Perspectives on User Experience and Entrepreneurship
Dirk shared some thoughts on working in agencies, as well as his various pursuits as an entrepreneur, including starting up Involution Studios, Facio, and Conquistador Games.
Pabini: You’ve worked within the context of agencies throughout your career in user experience. What is the key to success for an agency?
Dirk: This question seems so simple, but I could take it in a lot of different directions. I think the most important thing is a healthy, creative culture that allows you to attract and retain the best talent. Everything else flows from that. This is especially true in the current marketplace. Because there is a talent shortage and the cost for hiring even junior people is potentially daunting, retaining talent is essential.
Pabini: What are some of the elements of an ideal UX design agency?
Dirk: From my perspective, there are a few things that matter most:
- Sharp talent coalescing into a vibrant, creative culture—This is the engine that lets us produce amazing work for our clients and the glue that keeps top talent coming into Invo.
- A crisp understanding of who you are and what you want to do—In the agency business, it is all too easy to take a “we can do that!” approach. That is, a client asks for something and, to get the contract, responding “we can do that!”—despite the agency’s not actually doing that. It might even be necessary for young, small agencies to do this, but a great agency simply won’t. The better you can define who you are and what you do and stick to that when you engage with the market and your clients, the more successful you’ll be.
- An influx of new creative and technical skills and ideas—At Involution, we have at least two interns in at a time, from the best design and engineering schools in the world. Some of them don’t yet have the skills—or even the interest—to do things that would translate into their being able to do client work for us, but they bring amazing, new creative skills and tools that expand the minds of our team members. In exchange, they learn so much about innovation and creation from us.
- Employees come first—The old rubric that “the customer is always right” is basically insane. Customers and clients are wrong as often as we are and may act in unfair or destructive ways. We won’t sacrifice our employees to our clients’ demands. We give our clients great service, but not at the expense of our team.
- A focus on creative excellence and innovation, as opposed to production—This one is more specific to Invo. Our teams and projects are smaller than at some agencies. We are rarely mere order takers. Generally, our clients bring us in because they need visionaries and leaders for the strategy and design work that they need to get done. So, consistent with operating at that level, we need to make sure that we’re at the bleeding edge of design, technical, and cultural knowledge. We give our clients insights that allow them to redefine their corporate strategy or product category. Investing in that knowledge is expensive, but absolutely core to bringing the best insights to our clients.
Pabini: How did your earlier experience working within agencies influence the creation of your software design company, Involution Studios?
Dirk: It taught me lots of things that we should do, as well as lots of things not to do. I started my career working for an advertising agency, then moved to a digital agency. Before starting Invo, I’d also been doing some side work under a brand, but it was really just freelance stuff.
My boss at the advertising agency, Ken Lauerer, was a mentor to me and taught me a lot about the business side of an agency. I also worked with a creative director named Mike Roberts. I liked and learned good things from him. However, for the most part, the agencies that I started with taught me more about what not to do than what to do. They were started back in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, and had the sort of top-down, command-and-control culture that was common then. I, sort of naturally, had adapted to that approach, and it took time to unlearn. They also had various business-model issues that I learned from.
Now, of course, there were some things that I thought they were doing wrong, so decided to do things differently at Invo. But, as time goes on, I do question some of those early decisions. For example, it was important to me to move away from an hourly billing approach to one where clients were basically purchasing resources. So, instead of a client’s paying $xxx per hour for someone’s time, they pay $x,xxx for a half or all of a resource’s focus. Hourly billing focuses the relationship on the wrong things: on the hour and the billings related to it. The flat fee eliminates that problem. However, it also results in the client’s expecting as much as they can get, without having the downside of needing to pay for extra hours. So that is one example—and it is not the only one—where there were things that I didn’t like, so tried something different that I thought was better, but to this day am not actually sure that it was better!
Pabini: More and more UX professionals are becoming entrepreneurs. Recently, in addition to running Involution Studios, you’ve been pursuing additional avenues of entrepreneurship, creating Facio and Conquistador Games. Describe your startup experience with Facio.
Dirk: Involution was crippled by the recession. It killed our Silicon Valley studio and, by March 2010, Boston was on life support as well. I was basically broke from trying to keep it going and feeling very discouraged. At the same time, I had become increasingly bored in running Involution Studios. While I didn’t realize it was happening at the time, unless I’m learning, I’m dying. Back as early as 2008 or so, I had stopped learning in my Invo work. There was a moment when I realized that I had been miserable in what I was doing and that, at the same time, it had financially ruined me. So, while I saved the company by making financial sacrifices, I realized that I didn’t want to be in the day-to-day of it anymore.
What I did instead was to take sort of a walkabout and research what meant the most to me: human understanding. Once upon a time, I had been in school to become a philosopher and wanted to solve the big problems of the world. My master’s thesis, for example, was a study of happiness and well-being in American culture. Well, I took this moment of transition at Involution to get back into that. At the time, I had no intention of starting another company. But as I was doing the research, the opportunity for software to come in and disrupt the status quo became so clear to me. So, I started Facio.
