From Russian Startup to Global Digital Agency

We hear stories almost constantly of the massive success (and of course, sometimes failures, too) of startups originating from Silicon Valley and other major tech hubs. These companies are often referred to as "unicorns". However what we don't hear about often enough is the thousands of other companies that are started all the time and become successful without billions of dollars in venture backing and many times, are not located in cities that are traditionally considered hubs of tech, finance or innovation. I believe it's important to tell these stories and remind entrepreneurs that successful companies can be built from virtually anywhere due to today's technology and you don't need vast resources to do it.

Over coming weeks I'll be launching a series of interviews with the founders of companies like these. Companies that started from unusual locations, circumstances or without significant resources. These are important stories for aspiring entrepreneurs to hear. One such company was founded by a friend of mine, Anton Zykin, and it's a digital agency called SFCD. SFCD launched in 2007 from what may be considered an unlikely place for tech startups: Russia. It's now a global digital agency with offices in New York, San Francisco and St. Petersburg, Russia. They serve major clients, including T-Mobile and Sony, and even their own website has been nominated for a Webby Award this year. I asked Anton a couple questions about how he built his agency through bootstrapping this way other entrepreneurs can follow in his footsteps.

1. What led you to start SFCD after graduation from university, as opposed to going the more traditional route and seeking employment elsewhere?

Anton: I've been always interested in software design and development and started building and selling my first apps for Windows when I was still at a university. My products were doing well, but I also started providing design services for other indie developers. There was a huge demand in designers who specialized in software and clients were ready to pay a premium for those skills. By the time I graduated, I already had a lots of clients lined up to work with me and a steady income from design work I was doing and software I was selling online. The decision was obvious when I realized that I can do what I love and get well paid for it.

My ultimate goal has always been making people's lives better with great software and that was just the right opportunity presented at the right time.

2. You are the creative force behind one of the leading design agencies with offices on different continents. What did it take to get to the top in the industry?

Anton: Your talent and creativity matters a lot, especially when you're just starting. People talk about and share things they like, so you have to make something truly extraordinary even to get noticed. One thing we never compromise on is the quality and uniqueness of our work. This has been our path to the top and it takes an insane amount of work to maintain these high quality standards. It took me years to assemble a team who could make it happen and having a well-rounded team is essential for the agency business. You're nothing without your team. Another piece of the puzzle we had to solve is how to get new clients, which is equally important as having your team assembled. Building and nurturing client relationships is a never ending process and the results are not immediate.

For us it's been simply delivering high-quality work on time and within budget over and over again. What has personally helped me win most of our our clients is combining business and executive skills with creative and thought leadership in the digital product space. When a CEO exudes confidence and shows that they know how to solve the problem, it definitely gives your company a few bonus points, when the client is ready to make their decision.

3. In the company's early days, what were the biggest challenges you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

Anton: The biggest challenge for me in the very early days was to start hiring our first employees. I still remember those days when I was considering two really great candidates for a designer position, but I knew I could only afford one, because of the budget constraints at the time. However, I decided to take some risks and hired both of them. This was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Later, it was also pressing to find more work for the growing team, which in fact inspired and even pushed me to think creatively when finding new projects.

Another huge challenge we had to overcome was no just finding new clients, but also working with better and bigger clients. Our main client base consisted of indie developers and smaller software companies at the time. It was a lot of fun working with them, but the projects were short term and it wasn't really sustainable from the business perspective to engage into lots of small gigs.

I wanted to find some big enterprise clients and work with them on long term projects. Since no one knew about us, I decided to apply some creativity to solving this problem. We were able to get in touch with a CEO of a software company who specialized in the retail industry and decided to present our vision for a new interface for their gas station management software. The presented concept and the new interface was purely focused around user's needs, not just business their goals and numbers, which was pretty unusual for those types of companies.

