Company name: Firstborn
Year established: 1997
Number of employees: 80
Headquartered in New York City, Firstborn is a multiplatform agency that creates websites, online ads, viral campaigns, digital applications, interactive installations, and just about anything else that takes advantage of digital technology. We recently had a chance to interview its president, Dan LaCivita.
Inspire: How much of a shift to mobile have you seen in the last year or so? Has your company seen a big rise in mobile inquiries?
Dan LaCivita: Absolutely. The number of inquiries for mobile stuff is increasing exponentially. The exciting part is that there are so many more opportunities for mobile now — it's gone from "Will my website work on someone's phone?" to a whole new area of opportunity where we can identify ways mobile can be integral (and even lead) a full consumer digital experience.
The impact mobile can have on industries like travel and hospitality (among others) is huge, and since many of our clients are in the consumer packaged goods industry, we see tremendous potential for mobile at the point of sale. The reality is that mobile is going to be an increasingly effective way for marketers to reach their consumers. Last year, smartphone sales overtook PC sales, and this trend will only continue as tablets soon eclipse PC sales as well. Mobile will, without question, continue to revolutionize the way consumers interact with brands, content, and one another. It is undeniably a cornerstone of what we will be doing in the future.
Inspire: How about tablets?
LaCivita: Most often our clients want to make sure whatever experience we are creating is viewable on desktop, tablet, and mobile. So whether it is creating a responsive design solution or perhaps slightly different versions for each device, we always take tablets into consideration. There may even be projects where, based on research, the tablet is the core piece to the experience, so we may lead with that and build around it.
Inspire: Where do you stand on the mobile-optimized website vs. mobile app debate?
LaCivita: Just like anything else, it needs to come back to what the consumer is going to react to and interact the best with. I think we will continue to see more elements that can be achieved in the browser rather than requiring an app.
In iOS 6, apps now have access to the Camera Roll and the camera itself in-browser, which is a recent example. I think as connection speeds continue to increase and device hardware continues to get more capable, more things will be achievable in-browser. You are going to need to have compelling reasons to create an application. That application needs to have features or elements that couldn't normally be done in-browser.
With that said, application downloads continue to be massive. The Apple Store will most likely have more than 45 billion app downloads by the end of the year. And the time people are spending on apps vs. the mobile web is growing. (A recent study showed that people are now spending more minutes per day using apps than using the mobile web.)
Inspire: Does that mean brands should be creating mobile apps instead of mobile websites?
LaCivita: Not necessarily. The majority of the apps used on a day-to-day basis are not necessarily from brands but for services and platforms we enjoy using (such as Instagram). So it really goes back to what you are actually trying to achieve when creating for mobile — and allowing the strategic and creative vision to guide those decisions. Are you creating a product or utility? Are you creating a game? Are you a brand trying to create a new type of digital loyalty program? It needs to start with imagining what that ultimate experience should look like. Then you can make strategic decisions on the best platform to provide that experience.
Inspire: Has your focus evolved since you began your career, or have you simply fine-tuned your focus all along?
LaCivita: In many ways, my focus has evolved quite significantly, but at the same time, it has stayed the same. When I started in this industry, I was a Flash developer. My only real desire was to make cool stuff. I simply wanted to work with the best designers around and be the guy that had a chance to bring those designs to life. I always knew I didn't want to be a developer forever. I knew there were far better people than I in that area, and I knew I had a skill set I could use to help build teams, acquire clients, and so forth.
So while at Firstborn, I had the chance to go from developer to producer, and then work to grow our team of producers, and then work closely with [founder/CEO] Michael Ferdman to really grow Firstborn in the direction we wanted to go. So while in many ways my focus has evolved, I am still here for the same reason I started in this industry: to make great work that I am proud of. Now I get more excited about creating work that truly moves our clients' business forward — being able to work with clients to show how digital can mean more to their business than just a marketing and advertising tool. Almost every day is a rewarding one for different reasons, and I am very thankful for that.
Inspire: There's a lot of interest and hype in HTML5. Are your clients demanding HTML5-based experiences?
LaCivita: I'm not sure I want to work with clients who demand a certain technology. It's kind of like me going to a restaurant and then telling the chef how to prepare my meal. When I go to a restaurant, I'm going somewhere to get something special — something prepared with care and created with passion, something that hopefully took many years to perfect. The clients we enjoy working with are clients who come to us because they trust our judgment and our vision. And these ultimately lead to the best relationships and best products. We ask two things of our clients — faith and feedback. I think you need both for a successful relationship. We need clients' feedback and input. It is critical to the process. But we also need a little of their faith. It is our hope that they are hiring us as the experts and will trust our vision.
Inspire: How hands-on are you these days with the projects your company handles?
LaCivita: Fortunately, I'm still able to be pretty hands-on. While I'm not actively coding things anymore — and that's probably a good thing — I am very involved with all of our new business efforts and remain involved for some of our larger, longer term client relationships. It's a challenge to split my time effectively between active projects, client relationships, and the operational side of things, but it keeps things fresh and allows me to always be thinking strategically and applying various thought processes to different parts of the business.
Inspire: Apart from work and family, how do you relax or unwind?
LaCivita: My wife and I are expecting our own firstborn in a couple months, so I have a feeling the words relax and unwind will unfortunately find their way out of my vocabulary for a while. But I love to cook (and eat), so I spend a lot of free time dining out or cooking at home. I enjoy reading — usually about things outside of the industry.
Inspire: How important is it to make time for your team to play with purely experimental work? Do you allow people a certain amount of time to experiment on the job?
LaCivita: It's very important. Every company has different ways of going about how to give free time for people to experiment. I don't think there is one approach that works for all companies and all types of business, but it is crucial to allocate R&D time and find the best approach knowing the realities of your business. For us, there are peaks and valleys of projects. So when people have a lull, we try to create opportunities for them to either experiment on their own projects or create scenarios where we can proactively think of ideas for our clients.
Inspire: The Internet has brought the world together like never before. Which country excites you the most, and where would you love to be able to set up a satellite office?
LaCivita: I'd love to open an office in Italy — just to have a good excuse to travel there multiple times a year.
Inspire: As someone with many years in the industry, do you find it harder to keep your finger on the pulse of technology? And in what way do younger members contribute to your awareness of that pulse?
LaCivita: I think when you're curious you are always looking for new things, so in that sense, it isn't hard to keep up with things. For me, there are too many things that interest me. It's hard to find time to keep up with it all. We recently started an internal blog, which is really awesome. It's run by our Strategy group that posts things daily. It could be about an interesting tech trend, an innovative project someone has launched, or really anything at all. And anyone can post things as well as comment on them. We also do profiles on various employees — a mini interview of sorts. It allows people to learn new things about other people they work with. It's a great morning coffee destination that lets me get a sense of current events, but because it's curated by people at Firstborn, it always offers a unique lens on things.
Inspire: Many thanks for your time. Please leave us with one inspirational word.
LaCivita: Work hard. Do what you love. Eat and drink well. Be kind.