The ‘space, time & faith’ model

Something has been nagging at me for some time now, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it. Ironically, it does undermine my own business model somewhat, but in the interests of self betterment and catharsis, it might be good to put it down in writing and see what happens.

I have an issue with the traditional service model that most of the design industry is based on. Well….not so much an issue with the model as it stands, but moreso with the reluctance and apparent distaste by investors to ‘it’ as an investable entity. Unless of course, you are a hugely successful, large design agency who have proved beyond all doubt that you are consistently profitable, by which you are probably not really in the market for investment!

Now, before I start, and as I am usually wont to do, I should probably set out my stall. I have been fully immersed in the ‘design consultancy’ industry for the best part of 17 years and have worked for a range of the bigger product design consultancies – all renowned and some better than others. They all relied on the same basic business model, namely that you attempt to sell your ‘creative’ abilities to solve a client’s ‘design’ problem to that very same client (in competition with many others doing exactly the same). The client picks you to do the work, you do said work in suitably palatable and agreed ‘phases’ and invoice accordingly. The design fees are based on an ‘hourly rate’ x ‘time required’ estimation, plus whatever else you may need to do to secure the project against the competition. In the main, all the IP generated during the course of the project transfers to the client on payment of your invoice and everyone is happy. The cycle then repeats ad-nauseum with a sprinkle of haggling thrown in for good measure, and you invariably end up with some jobs that make more money than others. The reasons for this alone could fill another post, so I’ll leave it there. It is well-proven and well-trodden.

Now, as you would expect, many of these clients’ fortunes have been improved or significantly accelerated as a direct result of the aforementioned design service. After many years of never really being credited with business success, design now has the commercial statistics to validate and exonerate our industry, and ‘design’ – despite people still not really knowing what it does – is now being spearheaded within most of the major global businesses as the core of their ‘innovation’ practices. It is the modern panacea to the humdrum ‘normality’ of business stagnancy and can only be a good thing. A visible demonstration of the so-called ‘innovation‘ that every global brand strapline seems to wear with pride.

But despite the constant proof that design as a process and designers as practitioners of this process are justifiably worthy, it seems that investment only comes to those that have decided upon a singular idea and have perpetuated that idea into a product or service around which a business plan and financial forecasts can be built. We are bombarded with media coverage of numerous kickstarter campaigns, investment successes and home grown ‘startups’ that have taken AN idea and developed it to a level where the accountants, venture capitalists and management consultants can understand the tangible aspects of the business, it has become a little less ethereal and intangible, and projections of growth can be calculated. A catchy brand, a media friendly product shot and a press release make for digestible, investible opportunities.

But what of the creative process itself? The very minds that were capable of creating such a idea. Why is it that prior to that point where they have something tangible, they are somehow less ‘investable’. We hear so much about stock market sentiment when it comes to all manner of technology bubbles, but this sentiment seems much less evident when it comes to having faith in the creative engine itself. The engine that could potentially create many, many great ideas. There are notable examples of people having ‘faith’ in the creative chutzpah of individuals – Jonny Ive by Steve Jobs for instance – but very few businesses having faith in the future potential of a group of individuals or a team of creative people to ultimately deliver multiple ideas in multiple, diverse markets. Regardless of track record, the most a reputable design agency may achieve is either a lucrative retainer (which is essentially a variant of the traditional service model) or being absorbed by a brand (or business) to solely work within one market or business unit.

Interestingly, I had a recent conversation with a reputable and successful business owner who fully understood the value of design, and who was responsible for recommending opportunities to a board of high net worth angel investors. He listened to our approach and liked our work, but in a discussion over the relative merits of investable opportunities, he was very clear that if we had ‘an idea’ that we would like to present to him for review he would listen and likely put it forward to his superiors (we mentioned a few ‘in house’ self initiated ideas we have been slowly working on – all of which seemed to whet his appetite), but when asked about investing in a design business itself, he scoffed “I would NEVER invest in a design business!“. As though the very thought was toxic. Despite the fact that the very same design business could potentially deliver 10 similarly brilliant ideas to a much higher quality in a similar space of time… if supported. Go figure.

If I think about the breadth of exposure I have had – for instance – in multiple markets, it is quite remarkable (and there are countless product designers out there with the same – if not larger – repertoire). I have designed products for markets as diverse as confectionery, healthcare, telecoms, pharma, military, hi-tech, baby & toddler, commerce, food, OTC medicine, home and personal care, consumer, lighting….the list is endless. I don’t mean to bang on about what I’ve done – I simply want to illustrate the point that within a single career to date, I have had direct and creative exposure to so many different markets, technologies, processes and manufacturing methods that I would challenge anyone to find another discipline that has had quite the same level of multi-market awareness of human interaction and designing for mass manufacture as that which I inhabit.

And yet, despite this depth and breadth of exposure, we as product designers are expected to put all our creative eggs in one basket and chance upon that one ‘killer’ product idea that we have faith enough to pull a kickstarter campaign together for – all in our spare time. The idea that will “…make us all millionaires Rodney!” Remembering also, that this creative focus has to happen amidst the everyday hustle and bustle of delivering design solutions under the standard service model mention earlier, not to mention the obligations we have as parents, siblings, carers, volunteers, spouses and friends. Society expects us to shoehorn these moments of divine inspiration (you know the ones…the stories that make great opening gambits on ‘about us’ sections of websites) into our full and responsibility-laden lives, and once struck by the lightning bolt of genius, we then have the time to meticulously research, develop and define this idea – free of charge – until it is to a level where the people with the piles of cash deem it worthy that all the hard work has been done and they can “scale it up”.

