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.

Prototyping science fiction

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” –
Dennis Gabor

Tiago Forte wrote a great piece about “What I Learned About the Future by Reading 100 Science Fiction Books“.  The article is one of the more inspirational posts about how to imagine, define and build a future for humanity. So much of what we as designers do is try to imagine a future. The devices, the interactions, the business models, the behaviours and the implications of choices played out on different timescales.

I also read a lot of science fiction (you can see what’s on my Kindle) but I had never thought about it as providing a near or long-term impact on to my speculations on the human condition. Here are a list of books including the Briand David Johnson book identified in the Tiago Forte piece that I need to add to my library and reading queue.


Photo credit: Ron Brinkmann CC-BY-NC-SA-20

Stories about a future worth creating

Updated: Adding Tobias van Schneider’s The Agency is Dead, Long Live the Agency and Ben Cline’s Design Studios are Not Going Away to list of 

The conversation around the shutting down of TeehanLax has been very interesting and insightful. For me, it has really shown the dominance of the venture fundable, highly scalable startup narrative in relation to technology, design and the human condition.

I have been focused on this narrative. We can call it venture fundable, we can call it scalable businesses, it doesn’t matter what we call it. Being able to build a company with 32 engineers that can surpass an entire industry is seductive. It is the American dream. Anyone can build a company with the scale, wealth and impact of The Social Network. It has dominated the conversation.

But is it the narrative that will allow us to tell stories about “a future worth creating“?

I remember the moment in 1995 where my role models changed. My role models had always been designers and commentators. People like Bill Moggridge, Don Norman, David Kelley, Brenda Laurel, Bill Buxton, John Seeley BrownNathan Shredoff,Lucy SuchmanHerb Simon, Stu Card, Abigail Sellen, Paul Dourish and others. (BTW this list is by no means complete). Designers of experiences and the explainers of behaviour. The moment was the Netscape IPO. It started to shift to David Liddle, Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich and the people that started the research labs and product development groups as companies. Then I was introduced to C. Gordon Bell’s High-tech Ventures: The Guide For Entrepreneurial Success. This was the first time I had read about venture capital and the types of company that can be built. It was eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work about Benchmark that solidified it. I wanted to be a venture capitalist. It was the thoughtfulness, the wealth, the prestige and impact of this group of investors. It was Jim Breyer, Vinod Khosla, Mike Moritz and others. Because the story about new technology, new wealth creation and the ability to change the human condition were compelling. These were companies that affected my own behaviour. And it is still true today, I find myself reading David Skok, Mark Suster, Bill Gurley, Marc Andreessen, Mike Maples, Boris Wertz, Tomasz Tunguz, Reid Hoffman, John Lilly and others.

But is it the narrative that will allow us to tell stories about “a future worth creating“.

The Future of Design Agencies

“The future of design agencies lies not in their ability to become more like their in-house counterparts, but their ability to become more unique. They need to see, speak, and act differently. Their value lies in their ability to describe the changes they see in the world with new language. This, in turn, makes it possible for people to imagine the future differently from the present.” – Matthew Milan

I have not worked agency side in a long time. My only thoughts have been about the economics of scaling a linear business, and this is probably an artifact from a venture fundable view of the world (also see Jon Lax’s talk Let’s Kill the Billable Hour). It is time to start thinking about different narratives. It is  time to look to a new group building new models for inspiration.

I’m looking forward to spending more time listening and learning about different models for impactful businesses. What are the businesses and business models that inspire and intrigue you?

Feature Image – Photo credit Guigui-Lille

Reinventing Email

I was just struck by how similar my GMail experience was to the ReMail work that the CUE team at IBM Research published in 2003.

ReMail by Collaborative User Experience (CUE) team in IBM Research

The experiences are different. But the integration of the GCalendar, live names (think GTalk status), thread size and threaded messages, thread visualization (reminds me of Rapportive), collection categorization (a combination of tags and priority). It’s amazing how prescient this work was almost 10 years ago. Amazing.

The best part is being able to track the researchers on LinkedIn:

Mapping the next three decades of health tech

Envisioning the Future of Health

The good folks at Fast Company sourced an interesting visualization from futurist Michell Zappa and the Envisioning Tech crew. Lots of science fiction, but it provides an interesting analysis based on the breaking down of information silos.

“This visualization is an exercise in speculating about which individual technologies are likely to affect the scenario of health in the coming decades. Arranged in six broad areas, the forecast covers a multitude of research and developments that are likely to disrupt the future of healthcare.”

