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Building successful partnerships between agencies (featuring Jeremy Jackson)

Paving a two-way street to better collaboration and more profitability.

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Chip and Jeremy Jackson of Shift Lab discuss the agency partnership model and how it can be used as a tool for growth. They go over the benefits of partnerships for specialized agencies as a way to compete more effectively for business opportunities.

They also talk about how designers and developers can mesh together on a project, and some of the challenges they’ve faced in the past trying to sync up teams with different backgrounds and perspectives.



About Jeremy Jackson

As the founder of Shift Lab, Jeremy focuses on projects that couple excellent design and technology, resulting in beautifully-designed digital products for clients as wide-ranging as Google, Comcast, Microsoft and BreastCancer.org. Jeremy has worked in product development, UX, graphic design, and development for the web since the mid-’90s and was previously Director of Technology at Method. Jeremy can be reached at jeremy@shiftlab.ny.


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Jeremy Jackson. He is the founder of Shift Lab. Welcome to the show, Jeremy.

JEREMY: Thanks for having me, Chip.

CHIP: It is great to have you here. And I’m looking forward to an interesting conversation. But before we dive into the topics at hand, why don’t you share a little bit about yourself in shift lab?

JEREMY: Sure. So as you said, I’m the founder of shift lab. We started the company back in 2012. So we’re now kind of entering our ninth year. My personal background is both in technology I started developing for the web in the mid 1990s, and then went to school for graphic design. So you know, I think my kind of niche in this industry is really being able to bring this design and technology focus together into an agency model.

CHIP: And you know, and so that’s one of the things I want to talk about is you know, how you bring those together. And in particular, I know that you partner with a lot of other agencies on projects. And I think it’ll be interesting to explore a bit, just you know how those partnerships work, because a lot of agencies may informally use partnerships, but I think they can be a real growth in capabilities and a tool for agencies to leverage.

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean, that that’s kind of been the model for me and in my thinking, and starting this agency, where, you know, we see this sort of boom, towards this smaller agency model. And with that comes, you know, a large degree of specialization. So, maybe you do only design or maybe you do only development, which is, you know, what shift lab does, and, you know, you need to reach out to partners to extend that specialization and essentially become full service. And that’s really been, you know, very much our model where we we want to create meaningful partnerships with other agencies to extend their capabilities and and work in truly collaborative ways.

CHIP: And did this movement towards partnerships. Is it something that you did strategically or is it something that just sort of came together because You know, someone came to and said, Hey, you know, we do design work and you do some dev work, you know, talk to me a little bit about how that that started to take place for your business.

JEREMY: Sure, part of it was a hypothesis for sure. And and the other part was a bit of strategy where, you know, I was working with a product company called method in New York City. And, you know, I think what made me a good fit for companies like that was that design and development background that came, you know, that I bring to the table. And that really helped me to, like start to figure out like real processes in how designers and developers really should work together. And you know, I think, you know, probably many of us who have built digital products have seen this sort of like butting of heads of designers and developers or you know, things getting flubbed in development phases and handoff and things like that, and, and I was able to really figure out processes for creating real collaborative and iterative processes that i thought that i could take and transfer into an agency of its own, because I felt there would be an appetite for that in the industry. And you know, what I’ve proven over the last eight years. I think that’s true. That, you know, people are tired of kind of just backing up a bit. I mean, I think like, it’s kind of amazing how different have a mentality design and development is, but yet they must exist together to actually be able to launch any.

So, you know,

I really think that there was there was definitely an appetite for, for solving that. And that’s really what the premise of creating the agency was all about.

CHIP: And I would imagine the fact that you have experience with both design and development is particularly helpful. I mean, I’ve run teams of designers and teams of developers and teams that have had both and while they often butt heads, because they have, they have different motivations, shall we say? But they, they share similarities in that they are very creative. in their own way, and they tend to be they have their own ideas, shall we say? Right. So I think that the fact that you’ve got some experience on both sides must help you navigate that. Right?

