Plank at 20: Building a Stronger Business

Allen Mendelsohn Headshot

This article is part four of a series of posts originally on in honour of the company’s 20th anniversary. They have moved to this website since the posts are more personal, historical reflections and are better suited here.

2010: Transitions and Growth

If one word can define the beginning of this decade, it’s “transition.” Despite a strong group of long-term clients, some major team changes began to shape Plank’s future.

After five years working with me to build Plank into a place that felt like a “grown-up” company, Allen Mendelsohn moved on. His time at Plank had deepened his knowledge and interest in the internet to the point where he decided to pursue a second Masters Degree specializing in Internet Law to merge his two career paths.

Allen’s Lessons

Allen’s influence on Plank was immeasurable. While I hope he was able to learn a little something from us, I know I learned an awful lot from him. 

First, I learned that being serious about running the company didn’t mean that I had to give up my creative spirit or rebellious streak. In fact, keeping Plank healthy from a financial perspective gave us room to thrive from a cultural perspective.

Second, I got better at accepting criticism and advice from others. I have a natural tendency to want to run in a hundred directions all at once, and Allen had no fear of quashing my sometimes harebrained schemes. I appreciated his candour and ability to knock some sense into me. I needed it and it made me a more stable and even-keeled leader. 

Third, and most importantly, Allen taught me that I could (and needed to) rely on others. I always thought of myself as a good teammate, though I grappled with fully placing my trust in someone else. As a result, I would get too involved in others’ work, offer too many opinions, and ultimately muck things up. But working closely with Allen, I did develop absolute trust in him—which in turn taught me that I could place that same trust in others. And I came to see that was crucial in bringing out the best
work of a team. I learned to offer support and guidance, but to then step back and let things be.

Allen’s departure left me as the only administrator at Plank, but I felt more confident than ever that it was a role I could handle. 

Anticipating Growth

For us, growth has always been about small changes and managed adjustments, rather than exponential expansion. With a growing workload from several recurring clients, it was time to add to the team. We hired two new developers — Emerson Lackey and Amelia Shaw — who also brought quite a bit of personality to the team. 

Our growth was happily not at the expense of the focus that we identified in 2008, which was to continue to narrow our client base towards non-profit, arts, and entertainment. In addition to relaunching the Gillett Entertainment Group’s website under the new evenko brand, we were really proud of our work with the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, one of Canada’s most important family foundations. WowWee also continued to be a source of constant creative output for many of their toy and robotic brands.

Culture Days Logo

After a few months of discussion and brainstorming, we got to work on developing an online platform for Culture Days. Inspired by Quebec’s Les Journées de la Culture, the aim was to build an annual weekend where Canadians could enjoy free cultural events to build on their connection with the arts. What was different about our approach is that we wanted to allow activity organizers to manage their event online, independent
of any input, editorialization or management from the National Office. The website was to be the hub for the majority of promotion and interactions leading up to the weekend.

Steve’s role was growing as he showed himself to be an extremely capable Project Manager, and the team was a great mix of seasoned employees and new faces. We were sad to see Nancy leave for Newfoundland at the end of the year, but as a whole, we were poised to build on what we learned from Allen and forge ahead.

2010 Facts (sources are this, this and this)

  • Mount Eyjafjallajökull erupts volcanic ash into the atmosphere, disrupting European air traffic
  • Wikileaks releases over 250,000 classified, secret or confidential US government and diplomatic documents,
  • Apple released the first iPad which was much more than just an oversized iPhone in the end
  • Android smartphones start to sell more units than Apple 
  • The Philadelphia Phillies’ Roy Halladay managed to not only pitch the 2nd  no-hitter in playoff history, but he also becomes only the 20th person to throw a perfect game earlier in the season.
The Team in 2010

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Amelia Shaw — Nancy Beaton — Patrick McFern – Emerson Lackey — Gary Brazier — Geoffrey Weeks — Mitch Amihod — Sarah Bagnall — Tanya McGinnity

2011: Moving to Mobile 

Four years after the iPhone was launched in 2007, mobile had become impossible to ignore and we decided that our work needed to have some very specific strategies to support it. Half a billion smartphones shipped in 2011, and 30% of North Americans had one in their pocket. Smartphones had proved to be not just a viable way to access the internet, but would fundamentally change the way we design and use the web. 

