Design Thinking × Education × Community, and the death of the design agency.
It’s been nearly a year and a half of operations as an impact design studio. Over this time we’ve evolved our mission of design for social impact, as well as our business process focussed design services— combining them with community and education driven initiatives into what we now do day-to-day.
This model of operation was created for two reasons: the first is that design for social impact is our founding mandate to provide meaning to our creative & strategic outlets. The time we spend as a company, at work and away from family should make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others around us. It should be worth it for the greater good. We were ‘a collective of makers focussed on social impact’. And that resonated.
The second reason for this model of operation was out of practicality. At its inception we recognized tUX would not survive as a simple “User Experience Design Agency”. The core of our business stood on the tenet of innovation in our attitudes towards work, our happiness, our studio environment, and of the companies that work with us. A traditional attempt at starting another design agency would be folly— and downright boring.
By January 2015, we’d reached a point where the hierarchy of business design operations at our studio superseded UX/UI consulting. The core value we provided was strategic road-mapping, followed by execution in design.
It’s often difficult to sell strategy. So we didn’t sell strategy. We didn’t even sell design.
We sold a commitment to the growth of business goals, combined with our passion for social impact. We sold education and workshops, and through these strategic consulting. Only then did we provide design as an enabler for the fruition of a companies business goals.
Beginning this new year, tUX. will serve this hierarchy of needs as an evolved entity: Design Cofounders. And we’ll do this through DC Education, the DC studio, and our community driven initiative DMC: Design Makes Change.
A year ago today
tailoredUX Inc. was preparing for an unknown 2014. With full confidence, enthusiasm, and risk…
The previous 3 months (September — October 2013) were headquartered at Zoe’s Bakery on King St West and Brant Street in the heart of Toronto’s fashion district. Zoe’s was right around the corner from Adelaide and Brant, where Jet Cooper once stood as the darling of the Toronto design scene; and right on the corner a building that held history for me in the startup scene: 425 Adelaide Street West.
425 Adelaide Street West
It’s where I landed my first tech job in January 2010 as employee #6 of Security Compass on the 5th floor. Security Compass then moved to the 2nd floor where we expanded the team to well over 20 smart people. Then I moved out in 2012 to explore the startup landscape in Toronto with Tucows Inc, Shopcaster, and a number startups in Toronto as a design consultant.
A year and a half later I found myself back on the 3rd floor of 425 Adelaide Street West with The Working Group as a Designer-in-Residence. I was exploring how ‘design thinking product management’ can help build out a strong design practice within a development shop. TWG was still small and growing, and at that time closely partnering with Jet Cooper on major design and development projects.
Between working on startup and enterprise products at TWG, I started analyzing the product lifecycle as I’ve known it within startups as a very lean and agile process, versus how it’s handled in a growing agency with competing timelines and goals.
UX at startups in Toronto between 2010 until now was and still is a tricky beast. And integrating designers into development teams was always the afterthought for engineer driven startups and organizations. It was always an uphill battle of cultural shifts, process changes, and proof-in-the-pudding scenarios that earned the legitimacy for UX and design thinking.
Working at TWG as an agency, I got the chance to challenge and break down the intricacies of UX, and where UX’s role was within building product and product teams. It was an interesting experience that really let me explore the definition of ‘design thinking product management’. A topic for another article, maybe.
Death of the Design Agency
That summer, Shopify acquired Jet Cooper. And that changed the game culturally and politically both in the Toronto design scene and for TWG as well. TWG’s mandate of exclusively handling both design and development for projects accelerated, and in Toronto, a small vacuum for startup driven design opened with the loss of JC as an agency.
At the same time, over the course of 2014, the concept of the design agency died.
More on that in another post; though there’s been some writing on the topic here by Zurb.
*edit: I’ve also run into this article which I found remarkably relevant:
*second edit: and another by Peter Merholz on agencies in SF.
*third edit: I remembered @choosenick from @makeshift wrote on the topic of startup studios as well:
- Fourth edit: today (January 16th), Teehan+Lax announced they’re shutting down the agency, and the partners are taking positions with Facebook.
Exploring a business focussed impact design studio.
