How My Agency Learned to Make Digital Products The Hard Way
Ever since starting our digital agency 10 years ago, my brother and I have seen the allure of investing in products rather than projects.
Back then, we liked the idea of building our own ideas rather than building other people’s. Building websites was fun, but we couldn’t help but think that building something truly for ourselves would give us creative and commercial freedom.
Our first foray was a stake in the startup, Gloople, a platform similar to the now wildly popular Shopify. We took an advisory role, and after securing 150k of angel investment in 2011 it seemed like nothing could stop it. The investors were lining up and we had thousands of people on the waiting list for our initial release; this was going to be our ticket to product success.
Well, no. By the end of 2012 Gloople had run out of money before it was even launched. We dipped our toe and we got burned.
Rising from the ashes
After Gloople’s failure, we were done with taking punts on other people’s products. Instead, we set about systematically changing our whole business so we could focus on making great products, rather than other people’s websites. It went pretty well.
Now, in 2017, we have a spin-off product called Twine that’s not only supplementing our agency projects, but making more money. Best of all, this revenue is much more predictable and stable, so we can plan for the future better and sleep easier at night. To get here we had to make drastic, often painful changes to our business. But all in all, it’s left our business in a much better place.
So many agencies are having the same idea these days. I don’t blame them, but the road is hard. With this in mind, I’ve written this post so that other agency owners can sidestep some of the mistakes we made.
The transition from projects to products
We became lean and focussed.
To thrust the company in the direction that wanted, we had to make drastic changes. Making people redundant is every business owner’s worst nightmare, but it was the most important step in our process.
Before, we operated in the typical agency model: constantly pitching for new projects each month in order to cover our costs. It’s a constant hand-to-mouth approach that means as much energy is spent getting new business as it is working on projects. We wanted to get away from this, and developing our own products seemed to be the answer.
Most agencies have entertained this idea at some stage. Some start building something, but few actually start selling it — inevitably products end up neglected when the next big project is won and it’s all hands on deck. We knew the same would happen to us if we didn’t approach things differently.
So, we shed team members in to two lean teams: Twine and Browser. That meant half working full time on product development (Twine) and the other half working on client products which brought in the necessary capital (Browser).
This way we were fully committed to our star product (Twine) — there was no way it would end up languishing on a forgotten server. We had taken the leap and there was no turning back.
We reinvented ourselves
We reinvented ourselves from a ‘digital agency’ to a ‘digital product studio’. It might seem like a frivolous point, but by resetting the company ethos gave us real focus.
More than a change to how we referred to ourselves, we created a series of product principles to set a standard to how our products look, feel and work.
Our founding principles were:
- Modern — We want rid the world of the clunky web products that cause so much unnecessary frustration and create products that work with other modern products.
- Valuable — We design products that help people work better, with features that are truly useful.
- Approachable — We speak to our users and clients like real people, not aloof techies or engineers.
- Intuitive — Our products are intuitive, clean and beautifully designed. People enjoy and want to use our products.
Building a digital product with principles that seek perfection and sticking to an agile way of working is difficult. As I mentioned at the start of this post, we’d already been stung with this. Gloople failed because it spent too long perfecting unvalidated features and competitors got there first.
There’s a fine balance to be struck between building an MVP and making a product that passes the high standards that you set for your team. Being aware of this helps you get the right mix.
Experiment, validate, then focus
Initially, we developed four different products. Some were existing projects, others brand new ventures. But after six months we canned all but one and decided to run with our strongest idea, the one that had been been best received over that short period. With four products, we were spreading ourselves too thinly and having to cut corners that didn’t fit with our guiding principles.
Although a bit ad-hoc in approach, this time was an essential part of the process: experimenting to see what works, canning what doesn’t and moving forward with the strongest ideas.
Focus was by far one of the most important things we learnt from the one product to the next.
We found clients that wanted to help
Your clients can help you to produce a better product.
We were fortunate to find clients that wanted to work in a partnership with us to improve our products (thanks guys!), creating a feedback process that we would constantly use to refine them. With these clients’ help, we would prototype new features and test them with their user base. They benefitted from getting a new dibs on the feature and loved feeling that they were having an active influence on an innovative product.
One word of warning here: don’t give these clients/user groups the impression that you’re building this product just for them — make it clear that they influence, but don’t dictate the product direction. Stand firm on feature requests that won’t benefit your wider user base. You are the product owner and therefore guardian at the development gates!
Moving with the market
Getting to a point where we have a product that I’d call a ‘success’ has taken far longer than we ever anticipated. 10 years from the founding of our agency and 4 years since we started our product journey, we’re still learning and there’s much more work to be done.
As subscription based web services like Squarespace and Wix grow in popularity, digital agencies offering bespoke development will find themselves increasingly squeezed. We made the move to be on the other side of this, producing those products, and I expect many more businesses to be making the same moves in the years to come.
Written by Group Director, Julian Morency.