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Warren Wilansky, President & Founder at Plank

Warren Wilansky, President & Founder at Plank

A few years back, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke openly about executive isolation. “It’s sort of a lonely job,” he said, but he wasn’t looking for sympathy. The sentiment that it’s lonely at the top rings true for many digital leaders. While some are able to find solace in communities such as AIGA, AAF or PRSA, there aren’t a whole lot of options for digital shop owners, project managers, design leaders or operations leads.

Warren Wilansky, Founder and President of Plank, knows the feeling. Back in 2012, he was roaming different events and realizing he was the only owner in the room. But an unexpected email changed everything for him—and for Carl Smith, who went from a Bureau event attendee to Bureau owner at large. Tune in to hear about the Bureau’s early days and how the community has evolved to help digital leaders—and even digital competitors—become trusted allies and friends.


Show Notes

There are so many opportunities to connect and dig into challenges before the year is out. Here’s what’s coming up:

  • The seventh Digital PM Summit is in Orlando in less than two weeks! Registration closes this Friday, October 11—and we’re close to a sellout. Don’t wait any longer to snag your spot. Register today.

  • If you care about diversity and want to build on the research that shows that diverse teams build better products, join us in Dayton, Ohio, on November 13-14 for Digital Diversity Days at Sparkbox. There is no cost to attend this event, so join us and make an impact in your workplace and in the industry.

  • Finally, Ops Week is coming to San Francisco, November 4–8. From our Financial Metrics, Forecasting and Operations Workshop to a workshop focused on Effective Collaboration for Teams and Ops Camp, block out some dedicated time to focus on the inner workings of your organization.

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Carl: Swinging by the Bureau studios today we have somebody I've known for a really long time. I'm not exactly sure how long, but I know it hasn't been more than seven years because that's when the Bureau started. And for me, I've met so many amazing people through being a part of this community. And Warren Wilansky is one of them. He's the founder of Plank, a shop that just hit I think 20 years.

Warren: 20 years is right.

Carl: And he's here with us today to just kind of talk about the impact the Bureau's had in our life. Welcome Warren.

Warren: Hey Carl. Thanks for having me.

Carl: Yeah, I'm glad you're here. What was the first time you and I met? What was the first Bureau event you went to?

Warren: The first Bureau event I was at was when it was still called Shop Talk and it was Owner Summit number two. It would have been November 2012.

Carl: Wow. There you go. We met and obviously I fell in love with you right away. You're just, you're that guy. But what did you think when you first walked into the room and you were suddenly surrounded by people who did what you did? Have you ever had that experience before?

Warren: It was a really, really, really strange experience. The first one was getting an email from Greg Hoy about maybe three or four weeks, maybe even six weeks before introducing himself and inviting me to the event and my first thought was, well I know of Greg, I didn't know him personally, but we've kind of crossed paths or just being in similar digital agency world, just been around in each other's radar. But then to get an invite to the event and then get invited into what at that time I think we were using Basecamp and seeing the people that were going to be there. I was like, oh, this is going to be a really, really great few days.

Carl: Well, so I didn't, see this is what blows my mind. I always thought you and Greg knew each other pre-Bureau. The way you guys are so tight and the thing you've worked on together and all that kind of stuff. I had no idea he just cold emailed you.

Warren: Yeah, it was really funny. I remember when I got to the event, I was talking with him and Joe Rinaldi and my first question was, how did you guys find me? Why me out of anybody? And I think it might've been Joe who had said that they were just checking out companies on Twitter and just going through and looking at who should come to this event. And they found us and they found Plank and said we seemed like a like minded company. And I think we were.

Carl: See this is so funny because when they reached out to me, a lot of people think I founded the Bureau and all this kind of stuff. And eventually I got pulled aside by Greg Story and he said, "You don't have to keep explaining it to people. Just let it be okay. It's okay. They're confused. You don't have to constantly say that it's us." But I remember getting the email from Hoy and Story that said, "We want you to come to this event." And I said, "Why?" And they said, "You're either full of shit or you're smart and we want to figure out which one." And I was like, "Oh, I'll be there because I would really like to know too." And so, but it's just hilarious that they reached out to both of us in that same manner and they must have just been doing that like a factory. They must've just been reaching out to shops they thought were cool.

