When people think of graphic design, they might picture a single person in their basement designing printouts and posters, banners and brochures. But at Top Shelf Design (TSD) in Rosslyn, you’re more likely to see a team of designers and developers sitting at their computers, bouncing ideas off of each other and thinking of solutions to their client’s design problems.
This scene has changed in the past 11 years since the business opened its doors because the company does 70 percent web development work instead of 40 percent, as they did five years ago. Design in 2015 is about staying current and going mobile, says Gregg Hurson, lead developer at TSD.
“What we’re seeing now is we’re seeing a shift towards digital which is universal. We’re seeing that we’re doing digital annual reports and things like that whereas 5 or 7 years ago that would be straight print, straight to the printer,” said Brendan Kiel, founder and CEO of the company. “We’re also seeing clients that, even if they do a print piece, they’re thinking about how they publicize it on the web, and how people access it on the web, and how they market it that way.”
Kiel and his business partner at the time, started the company around Kiel’s kitchen table in 2004, and the business grew rapidly, from six to 65 clients in the first year. Since then, the company has grown to a staff of 10 and has worked on about 7,000 projects for 1,000 clients, president Kathryn Kiel estimates.
Kathryn says that even as the company has transformed and grown, the staff has had a commitment to what they believe are the most important aspects of their company: great design and attentive customer service.
“I know a lot of clients are really scarred from bad past experiences where their designer goes MIA, or never knowing what they’re going to get or when they’re going to get it, or what’s the next step in the process, or they’ve been trying to reach their developer for who-knows-how-long and they can’t, so I think that’s something that sets us apart,” Kiel said.
When she began doing market research, Kiel called ten design firms, asking about pricing and just general information about them. She says she only got one phone call back from one of the firms. That’s when she knew that an emphasis on communication with customers was going to be a big part of TSD.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy. Respond to people quickly, give them what they want, make sure that your deadlines are hit and exceeded their expectations,'” Kiel said.
Another way TSD gets inspiration for its customer service is from an employee, Cassie Stewart. Stewart started at the company working in sales and marketing, but had an idea. With lead designers managing their own projects, much of their work time was spent answering clients’ questions.
“We wondered, how much more creative could we be if designers weren’t interrupted by the phone ringing?” Brendan said.
In January, Stewart became a project manager. She is dedicated to managing client’s successful project. She says it gives our designers more time to focus on excellent and innovative design.
Adam Gallegos was working for a tech startup when the real estate bug bit.
Gallegos was buying his first home and he decided to do it himself. Handling your own real estate transaction, however, turned out to be pretty complicated. After hitting snag after snag, Gallegos committed himself to putting in the hours of research he needed to get it right.
By the time the deal was done, Gallegos had fallen in love with real estate. He ditched the long office hours of his technology company, got a real estate license and was soon enjoying being out and about, helping people buy and sell homes.
That was ten years ago. Three years later, in 2008, Gallegos got another itch. Entrepreneurial by nature, he left a large real estate firm and founded Arbour Realty.
With Arbour, Gallegos invested less in recruiting other agents to join his firm and more in customer service. Many of his customers were younger, first-time homebuyers, so he focused on education — extensively explaining the home buying process to clients before viewing homes.
“We always start off with, let’s meet at the office, let’s talk about the whole process, let’s talk about anything you have questions about, all your goals,” Gallegos said. “We map out what we’re going to do for those clients, set their expectations correctly, and then do everything we can to exceed those expectations.”
Gallegos also made listening a cornerstone of his business. After each deal closed, he asked for candid feedback from his clients.
“That helped us to improve along the way,” Gallegos said.
Another avenue for client education was his blog. In 2012, Gallegos partnered with ARLnow.com to bring the blog to the entire Arlington community, in the form of his popular Ask Adam column.
“I’d get recognized on the street, it was kind of weird,” he said.
Gallegos still works with first-time homebuyers, but he’s also been working with many of those early clients, who are now second- and third-time homebuyers. The Orange Line condos purchased by those young professionals shortly after the recession have appreciated in value, allowing them to move up to townhouses and single-family homes.
Arbour, meanwhile, was recently acquired by D.C.-based Real Living | At Home. That has allowed Gallegos to focus less on management and get back to being a Realtor first and foremost. He still works out of his Ballston office but can spend more time outside the office, with clients. Plus, the deal has put Real Living | At Home’s resources — including an in-house photographer, videographer and marketing team — at his fingertips.
“When we put a listing on the market, it stands out every time,” Gallegos said.
(This year Gallegos was recognized for leading one of the top real estate teams in the D.C. area by Washingtonian Magazine.)
Gallegos said that while much of his business is north of Route 50, he is seeing interest in south Arlington as a less expensive, “nice alternative market.” That interest has, however, waned just a bit since the cancellation of the streetcar project.
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