Websites are powerful. A bad site can destroy a company, and a good one build it up from almost nothing. Just ask the Johnson brothers.
In 2010, a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee was surfing the web when he saw a website for Level 2 Design. He decided to include the company in the bidding process to create a kinder, gentler online presence for the nation's top cops.
The thing was, Level 2 Design was a brand-new company founded by brothers Nate Johnson and Tyler Johnson. There were no other employees. They had only performed a couple small jobs up until that point, and had just recently launched their website.
"I didn't even pick up the phone at first because I thought it was a spam number," said Tyler Johnson, the art director of the now five-man Level 2 Design. "I just let it go to voicemail."
The Johnsons' newly created website featured a retro look -- exactly what the FBI was seeking in a planned history section for FBI.gov. The 2009 film Public Enemies, which chronicled the life of bank robber John Dillinger and his conflict with a still-young FBI, had captured America's imagination and reignited interest in the agency.
But the Johnsons didn't know this yet.
"We were thinking that there's no way the FBI is actually calling us to do work," said UTC graduate Nate Johnson, creative director. "Up until about three or four months into the project, we were still skeptical of how it was going to go."
As a new firm, Level 2 Design didn't even have its rates worked out. They came up with a dollar figure and gave the agency a quote and some work samples.
It was enough to win a two-year contract.
"They asked for our accounting department, so we'd hand the phone back and forth," Nate Johnson said.
They're blunt about their initial expectations. They were surprised that the FBI wasn't gruff and bureaucratic. Rather, they say the agency has let them explore their own ideas and has been fairly easy to work for.
That surprise may have gone both ways. Most development companies are bad communicators, the brothers say. The Johnsons, who lean more toward the design side of the spectrum, make every effort to avoid falling into the stereotype.
"For some reason we've found that most tech companies lack good communication," Nate Johnson said. "We put a lot of work into sketching and really brainstorming on the front end on the product, rather than just finding a template that sort of works."
That drives up the cost of their projects, they acknowledge, but it also eliminates the need for repeated do-overs and mistake-fixing.
"If you go with a cheaper option, most of the time it'll cost you more money in the long-run," Nate Johnson said. "It's the same philosophy of why Apple is successful."
Wedged into the corner of Hixson Pike and Hamill Road, their office is unremarkable, except in how unremarkable it is. It looks like a combination educational trailer and army barracks. At one point, its occupants kept an auto garage out back.
Working with the FBI
The first project they handled was the FBI's history page. Hand-drawn and using 3D animation, the page tells the history of the bureau from its founding in 1908 through the present day. Click on the timeline, and an animated car hauls a 1930s trailer across the screen with the agency's history tacked to the side.
"They wanted something a little more interactive, a little more dynamic," Tyler Johnson said.
Next, Level 2 Design worked on a microsite dealing with the decade of investigations following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An animated chronology recounts the moment-by-moment sequence of events that made up the attacks, the investigation, and the steps the FBI later took to prevent such an attack from ever happening again. Viewers can find interviews with agents who were on the scene, statistics dealing with every aspect of 9/11 and maps showing the deadly path of each flight.
But the biggest project by far was the creation of the FBI's safe online surfing microsite or SOS page.
Designed with input from real teachers, SOS.FBI.gov is made up of grade-specific animated islands, chock-full of puzzles and quizzes to help kids learn how to be safe online.
"A lot of schools will compete to see who can get the best score, and whoever wins gets an FBI agent to come talk to their school," Tyler Johnson said.
It was a huge undertaking. Now, the FBI partnership has entered its third year with a recent one-year contract extension. Among other things, the brothers will redo the FBI's website in the newest HTML format, getting rid of outdated Adobe Flash content, they say.
The realization of their dream dates back to plans they made in high school, brothers say. Both boys attended Christian Academy of Knoxville, played sports and went to a lot of art museums. Their mother was an art teacher, and their father was more business minded. The combination of a love for art and an understanding of hard business truths drove them toward design.
"We were extremely fortunate because while our mom is extremely artistic, our dad is art-stupid," Tyler Johnson said. "He's the one who would say, 'How could they ever make a career out of this?'"
Today, their father is a partner in their business, which grosses about $500,000 per year. They've added additional clients beyond the FBI and are working to develop programs like Yardpick, a recent creation that tracks yard sales with Google Maps. But that doesn't mean that they're trying to expand into a large firm. The brothers actually prefer a small team.
"I can see us adding one or two developers, but we've found a really good rhythm," Nate Johnson said.
Level 2's new website launches Monday.