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s, I’ve seen over the years, like, you know, designers being like, hey, the developers didn’t really implement this to our vision, like, and kind of, under this guise, that maybe they’re lazy, right. But I actually what I’ve learned over time, is that they literally just don’t see those details, because they haven’t been trained to do so. So you, you know, and then I mean, of course, like, in some cases, yes. You know, designers developers serve different masters. But that’s not the crux of the problem. In my experience, it’s really, you know, creating this culture that, you know, design thinking is critical to creating, you know, a well crafted digital product and also technology and architecture and all that stuff that kind of happens behind the scenes is equally important. So I think it’s kind of like this shared respect and mentality that you bring into that process. And then of course, making sure that you’re building into the time your process to like, make sure that both sides points of view are being heard and having time to respond to that. That’s, that’s, you know, I think we’re really where the rubber meets the road. So, and then I think like my personal background in having, you know, being able to do this right brain left brain thing that I bring into the process, like, you know, gives me a seat at the table with the designers and gives me a seat at the table with the developers and kind of sort of helps me make sure that that that process, the wheels are greased, so to speak, and that the process runs smoothly, and that all that stuff is being accounted for.

CHIP: Right? Well, and the fact of the matter is it the more that you can speak the language of each side and you can understand what’s driving them to where they’re going, that you know, that helps you sort of navigate that and find the best solution to go forward.

JEREMY: Yeah, and simply put, I mean, I I usually just say, Hey, you know,

design in the absence of development is sort of boring. Listen, and the inverse is true, right? And I just kind of leave it at that. And I think both sides like, yeah, we get that. Yeah.

CHIP: Now Now obviously, it’s challenging to work with both sides when it’s all under one roof. But now you’re talking partnerships where you work with design firms. It’s so how do you how do you work that through? Is it just the design for firm drive things? And the developers tend to do more of the implementation? Is it a true partnership? You know, talk to me a little bit about how you work with other agencies.

JEREMY: Yeah, we’ve seen it work every way over the years.

CHIP: Not work some ways, right?

JEREMY: Yeah, sure. Sure. I mean, so I mean,

I think overall, the

the biggest thing that we need alignment when we take on a project is really process because that’s the thing that guarantees the predictability and the quality in the final product, right. So without the process, the wheels really fall off the wagon. And if you go in and you’re trying to force a process and somebody who doesn’t want it, it just doesn’t work. So that’s the main thing that that we look for. When we look for

partnerships with direct with

businesses or with other agencies is making sure that we all understand how we’re going to get there. And the second thing really is, especially in an agency agency model is really understanding what the roles are. You know, what we found doesn’t work is like shared responsibilities with Project Management, right? Or like project management by committee doesn’t work. So you really do need to designate people and make sure that the roles are very clear. And then what I found too, where, you know, maybe we’re being contracted by let’s say, a design firm, who has already been working with a client of just asking directly, hey, what, what role do you want us to serve here? Do you want us to take over all tech conversations? Do you want us to be a silent partner do like, you know, we’ve worked on all of those different models. And I think, you know, the biggest thing is just that transparency and setting up the boundaries and what the roles and responsibilities are from the jump.

CHIP: Yeah. And I think you’ve made a number of good points in there. The process one is important. I think even even when it’s just an agency and a client, a single agency and a single client, your process matters. But certainly once you start bringing multiple agencies into the mix that matters, but I, I really like what you’re saying about roles, because one of the things that I always tell my clients is if you have more than one person in charge, nobody’s in charge. Right? And so you know, you need to just doesn’t matter who you pick to some degree, you just need to pick one person. So that, you know, everybody knows that that’s who you work through on on a particular process.

JEREMY: Yeah, I think

we there are many, I think technical agencies out there that are basically like, Hey, you hire us that we just like we’re chameleon in your process. And I found that that just doesn’t work for us. And one of the reasons it doesn’t work for us is that we typically do pretty complex builds, we’re doing things that are really unique to the businesses and things like that. And then once again, like back the process, it’s like that is the thing that guarantees the outcome. So

you know, making sure that everybody drinks that Kool Aid

Well, the Agile side is super important.

