In Conversation with Alex Murton from Studio Almond. Our founder Tom Gibson, sits down with the founder of the award-winning eCommerce studio, Studio Almond, to discuss the roots of the business, their approach to design & development, and what's in store for the year ahead.
Studio Almond is a lifestyle-focused eCommerce studio specialising in user experience, design and technology, where their focus has always been to work with brands holistically, transparently, and collaboratively.
Coming off the back of the Best Design Awards earlier in October, Studio Almond took home a gold pin for Blunt Umbrellas' new website, as well as a silver for Night Works Studio and a bronze for Aleph Beauty. The recently launched websites for Deadly Ponies and Two Islands were also nominated.
Co-Founder and Managing Director Alex runs a mighty team of 8 alongside his partner Monica, with the Auckland-based business now coming up to 8 years in operation. When asked about the origins of the name Studio Almond, Alex explains, “Almond is a combination of our founder's names (AL)ex Murton + (Mon)ica (D)am - nothing to do with nuts, sorry.”
Read on for our full interview with the founder, alongside two deep dives into specific industry topics as part of our new Ask an Expert series.
TOM: Both PILOT & Studio Almond are couple-led businesses…how did you & Monica come to working together? And how do you get the balance right?
Monica and I met while she was on her OE in London, and I was working in Brighton in the music industry. When Monica's OE visa ran out, we moved to Berlin and started our first venture together - "Almond Publishing". Within six months, we represented around 25 independent magazines, bootstrapping to 1 million issue downloads and approximately 100,000 app downloads.
After returning to NZ for a family visit, we settled in Auckland. After working in various contract roles for a few months, we decided to start our own business to control our creative pursuits.
When it comes to couple dynamics and balance - this is a constant work in progress. There will always be challenges in life, so when times are hard - it's a good reminder to know that at least you're doing it for your own thing - all that blood, sweat and tears strengthen and refine your experience and expertise of your business.
It's a constant learning process, but we decided early on that we'd rather have a challenging time in the first half of our lives to build our own thing and set us up for the future - and have an easier time in the second half of our lives.
“ We find that the idea of work and life balance is a bit of a myth; when you're motivated and responsible for a team, it can be challenging to switch off - so Instead, we've found it's about picking the seasons, planning for busy, planning for breaks, and planning for rewards.”
TOM: Studio Almond offers both design and development; why is this important?
We have found there can be a severe disconnect between design and development, which is the quickest way to get a poorly built website, which has a high chance of creating a "bleeding" asset - that, once completed, makes a situation where every effort to move forward results in bleeding money, time and resources.
Our UX strategy starts with project discovery and continues through admin user experience and post-launch. It's not just a phase of design; it is a fundamental way of examining what you are creating and how it will be used, directly affecting the quality of development. From our experience, you'll likely have a complicated website without this holistic approach and centralised stream of truth.
Our approach has been distilled to bring impactful insights and experience into the collaborative process and clients to create unique experiences; starting at the beginning, these carry through into every aspect of the project, resulting in cohesion and a clean, beautiful experience for both admin and customers.
Our team comprises multi-award-winning strategists, designers and developers who are the best in what they do, and that's not cheap - but the quality and longevity we see is inspiring. You get what you paid for, and we operate under the ethos of "build once, build right".
TOM: How would you describe your development philosophy? What are some of the driving factors behind your approach to development?
We view business through the lens of D.R.Y. - a principle that advocates eliminating duplication in code or business processes. It streamlines updates and maintenance by centralising information, making systems more efficient and easier to manage.
As a designer turned developer turned managing director, I take this approach in everything I do - if we are likely to have to do something more than once - then it deserves time to review and see what base we can create to allow us to get better each time, creating flow, optimisations, and making room of innovation.
Ironically, this term is vital to great development. Still, when we do website code audits for new clients, we see it adopted by so few developers, resulting in repetitive actions needed by the website admin.
We're passionate about this because we've experienced it first-hand. While Monica and I were running our startup in Berlin, we had freelance developers working for us. We know the pain that brands experience with poor agencies and developers - whether it was skill, communication or a general lack of expertise - because we've experienced it, shaping our approach at Studio Almond. We treat our clients how we want to be treated, staying away from what we disliked ourselves while in their shoes. Instead, we choose to guide, be transparent, and bring all options to the table.
