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Interview With Andrew Lay, Hierographx CEO

A Legacy of Entrepreneurial Spirit With a Dash of Practicality

Interesting Timing…

When Andrew Lay began his first creative forays into the digital realm, it was approaching the turn of the millennium. All conversation at the time was over Y2K Panic: systems designed with dates that only went as far as 1999 were expected to fail, as most, it was posited, would not recognize “00” as the year 2000, but the year 1900. The news of the time seized the moment to sell papers.

Pandemonium!” was the prediction from headlines that bleated rhetoric proclaiming an existential threat: "Digital apocalypse! Failing infrastructure! Hospitals would be operating in the dark, knocking granny off life support! Supply lines down! No heat! No food! No National Guard!"

It was a hell of a time to find a compass in digital tech.

Of course, the “real” world didn’t end. But the digital world called out to Lay as much as he did it, and the slide into his interest as a developer and entrepreneur began early. Lay’s dad was a programmer, and he’d been interested in the field from early on. But it was late in his teen years when friends recognized his geekier, nerdier side–embracing it wholly. He was involved with a number of musical groups and performers who were just dipping their toes into digital marketing with websites and some of the more rudimentary forms of social media. Out of pure passion for the medium, Andrew Lay began teaching himself the finer points of design and digital marketing, entering on the ground floor of a medium that would eventually become his calling.

At this point in Lay’s professional development, it’s worth noting the tenacity with which he tackles most things: what he didn’t know, he would learn. And even as a younger man, he made a point of learning from the best. “I did everything I could to track down groups of webmasters–some of the best in the world” he recalls, smiling at some of the screen names and impressions he had of folks back then. He laughs when he tells me that many of these former mentors, he now interacts with professionally.

The band websites and marketing eventually led Lay to Detroitrap.com–which was then a loose-knit organization wherein he overhauled the website and first started dabbling in SEO. As his skill and experience developed, he was approached by more conventional businesses to handle their web presence. Lay handled a number of overhauls, upgrades, and analysis projects for a number of companies, including work on the Dow.com team. That’s when the entrepreneurial bug, quiet but ever present, finally came fully alive to bite him.

By the time Lay left Dow Chemical, he was already knee-deep in a number of development projects. “From there I kind of freelanced on the side. I started to get a lot more involved in web applications. This included RTR” says Lay, recalling his first streaming effort. It was circa 2005 when, as webmaster for Review Magazine, he partnered with a local radio program director and a music industry publisher to feature one of Michigan’s first streaming services. It featured all-original, Michigan-grown artists: Reviewthisradio.com

While the service ran without a hitch, end-user technology was just catching up with the platform; listeners were only just then acquiring devices that could actually utilize the streaming. But Andrew Lay didn’t sit still. He developed and pitched a highly customized website that launched a digital connection between restaurateurs and their clients. Seeing problems to solve, he offered restaurants an opportunity to provide customers with menus and dining options that those customers could search based on meal preference and location. The platform would go through many iterations before becoming Menu Pulse.

“It really just grew from an idea that developed into this huge project. Promoting the handshake between customers and restaurateurs with time saving tools free of charge” he muses “..it just made sense to me. I got in front of a number of investors. It was a tough market then, but a couple of friends invested, and I was off and running.”

In the meantime, Lay’s skill at negotiating the fast pace of digital marketing and development was pointing his compass in the direction of starting his own agency. Trying to pitch investors on ideas in between daytime gigs and coordinating his own projects, Lay came up against some hard economic fallout during the millennium’s first decade. The Great Recession and its effect on the economy didn’t dissuade him, however. By 2016, Andrew Lay was ready to put his skill, experience, and connections to the test… and investors were on board to help make it happen.

Enter Hierographx.

Navigating a national recession, Lay became driven toward a singular goal: raising capital for his projects. At a time when investors were under no small degree of hesitancy, he scrambled for ways to make an investment of his own. “I became directed toward doing what I could to raise the capital myself” he points out.  Bootstrapping his earnings as a freelancer, he was spinning multiple plates: raising two young sons and a daughter, balancing home and family with a vision that simply would not leave him.

“This involved a number of projects” he recalls. “At first, I was multiplying the dollars I set aside to kick off Menu Pulse."

The effort led to a unique partnership that enabled the development of a number of projects, including Bigbadmoji–a service offering all of the humorous, non-PC and viral sentiment that the increasingly censored platforms were eliminating. This particular project drew the ire of big tech, and Lay–by then more savvy in the ways of the web–took the challenge head on, even stepping on a few toes. “I ended up having to change the names of the projects while in litigation” he says with a smile, recalling the first few kerfuffles from some bigger names in the industry.

Getting into a “philosophical discussion on communication” says Lay, the company progressed “rather organically” into the direction of offering a more full-service, digital marketing agency. “Discussions on this informational evolution, on pictographs and the progression to books, media–and the (subsequent) return to pictographs in the digital arena (emojis, memes, viral videos)--led us to the name of the thing” he recalls. “The pandemic shifted us back to Menu Pulse as a focus, as restaurants were seeing emergency migration to internet services. In the course of all of this, people were asking me to develop their apps and websites. Everyone needs tech, and that became evident in the number of people I was (regretfully) turning away at the time.”

