Building a design studio in 1 year

In April 2015 Jo Barnard and myself decided to start our own design studio called Morrama. We had both been working at some of the top design agencies in London (Seymourpowell and Therefore), but we were growing tired of the slow workflow, the focus on corporate clients with huge margins, and we both simply wanted to have more freedom in our work. So we took the plunge, registered Morrama Ltd and started working for ourselves.

The full morrama team

The full morrama team

One year on and we are both blown away where morrama is now. We started with nothing. And I mean absolutely nothing. We had no clients, no website, no funding and no studio space. We literally just had an idea of what we wanted to do. Morrama has completely exceeded our expectations and it’s now a rapidly growing studio with a £100,000+ turnover, a team of four, and a valuation of over £1 million. This is a quick overview of how two people in their 20’s made this happen.

Getting work

The biggest hurdle for all freelancers or new studios is bringing in work and this is the question we get asked the most. ‘How do you bring in new work?’. There really isn’t a single answer to this, however there are a number of factors that have got us to a point whereby new work does keep flowing.

Thankfully I had been freelancing throughout university which mean I had a solid portfolio site (which I started in 2009!) that was gaining a lot of traffic. I also posted a lot of blog articles about design which meant I had accidentally created a site with great SEO. This means if you search for ‘freelance industrial designer’, I pop up at the top. This initially brought in most of our work and still brings in a fair amount of smaller projects today.

One of our super early projects - a surfboard carrier for bikes

One of our super early projects - a surfboard carrier for bikes

We also did some direct client reach out. Often by simply by attending startup networking events and chatting to people. Or even by cold emailing start-ups we had seen on crowdfunding sites who we thought might need a designer now, or in the future. In fact, our biggest startup client came from emailing a company, who’d had a successful kickstarter campaign, asking if they needed help. We are their in-house studio heading up their entire design and product development.

We literally meet with every single person who contacts us asking for help with design.

And this leads on to the key way we bring in work. We literally meet with every single person who contacts us asking for help with design. No matter how weird the project sounds or how little money they have, we always meet with them. Either in person, or via Skype. We simply believe that every person could have the potential to make something amazing, so we always go out of our way to try and help them. The majority of the time we don’t take things further than the first meeting, but some of our most interesting projects have stemmed from a meeting with an entrepreneur, in a coffee shop, during their lunch break.

We messed up A LOT

In the early days of morrama we made a huge amount of mistakes; finding out the right way of doing things, by regularly doing the wrong thing first.

To start with we had no studio space for ourselves (we are now based in Makerversity at Somerset House and it is perfect. Seriously, check it out, it’s awesome) and this meant we often worked away from each other, only meeting in person two days a week. We thought this was great as we could work from coffee shops, our homes or pretty much anywhere we fancied. However it was vastly unproductive and mean there was zero collaboration between myself and Jo. This lasted for three months and simply didn’t work. Looking back, we should have changed the situation sooner.

In July/August 2015 Morrama was under a huge workload and we thought we couldn’t handle it between the two of us, so we decided to hire a junior designer and grow the team.

This is Nick doing some awesome designs for a wearable tech product

This is Nick doing some awesome designs for a wearable tech product

We put a job posting up on our site and after a few interviews brought on Nick Booth. An incredibly talented designer who had just graduated and wanted to work in a small studio, giving him space to try new things and learn. Initially everything was going great, he brought a lot to the team and this allowed me to focus on growing the company and bringing in new work. But after a busy summer, work started to slow down and we quickly realised Nick was earning more than we were and there simply wasn’t enough work for the three of us. We were paying him a fixed monthly salary, whilst myself and Jo were splitting the profits between us. Morrama was losing money fast and we simply couldn’t continue like this.

We were growing too fast for a company with no buffer and no investment

After a conversation with Nick about the situation, he could see the problem so started to look for other work. His portfolio spoke for itself and he was quickly snapped up by Pearson Lloyd. It was sad to see him go, but thankfully it was a win win for both Morrama and Nick. We were growing too fast for a company with no buffer and no investment, so for the next few months Jo and I worked late nights and weekends minimising our overheads whilst we built up the foundations of our company.

Our lovely studio space at Makerversity

Our lovely studio space at Makerversity

This differentiation is what allowed Morrama to grow so fast in 2016. With Jo’s focus on running the design process and producing amazing work I had the freedom to prioritise growing the company; creating long term partnerships and equity deals with our clients, developing relationships and working out ways to bring in the best projects. I was thinking wide and Jo was thinking narrow and everything was starting to have some synergy.

