To Infinity and Beyond
December 18, 2018
Here we are at the end of this six-part reflection on Plank’s 20 years of history. Since we’ve published “Year in Review” posts for three out of the four years covered in this chapter, I’ve tried to unearth some of the “deep cuts” of Plank.
2015: Reaching Farther
At the beginning of 2015, we were basking in the recent launch of a new website for the legendary band Rush, and about have a high profile launch at Hot Docs of One Sweet App, an iOS companion app to the documentary Sugar Coated. We were also deep into a website redesign for our long-term client The Sun Magazine and about to start a UX focused refresh of evenko.ca. We were developing good new relationships, like with the World War II museum the Juno Beach Centre and expanding our network of partners and collaborators. In many ways, we were flexing a lot of new muscle.
On the other hand, there were some projects, and relationships not going in the right directions. Some projects were off kilter, relationships were strained and we were worried about how they all would play out. After 15+ years of running Plank, and shepherding through hundreds of projects, I came to the realization there are inherently no bad projects or clients, only ones we don’t match.
The Travelling Salesman
With my time now focused almost exclusively on business development (and setting the vision for the company) I began to take on some of the traditional roles of a company leader. My life began to look more like how I imagined someone who was in charge of “selling” Plank. My day to day work life was now fully emulating how I imagined the travelling salesman of the 1970s. I was travelling and out of the office a lot.
While I came close the previous year, 2015 was the first time I visited Toronto every single month of the year. We’d had clients outside of Montreal since the early 2000s, and Toronto since 2004, but I hadn’t done anything specific to actively look for new work anywhere other than in Montréal. Recently, I decided to challenge myself by seeing if I could build new relationships merely by being in another city on a regular basis. Could I be there often enough it would feel as if I was always around and available? Would it be possible to have more than 25% of our work coming from the shores of Lake Ontario?
The answer was yes. I was completely able to invest 2-4 days a month into scheduling lunches, coffee dates, meetings and brainstorm sessions to new and interesting projects for my team. By attending festivals, conferences, speaker series and marketing keynotes, I was able to meet new people and rekindle old relationships.
Taking a Breather from Bad Neighbours
The Belgo Building and the surrounding neighbourhood is a great place for our Plank HQ, but the tenants in the office spaces right next to us have been, to put it nicely, troublesome.
When we had a women-only gym move in across the hallway from us, I was pleased with their mission and the comfort it brought to their clients to have an inexpensive and safe space. The people who ran it seemed a bit off but mostly harmless. Then one day they decided their new business model was to open it up to anyone and at the cheapest price possible (they were occasionally doing a $99.00 a year promotion). It was clear their new mission was to grab whatever money they could from as many people as they could. With no care for the building, their equipment, or neighbours, the feeling on our floor changed drastically. We now had to deal with shady characters who would harass our female staff, and make a terrible mess of our shared washrooms.
Then they expanded into the space next door to us and turned it into a weight room. We were routinely honoured with the sounds of people grunting loudly and throwing overloaded barbells on the ground. When the gym silently closed its doors one Thanksgiving weekend, leaving many angry members, the Belgo rented the space to a couple of psychics who customized their electricity so badly they caused a fire.
When they left, we let our building administration know we wanted to take over the lease of the space. We had no idea what to do with it but we were happy to take on the extra cost for some peace of mind. Steve had a great idea and approached the successful local start-up Breather to partner with us on renting out the location through their platform. While Steve wasn’t, I was surprised they said yes.
Once our 1,000 square foot space launched, it quickly became a hit and has been booked for all kinds of events. I wasn’t surprised to see it used for off-site company meetings, or by photographers for photo shoots, but I wasn’t expecting pop-up cupcake stores or children’s birthday parties. It’s also great to have access to another closed space for meetings, workshops, and our own events.
On Tour for Rush’s 40th Anniversary
With excitement building within the Rush community about the upcoming tour, we were seeing some really nice recognition for work we did with our friends at Happy Cog on the new website. In March, Communication Arts chose Rush.com as one of their Webpicks of the Week and then we were a runner-up for .Net Magazine’s Redesign of the Year.
While my partner in crime Greg Hoy made it to many more shows than I did, I was happy to not only get a chance to see Rush close to home (twice in Toronto and once in Montreal) but also in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the inaugural show of what was to be their final, 40th anniversary tour.
- The NASA probe Dawn begins its orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6. I was really hoping there was life on this rock.
- On February 27th, Leonard Nimoy passed away. He lived long and prospered.
