Welcome to the 13th installment of our new RebusFarm Business in Arch Viz series. Over the next year we will be featuring two articles every month. Each new article will discuss the business side of working in and running businesses in the visualization industry. We will feature articles from some of the top studios in the world and have in-depth answers to questions that every studio and artist in the industry should know.
The goal of this series is to provide a long-term resource for not only new artists and business owners entering the industry, but also long-time industry veterans. The topics will range from contracts and IT infrastructure to hiring and business strategy.
Studios participating in this series include: 2G Studio, ArX Solutions, Beauty and the Bit, Cityscape, DBOX, Designstor, Digit Group, Inc., Factory Fifteen, Kilograph, Luxigon, MIR, Neoscape, Public Square, Steelblue, The Neighbourhood, Transparent House, Urbansimulations and many more. Collectively these companies generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue, and have decades of experience running some of the most successful businesses in the industry.
We hope you enjoy the series!
We would like to also like to sincerely thank RebusFarm for supporting this series. Through their support they are helping better our industry and contribute significantly to future generations of visualization businesses in our field. If you are looking for one of the best rendering farm companies in the world, we highly recommend checking them out here
Image Courtesy: MIR
How do you build a successful company culture? As you grow the company, how do you maintain that culture or evolve it in a way that stays true to your roots?
ArX Solutions: I think that it is important to have a clear objective and preserve the team spirit. As a team we will spend more time with our team mates than with our families. At ArX we look for talent AND good persons. We don't like selfish guys because at the end, no matter how good they are, they are toxic people.
Beauty and the Bit: It is always staying true to your principles. We live in a moment of lots of changes in business and sometimes that can blind you, too many options, too many paths to follow, so for us it’s defending our trademark, our seal. The way it has evolved for us is having the notion that we want to keep growing as artists and learning new things day by day. We want to be unique in our little plot.
Designstor: I believe company culture comes from hiring truly good people and letting them develop a culture on their own. As an owner I provide opportunities and financial support for events and such. Our staff have developed their own outings and relationships and I try my best to leave that alone! At a high level, I personally prefer the company to be about the company, not the owner. I think that philosophy has helped our culture.
Factory Fifteen: Hard, organising regular socials. Giving people budgets and freedom to organise things. Finding common ground either in food, drink, table tennis, cycling, computer games and basing socials around that.
Kilograph: It almost needs to grow itself provided the right conditions are present. Strong leaders rise to the top and are respected by their co-workers in the base case. When this happens artists want to work hard and enjoy it more. All in all this leads to a successful culture. Regular progress reviews for employees, recognition for jobs well done, daily scrums and weekly cultural events in the city help the process along.
MIR: We have found that you have to grow slow, try to keep people as long as possible, and make sure that the management is not just out playing golf all day.
Neoscape: Company culture is a tricky thing to get right. We started Neoscape as a place for the three of us (Rob, Rod, Nils) to work and have fun. We didn’t plan the culture but the people we hired shared the same pioneering spirit and interests and it just worked. It was always a work hard play hard kind of environment and we believed in treating our employees fairly and rewarding them for a job well done. I also think that it helped for us because for the first 10 years we were in the trenches as part of the production team - my partners more so than me as I was in sales - but it helped to create a sense of kinship - we were in this together, working hard and breaking new ground and having fun.
Pixel Flakes: Culture up until this point has been relatively organic, we have always tried to stay as true to our roots as possible, when we first started the company lunch time FIFA games became somewhat of a ritual and still are to this day, leader boards and all! On a larger scale, we try to promote office culture with yearly expense paid retreats (castles and wine seem to be the trend) as well as other perks such as Friday pub lunches and once a month massages. Whilst these perks are a good way of promoting friendships within the office we also try to be as transparent as possible with artists and conduct a lot of business discussions such as scheduling, meetings and general business planning within the office itself rather than behind closed doors. As we look to move into the new office ensuring that the office itself is as professional as possible is a big perk, with subsidised lunches, beer taps and table tennis tables being installed.
