New Founders Interview with Tara Hunt and Chris Messina of Citizen Agency

This month’s New Founders participant hails from the San Francisco Bay area of California. Citizen Agency, formed by Tara Hunt, Chris Messina and Ben Metcalfe, offer their roster of clients guidance and experience in leading communities and building products as part of a larger marketing strategy. How does a company that’s barely out of the gates drum up more demand for their services than they have capacity for? Allow Tara and Chris to walk us through the finer points behind Citizen Agency, what it’s like to go it alone together as a small business, what a community mark is, and why they think it’s important.

The Citizen Agency team from left to right: Chris Messina, Ben Metcalfe, and Tara Hunt. Photo by Scott Beale


Tell us a bit about Citizen Agency (CA) – when did you start the company and how would you describe your company’s services?

Tara: Chris had already been out in the independent world, doing product design consulting for about 3 months or so when I found myself independent as well. We looked at the options. I could get another job (and Chris was considering the same) or we could team up and see what happens. That was three months ago. Just four weeks after announcing our partnership, we were overflowing with contracts, declining other offers and had a third party interested in coming on board as the third partnership.

Chris: We really hit the ground running—especially since I’d already been out for a month on my own and that Tara and I work well individually. Once we made the decision to go for it, we rushed through our incorporation, getting Tara her visa, picked up a bunch of clients and started building up our toolkit for managing the business. I can’t believe it’s only been three months since we started!

In terms of our services, we do a couple things and we do them quite differently. In the simplest terms, people pay us to give them advice on their products or about building communities. We also act as connected networkers, bringing people together. We really don’t believe in competition in the old sense; in fact, we have a mailing list that all of our clients are own and we encourage them, as much as possible to work with one another, whether it’s by opening up APIs, supporting microformats or other ideas that we’ve picked up from our
experiences in the open source world.

Who’s in the company and what are the roles?

Tara: I guess I could be seen as the CMO —the Citizen Marketing Officer…Ben is the CTO —the Grassroots Architect and Citizen Technology Officer… Chris is the CEO —Citizen Executive Officer… but we all work together to build strong communities for our clients. I do the marketing and strategy for the customer community build,
collecting user feedback, Chris helps build the product to suit that community (as well as helps build out the site to be more ‘community
compliant’ – with better feedback opportunities, forums, etc.) and Ben’s expertise is with building Developer Networks. Most of our clients have APIs or are planning to have them. Without developers and a developer program, those APIs go unnoticed.

What is the story behind the CA logo if there is one?

Tara: We actually drove a brilliant design team crazy before Chris and Ben futzed around, mashed up and created it. I’ll let Chris tell the entire story here.

Chris: Logo design has always been a real challenge for me—capturing all the ideas you want to convey in a simple graphic is difficult! But fortunately, Tara and I had been having a conversation about symbols (see my rant) and wanted our identity to be something that was simple and striking… like the Batman symbol. We wanted it to be something that you could put almost anywhere, and like the OBEY art, have it be both recognizable and confounding. I’m not sure that we achieved that, but we essentially took the inner ring of the presidential seal and reduced and replaced the stars with circles, representing “citizens”. It was originally flat red, so Ben suggested paisley and 20 minutes later we’d come up with something we all liked.

We haven’t really even begun to push it out there, but I think when we do, our identity will be pretty striking in a sea of gradients and rounded corners.

Chris and Tara were both working for well-known start-ups (Flock and Riya, respectively), what inspired you two to strike out on your own?

Tara: Riya wanted to take their marketing into a more traditional realm and I wasn’t too interested in doing that. My personal brand had also grown to a place that I thought that striking out on my own would be feasible. Combined with Chris’ expertise, I thought we’d make a killer team.

Chris: Flock had a similar change in direction away from the longer term goals that I’d set for the browser, and with this change, I felt it was time to take a gamble and spread my ideas further. Since Tara and I had already been together for sometime and shared many similar ideas, it only made sense that we team up and pursue what we love doing together.

Tara Hunt and Chris Messina. Photo by Thomas Hawks.

And now that you’re a few months into it, how are you finding things to be?

Tara: Lots of work…but wonderfully rewarding.

Chris: Same. It’s also terribly revealing from a personal perspective—I know have a better sense of what it’s like to be management! Ha!

What has been the hardest thing about running CA?

Tara: Keeping track of hours. Billing. Business stuff. Stopping work to have a life.

Chris: Doing all the stuff necessary to keep the business going but that ultimately fails to inspire. It’d be great if you could just offer up your services and take in your fee, but it’s never that simple, is it?

Fortunately it’s gotten a lot better in the past couple years with more information, more tools and more people doing this that at least we’re not having to guess as much as we might have in getting going.

What do you enjoy most about running CA?

Tara: Working with Chris. I know, it sounds sucky, but I really admire his work and to be teamed up with him is a great honor. We really compliment one another.

Chris: Awh… well, it’s hard to not reciprocate that. I definitely can be a stubborn pain in the ass, but I also think that it’s good for us. We actually complement each other really well—and in that respect, it really is some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in my career.

