Splitting off— How It All Started

From the article series on running Raft, a small Amsterdam based design consultancy.

“I don’t want to go back.”

In the winter of 2014/2015 I received an email from the Chief Design Officer at frog design, my employer, asking if he could meet me the next morning at 8:00am for a coffee next to my house. Given he had arrived in town the same day and there was no advance notice I assumed I was either getting fired or promoted — and the latter seemed very unlikely. I also imagined there may be some type of big office shakeup such as management changes or layoffs.

We met the next morning as planned, at 8:00am at a local cafe. I was told that there would be an all-hands meeting at 11:00am where they would announce the Amsterdam studio of frog Design would close. Designers could either be relocated to other frog Studios, or decide to take a compensation package.

At a little after 8:30am, I called my wife at the time and told her we would move back to Seattle to the frog office there. We had been living in Amsterdam for almost four years, and had previously enjoyed living in Seattle. “I don’t want to go back.”, said my wife, in no uncertain terms. Given she had moved for me numerous times, I had to take the idea, that she would like to stay in Amsterdam, seriously. This meant I would need to find another job.

A little after 11:00am when the announcement was made I put a poorly conceived plan into action. I grabbed several of my closest friends in the studio and asked them to meet at my place that night.

This is how Raft started.

There were five of us the first night that began to give shape to creating our own design consultancy. For the following 3 months we worked on a plan to start our own consultancy. Going back and forth, bringing new people into the discussion, eventually ballooning to eight people, and then over time down to four founders. The way we secured funding for our first few months was lucky. I could spin up a tale of great negotiation on my part, but realistically I think it was frog “throwing us a bone”, as the saying goes. Once we established the founding members, four of us, all equal, it was time to secure funding so we didn’t end up without salaries for the first few months.

I placed a call to the General Manager of frog Europe and explained we were starting a company. I then expressed that the people who we were starting the company with were mostly on critical path projects for frog, including an IKEA program. I explained that we would leave to start the company, but could be contracted back at cheap rates for a downside guarantee of €100,000 over the course of a year — meaning they must at least spend €100,000 with us. Anything over was even better. Of course looking backwards, this was a paltry sum given we could have sat around doing nothing waiting to get laid off at the office close and cost them potentially hundreds of thousands. By contrast only €100,000 probably seemed cheap. But that didn’t detour us from being happy and me becoming a master negotiator (sarcasm is heavy on that last part)

When we finally announced it to the team at frog, I wasn’t even there. I spent the entire first year traveling between Munich and Sweden working to launch IKEA’s first smart home product called TRÅDFRI (somewhat odd term for wireless or “without wires”). I believe I spent three or four days in the Raft office in the entire first year. On the personal side, I was also going through a separation and buying a house at the time. I’m surprised I didn’t collapse at some point, but it was too exciting to stop — even if I didn’t always show it.

Polariods from the announcement in the frog office (notice my head is a cutout)

I share this because in so many books I have read, videos I have watched, or podcasts I have listened to, we have been told that being an entrepreneur is a natural skill that people can naturally embrace.

I’m here to tell you I’m not a natural entrepreneur. I had no plan. I had never seriously thought about starting a company, and had no real plan of action. I express that because I think a lot of people think the same — and I want to share that you can do this too; it’s simply a lot of hard work and creative thinking.

Over the next several months when I reached out and talked to other owners of small to medium sized design consultancies and companies. I was often told three things unequivocally.

  1. No one will want to come work for you
  2. You won’t be able to pay yourself a salary for the first year
  3. You won’t get any larger client in the first year

I didn’t like any of those. Neither did the founding members of Raft. We simply decided we weren’t going to suffer through those situations. We didn’t know how, but we knew we weren’t going to. What follows in this collection of articles is everything I learned, and a lot of what Raft learned, in four years of running a design consultancy.

Over the course of four years we managed to hire an amazing team of designers. We had clients from the start, and we were able to pay ourselves full salaries from Day 1. By year three we had become a million dollar company and take over an entire floor of a brand new building in Amsterdam. At year four we had managed to be acquired by a company we had amazing respect for and run by Mark Rolston, the former Chief Design Officer at frog for over a decade.

I never told anyone that “we didn’t like those three topics, we’re not going to do them”, because people would have laughed at me. They would have said I didn’t know what I was doing and was ignorant of everything in the business world. To be fair, that would have been 100% right. Luckily that level of ignorance played to my favour. It may have been that level of ignorance that allowed me to ignore everything that stood in everyone else’s way and made us successful.

I’m here now to share everything I learned from running Raft (with other partners — I was never alone) in the hope that it will help anyone else who is hoping to start a small design consulting company themselves. I’ll even try and share some of our internal documents to be as transparent as possible.

Claps are welcomed! We also have more articles on the story of Raft, a small Amsterdam design consultancy.
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Head of Creative at argodesign Amsterdam (https://www.argodesign.com/)