camiah is a small but awesome creative studio from Camille Palu and Miah Roberts. They create graphics, murals, websites, photography, and—most important—emails.
First, how did you two meet and become camiah?
We met at an agency gig. We worked on separate teams for the first year and when the teams came together, we slowly started finding out how much we had in common. We mostly connected about the care we put into everything we do.
As time went on we became best friends and knew we were great teammates. We’ve both always wanted to do something different and always knew we wanted a buddy to make that happen. One day miah came up with camiah and that was it.
camiah is the house we use to build our individual selves under. We get to live with no fear, tons of support, and we don’t have to worry about that thing called ego getting in our way. It’s very freeing, but it’s a lot of work.
What drew you to email design and development?
We both had web degrees and used a placement agency. Neither of us had ever done email before and took the jobs not really knowing what we were getting into. miah has a background in conducting trains and delivering chinese food, and cam has a background in painting and picking up trash at an apartment complex.
We can both pinpoint the moments that we fell in love with email:
cam: I was at the Litmus Conference in 2014, it was the last day and you (Jason) and Kevin gave a talk on “Emotion in Email”. I had been in email for quite a few years and had an absolute blast hanging with email folks and watching people talk about the thing I was really good at doing. It was such an awesome feeling and I just remember a light bulb going off for me.
miah: I knew email was meant to be a little after I got into it and knew I was really good at it. The love for email continues because of all the little wins that come from it. The excitement and passion from cam after her trip to TEDC14, the email community, getting to send emails that people really enjoy, the list continues and doesn’t really end. Another strong moment for me was right after my trip to the Litmus Conference in 2015. cam and I were talking about how in so many other fields, you’re 1 in a million but in this niche field of Email, you’re 1 in a hundred.
camiah: It’s important to give yourself to something when you’ve put your time in and become an expert at it.
What were your first few email coding projects like?
cam: I coded desktop emails for a restaurant chain. There were no mobile phones. It was all so straight forward. You had to make sure the math on your tables was right, and that you had display: block; on your images, and that was that.
miah: cam trained me so I had the best email development base to start from ever. My first manager really let me explore and build on my own and was there for any questions I had. I worked on a team with a lot of other email developers, worked on a lot of different clients and industries, and the structure for the development team was setup for success and to handle a crazy amount of work. I was really lucky and had the best setup to learn and then riff on.
What’s your typical design and development process look like?
Most things start in Trello as a captured idea. We also have a “Now” board of most of our current projects. If cam gets super excited the idea starts as a folder in our hyper organized dropbox.
cam can’t help herself, so she starts coding right away. This is why templates are so important to us. An idea, or interest in an idea, can evaporate quickly. So that fast start is important.
cam generally works out a full working model of whatever it is before handing it/showing it to miah. That way he doesn’t start taking time thinking about it til the full scope of the project is illustrated. This goes for client work as well.
miah starts reviewing, applying his high standards and reality to the situation. At this stage his ideas, “riffs”, and tweaks come into play. He will list out all of the things he comes up with.
cam implements all the new ideas, and now that the “conversation” about the project has started, we endlessly go back and forth until we work out all the kinks.
While we are finding the best way for the project, miah is working on all the backend setup for whatever it is we made. Sometimes this is buying a domain, setting up a website, and coding it so it pulls in an instagram feed. Sometimes he’s got to find the best way for us to print mugs. A lot of times he’s figuring out the best way to send our weird emails.
We always do a render review and a code review.
We are always communicating with each other and if it is client work, with the client. Communication is key for any process to work well.
At this point we would schedule our email.
What tools couldn’t you live without?
cam: iPad Pro + Apple Pencil + Procreate app + picture-in-picture streaming Netflix, my homemade work cart with extending platform arm, and a Brookstone bedrest pillow.
miah: MacBook Pro, iPhone, Stacey (cam’s wife - camiah’s CFO and camiah’s Photographer).
You’re (email) famous for doing some really cool, advanced interactive emails. How do you go about thinking up, building, and testing interactive emails?
We have a pool of ideas to draw from. We are inspired from all types of things. We have lots of experiments and ideas going at once and only a few of them make it out into the world. A lot of times they just don’t pan out.
We have a template that we start with, that has all the interactive hacks built in. We then start piecing together the functionality of what we’d like to happen. Once we have it working a bit, we start tossing in the look and feel. We have a minimalist feel for most of the stuff we do and we create all the artwork on our own.
Once we have our email working, we render test and then test the functionality in as many places as we can. We fix it up and make sure it is falling back gracefully. We try to be as thoughtful as we can about the fallbacks so as many people as possible can have an intentional interaction with us.
We always learn something new that’s for sure! LOL
How did you decide to strike out on your own?
We decided to strike out on our own about a year after we really started working together. Since we are very cautious people, we ran everything as a side hustle for a long time. We wanted to make sure we had as much infrastructure set up as possible before we took the plunge.
Even after we were all set up, we were still patient. We wanted this to be our first and only try at starting our business.