His solution? Stop turning them away. “That’s when, in 2020, we decided to turn our attention to building our own agency. It was wildly successful.”

Hierographx, a subsidiary of Hierographics, Inc., was officially born. “It’s been growing ever since” declares Lay, noting the addition of full departments in research, design, development and copywriting/content and marketing.

“They say another recession is coming. That means now, more than ever, what we do matters to businesses small, medium and large. I’m excited about what we can do for them.”

Keeping a grounded philosophy: “When those about you lose their heads…”

For all of his home-grown chutzpah and elbow grease, the CEO of Hierographics maintains a stunning level of practicality. In matters of bleating headlines about the coming Metaverse, the new, more interactive “Web.3” platform that experts declare is on the horizon, Lay prognosticates more conservatively about what digital marketing can be going forward.

After all, he’s been down this road before. His predictions are less emotive, and focused far more on what his Ving Tsun Kung Fu training, which he credits for centered perspective and inner guidance, has taught him: stance and centered, well-grounded thinking are everything. This philosophy and grounding deeply informs his perspective on the often frantic pace of digital evolution.

“The path there–and the improvements that many clients need to get there–that is vital. There are reasons for being technologically agnostic: to meet the clients needs and expectations. It’s helpful because there is always a cutting edge and a bleeding edge in dev–we are always cutting those paths. We don’t want to put our clients on the bleeding edge… but just behind it.”

Lay asserts that the key to successful design and development is in that open approach to the technology. “This is the benefit of being Technologically Agnostic. We are not going to force what we do into our preferred technology, we can instead choose the best technology for the solution.” The basics matter, according to Lay, and the frameworks for every campaign and project, big or small, are fundamental to keeping the client well-positioned to move forward according to market demands.

Artificial Intelligence, Artificial or Augmented reality–apps–immersive technology: what does the future hold for businesses trying to keep a koe-hold as “The Metaverse approacheth”?

To the newest bleating headlines and concerns, Lay’s approach is more pragmatic.  Although he concedes that all of these advanced technologies need to get a lot easier, he insists that user-interface is the greater focus of the direction it’s going. “This is why we (at Hierographx) have launched a UX team” he says, pointing out that understanding user problems and frustrations, expectations and habits are what really matters.

“I like to quote Elon Musk on this one" he laughs: “If it needs a manual, it’s already broken.

“With respect to(Musk)…we embrace that concept. The focus is less on the tech—the tech is there. Now we’re focused on the user.” Lay stresses that in order for these exciting and perhaps daunting new platforms to work, they have to be ready for users to implement. “Not just tech, but tech integration and user focus… ways to improve whatever their unique directions” is what matters to his mind.

According to Lay, AI and AR offer “fantastic technology for integration and adaptation. Now you’re using a technology where ideas can be visualized and demonstrated.” According to Lay, while this kind of technological revolution can make some waves, it is not likely to be the tsunami that headlines like to predict. “There is a huge pushback against Meta, for example, with something like five hundred thousand less daily logins” in that big tech platform (Meta is the new corporate umbrella for Facebook). He notes that “people are abandoning more intrusive platforms as alt tech is popping up. Humans are becoming more distrustful. So I have a hard time trying to tell people that this is all going to change right now–overnight.”

Instead, Lay advises Hierographx clients to view their web presence more holistically: with a little less panic, and a lot more practicality. “Yes, things will change and evolve–slowly. As to the hype…a lot of business owners tend to get anxious. As a company, we do work to stay on top of new tech rolling out–and generally speaking, experts of yesterday are still the experts of today. These (devs) are the ones developing the new tech. There are very exciting technologies that are becoming less expensive and more compatible for everyday solutions.” And, he points out, “We have them.”

To Andrew Lay’s mind, change can be scary, but a company well-positioned to welcome change is at an advantage. “A number of clients approach us with challenges to solve problems that plague them. Getting in there to roll up my sleeves, solve problems… that is what drives me. The unique problem sets or ideas that we get to solve or implement–being able to do that is fulfilling work. Building those relationships–their trust in us as experts? That’s what it’s about. There is nothing on the table that we cannot or will not tackle.

Lay reiterates that the full service agency option is the most practical way for companies of all sizes to position themselves solidly as they brace for new tech. “That’s when it’s good”, he reminds us, "to have a technical and software management company that goes beyond building websites and dev.”

User research, copywriting, a number of design and development options under one roof–always with an eye on that human connection–are the focus. For a guy who’s scrambled and built a company on sweat equity and unique partnerships, Andrew Lay views his business and his effort with humility… ever astounded at what his people can do.

“Hiero is a unique agency that offers these services in a way that no other business can imagine, much less implement” he beams, pointing out the value of his teams.

“It’s how everybody wins: when it's easy on the client and the team, when the vision is there…no headline is scary.”

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