Eric Karjaluoto

How to Find a Position

In a recent article, I argued that the general-purpose design studio holds limited power and is therefore susceptible to many business challenges. One question that emerged from subsequent discussion was how one might go about establishing a position for a design studio.

The easy answer is differentiation, but this word often leads groups awry because it leaves them asking, “how are we different?” Truth is, most studios aren’t. Instead, they search for descriptors espousing process, or talk about the characteristics of those working within the studio. Unfortunately, the above points aren’t quantifiable, and are of little consequence to most prospective clients.

Whether you describe your studio as progressive, friendly, or “awesome” is largely moot, as creative companies all too casually throw about such terms. Trying to sell process is also difficult. Although your clients might benefit from it, your process is invisible to them until they engage you to do some work. Similarly, customers might stay with you because of your pleasant and knowledgeable staff, but until they’ve worked with you these are just promises. Thus, you can claim to offer some “secret sauce,” or that your people make the difference with their x years of combined service. Nevertheless, tactics like this leave you shouting about things potential buyers don’t care about.

Part of the mistake in employing such approaches, is in thinking the discussion should be about you. I assure you, when you’re trying to sell something, this is not the case. For example: I don’t care about the person selling me the car; I just want something that can get me around. I don’t care about my realtor’s brand; I just want a suitable home for my family. And I don’t care about my travel agency’s world view; I just want to plant my ass on the beach and suck on a margarita. The same dynamic applies for creative agencies: Who you are and how you talk about your company matters far less than what your clients want for themselves.

Determining what a client wants isn’t easy, because most won’t tell you what they really need. Worse yet, groups often use feel-good phrases, which seem appropriate when in a meeting, but mean almost nothing. “We want a partnership. You know? To work with a team that gets us. Ultimately, we’re looking for the right fit.” The new studio owner hears such words and thinks, “awesome—we fit the bill!” In actuality, however, these words describe almost nothing.

Another approach studio owners often employ is to contemplate which area they most enjoy working in, rebuilding all their marketing materials around this one area of specialization. This strategy can work, but it isn’t an easy fix. Even though you say you’re working in mobile doesn’t mean folks will break down your door to hire you (unless you are riding a wave). Selecting an area of specialization is smart, but not necessarily a position—nor does this decision represent a value proposition that will immediately resonate with buyers.

Positioning around a speculative area of specialization comes with pros and cons. The positive aspect of narrowing focus is that doing so can help clarify your message, and might help you determine who to reach out to. If you possess the determination to stick with this plan for long enough, you’ll likely earn more work of the same sort, especially once you’ve proven yourself. This experience can lead to gains in efficiency, as you build out a team with defined roles and responsibilities. You’ll want to be cautious, though, as sometimes areas of specialization are difficult to get a foothold in, or are in the very process of going extinct. For example, we started our agency with the plan to focus on websites built in Flash. Turned out our accessible client base didn’t need this technology—and Flash’s heyday had already passed.

The bigger challenge with specialization at an early stage, is that this decision can limit you from seizing opportunities that might lead you to “blue ocean”—and gigs that will keep you paid in the meanwhile. What I mean, is that some will choose to start a company focused on motion graphics; but then get bombarded with calls for WordPress based websites. They then face the question of whether they turn down these jobs, even though they have little work, and wait for the “right” projects to come; or, whether they’d fare better by taking what’s being offered to them.

I’m of the opinion that so long as you can complete the work successfully, you’re wise to take on some jobs that aren’t in your exact area of specialization—at least when you’re starting out. For most new studios, having some paying work to do is more important than holding out when there’s none. You can gain experience from jobs that aren’t directly related to your chosen area of specialization. In fact, little off-brand jobs can even lead you to opportunities you wouldn’t have happened upon, otherwise.

You can imagine all kinds of wondrous scenarios when daydreaming about business you don’t yet possess. However, the only way I know to definitively learn what clients are willing to pay for, is to witness them doing so. It’s not as though we’ve accepted every job we’ve been asked to look at over the years, but we’ve certainly strayed from our initial plan of building Flash-based websites. Sometimes this was out of pure necessity. For example, in 2001, when we were very new and had few design projects to work on, we were asked to help process a large number of documents for a governmental organization. I think we scanned and ran OCR on around 10,000 pages of documents. Well, I didn’t; we hired a guy to do the job, and then set up a process for him to work through, after which we collected the check.