The decision was easy, the preparation was not. We did a lot of work to come up with our number that we need to reach each month to maintain our lifestyles. Luckily we both lead frugal lives, so our number is pretty low, which gives us tons of flexibility.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a small creative team?
There are tons of challenges, but all of them are worth it. And with the way we team up and tackle them, they never seem overwhelming.
We divide up our work to our strong suits and for any “annoying” tasks, whoever hates it less, does it. We’re really open and fluid with those tasks, so we trade if we need to.
Otherwise, we’re jack-of-all-trades type of people so we cover most of the bases. It does take a lot of confidence to feel capable to handle all of the little pieces.
You two are together pretty much all the time. Do you ever get sick of each other? How do you manage the dynamics of a small team?
We don’t get sick of each other. We work on our relationship all the time and make sure we are on the same page. We need each other to make sure camiah is successful. And we both have our success as a life goal. So we do whatever we need to do to make sure we are able to meet that goal.
We’re not perfect, and good relationships take work. We genuinely like each other, care for each other, and we’re lucky to have found each other. We’re willing to do what it takes.
You both have very strong values, which you describe as The Best Way. How do those values translate into your email work?
We do have very strong values to make something (whatever it is) the best it can be. And that doesn’t mean make it perfect, that means taking all things into account to get it created at a very high quality, with details accounted for.
We put a lot of time into this aspect of our lives. We talk a lot of things out that most people would disregard. But when we spend time on the front end making a decision, it saves so much time later. We are so fast at executing basically anything, but that’s because we are so good at doing our prep work.
You both post a ton of amazing creative work—not just email—on Instagram. How do you decide what to create and how does that work figure into your email work?
For us it all blends together. Any creative work we do enhances our lives and our ability to get better and better and better.
We send an email called camiah Weekly where we try to capture all the work we did the past week. It’s hard to collect it all, but it truly represents our main goal, to create. This is one of our favorite emails because it’s easy to not realize all the good stuff being done, so it is awesome to see it all in one place.
A little Instagram art from camiah. Follow them
How do you stay motivated to create every day?
cam: I stay motivated by focusing on what I want to be able to do in the future. A few years ago I realized that I’ve always wanted to be able to draw. So miah and I started a project where we’d have to have one thing made by the end of every week. That was really hard to do. I would just JUST make the deadline every time. I then realized that I was making that one thing in one day every time, so we changed it up. I decided to draw a word every day and try to finish it. It was very hard, but once I got used to it, I was up and running. At some point I was kind of bored with drawing a word every day, but noticed I was creating a bunch of other stuff too. So I took the rules away and now I just create. It’s nice to have a goal for something to make every day, but I try to keep them to 1 month commitments. Otherwise I find myself creating out of habit instead of actually wanting to make that thing.
miah: I have always been motivated by the need to make something of myself. I have a hard time staying motivated and focused at times, so I set up a structure around myself to keep focused on what I need to do to make sure camiah is successful. I have a clear todo list of all the things I need to keep tweaking for camiah to be the best. I have a curated list of people that inspire me, and I engage with their content in a way that is valuable. Sometimes it is their podcast, sometimes it is their Instagram or Twitter feed, and sometimes it is their YouTube videos. I trained myself to recognise if I’m not getting real value from a motivational situation, and if it’s really not worth it anymore, I clear that influence out of my life. It’s great because I’m removing distractions and giving myself more time to create every day.
camiah: Everyone’s creativity looks different. The thing is, you gotta create the right avenues so that it is easy for you to create. We work together, very intentionally and very hard, to make sure the avenues are wide open so we can just run.
You both have kids. What’s it like juggling family life with the freelance/small agency life?
It’s hard and wonderful all at the same time. We now have a very clear objective: to fight tooth and nail to support this small group of people.
We spend a lot of time working from home, so we are able to have a ton of interaction with our families and we don’t have to miss the little moments. BUT! There are kids always pulling at us and talking to us, so having boundaries is necessary.
What are some of your favorite emails from the past year?
The Nest email for black friday was super cool. Every piece felt so thought out and well crafted, it had a handmade feel to it. We really like your (Jason) emails, the simplicity and clear goal is refreshing. Also, the little Inbox Pal that Chris Vasquez made was really fun.
What’s your favorite email coding technique?
Templates. We use templates for everything. We spend so much time deciding how we want something done, every piece has a decision behind it and we decide the best way to bring it all together. That time we spend making those decisions is only worth it if we can use that template until the next iteration is needed.
What techniques do you think are underutilized in the industry?
Templates. When you are sending a weekly email, the main thing that will be changing is content. That is the piece that’s going to connect you with your subscriber. So having an awesome template is the best thing in the world. Templates can be modular and flexible, but they help get your content out in the most reliable way.
Where do you see email going in the next year?
Hopefully in a direction that influences our community to keep connecting with each other. Email Geeks Unite.
What piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to learn more about email marketing, design, and development?
Our advice is always to send your own email. Send an email about something you are passionate about. Grow your list. Design and Code. Review. Render Test. Templatize. Create content and build/enhance a little community around something you love.