Women-Owned Agency Tells Its Culture Story

By Paula Bernier June 16, 2017

Primitive Spark Inc. is a digital design agency with experience in applied technology, content strategy, digital strategy, enterprise user experience, and user research. It’s a majority women-owned business. And it has a corporate culture that allows for flex time, remote work, unlimited vacation, and other forward-looking work options.

TMC recently interviewed Kathryn E. Campbell, managing partner of Primitive Spark. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

When and how did the company get started?

We formed in 2009, just as the country was slowly emerging from the Great Recession. Our founders all knew each other. We felt that we had the right skills and values to start a creative agency that didn’t suck to work at – which is rarer than you might realize!

How many employees do you have, and where are they located?

Right now we have 10 employees and several long-term freelancers. Our main office is in El Segundo, near LAX in Los Angeles. We also have a small satellite office in Denver.

What does Primitive Spark offer?

We’re a user-centered design agency for digital products. We focus on complex user experience. Our work produces rapid user adoption of products, by making complex applications intuitive and insightful.

Who are your customers?

Our customers vary significantly, from cultural institutions like The Tech Museum of Innovation to high-tech companies like Cisco. What they have in common is that they want to elevate their product experience to make it more differentiating and useful to users.

I understand Primitive Spark is a female-owned business. How, if at all, does that inform your company culture?

There are many things that we do to support an uplifting culture, so it’s hard to say what is directly attributable to being female-majority owned. Many of the key contributions to our culture were originally suggested by the men on our team! So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that alignment around the ‘feminine principle’ of interconnectedness is what sets us apart.

We foster collaboration, both between our team members and with client teams. We don’t encourage the competition or bravado that you see in some brogrammer-led start-ups. We expect our staff to treat each other and our clients and partners with respect, and to show appreciation when someone has helped them out.

We got some recent feedback from one of our newest team members, Joey, who remarked that we have a uniquely strong ‘listening’ culture.

Kathryn E. Campbell

Listening and being authentic is a key part of our process and our culture. It’s part of a ‘whole person’ approach that we take to acknowledging the intersection of our personal and work lives. For example, we encourage sharing details of what’s going on with each employee personally as a part of our weekly staff meetings. If someone’s distracted because their parent has been diagnosed with cancer, or they just broke up with their partner, everyone is aware of it and helps to support them while they are going through that. We also celebrate achievements that happen outside the company. We embrace the reality that workers are humans, not machines. This might sound obvious, but it’s not the norm in business.

How does being a women-owned entity make doing business easier?

It does make us stand out in a world where many of our clients still only have men on their product team. A high tech company where three of the four founders are women is almost unheard of, even today.

It’s also true that empathy, a trait typically seen as feminine, is key to user-centered design. It’s a trait that all of our team members have, both men and women, across all disciplines. 

How, it at all, does it make life more difficult?

I can’t think of any downsides! There may be a moment when we walk into a room filled with men, and occasionally everyone on our pitch team might be female. Do they wonder if we really understand their business? Our team is so experienced that we can put that sort of doubt to rest pretty quickly. People are ultimately interested in results, and we have a long track record of success that results in credibility.

I'm told Primitive Spark allows for flex-time. Why, and how's it working out?

Both flex time and remote work have been great recruiting and retention tools for us. One of our employees, Mike, is a highly ranked amateur skateboarder. Being able to work 24 hours a week, and shift things around when he has a competition coming up, has made him extremely loyal to us. He knows there’s no way he would have the same opportunity to advance his career in marketing while pursuing his competitive ambitions at most agencies. And when he is on the job, he’s totally focused and dedicated to his work.

Is there any best practices advice you can offer to other companies considering allowing for flex time?

With both flex time and remote work, it’s key to clearly communicate when you are or are not on the job, and to set expectations about anticipated response times. Your calendar should be blocked out if you are away from your desk, even for an hour. And we ask everyone to keep a chat window open that is just for work. We expect timely responses to chat questions, text messages, phone calls. You can’t routinely ‘go dark’ without letting people know when you’ll be back online. Likewise, you have to be able to 'go up to someone's desk' (albeit remotely) just to chat about a project. Allow for impromptu communication, just like you would if you were in an office. That informal communication is often the genesis for great ideas.

