Leaving an Outsource Giant to Open a Design Agency: How The Gradient Did It

You’re young, passionate and qualified. You feel like working for a big company weighs you down. Why not open a design agency then? Seriously, how hard can it be?

Tania Kramar
The Gradient


Well, the founders of The Gradient told telegraf.design just how hard, painful but also rewarding it is. Check out their interview, published in the “Lokomotyv” series that covers creative businesses.
Special thanks to telegraf.design for letting us post this translation.

The Gradient was founded by three colleagues from ELEKS, one of the biggest outsourcing companies in Ukraine: its creative director Oleg Gasioshyn, the head of the UX department Denys Skrypnyk and the former head of the Digital stream Olena Zanichkovska.

Each of the future partners had decided to change the course of their careers before The Gradient was launched. They all had different reasons, but the desire to build their own business was mutual. Keep reading to discover the way The Gradient team has come and what we’re up to today.

Denys Skrypnyk has been working at ELEKS since 2007, while Oleg Gasioshyn joined in 2011. It was the year 2016 when Oleg started thinking of professional changes: “At that point, I was considering two variants: either moving to Kyiv or trying to create something on my own. The second one looked more promising.” Being the head of Oleg’s department, Denys started noticing his colleague was desperate for a change. He offered Oleg to go for the marketing director position, but Oleg answered that he had been contemplating running his own business.

“That was the moment Oleg triggered something inside me that I’d been thinking of for a long time. On the one hand, everything was fine at ELEKS: I had my own big department with great people and a good deal of cool projects. On the other hand, I was losing interest in all of that. I couldn’t see any development. So, in four hours, I got back to Oleg with an offer to start something together.”

Back then, none of the partners had a clear understanding of doing business on their own. All they had was an idea and a desire. “We knew that we wanted to “do everything differently” compared to the big company we’ve been working at. Sounds childish, but it was really a good motive. ELEKS was involved in huge enterprise projects with complex interfaces. That left little place for design and creativity. Back then, it seemed that this kind of approach had to be broken down to give place to a new system. But now I understand that from the business point of view, these thoughts were misleading. The company has its own focus that brings the necessary results,” says Denys.

Olena Zanichkovska, who used to be the head of the Digital department at ELEKS and a business development director at Perfectial later on, became the third partner.

“When you’re starting a creative business, it’s nice to have a power balance in your team. If there are two creative pros and nobody else, sure, you’ll get an awesome creative team, but other areas risk being left neglected.”

There’s an opinion at The Gradient that diversity within teams is the main criterion for development. Also, you don’t need much funding at the beginning. As for the legal issues, you should always consult a professional or someone who’s been going through the same recently. You can set up a business in less than a week. And you’d better find an accountant right away, at least a freelance one.

How the company was gaining momentum
All The Gradient’s first sales came from friends and acquaintances. “When you’re launching an agency, nobody knows about it except the people surrounding you. Here’s an important tip: never hesitate to tell people you’re starting your own business. You’re limited by your surrounding, so make sure to pass this message to as many people as possible.

Shout it out wherever you can: Facebook, Instagram — anywhere to warm up the interest. You need to tell and write to all your friends and contacts that you’ve launched your own business, tell them what you’re doing and offer your services. Don’t take it personally if some of them ignore you. This is exactly the way to find your first clients. If you think that merely creating a website will get you hundreds of orders, you have another think coming.”

Right after the start, the agency accepted all sorts of tasks. Branding, identity, UX design. “This kind of professional promiscuity allowed us to earn money and make it all the way to awesome foreign clients. It wasn’t until later that we started getting picky with clients and tasks.”

Even in the toughest of times none of the co-founders thought of giving up. They did, however, wish they had a bit more money. “Just a while ago, each of us had a fairly high and stable salary in a respectful company we all just left. Yes, we sometimes asked ourselves if it was worth it, but the immediate response was “Absolutely!””