The experience was a good one. I initially got a grant, then followed that up with a funding round. I put together a team of five people and tried to make the company work. We had a good year or 18 months, but I wasn’t able to establish product-market fit and, consequently, wasn’t able to get the next round of funding. So, while the company and the software are both technically still running as we see our patent applications to completion, I ramped down the company about a year ago.
I learned a lot from this experience: most specifically that I don’t want to be a CEO anymore. When I started Involution with Andrei Herasimchuk in 2004, we were both creative people. But to make the company really go, one of us needed to be the business guy. Well, Andrei was the first designer at Adobe, designed all of their core apps, and conceived of the Creative Suite. I was just a guy from Ohio. So it seemed pretty clear how our roles should shake out. However, I had unwittingly put myself on the path to being the business guy for almost a decade. I’m not a business guy; I’m a creative. I’m a big thinker. It took the Facio experience—when I was doing a massive amount of work in sales, fundraising, and other businessy things—for me to realize how unhappy those things make me. So now, at 40, I am armed with the knowledge of what I should and should not be doing with the rest of my life. That’s invaluable.
Pabini: Tell me a little about Facio’s personal development software.
Dirk: The idea behind Facio is that we don’t know ourselves well—and we know even less about each other. With Facio, I wanted to make it simple for people to explore themselves, share what they learn with other people, and compare themselves with others who give them permission as well.
The vision for Facio was huge: for everyone to have an account and for Facio eventually to become a decision engine for all of us. Facio knows us so well that it can give us recommendations: Will this be a good school for me to attend? Is this person someone I should date? Is this a good job for me? People would, of course, make their own decisions, but Facio’s intimate understanding of the individual enables it to provide very insightful direction that we can use in making decisions.
We decided to start by targeting the enterprise market, with the idea that people would come into Facio through accounts with their employer; then, as Facio evolved, migrate to broad personal use. This gave us a path to revenues from our sales and marketing investments, whereas a consumer strategy would have required substantially more funding and a much more tepid path to revenues. Well, that didn’t end up working, and there are two reasons for that:
- I’m not a salesperson. I’m a great closer. Put me in a room with people who are interested in buying, and I will win more than my fair share of deals. However, as an introvert, I am not competent to be on the phones and networking all the time. It just isn’t me.
- The idea was way too far ahead of its time. I would frequently find a progressive Human Resources person in a company who loved it and wanted to implement Facio. But the gap between that one person, who was probably a little bit of an outlier in the company already, to selling and implementing it was just massive. We were grossly underfunded for the task. And it’s not clear that, even with appropriate funding, the time was right for Facio. My ideas tend to be about a decade ahead of present reality, and I fear that may have been the case here, too.
Pabini: Branching out into creating board games is quite a departure from what you’ve done before. What prompted you to move into this new venture?
Dirk: As a creative outlet. I had my first idea for a game design during that period in early 2010 when everything was burning down. So, along with researching human understanding, I saw a great outlet for my creativity via game design. I actually think it is sort of my perfect creative medium—that my strengths and creative talents are able to manifest optimally within a context where table-top games are the final product.
Initially, I was just going to design games and publish them through another company. But that required a lot of selling, which I, of course, hated. Plus, if I had done that, the company would have made the decisions on things like the game’s artwork. That was unacceptable to me, so, given my experience running businesses, I just decided to start a business around my gaming hobby. It’s worked out very well for me. The company is not yet profitable—it is a miserable industry, with very low margins—but we’ve earned revenues of over $500,000. For something that I’m doing part time, on the side, I’m really happy with that. Of course, the money is not why I’m doing it, but it gives me an idea of the scale of market—how many people are willing to spend money on the things I am creating.
Pabini: You’ve long been a leader in the UX community through initiatives such as UXnet. Do you think UXnet fulfilled its purpose?
Dirk: No. I think UXnet served as a bridge organization during what was sort of an incubation period for User Experience. The organization existed before UX had become big, but UX was quietly growing and had a vibrant platform of thought leadership, and a definition of the discipline was emerging. UXnet did a nice job of bringing professional communities together into a broader UX community and serving them in relatively small ways, but never had the sort of impact that I might have hoped. I really can’t say what impact UXnet did or did not have, because it would have been very bottom up. UX is doing very well now, but what contribution UXnet made to that I cannot say.
Pabini: Are there initiatives that you think the UX community should now be pursuing to advance the profession?
Dirk: The biggest gap for User Experience at the moment is a broad understanding and integration of UX into companies. For example, UX should be a partner to product management and development, not subservient to either. It is still far too common for UX to be one person or in a spot where an organization sees it more as a service provider to product management or development. This is a serious problem, for two reasons:
- Companies that misunderstand the dynamics of a healthy creative process will be less successful than they might otherwise be.
- This is bad for UX professionals because we are undervalued both financially and in terms of the respect and influence that we have. This is not a universal problem by any means, but outside the bubble of Silicon Valley, things are generally pretty brutal for UX professionals. The UX community needs to take the initiative to try and do something about this.