My first experience with Tampa was as a student at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. My current girlfriend, and future wife, was attending The University of Tampa and invited me up to see her college and surrounding neighborhoods of South Tampa. Being born and raised in northern New Jersey, my experiences of Florida were pretty typical, that of beach trips and theme parks. One thing that struck me when I stepped foot in Tampa was how different it was. There was a sense of culture and history that was extremely endearing. It had a downtown and suburbs and the average age seemed to skew way younger than other parts of Florida that I had visited.
Infancy of User Experience Design
Upon graduating college in Sarasota in 1995, I had received numerous job offers to work for advertising agencies and other creative positions in markets like New York, Chicago, Miami and the Tampa area. There were two dynamics at the time that guided me to place my roots here. First, was my girlfriend. She still had 2 years left to finish up with her master’s degree, so of course I was looking for a reason to be around her. Secondly, was a unique job opportunity. My friend from college had spent the prior summer working as an intern for a software company, Image Technologies in St. Petersburg Florida. They were creating touch-screen kiosks and CD-ROM titles for consumer and retail applications. He had returned to school senior year sharing stories about coders and engineers with multiple monitors writing code until all hours of the night. He said that they started recruiting graphic designers from Ringling College because they realized the software they were creating could be exponentially improved if a designer would take ownership of the display of content and the interface elements.
I was enamored by the opportunity to apply the skills I learned in applications like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, as well as formal design concepts like visual hierarchy, color theory and typographic layout to this new role. Bear in mind, this was pre-Google, pre-iPhone and very early Internet.
“This was user experience design as a profession, in its infancy, and I wanted to be part of it. “
Some of my first projects were creating user interfaces for companies like Blockbuster, Oshman’s Sporting Goods and Honeywell Space Systems. I learned very quickly what it was like to work in a multidisciplinary team comprised of project managers, software developers, sound engineers and content specialists. I felt it was important to get my feet wet with the code and understand how this stuff comes to life. As a team, we took what we learned sketching storyboards for animated sequences and came up with methods for wireframing user interface elements and mapping out user stories. This small group of people were truly breaking new ground, and all would go on to play key roles in several tech companies in Tampa Bay.
The Dotcom Days
From there I was able to leverage these new experiences and went on to help a small Tampa advertising agency bring their clients online acting as their Director of Interactive Services. I followed this with a short stint as front-end designer and coder for a small web shop grinding out hand coded HTML webpages using just note pad and a web browser. This is when I got a call from the former founder of Image Technologies. He had exited that company and was set to do it all over again and asked me to head up the design department. I jumped all over the opportunity to be a leader and equity partner along with several other friends and colleagues from Image Technologies.
We started Mediacentric Group with 4-5 of us and grew it over the next several years to 100+ employees. We helped venture backed startups and brick-and-mortar- companies embrace new internet trends and technologies. My department was able to assist in the entire life cycle, from brand identity all the way through designing the product or services and fulfilling the other digital marketing objectives. These were tremendous lessons learned through these years that would pay huge dividends in the future.
The Other Side of the Table
One of our key folks, who was Head of Business Development, had decided it was time to spin out his own software startup, Jibe. It was at this time that I decided, for the first time in my career, to join him and sit on the other side of the table. This company also recruited from my past and other Tampa notable startups at the time including Tradex (Ariba). As Director of Product for this new startup, I was charged with defining the road map, the user experience and the marketing assets and campaigns to support the product. We worked really hard towards the launch of our product with a booth at the 2001 Gartner Technology conference in Orlando Florida, one of the biggest tech conferences at the time.
Then came 9/11. I remember being at a local printing company getting collateral for the conference printed when it seemed like the world stopped. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I had spent so much time in NYC and truly felt like it was the center of the world. Obviously, everyone was in a state of shock. I believe the Gartner Conference was scheduled for the following week and the rumors were no one would be showing up. With no refund possible, we got on the road and headed to one of the most underattended Gartner Tech Conferences. We made the best of it and did end-up meeting with some key people who would assist our company in the future. For those next couple years, if you were in the tech industry, you know they were pretty challenging. It was a great experience for me to work through these times and also for me to be in-house, not the service provider for once. This was the final check list item before breaking out solo and starting Haneke Design.
Enter Haneke Design
I started Haneke Design at a time in my life where I felt I had the right kinds of experience going into it. I did NOT start my company at a time that was convenient for my life. I literally just bought a house, had a baby, one on the way and a stay at home wife.