Plank’s Mobile Approach

The app market had exploded and the term “Responsive Design” had been coined by Ethan Marcotte the year before. While responsive has become the standard today, in 2011, it hadn’t fully taken hold. When discussing mobile projects with clients, we identified three approaches to choose from; an app, a separate mobile version of a website, or a fully responsive design. 

First, we decided that we didn’t have the team in place to develop a native iOS or Android application. While the idea of doing so was exciting, we were still a few years away from bringing that ability in-house. For the short-term, we decided to explore partnerships with other teams that were exclusively developing applications.

At the beginning of the year, our approach was to work on the development of mobile-specific websites, so that we could be 100% sure that they would render properly on all devices. We felt like we had better control over the experience and could personalize it to the specific needs and expectations of mobile. Our own website was named “Mobile Website of the Month” by UK’s .net magazine in February 2011, and we released numerous mobile projects for clients like Culture Days, the Student Society of McGill University, and the Yellow Pages group.

By the end of the year, we embraced Responsive Design as the best complement to our existing skills. We realized that while Ethan’s approach was a bit more technically challenging at first, it was to the long-term benefit of the project. By working on one code base and not supporting two or more, we were able to maintain and control the user experience. It ensured that we wouldn’t be creating a different or lesser experience for mobile, but one that matched from a functionalist perspective but with
a different layout. We made the decision that all future projects would have to support Responsive Design.

Working for Good

After a few years of choosing to work on pro bono projects in a less than organized manner, we made a concerted effort to choose one project a year, and make our annual decision after a more serious and rigorous public call for proposals. Just a week after we made the call, we found ourselves with nearly 30 high-quality projects to choose from. We wanted to select a project where we could offer the highest impact for the organization and grow their capacity. We spent some time over the year working
on one of our biggest pro bono projects ever, a complete rebranding and website redesign for Head & Hands, a local community organization.

With Michaëlle Jean leaving her post as the Governor General in October 2010, our time collaborating on the Citizen Voices websites was coming to end. At around the same time, we were contacted by the Sauvé Scholars Foundation, which represented the legacy of Jean Sauvé, Governor General of Canada from 1984 – 1990. It seemed that we were quickly becoming experts in Governor General-related digital projects!

In addition to our involvement with Sauvé Scholars — which was associated with McGill University — we began working on a design project with McGill University Communications department and the redesign of Student Society of McGill University website.

Summer Camp Rules

When we launched our new website at the end of 2011, we included a section called “The Book of Plank”. The idea was to give a glimpse “behind the scenes” to get to know our team and what drives us. It was also a good way to tell some funny stories. Sarah’s contribution was an accurate articulation of my management style:

Originally published in “The Book of Plank”:

One day, Sarah Bagnall realized something while dodging a renegade rubber band launched by Plank’s founder; she looked at him and asked, “You’re trying to run a summer camp, aren’t you?” Without hesitation, Warren replied plainly and simply, “Oh, most definitely.”

“It took me a few years to realize it, but it became clear to me that the way I’m running this company is completely based on the management style I learned at camp.” By the time he was 21, Warren had spent 12 summers at camp and had become responsible for about 300 children and 75 staff. His immediate supervisor once commented, “It’s very rare that someone your age gets this kind of management and leadership training.”

“Management? Leadership? Training? I thought I was just going to summer camp!” But the more Warren thought about it, the more he realized he was learning fundamental values that he would carry over to Plank’s culture. Stuff like building an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity, how to be fair, egalitarian, and lead by example, how to create a place that is open, supportive, and feels like a family, and, most of all, how to make a job fun.