Pure: Communication and daring to make mistakes! Nothing is perfect, relax!
Ricardo Rocha: I have always believed that our clients are first, and that hadn’t changed a bit, so as we growth our culture maintain the same believe, and we turn that into actions. It is quite easy to spot who fits in our culture in the first few days and before adding someone into the team we ask some questions as, if they have a pet or if they play videogames to know about the person's likes and how it brings something more to our business.
Steelblue: We found that the larger we got the more boundaries people wanted set. The culture we started with was diluted a bit by the rules. The culture needs to evolve and we have gone through recent changes that try to bring us back to the roots. For instance, we now have an unlimited vacation time policy.
Urban Simulations: Effort, great and defined soul. If you love the company, you can become family if you understand pure soul.
Image Courtesy: Kilograph
What types of people, skillets, personalities have you hired in the past that did not work?
ArX Solutions: Selfish, toxic and arrogant people.
Beauty and the Bit: People that don't want to share the notes. Do you remember when you were in high school and you met these kind of guys that didn't want to share notes in the classes? They hid them from you because they thought that would give the others advantage against them. That is the kind of selfish guy we avoid. We are a community here that wants to share knowledge. And I can spot these kind of people just by staring them face to face.
Designstor: These are stories best told over beer… But we’ve had some misses with artists not trained in architecture, poor communicators with great artistic skills, a salesperson who sold us on his abilities (which were terrible) and a effects/compositor. We have a rule now: potential employees must meet at least 3 people from our office before being hired.
Factory Fifteen: People that worked very well independently and had a good portfolio, but not as well in a team environment.
Kilograph: Top-down authoritarian leadership fails universally. Also, people who don’t care for or respect the AEC industries never stay around for long.
MIR: We have not yet hired anyone that did not work out for us.
Neoscape: I think that prima donnas and brilliant jerks have not worked well for us. Or people who are just assholes. We like team players who are motivated and driven - people that can take our company forward. People that have not worked out either oversold themselves or were lone wolfs who could not work in a team setting. Or maybe that just didn’t believe in what we were trying to do. I also think that people who come in and think that they have a better way of doing everything tend to flame out. We like people who help us improve but there is an appropriate way to go about that without throwing a wrench in the works. In general if we ever sense that an employee is getting toxic we address it.
PixelFlakes: In the early days, we used to hire people based on what we deemed to be our weaknesses, for example being a very heavily 2D company we began to hire 3D artists to complement our skillsets, we quickly realised this wasn’t the right approach! It took too much time away from the development of imagery as workflows were refined and training given, for such a small team at the time it wasn’t sustainable. As for personalities, we have had our fair share, it’s very evident from the off if new employees are not like minded. The non-enthusiastic, unadaptable and unwilling to learn often fall by the wayside unable to fit into the ‘Pixelflakes workflow’. What we try to do now is ensure we are employing artists who can teach us something, not necessarily ‘filling the holes’ but embellishing strengths also, as long as there is evolution in the style and quality of the imagery then we deem it a success.
Pure: people who are not dedicated to the design sector.
2G Studio: Senior artist type. I found out less senior artists who understand vray settings, or solve some problem. They were only able produce good lighting, that's all. Yet they want high salary and don't want to teach other team members. This is very bad personality.
Ricardo Rocha: We stop to talk and promote our business as individuals and we always speak as a team, because promoting just a person can be bad if they leave. Egos, non team players and non easily adaptive personas don’t fit in our culture and workflow.
Steelblue: One of our team members likes to write ‘Check your egos at the door’. Those that felt they had reached the top typically didn’t work out. There is always room to grow and learn.
Urban Simulations: Obviously egos are the worst part, you have to have an ego to become an artist, but you have to understand you’re joining a team. You have to be part of something solid.
