Silicon Valley unicorns – start-ups with valuations of $1 billion or more – capture headlines. And they should – a billion dollar valuation isn’t something to ignore. But what about the other successful companies – you know, the ones with valuations in the millions (with an M)?
It’s our opinion that these companies and their founders deserve the same level of appreciation as the unicorns. It takes just as much hard work, dedication, and sacrifice to build a multi-million dollar company as it does a billion-dollar one, and it’s with this in mind that we spoke recently with Anton Zykin, the CEO and co-founder of SFCD, a global digital agency with offices in New York, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg (Russia).
Anton began SFCD in 2007 in St. Petersburg, shortly after graduating from university, and has since grown the agency into a multi-million dollar, award-winning company. Upon learning about SFCD, we wanted to find out more about what motivates Anton, and about what he believes has enabled him to grow his company successfully, from the ground up. Read on to find out what he had to say.
Finding Motivation From Top CEOs That You Don’t Hear About
1. Why did you decide to start SFCD, and how did you grow the company into what it is today?
The idea to start this company came out of the necessity for high-quality design services in the software design space. Before I started SFCD, I was building and selling apps for Windows and every time we released a new product or an update we needed a lot of graphical assets like icons, splash screens, and illustrations as well as some web design work for product pages. I used to do all that design stuff and at some point I realized that beautiful interfaces and icons was something that helped us stand out among similar apps and increase sales. Then I started to take on design projects for fellow developers and it was going so well I decided to create a separate business out of it. In just a few months after the company began functioning, the revenue from the design services business was double of what we were making selling software.
The later growth was a result of our hard work spurred by my ability to solve problems creatively. We initially started in Russia and it was super difficult for us to even get noticed by international and US clients. Our growth strategy has always been creating something unique and extraordinary so the entire world would talk about us. This also helped to remove all barriers and get clients regardless of our location. They came to us for new ideas, impeccable execution, and excellent service. In 2012, I decided to finally make the big move and establish our offices in NYC, which was opened in early 2013. With the US location and our Russian production office we took our operations to the next level and even more importantly we got access to pretty much all big clients in the world. As planned, we expanded to the Bay Area with the opening our our San Francisco location, where I’m now based and in charge of growth and new business.
I would say that the ultimate driver of our success has been our unique positioning in the market. I’ve worked relentlessly to assemble a great team with a needed skill set to deliver world-class apps and websites. This is what our expect and we deliver just that.
2. After beginning SFCD, how did you find your first clients?
During our first year, we worked with pretty much everyone in the indie developer community designing high-quality app icons, interface graphics, and product websites. I quickly realized that we hit the ceiling so I started actively looking for bigger enterprise clients. We also began building our team scooping up best designers from other agencies and software companies. The growing team demanded more projects and it was my responsibility to find them.
I’ve always approached finding new business from a creative side of things like pretty much everything else I was doing. So instead of cold calls and pointless, I decided to pitch a large company in Russia (where we were based at the time) who created software for one of the country’s biggest retailers. It was 2009 and no one knew what user experience was, especially in the enterprise space. I was lucky enough to be introduced to their CEO to whom we were highly recommended by another client of us.
My idea for a pitch was focused on solving the problem at the intersection of users’ needs and business objectives. We wanted to create something that not only would satisfy the company execs, but would also make the end user happy at work. We picked their gas station management POS module as our specimen as it drastically needed redesign and employees were suffering while working with their interface.
What we presented to their board of directors was quite an unusual solution for such a menial task as selling gas. Aesthetically, it reminded an app for Mac or iPhone even though it was supposed to be operating on Windows. What really helped to close that deal was our relentless focus on user experience and satisfaction. We were able to design a flow that required only a few simple steps to accomplish and also the time for serving a single client reduced significantly. This combination of compelling numbers and beautiful interfaces has been our winning combo ever since.
3. Part of your focus is on mentoring early-stage start-ups. Are there any common mistakes that you see early-stage companies making, and how would you advise others to avoid these missteps?
We receive a lot of inquiries from startups and wannabe app entrepreneurs with all sorts of ideas. The biggest mistake that a lot of these people make is trying to create a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Often times they rely on their personal experience when defining such a problem instead of doing some proper market research to find out if it exists for other people and if they need a standalone product for that. In a few words, these founders are ready to start building a product without even knowing if someone will ever use it. They don’t validate their ideas with potential users, because they are confident in their ability to predict what the market needs.
