Do Great Work, Repeat

The title is from Greg Story‘s article The Future of the Digital Design Agency in the United States.

I have been thinking about design firms.We can call them agencies, studios, evolutionary consultancies, or whatever. They are the firms that have unique skills, competencies and perspectives that it is difficult to capture or justify inside a company. Sometimes the value or impact is so important that it is better to have the resources in house. We are seeing this tension between agencies and in-house design being played out. Capital One acquired Adaptive Path. TeehanLax shutting down and the principals joined Facebook. SmartDesign shutting down. The misconceptions of working in-house.  This is compared to a bright future for design firms to compete on mindset. To build a new operating model to evolve at least as fast as the world around them.

The design firm is not going anywhere. The design firm, like a startup, has speed as their advantage. Being able to evolve the practice, the processes, the mindset, the tools, the outputs faster than the market while still doing great work is what defines the firms and people.

But there is something in the back of my mind that makes me think the business model is broken. This is most likely just a hangover from my >15 years of thinking about startups, venture capital and growth as the narrative of impact and success. The conversation to me is reminiscent of conversations I have with product companies and founders. It is probably just co-incidence.

Six months to two years of cash on hand is when the “studio is the VC for the org”. This is eerily reminiscent of funding for emerging companies. And it triggers a lot of questions for me:

How should design firms invest their profits? Should they invest in growth? Culture? New companies? Should the new companies come from inside the design firm, i.e., growth by attrition? Is the role for the design firm on that is like a General Partner (GP) at a venture fund? Is it one that is closer to a  Limited Partner (LP) that invests in funds managed by others? Are the skills and people that are capable of growing a design firm that is capable of having both growth and 2 years of operations in profits the same people to build emerging companies? Do skunk works and labs projects generate new businesses or new insights that can be incorporated into client work? Are their alternative monetization strategies and business models for design firms?

For design firms it is clear. Do great work, repeat.