Rebooting a small design studio

Hardly wrote anything about my small design studio before. Thought it will never last another year but it seem to be staying much longer than I have expected.

2017 mark the 10 years old of my adventure. I started off as a freelancer and now we have a small team in Singapore and Yangon. I would put that story in another post.

What triggers me to write is that I couldn’t find a good answer to my question. An answer to how can I grow and make my design business sustainable for the next few years.

The result may turn out be a fruitless or fruitful one but I feel that I should pen down my thoughts and this transformation process as a record. Who knows, someone might find it useful or applicable.

I didn’t see it coming.

Web design shop is dead. Suffering the same fate like print. With ready-made template website builder like themeforest and wix, the cost of web design and development took a nose dive. Not to mention that mobile application has taken a much bigger interest since the invention of iPhone.

“The Cobbler’s children have no shoes”

I do see it coming in a way but we are too busy building stuffs for clients. We are way too comfortable in the comfort zone until in 2015, we lost 3 retainer accounts in a single month. That is the wakeup call for me.

Forward to 2017. Things are a bit stable now with tighter budget control and better portfolio. However, we can’t take another risk and I am not sure if we could survive another down turn again.

Digital disruption

Everyone is talking about it. I read about it. However, I could’t find a way on how I could applied it to a small web design outfit like us. One thing for sure is that we are nimble enough to steer this ship around.

I have been researching for some case studies and there is one company that might be able to shed some light. 37signals. They started off as a small web design company in 1999 and manage to launch their first product, basecamp , in 2004.

I have a rough idea what their company is doing but I am not sure how/why do they turn themselves into a product company and how does it happen.

It was only recently that I happen to stumble upon this article which provide a clear outline on their transformation process and there is one key takeaway. Tiny Product.

At the start of the year, I did a rough outline and derived 3 areas where I could try to push the business into.

Services / Product / Education

Services — We have done quite a number of design and development services and we can consider to shift ourselves to UX/UI or design consultancy services. However, staff training and building the portfolio would take some time. And as a design services provider, we are still dependable on clients and it is still not be sustainable in the long run.

Education — I have been a educator for a number of years and education is one of my passion. One of the possibility is to provide design education especially in Myanmar where there is a hunger to learn. This could be sustainable in the long run. Definitely in the pipeline.

Product — One of the reasons why I decided to be quit my job back then is because I want to build something that everyone could use. Thus, the thought of developing a product never fail to ignite the sparks within me. If we become a product-based company, we only account for our customer and we are no longer part of the agency’s food chain.

What product should we build?

We do not have a dedicated full stack programmer and most of us are equipped with design background. We can’t develop a custom App or a SaaS like basecamp.

But looking back, Steve Job released the first bluetiful iMac where it did not try to match the most powerful desktop in the market in term of specification. Rather, he work with the constraints. On our side, we have designers and that is our value proposition.

Although we have ample experience in design and build a digital product, the usual cycle may still take around 1~2 months. To test and validate the idea, we would like to build something fast and roll out quickly. Maybe 12 hrs of design and development where it does not affect our current usual work. This is where I find the idea of tiny product fascinating.

Product that is small, fast and against the current.

All in all, we shall build a beautiful tiny product.