Sometimes, people tell you, "no man, you know what? I’m more comfortable doing that in my way" and they don't rely in your protocols.
Image Courtesy: Beauty and the Bit
Are there any specific questions you ask potential candidates that are telling indicators of how well they might be suited to work for you?
ArX Solutions: We trust a lot on intuition, you know when you speak to somebody if they can be a good fit for the team.
Beauty and the Bit: Which kind of other artistic manifestations apart from architecture are they interested in.
Designstor: We developed a written test for our interactive candidates that is a great indicator of how they think, and has proven to be excellent at evaluating skills. On the personality side, we don’t have specific questions but try to ask questions about how people handle challenging situations in life.
Factory Fifteen: What they like to do in their spare time as personal development. If they do there own work outside of work. How they work in teams. How they analyse their position as an artist in terms of level and what it takes in their own words to progress.
Kilograph: What can you bring to the company? What is your long-term professional goal?
MIR: Do you have problem with a lot of rain? Even if you try to prepare people for the amount of rain and darkness you will encounter on the west coast of Norway, they will never be able to visualize how dark and rainy it is actually going to be here. But most importantly, candidates have to tolerate critique.
Neoscape: I generally am more interested in what candidates do in their free time. It tends to give me some insight into who they will be as an employee. The one specific question that I ask all prospective employees is kind of a ridiculous question but it helps me determine how well they can think on their feet. Q: If you could be any kitchen appliance, what would you be and why?
PixelFlakes: Matt - For me personally I enjoy the diamonds in the rough, taking portfolios that have hints of potential and helping them grow into great artists. The key indicator for this type of artist is without a doubt passion, enthusiasm and an understanding of the industry and where it's moving. Asking candidates questions such as what other companies do you look up to? How would you describe our style in comparison to other companies? Where do you see the industry going in 2 years’ time? Are often a tell-tale sign of how engrossed they are within this industry, how much they live and breathe this stuff. An understanding of the industry goes hand in hand with enthusiasm and a general passion for visualisation. Asking if artist's complete personal portfolio work outside of work shows how willing they are to experiment, to try ideas and techniques and to most importantly, practice. Everything can be taught, it’s just how willing artists are to work and fine tune that ability that differentiates the good artists from the amazing ones!
2G Studio: Well, first we want to see how fast they response to our whatsapp msg. If they give fast reply, it mean this is one of the indicator they want the job badly. Next are they willing to work overtime, because in this industry, you have to work overtime, Otherwise your output is too low. Of course the overtime is not that crazy.
Ricardo Rocha: We like to add non relative to work questions, as a surprise to know how they manage change and to know more about them, like if they have a pet?, when was their last holiday? Or three things they are passionate about?
Steelblue: I’m a fan of the line of questioning that are not technical and not really about skill sets… Where do your inspirations come from, what do you like to do outside of work, etc.
Urban Simulations: First one is the same my first business consultant did to me in the first meeting 25 years ago. He asked me "where do you picture yourself going in 5 years from now? and in 10 years? 20?" and most of the people didn't have that question solved, the answer will bring you to the place where he will reveal like as runner, a future partner or a not motivated asset.
Image Courtesy: MIR
How do you encourage and help your staff to grow? Both in terms of skill set and as team members?
ArX Solutions: We try to accommodate training, resources, etc.
Beauty and the Bit: We have a lot of talks all together in the studio. We talk about photography, movies, videogames, concept art, the last work by somebody. We also share new techniques and approaches and keep a vast database of tutorials on any subject that can open our minds. We try to keep our office as an art direction incubator.
Designstor: We provide training outlets and run regular learning seminars. The seminars are led by employees and outside experts. We also try to make a clear path of development within roles and discuss through reviews the challenges that people are interested in pursuing.
