Designing next to your Brother. An inside look at Balkan Brother's Digital Takeover.
The Justic bothers are co-founders of Balkan Brothers, an agency in several different locations that include a portfolio filled with Teachable, Progressive Insurance, Zora, Shiply, InvoiceSherpa, and Zapper clients.
"Truth be told, we had to fight for each step of the way, there were no shortcuts and no guidelines, everything we did was new to us and from each mistake we had to squeeze out everything we could. But, I feel that gives us an edge. We had to learn fast and work really hard. There is no magic formula. You need to go through all the steps yourself."
In the diverse field of graphic, 3D and web design, the amount of work that goes into deliverables is daunting. Having a partner in this industry has been said to be “a must”. Having your brother at your side makes it seems like there are two of you. However the challenge to agree on colors, clients and layout seems like it takes the studio life to a whole new level.
Starting the Balkan Brothers in 2011, like most startups, had its ups and downs. Today, it’s hard to see any difficulties for this agency. The two brothers with a competitive edge dove right in and today boast clients like Teachable, Progressive Insurance, Zora, Shiply, InvoiceSherpa, and Zapper. But the story doesn't begin there. The story begins in the City of Krk, with the love of digital design, apprehending adulthood while working together to build their business.
With their father on board, the brothers started an online travel agency called “BookinginCroatia” and “BookinginCard”. With no prior experience regarding design, development or website functionality they built a landing page and expanded the idea of discount cards for flights. Being self taught allowed them to become versatile in particular individual crafts, breaking down design to-do lists and learning the ins and outs of user experience. All of the marketing materials, website design, stationery, branding was performed in-house, and in doing so they searched for a process that worked.
BookinginCroatia didn’t go as well as planned and the two were left with $30 dollars to their name and 2 computers. In that moment Matej proposed to try out 99designs, crafting logos. “If that doesn’t work out, we each go our separate way, getting 9-5 jobs. A blue pill, red pill moment if you watched Matrix. Together, we decided to jump into the rabbit hole”, said Matej.
Determined and hardworking they applied for 99Designs projects while teaching each other design tricks, Photoshop and WordPress. “We were working full time, 12+ hours per day, 7 days a week. Studying and designing from our small in-house “office”. We never approached this as a hobby, this was our job, livelihood, food on the table moment from the get-go” – Filip. He continued with, “I remember that in November of 2012 we entered our first 99Designs contest, and actually reached the finals. We obviously lost to a much more experienced designer. The winner got $2,300 which was beyond our dreams at that time. I mean we were so heavily outmatched it is funny looking back now. We designed a website without grids, used a 12pt font size for the main paragraphs and designed everything in illustrator… Only 2 weeks passed and we won our first contest for $940 which is an equivalent of a monthly salary in Croatia (at the time). We were stoked and proud, as this was the sign we were waiting for, a confirmation that we can actually make this work. From that moment forward we just went full throttle and started designing like madmen”.
That December they won their fourth contest, Shiply from UK. The contest included a a complete landing page with the cash prize being over $1400. In addition the winner also got to redesign Shiply’s dashboard. In weeks of waiting, Matej and Filip scored and were awarded. At the same time they also won a contest for Zapper. It became obvious that they knew they had style that people wanted.
The following year they continued winning contests and mostly working with all the clients they met on 99designs. “Almost everyone had more work for us. At that time we started chatting with Marino, a programmer that ran a computer-shop in Krk. Why not offer our clients the possibility to code up our designs for them?”, Matej. So they did and they did with vengeance; no holding back. “In design, you need to leave your ego out of it, because clients will always try to add their final touch. Don’t let that influence you, that is normal. Don’t be afraid of what others will say about your work, since design is very subjective and everyone sees it differently. Express yourself and just let it be.” – Filip.
DACA looks around the small studio as the two Brother’s discuss their creative journey in detail, their influences and what advice they can give to the next lone coder overseas.
“What I would attest to our rise from nothing is that you need to really love what you do, sometimes a hard situation in life can push you further than you expect. If you don’t have a cushion to fall on to, you bite harder. Truth be told, we had to fight for each step of the way, there were no shortcuts and no guidelines, everything we did was new to us and from each mistake we had to squeeze out everything we could. But, I feel that gives us an edge. We had to learn fast and work really hard. There is no magic formula. You need to go through all the steps yourself”.