“There is NO great time to start a company. If you can answer yes to the following questions, then the time is as good as it gets. 1. Do I have relevant experience? 2. Do I have a realistic understanding of my shortcomings? 3. Do I need partners to round out the leadership team? (See item 2!)”
If you are starting a services-oriented business, like I did, I wouldn’t even put capital on that list. The entire concept with starting a services company is to be revenue funded. This is exactly the route I took. Haneke Design was not founded using a complex business plan. It was founded on leveraging the experiences I had working with companies of all sizes and industries to help improve their customers’ and prospects’ end user experiences.
I started off in my small upstairs, garage apartment and when I simply couldn’t work any more hours based on demand, I hired my first employee. This is always the roughest step of the entire process. It was for me, and I look back now and realize how silly that was. The thought of being responsible for another human being’s professional experience just seemed so overwhelming. The reality is, you don’t have a company until you have employees. You are a glorified independent contractor.
“In order to scale a business, you need help, you need horsepower, you need intellectual capital outside of your own.”
I hired people who could duplicate my efforts, but I also looked to fill some of my own gaps. I hired designers who had other skills, like motion graphics, software development and illustration skills. This not only gave me the horsepower, it gave me the opportunity to add other services lines and fill gaps when there was downturn in demand in certain areas.
The Mobile Gap
For the first several years we did stay true to our core competencies. We focused solely on the design of the customer and prospect user experience with some lightweight front-end development. Something happened though before the iPhone was announced. The former founder of Jibe went on to head up North America for an international company that had a robust text messaging platform. His clients, like Target, HP and others, were looking for ways to extend their mobile text campaigns into the mobile web browser. For instance, a text campaign would then have a confirmation response text with a link to a store locator. This all may seem pretty standard now; however, back then phones were just starting to be able to browse the web and installed apps were relegated to ringtones and wallpapers provided by your carrier of choice. We came in and figured out how to deliver these small mobile microsites across the huge range of device types that were available at that time. Devices like Blackberry, Nokia, Razr etc. These devices had very different screen sizes and web browsing capabilities. We created a method to detect all these parameters and custom serve a web view appropriate for the device.
We spent a little over a year watching these mobile browsers become more standard and the demand for mobile accessibility increase. Then came the iPhone and the announcement that Apple would be providing a Software Developers Kit (SDK) to allow folks to create custom installed applications. This is when we decided to expand into a custom software development shop. I knew there would be a huge demand for service providers to help companies embrace this new platform and I wanted to be prepared and ready to assist. It was at this time that I recruited our Director of Development, Jesse Curry who came from the console game development world. We hit it off immediately because of his history working with visual designers and his appreciation for the end-user experience. Games, after all, are the ultimate user experience.
Our name got on the radar of some notable companies in these early days giving us the ability to very quickly create a portfolio of both consumer-facing and enterprise applications. We found that many of these mobile applications required server-side development including web interfaces for administrative users. These opportunities propelled us to round out our team so we could truly be a full-stack design and development agency. We now have 25+ fulltime team members located in Tampa Florida and several outside contractors.
We’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve by identifying trends in the tech industry that will be able to provide a commercial advantage for our clients. While some trends are more powerful than others, we feel there are a few standouts that should be on your radar.
Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) have been on the horizon for quite some time. While originally, most demos had a novelty quality to them, the current AR/VR offerings are definitely ready for prime time. The visual quality of the experience has become top notch and the price points for the hardware have dropped drastically especially considering the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook and the release of the Oculus Go. The Go is a self-contained VR unit at the $199 price point.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is another trend to monitor closely. From your door bell to your thermostat, every device that contains electronic components will be connected to the cloud. I add wearables to this list as well. One of our focus areas for 2019 is to help companies that manufacturer electronics connect their products to the cloud and create software applications that allow the end user to monitor and control those products remotely. We’ve been fortunate in accomplishing some of these projects already for remote lighting controllers and industrial water conditioning systems.
I’m excited about 2019 here at Haneke Design. We’ve been able to grow a successful business over the years in part to advantages of being in a great city like Tampa, Florida. We started off over 20 years ago with some tech pioneers who decided to make their home Tampa. Fast forward to 2018 and Tampa is listed among the top 20 best large cities to live in, in categories such as job opportunities.
Great read Jody. Appreciate learning more of your story. Love the startup commentary here.