Web Designer Magazine – ‘Career Path’ interview

An interview with Felix Velarde, Managing Director, Underwired and Jason Holland, Creative Director, Underwired

WD: What is the key advice that you would give to a designer that is thinking about starting his or her own studio?
JH: Be creative but relevant – for each pitch or portfolio item, have a business case for why or how your creativity will increase the clients return on investment and not just look great.
FV: And concentrate on doing the best work you can do. If you are the lead creative, be the lead creative – don’t get bogged down in production work. Your time is more valuable even if given free if you’re producing work that inspires clients.
WD: What prompted you to set up your own agency?
JH: The feeling that I not only knew where I could take my own career, but where I could take the industry. It was at a time of my life that I could ‘risk all’ and put everything into a new venture, with Felix Velarde as the Entrepreneurial skill and my creative vision.
FV: I’ve done this four times successfully now, the last two with Jason (our previous agency became the digital arm of Lowe). The key driver was having a vision of how we felt design for marketing could and should be – and really wanting the freedom to realise that vision. Doing it for ourselves meant we could concentrate on high quality without the baggage of projects we didn’t want but working for someone else would have inherited.
WD: Do you think the current business climate is conducive with setting up a new digital design agency?
JH: Yes – but there are far more small companies (as a percentage of the whole) than large agencies than there have been, so clarity for what you do is very important.
FV: If you get it right – yes. There are very few overheads for a small company, you can be lean and focused, and operating in a recession will give you skills that will stand your in good stead once it’s over.
WD: Should new digital agencies specialise or offer a full service?
JH: I believe in specialists, even if it’s just what is seen from the view of a possible client. Start small within your client’s organisation and prove your worth – then you can offer your wider set of services. For example, we are famous for our eCRM expertise, but this encompasses lots of disciplines like email, websites and social. The platform of real strategic insight into customers has opened all sorts of doors for us.
FV: Full service comes with scalable processes, and that makes it almost impossible for a small agency to compete with an established operation. I agree with Jason – if you specialise everyone knows what you do, and if a client needs that, they know who to turn to.
WD: What skills do you wish you had when you started your studio?
JH: Delegation – I’m still working on it 16 years later!
FV: I wish I’d understood Gross Margin Percent – it would have made life an awful lot easier in the beginning.
WD: What would you have done differently when you set up your agency?
JH: Nothing – even the big mistakes have shaped what I do and how I do it today.
FV: I’d have sought out a mentor sooner. Having an experienced hand to give you advice and steer you towards opportunity and away from catastrophe, even if it costs a few grand a year, is well worth it.