“Oh, and if you’re in the office, you should also expect a lot of singing, joking, and silliness. I learned that at camp, too.”

2011 Facts (sources are this, this and this)

  • Ethan Marcotte described the theory and practice of responsive web design in his brief 2011 book titled Responsive Web Design.
  • Snapchat launches — first as Picaboo — on iOS in July 2011
  • Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center, ending NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
  • Apple releases the iPhone 4S on October 14th, nine days after the death of co-founder Steve Jobs.
  • Google releases Android Version 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich on October 19th. Yum.
The Team in 2011

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Colin Mackenzie — Emerson Lackey — Gary Brazier — Geoffrey Weeks — Jean-Frederic Fortier — Maria Frangos — Patrick McFern — Sarah Bagnall — Tanya McGinnity

2012: New Lessons to Learn

Even with nearly fifteen years of running Plank, there were still new lessons to be learned (guess what, there still are!). We had entered the year with confidence but were thrown by some major changes. Fortunately, we recovered by the end of the year, and I was introduced to a new event that has changed the way I run Plank ever since.  

Too Cautious, Too Hopeful

During the first half of the year we could see that one of our biggest clients, WowWee was going in a new direction. Our contact there had moved on to new challenges, so we didn’t have the internal advocate we had enjoyed until then. Unsurprisingly, our work volume began to slow down. It was something we’d seen before, but I didn’t react quickly enough to the situation. I was optimistic that things would work themselves out.

I didn’t have a plan in place to deal with the sudden departure of such a large client. We’ve seen large clients move on, but it had happened more slowly. I wasn’t proactive enough in developing new work to replace them, and we weren’t able to absorb the revenue loss. For the first time in a decade, we had to lay a couple of people off. I knew I could have handled it much better. It hurt me, and it hurt the company culture for the short term.

Still, the work went on and by later in the year we were on a much better footing. 

Shop Talk Conference, Palm Springs, CA

Near the end of the year, I received an email that would have one of the biggest impacts on my professional life.

“We haven’t met before, but I’m Greg Hoy, President of Happy Cog in Philadelphia. I’m reaching out to invite you to a retreat for business owners/principals Greg Storey and I created called “Shop Talk.” We created Shop Talk because for us while running a creative business is incredibly rewarding, it can also be challenging, and at times, incredibly frustrating. There are a lot of hats to wear, bills to pay, employees to keep happy, and never enough time to get everything done.’

I was humbled by the invitation. Greg Hoy and Happy Cog were highly respected in the digital agency community. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how we ended up on their radar and warranted a personal invitation to their conference. The focus of the conference was exactly what I needed at the time. I struggled sometimes to understand if I was running Plank properly, and didn’t have a strong network of peers to commiserate with. I was excited by the idea of spending a few days with a group of people who did the exact same job that I did. After losing one of our biggest clients earlier that year, and having to lay a couple of people off for the first time in ten years, I needed some help and advice. 

After spending four days in Palm Springs, CA—not the worst place to be in November—I returned to Montreal with more ideas and new knowledge that I could have imagined. I also realized there were a lot of things that Plank was doing right. It was invigorating to be sharing and brainstorming with so many smart people. 

Since then, “Shop Talk” has evolved into Owner Camp (and other Bureau of Digital events), and remains an important source of professional development and network building for Plank.

2012 Facts (Sources are this, this and this)

  • Apple’s sold 125 million iPhones, 35 million iPods and 18 million Macs. That’s a lot.
  • After 246 years the Encyclopædia Britannica discontinues its print edition and goes fully digital.
  • Facebook goes public, and early investors are worried about its ability to make money. They were quickly proven wrong.
  • The first person to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, dies at the age of eighty-two.
  • The highest grossing movie of the year is Marvel’s The Avengers.
The Team in 2012

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Gary Brazier — Geoffrey Weeks — Jean-Frederic Fortier — Jenny Cahill-Jones — John Hodges — Patrick McFern  — Colin Mackenzie

2013: Experiments and Events 

With a rough year behind us, I decided to focus on experimenting a bit, and see how doing some things differently would affect the company. My deepening interest in running a healthy, sustainable company was starting to drive me to see things in new ways. I was itching to act on the ideas that were swirling in my head thanks to the Shop Talk event at the end of 2012.