How the team’s work is organized

ELEKS had a hierarchical system: different directions, departments, heads of departments. Denys, Oleg and Olena first used the same model with The Gradient: Denys was the CEO, Oleg — the design director and Olena handled sales and marketing. “We did work like that for some time, but then we realized that a small company wouldn’t scale under a model like this.”

So, the team borrowed the idea of partners from Pentagram. Each co-founder became a partner and led the client they initially started communicating with. Gradually, they switched to a model where each of them led a group of clients. A partner has a team that works on a specific product: a designer (or a couple of them), a business analyst and a marketing specialist.

“We are working on expanding the company’s partnership structure both from within (by investing in the development of our existing employees) and from the outside (by searching for cool people on the market).”

When it comes to dealing with the organizational tasks, it turned out that one of the three partners is usually less busy than the others. So, that partner takes over some of the workload, generates ideas and helps with solutions. The Gradient’s staff consists of 20+ people at the moment.

The world vs. Ukraine
From the very beginning, most of the clients at The Gradient came from the foreign market. That’s because the team had previously worked at an outsourcing company, meaning most of their customers were from abroad, and all the networking came from there. The agency still works with one of their first clients, and currently, it’s their longest cooperation. The client is also at the top in terms of the received investments: £10 million.

Sure, the agency works with clients from Ukraine, but the foreign market is more appealing: it’s got earnings and clients of a higher level. “Most of the Ukrainian clients we’d like to work with are already taken by our competitors. It’s important for us that cooperation is comfortable since we want to enjoy doing what we do. You’d have to want to share and discuss your ideas with the clients. You are basically living a certain life period together. Unfortunately, not all Ukrainians are ready for this kind of cooperation.”

There are roughly two types of The Gradient’s clients. The ones who come with an idea belong to the first one. The Gradient helps them design the product and launch it. The second type are the ones who already have an existing product that needs changing. In that case, The Gradient tries to figure out the problem with it and do something about it.

Previously, startuppers were the ones who addressed The Gradient most often. But the harsh statistics claim that 90% of startups fail. “The product can be well-designed, but the founders can’t make the business or the company work. They don’t understand how to sell it, how to find users or set up marketing. This greatly demotivates the designers and marketing specialists engaged in that project: so much time and money just wasted and there are almost no results.”

Over time, The Gradient started getting clients with existing products. “They need design and product functionality update for an increase in sales and business development. Or these are clients with large investments who have already passed the validation period from investors and are actually ready to implement the product.”

The Gradient usually works on its projects for 2+ months. These are mostly fintech or retail products, buyer and supplier platforms, training platforms, booking or business services. “We’ve never created two identical products.”

Currently, the company improves the website of one of the biggest airlines in the world. Working with clients like that is different since they need all kinds of approvals and the procurement department has to agree to your cooperation. “But once you start working, it feels just right,” — the partners say.

They believe that the best clients are the ones who ask lots of serious questions. They question the company’s concept, the decisions offered and the working process, give constructive feedback and have their own vision and preferences. “We learn most from our clients. It’s interesting to observe how they do business, make decisions while the design is just an instrument for them. We’re here to make an awesome product for them, help them bring value to people and success to their business.”

The agency believes that the high level of customer service is their competitive edge. “It all starts with how you communicate with your clients, how you work with them, which questions you ask and ends with how you build relationships with them.”

Searching for people to join the team is the biggest challenge for the agency. They say it’s much easier to land a client than an employee. 30–40 candidates can apply for a single position, but that doesn’t mean that “the one” is among them. “Usually, you start with typical, easy tasks, then you get more complicated ones. And sometimes people fail to grow with the task and start failing.”

Tips for design agencies
The Gradient’s owners say you should learn to detach yourself from the work you’re doing and detach the work from the product you’re launching. “Most designers merge completely with the client, and even more with the product. The line is very thin. Don’t get emotionally attached, otherwise, you won’t be able to feel okay. You should always be ready for failure: the client may not accept the offered solution. That’s okay, let’s move another way then.”

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