In August 2013, TWG rented Mitsubishi Lancers and took a trip up north for a cottage retreat to reflect and prepare for what was to be the big next step of growth in 2014 (for the record, Lancers were the default option at the rental).
The company would go on to grow to over 40 people in the next year. And over the course of that weekend I realized that when we get back to Toronto I’m going to quit and rekindle my passion of design for change. Over the course of the following year, I’d do this by reimagining the design agency as a business design studio, with a mandate for social impact.
Zoe’s Bakery— Consulting 101.
I kept a desk at TWG while I transitioned into exploring what my new consulting practice would be. At the same time I planned on building out a product called ‘The Writing Project’.
I found myself spending a good 3 weeks eating and working out of Zoey’s bakery, working 50+ hours a week between meetings, in spreadsheets, e-mails, and Adobe Illustrator.
I love ordering one thing from Zoey’s: smoked salmon avocodo wraps (or salads), and it felt like an office to me. The waitress and staff there likely knew I confiscated the same table everyday for office space, and I’m forever indebted to them as an early angel for tUX.
There was a lot of risk involved, and a lack of support from others imagining what this new company would be. Rusul and I were also expecting our second daughter within 4 months— and my belief in spending time to build a new type of work environment for myself and others (a new reality really) to create a positive impact in the world couldn’t have been more strongly motivated.
The question of doing the right thing didn’t last very long, and my transitional period and desk at TWG was over before it even started. I worked hard to generate a great hustle of startup and enterprise design consulting, and within the span of 2 months tUX. had completed 5 client projects with $68,000 of revenue in the bank and zero overhead.
The proof-of-concept was over, and the transition into a impact focussed business design studio began.
re:defining tUX in 2014— CSI Spadina
The company moved into the Centre for Social Innovation at 215 Spadina in September. And while planning our goals for 2014 we opened consulting operations on a word of mouth basis, and launched our domain (which was a redirect to our Twitter account).
Our message: the methods and processes of niche design thinking and business growth we used for clients resonated strongly with the right startups. We found ourselves working with either very early stage startups, in which we made design investments via our Design Cofounders program, or with early stage businesses that had domain expertise, proprietary technology or processes, and strong business leadership + capital.
We weren’t designing for clients anymore, or designing for design’s sake. We weren’t thinking of just users or our client’s customers. We were focussed on building their businesses by design.
We didn’t request equity, or any other stake in their business, but we required terms that empowered us to do our best to help them reach their business goals. And just like that, we started becoming their design cofounders. I wrote a medium post about it embedded below.
Partnerships: the companies we partnered with were all in social impact domains: Education, Healthcare, and Energy, and we helped them build enterprise and consumer applications. They had interesting problems that directly made peoples lives better. Problems in neurocognitive science, dialysis, education assessments, energy reform, child behaviour management, open data, and mental health platforms.
We tackled these initiatives with design thinking processes, product management, service design, and UX design, right through to rapid product design cycles, and we created frameworks, templates, and processes to empower these companies to continue to do the same without us as well. We designed, built, and strategized as design partners, and the companies we worked with succeeded in their business goals. We learned so much together in that first 6 months as a company, and with the founders we directly worked with. We learned about ourselves, how we want to operate, about client communications, about who to work with, and who to not work with (which is just as important), and about why business relationships mattered.
Communication: one of the biggest missed opportunities when I reflect on this time of growth at tUX is the lack of communication of what was happening. Sure we tweeted, and wrote one or two blog posts. But we missed telling amazing stories. And the missed opportunity here is giving back what we learned in building this successful startup, how we attracted talent, work, built our processes, etc.
We even hired a top notch well known communicator and writer in Toronto to help tell our story, which completely backfired with their plagiarizing work, hurting our timelines, trust, and momentum. It was terrible, and such a disappointment. Since then, communication was a problem that we continued to neglect, and didn’t commit resources to until the end of 2014.
Musical chairs: between January and April, one desk became two, two desks became three, then four, then five, and then we were doubling up consultants at the same desks (against the rules at CSI, sorry Shona☺). We added a hot desk, and at the rate we were going, between our consultants, we would take up a quarter of the dedicated desk space at CSI. We worked with amazing dedicated consultants, and they helped us achieve so much, notably, Sidra Mahmood who worked with us on Product Design, and Nermin Moufti, who spent time with us as a Creative Director-in-Residence.
