Growing pains: The first year of Kickpush
Kickpush is a product design studio in London. Founded in 2014 by Alex Deruette and Sam Applebee, later joined by Simon Brunet, Aloïs Castanino, Zoe Fay and Harry Cochran.
Kickpush designs have been featured as Best new apps on the App Store and received a nomination for a Global Mobile Award.
In May 2016 we’ll move into Second Home, the coolest space in London. Just off Brick Lane, it’s opposite the house where Alex and I lived together and joked about starting an agency more than 5 years ago.
Why should you read this article?
People enjoying success have a tendency to tell their stories in a positive light, focusing on the good bits and the things that they are doing right. Not on purpose, but because people are always telling them what a good job they’re doing.
Ultimately, though, success depends upon the ability to face up to and overcome difficulties. That and a whole load of luck.
“Success depends upon the ability to face up to and overcome difficulties. That and a whole load of luck.”
People also seem to be reluctant to share the intimate details of their journeys, as if they are under the impression that the whole world might copy them.
Often it’s just the worry that they might be doing something wrong. After spending so much effort building a good reputation, who wants to risk accidentally coming across as incompetent?
By sharing some of the challenges that we had to deal with during our first 12 months in business as a fledgling agency, we hope to give more would be entrepreneurs the confidence to start their own companies.
How do you even start an agency?
With passion, patience and persistence.
“Starting Kickpush was all about passion, patience and persistence.”
Alex, my old friend and an excellent designer, tried 5 times unsuccessfully to convince me (a business school graduate) to start an agency with him.
We actually came up with the name Kickpush in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the timing was right and we were ready.
Alex: “We can deliver amazing quality designs!“
I wasn’t having any of it. There was no story to tell!
Sam: “Yes but what’s going to make us different to any other agency? Why do you want to start one in the first place?”
It took three months of conversations to hit upon an idea worth starting a company around.
Alex: “What I really hate is when I get given a project and never get to speak to the client. I could do a much better job if I actually got to know the person behind the idea and feel their passion.”
We finally had an angle: Get our designers as close as possible to clients and focus on personal relationships.
“We finally had an angle: Get our designers close to clients and focus on relationships.”
It took a lot of debate to settle on an idea. Looking back, this was the beginning of a frustrating path to greater self-awareness and deeper understanding between Alex and I (more on that later).
We spent the next 6 months brand building, experimenting with different financial scenarios, and trying to figure out where we would get clients, space, and everything else you need to be a real company.
Kickpush launches (hooray!) and we immediately realise that we’ll constantly be problem solving (hooray!).
Where the hell are we going to work?
None of us had much money and we weren’t about to try and get investment, but we needed a place to work!
Alex: “Simon, Aloïs and I will move in together in Bromley-By-Bow.”
Sam: “Where even is that??”
It sounds like something out of a mockumentary about Silicon Valley startups, but that’s exactly what they did.
Out of central London so rent was reasonable and there was enough space for a home office without working from bed.
Rent for your business shared with rent for your home = low overheads.
Desks in the living room, then. Problem solved. Next!
We still don’t have any cash…
Which meant no money to pay people a full time wage, no money to pay for admin stuff like legal, and no money to spend on marketing.
They say constraint drives creativity and we were forced to get pretty creative about our operations (which is just a fancy word for our processes).
Sam: “There’s no way we can hire Simon & Aloïs straight away, what happens if we have a couple of bad months?”
Alex: “I’ll ask them if they’ll work project by project instead.”
They agreed to work as subcontractors and trust that we’d go out and get the business (respect, guys!). We only had projects for them ~70% of the time but the freedom was a win for all of us.
Still though, we couldn’t afford to pay them before clients paid.
Alex: “Why don’t we just bill people for each week up front.?”
Sam: “Don’t we need to be a big company with a big reputation to do that?”
We decided to go for it anyway and it was fine. We work with fellow entrepreneurs, often at a similar stage of growing their businesses. They totally understood when we explained that as a new agency cashflow was a big deal for us!
The result is that we’re protected if a client ever just disappears (which has never happened, but we’ve all heard the stories), and we’ve avoided wasting loads of time chasing people for money.
Alex: “Shouldn’t we get a lawyer, or something?”
Sam: “Lawyers are really expensive… but I heard about this thing called Lexoo where you can get legal work done at a fixed rate.”
It’s amazing how much you can do as a small team with the right tools.
We need to get more organised
Instead of describing how we settled on our current set up, I’m just going to run through the stack of services we use.
