The next startup in the Capitol Hill Tech series is Substantial, a web application and design consulting firm that counts CitiBank, Kanye West and Internet Week 2012 among its clients. Substantial believes in creating product magic, when “a product not only works, but works so well that you can’t imagine doing it any other way…Product Magic happens when design and technology come together seemingly effortlessly and are subsumed in serving a vision.”
I talked with Substantial co-founder Donte Parks in Substantial’s sweet digs above Blick’s, right next to Cal Anderson Park. Substantial is coming up on its sixth birthday this fall. With this week’s heat advisories, it’s a good time to get to know the only(?) Capitol Hill start-up with a roof-top deck.
How’d you get started? Why found Substantial?
It started with three of us, myself, Paul Rush and Jeremy Borden, and we’re all still here. We were working on a digital music retail startup together. And you know, as startups do, they end. At the end of it, what we realized was we like the tech we were working with and we liked working with each other. Paul had already done consulting in the past and has already thought of the idea of working at another consulting firm. We just decided to go for it when he had a client lined up. We started day one with work to do. From there is turned into what you see out here [gesturing to the office]. I think you can count forty people [in the Seattle office], and we just started our San Francisco office two months ago.
You think about things differently if you’re trying to run a business. We were profitable on day one. It’s a good model to approach what you’re doing. You’re doing real work; treat it like you’re doing real work. There are a lot of people who have these fancy notions that it’ll take a lot of romantic hard work and late nights and lots of warm pots of coffee and the magical funding fairies will appear.
What’s it like working here?
Given the fact that we were doing a digital music startup beforehand and we’ve had a lot of music clients, and a lot of the people working here are DJs and musicians, music is in the DNA of this company. I even used to write the electronic music column at The Stranger for about a year. Just because the company has grown doesn’t mean that music isn’t a part of it. The first things you see in the office are the DJ tables. It’s this very large, substantial – pardon the pun – piece of reclaimed wood that came from Oregon.
We always intended to have events here, and we didn’t want that side of ourselves to get short shrift. We work very hard and we take our work very seriously. Part of what allows us to do the great work that we do is that people enjoy doing it. There is always beer in the fridge, there’s a full bar, we have that DJ table, there’s a roof deck that overlooks Cal Anderson Park. People use all of these things just as part of their regular Substantial existence.
We throw all of these events partially because it’s good for us and it gets the word out, but we throw parties because we enjoy throwing parties. We host Beer and Code. It’s a matter of we would go to that event anyway and we have a space to do it. Why not offer back to the community what you already have available?
Working here is serious and fun. People work very hard doing whatever project they’re working on. We try to keep the mood pretty light. I think people enjoy people working here a lot, at least that’s my hope. All the feedback that we’ve gotten back says yes they do.
Speaking of the music in Substantial’s DNA, how did the Substantial Sessions get started?
That was me. I forget why I did it initially, it was just that I wanted to have some regular feature on the blog anyway and I didn’t want it to be tech focused. What’s the one thing that I’d be willing to do every month? I’d be down with organizing a podcast. I could do that and not get boring and it wouldn’t come off as being a super pretentious thing. It’s been a lot of fun over the last year. Sometimes they’ll be collaborative mixes – give me your favorite song about summer. This year I just asked one person what summer meant to them musically. I like being able to share the various tastes going on in this office. I don’t want people to think that we’re cooler than everybody else, the point is that we like a lot of different things, let’s share all of that. It’s probably one of the more fun things we do around here. We’ve even had clients do it – Internet Week NY did one last year in the run up to the event.
Is Substantial hiring? What would you say to a potential hire?
Yes, we are hiring, and we’re hiring for developers, designers, and technology strategists, both here and in San Francisco. They [potential hires] should be ok with change. What we look for is smart people. We aren’t necessarily looking for a specific technical skillset as much as we’re looking for the right technical mindset. You can teach someone a new programing language. The hard part is finding someone who’s a good developer. We’ve had people who started here whose first four projects were technologies they did not know. And they’re still here. It’s about being open to learning new things.
What makes Substantial different?
The relationship can often be antagonistic between client and agency. What we try to do is enter into the engagement with a lot more trust. We try to structure everything that we do to have a lot more open communication with our clients, to set up our teams and our role within the larger product development as one where we’re allowed to focus on quality and on the actual product. A lot of engagements lead to focus on code. The code isn’t necessarily the point, the product is the point. In the end the success or failure isn’t whether you wrote 500 or 1500 lines of code, it’s based on how the product is doing.
Approaching everything with a little more mutual respect and trust can make the whole relationship work a lot better. We sometimes don’t even use the word client, we want to be partners.
What has been Substantial’s most exciting project?
The work that we did with Citibank is some of the most exciting work partially because of the scope. Citibank is calling it smart banking. The whole idea is that banking sucks, and how do we make banking suck less through technology. Citibank partnered with Eight Inc. who is famous for coming up with the concept for the Apple Store. They are taking some of those same principles and taking that to the world of banking: have really big interactive pieces that make your space engaging, have really good lighting. They’ve already rolled this out in Asia. We’ve worked on some of the pieces of technology; we had a lot of involvement there in terms of making that work. It’s one thing to build a website and see it work. It’s another thing to go to Tokyo for the launch and see something you worked on happen there, and then know that it’s going to be rolled out across Asia and then in the US.
The work that’s we’ve done for nonprofits is also exciting. It’s exciting to see nonprofits do good work. They don’t always have the funding to get sophisticated stuff out the door. Teaching Channel, IDEO.org, it feels good to know that you’re working in tandem with someone that’s making the world a better place.
Why Capitol Hill?
There are two answers. One reason why we’re on Capitol Hill is because it’s not where companies like us are. You can find more interesting spaces here. The culture up here is a little more like how we are. We’re a cap hill company, we’re not a Belltown company, we’re not a Pioneer Square company. The other aspect to it is that the people in charge of finding the space live on the Hill, and now we can all walk to work. Most of our work doesn’t come from Seattle, so we don’t need to be any particular place in Seattle. We might as well be where we want to be, which is on Capitol Hill.
Previously in Capitol Hill Tech: Colin Henry of SimplyMeasured