The local product design economy

Update: I changed the verb acquiring to joining. A lot of the chatter has been about how this is not an acquisition. And I agree. It is not. As the post states at the top, TeehanLax is shutting down. It is reminiscent of the Smart Design closing (see Dan Safer’s post) and some of the reasoning behind the Adaptive Path acquisition by Capital One. It sucks. But I’m not planning on leaving Toronto, and I’m celebrating my friends like a wake and trying to understand the implications. 

TeehanLax is shutting down. This is getting a lot of coverage:

Why so much coverage? Well it is because TeehanLax was one of the best design firms around, if not the best in Canada. They designed 2 of my favourite apps: Prismatic and Medium. You could see the tension between the services side of their business and the desire/pull of being a product company.

BarCamp Toronto

I first met Jon and Geoff back in 2004. It was after the release of their PVR report comparing the user experiences of the Bell and Rogers PVRs to TiVO. They had an interesting approach, doing interesting work, just trying to build a different kind of company. That was evident when Jon agreed to host BarCamp Toronto in November 2005. It was a different approach than Sapient, ModemMedia, Scient, Viant, Razorfish or other agencies in Toronto were taking. It wasn’t a client development strategy, it wasn’t a recruiting strategy, it was an offer to participate in the conversation.

Photo by John Lam https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_lam/67605248

Photo by John Lam

The shutting down of a company that I described last week as a “building big, impactful [indie] company” is interesting. Jon, Geoff, David (Jeremy, Peter, Tamera and the entire team over the years) you built a company that I respected. And I am very happy that you’ve made the best decision for you and your families. It’s your company, you get to make the decisions, so don’t listen to the naysayers.

Photo by Tom Purves https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomaspurves/3328461206/

Photo by Tom Purves

Here are a couple of observations about one of my favourite design firms shutting down in Toronto.

  1. Short term: design talent availability
    There is a bunch of design and development talent that is available for other Toronto companies to hire. These people have been trained in one of the best design cultures in Canada.  They produced an environment that produced some of the best products in the world.  If anyone from the TeehanLax team needs connections to interesting companies please drop me a note and I will do my best to connect you.
  2. Short term: More people evaluating Toronto companies for acquisition
    This is the third Toronto design and development company acquired in the past 24 months. JetCooper acquired by Shopify. Xtreme Labs acquired by Pivotal. Now TeehanLax shutting down and joining Facebook. This is important. Toronto is a great place to acquire talent. Hopefully there is an equal respect for the design and development work being done here. (This excludes the amazing talent like Mike Beltzner, Mike Shaver, Scott Boms, Sam Ladner and others).
  3. Longer term: The loss of a gravity centre for design talent
    There are other places that are gravity centres. Pivotal Labs is a great place for engineers and designers to learn the power and efficiency of paired environment. Farhan and team are doing wonders to explore and implement a very powerful cultural tool. TeehanLax built a culture that produced great digital products and experiences.

    “We were happiest when the products we were creating reached our standards. We were happiest when we spent time thinking about how to create the conditions and circumstances for this to happen. We were happiest when we were working with our team members.”

    It will be interesting to see if the T+L diaspora can have an impact on the ecosystem like the Trilogy diaspora in Austin or IDEO diaspora in Palo Alto.

  4. Services firms are not destined to be huge companies
    The back of the napkin math I use to calculate a services business is approximately $200k in revenue per employee. Sold at under 5x EBITDA (given a 20-30% margin and averaged revenue of past 2 years plus forecast using error correction of previous forecast, lets say 1x revenue). There is great business, it’s just a hard business to scale nonlinearly. And when “someone slides a number across the table big enough that you just can’t say no”  a product company that is scaling like crazy is likely to be able to slide a bigger number than a services company. It feels like we’re seeing that ceiling being hit by XtremeLabs (sold to Pivotal), TeehanLax (joining Facebook), JetCooper (sold to Shopify), maybe BNotions (AK has departed for Gallop Labs).
  5. Opportunity in the product/design/user experience space
    TeehanLax was a design firm. It was a design firm that respected technology. There are other firms in Toronto that are a mix of product, design and technology including Normative, SayYeah, BoltMade, Nascent, TailoredUX among others (including those with a more technology focus VennPivotal LabsOK Grow!Isle of CodeThe Working GroupBNOTIONSEndLoop StudiosUnspaceRangle.ioPeople & CodeDigiflareFunctional ImperativeMetaware Labs).  TeehanLax showed that it was possible to build a world-class design shop in Toronto. I’m hoping someone realizes this is the combination of the caliber of the output, the process to build the culture and the requirement of building the business/revenue streams.

Interesting times in Toronto. Congratulations to Jon, Geoff and David. Thank you for being amazing. And the best of luck on your journey.