24 Oct 2011

Running a Distributed Design Agency: a One Year Retrospective

Almost exactly a year ago, my partner

24 Oct 2011
the outdoor home office

the outdoor home office

Almost exactly a year ago, my partner Jason and I decided to start an agency. This is not an odd or unusual decision for designers with over a decade of experience like ourselves. But we chose to do things a little differently. Instead of renting a shiny office space and hiring some full time employees, we chose to start a distributed virtual agency. What does that mean? It means we have no permanent office and no full-time employees. We have a website and some cloud-based apps that tie us together. It is not how the world traditionally imagines an agency, but to be honest, we feel this model works much better.

It’s been an awesome adventure, at times a rather wild ride, and after a full year of this experiment, I wanted to give an extremely subjective report of how it went and what’s next.

Why Did We Do It?

As designers, we often found it quite difficult to be successful as employees within enormous corporations. I have to admit, I find it humorous that many companies want to emulate Steve Job’s success, but then they decide the best way to do it is to hire a bunch of designers … at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. Without the power to truly drive product design decisions (and that includes the schedule, the feature set, and at times the means for implementation), designers are so often set up to fail within typical technology corporations. So even though Jason and I had many wonderful colleagues brimming with talent, experience, and skill at the big companies where we worked, we did not feel we were doing meaningful, successful and well-designed work that shipped and succeeded in meeting user needs.

As consultants however, we tend to be hired “outside the system.” Consultants and agencies are usually brought in to fix something that isn’t working and/or provide expertise that has been recognized as missing within a team or company. This means we start from a position of strength and respect. Furthermore, as outside agents, we are hired for a specific task or project, not as amorphous employee objects to be assigned and re-assigned wherever management sees fit. This kind of defined scope for consultant gigs certainly helps with the success of design and designers.

Jason and I had both also worked extensively as independent consultants, but we both ran into limitations of trying to be a one person team. As individuals, we could not provide all the interaction design, visual design, front-end development and/or research that our clients typically wanted within the time-frame required. Therefore, bringing in other folks to round out our skill set made perfect sense.

But why a distributed agency you may ask? Why not a typical brick and mortar agency in downtown San Francisco, or somewhere similarly schmancy? We thought about the traditional office model, I have to admit, but in the end we decided that the advantages of the distributed model far outweighed the traditional approach. So, let’s look at the benefits of our model for our clients, for our consultants, and for us.

Benefits for our Clients

The biggest benefit for our clients of our distributed model is super flexible teams. Does this project need a researcher or three researchers? Does it need a project manager at all or can we skip that? Is front-end development going to be handled by the client or the agency? These questions vary of course from project to project. So instead of forcing clients to accept some predefined team and process that an agency is tied to, we can be super-flexible and just assign the people needed. This leads to much more streamlined, efficient and successful projects, every time.

We also can pull talent from anywhere, regardless of geography. If there isn’t a stellar logo designer available physically in the same geographic area, no matter. We have hired designers in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the Ukraine. The entire world is truly our only limit.

Last, but in no way least, we can offer lower prices for the same work done by traditional agencies. The math is simple. Our overhead is lower, and we pass on those savings to our clients.

Advantages for our Consultants

The biggest win for our consultants is work/life balance. Our people are free to work where they like, how they like and for the most part, when they like. They can choose their projects, and they can define their own schedules. For designers, this is huge. Morning folks and night owls can work as suits them best. People with kids can work around school schedules. Vacations, hobbies, events and other personal pursuits can all be accommodated. And if there is one thing I know for sure, happy designers are far better designers.

By allowing our consultants to set their own schedule and determine their own work environment, we allow designers to set themselves up for getting into the flow and staying there as long as they need to.

I have found that for the most part, most designers tend to introspection and long hours of solitary work. It’s not that we designers aren’t collaborative, it’s just that there is a lot of pixel pushing and hard thought that goes on between the bouts of collaboration, and cube farms are generally not good for this kind of concentration. So allowing designers to work from their own studios almost always produces a higher caliber of results as well.

Finally, consultants make more money. There’s that, enough said.

The Wins for Us

Now the advantages for us as a distributed agency are quite simple and derivative of the advantages for our clients and consultants. We have very low overhead, and we can be super flexible and pivot our business on a dime. If we decide, for example, to ratchet down our services business and focus on building our own software products, no problem! If we want to scale up or down in volume, it’s easy!

Without a full-time staff and office rent, we can evolve, grow and change with our personal goals and also the ever-changing nature of working in technology. We can also easily experiment with different kinds of clients, projects and processes without making huge and costly commitments. Quite frankly, considering the speed with which technology changes here in Silicon Valley, I do believe the flexible agile model for agencies is only going to grow in popularity over the next decade.

The Future

So what is next for Cloudforest Design and our merry band of creatives? A one-year milestone is a great time for this kind of introspection, and I have been thinking a lot about our future. Our biggest goal is to find more awesome clients that we can really help. This year we have gone far in figuring out the kinds of companies and projects where we work best, and now the challenge is to find more of them. We are also thinking hard about how to attract and keep more of the awesome design talent we have been honored to work with this year.

We are also beginning to consider branching out into our own software products and educational products as well. There is an overwhelming imbalance between the massive number of developers and paucity of designers in the world, and that is not going to change soon. So how do we educate more people of all backgrounds to become better design thinkers? What educational materials, classes, ebooks and blog posts can we provide to increase the general design awareness and sensibilities in the technology sector? Are new tools needed to improve communication and management in projects that span design, engineering, and product teams? These are the questions and challenges we hope to tackle in the upcoming year.

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