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Published on
13 January 2020

The year in review: 2019

A little late, but there’s no expiration date on thoughtful reflection, right? We take the opportunity to review our first (short!) year in business: what we accomplished, what we didn’t, and where we’re headed next.

Happy arbitrary-changing-of-the-calendar!

We’re not really much for resolutions, but we do love any opportunity for deliberate reflection. So let’s hop on that bandwagon and take a look at the year that passed: our successes, our failures, and what we hope a fresh new decade brings.

What we learnt

I learnt the basics of data analysis in Python! There’s a lot of boring stuff to trudge through, but it’s helping me both contextualise data when I come across it. If nothing else, it’s making me write better JavaScript, which makes Matt happy. I’m hoping it leads to more exciting work, like making impactful data visualisations and finally teaching a machine to design a website, my personal Moby Dick.

We both learnt how to build Gatsby sites (and made quite a few). Alongside this, we learnt CSS-in-JS (yes!), MDX (double yes!), and GraphQL (mixed feelings).

We both learnt a lot about design systems and started thinking about our work in more systematic ways. This codifies our work and helps us be more independent. Matt can get something scaffolded without waiting for my mockups, and I can build a React app using our existing components if he’s busy.

Just as the year closed, I started learning Portuguese. This means my Portuguese can fall back to Spanish, which in turn tends to fall back to French, so I look forward to being a confusing jumble of Romance languages for the next year.

What we read

We’re big fans of reading to expand your worldview and hone your empathy, so we try to read a lot in a year. (Check out Sarah’s 2019 readsExternal link and Matt’s 2019 readsExternal link). Here’s what we loved and would recommend in the non-fiction department:

What we accomplished

We launched Octopus ThinkExternal link. 🎊

We both took breaks and have become much more intentional about the work we take on and the time we make available.

We spent a lot of time thinking deeply (and arguing!) about our ethics and about how we want to run a business.

We established our brand (twice!) and started doing the social media thing.

We established a rhythm and cadence to our monthly meetings, set up metrics for tracking business performance, and defined ways of prioritising and measuring potential project ideas (all of which we’ll share in the future!)

We set up relationships for long-term, predictable work that helps sustain our business and allows us to experiment with self-directed projects. This basically sets us up to be able to work on new products without requiring VC funding, which we’re just not into.

What we shipped

In July, this website looked like this:

I know, right? Now, it looks like this:

It’s still not finished, but it’s come a long way.

This was a fun little side project we put together for World Octopus Day, because we’re whimsical like that, and who doesn’t love a strange biological and/or cultural fact?

I write a new octopus fact on the 8th of the month (…ish) and I learn something new and interesting every time.


Matt worked with Standard on a streaming video service and it launched early this year to much fanfare. Though he isn’t involved in the project after its initial launch, we keep tabs on its progress and it’s going quite well.

Outside of that, we worked on all sorts of client projects, from working with 10up on Google’s Site Kit plugin for WordPress to book covers for a mystery series.

Design & development tools

We’re both huge fans of building tools for designers and developers, mostly because we like to scratch our own itches. This year, we kicked off both a design system (NautilusExternal link) and a Gatsby starter theme (Ghost ShipExternal link). These aren’t production-ready yet, but they’re far enough along that we can use them for our own work, which in turn allows us to see where the systems could be improved.

What else?

We have two new products in development that aren’t quite launch-ready yet. Updates on these soon!

Where we fell short

What didn’t we do?

I had a bullet point for this section that just says “Didn’t get as much done as I might have hoped.”, which Matt summarily crossed out, commenting “What does this even mean? Remove it!” It’s easy to fall into the trap of the never-ending to-do list, but there are a few things I wish we’d done better.

Namely, we still haven’t finished our portfolio (this takes forever) and our website still features a constructopus and a “under construction” notice on the homepage:

We also got a bit distracted from Nautilus work. Earlier in the year, we were doing monthly releases, but work has gotten stalled. That’s okay; we’ll loop back once we’ve cleared a few more pressing things from our plate.

I spent some time working on an accessible colour palette app that proved more challenging than expected, and that stalled out too. I’d really like to get that working though—if only to make it easier for me to make palettes in a more programmatic way—so I may dedicate a weekend to it once schedules are a bit more clear.

Finally, our social media presence could definitely be more engaged and/or engaging. Neither of us is particularly active on or enamoured with social media, so we’re not sure of the best strategy here just yet. That may come more organically with time, as we get into the groove of running a business. It’s still early yet!

What we’re looking forward to next year!

Turning a fresh page is always an exciting opportunity for new growth, development, and learning. Now we have a methodology for evaluating and assessing project ideas, we’ll be aiming to break them down into manageable chunks and shipping one new project (or feature!) every quarter.

To maintain a sense of momentum and accomplishment, we’ll also be doing getaway hack weekends once a quarter, in which we explore a new place and build a new thing. (Look for a future blog post once we’ve tried this and see how it works!)

Ultimately, our hopes for 2020 is that, having spent a lot of 2019 setting foundations, we’ll be able to start focussing on more exciting work—we have lots up our sleeve! 🎩

If nothing else, perhaps we’ll have our ducks in a row next year, and we’ll manage to publish a year-in-review post before the year has actually, you know, closed out. One can only dream! 😘

A photo of a young redhead wearing sunglasses and smiling.
Job title
Written by

Sarah London Semark

Chief Design Octopus. Advocate for the user. Believes in constructive criticism. Buys books based on their covers.

Octopus Think

Octopus Think is a design & development duo based in Scotland and Portugal. We build smart, inclusive, usable digital products that make people’s lives better.

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