Warren: I'm guessing so. And for me, what was most amazing about it, and for me at the time, it was such an impactful few days, was at that point I was the sole owner. And right now I have a partner, Steve Bissonnette, we're partners and we run Plank together. But at that point I felt like I was alone in this. I wasn't a part of any other community. I wasn't a part of any other group of digital studio owners who talked and shared so to suddenly have this room of over 30 people openly sharing everything and exposing everything about themselves and their company was just, it changed me at that moment overnight. And I just couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to go to every possible event and share every possible event with my team as well.

Carl: That becomes a question, Steve's a friend of mine as well. And so this is the thing, now how did you meet Steve?

Warren: Oh wow, that's a big one. Steve and I actually, we worked together on our first jobs out of university. When I finished university I had done communications focusing on what was at the time called multimedia because there was still not really, there wasn't much of an internet yet. The internet was still kind of small and that was what I was interested in. I got hired to work on a CD rom version of Leonard Nimoy's Primortals comic book series.

Carl: Oh shut up.

Warren: Yeah. And I was doing Macromedia Director and Steve was the Photoshop foremonkey and we were kind of collaborating together and we worked together on that project. Stayed friends for about six months or so. And then when Plank needed to hire its first employee, I reached out to Steve and basically said, "Hey, do you know anybody who might want to work with us?" And he said, "What about me?"

Carl: Way a sideswipe him. Well done sir.

Warren: It was just more. That I just could not conceive of this person that I respected as an equal would want to come work for us as a company. I just didn't see it. And now, over 20 years later we're business partners and we've been working together so long. It was made to be.

Carl: And it's funny that you invoked Director because I was going to say there was nothing wrong with authorware with time Macromedia. But it's funny because we did, those were the things that we did way back then. And then, I don't know of any other community like AIGA a was a thing for artists, for designers. And there were some digital people in there and then you had other kind of communities. But there was nothing for us, nothing for people who through whatever set of circumstances, ended up, I won't say in charge, I'll say basically with our neck on the line. I don't think any us, maybe you planned on it. I didn't plan on being an owner, I just said this would be cool and suddenly people were looking at me like, what are we doing?

Warren: Yeah, it's interesting I think you, I know I didn't, my whole reason for starting to do this was just to not work for somebody else. And I just figured, well, I'll get a couple people together, we'll all work together. And then at a certain point it suddenly I had the same kind of scenario where people were just kind of looking over and being like, well, is somebody's going to lead this place? And I had an early partner and she had left in 2004, so from 2004 up until when Steve came on as a partner about four or five years ago, I was in it myself and I just didn't really know if I had the skills or knew if I was doing anything right or not. I had no reference point other than, well, I've read some stuff on the internet and it seems like we're doing the right things. And the Bureau just reinforced for me all the good and bad that I'm doing.

Carl: You know one of the funniest moments for me, it was super embarrassing and not that, nobody made me feel embarrassed, but it was one of the early owner camps. We were in Arizona, we were at the Boulders and I asked a question that I thought was innocent enough, but I said, "How do you determine what you should charge?" And the whole room just went like, "Oh my God." You could just, you could feel the eyes of their souls were rolling. It wasn't the eyes in their head, they were just like, ah, I think it was John Lax who you said, "That's the magic question." There's no formula. Read all the books. There's no way to just determine it. It's just a touch of black magic and a touch of formula, and a kind of market valuation, all this kind of weird stuff that's going on.

Carl: But that was the first time that I felt like I'm truly not alone. I had been at the earlier events and stuff, but that was one of the ones that I always thought everybody knew some sort of, you type in these things and it spits out a little sheet of paper that says charge 185 an hour. Or a website is $800,000. Whatever it might've been. But then you find out that even the people who are leading the charge at the larger organizations, that everybody's reading their books or their blogs or whatever, are just as lost as we are.

Warren: And I think it's still that way. I think there's a general sense now that the industry talks to each other a little bit more of what the range of what a professional firm that does a certain kind of quality work should be doing. But I don't know about you or I don't know if you still hear it from other owners, but I still get the emails of somebody having $500 and thinking they're going to get something built for that. I still see those emails.

Carl: No, it happens. That or you'll get somebody that brings you an estimate that you sent them four years ago and expect you to hold to it.

Warren: Right. Or you'll get somebody ask us, I think I got one a couple days ago where somebody was referencing a question of like, what would it take to build the Uber app for daycares or something like that. I was like, how do I even answer that?