- NASA’s New Horizon does a flyby Pluto and delivers back some pretty impressive photos.
- Amazon passes WalMart in stock market valuation. Congrats to the 21st-century version of the Sears Catalogue!
- Apple released its long rumoured Watch. I didn’t buy one.
The team as of December 2015
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Cassandra Sera — John Hodges — Omar Faruk — Jean Frédéric Fortier — Andrew Rose — Jason Koskie – Debbie Rouleau – Hannah Partridge – Lisa Pomkoski
2016: Losses and Gains
The beginning of 2016 started off with an immense amount of promise. On top of the relaunch of evenko.ca, we were proud to work with Markham Street Films on the launch of the: Celtic Soul website, to support the premiere of the documentary starring Jay Baruchel and Eoin O’Callaghan. The Juno Beach Centre chose us to develop the first phase of their project, From Vimy to Juno which was funded by Heritage Canada’s Commemorating Canada Fund.
We decided to double down on events by hosting Shared Histories at the Black Watch, helping to get Owner Camp to Montreal and relaunching The Breakfast Club. After about 18 months away from our last Breakfast Club, we decided to give it a shot again. Now that we had our Breather space connected directly to the office, we had a very convenient venue where we could easily hold the 20-30 people who had regularly attended our events in the past.
Then in early February, I had to take some personal time away from Plank as my mother’s health had quickly deteriorated and she passed away suddenly. As a result, I was in Ottawa caring for her and my stepdad and could only offer Plank a limited amount of my time. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was worried by not actively doing my job for what, at the time, felt like forever.
The funny thing was I wasn’t at all worried about the team’s ability to do their job. I knew they would keep everything moving just fine and I have and had complete trust in Steve to handle things in my absence. What I did learn is the company now had enough momentum it could easily make it through without my being around for two weeks, and probably much, much longer. It was now impossible for me to any damage to Plank by being away for two weeks.
Milestones & Celebrations
Plank, at the end of the day, is all about the people who work there. So we enjoy when people are able to share with us significant work or personal milestones. It was a real treat to be able to celebrate four key personal milestones with our team.
In February, we were honoured to be able to celebrate Jennifer Lamb’s tenth anniversary at Plank. While she did actually start working with us in 2000, she left to travel and live in Taiwan for about 4 years and re-joined us in 2006. It was great to also see her evolve over the years and take over as our creative director in 2014.
One month later, Jason Koskie and his partner Shannon gave birth to their twins, Elliott and Izzy. The end of the year was marked by two weddings, with Sean Fraser marrying his high school sweetheart and John Hodges his long-distance partner.
The Hack Day
After deciding to find new ways to handle our annual pro-bono projects, we figured doing a Hack Day would be a good way to rapidly develop something of use to a new partner. We wanted to offer our time to local non-profits but also tackle something that wasn’t sprawling in scope. By working intensely on a project or problem we were able to get to know the other teams very well and come out at the end of the day with something of quality in “shippable” shape.
We were able to collaborate over the year on Hack Days that tackled projects covering a variety of topics such as Shakespeare, Accessibility and Artificial Intelligence. With this success, we decided to apply the Hack Day in other ways.
We realized that the Hack Day model could also be applied to our clients. Rather than have a usual project kick-off meeting, our aim was to start our projects by choosing a specific part of the project we all thought would be a challenge to solve without extensive and drawn out work. Instead, we would take our day with the goal of working through and solving that one part. It would allow us to move the project forward immediately and have the teams get to know each other quickly. It would allow everyone to learn what would be the best way to collaborate with the people they would be working with for the next few months.
While on my way to work the morning of November 23rd, I noticed a pretty large fire on Parc Avenue. As I got closer to the corner of Milton, I could see it was the restaurant Alto burning. I got off the bus and crossed over to the eastern side of the street to walk by and see the state of the building. The damage to the restaurant and the building was extensive and it was clear there was no salvaging it.
While I felt terrible for the owners of this decades-old family business, I found myself feeling emotional for losing one of my favourites restaurants in Montreal.
I have a thing for diners. I really enjoy restaurants with expansive menus that can satisfy most cravings my stomach may be entertaining. When I go to eat at a diner I don’t expect anything to be great, but I do expect everything to be a solid 6/10. Alto was always on point. If I had a craving for pizza, a cheeseburger, or chicken brochettes, I could always pick up the phone and get lunch delivered to my desk in 15-20 minutes without fail.
