Lessons learned running an agency for 10 years
In our ten years tenure as a studio, we've learned a lot about building a world-class company.
In the beginning, we were three developers that loved to code. Today, we're a team of multi-talented people designing and developing brands, apps, and experiences every day.
Starting with “why?”
When starting a company, the first question to ask is why? What‘s the reason for the company to exist in the first place. You’ll need a reason that gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you going when the odds stack against you.
We had a passion for building exceptional websites and it didn’t feel there was enough of them on the internet. Too many sites were unusable, poorly designed or didn't consider user needs enough. Even sites that were well designed were often poorly built; slow or badly adapted for mobile devices.
We wanted to fix it and make something better for ourselves and others. We envisioned experiences that were practical, fun and inspiring to use. For us, it was a cause worth waking up for every day.
Making a difference
There was this thing we wanted to prove to the world.
The three of us founders met while working at a global agency in Stockholm. It was a fantastic place in many ways. The team was amazing, the clients were ambitious, and we got to push boundaries of what was possible to make on the web at the time — a win-win for everyone involved.
But as with many agencies, the pressure was high, deadlines unreasonable and stress at levels to burn people out. The side-effects showed in the fast turn-over of staff. It seemed as if someone left the company every week. What we felt was lacking was a balance between work and life. The Scandinavian lifestyle if you will. To encourage people to take care of themselves, take time off, and then do exceptional work at work.
The industry was full of companies burning the midnight oil and it didn’t feel sustainable. We wanted to create a healthy culture. It wasn’t the norm for agencies at the time. Later, this approach became a key ingredient for getting talents to join us.
Bringing in the work
Agencies are relationship businesses.
In the beginning, all our projects came through friends and former colleagues. It was how we got our first clients. Our goal was to expand organically from there.
We wanted word of mouth to carry us forward. And word of mouth is created by doing remarkable work that people talk about. To do quality creative work has always been the essential piece for us keeping the wheels running and clients coming.
Our marketing efforts slowly grew to a mix of channels: Talks, blog posts, side projects, case studies, social media and meeting people in person. These things create a flywheel that spreads the word further. In 2020, we shipped a new 14islands.com that turned out to be a huge boost for the studio. It was amazing to see something we preach, having a stellar site, make such a significant impact on our own business. Our inquiries for new clients more than doubled.
Later that same year we released a side project called Blobmixer. It was an accidental hit, creating a hype that grew our audience to new levels.
At the end of day, what matters the most, is doing exceptional work and fostering good relationships. That beats any marketing strategy in the world.
Culture is a force. It’s invisible, yet powerful.
Parts of our culture were shaped in the company beginning, in the purpose and values we set for ourselves. But more importantly, culture gets formed day by day, in the micro-interactions we have with each other and things we produce as a team.
We believe that culture starts in the hiring process. It‘s always tempting to hire people that are great at their craft, but personalities and soft-skills are core to a good culture.
Finding people that are right for your team takes time but it’s always worth the wait and effort. At 14islands, we lean towards ego-less, positive, and creative personalities.
The journey starts when people join. In the on-boarding experience. In how they’re greeted by fellow team members. And in how they’re integrated into the group.
We’re never perfect, but strive to welcome people properly and foster an upbeat creative culture.
Let's talk about money
We’re a bootstrapped company.
Being bootstrapped means we had to earn money before spending money. It meant we had to pay ourselves low salaries in the beginning to get off the ground. It meant we couldn’t build the company up as fast as we wanted, and sometimes withhold hiring people even when we desperately needed help.
It took us time to build up a good enough reputation to charge well for our services. In the digital markets we’re in and the nice benefits our employees enjoy, we have to charge fairly for our design and development services.
The money side didn’t always feel great in our starting years but today we’re grateful for those early times. It was an education in managing finances and keeping our costs intact.
We didn't have a formal business background and never followed a class book for building 14islands. Our approach was always to figure things out on the fly and we’ve managed to land on our feet.
In the end, we’re most proud that we’ve maintained good client relationships while doing high-quality work and treating employees well.