You don’t want to do scanning jobs? I don’t blame you—I don’t either. But when you’re starting out, you sometimes need to choose between doing something less appealing, or, not getting paid (especially during an economic downturn). Although a lot of those unrelated projects weren’t thrilling, I’m glad we took them on. By working through unfamiliar tasks you learn new approaches, and can often reapply this knowledge to other projects. And if you want to build your own products, this learning can prove invaluable.

We never ended up doing much more large volume scanning, but this could have been a viable business to set-up, at the time. Lots of companies needed to translate their printed archives to digital records, and we could have set up a tidy little business doing this work. Better yet, aside from setting up the systems and hiring some people, I probably wouldn’t have had to touch much of the actual work. This is a nice characteristic in a business you own. The ability to step back and just have it run means you can go on holidays and still be making money.

Many other unexpected projects shaped our company over the years, but I’d like to focus on the one that helped us sort out our own position. We started out, focusing on the digital space; however, we realized many potential clients didn’t need a website, so much as they needed to sort out some big problem. They didn’t know how to reach customers, or, their prospective clients didn’t understand the value they afforded. These groups often needed us to help with broader design services, but often this wasn’t enough.

Eventually, we realized that the one item almost every client needed from us was a plan: some way of making sense of a complex communications challenge and a way to remedy their problem. At first, this work was intimidating. I reasoned that I was a lowly art school graduate, and an MBA-type would be far better suited to such tasks. Turns out, this wasn’t the case. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned that the kind of thinking required to solve these ambiguous problems isn’t the domain of traditional commerce-educated folks. Instead, a more agile mindset—the sort of thinking you develop in art school—is what’s required to make sense of such murky situations.

When you visit our website, you’ll see a lot of the same language as any other design studio. What you might not understand is that much of the work we do is hidden from view, and comes principally from referral. This work is quite profitable and not-so-difficult (given the experience we have). Moreover, I needn’t sell these services, because clients come to us looking for solutions not so easy to find. I can’t openly talk about this work or list this group of clients on our website, as they’re somewhat sensitive about the work we’re helping them do.

The assignments I reference can be nebulous. For example, I’m currently working with a large entertainment company that has built a cutting-edge technology (an altogether new product category) but can’t quite gain traction in the marketplace. I’m helping them sort out how to solve this problem, and determine whether they need to rework the overall proposition they promote to prospective customers. Recently, I worked with a big (multi-billion dollar) brand guiding them in determining what the future of the company might look like. Next, we’re helping an organization sort out how to affect dangerous behaviors common among the general populace.

Am I the perfect person to do this kind of work? I don’t know. However, organizations keep calling us, asking for these services, based on the recommendations of our other clients. I didn’t know we’d be doing this work when we started our company, and this is my point. Our position is one of solving murky communication problems. I didn’t invent this position; this direction grew out of a real need felt by those who hired us. So, we didn’t need to start out knowing exactly what was going to come; instead, we needed to remain receptive to opportunities that presented themselves.

Now, not every gig that comes your way is a sign about how you should position your company. But, you’ll benefit by keeping an open mind about potential opportunities. As you get more gigs under your belt, you might see a pattern in the projects you work on—and gain experience others don’t have. In my mind, this is a viable way to find a position for your company. You don’t need all the answers; you just need to pay attention to what’s happening, and act when the opportunity presents itself.

Forgive me for carrying on. I took the long-form approach to conveying my point this time, because I think context and examples can help lend shape to such a topic. If you want the short-form version, let me sum up all the above like this: Establishing a position is difficult, and trying to invent one can lead you astray. So, instead, use real client requests to help you determine how to position your design studio. Take on jobs—perhaps even unrelated ones—and pay attention to what clients are willing to pay for. Then, consider positioning your company around what you notice a number of different groups are happy to pay you to do.

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