February 1, 2015

SPARKS: Moments Of Creation Vol. 10

The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.
Arnold J. Toynbee

If you're new to the monthly SPARKS series let me fill in the gaps. How dreams are born and the journey that brings those dreams to life has long been a fascination of mine. I decided I can't be the only one who's curious about this so I began interviewing dreamers to see what I could learn. Their dreams vary widely but their advice is universal.  You can see where it all started here.

I'm especially excited about this month's interviewee because I've known this man all of his life - and I literally mean all of his life. I'm his mother. I guess you might imagine then that this was an easy interview to get. Don't be silly! I'm his mother. It's taken 8 months!

Now that we've gotten all the disclaimers out of the way let me ask you a question. How would you like to get paid for hanging out with your friends and doing stuff you love? Is that even possible? Let me introduce you to someone who's made it a reality at his company:


The first time I visited Rivetal, the graphic design business that Derek co-owns with his friend Jason Heppler, I felt like I'd been swept off to Neverland. It seemed more like every young boy's Nirvana than a place of business.

As we walked through the door the first person we came across was a youngish man staring at a spiraling swirl of color on his computer monitor. He dazedly said "Look what I made!" Admittedly, it was pretty cool and if I'd gazed at it any longer, no doubt I would have fallen under the same Kaa like spell that had overtaken him.

From there, the tour moved to the "conference" room which was completely decked out with a wall to wall sofa, a television and multiple gaming devices. 

The lunch room was the next surprise complete with pin-ball machines, arcade games, and a refrigerator that was covered with drawings of skulls?! (Huh?)

Each of the individual offices had display cases showcasing their occupants' favorite toy collection. It was immediately clear that individuality was boldly celebrated at Rivetal.

At the end of the tour, I asked Derek if he would hire me to be Wendy so I could read stories to all the lost boys at nap time. (Still waiting to hear back on my application.)

That any work happens there seemed remarkable to me. But it does. The even  more remarkable thing is the work is exceptional! 

I'm intrigued by companies that manage to be successful and also create a culture where  people actually want to come to work. I was anxious to ask Derek some questions about that, along with how he came to be living his own dream. Here's what he had to say:

 When did you know that you wanted to go into graphic design? What inspired you?

I found out that I wanted to be a graphic designer while on a church service mission. Prior to leaving, my plan was to come home and major in computer science or medicine. About half way through my 2 year mission, I was asked to serve as the mission secretary. Among other duties, this basically made me the mission graphic designer. I'd never even heard of graphic design but I really liked the job. Later, I found out that careers in graphic design were a real thing and decided that's what I'd like to do. 

The scariest part about that decision was declaring myself an art major, especially considering that I didn't really draw, paint, sculpt or anything else you'd expect an art major to do. I muddled through the fine art stuff and fortunately turned out to be pretty good at design.

Over the next few years I discovered that what I really love is multimedia... the combination of visual, motion and sound design to create unique and immersive user experiences. Every job I've worked since college has been in this field and it's what my company, Rivetal, specializes in today.

How did you know you were ready to break out on your own instead of working for someone?

It was a combination of things. Some of it was a bit materialistic to be honest. I realized after a couple years that a graphic design salary wasn't going to get me the kind of lifestyle I wanted. The other realization came as I was working in the marketing department of a university. I was at the bottom of a really large totem pole and the only way up was to shelve graphic design and become an administrator. A harsh realization when you're only a few years into a career you worked pretty hard to achieve.

I just knew that I wanted to do something a bit more significant, both from a fulfillment and financial standpoint. I was really close to going to law school if you can believe that. Then I got a call from some friends I'd worked with at a past job. The company we'd worked for together went under and they decided to go into business for themselves. They offered me a job and a chance to earn some equity in the company. 11 years later I'm one of two equal partners of a company that I absolutely love. Financially it's had its ups and downs but it has always been incredibly fulfilling.

Your company is a unique place to work for a variety of reasons. How does bringing play to work make it a better environment for creativity and also for worker satisfaction?

I wish I could say that bringing play to work was a conscious strategy on our part. It really came down to the fact that we were young, didn't know a thing about running a business, and liked messing around at the office. We have hired people who feel the same way over the years so that love for video games and movies and gadgets has just sort of been institutionalized. My partner, Jason, is an avid collector of 80's toys and arcade machines so we have lots of both around the office.

We have bizarre contests from time to time. Once there was a competition to see who could draw the coolest looking skull. 

Then there was Rivetal Track & Field Day where we picked what must have been the hottest day of the summer to run a few races and see who was the fastest person at Rivetal. The real contest ended up being "which of us non-athletic types could keep our breakfasts down after all the running." There have been jump rope contests, sculpting contests, and even an arm wrestling tournament. 

Whether intentional or not, having the office as a playground has had a tremendous impact on our work. The laid back atmosphere creates a place that is safe for ideas. It's fun to kick around challenging problems with your friends and it's hard not to make friends with people you play video games with. 

Tell us what Rivetal offers now and where you would like to see things go in the future.

Rivetal exists to find joy in creation. We use graphic design, video and development to solve marketing, training and business process problems for our clients. This takes the form of marketing collateral, web sites, mobile apps, and a variety of custom software solutions that we have created over the years. There have been plenty of times that we've been tempted to specialize in this or that but we just can't let go of the excitement that comes with being able to create anything. We've wrestled with it long enough and have finally decided that's who we're going to be.

Now that we've given ourselves permission to be ourselves, our goal is to scale. More clients, more staff, more awesome projects. We have a few ideas for products that we'd like to release in the future. The service business can be tough and the idea of selling a widget for a change definitely has some appeal. For now though, we're really happy doing what we do and just want to do it on a larger scale.

What has been most rewarding for you?

There are two things I'm really proud of. I'd have a hard time saying which is most rewarding. The first is the culture that we've built. It's not for everybody but the right people stay and are very happy. We have a few people who have been with us for over 10 years. Almost everybody who works for us, at some point, has passed up a better paying job rather than leave. We love our team like family and try hard to reciprocate their loyalty. 

The second thing I'm most proud of is that our first client is still our biggest client, even after all these years. We think that says a lot about the care we take of our clients. We've grown organically over the years, without any organized sales effort except word of mouth. That's very gratifying.

 What challenges have you faced?

There have been some doozies... times when I have literally wept from frustration and heartbreak. The hardest stuff has always been connected to the responsibility we feel to take care of our people. There have been a few periods where finances made it very hard to do that. The worst was just a few years back when that big client I mentioned hit a tight spot and shut down its marketing budget for nearly 6 months. We spent the first half of that period burning through lines of credit to keep the team together in the hopes of a quick return to business as usual. When that didn't pan out we had to let a third of the team go in one day and there was no money left for any kind of severance. That was one of the worst days of my life. 

We learned a lot from that experience. We don't take our opportunities for granted. We are more cautious and insulate Rivetal from risks that would put us in that kind of position again. It also taught us that we can do the hard stuff to protect the business.

 What advice would you give to those who have a dream but haven't launched it yet?

The biggest thing I've learned is not to be afraid of success. That sounds silly and cliche but it can be frightening to think of yourself having to manage a growing company. Ten years ago if somebody told me what I'd have to know now in order to run my business, I'd probably have run. But that's not how life works. We don't get to know up front all that we'll learn along the way. There's no reason to be intimidated by future; it only happens one day at a time.

Great advice Derek! Thank you for taking time out to share your journey. 

For more information about Rivetal and their services you can reach Derek and Jason at:

283 E 930 S
Orem, UT 84058

And on the web at:
Rivetal.com or Info@rivetal.com

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