Eric Karjaluoto

Turning the Ship

I was sick of advertising. This presented a sort of problem, as our studio was doing more of this type of work. We first pursued it hoping it would even out our cash flow. As we did, though, I realized how vast the gulf between design and advertising was. While design is about clarification, advertising often seems like a trick. I wanted nothing to do with it, any longer.

Truth be told, I was pretty burnt out in general. My role was less and less about the creative work I loved, and more about project management. Although I was capable in this capacity, it certainly didn’t make me happy. Nevertheless, there were 10 of us in the studio, and someone had to make sure jobs were completed as we’d promised.

I no longer looked to design annuals with awe. I wasn’t excited by new technologies. And I didn’t really care some new studio that was “breaking the mold.” Instead, I started asking myself questions: Why am I doing this? What do I want? Are the things I aspire to really worth the effort? All of this thinking led us to launch a side-project called Deliberatism.

Watch me mess this up

Deliberatism was a paradox. In it, I wrote about balance, while working 70 – 80 hour weeks. I lampooned advertising, while helping clients promote their brands. The weirdest part was in meetings with staff. In these I often talked about how fucked consumerism is—even though we were all working in a design studio. I’m sure some of those folks left for the day wondering what I was smoking.

There was no part of me that should have been running our studio at the time. There are plenty of good projects, clients, and pursuits—but in the state I was in, I could hardly see that. Truth is, I had already moved on to other things—even if my body was still in that physical space. Deliberatism was an effort to turn the ship—but a poorly executed one, and it resulted in a bit of a mess.

For a while, I thought we could feed Deliberatism with smashLAB revenues. I reasoned that as we gained momentum, we’d be able to do more with it. It didn’t work out that way, though. Although you can do two things at once, you can’t run in opposing directions. It’s just too discombobulating to switch gears in this way, on an ongoing basis.

Fallout

In the end, all I did was make a mess of things. The time we put into Deliberatism quickly drained studio funds. Meanwhile, my mindset left me ill-prepared to pursue new design gigs, which left the studio vulnerable to slow-downs. Worse yet, I introduced a lot of confusion for those who worked for us. This is a bad thing. If you run a company, you must lead—and I didn’t. Instead, I let my personal frustrations and exhaustion cloud my vision. I hired those people to work in a design studio, and then entangled them in existential questions they hadn’t signed on for. Bad Eric! Bad!

In the meanwhile, Deliberatism gained some interest, but floundered when studio tasks were more pressing. Studio work continued, but felt less inspired. This diminished morale, and left everyone wondering what we were actually doing. This isn’t how any operation should run. To do your work well—regardless of what you do—you must know your purpose. It’s this clarity that aligns efforts, builds energy, and fuels your pursuits.

This isn’t the first boneheaded thing I’ve done, and it won’t be the last. I share this story with you for one reason: so you can perhaps benefit from my misstep. I’ve talked to countless studio founders who are tired of services work, and want to build a product. If you’re one of these people, I urge you to carefully consider how you’re going to turn the ship.

Lessons learned

With every person your studio has on staff, changing course is more difficult. So, if your studio consists of one or two people, you can start transitioning to doing something else quite easily. However, those with 10 or 20 people are’t quite as well equipped.

This might seem counter-intuitive, as most would reason that a larger shop could reallocate 10% of their resources to such a project—and be fine. The real problem, however, is that overhead is so much higher in such businesses that they need to focus more on cash flow. I know of many small studios who’ve built a successful product. Those built by larger studios, however, are more often stillborn (launched with enthusiasm and fanfare, but abandoned due to limited uptake).

Of course, a smarter approach for most would simply be to determine what kind of a company you want to build—and to then build that. There’s nothing wrong with a services company, if you like running a services company. Meanwhile, a product company isn’t all cupcakes and daiquiris. So, if you’re early on in your business, think carefully about whether your personality is better suited to products or services.

If you already run a services-based shop, and want to make a change, I recommend a few tactics. First, plan on a longer build out schedule. If you drop everything to build a product, you’ll end up off kilter. So, take your time, and transition slowly. Avoid the impulse to leap, as doing so might later force you to correct course—and lose momentum. (The 30/30 principle might work for you.)

Also consider whether your services offering and product might be complementary. If this is the case, you can distribute your earnings sources, adding resilience to your organization. Even more importantly, this approach keeps you from splitting your focus (which, as I just illustrated, can be painful).

Whatever you choose to do, try to think through how it might all work. As you do so, give yourself little latitude. Few companies/projects are outright successes. By planning for low uptake, and even worst-case scenarios, you afford yourself more room to maneuver when obstacles arise.

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