Starting a Design Studio During a Downturn, Part 5: Staying Focused

Kicker Studio has come a long way since our start in September 2008. Although the recession has certainly taken its toll and kept us from doing what we'd planned, it's also helped us do things we hadn't expected. And those things may have helped us grow in important and unexpected ways.

Over the past ten months, we've had to take things in stride, recognizing opportunities in disappointment, and celebrating successes with moderated excitement. We've learned to follow our intuition and do what we enjoy; and we've had the fortune to have seen and played with technologies that won't be around commercially for years. And the work we've done to stay together has taught us how to be a true team.

As for me, it's been a trying year; but asked today if I'd do it again, I'd say yes. I can't imagine doing anything else. Here's why. We believe in staying focused on some simple things that have kept us going:

kicker sketchMark your successes.
Our concept project, The Kicker Touchscreen Conference Phone was a success. We enjoyed the process, and we're proud of the outcome. We've had a great response from the design, gadget, and VOIP communities and a lot of interest in where we're taking it next. (We've got a waiting list of buyers for once we get it built!) More importantly, we learned a lot about working together, and proved to ourselves that our collaborative approach to product design works.

Since then, we've met the challenges of the new economy head on and come out fighting. We had a strong message, and now a strong showpiece. So when our pipeline began to thin again, we did what any designers would do--primary research. We needed to get our message to the right people. So we talked to experts in the field, devised a plan, and charged ahead. It's all or nothing when your business's future is on the line.

kicker-phoneDesign what moves you.
It hasn't been easy, but we've pushed ourselves to explore what it means to create work that has meaning for us, designing concepts that are deeply personal while still having relevance as Kicker projects. For example, we collaborated on a short exercise to design a concept phone for my father, addressing his communication issues specifically. Projects like these remind us that while it's important to do what you're good at, it's equally important to do what moves you.

Engage the community.
We've had a lot of good press for a company so young, with coverage in publications like Crunchgear, Boing Boing, Core77 (twice!), Wired, and now Fast Company. We're lucky to be well supported by the design community as well--our blog Kick It has nearly 1000 RSS subscribers, and we've got over 1000 followers on Twitter. We've been given opportunities to engage the community in conversation through speaking engagements and blog posts, and contribute to research studies on designing for new interactions.

kicker danDon't get fooled by your pipeline.
We've got clients: four of them! For the first time this year, we're all engaged in billable work. We're still focused on new opportunities, and new leads are coming in every day.

But we're not so easily fooled. Unemployment numbers rose again in June, and we've been here before. We still have no idea what the next six months will be like. But because of the work we've done to get here we're stronger, and we're ready for what comes next.

Reflect, review, reassess.
Kicker Studio will be officially a year old next month. We're one of many stories of startups who have hung in through a trying first year, and when we celebrate that fateful opening day in September, we'll do what most new companies do: reflect on the past year, review our plan, and reassess our goals. We'll be especially thankful that we've made it this far; hopeful that we're through the worst the economy has to offer.

But really, we're just getting started. As we continue to grow, we look forward to new challenges that require a different kind of discipline and focus. Of course we'll continue to change over time, refining our roles, strategically defining organization through the people we hire.

This experience has taught us that even in the toughest financial climate, being passionate about what you do, and focusing on the future really does count for a lot. It's going to get a lot harder before it gets easier, and for it to work, it will be work. You won't make a lot of money at first, but there are other rewards. And hey, if you're going to get laid off, at least you get to give yourself the boot.

We're excited about where we're going. I hope you are too. Follow our progress on our blog, Kick It, or via Twitter.

[Illustration by Tom Maiorana]

Read all five installments in Jennifer Bove's blog Design in the New Economy
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

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.

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Felix Desroches

    Hang in there guys: the great work your shop is pumping out, in addition to the fabulous personalities your bring to the table, are worth fighting through a recession.

    Quick question: how much overlap would you say there is between billable work and design that moves you?