We only engage with clients who listen to us (that's why they've hired us) - these are collaborations and partnerships - it honestly fills me with pride as we continue to work with brands like Emma Lewisaham and Two Islands, for example, where it's all smiles on weekly catch-ups - everything moves along nicely, everyone does their job, and these are true collaborations with all members of our team and theirs.
TOM: The technology and the stack you choose for clients are vitally important. How do you approach this process, and what do you consider when deciding the right tech stack for each client?
We’ve built websites, web apps and mobile apps with a range of technologies, but at the end of the day - our approach is always to ensure that businesses can do as much with what we create as possible without them having to come to us for little things they should be able to do themselves.
In a nutshell, our work is about removing the friction between ideation and realisation for clients; this is the sign of a true partnership based on an aligned vision for growth - it’s not about billing as much as you can for little things. Fundamentally - if we can empower creative freedom for our brands, they will help more people, make more money, and be likely to invest more because we are making them significantly more. The friction between a business idea and getting that into the world must be as streamlined as possible - technology plays a huge role.
We also don’t want brands to waste money - ensuring brands have access to an innovation ecosystem with a low entry barrier is a no-brainer.
“The native Shopify ecosystem comes with so many apps and innovations that to be locked away from by using some headless options can be an audacious move - it’s like putting all of your eggs in the basket of the website developer and their ability to innovate and help you scale...”
TOM: Transparency and understanding about your work and what we do are consistent issues for our clients and the broader digital industry. How do you try to bridge that gap?
Our most successful projects are those where there is absolute trust and pure collaboration with clients.
We adopt Ray Dalio's "Believability-Weighted Decision Making" - this means to weigh the opinions of people who are more believable more heavily than those of less believable people. Summed up, as a studio, we are the pros at what we've been engaged to do. Our job is to extract our clients' essence, history, learnings, and insights and bring them into the projects to distil.
Blunt Umbrellas is a perfect example where the finished website is around 95% of what we designed initially without any revisions - we extracted everything we needed from the Blunt team and had a great ongoing collaboration with the entire team throughout the process - as a result, we were able to hit the nail on the head. It was one of our most significant projects but one of the most seamless design processes we've ever done, thanks to the trust of the Blunt team and the pure collaboration.
That being said, it is a studio or agency's job to ensure everything is clear for their clients. I like to give the example of two trees. Let's both imagine a tree. What are the chances that we imagine two completely different trees - in size and colour? And therein lies the problem. Creative partners can bridge that gap by being transparent and collaborative, but it requires clients to trust in their partners to meet halfway.
TOM: What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
We've had a crazy period with Blunt Umbrellas and Deadly Ponies launching within a week of each other, NZ and AUS award submissions, and lots of significant launches coming out before Christmas for brands like Hana, Acorn, Muse, Hyoumankind & The Diamond Shop. We've also just celebrated a number of wins at the Best Design Awards, including a Gold for Blunt Umbrellas, a Silver for Night Works Studio, a Bronze for Aleph Beauty, and were finalists for Two Islands & Deadly Ponies.
Blunt is about to be featured by Shopify on their homepage as part of a worldwide campaign called "The best sites are built on Shopify," which is all quite exciting.
Recently, we announced the launch of Almond Labs, our research, development, and innovation arm. This came about because we have vast knowledge, experience, and insights just sitting there, which so many can benefit from. As a result, we've turned the traditional ongoing agency engagement on its head and developed an innovative solution currently in private beta called Roadmap. We are due to launch the Roadmap to the broader market Q1-Q2 next year, so our Shopify reps, team, and clients are all getting quite excited.
We have a very focused path planned out for Studio Almond, and it's not that of a traditional agency, so a lot is going on and a lot to be excited about.
ASK AN EXPERT: Headless eCommerce - yay or nay?
There is a lot of talk at the moment about Headless eCommerce. To dive into it further, Alex provides his expert opinion on all things Headless - and what to consider before making the move.
ASK AN EXPERT: What to consider when hiring a web developer?
Get Alex's advice on what brands should consider before hiring a web developer and the process you should follow to ensure you find a partner that's the right fit.