So when you were entering that first contest, who was your influence?
Matej: Hmm, not sure. Can’t remember. Well, we always approached each project or contest at time the same. We like to find out which industry the product or client belongs to. We check industry leaders and see what they do well. We also look on dribbble to find similar designs you can copy. There is a process to our understanding for each new project we take on – we usually investigate quite a bit on number of visitors, competition, client background and previous company CEOs or founders they worked with. We are usually quite informed before we even make our first call with the client.
Did you work for anyone prior starting your venture?
Filip: Not in the IT industry. We had family businesses: restaurant, Night Clubs and construction. Matej worked with his father and later alone with partner helping running business on all levels. Even prior that family had printing company – mainly T-Shirt design – we might have our touch for design from that time.
Did you have co-founders other than your brother?
Filip: It started with just us as 2 designers. Within a year we added Marino as well. That are the 3 “co-founders” if you want to call them that. Currently we work with around 10+ people in the team (mostly remotely). Matej is client relation, finances, business analytics and logistics. I (Filip) is the lead designer so most of the projects are his wrongdoing. Marino is lead developer so he codes up anything we need coded.
Walk me through a busy day, what tasks are you completing? What roles are you filling?
Matej: My day starts at 11am – first thing in the office i check all emails – usually a lot of new inquiries, client talk, designers talk, developers talk so first thing i try is to get up to speed with daily tasks and how’s everyone standing. Main focus is to have all emails and tasks sorted and that everyone has something to work on.
After that I usually get into proposals, we get couple of new work inquiries a day so that needs to be sorted. We try to do an inspection on every potential client so we know a lot about them even prior our first call. Midday is all about current tasks, usually going over all designers to check what they are working on and how are they progressing. Then, I end my day with scheduled meetings with our big clients and at the end of day play with couple of ideas on how to properly expand and grow.
Let’s get personal now. Balkan Brother is hugely successful now, how do you measure your own successful moments?
Filip: I think that the size and outreach of our client is the criteria by which we measure our success. With time we are starting to work with bigger and more influential clients. Kinda find pleasure in being able to say in a day to day conversation with someone “hey, you know so and so? Well we worked with them!” Also money. Money is important, but don’t make it be your only motivation in this business.
What does it mean to be a creative leader?
Both Answer: We don’t really see us as creative leaders on grand scale. We just love design and are focused on improving it and making it better with each new project we take on. If you are asking how does it feel to be Creative leader in our company: have to say it is not easy as we assign only the best designers out there so usually you have to explain yourself quite a bit – but if you want to do best you have to be able to work with the best!
At first there was just two of you. What is your design process like and how has it grown?
Matej: Not sure if this is true, but as far as I know, we have a pretty unique way of handling this first phase as we delve right into the design process and actually start the design (in PSD) with high fidelity designs. I think that the wireframing process is not necessary unless you have a 50+ page dashboard, but even then I’m not sure you need it.
Filip: Well considering that most of our clients don’t have wireframes, sitemaps and come to us with a rough idea of what they need. We ask them for a list of websites they personally like, we research their competition, we try to figure out their user base and from there we start designing.
Matej: There is something more that can be said on this subject. If we agree that UI/UX design is a process where we try to improve all things, make flows faster and easier, interface more intelligent, pages nicer and aesthetics lighter than you can ask yourself one question. How you are able to do all these through wireframing stage without being able to use all styles? So we see wireframing stage as something that is usable on some projects but mostly just a repetitive behavior inherited from others. For me it is process good for evaluating projects and getting the big picture and not so good for hard-core UI/UX design processes.
Filip: I start right away with designs. If it’s a dashboard I start with the home screen for the dashboard, include colors and design elements I think fit their product and user base. If it’s a website, I start from the homepage and try to think about other pages during that process as well. Find it easier and faster to work that way. No wireframes, just design. Obviously if the client already has wireframes we are very thankful for that, as we can base our design on something and can minimize the research and brainstorming process.
What is your revision process like? How fast can you ship a design out?
Filip: We have been known of designing several websites within a week. We did some websites within a day. In the past there were days where we pushed more than 20 pages, but this is crazy we don’t do that anymore, I promise.
What is the work your most proud of?