CHIP: Right? Now you talk to about the sort of communication with the client and and how you do it different ways. You know, sometimes it may be where you have direct communication with the client, sometimes you work a little bit more behind the scenes with the other agency. Do you see a difference in how those work? Or can they all work as long as you’ve got a good process in place?

JEREMY: I think they can all work.

I think that for smaller agencies and ones that specialize sometimes we do to get disqualified because it’s a multi agency partnership. So we get disqualified from some opportunities because, you know, sometimes businesses just as they say, like one throat to choke, right, they don’t want to be dealing with the risk of having multiple agencies. I see that becoming less and less of a concern in recent years, but it still does pop up from time to time. So sometimes we are sort of faced with this you know, invisible partnership and and while it could work It sort of ignores the fact of why you brought on a technical agency in the first place, right? And it’s because you don’t have that expertise. So if you’re really trying to pass through these conversations, it, especially when you’re talking about really detailed and technical matters, that you’re not well positioned to, to talk about, it is a little bit of a strange relationship. Um, the ones where we think it really does work best is kind of this triangle where it’s, it’s the technical team, its design agency, and it’s the, you know, the business, the stakeholders, and and we all have to work together in a transparent fashion. And I think, in a certain degree, like all of these groups serve slightly different masters, right. They have different areas of expertise, and they care about different things. But if you’re able to create this culture and working relationship on transparency and communication and accountability, you know, things work really well. And I think that everybody’s needs are well known and You know, you can communicate them clearly and really check all the boxes and make sure that everybody’s happy. And that’s what it’s all about.

CHIP: Now, we’ve talked a bunch about the client service aspect of working with another agency. Let’s talk about the business side of it. Do you? Do you typically have your own contract directly with the client? Does each agency you know, work directly with the client or, you know, just one end up being a sub to the other? How does that work?

JEREMY: It works. Anyway. I mean, we, I don’t even

I would say contracting directly with the business is probably the most common use case. But it is definitely not uncommon for us to contract under an agency and things like that. We’re happy doing either as long as like I said, the parameters are set up for success.

CHIP: Right. And do you the agencies that you partner with? Do you have independent arrangements with them or their referral fees? Do you have your own sort of mutual agreement or is it really just sort of an ad hoc kind of approach to to winning business?

JEREMY: It does. It sort of runs the gamut. We have talked about referral fees over the years with a few agencies, but none of that stuff has really ever come to fruition. In some cases where somebody partners with us, maybe they mark our fees up, we wouldn’t really know. But yeah, I think in most cases, it’s sort of ad hoc. And people come to us most commonly when, again, they have like a really specific business case that they need to solve, where they need to use technology to challenge some, or to solve some scale problem, or unique business challenge that, you know, is, is preventing the growth of the business. So in those cases, I think it’s really our process and the way that we think about things that wins this the work, right, we usually come in and we try to make sure that we’re like, hey, try to make people feel like they can really trust us that by illustrating that we can solve their problem from A to Z. Right? And maybe Making sure that like, hey, these guys have a plan, they know how to approach this. Um, so that’s really what wins this business of more than any other kind of specific arrangement that we have with with any organization.

CHIP: Now, let’s talk a little bit about some of the kinds of projects that you all work on what kind of development work do is it? Is it web sites is an Apps is a web applications, you know, talk a little bit about that, if you could,

JEREMY: sure. It’s all those things. We do plenty of like content, manage websites, and things like that, you know, responsive websites, we do those that was what I might consider a bread and butter projects when we first started and our first few years and then we sort of, you know, scaled up and extended out to far more complex things, e commerce systems, specifically e commerce systems that have very specific logistics challenges. So you know, we work with a bunch of different e commerce stores where you know, there’s drop shipping from all these different locations or things are built already. You know, things like that and and those projects become more about helping that team scale better, right? How do they scale their business and and we’re, we’ve become really adept to it coming into upstart businesses, and helping them look at their business model, and figure out where their scale challenges will be as they grow. And then the idea is to make an MVP type investment, get it out there and then stay ahead of that scale curve. So that they can grow on schedule. That’s been you know, something people reach out to us time and time again for and then we’ve been taking on a lot of, you know, very, very interesting work in the last two or three years. That is more in the healthcare space. So patient, advocacy groups, using machine learning technologies to help patients get better access to, to care by using, you know, some of their medical data or diagnosis, history. To connect them to clinical trials or you know, resources that will help them learn more about a rare disease or what have you. And we’ve been working with genetics lab in Europe to to help them process genomics data, and use machine learning tools to create reports. And you know, to help advance the science in the lab to really get better insights on this huge massive data that they have from from all this genetics, the genetics kits that they’ve sent out,

