Member Spotlight: William Donnell

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Co:Founder, William Donnell, in one of our cozy meetings booths to learn a little more about him. A very short version of that conversation was featured in theCO's new section in The Jackson Sun. But there was a lot that we went over in that conversation and I wanted to share the conversation in its entirety. So here you go!


What do you do and who do you do it with?

I run an interaction design company called Sodium Halogen. We do interface design, user experience design, and branding. About 80% of what we do is for companies outside of Tennessee. We actually do more work for San Francisco and Washington D.C. than we do for Jackson. Which is kind of weird but also kind of cool. Our team is distributed: there are two of us here at theCO–besides myself. And of our other team members: one is in Kentucky, one is in Idaho, and one is in California. So there are actually eight of us that are spread across four different time zones. And our customers are spread all across those timezones as well. 

Is that hard?

Kind of. If anything, I’ve just been forced become really good at working with distributed teams. One of the things I do is speak on working with distributed teams. I started where I’m putting some of those thoughts and ideas so other people can learn how to make what’s happening in Silicon Valley happen within their team that is distributed across the country. 

What inspired you to start doing design work?

I think I’ve always had the designer’s disease, where I paid way too much attention to magazine ads when I was little and noticed things like “these two letters don’t look like they were the right distance apart,” which I later learned was called kerning. But I just always loved the idea of visual creativity. I was a musician growing up. My wife and I did music full-time for about eight years out of college, before I started getting into visual creative work. But creativity has always driven what I do as a career. I have always been the "artsy-fartsy" one in my family. I grew up on a farm right here in Jackson. I’m the sixth generation to grow up on our farm, so we’ve been here a while. Almost 200 years.

How would you describe the design market in Jackson and West Tennessee?

There isn’t much of one. There are a couple of design shops here in town. There are a few one man/woman shops. So for a town the size of Jackson, we don’t have as active of a group as I would like us to have. But one of my visions that I had with theCO is making a way for the creative community in Jackson to be able to come together. And we’re able to do that with AM Creative. So that’s absolutely a dream realized. You learn a lot more when you are sharing your craft and sharing your life with other people that are creative. There are people that are so much better at so many things than me, so if I can learn from them just by having conversation with them, seeing what they’re doing, getting feedback from them, and giving feedback to them, it makes the creative community stronger. And if we are stronger, we can do better work. And if we can do better work, we are more valuable and make more money. I’m a fan of paying my mortgage and being able to feed my kids, so that’s a good thing to me. 

How did Sodium Halogen come about?

Thirteen years ago, it started with just me. My wife and I had a music ministry for eight years, and toward the end of that period the internet and websites started becoming a thing. I was not able to pay somebody to design a website. So I got online, read some tutorials, looked at the source code of other websites, got some software, and really kind of taught myself. I had one desktop publishing class in college. I have a degree in agriculture. Actually my professor still says I was the best agriculture student he ever had in his class. So there was a local business in town that noticed I had built a website and they needed a website. So they asked if I could make one for them and I said “Absolutely.” I knew I had about 50% of the knowledge to complete that project, but I knew I would be able to figure out the rest of it as I went. So Sodium Halogen started with just myself. Then later on, Shane came along, and it has kept growing from there. Very slow growth: we only have a team of eight after thirteen years. But we have also only had two people that were part of the team that are no longer with us. 

What are the next steps for Sodium Halogen?

We’re constantly changing things, figuring out what we do well and doing more of those things. Figuring out what we don’t want to do or what we’re not good at and doing less of those things. So a big transformation in 2015 is a focus on interface design work. We can create brochure websites, and I think we do those well. But where we are the most valuable is when we have a company that comes to us and they have a product that needs to run in a browser or a mobile phone/tablet. That’s our sweet spot. While we’re doing “website design,” we’re really starting to make all of our messaging on our site concentrating on doing interface design.

What are you favorite/least favorite parts about working in Jackson?

Jackson is home. This is where my family is, and has been for a long time. My friends are here, my church is here, my life is here. I love visiting big cities, but I don’t want to plant my life in one. So one of the things I like about Jackson is our crazy fast internet. I can communicate with companies across the world so easily. I end up traveling about six times a year, which is pretty manageable. I like the cost of living here, versus living in San Francisco. There are great people here. Jackson is just getting started and in this new world of distributed teams, you can work from wherever. So the fact that we are far away from the expensive places to live becomes an advantage over the firms in say, San Fransisco. They have a lot more overhead than we do. 

How would your company be different if you weren’t working from theCO?

Well, we wouldn’t have the collaboration of the other people that are running there businesses here as well. I wouldn’t be able to share the little bit of knowledge that I have with them and I also wouldn’t be able to get feedback from there either. All the conversation that goes on in theCO is beneficial to our company. People like Ben Harris and Ben Ferguson, who are business-minded, enable me to enjoy being the crazy creative person here. So I’ve learned a ton just by spending time around them. Also, it’s a lot more impressive to have clients come and meet me at theCO than it is to meet at me at my house, where I used to run Sodium Halogen. The kids don’t have to be quiet when I’m on the phone after school. 

Do you have any other dreams outside of Sodium Halogen?

Yeah, one of the things I’ve started doing on the side is consulting with other business on how to work with distributed teams. I’ve never had an option to not have a distributed team. But that’s okay because I’m not limited to the local talent to grow my business. I can hire people from wherever. And this idea is really spreading across corporate American. But a lot of companies have trouble transitioning from a traditional working environment to this new distributive workforce. I love problem solving and this is absolutely a problem needing to be solved. So if I can get paid to help companies solve problems like this, then yeah, I think that sounds pretty awesome.

What advice would you have for Jacksonians looking to start a company?

Come to theCO and be a part. I know it sounds like an advertisement, but you’re going to learn just from being around other entrepreneurs. Everybody has this sense of not getting a job but making a job. And it really rubs off on you. You can’t not be affected by people who are excited about creating something new out of nothing. So come be a part of theCO. #EndCommercial.

Brady Heyen is an intern at theCO, a writer and composer, and the author of this piece.