Filip: Hmmm I’m very proud of my work on Zora and new designs for InvoiceSherpa (coming early 2017). Both of those I had more time to design, and on both of those I was free to introduce my own design style. Kinda feel they are the best looking of all my work so far.
Matej: Of course mostly proud of work we did for our biggest clients like Progressive Insurance. These projects test you the most.
How do you define the creative director or CEO role today? One has to work closely together with the other. The company will grow the right way with the focus on quality rather than just the numbers game. A creative director has to be on top of everything design related one who knows all new gadgets and all new styles and tricks. Most important thing is that he has a good eye for design and no design-ego. Same goes for the CEO – Both have to be aligned to the same goal, quality first.
How did you start to get your name out there and portfolio seen?
Dribbble is currently our strongest social profile. But we just started publishing on Behance, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as well. We also are looking to explore Awwwards and just opened a profile on Clutch. Last two should be beneficial additions as we are already receiving new inquiries from there.
Have you experienced any challenges with landing clients?
Yes and no. We have more clients than we can serve. But it’s not only roses in Balkan Brothers world – one has to evaluate who is good client and who is not and all that has to be done before we are assigned. We are still learning this making mistakes along the way.
What other creatives do you look up too, who is your motivational creative influence?
Both Answer: Mostly dribbble users such as: Haraldur from Ueno, FocusLab, Creativedash, Barthelemy from Agence.me (they are also brothers), Charlie Isslander (works with us), Victor Erixon, Jakub and Frantisek currently at Intercom. There are a lot others actually, but these are that come to mind first.
Younger creatives struggle with choosing the freelancing route or getting a part time gig at an agency? What is you take?
Filip: Hmmm, not sure. If i had to choose, i would definitely try working in an agency with a design lead that has more experience and versatility. I myself feel like i don’t have that much of theoretical knowledge about design since i didn’t go to any design schools or had any prior experience working in an agency. So if you have a possibility to work with someone who has a lot of knowledge and experience in that business, give it your best shot.
If you go freelance, then know that you need to work really hard to make it. Be consistent, work 40+ hours a week. Showcase your work on social networks all the time, dribbble and behance are a must. If you don’t have a live project to work on, than do a concept for something or someone. The main thing is to work and be socially active.
Any recommendations for those who choose the agency scene and eventually look to break out?
Just do it! In our experience there is more work than designers out there.
What particular world issue if you could, with all the money in the world want to try to solve? And How?
Filip: There is no saving us. Dreaming about Utopian worlds, but I think we are not that loving and peaceful of a race. So I’m thinking of just spending it all on cars, food and drinks. I just watched Suicide Squad the other day and that movie was awful, I mean holy shit how do you go from Dark Knight to Suicide Squad in 10 years… awful. So i’m thinking ,since I have all the money in the world, why wouldn't I save the people on this earth from watching these kind of movies with a Movie Pre Launch Company which would watch a movie before it goes public, and if it was pure crap (SSquad), buyout the rights and delete it.
Matej: Humanity will find a way… it will not be a way out but rather a way in. Once all thoughts stop clarity will be allowed. Just be!
Finally, what is next for you?
Filip: Not sure. Multiple offices with high quality design & dev teams. Matej: Yes, we are looking to open Zagreb office later this year it will be development and design focused. Than Prague is next – nice design focused office. After that – we are coming to the States.
Advice from the Brothers:
Filip: Research, copy and design. Research top designs on the net, check a lot of dribbble, behance for inspiration, it will help a lot. By copy i mean exactly that. Drag and drop someone’s work to your canvas and work on it as you please, but with time you will understand the concept of correct spacing, balancing and coloring. It speeds up your growth as a designer. Design? Think about what you are building, think how to make it better than what is already on the web and keep designing and polishing. Sometimes i make 20,30,40 different versions for a single web page. Polishing and playing with how some ideas work with other. Keep designing and trying to make your latest design even better.
Matej: Don’t get emotionally attached to your design. Feedback and revision are part of the job, so you need to be stable enough to understand that sometimes clients actually have a point. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice a good looking design for greater user experience and overall better user retention. Don’t over-think your design and i’m hopeful that with time you will understand that less is actually more. I’m still battling with that concept, but i’m finding it to be true. Keep your design clean, it will last longer. Still have a memorable element somewhere, but try and keep it slim and clean.