CHIP: right. Now, let’s talk a little bit about your team. And obviously, most agencies have have experienced change and how they work with their teams in the last few months. I’m not sure why I think things have been pretty quiet in the world around us. But, but let’s talk a little bit about the team. You know, I know you have multiple locations, you know, how is your team set up? You know, how was it set up? I suppose. And then how is it set up today?

JEREMY: Yeah, so you know, we’re about a 20 person team right now. And our headquarters is in New York City. And we opened a second office I would say about four years ago in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. So we’re all on the East Coast, we’re all in the same time zone, you know, a couple hours away. And one of the things that we did from the, from the start of the company was we did this remote work Mondays and Fridays, we’ve always done that. So 40% of our time, we’re working remote anyway. And I’d say, between having the two separate offices, and this culture of remote that we’ve had since day one, we’ve really kind of just business as usual, in a lot of ways in terms of our internal working relationship, you know, through the, through this COVID situation, which is, you know, I know a lot of agencies that are now like struggling to deal with the economic damage, right, but also trying to figure out how to work together at the same time, and that that must be really difficult. So I’m grateful that we don’t have to deal with that.

CHIP: So, obviously, the fact that that you were set up that way has has helped in a time like this. But how does with a distributed team and you know, working part time in the office and part time remotely, even before this, how does that work when you’re partnering with other agencies? Have you have you had to? Do you do a lot of in person meetings with the agencies, your partner there? Is that all always been remote?

JEREMY: Yeah, we’ve done we do in person meetings when it’s convenient. I wouldn’t say that it’s a critical aspect to how we work. just illustrate that point, I think, probably 40% of our businesses in Silicon Valley. So you know, I mean, I visit there regularly, but it you know, again, remote is just a huge, huge piece of the puzzle in terms of how we work in general.

CHIP: And so do you have, I would imagine you use a lot of collaboration tools to make sure that you and the other agencies are staying on track, do you? I mean, does it one of those things where you have one project management tool that everybody kind of shares, do you does each agency have their own and then you see In meetings, you know, talk a little bit about sort of the mechanics of x. I know a lot of folks are, are always interested in trying to figure out the best approach to project management. When they’re working with others.

JEREMY: Yeah, we have a suite of tools that we use, you know, a lot of the usual suspects. I don’t know that anyone has any project management tools. We’re like, Hey, I love this. But like,

CHIP: but you just have ones that you hate less, right? That’s the one that you pick.

JEREMY: The pick your poison scenario, right? I mean, we use Usual Suspects zoom Slack,

right, just for day to day, femoral communications,

right. And

for decision documentation, things like that. We use Confluence for, you know, managing our development process, we use JIRA. And then, for client communications, we often use Basecamp. Just as a replacement for email to make sure that people aren’t getting left off of, you know, cc lists or anything like that. That makes sure that everybody has equal access to all the information. Right now. We have a an easily searchable record.

are, you know, any of that

CHIP: stuff? So find the most current version if you’re using Basecamp versus email where it’s like, what was it the June 10 email or the June 6, email was the most recent?

JEREMY: Yeah, it’s like, you know, with all this stuff, and in anything, I mean, even a project with just a modest level of complexity, it’s really hard to build it. And there’s just a lot of conversations and a lot of decisions that need to be made to get it out in the world. And I think I have a pretty good memory, but like, it really tests you, when you’re, when you’re getting in, you’re like, Hey, I remember having this conversation three months ago, but what was the outcome? You need to have a place to search for that and make sure these conversations just don’t die? Or you just wind up having the same conversations over and over again,

CHIP: right. Now at this point? Are you have sort of a suite of other agencies that you typically work with? Are you consistently adding to the roster? Are you are you out actively looking for more agencies to partner with?

