Money or Honey?
Or how to grow an agency from 2 to 20 employees in 2 years while staying perfectly sane.
Zajno is a quality-oriented design-centered international digital product agency. And we recently turned 2 years old! How cool is that? We realized that it’s about time to share our story, so everybody can learn something from our mistakes and gains. A lot of things happened during these 2 years. We downsized our team a little (which is not easy at all) and managed to maintain a high level of efficiency. Now it’s time to grow in height as professionals, and not in numbers. In order to achieve that we have to be aware of what is happening around us and educate each other as much as we can. Constant professional growth and innovation is what we’re after.
What is Zajno?
My name is Sasha and I’m 24. I’m Design Director and Founder of Zajno with 5+ years of experience in digital design. I am really into designing interfaces for innovative products aimed to revolutionize “the game”. I set the bar high and always try to raise it even higher as I go. I believe many of us considered starting their own business, agency, studio — you name it. I prefer to call it a team of soulmates that are united by a common goal. I used to work at many companies where I felt as a tool in hands of mediocre people. It just didn’t work for me. I shifted between doing freelance and working for in-house teams. And one day I decided to start my own team because I felt like the companies out there making complex business solutions did not always deliver great value, and I really wanted to create meaningful and thought-out digital products. And a chance of getting out of the local market and going global also warmed my heart.
Did I know where to start? I thought I did. At least I felt that way back then. Fortunately, my friend, who got fed up with endless routine cycle at that point approached me and asked to teach him the ways of the force, as he wanted to become a designer. Together we jumped straight at it. So many questions to answer — what, where, how, and most importantly — why. The “where” question was the easiest one to answer since we got help from a friend of mine, who had a house that became our first “office”. Yeah, it had nothing to do with the Aviato HQ from Silicon Valley where Pied Piper was established, but I was as motivated as never before.
So many questions to answer — what, where, how, and most importantly — why.
You might wonder what the name “Zajno” stands for. I have been dreaming about verbal communication with no limits and supported any idea of creating a universal language. Roots of the word Zajno come from Esperanto. Basically, the word Zajno has no sense till you add letters D and E at the beginning of it. And that’s how you get deZajno (simply, design).
Quality or Quantity?
Quality was the thing that guided us as the Northern star guides the men of the sea. You’ve got to create something meaningful, because otherwise there’s no point in doing it, right? We were following this golden rule as we were progressing, where I was responsible for the art direction, pushing those pixels non-stop, and my friend was honing his skills in managing projects we were getting.
Quality was the thing that guided us as the Northern star guides the men of the sea.
Every design decision we made had to be based on solid ground, it had to make sense for the users and for business within the context. Logic and clear structure is king. And I believe that there is nothing impossible for quality-oriented companies and individuals. Our understanding of this rule strengthened as the number of clients addressing us was growing.
After 18 months of roaming we became a team of 20. There was no time for us to mess around anymore. We started transforming our flat company structure into something more efficient and easier to manage. We now had departments — design, art and development. When you stay small, there is always a personal touch as to how you interact with people within the company. The more you grow, the less boutique you become. But it was hard to realize at that time due to heavy project load and lots of things to cope with. Being as large as we were, it was extremely hard to sustain the quality of projects whilst supplying the entire team with interesting and meaningful work.
We started to chase quantity in order to be able to maintain such a big team. And that’s something that led us off our initial course. That was the point when we had to say goodbye to some of our team members that stopped growing as professionals. To some extent it was our fault as leaders who couldn’t get our point across clearly enough, as the ones who speak should bear responsibility for getting their message across. At the same time, scaling back the number of team members and keeping only the ones who really cared felt like a gulp of Topo Chico after wandering the desert for weeks without a drop of water.
Failures aren’t deadly
They make you stronger if you can see the reasons behind those failures and learn from them. So we did, and I’d love to share some of the things we’ve learned along our journey.
Quick growth can be toxic to a company, especially if you are quality oriented and are just learning management the hard way. Therefore, it’s better to take it one step at a time and not to succumb to the temptation of growing in numbers;
Do your best to work with clients that understand the value in design and that share your values as a team. Pay attention and be aware when things are not quite going the way you expected them to, as different perspectives might result in misunderstandings along the way. And the best you might end up with would be another project that doesn’t get launched. The moment you smell something funky — run as hard as you can!
Feel like gambling? Then always begin client work without the down payment. This is something that might leave you with nothing but a “Thank you” once a client thinks that what you are delivering doesn’t fit their expectations. Unfortunately, that kind of judgment rarely has solid reasoning. Although it might seem like a competitive advantage over those who don’t begin work without a down payment, but that also has a reason for it, don’t you think?
Always sign a contract with your client prior to beginning work. And do outline the terms and conditions of cooperation so that there will be no surprises as you move forward, and both you and client know what to expect. Firstly, it’ll help to stay within the exact scope you discussed initially and might even save you from endless revision rounds. Secondly, it might be really tempting to get the down payment quick and begin work, but what if a client decides he doesn’t want to work with you in the middle of the project? Then you won’t have any proof that the work you did was not paid for;
People like some sort of certainty. And that’s what makes good design studios different. Would you buy a vehicle if you weren’t sure how far it would go without having to undergo service? Knowing that a client is guaranteed “tangible” (a funny adjective when describing digital things) results will keep him more certain about working with you. But please, make sure you can deliver those guarantees. It’s a matter of finding a balance between client expectations and your ability to provide great solutions. This doesn’t mean that you have to be overconfident — that can also be bad, but that’s a whole another story.
What were the challenges that you had to overcome when starting your own business? What were the failures that made you stronger and that you’d like to share with others? We would be happy to hear what you’ve got to say!
P.S. — Leave a comment and tell us how we can improve our storytelling for next time, ask us a question, arrange to meet up, or make a suggestion for a follow up piece.
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