The very different worlds of large agencies and small start-ups

  • 27th January 2014
  • By Jack Barham

Having spent my seven year design and development career building websites and mobile sites, I had the opportunity last year to work for several startups building web applications. To my surprise it was a very welcome change.

There were two main ones. Kazoup are building a great application that scans a company’s infrastructure data and turns into viable statistics with built-in data management solutions and cloud storage services. The second was Marvel App, a clever application which provides free prototyping for digital designers by syncing their Dropbox account to create interactive prototypes from .psd, .jpg and .png files. On both occasions I was involved with front-end development and building the admin interface from designs provided by @Mutlu82.

After spending the previous few years working for various fast-paced London agencies, hearing the words “it’s more important to get this right than getting it done by a deadline” was breath of fresh air and something I soon realised is said quite a lot in ‘startup land’.

I had always wanted the opportunity to work for a startup, but I had no idea how big the change of culture would be. The biggest difference I noticed: large agencies have ridiculous budgets and with unrealistic deadlines, usually powered by the account manager up-selling and over promising cutting edge features without speaking to anyone technical first. Startups are the opposite – unrealistic budgets but no looming deadlines other than occasional soft-launches or the investment running out. It appears mis-managing or loosing a multi-million pound client is far more stressful than running out of money. I’m sure it’s not, but when you’re on the floor of an agency whose project is running weeks or months behind, it certainly feels that way.

Whichever world you happen to be in, you’re building a digital product – but the similarities end there. For a start-up, you are thinking ahead in ways you never understood and this is because you are forced to. No longer are you building a marketing website with a pre-determined spec list and, if we’re honest, an unofficial and unspoken life span which usually sees neglect or termination at the end of a campaign. Instead, startups are always working around ‘The Sweet Spot’.  This consists of two parts: i) get a minimal viable product (MVP) out to the public as soon as possible for testing and feedback. And ii), a roadmap of future features which have to be thought about now but not implemented immediately. This is the most taxing part of the process – the Sweet Spot is constantly in use and constantly in your thought process. Inevitably, the groundwork for future features will have to be laid down and developed in the early stage, or you run the risk of creating a ton of extra work and possibly having to rebuild some of the original application. But you don’t want to spend too much time building these features now because you need a solid MVP. Getting the balance right in the early stage is crucial and making sure you remain floating in the Sweet Spot is essential.

You’ve probably picked up by now that I’m comparing two very different entities: the large agency owned by an even bigger agency and probably about to brought out by a group servicing every major brand under the sun; and three mates in a cafe on Old Street who have a little spare time and even less spare cash.

The dawning realisation came to me towards the end of last year. It wasn’t that the biggest difference was time and money, it was that money and innovation were inextricably linked. The less money there is to play with, the more you saw innovation and some very clever thinking on top of that.

When I first moved to London I used to spend time working on my CV and making it look attractive to recruitment agencies so they would land me contracts in the top digital agencies. Great! Big brands, huge budgets and building sites everyone will use, what’s not to love about that? Although the dream came true, it was soon smashed when I began at my first startup. Now I found myself building a very specific product that only a specialist group of people I know would find useful, all on very tight purse strings. But the rewards are overwhelming. I see why people get the startup buzz and I understand why people want to do it.

Waking up in the morning and knowing the product you’re building isn’t trying to sell sugar coated chocolate cereal to children by getting them to “engage” through some Facebook game built by 37 contractors is a great start. Instead, I’ve been in situations where a startup has been down to their last few thousand pounds but need to finish a killer feature so they can demonstrate it to their investors before they tell them they need more money. This makes a team much more finely tuned, passionate and willing to try every trick in the book to get it built. No longer does the luxury of picking up a phone to summon several specialist contractors exist; you have to figure it out yourself, learn quickly and keep it lean.

There are so many new technologies appearing on what seems to be a weekly basis to help make mobile websites become “more app like”, frameworks that could practically build a landing page with 14 lines of code, and libraries that make using a web based application feel (and on some occasions actually perform) quicker than its native desktop counterpart. They have all sprung up from tiny, eager startups who need to move quickly, with no money, while making something easy to use and slick looking, posted online for everyone else in the same situation to use.