Factory Fifteen: Each director is responsible for several members of staff. We call it our mentor scheme. We meet with them once a month or after a big project and give feedback on what they could have done better, what they did and didn’t like, how they are working with other members of the team and what they want to achieve in the long run. We try to tailor who does what based on these regular conversations.
Kilograph: We provide a stipend for each employee each year to pursue continuing education. We are definitely providing gnomon with some regular business! Otherwise we try to give everyone the chance to share a thought, new skill, present a topic at a Lunch and Learn. It’s a great way for junior artists to hone their presentation skills.
MIR: We discuss this in detail through our appraisal interviews, where we set goals and review. We also make sure that our staff does not work too much overtime or on weekends so that they can develop outside of work.
Neoscape: We tend to reward self-starters and until recently we didn’t have a regimented training program. We still encourage our employees to always be exploring new tools and techniques and we offer reimbursement for classes they take to better themselves. We also have access to several online training platforms that they can take advantage of. Lastly we encourage people to attend and speak at industry conferences and events - a great way to become established as a subject matter expert and to hone presentation skills.
PixelFlakes: In terms of skill set we try our best to allocate time within our schedule to training, this may come as time in between projects or if the schedule allows a full week to work on a portfolio piece aimed at stretching an artist’s skillset. Training is especially true of new employees as the first week is often set aside for artists to look into matte painting, colour theory and composition tutorials which have helped shape our approach to imagery. As we look to work on the studio culture and with new artists joining, we are looking to start presentation tutorials in order to share knowledge between artists on a monthly basis. Alongside these internal practices, we also fly artists to popular conferences such as D2 in Vienna (a must!) and SOA in Venice.
Pure: Talk to each other. Dare to ask questions. Make suggestions..again, communication is the key.
2G Studio: I buy the tutorials they want and they need to see and finish the tutorial. They have to be responsible for what they want. Asking them to train junior artists also makes them grow.
Ricardo Rocha: We try to have enough time for creative meetings during the process.
Steelblue: Give them responsibility. Let them make mistakes but own them. Recently encouraging continuing education and offering coverage trips to events.
Urban Simulations: The first day we encourage everyone, from a programmer to a producer or a 3d artist, to know more about each others tasks, and whenever a new challenge is solved, the guy who solved it teaches the others. We try to get all the staff interested in other tasks completely different to the their everyday skills. Actually, really often we give a briefing of a project to everybody in the office and ask them to create a script for the commercial.
Image Courtesy: ArX Solutions
As you grew your company were there any specific thresholds where you noticed large shifts in the way the company operates, the types of people you needed to hire, how teams and staff worked together and how the company culture changed?
ArX Solutions: There were many are major milestones in a company like ours: when we grew from 4 to 10 people, when we grew from 10 to 25 and from 25 to 50. Each step became harder as you need to be proficient at every level.
Beauty and the Bit: Our company has changed a lot in 5 years time without losing the initial pulse. I think we have evolved a lot and what we do nowadays is much more mature. Sometimes I look at our first images and I get embarrassed. We are fighting day by day to be more and more honest with what we do. With this I mean that each day we fight more with clients to defend what we think is the best way to portray their projects. In the end we are the professionals.
Designstor: A huge threshold was the introduction of an interactive team and the types of people that involves (developers, designers). That was a challenge to move through, but it has changed the culture for the better. Communication and learning from each “side” of the company has lead to some great improvements and a really interesting mix of personalities.
Factory Fifteen: With us we are always shifting as our projects vary so vastly. We used to maybe hire more specialists. People who are excellent at designing through 3D model making, or texturing, or animating. We’ve always had better retention in our generalists. People who are good at a lot of things and use the studio to help guide them on their own personal journey. Hopefully they find that at our studio, if not good luck to them elsewhere. There have been moments after big films where you think you are on one trajectory, but then the core part of the business keeps things going and you realise how important that is. But it’s all constantly evolving, what we do, who our clients are, who are team is.