Business Development

Almost 15 years into running Plank, I still wasn’t taking this core task seriously enough. Work came in almost exclusively through our existing contacts and referrals. This remains a core source of our work, but 2013 was the moment we started to get strategic about building new relationships. 

My first instinct was to hire someone full-time to handle business development and help stabilize and grow the company. I also doubled down on attending conferences and networking events, including two more visits to Shop Talk turned Owner Camp. Ultimately, I realized that I had more work to do to start up the business development machine and get it running before I could ask someone else to sit in the driver’s seat. Plank, as it stood, was best served with me directly in charge of sales and marketing —
there was no one who knew the story of the company, or personified what exactly Plank was.

Creativemornings Montreal Logo

CreativeMornings Montréal

Steve was also itching to try something new and get his creative juices flowing. He got the idea in his head that CreativeMornings should have a chapter in Montreal. He took to Twitter and within weeks had a team together of like-minded people, who worked to submit a successful application.

In May they held their first event and by their 8th event in December they were the most successful chapter in the world, drawing hundreds of attendees on a monthly basis. Steve worked really hard to create something special and important and I was very proud of him. I was proud of Steve working so hard to create something special and thrilled to see his leadership skills grow in even more new and interesting ways.

Melding Personal Passions and Work

I had rekindled my love of baseball a few years earlier and was seeing the momentum growing to bring Major League Baseball back to Montreal. I decided to reach out to the Montreal Baseball Project to help the cause. To my surprise and joy, they got back in touch and we put together a plan that would allow us to revamp their website for them and help to offer one more digital tool to help the cause to bring the Expos back to Montreal. It also didn’t hurt that I got to meet Warren Cromartie, one of my favourite Expos from when I was a child, and someone who I respected as an adult as the driving force who reignited the conversation around bringing a team back to our fair city.

Montreal Baseball Project Logo

While I managed to attend over 10 different events this year that varied from a Frontend Developer conference in St. John’s, NL to the first Culture Days National Congress in Toronto, it was Hot Docs in May that gave us the opportunity to work on our first Native iOS application. In collaboration with Prospector Films, we developed a fitness and training app called Go Fit Yourself, to accompany the release of the documentary Last Woman Standing. We were all very excited to get our first project live in the App Store.

People Like Us

Our friends Romina and Elbert had been sharing space in the Plank office since 2007 with their company People Like Us. By 2013, they had grown so much that it was time for them to move out on their own. We were so proud of how much they had evolved and how they had grown into such a vibrant business in their own right. 

My holiday break was not one filled with rest and relaxation, but with constant research and proposal writing. I was determined to find every opportunity with my grasp and turn it into a new project. 

2013 Facts (Sources are this, this and this)

  • Target admits that information about over 70 million of their customers was stolen. Oopsie!
  • The PlayStation 4 is released as is Microsoft’s Xbox One
  • Twitter goes public in September. Everyone is a flutter.
  • Google releases early prototypes of Google Glass. People find the concept pretty creepy and invasive.
  • Apple’s  iOS 7 is released as is new versions of the iPhone 5
The Team in 2013

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb – Gary Brazier – Sarah Bagnall – Geoffrey Weeks — Jean-Frederic Fortier — Jenny Cahill-Jones — John Bowie — John Hodges — Patrick McFern — Sean Fraser  — Colin Mackenzie

2014: Promotions and Progressions

After a couple of uncertain years, 2014 brought some solidly positive changes to Plank. Two of our longest employees stepped into major leadership roles, we landed a legendary client and launched our own speaker series. Yay, us!