You may detect an element of cynicism in my tone. It is because I have done exactly what I have described. I found that ‘killer’ product idea, researched it, developed it and produced it. All on borrowed, peppercorn investment from well-meaning friends and family (prior to this peppercorn investment, we did present the idea to a number of well-connected, cash rich types, but they wanted to see the fully developed ‘thing’ before committing in any way shape or form). Long story short, it was very nearly the end of me, and it still haunts me to this day, despite our very, very best efforts. In focussing my efforts on this ‘killer product’ I neglected my design business and I almost lost everything I had worked so hard to build. I have learned some amazingly useful lessons from this but none of it was done recklessly, and everything was done for ultimate commercial gain. C’est la vie!

Anyway, I digress slightly. The point I am making is that despite the hundreds of different very well known brands, products and markets I had worked on (and in), there was still insufficient confidence in me/us as an investable entity to give us the breathing space, cash buoyancy and resource to do it properly. We had to bootstrap it (i.e. our time was put in for free and we had just enough to pay for tooling and packaging), and simultaneously sacrifice our existing earning capabilities to develop it. A double whammy hit if you will. As  a creative unit, we were deemed uninvestable.

Now imagine, if someone were to provide enough cash to allow a creative team of people to efficiently and effectively define a number of identifiable opportunities (remembering that this is something we do for clients all the time…and do it well) over the course of – say – a year? Costs would be minimal as it would primarily be ‘time only’ with a token smattering of prototyping to prove out key principles. The resultant output from that team of creative product design, ‘multi-market-experienced’ brains would be quite something. With the inherent skillset of such a product design consultancy, you would be able to define a new opportunity, scope it out, design a solution, commercialise it and have it ready for manufacture at a profitability sweet spot – all within the same four walls. Do this a handful of times within a year or two and you have multiple business opportunities ripe and ready for sale to the most appropriate buyer. The sheer opportunity for cross-pollination, knowledge transfer and human centric understanding would be immense. Within a 3 year period I would imagine you would start to see significant return on that ‘faith’ investment, but it would require just that….FAITH. Faith in the abilities of those people to deliver great ideas and solutions. These ideas may be as diverse as chocolate and chainsaws, but either way they would be ‘designed’, commercially relevant and consumer focussed.

The nearest analogy I can think of is that of a chef. Although it isn’t a particularly robust example it serves a purpose! A chef has the inherent knowledge born of many years creating a variety of menus, dishes and dining experiences, using any number of different ingredients and cooking methods. You visit that chef’s restaurant because you have faith that whatever he/she creates will be stunningly creative and of a standard you have come to expect of them. You wouldn’t expect them to come up with a singular recipe and then build an entire business simply to promote and distribute that singular recipe. It is the chef you would invest in, not the recipe. That chef, and the wider impact that he/she has (ensuing products, experiences and endorsements for instance) is a more powerful thing than any of the things that they may create. I know I’m stretching this example into a ‘person as brand’ example, but hopefully you can see my point?

Creativity requires space, time and faith. Space to allow someone to investigate and explore without the all-consuming pressures of mortgage payments weighing them down (although there is nothing wrong with a little bit of pressure!), time to allow the process to work and an appreciation that the first thing might not be the best, and faith. Faith in the creative brains to deliver great stuff. Whatever it might be. The best people in our industry are very, very good at taking hair brained, confused and often non-sensical ideas from clients and crafting them into well-honed, brilliant and profitable things, often under extreme time pressures and within horribly tight budgets. Just imagine what could be achieved if those same minds were afforded that space, time and faith to apply themselves to ideas, solutions and opportunities that could make a lot of money indeed!

One thing I learned from my ‘killer’ idea experience, is that I am very good at what I do (apologies for the self-congratulatory tripe!) but I need others to take my resultant work and turn the product solution into a repeatable, successful business i.e. flogging multiple things through multiple channels to multiple markets. I get a huge amount of satisfaction in the creation and development of an idea into a profitable, commercially poised entity that is capable of making significant amounts of money. Which is why I am convinced of the merits of the model I have eluded to – the ‘space, time & faith’ model if you will. This model sits very well with my ambitions for a small ‘barbarians’ style creative team (described in a previous blog post) as creative diversity and flexibility are key to both.

So all I need now is to find a wealthy and patient investor who has faith in creativity and a fervent desire to see the birth of new ideas, however varied and complex! I’m not entirely sure if I’ve explained myself well enough in this post, but if anyone is crazy enough to believe in this even half as much as I do, then please get in touch and I’ll buy you lunch whilst I attempt to explain it to you in more detail!

One thought on “The ‘space, time & faith’ model

  1. Mate,

    Love your thought process. As you might imagine, I’ve been wracking my brain for some time on the same issues. If you imagine the Apple design team as described in both Steve Jobs’ and Jonny Ive’s biographies, it’s an in-house version of exactly what you described. A design team with the space, funds and faith (perhaps not the time?) to create amazing solutions without compromise. The result? Prodigious success.

    The question is, how do you commercialise the model you describe? Can an investor supply a path to market for multiple products in varying markets in a short time? It would take some serious firepower.

    Perhaps the answer is a design co-op that produces (funded) ideas and then opens them to people and/or organisations to commercialise in some sort of commercial agreement? If you can pull together a well balanced team you might find your design utopia.

    Either way, I love that you’re pushing the boundaries. Let’s have lunch some time 😉

    Cheers,

    Nathan.

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