Tonic Design thrives with a friendly, collaborative and educational company culture
Tonic Design is a digital experience agency located in Philadelphia. They help well-known brands build extraordinary digital products.
Tonic Design’s SVP of Operations, Leon Degtar, spoke with us about the agency’s history and their simple yet effective approach to hiring and culture.
Can you provide an overview of Tonic Design?
Tonic Design is seven years old and employs a staff of approximately 60 rockstars headquartered in Philly. We started as two different companies: One focused on software development, and another that was focused on creative, digital design. Both companies started in 2010 and merged in 2014.
We’re a digital experience agency that provides best-in-class products for clients, so our capabilities and expertise vary. Our team is made up of designers, software developers, project managers, user-experience specialists, strategists, and a handful of folks who hold various administrative roles. We serve large brands like Johnson & Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Ralph Lauren. We help our clients with a variety of projects from designing and building websites and mobile apps to creating digital business strategies for their products.
Our general focus is providing large brands with consumer-facing digital products. That could include creating a soup-to-nuts concept, conducting user research, and testing and validating an idea. We often build the actual product but are often engaged in concept validation, design-thinking, and workflow for the client’s development team.
What’s the history of Tonic Design?
The founders of the two companies that merged to create Tonic Design had known each other for a long time. They worked together at one of the early digital agencies here in Philadelphia before it was sold to an advertising conglomerate.
They reunited at another agency before leaving to build a product together. They were ultimately called back by the agency to help put out fires and save failing apps. They became known as two of the top developers in town and built a strong reputation on delivering technology work other agencies were falling short on. Because of that, they named their company Dmg Ctrl (pronounced “Damage Control”).
They did tremendous work and started growing fast. They built a team and worked on some exciting projects back then. They helped build the early internet of things, doing work on the Barclays app and Samsung connected appliances.
Eventually, they were working with Tonic Design because they didn’t have design capabilities. The founders of both agencies knew each other well and had worked together in the past. Both agencies were contracting a lot of work back-and-forth and eventually won a large account together and decided to merge the businesses.
Dmg Ctrl built what we now call now our Apprenticeship Program. Back then, they called it the Minion Program. One of the founders is a very talented software developer but not traditionally educated in computer science. His philosophy was to break conventional hiring practices; he wanted to provide opportunities to people from various backgrounds.
With the Minion (Apprenticeship) Program, he put up a Craigslist ad for software developers that didn’t require any experience. He was simply looking for people with drive and the desire to learn. We’ve built strong software developers almost from scratch through the program. People who didn’t have formal education in software development learned it by working alongside talented developers. People have created a strong career for themselves coming out of our apprenticeship program. Education is important to us, and we’re proud of the fact that we hire and train people from all walks of life.
Can you describe the culture at Tonic Design?
When people talk about culture fit, it irks me a little bit. The only people who don’t fit in our culture are jerks. Anybody who’s willing to learn, work side-by-side with others, and not have an ego is more than welcome in our office. Our office is laid-back, but everybody works hard. We just expect people to be good to each other and work well. We allow people to work from home and are accommodating of work/life balance, as long as our team members are accommodating of their project team and co-workers.
We have a nice office and do all the typical startup stuff. We have our ping pong table, kegerator, and all these things. I think those things are almost a baseline in companies like ours and don’t define our culture at all. I think our people define our culture. We have a great crew, and I’m proud to work alongside all of them.
We sponsor an initiative internally to promote more women in technology. We’ve held public forums and roundtables in our office on the subject. We’re also preparing to sponsor a mentorship program for young women who want to get into STEM fields.
Beyond relevant skills and experience, what do you value in candidates when hiring?
The No Jerk policy is important. Not just for our culture fit but also because our project teams work closely with clients. They don’t get to choose their projects and who they work with, and how often. We need to make sure our team members are strong communicators and collaborate well.
We also need good people who are willing to jump in and work with new folks. We do things a bit differently philosophically, in how we go about writing our software and doing design work. Our designers and developers collaborate, which isn’t the case in most creative-focused agencies. There are often personality differences between designers and developers, where the designer is more creative and the developer is more mathematical, but our folks work well together. It’s a soft skill you have to search for when hiring, but it’s important that the people on our team have it.
How do you conduct your interviews? Do you have any favorite questions you like to ask?
I try to gauge the candidate as a person. I ask about their resume and work experience and let them talk so it’s more conversational. Not everybody works like that, but I try to go into the room and get a read on the person. I let them speak and work off their answers.
Interviews vary depending on the position. I oversee the recruiting process and allow it to be flexible. Our Head of Design likes to be methodical and write out a clear interview process with specific questions. He likes to ask candidates about how they approached a past project and why it was successful.
We trust our team. We trust the hiring managers or department heads to be the arbiter of the interview questions and lead the process. They’re going to be responsible for the new hire, so I’m not going to dictate process or questions to them. They know what they need, so we empower them to take the lead.
I also believe too much rigor and process makes for a boring interview. It doesn’t allow for curve ball questions or conversational interviews. Like I said, we have no requirements for the type of person we hire. Our candidates don’t have to have the cut-and-dried years of experience or certain type of degree. We’re looking for people who have the right mindset, and I think our flexible hiring process caters to that.
What’s the future hold for Tonic Design?
We’re focused on two major things as an organization – emerging technology and education. They’re two initiatives we hold very dear to our heart. We’re a technology agency — meaning clients pay us for services related to the digital world, which is ever-changing. The projects and type of work we do today might be commoditized tomorrow, but something new is always on the horizon.
The apprenticeship program is something that is very meaningful to us. It’s part of our legacy and history. It makes us feel good to educate aspiring software developers.
There’s also education in learning what the newest thing is going to be. What is going to drive engagement for users? What is going to make people’s lives easier, and how can we help our clients develop and build those tools. We’re always trying to figure out what the next thing is and build that capability within our agency.
We love our staff, and want to keep them around for a long time. If there’s a new tool, process, or technology, we provide our team members the opportunity to learn it so their skills are always sharp.
We also want to grow and do larger and more interesting projects. At the end of the day, we’re problem solvers. We solve problems through technology and design. We want to solve the most engaging and interesting problems for our clients while providing them great service and the end-users of their products with a great experience.