Kilograph: Definitely. We now need people to help keep our clients happy and informed (account manager). This has changed the dynamic between the artists and the clients and allowed them to focus more on the work. If anything I’d say the work has become more technical as a result. This had lead to more specific skill hires and an interest in R&D amongst the artist. The company culture is a bit liberated as a result.
MIR: We realized at a certain point that technical excellence can camouflage an uncreative mind. From that point on, hiring became much harder and also more gut-feeling oriented.
Neoscape: I think that when you are starting out - when you reach that 15 person threshold things tend to change a bit - or at least they did for us. When we were just a handful of people we were all great friends and worked a ton of hours together. Once you grow past that number it is simply not possible to be “friends” with all of the employees but we still try to be familial - taking care of each other, helping out and sticking together when the workload demands a lot from us.
PixelFlakes: The most apparent shift for us was over the last year or so, before then the culture and the general day to day production of imagery remained consistent and evolved organically, with an if it’s not broke don’t fix it type attitude. However, as the workload began to increase quite rapidly and the studio began to expand we realised these techniques didn’t allow for the flexibility and clarity that were needed within the studio. In the last year we have completely overhauled our approach to admin, employing a Studio Manager to help chase project information and deal with client requests. Scheduling has gone from a physical approach to an online platform allowing artists to quickly see what they should be working on whilst also allowing for notes to be taken and timings to be recorded. Finally, the quality is now controlled in a much more rigorous manner through the use of Art Direction and in-depth critique sessions. All of these changes have not only been down to the growth of the company but also a shift in mindset and in a sense the culture of the studio. We know that to be competitive and to ensure repeat collaborations with our client base we need to be completing imagery comparable with other top firms, this is the never ending challenge, but something we are constantly taking steps towards.
Pure: Yes. Above 20 it got more divided. It's also harder to grow with high profile people. You mostly grow in the “Middle”. Which is not the best solution if you focus on high class projects.
2G Studio: Yes, there is, but not large shift. We reduce the working hours and started to pick the suitable client, thats all.
Ricardo Rocha: We have developed the team along our clients needs. 10 years ago flash to macromedia were in a hype, so we aim to develop that opportunity, we have shifted along time a lot.
Steelblue: It’s tough to say where the breaks happened for us (in terms of number of employees). I believe that a 5 person company is structured different than a 10 person company and a 10 different than a 20. These are big percentage shifts so the structure can even itself out a bit as you continue to grow. We were readjusting every couple of years which can be tough for certain employees. Others thrive on it and the change is good. We lost some good talent as we worked through change and perhaps we retained others because of it.
Urban Simulations: Obviously there are some points that make a company that lose return, and there aren't always positive points. Lack of work makes people stronger and divide the people you can trust to be beside you in the good moments. Growing and getting big profits is the good point and reaching a successful point bring the company to grow and modify organization. You can afford to get bigger departments, new services, move to a new office and the more important point, address funds for research in new technologies
Image Courtesy: Neoscape
Where do you look for talent and how successful has each method been? (LinkedIn, job boards, headhunters etc.)
ArX Solutions: It depends a lot of the position. In many cases we have an active attitude and we contact the people that we want. In some other we use all the resources available per location.
Beauty and the Bit: None of them really. LinkedIn sucks, it is like the Facebook of jobs. Job boards are sometimes full of the “CG Guy” profile we try to avoid and headhunters are not reliable for us since they don´t experience in first person our day by day, so I think it is directly seeing somebody that pops out your attention and contacting him directly.
Designstor: We’ve hired a lot of co-op students over the years from University of Waterloo, both from Architecture and Computer Science, and these have been very successful. Over the years we’ve advertised in architecture associations, Universities and Colleges, LinkedIn and other online services. We’ve used headhunters and agencies too, with hit-and-miss success. We’ve also reached out directly to people we’ve learned about or know.
Factory Fifteen: Teaching mainly. Had little luck with job boards and FUCK HEADHUNTERS… they are evil.