They were also amazed by the creativity and obsessive attention to detail in our designs, the qualities that most enterprise software companies neglect. Eventually, we won that client, and redesigning their gas station management software was our first big project. The final result looked drastically different from the originally presented concept though, but we still delivered on our promise to make it appealing to the end user.

4. When - and how - did you realize that SFCD was going to be a success?

Anton: There were several moments in the history of our company when we saw new markets being established, like it happened with the release of the App Store, and new opportunities to pursue, when we decided to start bringing consumer level of user experience and design to enterprise software.

It all started even before the company was officially established, because the decision to start this business was driven by an increasing demand in such services. I had that hunch before others realized there was an opportunity and the timing was perfect, that's why it all worked out well.

Then we could find a niche, which was designing icons and interfaces for apps, where the competition didn't exist at the time. This was another sign that we were onto something really successful. This also helped us to work with some of the world's top companies including Nokia, Samsung, and Huawei.

Finally, when we moved to the US, we saw that most of the enterprise software was far behind consumer apps in terms of user experience and user interface. At the very same moment, bigger companies started to see a lot of value in design. This was another huge opportunity we were able to capitalize on and prove for ourselves that our success only depends on our ability to be flexible.

5. What led you to expand from Russia to the United States? How did you decide that an international expansion was the right next step for SFCD?

Anton: Shortly after we started the company, we were able to secure long-term contracts with some of biggest Russian companies, including the largest electronics retailer and a leading chain of supermarkets. However, there were a lot of signals that the Russian economy was going to collapse soon, given the political situation in the country at the time.

That said, we started to seek various opportunities for expansion to international markets. At first, we considered opening a European office, but after doing some research it became clear to us that there's not so much activity was going on in our industry. Also, we traveled to the US for some conferences and got some connections that led us to first US clients. We then started to work with them while being based in Russia, which was good at first, but the time difference and communication issues made us consider to establish a physical presence in the US.

I wanted to move to the Bay Area initially, but when it came to making a decision, my choice was NYC, because this way we could have more time overlap with our Russian team.

6. You have designed products for A-list clients, many of which received awards. What would you say is the most challenging part of a production process?

Anton: The most challenging part when it comes to building an award-winning product is in fact no the production, but product strategy. This is the phase where business people, designers, and developers work closely to define what the product should be and how to make it compelling enough so that it can compete with other world-class products.

I personally involved in the decision making process and creative ideation phase for each project guiding the team and the client in the right direction. Once the strategy has been defined, execution and production is a predictable process that you can plan and have other team members take a lead on.

7. Part of your role with SFCD is to advise clients on user experience and product design. What do you see as the most important factors that lead to a successful user experience and product design?

Anton: First off, before you can even about user experience and design of a product, you need to identify why you're building this, who will use this product, and what's your plan for growing it. It starts with identifying if there's a market and a large enough user base to justify costs and time for building and marketing a product. Once that piece of the puzzle is solved, your vision for a product comes into play. Nobody wants to use another Instagram clone regardless of how cool it may look and feel. With the vision and business strategy in place, you're fully equipped to start building your future product.

A lot of people can design a beautiful app or a website, but to make it a successful product a lot of things need to come into place, and user experience is just one of them.

When it comes to the actual user experience of the product, there are a few main rules we usually follow. The resulting experience should be created with the product's target audience in mind and it needs to accomplish these users' goals and satisfy their needs. At the same time, your business objectives should be met as well - the success usually happens at the intersection of users' needs and business goals.

Obviously, things like user interface and its aesthetics mean a lot and have to be well thought out, that's a designer's job. As a creative leader and entrepreneur, your role is to make sure that whatever look and feel your design team comes up with aligns well with your strategy for the brand and product, and resonates with your target user.

8. What's one piece of advice you'd like to share with other entrepreneurs?

Anton: You've got a great idea for a business, now find competent people who can help you along the way, people who share your values and vision. Start hiring early on and prioritize building your team over other business activities. As a business owner, you should be interviewing all candidates personally and never delegate this to other people. Your entire success depends on who you hire and you don't want to mess it up.