Two Decades: An Abridged History of Smashing Ideas
By Brian Burke, CEO
Last week we held our Smashing Summer Party – our annual celebration of what has, and continues, to make Smashing Ideas a stand-out in the digital/tech world…our people. Beyond the usual healthy shenanigans our parties supply, this year we were celebrating a rather unheard of precedent in our industry…our 20th anniversary.
To say that we were digital before digital was cool is rather an understatement. When Smashing was founded in 1996 “digital” was a loose term. Think about it – mobile phones were still on the cusp of mass consumerism, the web was somewhat uncharted territory, and corporations had little idea of how this medium would transform business. So, at our summer party I looked around at our employees – all from varying backgrounds, ages, disciplines, etc. – and I asked them where they were in 1996. The answers varied, but one thing was clear – everyone’s world had changed substantially since that year. I began to tell a brief history of our agency…we’re a digital product design and development agency. But’s that not where Smashing’s story began.
Much in the same way we grow personally and professionally over time, the same holds true for a company operating in the midst of one of the most hyper-evolutionary industries. As CEO of Smashing, and having been a part of our story for the past 11 years, I wanted to take a look back at where we began, how we became the Smashing we’re known for today, and what tomorrow and the next day might look like.
The year was 1996, and Smashing entered the scene with a heavy focus on Flash animation. This took the form of webisodes and taking traditional media properties and expanding them into digital marketing events on emerging platforms. We launched original web series, worked with the South Park crew to create their first web-accessed content, and grew to become the largest Flash animation studio in the country. We designed over 400+ games and activities (over the decade) for online game destinations and became the leading authority in Kids and Family content, with clients ranging from Disney, Kraft, and Nickelodeon.
During these early years, the challenges of being a start-up in the dotcom era and subsequent years grew. Shops were closing left and right, projects were cancelled in a moment’s notice, and stress became the operating norm. Smashing survived – we were in the right place at the right time, with the right people, skills, and strategy to grow Smashing beyond animation. We moved heavier into web, designing and developing more than 100 websites for major media and entertainment brands, and developed an Ad group to support growing marketing efforts, with game design and development becoming an even more important part of our business.
By 2005, we began to experiment in creating content for multiple platforms, with the belief that consumers would demand rich, engaging experiences on all screens. We saw an opportunity to lead the industry with a mobile and devices strategy that leveraged the power of Adobe’s Flash Lite™ technology to create content, products, and experiences for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and mobile carriers. We invested in mobile development and IP creation that led to an international office and a worldwide push to distribute content on multiple channels, carriers and devices, like Verizon, Sony Ericsson Nokia, and numerous “off-deck” destinations . This effort became the basis for understanding and designing for the increasing mobile consumer, with human-centered design at the forefront and a methodology that hinted at the early beginnings of Motivational UX™.
Then a product came along that changed everything. Enter the iPhone. Yet we were ready, and the reality of mass adoption of the iPhone’s scale and the commerce associated with it changed the digital game. Our clients and partners evolved their focus to the connected consumer – one that can access content from any device. The strategy was nascent at best, and there was a mad rush in the industry to get product out (sometimes at the expense of quality), but we ran at a steady pace to maintain presence and champion creative and engineering merit. We created the user experience for a first-of-its-kind connected device for a major home security device manufacturer…(a connected device in 2009?!).By merging streaming and digital content, such as weather, lighting, temperature control, and news headlines within a prototype security console, users were able to access real-time information and customized control at their fingertips (the final product was less feature-rich, but the concept was early in the wave of smart-home devices). We became a champion of UX design strategy for multi-screen engagement and took a technology-agnostic approach to solutions that broadened our technical offerings. At the same time our first apps appeared in the iTunes App Store with numerous Top 10 chart appearances, and we were nominated for a Primetime Emmy for the Disney Channel Broadband player, which was pretty cool.
In 2010 we launched our ePublishing group, which coincided with the release of the iPad. We created some of the very first e-book apps which allowed for a level of interactivity in storytelling that was unparalleled via tablet devices. In this year and subsequent ones, we released original applications based on acclaimed literature on our own and with our eventual parent company: War of the Worlds, The Jungle Book, and Oz.
2011 was the year Smashing was acquired by Bertelsmann, the largest multinational mass media corporation in Europe, for its Random House, Inc. division. The move signified Random House and Bertelsmann’s intention to be leaders in digital content creation. We helped them lead the digital transformation of the publishing industry and learned along the way (with a smile) that people would continue to read books in all formats, with content as the foundation and an analog experience being just as important (if not more) as the digital. This year also marked the beginning of our partnership with Sony Pictures Television and building the largest multi-site Drupal installation in the world at that time.
The next digital frontier came in the form of smart, connected products and platforms. As pioneers in this space, IoT, smart homes, and connected-play have all been areas where we have experimented, innovated, and created products that have been brought to market. In fact, bringing ideas to market through shared Lean UX and Agile processes with clients and our strategy, UX, VX, and engineering teams has allowed us to define and refine value propositions to assure that people truly want to engage with the end product in the intended manner. In our recent growth period for Smashing, we have established ourselves squarely as a Digital Product Design and Development agency, helping our clients’ internal change agents, disrupters, and innovators transform their industries (internally and externally). We couldn’t be luckier and more grateful to work with such forward-thinking partners in healthcare, smart-home/building, aviation, and entertainment.
Building on this innovative spirit, we launched an internal incubator that once again is producing original product, getting us back to our roots, with a level of strategy, design, and engineering rigor that is helping shape what we hope will be very successful endeavors. We have a heavy focus on creating positive habit change, physical and mental health support through digital, and lifestyle improvements through user-centered experiences. We’re also having some fun with new gaming concepts, with our latest product ready to ship in in late summer. Many of these experiences are still too confidential to discuss, but we’re excited to bring them to market over the next year.
Over the course of 20 years, Smashing has had many “firsts” in the market (or at least part of the early pack)– our successes were as much intentional via strategic direction as they were by happenstance, navigating an ever-changing landscape of design and technology trends, with user-engagement at the center of every experience. We didn’t always get it right, but that only made us stronger, allowing us to reflect on what it truly meant to lead in this space. We persevered by maintaining a drive to never be complacent and to always create with a sense of wonder, with a culture of gratitude, creative excellence, and teamwork. This mentality falls within four of our key Agency Values: Paddle Out + Stay Curious + Ride or Die + Keep it Real. We try to bring fun into the mix every day as well, injecting humor into process so we Raise the Fun Flag. The result of these values can be seen in unheard of stats; our average employee tenure is 5 years (compared to industry average of 12-18 months) and we’re proud of forming strategic client partnerships that have an average tenure of 6 years.
The next decade will be even more interesting, moving at a faster pace, requiring us to stay fresh in our thinking and doing. We’re excited and thankful to have the opportunity to create and build products that matter and people love to use. We look forward to pioneering the future of digital for the next 20 years…and beyond.