First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lee Dale: I am grateful. It’s been a challenging year, but my family and friends generally remain in good health despite everything that’s happened this year. We have not seen enough of our family or friends, but I am simply grateful that I have had the partner, space to live comfortably even while distancing, and just enough work to keep me happy, healthy, and busy despite everything going on around us.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Say Yeah.
Lee Dale: I’ve been involved in the digital community for my entire career, beginning with my work for Canadian publishing conglomerate Torstar within their new digital team in the mid-90s. From there, I moved toward helping my father modernize his interior design agency to founding my first company. Over 10 years, that company evolved into a consumer research agency that helped cultivate brand communities. It was in seeing how markets and agencies were evolving in those early days of social media, and with the radical change, we forecasted with the dawn of smartphones, that Say Yeah was founded. 12 years later, Say Yeah continues to innovate in its approach and impact, focusing on inclusive design and bringing profound process change to organizations to improve technology decision-making and better serve diverse markets.
How does Say Yeah innovate?
Lee Dale: We have a long-standing history of adapting to change. The first iPhone was released just before we started the company, ushering in the era of apps, but more importantly, real-time connectedness across the globe. The Lean Startup methodology was something I brought to the business after seeing a talk from Eric Reis before his first book was published. These monumental shifts in how we connect, live, and work have always been on our radar because our job is to bring market-leading practices to our clients. Ultimately, our agency needs to do the foresight work to know where industries are going—not just where they’ve been or where they are—and this kind of research is part of our everyday research practice.
As we’ve continued to study how people live and work—and the processes that have led product and service design for as long as these professions have existed—we have uncovered some uncomfortable truths about planning and decision-making processes that never really were sound and have become increasingly foolish as society has evolved over the past century.
This led to our sharing the lack of science behind the fallacy of designing for the average person and a call to action to all of us to deliver products and services that are better suited to increasingly diverse markets.
There’s often a misconception where people or organizations believe that inclusivity-focused processes are best suited to the public sector or “activism” oriented organizations. Still, with sociological changes that have occurred over the past century, the new reality is that more inclusive practices help organizations increase their market access. This understanding will lead our work over the coming years and help us bring new processes and grow innovation within the client teams we work with.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Lee Dale: As a digital transformation leader, we suffered a surprising turn of events with North America’s lockdown in March. Our initial thought was that a need to transition to work-from-home and improve online practices would mean that our clients’ stability would be clamoring for our consulting services. Instead, we saw all of our work and our entire sales pipeline disappear over 3 weeks. The simple truth was: internal panic led to a stoppage in external spending, no exceptions, and across the board.
As we reflected on this challenge, we asked ourselves: what can we do to support organizations today in a way that sets them up for success when the economy starts growing again.
From a business point of view, we also had to understand that strictly focusing on large consulting opportunities as a small agency meant that we had a very narrow pipeline; we needed to grow our pipeline and revenue streams in order to weather unexpected shifts in any one area.
So the answer to our challenge was to come up with something timely, effective, manageable, and low cost. Ideally, something somewhat automated, always available, and that could reach many organizations.
We came up with a website auditing service that we can provide to all businesses of any size, anywhere. This auditing service helps organizations ensure their website is as ready for business as it can be now—and for the future—by analyzing performance, code, design, and content for usability, accessibility, and inclusivity improvements.
It’s not 100% automated because automated tools that do this kind of work miss essential subjective and usability considerations. Still, we have been able to make it available and easy to access an online checkout process and with packages starting at just $499. So it’s affordable and can deliver a measurable impact quickly.
You can buy online with just a few clicks and get an actionable report within as little as one week.
We chose this path because we understand we’re at a unique time in history: there has never been a more effective time to bring inclusive practices and a focus on accessibility to your work and websites. The combination of technology, ongoing societal and behavioral change, and growing best practices means it’s easier than ever to serve everyone. Now it’s on all of us to take steps to achieve this.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lee Dale: We were in the fortunate position of being able to weather the loss of work in March and have the right mix of work and opportunities to retain our staff over the months that followed.