In particular, I love sharing insights, ideas, gossip and the details of the business with my partner in crime. It’s too bad that not everyone is as lucky as we are.

From reading your blog posts, CA has a healthy list of clients. How did you get these clients as a company just starting out? What have you found to be most effective in marketing your services?

Tara: We haven’t marketed our services at all. We both had reputations beforehand, which meant that when we announced on our blogs we were busting out in the world together, people sat up and took notice. All of our current clients came to us. We had over 80 (now) leads. In the future, though, for long term sustainability and because we can’t add more hours to a day, we will have to start creating marketable outputs from CA —probably seminars and workshops and publications or the like.

Chris: …as well as products and apps. Tara’s credibility and reputation lead to many leads—but it was also a mix of us reaching out to folks who we liked and letting them know that we were
available, liked what they were doing and had ideas for helping them succeed. But yeah, we didn’t do anything like traditional marketing, we were heavily involved in communities of great people and through those connections, work found us.

To the extent your confidentiality agreements allow, can you tell us about some of the exciting things you’re working on over the next few months?

Tara: We are both excited about all of our clients. They have solid people working there and, once we get through performance and building kickass products, I think you’ll see some really fundamental changes in the industry. I’m hoping to see great things coming out of our process, too. We encourage our clients to really collaborate and work together. We’re hoping that is an idea that will really catch on.

Chris: On that point, that’s one of the things that really differentiates our service model. We actually bring our clients together so that they can provide tools of value to multiple communities at once. Just as Google is able to leverage its stable of products to cross-promote, we hope to do the same with different companies’ products, tying them together with open standards and open APIs. If anything, I think you’ll start seeing greater adoption of technologies like microformats and OpenID… that is, if we have anything to say about it! ;)

What kind of tools (anything – hardware, camera phone, applications, etc.) do you depend on?

Tara: Our laptops…we carry them everywhere. As well, our Blackberries (8700c), digital cameras (I have a Fuji S7000) and I really love my iPod for concentrating on the road…while I scribble in an old fashioned notepad. Chris is the ‘app’ guy…

Chris: Well, we actually suffer from our adoption of “pieces loosely joined”! We use PBWiki, Basecamp, Backpack, Blinksale, Harvest,
NetVibes, Gmail, Google Calendar, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Blogger, WordPress, Flickr, Upcoming, and our client’s software as well (i.e. Ma.gnolia and Scrapblog:http://www.scrapblog.com). The number of tools that I use for 0.5%
tasks… even I can’t keep track of them (which is why I can’t wait for open data and single sign-on to spread)!

What are some of your favorite blogs that inspire and shape your business and creative thinking?

Tara: Creating Passionate Users, by Kathy Sierra. Evelyn Rodriguez is also mundo inspirational for me. I heart danah boyd research and Shelley Powers’ insights as well. Oh…and David Weinberger over at Joho the blog and Susan Crawford are doing some really important work around net neutrality.

Chris: Well, I’m primarily an interface and experience guy, so I actually watch VersionTracker and MacUpdate like a hawk. I also watch Hawk Wings, Lifehacker and a bunch of other random things. Tara thinks it’s gameable, but I actually find out about a lot of stuff by watching Digg and TechMeme.

You have been using Harvest for a couple months now—how has it been working out for tracking your time on various clients and projects?

Tara: Excellent…but I need a desktop buddy (maybe using Webkit? Chris?) and it needs to integrate with Blinksale. ;)

Chris: Yeah, Harvest focuses on a real need and executes on a level so rarely seen in other web apps. It really is a joy to use.

But I’m with Tara, some kind of desktop integration in a time tracking app (like TimeLog?) would be really convenient—not to mention Blinksale integration. See? This is exactly the kind of thing we preach to our clients! Heh (we know you’re working on it).

Why don’t you believe in TM (as stated on your homepage)?

Tara: I’ll let Chris handle the Community Marks statement. However, trademarking isn’t always bad, nor does it halt innovation like patents and DRM do. But some things just don’t belong to one person or corporation…

Chris: Heh, well, as Tara said, in certain circumstances, trademarks are important to maintaining the integrity of a product or service.
But predatory trademarking or trademarks-for-the-sake of trademarks can actually be damaging to your efforts to spread your work. This was true in the case of Firefox and Creative Commons—both trademarks that need to be protected and yet would never have found as much adoption as they did without the community taking some ownership of
the mark (antithetical to the way trademark law is written).

Which is why I came up with the proposal for Community Marks… essentially community “owned” brands. There’s no legal enforcement; instead the mark is controlled and protected by the community that is represented by it. BarCamp is a great example of a Community Mark. Had we decided to trademark it, well, it seems rather unlikely that it would have spread as fast and as freely as it did. Anyway, it’s more about having a choice and about explicitly expressing how you want a mark to be used. So there ya go. ;)

A huge thanks to Tara and Chris for the excellent interview. You can learn more about Citizen Agency by checking out their company blog.

Are you a small business that’s just starting out? Learn more about the New Founder’s Program and see if your company and story might fit the bill.

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