- David Bowie dies days after the release of his final album “Blackstar”. It becomes my soundtrack of 2016.
- President Barack Obama visits Cuba, the first U.S. leader to do so in close to 90 years.
- The United Kingdom choose in a referendum to depart from the European Union. #Brexit
- Donald Trump wins the US election despite losing the popular vote by 3 million ballots. Gotta love the logic of the electoral college.
- Leonard Cohen also passes away and my hometown mourns.
The team as of December 2016
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Sean Fraser — Andrew Rose — Jason Koskie — Stéphane Boileau — Jerome Devillers — Erin Whitney — Courtney Miller-Trudel — Debbie Rouleau – Lisa Pomkoski
If you want to read our original 2016 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2017: You Never Can Tell
2017 seemed like an uncertain year and a sense of unpredictability was swirling around our little corner of this big, blue planet.
After almost 15 years collaborating with the Fantasia Film Festival on their website, we were happy for them to move forward with a different digital partner for the coming years. With decades of experience with clients, we are well aware not all relationships are forever and it’s very rare a relationship like this one would continue so long.
We were also happy 2017 gave us the opportunity to start new relationships with organizations like Ryerson University and Pressbooks, rekindle older one with the Student Society of McGill University and Concordia University. We were happy we got to relaunch projects with long-term partners like The Sun Magazine and deepen the relationship with others.
While I was extremely proud to be able to call Evenko a client for the past ten years, the way the relationship changed in 2017 made me even happier. It was a very special moment to realize within a few months, we went from designing and supporting two of their digital properties (Evenko and La Centre Bell) to six.
When we heard the rumours a few years earlier the Groupe CH / Evenko was planning on building a new venue in Laval, I made sure to let Evenko know we were very interested in the idea of working on the website for Place Bell. When it came time for this sizeable concert venue and home for Les Rockets to begin construction, we were excited to be involved in developing their web presence.
For years, we have had evenko’s suite of music festivals on our radar. While we were interested in working on them, we were also sensitive to the concern of centralizing too much of their work with one team, that team being us. When they did reach out to us at the end of 2016 about the redesign of Osheaga, Ile Soniq and Heavy Montreal, I figured now was as good a time to take them on. I felt confident in our ability to deliver them a solid technology platform they could build on moving forward. We made it clear to them how much we wanted to work on these projects and they kindly gave us the opportunity.
They were also kind enough to refer us to their sister company, Groupe Spectra, who asked us to work with them, Telus and Cossette on the redesign of the renamed venue MTelus (formerly the Metropolis). While our role was limited to development, we were excited to get the opportunity to collaborate these leading agency and technology partners.
Down with Jerks
I found myself thinking quite a bit more deliberately about our team, our clients and the trends surrounding us and the technology industry. I was more and more aware of the behaviour of some people and the language being used within the technology industry, which I wrote about here.
I started to become mindful of the way I expressed myself, and the type of words I used. Plank is the one place in the world I am at my most comfortable and least guarded which also means I can be at my most playful, obnoxious, and unfiltered. I realized my pushing boundaries could sometimes go a bit far, so I began to work quietly on how I expressed myself.
I was also very happy to see our investment in diversifying the team was having a direct impact on our culture and dynamic in the office. As a company founded by and run by anglophones in a french-speaking city, we were acutely aware we didn’t represent our city well. While our common work language is still English, having more french speakers from Quebecois, French and Belgian backgrounds means the conversations in the office sound a lot more Montreal-like, a mix of both languages.
This year was the first time since 2000 where we could proudly say we were a majority female company. Women were represented in all areas of our company and were able to affect all aspects of our culture. As a result, we are more mindful and respectful of everyone’s needs, and willing to accommodate alternative schedules that fit each team member best. We still have a ways to go as we figure out how we can better reflect the ethnic diversity of our city, and create more opportunity to hire outside of our usual circles and networks.
Turning Interns into key Employees
With Sean Fraser departing the team in the summer after almost five years with the team, it got me thinking about his path and trajectory at Plank. Sean started with us as an intern in 2011, while he was studying Computational Arts at Concordia. When he finished university, he reached out in the fall of 2012 and then again at the beginning of 2013. While we didn’t have a job for him, his interest in wanting to work for us meant we had to create a job for him, and we did. By the time 2016 rolled around his natural leadership skills had really blossomed and he had made himself the leader of the development team. So when he decided to move on we were sad to lose such a good team member but felt like we had graduated him along to the next stage in his career.