Sketch: UX & UI design
InVision: App prototyping
Principle: UI animations
Unity 3D: Testing virtual reality interfaces
Dropbox: Content storage
Asana: High-level project management
Float: Visualised resource scheduling
Google Apps: Email, document and spreadsheet editing and storage
HelloSign: Issuing and signing contracts online
Lexoo: Finding lawyers for fixed rate legal work
Metro Bank UK: Day-to-day banking
FreeAgent: Accounting, invoicing and payroll
TransferWise: Cheap international bank transfers
Copay: Accepting bitcoin payments (requested by a client!)
Google Hangouts: Video calls
Slack: Team and client communication
ProsperWorks: Network and relationship tracking
LinkedIn: Digital rolodex
Dribbble: Sharing our design work
Twitter: Sharing company updates and interesting content
Instagram: Sharing pictures of the team
Medium: Writing and sharing articles (like this one!)
Wow, that’s a pretty big list in the end! A lot of discussion, too. Every time we need a new subscription:
Alex: “But do we reeeeaaally need it?”
Sam: “Stop complaining it’s only $20 per month!”
Alex: “Nah man…”
But it’s not really about the money. Alex just doesn’t want me to mess up his work flow. It’s frustrating but it shields us from tool overload and all the noise that comes with learning a new piece of software.
My cofounder is driving me crazy!
Starting a business has been a lot like being in a long term-relationship. In fact, this article was originally going to be titled Why everything about starting a company is like dating.
Alex and I have had our fair share of turbulence. We’re quick to call each other out when we think the other is wrong and, of course, sometimes it gets heated.
Our arguments are constructive and help us to make good decisions when everything gets laid out on the table as we honestly see it. After a disagreement we go away and think about it some more and finally come back together to compromise. We’ve done it so many times that we can go through the whole cycle in 30 minutes.
We’re good cofounders because we’ve learnt to bounce back quickly.
“We’re good cofounders because we’ve learnt to bounce back quickly.”
We shared a room for a year (yes, a room). We’ve partied together for 16 hours straight. Slummed it on the beach stranded in Barcelona. We’ve had proper fights. We know each other so well that there’s no bullshit, and it makes us really efficient communicators…
Alex: “You don’t understand what I’m saying!”
Sam: “Yes I do! I know exactly what you’re saying and…”
Alex: “No, you don’t!”
…. most of the time. The biggest step we’ve made is really being conscious of the need to recognise our respective backgrounds. We can hear the same words and come to completely different conclusions. We’ve had to learn to back off and take the emotion out of the situation.
“The biggest step we’ve made is really being conscious of our respective backgrounds.”
It’s the same with partners and clients, so we keep an eye on each other’s emotional states. How many times have you mis-read an email when you’re just having a bad morning and responded poorly?
Doing business over the internet has its perks but it can cause all kinds of problems when you’re relationship building.
How are we going to get more business?
Alex, Simon and Aloïs were friends at university. I knew Zoe from business school and Harry from when we were teenagers. You can do all the company team building you like, but you just can’t replicate those connections.
Alex had built some amazing client relationships while freelancing (yo, Vikas!), and we wanted to have that same closeness with everyone we work with. Why?
A) We get to the heart of the person and can design an app that really lives up to their vision.
B) If you’ve got two top quality options how do you choose between them? You choose people you like working with, of course!
We’ve designed products for entrepreneurs across three continents and referrals have been our biggest source of business by far.
Alex: “Do you think we should try doing some advertising?”
Sam: “Nope! Doesn’t fit our strategy.”
Alex: “But we need more business!
Sam: “Are you happy to grow a bit slower to just work with people you like?”
Alex: “Yeah, definitely!”
Sam: “Ok. Then let’s put all our money and energy into great relationships.”
The upside is that we’re much more likely to get to work with people we like. But on the other hand it’s meant less control over our pipeline and that’s led to some sleepless nights worrying about how we’re going to grow.
In monetary terms we’ve invested thousands in meeting people face to face. In comparison we’ve spent <£500 on advertising. Taking the company to New York for a week was kind of fun too, I suppose…
At the end of the day we want you to trust that we’ll have your best interests at heart when you work with us. Whether that’s as a colleague, client, partner, acquaintance we met an event, or curious person on the internet.
Which is why I’m spending my time writing this article instead of hiring a sales person or planning an ad campaign.
We’ve really committed to building our reputation through doing the best work we can, treating people with decency, and sharing our experiences along the way.
“We’ve committed to treating people with decency, and sharing our experiences along the way.”
There’s no way to know for certain, but we’ve got a feeling that we’re doing it right.
Here’s to another cracking year!