John Gentle had an idea.
“I thought it would be cool to rent a space,” he said in a recent interview, “and bring together a talented group of freelancers who could collaborate on projects and create a business development engine, outsourcing work to the people in the space.”
“I think WeWork does have that model now,” John added, laughing. “But that was kind of the grandiose vision for an agency early on when I was still freelancing.”
It was 2011 and WeWork was just getting off the ground on the other side of the country. In Portland, John was creating a person-centered collective that would soon transform into an agency with a focus on putting the customer at the forefront of the design narrative. In the 10 years since John, who grew up in Rochester, New York, decided to create the company, it has gone from a one-man operation to a consultancy with 20 employees and plans to hire more.
He named the company Roboboogie.
“I’m really fascinated with this idea of left and right brain thinking,” John said, of the sometimes inscrutable name. “Frankly it’s gotten mixed reviews at times,” he added. “It’s hard to say. There’s tension there which I like.” John continues, explaining the philosophy behind the name. “Robo is the technology and the boogie is the creative,” he explained. “So over time we’ve adapted it to our position now, which is more around bringing data and design together.”
“It also came from the opportunity that I saw for an agency to provide better customer service,” he said. “I wanted to do something memorable and a little more playful but still deliver best in class service to my clients.” With that, John got busy working out the kinks in his plan. For one thing, he was realizing that maybe they would need a team, specifically operationally-minded individuals to help organize the chaos. So in 2014, he hired Jedidiah Fugle, an entrepreneurial-minded freelance creative producer, and transplant from Northern California, to help put some processes and organization in place.
“I quickly loved the collaborative approach and this idea of bringing teams together to do big things in a people-centric way,” Jed said. He thought Roboboogie’s approach was different from the revolving door he saw at many Portland agencies. “This idea of, ‘Let’s really build around people,’” Jed said, “that was really what made me stick and go, ‘This is something I want to be a part of and help build.’”
John said that when Jed joined the team, he “really just drove it.”
“I was like, “Wow, this guy is partner-level material for sure,’” John recalls.
The two worked well together, agreeing on a people-driven approach when it came to clients and employees. They formalized a partnership in the year that followed, allowing each to lean into their strengths, while charting a path for growth.
From 2015 to 2017, the company grew from two employees to five. By 2019, the size had doubled to 10. By March of 2021, it had doubled again. “In the last two years, we’ve really found our identity,” Jed said. “We had this moment,” he continued, “where it just clicked. This combination of being really strategic and smart where the solutions we’re bringing are design-led, which we’re the best in, but we’re harnessing data and technology to bring a new way to think about solutions.” The market, Jed said, has gone more and more that way. But Roboboogie was a pioneer.
John is now the Chief Experience Officer and Jed is the Chief Operating Officer. They both remain passionate about the idea of centering around people. “We have our cultural tenets,” John said. “You start with those values and you try to communicate them and live and breathe them as much as you can in the day to day and then you try to hire people who are comfortable aligning with those values.” For Roboboogie, those values are respect, creativity, passion and courage. Of those, said John, the respect tenant is the most important, for clients and each other.
“I do believe it’s core to that ‘treating people like people’ concept,” John said.
That means creating an environment that prioritizes work-life balance, where employees can excel. During the pandemic, that hasn’t always been easy. The company has nearly doubled in size in the last year, and the culture has shifted from one of hanging out at their offices in Portland’s Revolution Hall, to remote working and many people who have never been into the office at all. “It’s easy to hide behind this digital wall,” John said. “People are struggling.” Still, they work to bring the playful spirit of Roboboogie to everyone’s homes. Whether it’s a virtual cooking class/magic show or building piñatas to celebrate their 10 year anniversary, John and Jed have not given up on the culture they want.
In the next 10 years, Jed and John see Roboboogie shifting to a premium, customer-centric digital transformation and optimization consultancy, where they pick the clients they want and make sure their employees still benefit from a culture of respect. And while they both plan to keep the company growing, they don’t imagine expanding beyond 50 employees. “We want to be really focused in what we do,” John said, “do a really good job and then provide a nice work-life balance for folks that are really tied into our success as much as we are.”
However the company changes, both agree that keeping people at the center of their mission will remain the same. It’s a mindset that they pioneered and, as they have seen, it works for clients and for employees. They believe it is here to stay and they’re both excited to share the Roboboogie approach with more partners and clients in the decade ahead.