We talked to Kai Wermer of Uhura Digital about the Berlin-based digital agency that creates digital strategies, applications, and campaigns for clients, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kai Wermer: Well, thanks. Pretty good. Everybody is fine, but of course, a bit bored because of the lockdowns and limited freedom we all have right now to see other people. But also some things change: I have 5 kids, and 3 of them go to school. That was quite a change – in 2020, we had no face-to-face classes for almost four months. Our school has this very well under control, has introduced a good online platform for online teaching, and communicates comprehensively and transparently. That is not the case everywhere in Berlin. But of course, there is still no direct contact with friends or teachers, which is especially challenging for young people.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Uhura Digital.
Kai Wermer: I studied Corporate and business communication at the University of Arts in Berlin and started a part-time job in an advertising agency in the 90s. But my main interest at that time was already the interactive media; at that time, there were also “multimedia CDs” on which interactive magazines were distributed and published.
I then went to New York in 1996 and started at one of the first online agencies and worked on concepts for France Telecom North America, online games for Smirnov Vodka, or very interactive websites for Comedy Central. At that time, it was still very free and had a touch of bohemia – I really enjoyed the time in New York, which inspired me.
When I came back, I founded Uhura Digital, a full-service digital agency, with a friend. My first businesses that I realized as a very young person back then were mainly projects of very old and white men. They probably only accepted me because “this online thing” was probably not really tangible for them, and anyway, it seemed to be something for young people. We then started working on many projects for the film and entertainment industry.
This is probably one of the reasons why I founded one of the first streaming platforms in Germany in the year 2000. The name was Freshmilk TV, a kind of lifestyle, art, and culture broadcaster where we mainly streamed non-fictional self-produced video formats. The platform was financed by advertising, which went quite well but just from the year 2010 onwards.
How does Uhura Digital innovate?
Kai Wermer: Of course, we have introduced special methods to develop effective UX and service design strategies for our customers and to find and identify the really important parameters. In addition, in my opinion, it is particularly important to constantly and permanently encourage and stimulate the team and the work environment to think about their daily work and beliefs in a new way and maybe to throw cherished standards overboard. Kill your darlings. A culture of consistent transparency and feedback helps here.
Furthermore, permanent proximity to other innovative market players is also helpful. We don’t just do this through conferences or network events. We also collaborate very extensively with other corporate teams, artists and experts. To this end, we set up a completely new office concept in 2019 that provides sufficient space for this.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Kai Wermer: We didn’t have any real losses in 2020. On the contrary: It has become a little easier for us to find good talent and we have also hired new people. Basically, you have to present the value of your own work to customers in an even better and more comprehensible way and orientate yourself more strictly to our customers’ corporate goals. But we are also in a situation where we hardly had any customers from areas severely affected by the pandemic, such as tourism, events, or culture.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Kai Wermer: You always have difficult decisions to make. Of course, sometimes employee and employer don’t fit together, and you often admit it too late on both sides. This has less to do with Corona at first because, as I said, we have not really been financially affected by it so far. (Knock on wood) Above all, we learned that teams are only as good as the weakest links in the team. That means people who don’t really want to go along come to work uninspired or appear destructively in discussions, thus making the whole team less effective. As much as you try, you just have to react quickly. We invest a lot more time in workshops, coaching, etc. But the main thing is “coach the coachable.”
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Kai Wermer: I don’t think the tools are that special. We keep close contact with our customers, who do not amount to several thousand in the digital agency business. We use Asana and Slack within projects, sometimes also with our customers. In 2020 we also continuously and extensively informed our customers and partners about our development within the pandemic, that we started setting up home offices at an early stage, set up cloud services, and use online tools for workshops and web meetings (e.g., Miro as an online whiteboard solution). That has probably changed the most in 2020 – that we learned to conduct very interactive UX and digital strategy workshops online. I think that above all, we built a lot of trust with this open and transparent communication.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Kai Wermer: We received a very reasonable and fair loan from a pandemic program from the German Government. But since we are not as affected as others, we didn’t want to apply for funds here that were actually intended for others.
Your final thoughts?
Kai Wermer: When it went into the first lockdown in February and March 2020, it seemed to me as if the whole world was going into a really deserved burnout phase. At first, it seemed to be not the worst thing to slow down a bit. But of course, far too many are affected by the negative consequences – not only economically, but, what is even worse, also in terms of health.
I am an optimist, and I think that we will all learn from this time and I am also looking forward to the “golden twenties” that many people predict. Maybe with a little less arousal and nervousness this time.