Chalk + Chisel. Est. 2015
August 26, 2015Category: Management

Chalk + Chisel. Est. 2015

By Ben Slavin

A Cause for Celebration

Today we celebrate the launch of Chalk + Chisel. We celebrate the four-year journey that has brought us here, and share our commitment to devise, design and develop well-crafted digital products to help our clients create authentic experiences.

How We Got Here

In 2011, Adam Miskiewicz, Josh Ourisman, Nick Hudkins and I founded Bolster Labs.

Our backgrounds spanned business, design and development, and we positioned ourselves as "a specialty development shop".

At our core, we wanted to work with great clients, build amazing software and do great work. We felt we knew how to get there.

One of the most fundamental principles guiding us was that developers needed to have a voice in the early decisions that dictate a project's success or failure. As the person (or team) responsible for the final implementation of a project, developers need to be able to raise concerns early and be a part of the process of defining a solution.

We wanted to empower our clients. As developers, we would provide the implementer's voice in the early stages. We would be accountable for delivering on the plan we created together.

Our empowerment role was critical since even organizations with great creative abilities often can't justify the expense of an experienced in-house development team. By providing the development talents of our team we could support our clients' efforts and allow them to focus on solving their core business problems.

This focus on development worked for some clients, especially when they had expertise in strategy and design, but we continued to be approached by clients who didn't have these capabilities.

A Focus on Product

We love building digital products, and we've learned that the demands of product development are fundamentally different from those of traditional digital projects.

In an effort to hone our approach, we've come to look at the work we do through a lens of the permanence of the final product – will the work be retired at the end of the season, do we expect to iterate and refine?

Products are a Commitment

When we work with a client on a product, we know that the decisions made early in the process have a big impact on the likelihood of success.

Considering the big picture takes the talents of a diverse team. A thoughtful approach helps us build confidence that we're solving the right problems, and shared ownership across strategy, design, and development helps us explore the impact of every decision.

Our Account Strategy team leads our efforts to frame our understanding of client problems. They build an understanding of our client's industry, the competitive landscape, and of the end user. They articulate the goals we'll pursue and the strategies that will guide us.

Our Creative team leads our exploration of solutions through a design process. Creating wireframes, applying visual design and a variety of other resources, they materialize the vision we'll pursue.

Our Interactive team breathes life into the product developed alongside the Account Strategy and Creative teams. They are responsible for realizing the vision and working with the team as we iterate on new ideas.

Designed to be collaborative, this approach has worked well for us. It has allowed us to understand a product deeply, and to plan for its growth and evolution. I'll be sharing more about the composition of our product teams in a future post.

Activations are Transient

From a longevity standpoint, activations are the exact opposite of product. Whether a physical event, a prototype, or a microsite, they're short-lived (days or weeks) and transient. They usually derive meaning from a larger campaign. Activations are a great place for us to stay up to date with the latest ideas, approaches and technologies – a testbed when we don't have to worry about long term support.

We still accept activations from clients from whom we've earned the trust for this experimentation, but the majority of our work is on things with more permanence.

The Need for Process

Early this year, we formalized a new process, defining roles and responsibilities that would allow us to build out our account strategy and creative teams in a way that aligns with product development.

A New Identity

The transition to product development came as our business grew, as we grew up, and became more than Bolster was ever meant to be. Bolster was about empowering others to wield our technical abilities. It was never about coming up with the next big idea – it was about bringing ideas to life.

Defining Ourselves

We turned to our friends at Backroom to take a good look at who we were and the things that were unique to us. We gave them unfiltered access to our clients so we could understand how others saw us. We gave them candid answers about our values and our plans for the future.

We knew the importance of getting this right, so we put everything on the table. We considered new names. We looked at our audience, the competitive landscape and market conditions. We considered the traditional elements of branding – features and benefits, voice and personality, positioning, key messages and proof points. I had encountered all these during my education, but had never been directly involved in their creation. This was a new exercise for each of the founders.

A Brand is More than Marketing

We knew that a brand should provide a vision and strategic foundation for the work we do.

I don't mean to discount the marketing value of a brand – it's an important part of the value a brand creates. We had built our business on word-of-mouth, relying on our reputation to sell on our behalf. I'm proud we've made it this far on word-of-mouth alone, but it was an unsustainable approach.

The brand behind Bolster was underdeveloped. It served a purpose of identifying us, but was never complete. It meant something to us, but we did a poor job of communicating it externally. Worse – as new members joined the team, it didn't provide a sense of direction.

Many see the value of a brand as a tool for marketing, but it's much more than that. It helps clients understand us, and it makes sure we understand ourselves.

The Name

During our branding process, we learned of the Chalk and Chisel Club. A small group of artisans who joined together in 1895. Their commitment to quality became an important part of the Arts and Crafts movement.

We take inspiration from their ideals. We connect creative thinking with the artistry of execution to make something meaningful.

The Mark

We take great pride in our work, but we strive to let our work speak for itself. We draw inspiration from the simplicity of a maker's mark – a signature for the work of a craftsman.

The Things That Won't Change

The launch of Chalk + Chisel doesn't change our approach or the team our current clients have come to know.

We've honed our approach to digital products. We've built a solid foundation for our process. We've grown our Account Strategy team. We've built our Creative team to be a peer of the Accounts & Strategy and Interactive teams.

Today we say farewell to Bolster and celebrate Chalk + Chisel. Our new brand is an expression of our renewed commitment and energy, keeping alive a tradition of well-crafted experiences.

More than four years in the making, I'm proud of the team that has made this possible, and I'm excited by what lies ahead.


Ben Slavin
Ben Slavin is a founding partner and CEO at Chalk + Chisel