Agencies, Product, and the Business of Building for People
Lessons learned in building a company that creates for clients and products.
“You have clients? So you’re an agency?”
For the first two years of One Mighty Roar, the question of “What do you call yourself?” came up a lot. Externally, people saw as a company with a growing portfolio of brand clients and a trail of websites and social campaigns behind it. Internally, our team saw a growing stockpile of self-made code and tools which tied those projects together. Whatever OMR was didn’t feel exactly like an agency, but it was close enough. So we relented and embraced the byline of “Digital Agency” for the next two years. It wasn’t a perfect description of what we thought made the company great, but the people who mattered understood the difference and that was good enough for us.
A funny thing happens when people hear you have clients — they categorize. Consultants have clients. Agencies have clients. Product companies have customers. Customers who buy widgets or subscriptions to things — prebuilt stuff.
The “sort of” agency
In the early years, being labeled an agency on the outside wasn’t bad. We got to solve challenges for a constantly evolving group of interesting brands and individuals. The answers tended to be websites and mobile applications, but the freedom to build foundations for others inspired us. Our team approached client projects like a product team would. Instead of building for an expiration date of rotating seasonal campaigns, we focused on making reusable building blocks. Some of those blocks were pieces we would later assemble to be products.
At the time we thought product companies required outside funding to get started, and being self-funded is an opportunity you protect. Unlike many early product companies, our business model did not require hitting user count or investment milestones to succeed. Our “funding” came from the projects we contracted. Building for others was great because we were handed challenges to solve pre-validated by the brands and budgets behind them. It afforded us the opportunity to remain self-funded with access to top brands.
From agency to product thinking
Client services aside, One Mighty Roar has two products with enough traction and revenue to have “made it” as independent business models.
One is You Rather, a giant predictive modeling engine based around the game of “would you rather”. At time of writing, it tracks about ⅓ billion responses and a few million views each day. The second product is Robin, a platform that connects digital and physical things by bringing digital layers into physical environments. Despite being early to the “connected device” and “Internet of things” game, Robin has been fortunate to see use from global brands and has grown to a key initiative that powers much of the work we do.
When we interview for open positions, these are the things we talk about first. Without understanding our toolbox, a candidate won’t understand the problems our team can solve. When prospective clients come to us now, we greet them with thinking that supports the products we’ve made. In many cases, it works better than the mobile application or Facebook campaign they originally wanted.
We don’t view product as a way to escape client work. It’s all the same — our client services help evangelize our products. Our products are designed to make certain problems easy to solve. We love when there is a fit, but it’s not a requirement. We are like a toolbox filled with both general tools and some that are unique to us. Some of our best web and mobile application projects have led to new internal workflow, open source projects, and foundations for future products.
Product is a foundation not a department
The products are a part of our thought process right from the start. This is one of the things that a lot of larger agencies get backwards. Let’s take the recent “labs” trend popping up among large agencies. A 500+ person agency tries to recapture its agility by creating a “labs/innovation” department. On paper, lab initiatives feels like product — smart people in a room tinkering with the latest technology to build things their clients can use. What happens instead (unfortunately) is the lab becomes little more than a media kit checklist item to show they are forward thinkers. A handful of interesting experiences might come out of it every year, but the rest of the company doesn’t benefit from the new process, only the results.
Today’s 500+ person agency doesn’t have the cultural foundation to support a product startup inside of it. Hell, there are fifty person agencies that would have a hard time making the product shift. They scratch itches instead of solve problems and fail the test of “different or better?”. Being scrappy is something you can lose with size, but scrappiness is also the catalyst needed for compelling product direction. Scrappy can’t afford to build things with expiration dates.
Clients can sponsor features
Clients can (and should) have goals that extend beyond a single project launch. When building with a product toolbox mentality clients become sponsors for new features, either directly or indirectly. The client gets what they want for their project and we get a good reason to bump a new, client validated feature to the top of the list.
This isn’t to say that you build generic results. The difference is in approach. Simply asking “How would this be done if it wasn’t just for this use case?” nets a lot of design and development decisions which ultimately make stronger product design.
Good products come from domain expertise
People build solutions to their own problems. If enough other people have the same problem, you have a product. If enough people buy in (and they don’t always), you have a business.
Building to a product rather than a project means something is always left to improve. We believe in constantly iterating towards a goal or at least a larger narrative. Whether the product fails or succeeds, you’ll still have the “why did we make this?” to inform the next steps.
Product people and project people
At One Mighty Roar, we are product people who take on client projects. When we interview people from larger agencies, a common thread for departure is burnout from shelved projects or great work that doesn’t exist anymore. Dan Ariely covers a lot of these points in his talk called “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work.”
In project based work, it’s harder to be deeply invested in something the moment an expiration date is established. Product represents something to always come back to. Coupled with the diversity of challenges and the brands agency style work comes with, we find a product company with client services gets the best of both worlds.
The fabled “20% time”
Our friend, Richard Banfield of Fresh Tilled Soil, recently wrote an interesting piece which cautions design companies that try to tackle agency and internal product work. One topic covered is the danger of viewing 20% time as an adequate amount of time to develop a product. This magical time is the first to go in busy situations, which can all but halt product development.
Interpretation has changed over time, but the gist is a company spends the majority of time thinking specifically, and the minority is thinking broadly. Google and 37Signals get a lot of credit for being the pioneers in this regard, but it’s 3M we have to thank for subsidized personal projects at the workplace.
We don’t believe that client work disqualifies a company from doing product if you hire the right people and build for the right companies. Put another way, we spend 80% of our time building out customized iterations of our services, then 20% refining for the big picture.
It’s a business, not a lottery ticket
Products aren’t lottery tickets to aid in the escape from your core business. We’ve come to view products as a broader framework for solving problems by improve the toolbox and workflow we tackle projects with. You can’t force it, but if you’re looking for opportunities they will come up a lot more than if you have project tunnel vision.
Products are often, to quote the famed Bob Ross, “happy accidents”.