In 2014, Mark Rolston stepped down from the top job in design, as Frog’s chief creative officer, to found his own design firm, Argodesign. Less than five years later, the 45-person Austin studio is being acquired by DXC Technology–a multinational IT company that had $22 billion in revenue in 2018.
“They approached us and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to do some work together. We have customers we need help with.’ And in the midst of that conversation, they said, ‘You know, you’re awfully small, if we put some money into you, how could we help you grow?” Rolston recounts. “One thing led to another, and we ended up here.”
Argodesign would not share terms of the sale, but the firm will continue to run independently on projects like its interface for AI, CognitiveScale, while complementing DXC’s IT expertise–which ranges from IT security, to cloud services, to data management. Argodesign gives DXC the opportunity to offer design services, too. With design now baked into everything in business these days, Argodesign’s expertise in user experience and interfaces could be valuable to DXC’s client roster, says DXC executive vice president Ed Ho. ” Every company in this world is undergoing a digital transformation in one shape or form,” he says. “The user experience we must apply to all our solutions is a key element. What Argo can provide us is strategically important.”
Every Argo employee is being kept, and Argodesign is eyeing new buildings for its own expansion. “The day before and the day after [the acquisition], we look basically the same,” Rolston says. “We’re running our own operations: HR, IT, the things that make a strong studio and design culture.”
So why not stay independent? Many design firms, including Fuseproject, Lunar, Fjord, Matter, Adaptive Path, and Map, have sold to larger companies for financial stability and the peace of mind that comes from not having to chase work. Argodesign is no different. “For every design firm there’s this existential dread that hangs over you: Where’s your next client coming from?” says Rolston. “We’ve done some fantastic work…but tactically, being a design firm every day, always, is a bit nerve-wracking.”
Argodesign has operated on a mix of a traditional studio model, billing clients for work, while also taking profit-sharing bets with new startups. “It takes a while,” Rolston says of those bigger bets paying off. However, just this year, one of its startup partners, Tenor–which powers GIF keyboards on platforms like Facebook Messenger–was acquired by Google. “It doubled our income for a month. And it was, like, ‘Yay, that’s awesome!’ But I can’t build a business plan around it.”
Argodesign has seen 20% growth in head count since 2014. But that growth fell short of Rolston’s ambitions. “You get to a size like this and you have a couple choices in front of you. You set about a humble future here, you know every day you need to be very careful about how many people you hire, what clients you have, and what clients you have in your outlook,” says Rolston. “But I was part of one of the great design firms…I’d love the opportunity to build one of those for myself–but in the way I envision it.”
Suzanne LaBarre contributed reporting.