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Toronto design firm shuts down as top leaders join Facebook

Screengrab of Teehanlax.com

The future is murky for workers at Teehan+Lax, one of Toronto's most respected web design firms, which is closing its doors as three of its top partners head to Silicon Valley to work for Facebook Inc.

The move was announced in a long post by partner and co-founder Jon Lax, also signed by partners Geoff Teehan and David Gillis. In the message, they said the company was not acquired by Facebook, but that the three of them, plus some other members of the company, had been hired.

Facebook issued a statement that said, "We're excited to welcome key members of the Teehan+Lax team to Facebook" but declined to say how many had been hired.

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Derek J. Kinsman, a creative technologist with Teehan+Lax took to Twitter and said "there are 40 world class designers, developers, strategists, [project managers], and a few others who are now looking for work." Mr. Kinsman later clarified that he was not among those going to Facebook.

Teehan+Lax, founded in 2002, did digital design work for hundreds of clients, notably the publishing platform Medium, social reader Flipboard and some recent work on Facebook's Atlas ad-serving technology. (Disclosure, the firm has performed contract work for The Globe and Mail.) After the news there was an outpouring of affection on social media for the work done by the company, as well as a bevy of job offers for some of the employees.

Jeremy Bell, co-founder and CEO of Wattage Inc., was in some ways the catalyst for Teehan+Lax's dissolution. As the statement acknowledged, it was his departure in April that got the partners thinking about next steps.

"Today is a happy and sad day," said Mr. Bell, who was a partner with an equity stake for six years. "I certainly wasn't surprised when I heard about it. Different tech companies and holding companies had come sniffing around before."

He said he believed the decision to close the company was "incredibly hard" and understands the worries of some in the industry who feel the business model of the independent design firm is under stress.

"The work that we did there was unbelievably good. [Toronto designers] look up to a Teehan+Lax, and say 'these guys have made it,' " Mr. Bell said. "They are held up as a model. And then – boom – all of the sudden they are going to Facebook." In recent years a number of small boutique firms have sold themselves to larger technology companies (Shopify Inc. purchased Toronto design group Jet Cooper in 2013).

Friday's post on the firm's website offered up some insight on the partners' motivations. "So why did we choose to leave Teehan+Lax and join Facebook? It really came down to the professional opportunity." The statement also provided some detail about how the principals were thinking about their employees:

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"We also needed to ask these questions on behalf of our co-workers without them being involved in the process. This [led] us to run through endless scenarios trying to balance the needs of those who would join us at Facebook and those who would not.

Since this would involve all of the dimensions mentioned above, we would be unable to anticipate each scenario. Instead, we tried to make decisions that provided the greatest number of options for people."

For the record, Mr. Bell says his decision to leave had more to do with wanting to start his own electronics company, to build physical things, than with the conditions at Teehan+Lax. "I was essentially getting off the roller coaster at the top ... [2014] was their best year."

Note: If you worked at Teehan + Lax, and want to talk, contact me: Sdingman@globeandmail.com.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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