Matt Shea meets the Brisbane duo taking the US tech world by storm.
Ben Johnston and Jess Huddart haven’t slept. Huddart begins to explain over Skype: “This morning at about one-thirty —”
“Two o’clock,” Johnston corrects frankly, tapping into the hazy memory of a networking event with a United States West Coast General Manager of Red Bull. “Jess had the foresight [to wrap it up]. Because we had to be up in a couple of hours to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles … things are just crazy right now.”
It feels like every three weeks things get crazy for Johnston and Huddart. As CEO and Director respectively of Josephmark, a Brisbane-based design firm, the duo are constantly flying back and forth across the Pacific. Today, they’re talking from Los Angeles, but it could have just as easily been San Francisco or New York. “At the moment we’re basically doing three weeks in Australia and then three weeks here,” Johnston explains. “We base ourselves in LA but each trip involves getting around the country.”
Of course, Johnston and Huddart could also just as easily be talking from Brisbane. For most of its ten-year history, Josephmark has held court at its iconic Substation offices on Petrie Terrace, the company becoming a focal point for a new wave of local creative enterprises (so much so that it would share office space with sibling companies), using Brisbane’s pubescence in art and design as a blank slate from which to land clients and create work that would outclass that produced by companies in the southern cities.
Now, though, it’s all about change, Josephmark finally letting go of the old bricks and mortar that looks out over the Barracks precinct for new, more spacious digs in Woolloongabba. Still, the ethos hasn’t changed. “I think that entrepreneurial spirit exists in Woolloongabba as well,” Huddart says. “We’re sharing [the new office] with a human centred architecture firm called Surroundings.”
It’s a semi-temporary space for Josephmark, one that will allow the company to experiment with new ways of managing their workflow while surrounding themselves with other businesses that further heighten the entrepreneurial spirit. “Even just the simple things like all the coffee shops that we can hit up,” Johnston jokes.
More pointedly, though, the move to Woolloongabba provides a symbolic bookend for a heady five year period during which Josephmark went widescreen and began to conquer the United States. In 2009 the company established We Are Hunted, a music discovery platform that swung around the simple idea of tapping into what people liked rather than what they were buying. It was a labour of love and social algorithms, eventually rewarded with an acquisition by Twitter in 2012. “Hunted was really the first digital product venture,” Huddart says. “That opened up a whole new way of collaborating with others and a whole new way for us to make money.”
We Are Hunted turned out to be just the start of Josephmark’s adventures into the United States tech world. The company surprised everyone but perhaps itself when in 2011 it won the business to lead a ground-up redesign of Myspace — the once gigantic social network that by the end of last decade had fallen on hard times.
Josephmark’s work on Myspace was revelatory, the crisp, innovative look of the new site receiving a rousing reception in the tech world, putting Johnston, Huddart and their team on the front foot in terms of mindshare. But more importantly, it introduced Josephmark to the nascent intersection of technology and entertainment that is now booming in Los Angeles, as well as the host of industry contacts that go with it.
“LA is getting more known for its tech,” Johnston explains. “How that leans on the entertainment industry and how that forms it, it’s awesome and it’s such an exciting time … We’ve really grown to love this place. It takes a while to scratch the surface but once you do, it’s awesome.”
Exciting new projects have followed. There’s Hash, a visually-focused, algorithm-driven round-up of the most popular stories on Twitter, made unique by the fact that non-Twitter users can tap into the service. And then there’s Undrtone, a mobile collaboration with famed Hollywood music supervisor Scott Vener that last month picked up an honorary award at the 2015 Webbys.
Further projects are in the pipeline — hence meetings upon meetings during their visits to the United States (our interview had to be pushed back twice), as well as those pesky Red Bull parties. With all but a handful of the Josephmark team back in Australia, does it ever become tricky to coordinate with home base? “We don’t sleep much,” Johnston laughs. “Our Fridays here are a little bit quieter because everything has gone silent in Brisbane, but then business kicks in on Sunday afternoon.
“Someone is either waking up and taking conference calls in bed or staying up late, so it is a bit of a life sacrifice that happens. But it’s exciting. And gaining a perspective of what’s going on in our scene and really understanding it over here — what that does to our thinking on a local level back home is extraordinary.”
Talking of home, despite all the travel and success Brisbane will remain the base of operations for Josephmark. “We love calling Brisbane home,” Johnston says. “Of course, Americans ask you where you live — ‘Sydney or Melbourne?!’ — but then they also think we ride kangaroos to work!”
“Brisbane was such a clean canvas,” Huddart says, the Melbourne native talking about her move north nine years ago. “It can still go under the radar, because we don’t have an image to uphold and I think that allows you to get away with a lot of things. When no one is looking at you, you can kind of do anything.
“It’s also how we’ve tried to keep JM, in a way. We haven’t wanted to draw too much attention to ourselves. Because as soon as you start doing that the focus gets set on the wrong thing and you start to feel you have to keep up a perception rather than feeling free to keep evolving and to keep changing. That is something I think is really important.”