It also got me thinking about Massimo Triassi, a recent intern from Vanier College who soon after found himself with a part-time job here while he continues on with his studies at Concordia. He seems to be following much of the same path as Sean, building his skills on the backs of real projects, while his leadership and collaboration skills grow.
It’s clear while not all internships will lead to quality members of our team, some of them have a real impact on our company.
Bye Bye Breakfast Club
In hindsight, I don’t think starting the Breakfast Club was such a great idea. While they were successful in their own limited way, there was one major problem with the format. Quite simply, the two people who were responsible for arranging and organizing them — principally Erin Whitney and me — were not morning people. So, both of us weren’t in our finest form at 7:30 am.
We finally asked ourselves, why don’t we organize an event in the evenings? With that fateful question, three years too late, we launched our first event called the Dinner Party. It was clear from the start of the first edition it fit us much better. As a private, informal event for a curated group of fewer than 15 people, it created a sense of comradery and trust we were never able to create. It was a pleasure for our first event to dig into the topic of how performance art and digital technology could influence each other.
Traditional Marketing Wins!
I held firmly for the longest time that small digital agencies like ours don’t need to advertise or do any kind of direct marketing. Word of mouth was supposed to be enough to keep us busy and we didn’t have to stoop to traditional marketing, let alone the idea of a tradeshow booth at some event. It wasn’t how we did things and it wasn’t how all other similar companies did things.
As I’ve gotten to know other digital agencies like ours, I’ve learnt yes, most of them do some type of marketing and very few of them are run solely on “inbound leads”. Now, our marketing efforts may not be about putting ads in the Suburban, but we are slowly adding some more traditional marketing avenues to our efforts.
In April 2017, I attended the Museums and the Web Conference in Cleveland, Ohio to present with the Juno Beach Centre to present our work in a trade show booth format. At first, I found myself a bit uncomfortable but once people started to come over to chat, I was in my element. As someone who isn’t good at approaching people at networking events, having a booth to spark conversations felt natural. Later in the year, we chose a traditional sponsorship for an event in New York City called Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts. I had attended the previous year and I decided Plank should have a more formal presence at this tailor-made event for the types of clients we work with.
- Scientists discover Oumuamua, a high-velocity space object believed to be from outside our solar system. Yay, aliens!
- Canadians commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.
- Uber’s company culture and behaviour is exposed and its CEO is forced to resign.
- Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary and Montreal celebrates its 375th birthday, non-stop and all year long.
- Canadian musical icon Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip passes away on October 17th from brain cancer.
The team as of December 2017
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Jason Koskie — Stéphane Boileau — Jerome Devillers — Erin Whitney — Courtney Miller-Trudel — Debbie Rouleau – Lisa Pomkoski — Christina Garofalo — Chloé Freslon — Véronique Pelletier — Massimo Triassi
If you want to read our original 2017 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2018: Happy Birthday to Us!
While the beginning of the year was busy with our ongoing relationships, the year began slowly for me. The volume of work needed to get us through to the first half of the year hadn’t yet turned up. So, while winter was turning into spring, I became very concerned with what the summer was going to look like.
Once our new relationships turned into new work in the spring, I knew we were in for a strong year. With an even better fall, we were able to keep the team busy, add a couple of new members and start considering if we could in the next few years get the full-time team to twenty people.
A team of misfits aka The Moneyball team
While other technology companies may have the ability to recruit and hire aggressively thanks to their scale and resources (re: hundreds of millions of dollars in investment money) we need to find people looking for something different. We realized long ago that to try and emulate the culture of Google or Shopify is a fool’s errand. We were on the lookout for people who weren’t ninjas or rock stars and had no interest in hustling or crushing it. We were always on the lookout for people looking for something different, a place where they could be themselves, express themselves and feel accepted no matter who they were and what they were interested in.
We were looking to build Moneyball team (yes, I know, I had to make a baseball reference), which means we were looking to discover people whose abilities we valued that others may have missed, and not care about some things others obsess about. We were looking for the misfits, which I use and mean in the most respectful way possible. When I use the word misfit, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign comes to mind:
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.Steve Jobs, 1997
While there are fancier, higher profile teams, I’ll take the one we have right now. They are a unique bunch, from lots of different backgrounds. They are tied together by a passion for their craft, oh, and in quite a few cases, Dungeons and Dragons.