By April, we were ready to move into our own private office at CSI. We spent the rest of the year in a 180 square foot space, side by side, working on projects, and redefining our studio, culture, and business.
Transforming tUX from a startup into a business.
A number of important things
Financial success is always an enabler and an indicator of sustainability in what we build. Up until now we’d had financial success that enabled us to keep going, but to be sustainable and survive beyond consulting we had to reinvest back into the company and into the pillars that we valued of most import. If we did come out the other side in another 6 months, back at net zero: ‘what would we want to come out with moving forward’?
We focused on two goals to foster sustainability and answer this question: 1. building a core team, and 2. build community.
Quarterly goals and growth: Q2 of 2014 (April — June) was a quantum leap for tailoredUX. So-far, we’d established a solid and diverse client base, had focus on smart data projects, and companies with social impact, and we were exploring how to work.
Our business relied on quarterly goals. tUX’s first client was Christina Wodtke, from Palo Alto. She ran product at LinkedIn, Zynga, and Myspace, and consults with countless startups in California. I spent 6 weeks researching Christina, learning about her work, and helping her craft her narrative. Christina’s work so happened to revolve around OKR’s: Objectives and Key Results.
After meeting Christina, and learning about her process, tUX’s every move as a business revolved around our OKR’s. Every initiative, project, hire, and breath made by the business had to move our business forward with measurable results to help us achieve our key goals.
Goal 1: build a solid core team.
Hiring and recruiting is one of the hardest things to do as a company. Sure, it’s easy to hire folks, but it’s also really hard to let them go. That was the beautify of initially hiring full-time consultants in our early days. They helped us grow, and we didn’t have to commit to the nth degree. But really hiring great people, properly takes a lot of time before, during, and after the hire.
It was really imperative for our business to survive and grow: and that’s to stop working with consultants as a collective under tUX, and build out our core team. That’s been an amazing journey, and we were lucky to have hired some remarkable individuals to our team. Jason Goodman as our Director of Strategic Partnerships, Doug Estey as our Front-End Lead, Matthew Stevens as our Development Lead, Tyler Copeland as a Product Designer, and Rusul Alrubail as an Educator-in-Residence. And just like that, we had a really tight-knit group of individuals that shared in our culture. And the number one trait is empathy, and a belief in our mission that Design Makes Change.
We’re hiring in Q1 of 2015
If you’d like to work with us, we’re looking for senior strategists and designers, and especially for those who can create their own role and help us grow our studio and education initiatives in 2015.
Goal 2: Build community
Our second goal for 2014 was to build community. There was a lacking presence of consistent design meetups in Toronto at the time. After prodding around at existing meetups to try to get something going, we decided to start the Toronto UX meet-up group.
And it resonated very quickly, being hosted at the Ryerson DMZ, Playground Inc, and Shopify. You can learn more about it here.
Suffice to say, the Toronto design community worked with us to build an amazing group between May and November 2014, and I hope the New Year is going to be a great period of growth for Toronto UX, to be lead and co-organized by Tyler Copeland, product designer at tUX, and Ricardo Vazquez, UI/UX designer with Mozilla.
And with the growth of the meet-up and its success, we also announced a structured un-conference in the heart of Downtown Toronto, between March 27th — March 28th called DMC: Design Makes Change.
*bless the hearts of people that favourite and not retweet.
Two simple goals
These two simple goals for Q3 and Q4 of 2014 helped us focus our efforts and resolve going into end of year, and they both went hand in hand.
I met Tyler when he was visiting Toronto for the summer from Ottawa, and he volunteered from July to August to organize the Toronto UX meetups. It was a great time to get to know Tyler and his passion for travel, learning, design and startups. One thing led to another, and he decided to move to Toronto from Ottawa to join our team at tUX.
Our meetups introduced us to great community partners, as well as a couple of Toronto startups and organizations that we were privileged to work with over the course of the fall. That work only lead to the strengthening of our team culture and process, unifying our vision, and proving that a focussed team united in the same mission can accomplish great things.
