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Meet Raymond Sarno of ONYX Design in Downtown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Raymond Sarno.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Raymond. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
I have always been a computer nerd, though I spent much of my life keeping this a loosely guarded secret. My neighborhood friends and I would spend our summers skateboarding and making mischief by day, and nerding out by making silly websites by night. I never really studied coding or computer science formally. I just love coding, love learning it, love doing it, love designing systems and building things and the satisfaction of watching creations come to life after struggling through the logic puzzles that compose them.

But considering that Voyage LA profiles Angelenos, let’s skip ahead. I hadn’t planned on moving to LA, but in the commotion of realizing that life was about to begin as college graduation loomed closer, an unexpected opportunity arose. I ended up partnering with a veteran fashion designer, who after a long and storied career working at top brands and fashion houses around the world, wanted his own label.

Put simply, our fashion label was a dismal failure. I have no doubts about the design talent of my ex-business partner. He is truly a master of his craft. Moreover, he is an exceptionally engaging person with a level of emotional intelligence bordering on telepathy—who I still consider a close friend and mentor. But he was not ready or willing to run the business side of things, which is why he wanted a young and energetic business partner.

Unfortunately, I had no direct experience in the industry, nor much real-life professional experience at all. And while the fashion industry and personal style do interest me, I did not have a deep enough passion for it to make up for my experience deficit with quick learning. Despite the venture’s failure, I wouldn’t give up this experience for the world. If business school taught me anything, it’s that every great entrepreneurial story starts with a failure.

I left that business after about a year and a half, broke as a joke and with little idea or plan of what I was going to do. Needing to pay rent, I took a job as a server/food trucker at a restaurant (that also had a food truck). I think it’s a kind of rite of passage in LA to work in the service industry to make ends meet amidst greater life uncertainty. I’m glad I did it and remember it fondly. It didn’t pay much, though, so I was taking advantage of any odd job or side gig that passed my way, which is where the real story begins.

Someone asked me if I could do their website. My inner computer nerd, who had not been awakened in some time, opened one eager eye and wouldn’t let me say no. I struggled through it, learned a lot, and said yes to the next web design opportunity that came along. This continued and accelerated, each time adding to my knowledge of coding, design, and the nuances of client and project management.

One of the early milestones came when I was presented with a web development consulting opportunity that guaranteed/obligated me at least 20 paid hours per week, which combined with other website jobs, allowed me to quit my restaurant job and pursue freelance web design/development work full time.

Eventually, I was busy enough to justify hiring another developer. I began to realize that this might not just be a temporary solution to pay my bills.

Soon after my first hire, I officialized my business, ONYX Design. That was back in 2014, and things have only grown from there. We just moved into a bigger office in the Fashion District, and the growth only seems to be accelerating.

Has it been a smooth road?
HA! No. It’s been and still is a rollercoaster. But among the ups and downs is a strong upward trend—and I have loved every minute of it.

My company has been lucky in that we have rarely experienced the struggle of lacking business, however quick growth can certainly be a struggle as well, especially for a small team. As the owner, you are the one that bears the brunt of this. My friends and family tell me I work too much, and they’re right. Improving my work-life balance is an ongoing endeavor, but I love the work and feel a deep sense of obligation to our clients, which makes the workload much more tolerable.

Besides the inevitable influxes of work, I think all entrepreneurs experience challenges when it comes to growing their team. This has been especially difficult for me. Finding designers and developers that can match the caliber of work that we produce has proven to be exceedingly difficult. This is a challenge that we still face despite the increasing number of people looking for work as developers, and we are always looking for the right talent to join our team.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
My company, ONYX Design, is a small digital agency specializing in web design and development services. We design experiences and engineer systems to solve all manner of needs for a wide variety of clients, ranging from individuals to businesses of all sizes.

What sets us apart from others in our industry is two-fold: Firstly, we are able to do everything surrounding web design and development, and we do it all in-house: cutting-edge design, eCommerce, custom integrations, custom development, database architecture and management, site optimization, conversion rate optimization, SEO, etc. The internet is a complex world with a lot of interplaying factors. Even the simplest of websites deserves considerations spanning many different realms of internet expertise.

If a website is beautifully designed but not optimized well, it might take forever to load on mobile devices or slow connections. If it doesn’t observe SEO best practices, it may never be found in search results. If it’s code isn’t properly written to be cross-browser compatible, it might look great in Chrome but be completely broken in Safari. By pooling all of this expertise in one place, we ensure that all of these considerations are made for each client and project.

The second differentiating factor is the degree to which we empathize with our clients and their interests. This ideology is heavily linked to our holistic and thorough approach to design and engineering but is perhaps more important. Clients constantly ask “Can we do [xyz]?” to which my reply is nearly always “Of course we can do it, but should we? Is it reasonably feasible? Is this the best option for you and/or are there better options available?”

We identify opportunities and anticipate problems for our clients, and always try to build robust long-term solutions rather than quick, cheap ones even when our clients may not know the difference immediately. This might not always make us the most money in the short term, but we believe that it is the right way to do things and the fact that our clients keep sending us more work and more clients tells us that putting their needs first is also a reliable long-term investment for ONYX.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
ONYX has certainly flourished in LA. While I think the demand for our web design and development services is expanding everywhere, my intuition is that LA does have a few advantages for us. There is a lot of entrepreneurial spirits here, which means there are a ton of young businesses that need our services. Moreover, we find that we don’t have a lot of competition (maybe just because there is so much demand), especially when you factor in the level of quality we provide at a price point that is still attainable for individuals and small businesses.

But on the other hand, we serve clients all over the world. So we could operate from just about anywhere. We have many clients who we have worked with for years, and who I consider to be friends simply because we have worked together for so long, but we have never met in person. There’s simply no need. We even have clients based in LA who we have worked with for many years, and never met, which reinforces the fact that our business can really be conducted from anywhere.

It’s inspiring to me how technology has made global business and trade so easy. It obviously makes the world a better place economically when people can expand their options for trading goods and services, but I think it has major implications for improving global understanding, tolerance, and respect among cultures as well.

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
My general love of learning has served me quite well and underpins everything I do. I can get interested in just about anything or anyone, because the infinite intricacy of the world means that there is an abundance of knowledge, history, thought, and design in everything, even the most mundane things that we take for granted. We should all be walking around in a constant state of wonder. If you begin to consider the amount of time, thought, technology, and work that have led to the modern way we cut and machine a single piece of wood, your mind will be blown — and that’s just a piece of wood. This amazement can be found in all things, and it makes me a bit sad that most people don’t have the curiosity for it, either out of ignorance or apathy. It makes me even sadder when this sense of wonder is laughed off as childlike, naive, or trivial, because curiosity should never be criticised. Moreover, I think the millennia of work, sweat-equity, and technology we have inherited from our predecessors deserves some gratitude and appreciation rather than blind expectation.

This insatiable appetite for learning has the convenient side effect of turning any new problem or challenge into something exciting. And as an entrepreneur running a project-based business, I have no shortage of new problems and challenges.

When it comes to web design and development,  curiosity is not just important, but essential. Web development changes by the day, if not the minute. And any type of design work has an ever-shifting fashion to it. If you are not learning, your knowledge is outdated. There are new languages, frameworks, and tools available constantly. What was the norm a few years ago is scoffed at as ancient today. Ongoing learning and the improvement of your craft is helpful to anyone in any industry, but it is essential for a designer or developer, because without it, your skill set and knowledge quickly become obsolete.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 112 W 9th St, Suite 1009
    Los Angeles, CA 90015
  • Website: onyxdesign.net
  • Email: info@onyxdesign.net

Image Credit:
Nogen Beck

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