Sasha Endoh Design
While we may be the sole holder of our lease at the Belgo for over a decade now, I’ve always enjoyed having others share the office with us. From our original co-tenants Black Eye Design to our friends at People Like Us, new people always breathe life into the day to day office happenings. I like this space to be full of people and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
After having met Sasha Endoh for the first time at Owner Summit in San Diego, CA in 2016 — which is crazy given we live a few blocks away from each other — we decided to keep in touch and check in on each other on a regular basis. I always enjoyed her company so when she mentioned she was looking for a new base to work from and I immediately suggested she camp out at our office. She decided to take us up on our offer and she has been a great addition to the office vibe and culture.
Mila (and Roxy and Cliff and Nobu)
Over the years, we have had three different regular canine visitors to the office. First, there was Nobu, Michel Vrana’s black pug who was a lot of fun but loved to bark at the passing cars. Cliff was with us for a few years as Christiane’s and then eventually Emerson’s little buddy. Roxy was Cassandra’s friend who was always very excited to get to the office first thing in the morning.
In May, I got word Chloé had gotten a dog and wanted to bring her to the office. Without hesitation, I thought it was a great idea and so did most of the team. Other than the occasional accident, she is a near-perfect office dog who doesn’t bark and gets appropriately excited when new people arrive at the office. She may have a dirty old slipper she wants everyone to yank on but her excitement to play is infectious.
20th Anniversary Party
After missing the opportunity to celebrate our 10th and then 15th anniversary, I wasn’t going to let this milestone pass us by. Early on in the year, we committed a budget to organize a party to celebrate our 20th anniversary. The goal was to invite everyone who ever worked at Plank and some key friends and partners who have had a major impact on shaping our company.
I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to our event so I was pleasantly surprised when a large part of the invitees chose to attend. Some came in from Toronto, Boston and St. John’s and even as far away as Australia.
There was a genuine feeling of comradery and happiness pervading the room all night, with some people catching up after years since they last saw each other. I was touched by all the speeches and the outpouring of kind words. The event was a lot of work to get organized and I have to thank Erin Whitney from the bottom of my heart, as without her the event would have never happened.
Plank ♥ WordPress
While we are completely dedicated to the LAMP development, and specifically the Laravel community, we decided to also invest more seriously into WordPress, which accounts for a large portion of our work. We felt like we weren’t giving it the attention and focus it deserved given the number of our projects that are currently using it.
When we added a new member to our development team this year, we chose to bring on someone who didn’t only do WordPress development but was an expert at it. We chose someone who for much of his professional development career has been invested in WordPress.
It was also quite interesting to reinsert ourselves back into the Montreal community first by attending WordCamp and attending a Q&A session with Matt Mullenweg.
- Europe’s GDPR goes into force and, as expected, everyone scrambles to figure out what it’s all about.
- Facebook and Google are finally being taken to task for their approach to privacy, data and their social and political responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are both asked to testify before Congress.
- Facebook’s share price drops by 20% over a data leak scandal.
- Canada fully legalizes cannabis and the world doesn’t end, except the country smells a bit different.
- In December 2018, Plank turned 20 years old.
The team as of December 2018
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Jason Koskie — Chloé Freslon — Véronique Pelletier — Debbie Rouleau — Megan McEwan — Jerome Devillers — Courtney Miller Trudel — Massimo Triassi — Christina Garofalo — Lisa Pomkoski — Dave Kellam
If you want to read our original 2018 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2019: Onwards and Upwards
After 20 years, I’ve given up on predicting how the next year or five are going to unfold. Plank has changed and I have changed so much and in ways I would have never considered.
I want to thank the team from the bottom of my heart for the hard work they do on a daily basis. They are dedicated and constantly striving to be better at what they do. I am really lucky to be surrounded by so many quality people every day.
If it wasn’t for all the people who have come through our company, Plank would not be what it is today. Yes, Steve and I set the overall direction and vision, but a company is a reflection of all the people that have worked there.
We have to also thank all of our clients who decided not only would they trust us with their important projects but pay us a fair amount of money to get them done. The challenges they offer us keeps us learning, advancing and improving our skills.
As I look at Plank through the eyes of someone who is 47 and not 27, my perspective on what we are doing and what we have accomplished is very different. When we were first starting, the idea of looking ahead more than a year or two seemed crazy while, now, I have no problem thinking now in 5 or 10-year eras.
For the first time, I find myself thinking about what Plank’s future is beyond me. What can we do over the next few years to make sure we turn this organization into something that can continue on for the next twenty, fifty, or one hundred years? I’m looking forward to that challenge.