You've seen Rex Sorgatz's work. Maybe you know his prolific blogging at Fimoculous, or you've browsed a news site or three that he was building behind the scenes, or you've spotted his hand at Mediaite or the new Styleite. Rex and I talked by e-mail this week in between launches.
RYAN SHOLIN: First things first, catch me up. You were working for MSNBC in Seattle, then you moved to New York and since then, I see you pop up every now and then saying "Hey, check out this awesome project I just worked on." And then the other day, you pull the same schtick with news about The Week's redesign, only you use the word "we," and link to Kinda Sorta Media, which I immediately scoured for clues.
So what have you been up to since switching coasts, and how long as KSM been a thing?
REX SORGATZ: I originally moved to NYC to do a content-based startup -- a twist on videoblogs. I essentially hate videoblogs, both as business and content propositions, but I've thought a lot about how I'd like to fix them. I have a really good idea! But....
Unfortunately, the economy turned sour, and starting an advertising-based content company suddenly seemed preposterous. So instead I started consulting around town, mostly helping media companies and startups build and launch new things. I relaunched IFC.com, produced a big project for SNL, helped Dan Abrams launch the Mediaite franchise, assisted a couple startups, and so on.
Along the way, I realized that I was accidentally creating something else I essentially hate: an agency.
Really! I despise digital/creative agencies! They're slow, ineffectual little monsters. And they bill you like lawyers.
But I like to create companies around the fringes of what I hate. So I came up with this twist on the idea: a very horizontal organization that consists of a loose collection of talented but disparate people (designers, developers, marketers, content specialists, product managers) to crowd-source projects. We borrow a trope from cloud computing: finding the resources for the task at hand. Some projects are huge and involve hiring dozens of people, whereas others are just me helping someone figure out a solution to a problem.
So I have a shoe-string core staff, but a huge network of affiliates. It's working pretty well. I get calls every day from companies who say they are frustrated with their creative agency.
RYAN: Sounds like a band of merry mercenary media types roaming the streets of Manhattan. Like Tumblr but different...
As you move from project to project like that, are you able to steer clear of bureaucratic timesinks like incorporation and payroll?
REX: Incorporation and payroll aren't the timesinks. Those are easy to manage, and actually I have to do both.
The timesink is around the actual product development. That is: there are many fantastic designers out there and there are many uber-smart developers out there, but there are so few people who understand both extremes. Notice that I didn't say "so few people who sit in the middle," because we actually have plenty of those. (They're called project managers. I worked at Microsoft where I met thousands of those people.)
It's still surprisingly rare to find people who understand high-end product design and complex programming. Throw in business and content and marketing -- eyebrows start flitting, knees get shaky. Agencies solve this conundrum by hiring staff for client relations and project management to ease the flow of communication. This is where all the overhead exists. THIS is the timesink.
RYAN: How much of the network is formalized, and how much is just reaching into your posse to find out which of your favorite people have two months free for that next gig?
REX: I have only one full-timer, and then a couple people who do this exclusively, and then dozens of people who work project-by-project. They're really talented. Most of them have left their jobs at media companies or agencies because they were frustrated too.
It's growing ridiculously fast though, so it might be different in six months. I'm doing everything possible to not create another hierarchical x-reports-to-y org chart monster though.
I sincerely believe those systems are starting to break.
RYAN: So is my image of a few dozen people who all specialize in one of the disciplines listed here http://kindasortamedia.com/where.html on track, or do you primarily deal with highly skilled ninjas who can also talk to the client and project manage themselves?
I'm trying to go all Robin Hood's merry men with the metaphor here, but it sounds more like an all-star posse of Robins.
REX: Even that changes project-by-project. Sometimes those people are invisible specialist ninjas, but sometimes they're dynamic client-facing generalists.
RYAN: This all feels like a really happy collective -- how do you present yourself to clients? As an anti-agency? A one stop shop for consulting, development, and marketing? (Yes, I saw the chevron...)
REX: Right now, it's more like a unconnected network, but I would eventually like it to be a little bit more like a true collective. I would eventually like to offer freelancer health insurance, do events, make it more integrated.
My client pitch is really just a version of what I just gave you. "We think agencies are broken, here's why." But the focus is always on the work.
RYAN: So how's it turning out? What's a good example of this sort of work in the wild?
REX: We have a new startup coming out in a couple weeks called ReFashioner that is going to be super cool. It's a virtual economy for couture. There hasn't been anything in the virtual economy space for a while, and this should be very interesting.The process itself was virtual: I worked with the founder for about on a month on refining the concept, essentially creating a new economy from scratch. Then I worked with a rockstar UI guy on wirefames, wrote the product spec, and then brought in a fantastic freelance designer. Various consultants came in to work on other individual pieces. The development team was based in Ukraine. In the end, I think the some of the best people in the industry worked on the project, and the outcome will be better, faster, and less expensive than if it were done within a traditional agency.
RYAN: Do you have a favorite tool for this sort of distributed work? Basecamp? Any sort of group messaging system that everyone stays plugged into?
REX: Basecamp and Campfire are great. I also like Assembla and Codebase. Now that you mention it, different projects usually require different group software. The collaboration software space might be the new Movable Type versus WordPress: tools that are very similar but their differences look magnified because they are so similar.
RYAN: What else are you working on right now that you're psyched about?
REX: We just launched Styleite, a new site in the Mediaite empire that has some interesting features, including Style Sheets and the Power Grid. I've been ranting for a while that media consumers are growing weary of the constant march of undifferentiated blog launches. I doubt blogging will die anytime soon, but I do think the future lies in finding ways to extend the blog platform to do more than just posts and comments. These are good examples, and I think you'll see a lot more of this soon.
Another upcoming launch is 4food, a new healthy fastfood chain based in NYC. The first store is launching in April, and it's going to be very techy! It's taking some of the principles of the internet like personalization (custom orders that you name), user interface (a dashboard for in-store ordering), and gaming (badges). Connecting virtual spaces with real-world experiences (Foursquare, Kickstarter, etc.) is the most exciting thing going on online right now.
RYAN: So the question I imagine some of the freelancers and independent editors, designers, and consultants reading this right now are thinking "Hey, I could do this!"
Can they? What's your advice to the loose federations of friends and allies looking to form their own networks along these lines?
REX: The collective concept is already commonplace within design. In some ways, I'm just making a larger, more comprehensive ecosystem. Anyone can do it, just as anyone can create a normal agency too. But Kinda Sorta requires knowing the right combination of people who are both "thinkers" and "do-ers." I have zero interest in hiring media blowhards who can't actually create stuff.
I want to unleash my own personal hurt locker on those kinds of consultants.
RYAN: What's the one thing a freelance developer or designer should know right now about working with a news organization or media company?
REX: Beware: Media people are truly truly freaked out.
Last updated by Ryan Sholin Mar 21, 2010.