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Five Questions For Jon Lax – Teehan + Lax

Jon Lax
_Jon Lax, co-founder of user experience consultancy “Teehan + Lax”: has been working in digital media since 1994. He started at Shift Magazine where he helped develop the first ad supported site in Canada._
_Jon was Creative Director at Modem Media Canada from 1998 to 2002. During that time he worked for many Fortune 500 clients, helping them develop applications, marketing initiatives and strategies in the digital channel. Jon has worked with clients like Coca-Cola, Indigo Books, Scotiabank, General Motors, Kraft Canada, Wendy’s, and Maritime Life._
*One Degree: How’s business?*
Very good. We are very busy and adding staff. We’ve gone through a lot of growth this year. Our biggest problem is determining how large we can be and still maintain quality. We never envisioned this company being much larger than 15 people and we are getting close to that number.
We are doing about 60% of our work for US companies right now. We have found US clients liking our “best-in-breed/boutique” approach more than Canadian clients, but that is balancing out.
*One Degree: Have you found that clients needs have changed since you started the firm in 2002?*

Yes and that is why we built Teehan + Lax the way we did. We saw a shift happening around 2001 that more clients had taken core parts of Internet based activities in-house. They had built up expertise and had operationalized the Internet as part of their business. The challenge for clients moved from being “take us end-to-end” on projects to, I have the infrastructure, I have the platform, help me get the most out of it. What clients need in that environment is specialized help. As a result, we only do user experience design, we don’t actually do any technology build (a little Flash and some front-end work occasionally).
It is a shift from an integrated interdependent model to being modular and responsive. This same shift is something that is occurring in the traditional ad business as clients move from the large agencies and go to the boutiques like “Taxi”:, “CP+B”:, “Grip”:, John Street _(ed: web site anyone?)_ etc. Clients are more and more looking to do best-in-breed, mix and match services with multiple vendors. There will always be clients who want one stop shop, we just don’t sell that.
*One Degree: Your recent “AIMS”: presentation focussed on the impact of Web 2.0. What do you think Canadian firms need to do to capitalize on the next wave of Internet-enabled business innovation?
Well my whole point in the presentation was that where the money is made in this part of the game is about being modular rather than interdependent. Money isn’t made in this phase by just offering the capability – it’s about being responsive and customised. It’s about differentiating with experience. We spoke about this in Web 1.0 but I think we have the ability to actually do it now.
Firms need to move away from these old notions that they are building systems to understand they are building services. Using the Google vs. Microsoft example. Google has built a modular system making it easier for them to roll-out new services and optimizing on the fly. Microsoft has a massive interdependent system, where one change in one place in the system could be catastrophic in another place in the system, so it takes them 7 years to update it. 7 years in this business environment is just unacceptable.
If you think about building a business that is modular, one where speed and responsiveness are important, it changes what you can build and how you build it. If you are a business that has an interdependent system, look for ways to make it modular.
*One Degree: You also quoted some of “Jason Fried’s recent thinking”: on the need for small teams doing iterative design focussed on simple implementations of useful services. Would you say Teehan + Lax’s work has been influenced by the “37 Signals”: philosophy?
Yes, 37Signals was one of the companies we kind of modeled ourselves on. The other was “Adaptive Path”: They are both very smart companies that we respect. I don’t agree with Jason on everything. I think small teams and agile methods are great but he has never really explained how you make that work for a large organization who want predictive budget and resource allocation.
We have a lot of debate in the office about this. It’s very difficult to stand up in front of a client and say, “We have no idea what we will build until we design it. So we don’t know how long it will take or what you will spend to do it.” For many clients, that is just too much uncertainty and risk. We are still trying to figure out how to sell agile design methods to risk adverse clients. But I do agree with his “build less – not more”: idea. I think any client who is initiating a new project that does not have legacy or interdependence should examine the small teams, no documentation methodology.
*One Degree: We’re seeing a huge explosion in dotcom start-up activity south of the border these days. Do you see this spreading north of the border?*
Great question. I think Canadians are well suited for this VC climate. We have experience making businesses work inside a small market. This is really important in today’s terms. We can prove business models on smaller scales, unlike Web 1.0 where it was all about get big quick. Now it’s about get going small and grow. So I think, emotionally we are ahead of the Americans, who think bigger is better.
We have typically not been kind to entrepreneurs in Canada. Failure is not as accepted here as it is in the US. We also tend to build product and services only for Canada. All the engines of our economy are government protected businesses (TV, wireless, telco, banking etc.) so they only need to be great in the context of Canadian market. There has been a bit of a shift in that lately but we need to build great businesses period. I admire “Flickr”: because they built a great product not a great Canadian product.