That holy $*#* moment.
And the next thing you know, we’ve worked with over 25 startups and organizations in Toronto on design consulting and education workshops, hosted 800 folks at 6 TorontoUX meet-ups, announced a conference, and built up a team of 5 remarkable people.
Doug and I lectured at the Sheridan IMM school on Design in the Industry, I was also invited to the SheridanIxDA end of year to give an opening talk, Jason ran design and strategy workshops with the SSM Innovation Centre and participated in the OCE Discovery conference. tUX sponsored a Mental Health Hackathon with CAMH @ the Ryerson DMZ, and we lectured at the Ryerson Startup School in November. Creativity also flourished outside of the studio when Tyler started Hack to Start, a podcast focused on interesting people and the innovative ways they achieve success, and Doug launched a windows, android, and iPhone app for the LCBO using Cordova in the span of 1 month, called Elsie. Rusul Alrubail, our first Educator-in-Residence reached over 29 thousand readers and educators in publishing with Edutopia and Medium.
And we bought a coffee machine— highlight of the year for me.
The companies we’ve worked with have gone on to raise over $2 million dollars in funding, have created and acquired patents, partnerships, and acquisitions— and most importantly: have built real revenue to grow their businesses sustainably. I’m really looking forward to highlighting them throughout 2015 as we continue to work closely as design partners during their growth.
Within the year, we strategized and executed on a plan to transform tUX from an early stage startup into a momentum building business with a focussed and driven mission of empowering change through design.
12 Camden Street.
On December 1st, the tUX. team moved into our first dedicated office space, occupying the entire 3rd floor of a beautiful building on a quiet street called Camden, just off Spadina in the heart of downtown Toronto. It’s an exciting milestone for us, and an opportunity to engage in a broader set of initiatives in 2015, for our studio, design education, and DMC community.
It’s such a humbling adventure, looking back at that first moment of risk. And a reflection that with a lot of extremely hard work, from working at a table in Zoe’s bakery, to having an incredible team that believes in you, and businesses that trust you, then endless opportunity will await.
2015 — Design Cofounders.
And this brings us to Design Cofounders, with the unified mission of: “Design, Make, Learn, Change, Share”.
During the holiday break, I’ve been able to find the moments of time that are most important with family, and have had a good chance to reflect on the year that’s passed, and the new year that’s to come. I recognize the good accomplishments and efforts of 2014, and I’ve realized the weight of building and succeeding, and see a bright future 2015.
To everyone that’s worked with us, inspired us, trusted us, and helped us grow: thank you for your early trust in tUX as an organization. This trust and your energy has been transformed into our commitment to success, and I hope to see that commitment grow through fruition over the next year.
A new mission, and an evolved company.
And with the New Year we have a mission for tUX. as a consultancy to evolve into Design Cofounders, both in operations and as a legal entity.
Design Cofounders will provide design education via DC Edu, tUX will remain as our studio, providing business + design consulting, and running operations, and we will drive impact and innovation through our community initiatives: Design Makes Change. I believe these focussed efforts will help us succeed and grow further as a company, and enable us to serve our partners and community in a meaningful way beyond just services. I’m very excited by these initiatives.
This focus on DC as an organization also means that we will be consolidating our consulting client base as revenues expand outside of the tUX studio. We will be working with a small number of core studio clients per year, and will focus on companies that are making the world better for the people around them, whether through social impact, or empowerment of people, business, and organizations to grow and make change in their industries.
I’m looking forward to seeing you in 2015 as a member of our community, as a client with our studio, and in our education programs, as partners, or as friends.
We’re here, let’s talk:
While we launch Designcofounders.com, we’d still like to hear from you:
If you’re interested in becoming a design & business client with our studio, send us an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to partner with us in our strategy roundtables, DMC, or education initiatives, e-mail: email@example.com
If you’d like to enrol in our Design Thinking for Entrepreneurship or Product Design for Growth courses, as a startup or an individual, send an e-mail request to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’d like to be friends, please free to arrange a visit to our studio in 2015 by connecting with us on twitter: @tailoredUX.