Another common mistake is when someone wants to build a clone of an already successful product. To be completely transparent, sometimes this model works, in particular when a product is successful in one country or a specific market and then someone takes that idea and adapts it to their particular case or geography. Most of the times though these ideas fail early on, and it happens not because the product is poorly developed, but mostly because of the inability to gain traction and large enough user base for growth.
Finally, almost every first-time entrepreneur is concerned about sharing his or her idea with other people, because they think it can be stolen. Experienced startup founders know that an idea on its own costs nothing. If you take one idea and give it to two different teams they will build two absolutely different products. You need to have a vision and a team who will believe in it, and you need to work hard putting all of your time and resources. That’s how a good idea becomes a successful product.
4. What would you say has been the biggest success you’ve had with SFCD since the company’s founding?
It’s been definitely our international expansion and opening of our offices in NYC and San Francisco. It was very cost effective to work with our US clients from Russia, but we couldn’t provide a level of service that our standards require without having in-person workshops and regular meeting. It was the right time when we decided to move and it’s helped to triple our sales in less than two years. More importantly, we’ve become a truly global agency working almost 24/7 while meeting with clients at our US offices as we were just a local firm. Our clients love that!
5. You have directed design efforts for SFCD’s own website, which has received numerous notable web design awards. In your opinion, what makes a website stand out? What are the most important features to consider when designing – or re-designing – a site?
It’s great question. In fact, if you look at most digital agency websites you can find a lot of similarities. Even more so, almost all of them look identical, not just because they’re all trying to look current and follow the latest trends, but because even the services they provide are the same. The question now becomes what you can do to stand out and get noticed.
The key here as with any other project is to define who is your user and what you’re trying to achieve with the site. The site’s features and a desired look and feel should be informed by what your audience is expecting and your business goals.
In our case, we wanted to appeal to our potential clients and their decision makers, who are primarily CTOs and CEOs of large enterprises as well as startups founders who just received an initial round of funding. These people are very tech-savvy and usually excited about latest technologies. That’s one of the reasons we preferred to double down on using cutting-edge frontend effects plus a variety of motion graphics to reinforce the high-tech aesthetics we created.
In addition, we’re seamlessly combining all these techy things with traditional graphic design techniques. This was done intentionally to show that we have a solid background in design paying homage to its history. By doing that, we present ourselves as multi-faceted specialists with expertise in both design and technology.
I was personally in charge of all strategic design decisions we made during the redesign process working closely with our design and engineering teams and guiding the implementation process. This kind of creative leadership is a secret sauce for building award-winning products. It’s all about strategy, and only then its execution.
6. What are your biggest strengths as an entrepreneur, and what are your most notable weaknesses? How do you maximize these strengths and get around the weaknesses?
I would say that my biggest strength has always been the ability to select the right team members and then motivate them to do stellar work. I personally interview every candidate we hire and make sure there’s a cultural and value fit for the company, not just a skill set and willingness to work.
In terms of business my key to success is combining skills of a creative person with savviness of a traditional entrepreneur. I approach every challenge from a designer’s perspective at the same time making sure the solution makes sense for the company and its business goals and long term strategy. This approach has helped me to win most of our big name clients and put on name next to world’s most acclaimed agencies.
My most notable weakness is that I always in work mode, even when I at home with my family. I know realize that in order to keep going and stay healthy and productive you need to set aside some time to recharge your batteries. I now try to force myself to not check my email on weekends and generally try to spend more time offline. This has definitely helped me to reduce the cognitive load coming from the Internet.
7. Do you have any tips or advice you’d like to share with other entrepreneurs?
Anyone who’s about to start a new business venture should understand that it will eat up his or her entire time and resources for at least the next few years after starting. If you’re not ready for it, don’t do it. Different people have different priorities and a lot of us feel happy and fulfilled when they work for somebody. You don’t have to start a business just because it’s cool now. Listen to your heart and define your priorities. As for myself, I never worked for other people, so I took a path of uncertainty early on and never regretted it.
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