Kilograph: LinkedIn is recent for us but has yielded amazing results. I think partially because people are on it everyday even when they aren’t looking for work. We also love the CG Architect job boards.
MIR: We look at application that are sent to us.
Neoscape: Referrals, networking and personal relationships are the best way to find talent. We have also used job boards and headhunters.
PixelFlakes: Typically, we rely on job boards however this is somewhat of a hit and miss approach as applicants vary in skillset and location quite drastically. Personally, we have had very little luck with recruiters due to our unusual approach to imagery. LinkedIn has been more successful, allowing for emails to be sent to potential artists looking for new challenges. But most of all, success has come from word of mouth. Current employees often recommend people they have worked with previously, who can be vouched for personality and ability wise, often people who have been interviewed a few years back resurface for a chat, human connection seems to be the best approach!
Pure: Job boards, Industry websites like yours.
2G Studio: Just upload open recruitment on our facebook. That's all.
Ricardo Rocha: We posted on our social media when we need talent and it has been very helpful. We regularly use LinkedIn.
Steelblue: Have not hired from a headhunter yet. I have interviewed headhunters and given a few a chance but they have yet to find someone for us. We have a specialized industry that our needs are not as easy to for them to grasp IMO. LinkedIn has been helpful. Job Boards have been helpful. Industry events - While I have not gone in many years, this may be a reason to.
Urban Simulations: LinkedIn, word of mouth, CGarchitect galleries, Facebook portfolios, we do really often search instead of waiting for the talent to call our door.
Image Courtesy: PixelFlakes
How do you know when to let someone go?
ArX Solutions: Several reasons. Sometimes, is the lack of attention, lack of quality, toxic personalities, poor quality, very slow, etc etc.
Beauty and the Bit: When they are being a pain in the ass for the rest of the team. We are very close so generally we all know how to behave in our little community. So when somebody is acting as a prima donna is the moment to kindly show him the door.
Designstor: We’ve only had to let people go for financial reasons once, and it was difficult. In other situations it’s either really obvious or there’s a combination of feedback from other staff, feedback from clients or a gut feeling that someone is just not a good fit. Letting someone go can be very difficult logistically and we’ve had lots of cases where legal advice was needed.
Factory Fifteen: It’s always hard and it’s always a custom situation per employee. You know when time is time, either through performance targets not being met through regular review, or by seeing someone being fundamentally unhappy and creating a bad aura around everyone else. We’ve never let anyone go for financial reasons which I hope is a trend that continues. Maybe this is because on larger jobs we use a network of regular freelancers.
Kilograph: If they are no longer performing to their job description and through successive meetings with management show no signs of improving. We have also had to let people go for financial meetings and culture fit issues.
MIR: We have a three month trial period. We have not yet fired anyone that has «survived» the trial.
Neoscape: We’re getting better at this but it has not been a strength of ours long term. It’s important to acknowledge when the employee is not living up to expectations. This could be from a quality of work standpoint or from a company culture standpoint.
PixelFlakes: As we complete our own imagery from the very beginning to the end of production it came be quite apparent as to when an artist isn’t picking up the style or process of the imagery. Of course, every effort is made to help support artists in their development, we realise it is a tough concept to grasp and offer tuition, art direction and most importantly time to artists as they look to adopt a somewhat unique approach. As time passes it becomes clear as to whether an artist is going to adopt the approach or not and generally if they are finding it difficult they will be aware they’re struggling. Often it becomes a mutual realisation that it may not work out and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to let them move on.
2G Studio: So far have not let someone go for financial reason, but always let someone go because of their attitude.
Ricardo Rocha: We are like a family, very attached to the team. So is very difficult to let go someone. There is basically one reason, attitude.
Urban Simulations: It depends on the motivation most of the times, when we realize they are no longer involved and motivated in the tasks we are assigning them. Before that we try to relocate them in other positions to get them motivated.
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