It seems the lure of big budgets and a large brand can be off-set by lack of innovation.

Have you had a similar experience? I would love to read your feedback, please leave a comment below.
Image: @oh_moore, @mutlu82 and @JackBarham working at Marvel App – November 2013

  • Dan Williams

    Beginning my career in startups, my biggest shock whilst working within an agency is just how wildly inflated the budgets are, for such little low effort work.

    • vickytnz

      What you buy is insurance: there are people in the system that should ensure that the work gets done, and that if there are any balls ups that they’re dealt with quickly and effectively (you may not even get told).

  • You highlight what I believe to be the key difference between large agencies and smaller ventures (even smaller agencies, in fact): the ultimate goal differs. Large agencies cater to large accounts, and large accounts usually translates into fundamentally detrimental products, like the « sugar-coated chocolate cereal » you so rightly use as an example.

    Because nobody in their right mind could ever really be passionate about such things, agencies must compensate by building an ever-thicker wall of smoke around their primary objective. This translates into hiring endless contractors, using empty words like « engagement », and moving on to new campaigns as soon as they have launched something, all in the name of not thinking too long or too hard about the agency’s fundamental remit.

    Startups have the luxury of believing in something. They may be wrong, of course, but they still believe they are working for some kind of greater good. When one wakes up in the morning feeling one is contributing something to the world, little else matters.

  • Montana

    I have also gone through a path much similar to yours. I think your assessment it pretty good, but in the end the difference really is:

    1. Agency: Products built for marketing purposes that you usually end up throwing away or getting rid of for new marketing plays or updating to new version to sell better or market better etc. This even applies to building a website for a client. But the main realization is you are building something for another person. You have no ownership. The worst consequence for you is losing the client if you do a bad job and while like you said, you could potentially fire a few people or maybe have your agency go belly up if it was a HUGE client…. the reality is you most likely will just replace them with another client. The client on the other hand could end up with a company that goes belly up or the product you helped market flops, because you did a bad job. Having no real ownership in the game is a big different.

    2. Start-Up: You are building a real product, you are the client, and most likely you are working on something you have direct ownership in. If you don’t do well, you directly are the cause of your company going belly up, because your product failed.

    Both have their place, and the reality is, if your startup gets big, you probably will end up hiring an agency to help out in the future. You have become the client.

  • Scott Jenson

    Excellent post. I too, talk about this quite often. My two years at frog design were a huge learning experience. While we certainly had some great clients, they tended to be the smaller, more ambitious ones. The giant companies, all household names, that came through the door usually had more money than sense, throwing money at a problem when their own house wasn’t in order. We often joked that we were in the ‘design therapy’ business, as half of our job was to work with the client team, ironing out differences, smoothing cultural barriers, so they could accept any of the innovative ideas we were generating.

    I left frog to work on two startups and the change was dramatic. In a word: focus. Startups understand there is a consequence to failure and that tends to get teams to pull together and really do something amazing.

    Thanks again for the post, well done.

  • Matt Bamford-Bowes

    Great, great piece Jack. I just found this through the Creative Technologist group on Linkedin. I agree with what you are saying to a certain degree and do think there are fundamental differences between how goals are defined between these two agencies. However, what is interesting is that some small agencies aren’t as nimble as they would like to think and still try to define themselves by the goals that big agencies would set themselves. (I’m specifically talking about creative agencies, rather than creative tech agencies).

    Therefore, they don’t win on scale and they certainly don’t win on creating an exciting package or something that other people want to pickup and use. I do like the idea of an agency big or small going out with a MVP and then iterating or pivoting that product based on feedback – but I wonder if their clients are prepared to take a risk with this sort of thing.

    Great thought starters though. thanks

  • Dan

    Interesting comparison. It strikes me that large agencies are primarily optimised to generate profit, whereas start-ups are primarily focused on the product.

    The latter sounds a lot more fun to work in than the former.

  • Great article. It holds true in my experience!

  • David Darnes

    Don’t often read an article from start to finish but I couldn’t help myself on this one. Really good, thanks for posting.