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. We, I think it’s really fun to find new agencies to work with and it’s, I mean, it’s challenging to to you To create working relationships with people, we have many agencies that we just partner with over and over and over again. And one thing that I think is really interesting just about the industries, like the difference between the design and the development industries, is that, you know, the relationships are totally different, right? Like, like a design agency would become in may come in and be asked to solve a problem. And once that problem is solved visually, their involvement kind of fizzles out, right, at least at least from a full time perspective. Sure. But the timeline on a on a technical relationship is much longer. So in that regard, I think it makes sense to have you know, two different business models for and keep them separate if you don’t want to become a full service agency. And so sometimes what might happen as an agency comes to us and we contract through them and then for the longer term effort or maintenance or you know, whatever, then the contract may shift over to us and then the relationship might be like, Okay, well, they have a designer To ask, we go back to the agency, and then we pull them into our contract. So it’s really symbiotic relationship for a lot of agencies we work with, and I think that we found a way to really make it work very well. On both sides of the table.

CHIP: I think you make a great point there about, you know, how technical relationships, you know, tended to be more ongoing, particularly these days. I mean, I was involved with development work 25 years ago, and it was very different in the late 90s, where you would typically build something and then you know, sort of it’s fire and forget almost, but now, a lot more of the development work is ongoing, because expectations from users or clients, or the companies that agencies are working for, just expect to continue to evolve the product over time.

JEREMY: Yeah, and I think we look at like, you know, over the past 20 years of web work in agencies and things like that. You see this. This kind of boutique agencies small specialized agency model is kind of born out of this idea of, you know, these, these, many early agencies were design firms. And then, you know, the web came, and they started trying to become full service. And they needed to hire way more developers than they had designers. Right, right to fulfill that work. And then all of a sudden, they’re a tech company, but they never wanted to be. And so I think, again, the specialization that we’re seeing makes a lot of sense in that regard to where when, and then you look at the difference in the business models and and, you know, the areas of expertise that you need and the leadership that you need to support a full service team like that. It’s a it’s a much different thing than what the original vision was for the for the company.

CHIP: And as we look to bring this conversation to a close, you know, one of the things I think would be interesting to hear from you is, what are the characteristics of a good agency partnership, you know, so when you’re when you’re looking at someone to partner with, or someone comes to you proposing a partnership, how do you how do you evaluate them? What things are you willing Looking for in those other agencies to know that it’s going to be a good relationship?

JEREMY: Yeah, for me just to boil everything down for me starting shift lab was just simply about doing good work with good people. And, and that I try to, you know, really make that continuous part of our ethos year in and year out. And, and so what we want to do is just build beautiful products, and we want to partner with people who are very talented. I think as a company we love really good conceptual design. And so if there is an agency out there that is doing that type of work, like we want to know you. So that is kind of the main thing is like, okay, like, Are we going to get to build something interesting with this group? And if the answer is yes, we’re eager to explore it and then you know, all the things that I talked about from process and things like that earlier, totally apply, right, those are, those are follow up parts of that conversation to make sure that there’s a good healthy fit You know, because these the collaborations and healthy collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. It really needs fix. It takes a village.

CHIP: Thanks work. Absolutely. Well, great. Jeremy, this has been a great conversation. If someone wants to learn more about you, or shift lab, where should they go online?

JEREMY: Well, we get started our website, Shiftlab.co.

We post work and, you know, industry thoughts and happenings. And we’ve been doing this talk to a leader series where we do q&a with interesting people. And, you know, there’s links to all our social media on our website, so the great place to start.

CHIP: Fantastic. Well, great. I really appreciate your time. You’ve had some great insights for agency leaders. Again, my guest today has been Jeremy Jackson, the founder of shift lab.

JEREMY: Thanks, Chip. Thanks for having me.

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