Starting a Design Studio In a Downturn, Part 2: The First 15 Weeks

The first three months of any startup endeavor is full of new things. How soon can we get the Web site up? Which logo do we like? Do we have an NDA? How about a fax template? We could really use some coffee mugs, a whiteboard and our own trashcans. If only we had some income, we might be able to buy these things. Oh what an exciting day that will be!

kicker desk Kicker Studio opened for business in September 2008, as the economy around us collapsed. We didn't have seed money, or investors, or clients, or even a starter project lined up. But thanks to our partner Mike who had a studio and a shop, we had an office to go to, and desks to sit at, even if we couldn't afford trashcans.

A few curious clients got in contact with us before we even had our official website up. We were so excited--people were already asking for us and we hadn't even set up shop! We were all abuzz. The first proposal we tackled was particularly challenging, as we didn't yet know what a Kicker proposal looked like, who would write which part, or which partners' model from a previous company we should follow. Added to that was the complication of collaboration across time zones, as Dan Saffer was traveling in Tokyo, Tom Maiorana and Mike Scully were in San Francisco, Jody Medich was at Burning Man, and I was in New York. You might say that we did that one by the seat of our pants; and, not surprisingly, we didn't get the work.

kicker logoIt's amazingly easy, when you're starting a new business, to forget everything that you've learned. In particular: sales is a numbers game, that sales cycles can often be long and unpredictable, and that not all leads--or even intense interest in your company--lead to project work. Innocents that we were, we forgot all of those things for the first few months, and got so excited by every possible lead that came in that you'd think each was a Wonka Golden Ticket. We were surprised by the new kind of energy that goes into everything when your business depends on it. When it's a matter of survival, it becomes much more visceral. And personal.

Alongside our early adventures in inventing our sales pitch, we sent out our first round of "Hello! We're here! Please hire us!" emails to friends, family and business contacts. And we excitedly awaited the responses from the hoards of friends of friends who'd be dying to have us design products for them. And we waited, and waited. We thought that it was only a matter of time before an amazing opportunity found us--here we were, ready to work. But the emails never came in, the phone never rang. Dan even tested that the phone was actually working several times.

We came to understand that the massive downturn in the economy meant no one was spending money on anything, let alone a brand new company like Kicker. Sometimes there are more factors in play than a business plan can predict, and our plan was shot to hell. Timing is everything.

kicker whiteboardBut thanks to our connections, we had our first billable work within our first weeks of business. With our old-economy thinking, mixed with new-company optimism, we estimated that it might take six weeks or so for us to land our second client. And we weren't really prepared for what would happen if it took longer than that. How would we pay the bills if we didn't bring in new business by January? How long could we continue without work? We considered all the usual ways companies get by when they're starting out--taking on freelance work, private loans, small business loans, and lines of credit. These were hard questions to answer, and the first of many times we'd have to ask them over the coming months.

There were days we'd come into work and not know what to do. But the truth is there's always something to be done; the trick, especially for a new business, is continually inventing new things. We wrote blog posts, worked on sales materials, and created little projects that kept us learning and gave us something to talk about. For example, we still needed a whiteboard, so Tom made one out of tileboard, Kickerized it, and turned it into a blog post and instruction set for making your own DIY whiteboard. Core77 picked up the story the next day. We were so proud. And we learned something important: in order to do things that other people will be interested in, you need to do things that you find interesting.

kicker gestures About two months into the Global Economic Crisis we finally landed our very own project, thanks to a referral from our friends at Stimulant. Silicon Valley technology company Canesta needed help designing a gestural language and interface for an entertainment center using their camera technology. As Dan's book Designing Gestural Interfaces was about to be released, the timing could not have been better. We finally had our chance to do what we'd set out to do: design a product from the inside-out, designing the behaviors and the interface in tandem. I will never forget the fun we had collaborating on that project, designing our ways of working together as we designed gestures for controlling a TV. It was the moment we knew we had done the right thing in starting Kicker.

By the time I packed up my Brooklyn apartment and headed west for good in January 2009, Kicker had already completed our first project with Canesta, and had a product demo on display at the Consumer Electronics Show. Things were finally looking up. In retrospect, that first 15 weeks were telling of how the next six months would go--a roller coaster ride with extreme highs and lows. And over the next six months we'd continue to learn that no extreme is long lived--there are new extremes around every corner.

Next Up: When There's No There There

Read Jennifer Bove's blog Design in the New Economy
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Jennifer started her multifaceted career in tangible and interaction design at the circus--quite literally--at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. In the last 13 years, she has created multi-platform products and services for myriad clients including Nokia, Yahoo!, BBC, Gucci, and American Express. Her design management background includes the Prada Epicenter store in New York, which inaugurated a new paradigm of tangible retail experiences. Jenn is fluent in French and Italian, and has lived and worked in the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany. Before Kicker, Jenn was VP of User Experience at HUGE and at Schematic, and is on the faculty at New York's School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design. Her work has been exhibited throughout Europe, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Jennifer has a Masters in Interaction Design from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.

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2 Comments

  • Jim Gray

    This series is one of the most realistic pieces I've read. It has a pulse on the pros/cons of a startup. I took a bunch of notes in Evernote for reference. I started my own consulting gig after getting laid off last November.