Crossing the Product Chasm

This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs. –Farrah Gray

When it comes to design, most companies have at some point found themselves at a crossroads, choosing between doing work in-house or hiring an agency. There are many factors contributing to this tension, not the least of which is shifting priorities in business in terms of the importance of design as a core competency. It seems, however, that the more important design becomes to business, the more businesses are inclined to try their hand at developing in-house talent. This presents a challenge for agencies. As the work shifts, how do we shift accordingly? And what would the goals of such a shift entail? Competing more effectively with the in-house option? Diversifying away from the consulting business model? One path might offer advantages on both fronts.

Just as businesses are bringing design in-house, there has long been a desire among agencies to mirror that behavior and bring their product ideas in-agency. As consultants, at Jackson Fish Market we’ve chosen a path where we get to work on many different products. We like that. But we also yearn for the day when we can direct product without constraint and reap revenues that scale exponentially instead of on a linear path. Developing our own products and services based on our own intellectual property not only diversifies our portfolios, but it also gives us more credibility with potential clients—we don’t just design things, we know how to bring them to market. This is the kind of real-world accountability that differentiates one agency from the next and will be more and more important in the future.

Bringing our own ideas to the marketplace can seem very compelling, as we help other companies do it all the time. How much harder could it be to do it ourselves? It’s true that we have many of the pieces in place, but the challenges for an agency bringing a product to market aren’t necessarily traditional. The main difficulty in making the leap from consulting to products is a function of the core nature of the consulting business. Consulting is feast or famine. As an agency, we’re used to jumping when the work is available because the work might not always be there. We have to eat when there’s food.

But creating products requires an investment of time and money. And that investment needs to be dedicated, focused and, as much as possible, uninterrupted. The single most important thing we do at our small firm to maintain our product focus is to say no to consulting work. We have said no to very interesting and profitable jobs because we knew that they would consume us. And while we love our client work (not to mention the clients themselves), we also know that in order to create a diversified business and have real-world experience marketing to and supporting customers, we need to have our own products in the marketplace. If we said yes to all of the work, yes to all the growth and yes to all the opportunities that have come our way, we never would have shipped any of our own products.

Saying no is extremely difficult. It goes against the fundamental physics of the successful consultancy. But it’s necessary. Once we learned how to do that, we realized that our core values as a company spanned both our consulting and our product-focused work. Once we were able to be consistent in the amount of effort we dedicated to our non-consulting efforts, we found that our core values as a company scaled to whatever work we were doing, whether consulting or product-focused.

Ten to fifteen years ago this would not have been nearly as doable. The advent of DIY tools for creating products and services—whether it’s cloud services like Amazon Web Services, marketing tools like HootSuite or even 3-D printers—has lowered the barrier of entry to creating your own products.

It’s true that as creative agencies we each have expertise in helping companies design and bring amazing products to market. We can use that expertise internally. What we need to do is promote that effort from hobby or side-project to a prioritized effort within our organizations—in a sustainable way. There’s no telling how many products you’ll have to create until one succeeds. But when one does, you’ll be able to tell your clients that you’ve got real chops when it comes to delivering products to market successfully, and you’ll have a diversified revenue stream so you can be even more choosey about which projects you take on in the future.

Crossing the chasm from being a consultancy to an “agency + product” business helps solve the challenges of diversification and competing with in-house teams. More importantly, for us at least, it’s pretty exciting. And isn’t that why we look forward to coming to work every day?