Starting a Design Studio During a Downturn, Part 3: When There’s No There There

If you want to start the year right, start it with a trip to Vegas.

At the start of every New Year, technology companies big and small make a pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. This year, the brand new Kicker Studio was no exception. The halls were somewhat emptier than usual, as many companies had downsized their participation or withdrew from the trade show all together; but we were undeterred.

CES floor While our client Canesta demonstrated our design of their gesture-controlled entertainment center to interested partners, we conducted a surgical strike on the trade show floor. With a demo video in one hand and Dan's new book in the other, we covered every inch of the convention center. We were on a mission: to find more work. Nothing feels as good, and as tiring, as pounding the proverbial pavement of a trade show floor. An astounding number of products suffered from a lack of good design, and we were there to offer our help.

As a new company, we had modest goals. A few billable projects were all that we asked. Hell, we'd take just a single billable project! As a five-person company, it didn't take much to keep us afloat, and compared to what our larger competitors charge, we were a bargain; and in this economy, everyone is a bargain hunter.

But we expected a slow start to the year. The world was counting down to inauguration day, while counting the rising number of jobs lost since the fall. We managed to make a lot of new contacts at CES, but we knew it would take some time before the temperature of our pipeline would thaw. After all, people were still trying to come to grips with the idea of an economic recession. By now, we'd learned to measure our optimism with a dose of sad, hard realism.

canesta By early February, we were pleasantly surprised: we'd started several conversations with companies we'd met in Vegas, and people who'd heard about our company were contacting us out of the blue. Canesta had announced a partnership with Hitachi, and planned to publicly launch our work at the TV of Tomorrow conference in March. We were looking forward to the publicity, and excited to be finally able to showcase our work. We thought our luck had finally changed. We were counting on this new surge of interest to bring in five or six new opportunities, and if all went well, a new project or two. At one point we counted 20 viable project leads--a lot for a studio our size--and wondered how quickly we could scale up if we won even a third of them.

Turns out we needn't have worried, as all 20 leads had evaporated by April.

The recession hit each of our potential clients differently. Some reprioritized their initiatives and put our work on "the backburner." Some went with larger, more established firms who were making huge concessions to win projects that would normally be too small for them to entertain. As the potential project pool got smaller, the pool of agencies bidding for each project grew. And as the newest kids on the block, it was difficult to compete. The landscape had changed, and this meant we needed to rethink our approach to sales.

kicker sales We tried new tactics, such as forging alliances with other design companies who might have more work than they needed. Designers understood us! Surely, they'd give us work! However we'd underestimated the level to which larger firms were affected, and in talking to them found out that there just wasn't enough work to go around. And then when veteran consultancies began reporting layoffs, we knew that the toll the recession had taken on our industry was worse than we'd ever expected.

We spent weeks teetering on a seesaw, so close to being overbooked while also being moments away from bankruptcy. At the start of each month we would look at the money coming in vs. the money owed and try to do magic math. If not for the one client we did have, for whom we were incredibly grateful, we might not have been able to keep our doors open. No one enjoyed the frequent conversations about how far we could last before we closed our doors.

kicker panel But while our six months of sweat and tears had tried our optimism, it hadn't killed our spirits. We realized that in this economy making it six months was an achievement in itself, one definitely worth celebrating. So we decided it was time that we threw a party. We made it a triple play--Jody curated an interactive art show called Tangible Tech in our gallery, Dan hosted a panel discussion on the future of gestures, and we celebrated the launch of our six-month-old baby Kicker. It's important to celebrate the small victories, even though it's sometimes hard to see them peaking out over the pile of losses. Our six-month-anniversary-launch-party was not to be missed.

We also went back to the drawing board, looking at the way in which we presented our capabilities and the work that backed them up. We reevaluated the way we communicated our value proposition. Were we selling ourselves correctly? Were we speaking in terms that our clients understood? Were we differentiating ourselves enough from other design firms? These are good questions to ask yourself in any economy, but doubly important in the current economic climate.

kicker concept We knew our methodology made sense, so we decided that needed to put it to work--for ourselves, as an opportunity to tweak our collaboration process; and for potential clients, to create a case study that could demonstrate our approach to product design. After all, it's always better to show than to tell.

We wanted to pool our talents toward one project that spoke to what Kicker Studio was all about: design from the inside-out. So we created a concept to do just that. While we'd never been ones to sit idle, always devising internal projects and prototypes, doing research and writing, this project would keep us going during the darkest months, and give us something to look forward to by Spring. And by collaborating with each other on this one project--focused on something we were all passionate about--we learned a lot about each other, and the green shoots of a Kicker culture began to emerge.

Next Up: Developing The Kicker Culture

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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