Carl: Well first you need serious funding. And for daycare, ooh, I don't even know what that means. A drive by nanny. That doesn't sound cool.

Warren: I know. That's what kind of the reaction in the office was.

Carl: But what are some of the stories that have come out of you being associated with the Bureau? What are some of the things you got to do that you just never expected?

Warren: Well, on top of making a series of amazing friends that, I travel for work or I travel for personal reasons, I've had dinners and drinks and gone to baseball games all over North America with friends. But definitely one of the most fun stories was getting a chance to collaborate, we mentioned before with Greg Hoy. In 2014 or late 2013 I got in touch with a certain rock band and I got in touch with them and we decided to meet up and we were going to, I met up with the band's management and we were talking about working together. And I'm sitting in this meeting and I'm looking around, I'm thinking more and more and I'm like, this is Greg Hoy's favorite band.

Warren: There is no way that we could do this project without him. Not only could I not as a human being, not do that project without him, but I'm sitting around, I'm like there's nobody that's going to help make this a better project in the world then one of the biggest Rush fans I've ever met. Getting a chance to work with Rush but more importantly getting a chance to collaborate with Happy Cog directly, Greg Hoy directly, becoming such good friends and I think that experience is really what solidified our friendship. But we also started, we realized how much we had in common and since then we've become so close to that I've learned so much from him and I just hope that he's gotten a little bit out of working and collaborating with me.

Carl: And nGen got pulled into that because we did all the QA.

Warren: Oh that's right.

Carl: We floated a lot of the content. Laurie Averitt did all the lyrics transfer. All this type of stuff. Because I remember sitting there walking by her desk looking and going, "Why are you looking at the lyrics to Tom Sawyer? I don't understand what's happening right now." And she was like, "Well, if you'd been here a few minutes ago, would be been Red Barchetta, and she was just explaining to me, she was trying to make sure that all the lyrics transferred properly because she knew that that would be a living hell if they were to get transcribed or fake characters or whatever come in there. Yeah, I think that's an amazing thing. The opportunity to work with people, to bring people in like you did. And you do, see that's one of the things that I've gotten from you is this idea that I call love letters. It's like if there's something out there, people call them passion projects, whatever. But for me it's just like you just shot a note out. You do that once a month, right?

Warren: I try to, it's sometimes hard because as a love letter, whenever I'm reaching out to somebody, it has to be something that I actually really care about. I hopefully run into something I care about every month, but it doesn't always happen and those love letters, sometimes they'll turn into something once a year, sometimes every second year. But that's one of those situations where, I got the opportunity to work with a lobby group that's trying to bring baseball back to Montreal and being a big baseball fan and nerd about it, the idea that I could sit and work with this ex-Montreal Expo player and think about baseball and collaborate with it and try to make our city better just from that opportunity of just sending somebody an email, to me is just a magical thing. It's just, it's, I don't see it as a cold call. The reason why I think it's a passion play or passion project is because I would never call somebody out of the blue unless I really wanted it to meet or work with that person.

Carl: Well, right. And it wouldn't work. If you did it just wouldn't work. They'd see right through it. But when you start talking about your passion for a band or your passion for a sport or your passion for a cause or your whatever it might be, and that is one of my favorite things is to see you with a baseball cap on with other friends of mine. Because wherever you travel, you find somebody from the Bureau that you're friends with and you go to the baseball games. I got to tell you, you got to come to a Jumbo Shrimp game. If you ever get to Jacksonville. I know it's not major league, but it's major fun. These guys are amazing.

Warren: I love minor league ball. Minor ball just has its own specific charms and I love it. But here another story is actually one of the things that I also love doing is that when Bureau owners pass through Montreal, my hometown, I love to host them and do everything that I can to just make them have an amazing time. For example, Travis and Rachel Gertz were just in Montreal yesterday and we spent the day together on Saturday and on top of, yeah, enjoying each other's company and touring the city, we spent hours upon hours talking through operations and project management and running companies. And getting that opportunity to do that in such an in depth way is just a beautiful part of the community.

Carl: Well, and you also were a host for the owner camp that we had in Montreal and that was amazing. The passion that you showed for your city. I will, the wood fired bagels were my favorite. But you did that food tour, that walking food tour, you did all those things. You just help so much. And honestly, you are the Bureau, you were part of the Bureau, you were helping with all those things. To be able to bring it to your city, that's just magical.

