Tech Role Models: Carly Ayres, Co-founder of HAWRAF

Today’s Tech Role Model is Carly Ayres. Carly is a writer and creative director. Previously, she was a partner at HAWRAF, an interactive design and development studio based in New York, that announced it was closing its doors in March 2019.

Before HAWRAF, Carly worked humanizing AI and evolving the Google logo. She’s given voices to Fortune 500 companies and chatbots alike and writes on art, design, and technology.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

At HAWRAF, I was a partner and co-founder for the three years when we ran the studio. Another “official title” might have been “Managing Director” but we didn’t really subscribe to official titles, so I was mostly just a partner. 

My other partners were Andrew Herzog, Pedro Sanches, and Nicky Tesla. We met while freelancing together in Google’s Creative Lab back in 2015, starting the studio shortly after that. 

In my role, I ran operations, solicited new business, handled account management, managed and distributed project loads, provided creative feedback, as well as created brand voices, tones & strategies for a range of clients. 

Now, I’m in the process of figuring out how to redefine my title, which I usually describe as “Creative Director,” “Writer,” “Tech worker”—or some combination of the three. I’m back to freelancing, which I’ve done off and on for the past five years.

What attracted you to this co-founder role?

I was always interested in starting a studio. That attraction was rooted in a few different things—such as a desire for autonomy, control of what projects and clients I worked with and how, influence over my workspace and culture, a deeper understanding between my time and its value, and a naïve, perhaps narcissistic belief across various working environments that: “I could do this better myself.”

I had talked with several potential partners and collaborators over the years, but it never felt like the right fit until I met Andrew and the bunch. Together, we brought a diverse set of skills and perspectives that made each of us confident in our collective ability to launch and run a studio. 

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I would typically get to the studio between 8:30 AM and 9:30 AM, pending any morning coffees, which—as the person handling a lot of our studio’s external communications—I tended to have many. In the early days of the studio, I would have as many as 4 (!!) coffees a day with various potential clients, mentors, or collaborators. (In retrospect, that was a lot and led to weekly burnouts.)

Once I’d get to the studio, I’d take a quick pass of the space, see if there was anything that needed immediate attention—physical fires, metaphorical fires, dirty dishes, and the like—address them, then check the calendar for the studio’s schedule. We typically did a 15-minute “stand-up” at the beginning of the day to set priorities and prepare for any upcoming meetings, then tackle our respective responsibilities. 

My focus tended to be more operational and new business. I focused on intentional outreach, identifying potential partners and collaborators, meeting with them, then trying to figure out the intersection of our skillset and their needs. On other days, I might engage in some more production/execution-side copywriting and brand voice work for our clients. 

Early on, we identified that Andrew and I could move between many tasks fairly quickly, whereas our other partners needed more extended stretches (aka “Maker Time”) to dive deeper and get work done. We made it a point always to have everyone involved in brainstorms or kickoffs, while I would handle more of the pitch-related meetings (often with Andrew).

Lunch was furtive and frequently in flux, but always happened. The boys would usually get rice and beans at the bodega across the street together, and I would scrounge for something elsewhere or have something delivered. Or leftovers.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I had a previous co-worker (s/o Kevin) who used to say that every problem was a communication problem. It was true! Communication is usually the root of all confusion and, vice versa, clarity. The ability to clearly and effectively communicate your point of view is so essential, as well as recognizing where that might be falling apart. I think carving out time to have those conversations (an hour every Friday dubbed “Feelings Friday”) was integral to that. 

People often asked us where we found clients—another critical aspect of succeeding in client-services. There’s no secret client-watering-hole where you go and find clients. Clients are the people you’ve met, relationships you’ve fostered, who are now in positions to pay you money to do the thing they trust you to do. So, building meaningful, thoughtful relationships was another skill that was key to our success.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Personally, I always got the greatest kick out of shaping a proposal or a press release because each offered an opportunity to think through how we might enable someone else to talk about our work. You don’t get too many opportunities to view your work through someone else’s eyes, so I enjoyed the exercise of trying to ourselves and then see how it would play out. Creating a scope of work and pitching it not only is an exercise in communicating your own value, but it’s an exercise in vision-setting and manifesting—you’re literally putting this aspiration out into the world in hopes that it will come to fruition and allow you to continue doing the work that you do, enable others to do what they do, and, in doing so, sustain this precarious practice.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this co-founder role?

Ack! Now on the other side of running the studio—so many. I’m currently in the process of frequently reflecting and/or spiraling on what we could’ve done better or differently. How could I have been more receptive to feedback? Created more opportunities for open communication? More Feelings Fridays or facilitated sessions? I suppose the biggest challenge is self-doubt. When you’re limited in your inputs, how can you make sure you’re getting the right feedback and inputs to ensure growth? When it’s just you and a few partners in a room day after day, how can y’all make sure you’re continuing to grow and evolve in all the ways you want to?

I think, ultimately, that was the impetus to shut down the studio. Misaligned goals, ambitions—the feeling that there was so much to learn still that we couldn’t do together.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

When it comes to product and web work, I tend to work pretty closely with designers to develop and execute the brand voice and tone, content strategy, and final copywriting. Ideally, research is part of that, integrated throughout the process. Producers and developers play important roles, as well. In my editorial writing, I tend to work more with editors, occasionally marketers, and the subjects of whatever it is that I’m covering.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m working on being more receptive to feedback. Practicing listening more and being slower to respond. I’m also working on creating stronger boundaries between my work and self, creating clear lines between what I do and how I let that define me. That’s been one of the more significant hurdles post-HAWRAF—detangling myself from the studio, where I was pitching and negotiating on behalf of a collective, to doing it for myself.

In your co-founder role, what metrics define success?

In the studio, it was: profitable hours, happy clients, meeting financial targets, having three months runway in our bank account at all times, client referrals, doing all of that while also working reasonable hours and ideally launching a studio-initiated project each quarter.

Now, as a freelancer, it’s similar. At the big picture, I’m keeping track of profitable hours and happy clients, but more client-side, it’s often about click rates, open rates, re-shares, likes, and the like. When it comes to brand voice work, we measure it based on user testing, or how well aligned it is to our initial goals.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Like anything: resilience, flexibility, and brute hard work. It’s also worth acknowledging that starting a studio (or any business) is a risk, so being in a position where you can be comfortable taking that risk—so, having a financial safety net—is ideal.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

So many! It’s hard even to pick just a few. The most valuable skills I’ve gained are prioritization and compartmentalization—the ability to choose which fires I tackle in which order, while also letting the rest burn without affecting everything else I need to do.

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