From project to product: how we’ve nested a Startup Lab inside of an agency

If you come to visit us in our office in Lisbon, Portugal, the first thing you see once you’re inside will be a cosy room with a big messy table with a dozen of computers on it and a French balcony with a great view of a historic centre of the city. Just a year ago this room would not be worth mentioning. But things have changed.

For some months now a half of the table has been taken up by a peculiar group of people. They are usually quieter than the rest of the office. They don’t like the table to be messy because it already feels like home to them. They are few, but proud. They are the core of Kwamecorp’s Startup Lab.

Startup Lab is a relatively new thing at the agency. So far it has 4 people working on startups — a product lead, a full stack developer, a designer and PR/Marketing specialist. The team as it is has been gathered over the course of the last 6 months and has recently opened a position of a full stack developer. The latest product the Lab has been working on is Nikabot, a friendly chat bot for Slack. Released just over a month ago it’s already helping more than 700 teams to manage their projects.

The road up to here hasn’t been straight and easy. But we are guessing, a lot of design agencies are going down the same road, trying to develop their own products beside their client work. We thought why not share our learnings with the rest of the world. Today Guillermo Landín, a product lead at Startup Lab and Victoria Ivanova, marketing and communications specialist at Kwamecorp will answer a few questions about their work at Startup Lab. Ana, a junior designer who joined Kwamecorp just a couple of weeks ago, and who’s also working on startups, was chosen to interview the guys.

Ana: So, I guess, I’d like to know how the idea to build your own products appeared.

Guillermo: It has been a part of our vision since the beginning. Every day Kwamecorp helps top-tier companies around the world to innovate, and we end up with many ideas and hypotheses that we would like to test. At first we would just play with those ideas and experiment with technologies during lulls in agency work. We would shape an idea, get design and code together, give a thing a name, and show it to the world. Usually, by the time we had an MVP we would get bored, drop the idea and move on.

Victoria: In many cases “the world” loved those ideas! One of the best examples is LokLok — an app for Android that allows you to draw on your friend’s lock screen. In the first week after release LokLok was downloaded by more than 50 thousand users. Millions loved the idea. Feature requests and bug reports flowed from all over the world. We had to take the next step and start fixing, developing, improving. So we would ask around who had less workload, and then would “borrow” that person to work on LokLok while they were available. After a couple of months of running such a process we realized that this wouldn’t work.

LokLok, connected lock screen for Android

Ana: Why so?

Victoria: First, because as soon as client work gets in the way, a person disappears. We never know for sure when they will be available next time. You end up looking for someone else but then, if they have, say, one week available they spend half of that time just getting into the context and learning the product.

In the end, it just became very clear that it was simply impossible to build a decent product without dedication and passion. When you work on a live product you have to care about all spectrum of problems related to it, and this requires full-time commitment. At Kwamecorp we started discussing the possibility of having a dedicated team that would work only on startups.

Guillermo: Allocating a dedicated startup team within an agency is never easy, first of all because it’s a big and uncertain investment. But eventually the choice was made. As a result we have a team! We are very happy to have a space where we can develop our ideas into products and actually release them to the world.

Victoria: Now we have a more formal way to generate and test ideas — our Friday Hackathons that we run every month. There are no restrictions whatsoever — you describe your idea, gather a team and build something over a weekend. Next Monday you share what you’ve achieved with other teams. Nikabot, for instance, was born exactly like this.

If you are in Lisbon on those days and want to participate, get in touch with us

Ana: Apart from making products because you can, what value does the company get from Startup Lab?

Guillermo: Although our projects are still too young to be profitable they bring a lot of intangible value. We learn a lot. Creating something from an idea into the actual product is very different from agency work where we generally help clients at only a certain stage of their product cycle. As an agency, our success is measured by client’s satisfaction. When you make a product there’s no way around it — it either gets traction or it doesn’t. People won’t use your product unless they’re getting value from it.

Victoria: Apart from learnings our Startup Lab work comes in handy when we want to showcase what we do in the company. Almost all our client work is under strict NDAs. Our own projects help us show our skills, likes and believes, because that’s what fuels our work. We use these projects to pitch our services to prospective clients, but we also share them with the community.

Guillermo: Developing a startup inside of an agency has some challenges but also a lot of benefits. As a Startup Lab we benefit from all the knowledge which flows in all directions — our clients benefit from what we learn making products and vice versa. Being surrounded by a great team of highly specialised engineers and designers is a privilege that most startups don’t have. We also have access to all professional network our agency developed through years of work.

Ana: Having your own Startup Lab sounds like a lot of resources. Do you have any plan to make Startup Lab profitable?

Victoria: Ultimately we would like to make our Startup Lab self-sustainable. I think we are pretty good at generating great ideas, but things like go-to-market strategy and monetisation are not our strongest points. However, we’re getting there. We have a couple of projects that are on hold because we are short on resources. If we are capable to generate our own budget, we will be able to work on more projects and expand our team.

Guillermo: Another thing we would like to do is incubate and help out other startups. So far we’ve worked on a few projects like that — helping with design, development, strategic planning, etc. Basically, it’s a sweat equity investment. So if you have a good startup idea and expertise in some field, but lack knowledge in the area where we could help, let us know! Maybe it is your team that will be sharing the big table with us soon :)

If you liked the post, you will leap with joy after reading Friday Hackathons @ Kwamecorp and Oops…We turned Nika, our studio manager, into a Bot!