Starting a Design Studio In a Downturn, Part 1: Taking Leaps

This week’s expert design blogger takes us along for one wild ride: Opening a new firm in the midst of a global economic meltdown.


When Dan Saffer first suggested that I move to San Francisco to be one of the founding partners of a new design studio, I laughed. I remember thinking, “That’s a flattering idea, but he must be joking.” I was immersed in other things at the time–leading a 25-person User Experience team at HUGE, training for the New York City triathlon, and in contract on new construction in Brooklyn–not to mention on another coast. I liked my life (and my income, to be honest) and had never seriously considered starting my own studio. Too much risk!


My philosophy on risk, especially someone else’s, has always been something like “might as well give it a try, and worst-case scenario you end up back where you started.” In the case of my own opportunities, that’s often preceded by a requisite “no, that’ll never work” line of defense (see above), but eventually “what’s the worst that can happen” gives me permission to take an opportunity seriously long enough to decide whether or not I believe in it. This philosophy got me to move to Italy for graduate school at Interaction Design Intitute Ivrea and gave me the courage to step up into a director role as a new hire at Schematic. Had the new studio been in NYC, it would have been so much simpler. But leaving my life as I knew it, and committing indefinitely to a life in a new city was a lot to swallow.


But over the next several months, I pushed past “that’ll never work” and started listening. Dan had given a new company a lot of thought, and had strong ideas about what kind of studio we would be. I believed in him, and as I began contributing to the conversations with the other new partners, I started to realize that I also believed in me. While I enjoyed challenges of management and I’d learned a ton about agencies and operations, I missed doing the actual design work. Being in a small agency allows one to be able to think strategically and execute on a vision, which is hard to do in a large design agency. I was ready to put my experience to work on creating a company from scratch, whose success was on us to make happen. I also wanted to get back to more physical interaction design, working with embedded technologies to make everyday objects more desirable, responsive and adaptive to our needs.

The founders all had similar notions of design, creativity, and the kind of culture we wanted to create–critical if you’re going to start a company together. We were smart and capable. It just might work. We laid out a plan for how we might get to day one, and I started trying the idea on for size. “I’m thinking of moving to San Francisco,” I’d tell people, to see if they thought I was crazy. “What if I started my own company?” I’d ask friends and trusted colleagues, to see if they’d talk me down. And no one did. Obviously risk doesn’t seem quite as risky when it belongs to someone else, but the support I got from friends and family really kept me going while I made the mental leap from possibility to reality. If you’re thinking about a new idea, I’d recommend this approach: try the idea on for a while by telling people it’s real.


Of course these were the days of blissful ignorance, when everything was imaginary and lived only in Google docs. Our little studio was a happy hypothetical one, with a mission statement, marketing plans, brand attributes and a three-year plan. We knew who we wanted to be when we grew up and how we would avoid becoming our parents. We held a summit among our soon-to-be partners, finalized our plans, and registered as real-live business in California. We were excited, and energized, and not even all that scared. Then again, we hadn’t quit our jobs yet.

Truth be told, the downturn hadn’t quite hit its full stride when we decided to start the company, now called Kicker Studio. The economy wasn’t rosy, as I recall, but we still had banks. Our first day open, however, the Dow dropped over 500 points. It made the list of Time’s top 10 stock market meltdowns. Not a good day to open for business. It brought home the reality of the decisions we’d made. We were open for business, in the new, horrible economy.


Next Up: The First 15 Weeks

Related Stories:
Introducing Guest Blogger Jennifer Bove: Kick-Starting a New Firm in Trying Times

Read 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.