Warren: Hey look, maybe some other people in the community will start lobbying you to bring an event to the city. Because that's pretty much what I did with you and Greg was I was like, you got to come to Montreal. It's going to be great. We'll have a great time. And the Bureau event, the owner camp itself was wonderful as it always is. And I just tried to add that extra layer on top of just giving a little bit of a beside, behind the scenes look at the city.

Carl: What about downtime or tough times? Have you leaned on the Bureau when something wasn't going quite right?

Warren: Yeah, it's yes. Most of that time is usually spent in getting the opportunity to talk with people. In other words, I usually haven't had to lean on somebody from a financial perspective during a lean time, but more it's just when you, it's not even a lean time, it's more a, what do I do next time? Is it I'm stuck in my job? The company's in a rut somewhere. The company is struggling with something. There's just that community to always pull on if it is through Slack and some of it is public conversation, but a lot of it is DM. I'm not sure how much you know, but I'm sure there's tons of direct messaging going on between different community members, like just chatting and talking and I've actually tried more than anything to actually be there for people who have come to me when they've been struggling and hoping that I could help them in some way, one way or the other.

Carl: There is so much going on with DMs and I don't know what they are, but I just know that Slack tells me you're blowing up. And then I go to look at the messages and 80% of them are DMs, which is awesome except that it can't help me source the content that people want. Because that's one of my big things now is I try to look at the Slack channels and the emails I'm getting and the different messaging to figure out, okay, growth is a big deal. Okay, making sure people understand just leadership skills and things like that. And I say just leadership skills, I don't have them, but it's like...

Warren: Oh yes you do.

Carl: Thank you. But it's one of those things, I totally wasn't fishing for that, but I'm totally catching it. But it's one of those things where it's like you find out so much and then when you see that those conversations are happening in private, that's actually really cool too because they found somebody they're comfortable enough with to go deeper than what they're comfortable to share publicly. And I think that's just an amazing thing.

Warren: Yeah. Look, obviously we want, or you would want and everybody wants to get as much information from the Bureau, but some of it is going to be some of those back channels and that must be sometimes a push and pull in some of the tough parts of it. But those deep connections are actually going to then be reinforced by whatever events they come to or go to. I have three project managers here who got a bit of a chance to have lunch with Rachel, and I'm sure they loved it, but they also know that they're going to be at DPM summit in a few weeks and they're going to have even more time to catch up. They're going to have more opportunities to meet with people and I love that this community is not just about me benefiting from it, but letting my whole team.

Warren: Steve, who we mentioned before, has been to operations camp. Tina's gone to a digital DPM summit numerous times. My creative director has been to creative director camp and I'm not doing this to just kind of overdo it on things, but I really do believe in this community because of the people that are involved, the companies that are involved. There's just a sense of, I know that there are kindred spirits that are going to be in that room for my team. That they're going to get it because the cultures just match between the different teams.

Carl: And that's what it's about. It's, yeah, we have events and we have, there's we have to have money so we can keep going. That's the sad reality or else I would totally kumbaya this whole thing. Just be like, let's set up a farm and we'll just eat off the land and we'll help each other. But you look at design leadership days, which just happened, we just got back and I'm still riding high on that. It's like there were so many things that could have been better, but you know what couldn't have been better? The people. And the way that when I asked at the end of the event, I said, "Did you find somebody that you're going to stay in touch with that you didn't know before? Did you find somebody that's going to help you with what it is you do?" If there was a hand that didn't go up, I didn't see it because they all seem to shoot straight up and just be like yes. And that to me is the metric.

Carl: Two metrics, one is did you find somebody that you want to hang out with? And the other one is how long does it take for people to leave the room? If the event is over and it's been 45 minutes and people are still talking, that means they don't want it to be over which is so great. And the final part is, in some of the feedback we've gotten so far, I put 15 minute breaks between speakers for that event. And some people would say, "Wow that that's really long." But you know what I heard? It wasn't long enough because they were just getting deep into a conversation with somebody they had met and they really wanted to keep going and they were like, "Maybe we could bump that out to 20 minutes, give us that little bit of extra time." But that was, especially with Hoy and Story, when they started this, they had that idea that this is about the conversations in the hallway. This is about the conversations while you're waiting on something else. That's what the core has to be.

