Design as business is hard work.

This past weekend provided a bit of time for introspection on my company’s journey so far.

Empathy for the sale

Design consultancies continue to be acquired by the big management consultancies. The latest, Veryday, a near-100 person team, was picked up by McKinsey last week. Formerly Ergonomidesign, Veryday is one of Sweden’s oldest design companies, founded in 1969.

I was up in Stockholm when the announcement was posted. Some designers I met with expressed dismay, feeling like Veryday may have sold out its vision.

My co-founders at Topp and I shared a rapid string of Slack messages speculating about the reasons, rationale, and impact. Our overall sentiment is congratulatory… and empathetic. Running a design consultancy isn’t simple. The idea of being subsumed by a larger machine that can feed you new clients, that can increase your rates, that can broaden your access to C-level stakeholders all looks good on paper (not to mention any immediate financial reward as a shareholder).

Running a design business means you have to believe strongly in the vision and impact progressive design can make —you are comprised of your expertise and approach. This is your offering. However, one of the elements in our industry that makes the business tricky is that we know that real impact of design is made when you not only provide the deliverable, but enable a client to transform themselves. The old saying holds true for design — give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.

As designers, we’ve shouted the gospel of user experience loudly for the past decade. And our clients listened. They listened so well that they either acquired or created their own teams to impact their problems. So what the heck happens to your design consultancy when clients create their own practice internally? You evolve and reinvent. It’s one part beautiful system, one part stress-machine. And this cycle of reinvention and client enablement is accelerating.

That’s where our empathy comes from — as you grow your company — 5, 10, 30, 50, 75, 200+ people — it’s easy to observe how it gets more and more difficult to reinvent. Topp is about 25 people today. Most are in Malmö, Sweden (part of the Greater Copenhagen Region). By all measures a 25 person design company in 4 years is one that’s grown pretty fast. But our business is not about the scale of human capital. It’s about the scale of impact.

Reflecting on the why of my company

We are drawn to create impactful experiences and solve hard problems. The sign on the outside our building says Shaping The New. With this mission in mind, we can’t simply take on every production project, recruit all the young designers, compete on price, hire a team of project managers, and setup shop in NYC, London, and Shanghai (a decent formula for an acquisition, by the way).

We have also built an IoT design & development platform called Noodl. Business models and revenue streams have emerged around this platform. The team has a number of great educators aboard and we have created an active forum called the Design+Data Lab where we challenge the practice of design.

Why am I mentioning this? When we co-founded Topp, we looked around the room and saw a broad array of talent and expertise. In particular, we saw a mix of design, business, and technology savvy. Consultancy would be our core mode of operating, but we were confident in being a platform for other ways of growing impact, and growing our business.

Additionally, shaping new things is countered by the drive to learn new things. While creating a business that always needs to reinvent itself might seem a bit nutty, the upshot is that we are constantly exposed to new stimulus and can participate in making what’s new relevant to others. Whether that’s through clients or the development of entirely new businesses from the inside out.

Our self-determinism and focus on impact rather than scale means that we can truly be explorers. In less than four years we have developed expertise within and impacted the following domains:

  • Accessibility & Ageing; AI & Machine Learning; Automotive; Building Management; Computer Vision; Consumer Devices; Developer Ecosystems; Education; Emerging Markets; Health & Fitness; Home Appliance / Whiteware; Information Visualisation; Mapping & Navigation; Medical Devices; Natural Language & Voice Interaction; Operating Systems Design; Parenting; Payment; Public Transportation; Retail Displays; Robotics Interaction; Smart Assistants; Smart Cities; Smart Homes; Smart Mobility; Smart Watches & Bands; Security; Social Platform Creation; Strategic Advisory; Streaming Video Platforms; Transportation; Wearables

It’s a more impressive list than any of the founders dreamed of. The excitement of each new domain means an opportunity to evolve.

Accepting contradictions

To be fair, we struggle with our own definition. We are a design company, but we also have some of the best engineering talent in the world. We build platforms & IP, but we’re not quite a product company yet. We work with global brands, but we’ll spend just as much effort on our intern program. This is a symptom of owning a vision that’s intended to evolve, of striving to be on a leading edge.

I know we’ve helped products become successful, tech to become relevant, systems to be more organised, and to affect people in organisations. But what I personally want from this journey is to influence the way we create the world around ourselves. It’s almost a philosophical, existential drive — and it’s incredibly meta. Many people on the team also have this drive. It’s not about the self-importance of being the first, or being in control — it’s simply that there’s a mountain to climb and things can be better, even if we don’t know what shape they’ll take.

Mountain climber, or maybe a reflective sisyphus?

We’ve received interest from numerous companies when it comes to acquisition (we’ve never sought this out, ourselves). Several each year so far. Most are pretty surface level explorations and we entertain a meeting or two to understand where they’re coming from. We run a business — money and profit are part of what we do — but the idea of reshaping our mission and drive to be led by margins and human capital growth is not terribly appealing.

I believe impact through design and technology and all the things Topp is great at will continue to scale. But we’re going shape it in our own way.

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