I think the biggest decision we had to make was whether or not to hold on to our office in Toronto. In discussions with many of our peers, it seems the majority have decided to shutter their offices and fully embrace work-from-home.
We know work-from-home at Say Yeah! Over our 12 year history, we have been in co-working and shared environments. We have staff now, which was only in office 1 or 2 times a year before COVID hit. But we decided collectively to keep the office as a space for the few of us who can safely be there today and a home for everyone when they need it in the future.
We didn’t make this decision solely at the leadership level. These kinds of decisions are best served by engaging with and listening to staff. COVID itself presents mental health challenges, as does working from home, along with many of the other challenges people have faced this year. We explored these considerations as a team and did what we felt would be best for all of us.
In working through these difficult decisions, I would also advocate for business leaders to connect with peer groups outside your organization. Hearing about how other business leaders were thinking through these and other COVID-related decisions, how work was unfolding, and how they have been coping personally and professionally this year has helped me immensely.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Lee Dale: I think it’s important to give yourself space to breathe. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the anxieties of work and other externalities outside of your control. I tend to put too much emphasis on work in my life and, while I have a habit of embracing the stress that comes with that, it leaves little capacity to take on unexpected challenges like adapting to a global pandemic. Giving yourself some breathing room or otherwise relieving the pressure we put on ourselves is essential.
I find a few things work well for me: setting (some) boundaries and being transparent about my needs at work and with clients—there’s always tomorrow; taking time to shift out of any consistent stress, whether that’s being intentional about running or working out (no matter what), taking a mental break, or DJing. You can take a listen to my latest mixes here.
One thing that I found was key and that I strongly advocate for: don’t get sucked into the endless onslaught of news and commentary. It’s really harmful to your wellbeing. I uninstalled Twitter for a good period this summer and felt a lot better when I did. I also make sure I only check the news once a day, at most, so I’m not constantly bombarded with negativity and uncertainty.
Whenever I’ve been particularly stressed, I’ve found it helps me acknowledge that many people and businesses are far worse off than I am. Despite the challenging year, we’ve found our footing; others have more challenges ahead in the coming months. In looking forward to 2021, we continue to look at how we can support our community and others. I’ve always found that this kind of consideration and emphasis on supporting others and the communities we live and work in pulls me out of any stress I’ve been mired in. By giving to others, we free ourselves from ourselves.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lee Dale: As we have continued to evolve our service offerings over the years, one of our driving factors is defining how our work can deliver exponential value to the organizations we work with. This focus on value generation has given us the lens we need to focus where we’re best while staying small and nimble and still growing our impact over the years.
We don’t see in terms of competition because the organizations and people who are developing inclusive products and services are much-admired peers. We want to connect with them in order to learn faster and increase our capacity to solve problems. Our interest is in growing our community of practice because it is the future. And our ability to deliver exponential value happens when we work together.
Your final thoughts?
Lee Dale: Understandably, a lot of our conversations this year have been focused on COVID. The COVID pandemic has shaped our organization, our clients, and the way we work. But I don’t see it as the main motivator of our work or being the driver of the most profound change we’ll be seeing in the years to come.
As an organizational leader, as someone invested in my community, and looking to do work that makes a lasting and positive impact, what I’m most passionate about this year is accountability in the face of racism and discrimination.
COVID has dramatically changed behavior in the short term and may have lasting, ongoing impacts, but we will settle into a way of living, working, and being that adapts to this. The larger issue is that we have long been settled into a way of living, working, and being that has systematically disenfranchised people from across society. It’s well past time for all of us to be actively anti-racist and inclusive in our work and our lives. I’ve shared my call to action for design agency leaders here. And I encourage all business leaders to take similar steps to better serve their employees, their markets, and their communities.