes hiring people that are motivated, talented self-starters so my ‘management’ responsibilities can be more supportive than directive.
I take advantage of lots of SMB tools to streamline our processes (Basecamp, Harvest, HelloSign, Gusto).
Though our clients appreciate dealing directly with the people doing the work and it keeps our overhead costs low, I do try to keep creative conversations separate from business ones; I believe that discussions about budget or scope should happen as different conversations than talking about the creative work.
Besides budget, how do you decide which clients to work with?
I first assess whether our team’s superpowers align with what they need. Due to our size, our offerings are niche: UX/product design, visual identity and branding, web design, and WordPress development. I also assess whether their timeline and budget goals are appropriate.
Beyond that standard stuff, I try to get a sense of the client’s style and how they want to work with their design partner. Our style is deeply collaborative, and it’s not for everyone.
Finally, the team’s gut feeling is as important (if not more important) than my own. After realizing I was boring everyone with my long-winded “new business” updates at our weekly standup, I now use the #simpaticonewbiz Slack channel to float potential projects and take the temperature of our team’s enthusiasm (Amber: hey we are never bored when you speak!).
What’s your favorite type of project to work on?
As an individual contributor: A big, meaty UX research and design project where we’re involved from the very beginning … one in which I’m doing competitive research, honing a vision, defining features, designing the user flows, sketching the wireframes, and shaping the entire thing. I also love fixing messes: A project where stakeholders know the “UX is bad,” they don’t know why, and I have a few weeks to conduct user studies and bring back findings and recommendations.
As Simpatico’s principal: We do a lot of B2B marketing websites. It’s a great fit for our team’s strengths, and we run a pretty tight ship from an efficiency perspective. The end product that results from our team’s collaboration and efforts inspires and amazes me … Every. Single. Launch.
What makes Simpatico’s culture different from other web agencies?
- We don’t have project managers
- We don’t have a ‘B’ team – clients get our ‘A’ team every time
- Our DNA is product/UX design, which makes us uniquely positioned (especially given our size) to take a project from product requirements to fully thought out, high fidelity visual design
- We don’t outsource development, and most of our developers come from design backgrounds
- I find every member of Team Simpatico to be smart, articulate, thoughtful, funny, quirky, kind, and genuinely a blast to work with. It’s really special, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.