Warren: I would agree with you completely. I've been to over 10 different Bureau events personally and I can reinforce your point. I can still go to each one and always meet new people that inspire me every single time. It's never happened that I've gotten there and came back and be like, "Ah, I didn't learn anything. Ah, I didn't get anything out of this one." There's always something that comes out of it. There's always some new relationship. There's always somebody that, I can even think there was last year I was at the event and I had been to numerous events and somebody else that had been to numerous events and we knew of each other, but we'd never actually connected in an event. And we ended up spending so much time together that we've now been following up by video conference and checking in and learning from each other and just building new relationships. And these are relationships that should have happened five years ago, but for whatever reason didn't. But they did now. And that's what's great too.

Carl: That's one of the things that blows my mind is I always assume everybody knows everybody because with the exception of one event, women's leadership camp, I've been to every single event. And I feel like everybody should know everybody. Got ask you, who was it?

Warren: It was our friends over at Sparkbox.

Carl: Okay. You had never met Rob and Ben?

Warren: I had been introduced to them briefly I think the year before we'd met, but it was really sporadic and they realized and we realized we'd been going to events for six years and had never really connected and then I connected with Rob and Ben and we had a lot more substantial conversations this year.

Carl: Well see and this is what I love. You got to know them. You've become great friends with Hoy. Honestly, the Bureau kind of saved my ass in a lot of ways and I thank the Greg's for that forever and then I think about it, who I talk to every day, Rob Harr, Gabe Levine. Talk to those two guys every single day. It's just a text, just this or that. It could be some silly sports thing. It could be, I hope you're okay. I know that happened kind of a thing, but it's just magic to me. I don't know honestly who my friends would be right now except for maybe somebody out of high school. I don't know. It's just insane for me.

Warren: There was one time a couple years ago when I was at an event in Toronto and Mike Gatsby from O3 World was there.

Carl: Yeah, the great Gatsby.

Warren: He was there. We ended up spending a couple of days together there and then I think it was either the week before or the week after that I did end up in Philadelphia and I realized, I'm like, I've just seen this guy more than I've seen my parents in the past two weeks or any of my friends. It was just wild. It was just really funny.

Carl: Oh man. Well, Warren, what's your big takeaway from the Bureau? if you think about if the Bureau hadn't happened, if we didn't meet all the people we met, if we didn't learn the things that we learned, what would it be like?

Warren: I think it would first be a lot like it was eight years ago, which is maybe a little bit of me feeling like I was in a bit of a fog of what the hell I'm supposed to be doing here. The second thing is you're right, a lot of my social circles now do rotate around this community because you end up being friends with the people who are like minded and who else is going to be more like minded than other digital studio owners to share things with? And the other thing is, when I went into going to the first owner camp, I had this assumption in my head that you run a company and that's the way it goes and you do it yourself and you figure it out and you do everything yourself. And I remember going around the room and talking to people and realizing I think I was the only owner that was, that had the audacity to think that I can run a company all by myself. And almost everybody else had a partner.

Warren: And if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have looked over at Steve one day and said, "Why are you not a partner here? You're not leaving, are you? You're not going anywhere." And he's like, "Yeah, I'm not going anywhere." The second you realize that, and I had this person who was just a perfect compliment to everything that I was not good at and was such a stabilizing force in the office and I suddenly was like, "You have to be a part of this. You have to be part of this in a formal way."

Carl: Well thank goodness it exists man. And I know it's self serving to say that right now, but for me personally, I just, I can't fathom it. And to hear that Steve became a partner because you realized you can't do it on your own. You were comfortable enough to acknowledge you couldn't do it on your own. That to me is also a testament of just the power of community that together we can just help each other understand that we don't have to be alone no matter what we're doing. If we're owners or operators, whoever we are, people in design, people that are in project management, it's like we all need people to lean on and I'm just so lucky that this is what I get to do now.

Warren: And we're, to be honest, we're lucky to have you because I do appreciate everything you invest into this community. I appreciate everything this community invests into itself. I'm proud to be a part of it.

Carl: Well I appreciate it, Warren, and thank you so much for swinging by today.

Warren: All right, thanks Carl.

Carl: Everybody listening. Thank you so much. And we'll be back next week. We'll talk to you then.

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