Steve the Partner

One afternoon, Steve and I were walking and talking on our way to a meeting, and an idea popped in my head. “Hey, Steve, why haven’t I made you a partner yet?” I asked. Steve’s response wasn’t much more than a surprised shrug. It had never really occurred
to either of us.

As I began to think through the consequences of what I had just uttered, I realized it was the obvious next step for us, and a move I was totally comfortable with. After 15 years of working together, I knew Steve wasn’t going anywhere. Some days it felt like he was even more bought into the Plank experiment than I was.

Both of us had peaked in our current roles and needed new challenges. I wanted to focus in on business development and marketing, which meant someone would need to keep the office running and our quality of work high. Steve was the natural person to do that. After attending three Owner Camp events, I was cluing into the advantage of having a partner who complements your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. It just so happened that person was sitting 10 feet away from me.

Steve Bissonnette

Jenn the Creative Director

When Gary Brazier left for new challenges, we began our search for a new Creative Director. We met some very talented external candidates but none of them felt like they could fill Gary’s shoes. At the end of what may have been our 10th interview, Jenn turned to me and said: “I think I can do a better job than anyone we’ve interviewed.” She was 100% right. Sometimes the most obvious answer to a problem is right in front of you, you’ve just weren’t looking in the right direction.

I instantly said yes. She has a great creative and design eye, and had essentially been mentored by Gary for years. She’d hit a wall in her role as senior frontend developer, knew how we worked, and wouldn’t need much ramp-up time to get started. I was confident that she could handle the new role and happy to see Jenn exhibit the self-confidence to state the truth of her ability. I knew she wouldn’t let us down and she never has.

Jennifer Lamb

The Breakfast Club

We had begun to invest pretty heavily into attending industry events in 2013 and continued to do so, but in 2014 we took it a step further and started running our own happenings. Inspired by Steve’s involvement with CreativeMornings Montréal, we started our own morning speaker series, dubbed The Breakfast Club. We called upon partners and friends to speak on their expertise over coffee and pastries, with some friendly mingling of course. Our first two events were held here at the office and, based on their success, we held four more at Furco and Lawrence.

Plank + Happy Cog ❤️ Rush

As someone who works on the internet every day, I’m also somehow still an avid explorer of it. I love poking around, discovering new websites, and visiting old favourites. I’m also not shy about sending someone a random email when I see that their web presence could be better. Near the end of the summer, I received the Rush email newsletter and decided to check out their website for the first time in a few years. I knew they could use some help to reflect their legendary status.

I saw that they might be going on tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary, so I got in touch with their management to offer our help. They responded positively and we agreed to work together. By now, I had a great relationship with Greg Hoy — who had invited me to that fateful Shop Talk event — and knew he was a huge Rush fan. So we invited him and his studio, Happy Cog, to collaborate with us on revamping I knew
that Greg’s passion for Rush would ensure that the project would be a success. We also were able to spend the next year together working on the site, going to shows and listening to a lot of Rush.

If I had a time machine and was able to land in my teenage bedroom at the end of the 1980’s and tell that version of me that I would be working with Rush 30 years later, I think that person would look me up and down, smile and give me a small nod of appreciation before putting back on my headphones and listening for the 15th time in a row to “La Villa Strangiato”.

2014 Facts (Sources are this and this)

  • Russia formally annexes Crimea after President Putin signs a bill finalizing the process.
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declares itself a caliphate. Uh oh.
  • The Philae probe lands on Comet 67P, the first time in that a spacecraft has done so.
  • President Obama announces the reinstatement of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
  • Satya Nadella becomes the CEO of Microsoft
The Team in 2014

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jenn Lamb — Cassandra Sera — Andrew Rose — Colin Mackenzie — Patrick McFern — Sean Fraser — John Hodges — Hannah Partridge — Jean-Frederic Fortier — Pablo Boerr — Philippe St-Martin  — Colin Mackenzie


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