You also allow some of your people to work remotely. Explain that effort.

Almost everyone in the office works remotely at least some of the time. One of our founders, Chris, moved from L.A. to Denver a few years ago for family and cost-of-living reasons. He’s 100 percent remote now. If we had not made that [option] available, we would have lost him.

Even for local employees, the ability to work up to 4 days a week from home has been an enormous selling point in recruiting. We got our project director, Brooke, from a highly regarded local advertising agency. She took a cut in pay and benefits to join us. Why would anyone sane do that? She has a son who is a national level volleyball player, and she was missing most of his games. It was worth a few thousand dollars a year to her to be able to enjoy her kids during their teen years and participate more fully in their lives.

We also get top talent who live far enough away from our office that a daily commute would really wear on them. It would be a daily excuse to reconsider whether they really wanted to keep working with us. Instead, since they only come in once a week (our ‘all in’ day), they actually look forward to coming into the office and seeing everyone!

Our retention rate consistently runs about 95 percent. That is especially impressive given the quality of our talent, and the fact that our employees can go elsewhere in Silicon Beach and make more money. Finally, we are all pretty environmentally conscious, so we also value the positive impact of taking all those cars off the road.

Primitive Spark also offers unlimited vacation. Why?

When we first went that route in 2009, it was simply to avoid the accounting nightmare of tracking accrued vacation time, limiting carryover time, etc. We were very small and that was an extra hassle we didn’t need. So, with some trepidation, I decided to try an experiment: What would happen if we offered unlimited vacation time? Would people abuse it? Would it become disruptive? To my surprise, it has worked out just fine. We faced an early test when a young designer who had been working with us for about 9 months asked if she could take almost a month away to accompany her mom on a trip to Korea. Her mom was adopted, and wanted to visit the orphanage she came from and retrace her roots. She expected it to be a very emotional trip, and wanted her daughter’s support. We worked through the logistics and realized that with enough advance planning we could shift most of her work to others, so we encouraged her to go. After she returned, her appreciation for Primitive Spark supporting her and her family through that experience was enormous. So, I’d say that it has to be carefully managed, to set appropriate expectations. You can’t just leave town for a month or two at the drop of a hat! Time off has to be approved by your boss, and planned in a way to minimize the impact on our clients and your coworkers. But in the end, it becomes a powerful way to build a culture of trust and mutual support. 

What's the average vacation time per year for employees?

Now that some big names in tech have instituted unlimited vacation, I’ve read critiques about how their people don’t feel comfortable actually taking it. But on average our full-time employees take the equivalent of about 7 weeks a year of paid time off. That’s somewhat misleading, as people take PTO in hourly increments for everything – to attend a child’s game, take a sick day, or go on vacation. But the bottom line is, everyone is taking a pretty significant amount of time off. Yet on average we manage a pretty decent utilization rate.

I think the biggest driver of whether it is acceptable to take time off is more cultural than procedural, and that comes from the example set by company leaders. I take about five to six breaks a year. And if I think someone has gone too long without a vacation, I let them know that I’m concerned, and work with them to find time to take off.

How do millennials figure in to your company culture?

We have amazing millennial employees! They are bright, engaged, and have been terrific team players. I used to wonder why our experience with millennials was so much different than the complaints that I heard from other employers. Were we just exceptionally lucky in our hires? Now I think it’s because our culture is simply more embracing of initiative and new ideas. We don’t have the mindset that you have to wait until you’ve reached a certain number of years of experience to offer an opinion or to propose a new way to do things. In fact, a couple times a year I will specifically take on a small client with a limited budget that we would normally pass on, specifically in order to give our junior team a chance to take a bigger role. For example, if we’re designing a logo for one of our cornerstone, global clients, our creative director is going to take the lead on that. But if we have a small brand and website redesign project, we will let someone with two or three years experience take the lead on the design, present directly to the client, etc. We still supervise them closely, coach them, and ensure that high quality work is delivered. But it allows us to deliver work considerably less expensively than usual, and to give our team members a chance to grow their portfolio. And they really appreciate that, so they typically stay with us long past the point when they could make more money somewhere else. And when they do graduate to a new company, they remain heartfelt advocates on our behalf long after they’ve moved on.  



 

Executive Editor, TMC

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