The article provided interesting links to 2 other visualizations:

NYC vs SF – Startup Costs

The team at Focus.com has provided a fun infographic about the operating costs for a startup in New York versus San Francisco.

Toronto for Comparison

  • Coporate Income Tax Rate – Small Business 15.5%
    • Canada – 11%
    • Ontario – 4.5%
  • Salaries for Employees
    • Software Engineer – $75,000
    • Executive Assistant – $35,000
    • Graphic Designer – $50,000
    • Project Manager – $75,000
    • Web Developer – $55,000
  • Personal Income Tax – 31.15% (assumes range from $40k-$81k)
    • Federal – 22%
    • Ontario – 9.15%
  • Cost of Office Space – $1.67/square foot/month ($2o/square foot/year) (using general listing for A grade space from OfficeZilla)
  • Cost of Utilities/Taxes/etc – $12/square foot/year ($1/square foot/month)
All in all we’re not too bad.

Startup Costs - NYC vs SF

SMASH Summit in NYC

SMASH Summit East 2011Dave McClure and the 500 Startups folks are producing a great looking conference focused on “hack-tics” of customer acquistion. They ran a similar event in April 2010 in SF. – check out tthe presentations on SlideShare and the feedback. At the event speakers provided examples based on real usage and data. David Cowling provided a list of the social media statistics by different speakers (stats current as of May 2010 — so you hope they are crazier 14 months later), they reinforce the power of mass media platform and while fragmented the web/mobile is a great way to reach people (customers, prospects, leads, fans, haters, almost everyone).

  • Twitter has 105,779,710 users. 300K new users per day. 600 million search queries per day. 175 employees.
  • Salesforce thinks that their Youtube channel has the ROI equivalent of 35 super efficient sales reps
  • Facebook says sites that have added Like button have seen triple growth of fans
  • Stumbleupon 2010: 10 Million users, 115,000 Facebook fans, 600 Million stumbles/month, 1 Billion ratings, 45 Million URLs, 50,000 discovers/day
  • Top 5 countries after the US for Facebook usage/traffic: UK, Indonesia, Canada, France, Turkey
  • 70% of Facebook traffic comes from outside the US, 10% increase in the last year alone
  • 37% of tweets originate from mobile devices
  • Most of YouTube’s views are from videos older than 6 months old, invest in a content strategy.

I am hoping that Michael McDerment might apply to tell the FreshBooks metric story at the SMASH Summit. He first gave this talk at DemoCamp back in 2007 but he continues to evolve it based on the FreshBooks business. It’s one of my favs. And given the updated focus on both acquisition and retention it makes it a perfect opportunity for FreshBooks.

SMASH Summit will feature presentations and case studies on strategies, tactics, and “hack-tics” used in successful internet campaigns across multiple platforms—from search to social to mobile. Led by both tech geeks and savvy marketers, you will walk way with new tips and tricks for pumping up your customer acquisition and retention. In 2010, SMASH Summit debuted to a sold-out audience including speakers and attendees from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, Google, Virgin America, National Geographic, Mint, Twilio, Sony, Slideshare, and many others.

I am hoping to attend because I want to see some of the approaches used to acquire customers for $0 dollars. Why? I spent part of Monday, in my role as EiR at VeloCity, asking students and entrepreneurs how they could get to 10,000 (or 100,000 or 1,000,000) users in 30 days with a $0 budget. I’m curious to see both the tactics and the tools that other high traction startups are using to attract and retain customers. Apparently I’ve been spending time understanding marketing and sales automation (again).

Great list of speakers including the infamous Dave McClure (@davemclure), Charlie O’Donnell (@CEONYC), Victoria Ransom (@wildfireapp) and others.


The Science of Word of Mouth

Windows Phone 7 Design Resources

MS Holm Daylight app from Clarity Consulting
MS Holm Daylight app from Clarity Consulting

I updated my Open Source Icons post earlier to include updated list of icons. The interesting part was this brought up some great mobile design and development resources. With the list of available mobile icons being just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Speckboy provides an unprecedented list of resources for mobile developers and designers it includes: Android, iPhone & iPad, mobile web & app testing, .PSDs of different phones, and other mobile platforms.

Tools

Training Materials

UX Guidelines & Tools

WP7 CS4 Design Template
WP7 Design Template for Clarity Consulting

Panorama Navigation

Panorama Navigation on Windows Phone 7

Icons