September 2018

Kevin Kalle, Co-Founder of Awkward

Founded in 2011 by Kevin Kalle, David van Leeuwen, Jonno Riekwel, and Dennis Blok, Awkward is a Rotterdam based digital design studio. Focused on building digital products, Awkward has built lasting partnerships with the design software pioneer Sketch and the file sharing service WeTransfer. Designed Space chatted with Kevin Kalle about his design education, starting Awkward and partnering with Sketch. This interview was conducted via email in July 2018.

You first studied at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, then transferred to Maryland Institute College of Art. What drove you to move to the states and study at MICA?

I felt limited at the Willem de Kooning Academy. It made me look for a challenge and I knew the bar at MICA was really high. I signed up, got accepted, and packed my bags. These days education is behind on the industry, so I think the problem I faced then is something we still face today.

Why do you think education is behind on the industry?

The curriculum does not match the practical experience. It’s hard for schools to innovate, and at the same time, our industry is changing rapidly. Looking back, I’m glad I made the decision to transfer instead of dropping out. It’s not just design skills you learn at school but you also develop social skills, and you get a chance to work in teams and learn to understand other perspectives. These are the things that I think should be emphasized in the work we do; it’s not just about your skill set.

You finished MICA in 2006 and started Awkward in 2011. What did you do during the five-year gap?

Right after school, I co-founded a start-up with 3 others in San Francisco where I learned a lot of things besides design itself. I did that for a while but noticed I still wanted to learn a variety of things instead of just one thing. That’s when I started freelancing for multiple startups and agencies with a strong focus on user interface and icon design. During this time I met Pieter Omvlee from Sketch. Back then he was working on Fontcase and Drawit.

I'm assuming this is how Awkward came to partner with Sketch to launch their Cloud and Mirror services?

Pieter and I go way back. It was not a coincidence because we started out with a product similar to what Cloud is nowadays. Between freelancing, starting our own company, and the moment we started working with Sketch, we made a lot of progress. The biggest difference is-obviously-the experience we gained and the technical expertise that came with it. We were able to actually build the product we already imagined. Pieter trusted us that we would deliver great work and continue to grow Sketch.

I guess the same thing happened with WeTransfer. We already met Nalden, co-founder of WeTransfer, via the industry and we showed him some of our work and most importantly: how we work. A few months later we started working together on their mobile product. If you can make people enthusiastic because of your experience and expertise, then you know that you’re going in the right direction.

You founded Awkward alongside David van Leeuwen, Jonno Riekwel, and Dennis Blok. How did you all meet?

After freelancing for some great clients, I was looking for something different. I wanted to work together with a team, but I didn’t want to work at a startup or agency I freelanced for. That’s when I decided to look for co-working spaces, so at least I had some people around me. It was also a big plus that I didn’t have to work from home or coffee bars.

I had previously met Jonno through Twitter and got to know David and Dennis through a tweet as well. They were also looking for a space and responded to my co-working space tweet. That's how we got into a conversation. Fast forward a few months and we rented a beautiful co-working space in Rotterdam where we all worked on our own companies. 6 months later, we made the decision to develop Shipment: our first product together. We didn't get it to lift off, but it did turn out to be the start of Awkward.

Did the failure of Shipment influence the start of Awkward?

We didn't start Awkward because the Shipment failed. But from working together we noticed we were all very product focused and at that time there was a high demand for product-focused companies. Because startups and established companies had trouble finding talent, we offered to build products for them that they couldn’t make themselves.

Did you guys have a plan for what you wanted Awkward to look like when you started?

We had a plan to hire the best people that we could find and that the work would follow. It was the plan when we started and even today-more than 6 years later-I’m still convinced it’s what makes us successful. And with success, I’m not referring to money in the bank, rewards, or accolades; but the simple fact that we created an environment where people want to work, want to be at their best, want to learn, and want to teach others. This is also wired into how we work with our clients.

In the beginning, how did you market to potential clients?

Back then we didn’t explicitly market Awkward and we found out that it worked out for us. We positioned the team and its individuals, but not the company itself. We basically said “we’re currently working on Shipment” and threw a contact button on our website. People were almost scared to ask if we had time to deal with other assignments. We were sorta unapproachable, something that I think worked at the time and even today.

What’s the story behind the name Awkward?

Jonno and I had a conversation in the co-working space about how strange it is sometimes when you first meet a client from abroad after you had only communicated online. When we got a request from a client that needed development work, we involved David and Dennis and we knew we needed a company name. We all realized the conversation Jonno and I had before, and landed on Awkward Handshakes; that was changed to Awkward a minute later.

Did you ever worry it would deter clients because of the negative connotations associated with the word awkward?

No, not at all. We actually noticed the opposite. A lot of clients told us that they enjoy the contradiction between our name and the work we produce. But hey, what do I know? We never got an email from Google, Airbnb, or Spotify, so maybe they think we’re a bit strange haha!

How do you manage projects through the studio? Do you have project managers or use specific software?

We don’t have project managers. We believe in being part of a product team and that also means you have a big responsibility besides designing or developing.

I take it your role has changed a lot?

It changed a lot. When we just started I was a product designer, so I was much more involved in the production process. At one point it became clear we needed someone to represent the co-founding team. I was already an active and present person, so we quickly decided that I should take on that role. It was a natural process. In my role as CEO, I have to be realistic and also provide clarity about my expectations. My role is to create an environment where other people can reach their full potential. I need to support that vision.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of running a studio?

It has always been to be able to learn from my team, that part is easy. But that’s also the biggest challenge. To find the focus and control to keep learning at a top level. So, I guess the reward feels better because of the challenge.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own studio?

Surround yourselves with people that excite you and that you can learn from, along with those who are not afraid to challenge you regardless of your position within the company.

What is in store for Awkward for the remainder of 2018?

We’ll keep on working as an integrated team for both WeTransfer and Sketch. We’ve also have some secret projects running that I hope we can share soon.