Morrama has always prioritised working with startups, however we have also started to work with more corporate clients. Increasing numbers of multi-nationals have small innovation teams within their companies to allow them to efficiently explore new ideas, but just like a start-up, these teams don’t always have the necessary skill set to build ideas out and test them. That’s where Morrama comes in, and in the past six months we have worked with two huge companies: a Forbes ‘Top 500 Biggest Public Company’ with a valuation of $32.5 Billion and a FTSE 250 company with a £2 Billion valuation.

Our long term aim is to become the go-to studio/accelerator for startups

Working with these big players was a huge step up for us and it was honestly quite intimidating at times. However they needed our skill set and we quickly worked out how to hold our own in meetings. We even ended up as consultants, overseeing work that was outsourced to another (much bigger) design consultancy in London! This experience has made us realise that what Morrama has to offer is very unique.

A really cool project we worked on. A soil moisture sensor for farms in India.

A really cool project we worked on. A soil moisture sensor for farms in India.

Whilst all this was going on, we never forgot our primary focus — working with startups and helping them get their ideas of the ground. Companies we had worked with on short fixed term contracts earlier in the year were coming back wanting to partner with us long term. We can’t talk specifics (yet), but this has lead us to the signing of two equity agreements with huge startups on different sides of the world to us. Our long term aim is to become the go-to studio/accelerator for startups, so signing long term partnerships with our best clients is a major step in that direction.

Growing in the right way

Having stripped everything right back in November, by February 2016 we had built a solid client base, were bringing in repeating work, had long term partnerships in place and were working with some huge corporate clients. It was finally time to grow.

We had learnt so much the previous summer and knew how hiring the right people and the right time was crucial, so we wanted to get it right. We realised a key gap in our offering was the later stages of product development, engineering work and liaising with factories. So we decided to keep an eye out for a design engineer.

Morrama gets about five unsolicited job applications a week (how insane is that!), and we soon spied one applicant — Michael Jones. In his 30’s, he has a huge amount of experience in plastics and engineering and appeared to be a perfect match. We wanted to hire someone who was better than us, more experienced than us, and knew exactly what he was doing. So without hesitation we hired him!

The team has quickly become one of my favourite groups of people to work with

 On top of this we were on the lookout for a talented Industrial Designer, so after a few interviews and a lot of filtering (there are SO many design graduates out there), we brought on Mike Hankin: an outstanding Central St Martins graduate who has worked with some amazing companies. Apart from him also being called Michael (so much email confusion!) he has slotted into the team perfectly and brings even more than we hoped for.

So our team of four now consists of an Industrial Designer (Mike), a Product Designer (Jo), a Design Engineer (Michael), and myself: an Industrial Design with experience in UI, graphic design and an aptitude for business and startups. (Since starting Availo, I am now an advisor and spokesperson to morrama)

The team working on some branding development

The team working on some branding development

The team has quickly become one of my favourite groups of people to work with and the stuff we produce always blows me away! As a multidisciplinary team, we’ve got to a point where we can do everything from branding, to product design, to liaising with factories in China. We’re fast becoming the perfect solution for a startup looking to design and launch a product.

The perks

Running a business and seeing the work that the team produces is in itself rewarding enough, but there are also some very tangible benefits of starting something on your own.

My personal favourite is work travel. If we were working as designers for another studio there is almost 0% chance we would get to travel with work. Jo and myself have already been to NYC, San Francisco and Las Vegas to talk at events, meet with clients and help grow Morrama in the USA (a huge number of our clients are in the States). These are absolutely knackering, pretty stressful, but a lot of fun. Experiences like this are something we never expected to happen this early, but the trips are so fruitful and always pay for themselves!

We flew to Las Vegas for a meeting…

We flew to Las Vegas for a meeting…

Next month Jo and Michael are also flying out to China to liaise with the factory who is manufacturing one of our partners products. Again, an experience that very few get to have at any point in their design career, let alone at such an early stage. And we are so privileged to be representing our own company.

Our long term aim is to become the go-to studio/accelerator for startups

In addition to travel, being involved at every part of the design process is something very few designers get to experience. Our team is involved in everything from the initial client meeting, right through to engineering the product, prototyping and manufacture. Something that a young designer at a larger agency would never experience. Most of these big studios pigeon hole their young designers, keeping them working on specific tasks and never wanting to take a risk and allow them to do something outside of their job description. I’m 24 years old and it frustrates me that so few companies see the potential of young people and give them the opportunity to explore new areas.

Jo and I have learnt how to do VAT returns, understand profit and loss accounts, deal with difficult clients, work with multinational companies, hire new staff, sign off contracts, travel abroad, talk at events, hold our own in meetings with CEO’s, press the button on a £5k prototype, make models in-house, create awesome brand identities, make crowdfunding campaigns, sign equity deals worth £1M and crucially, to enjoy it at every single moment of building our own company. More people need to experience this stuff as it changes you, and we hope we can share these experience with our current and future employers.

What's next for Morrama

Morrama is never going to be ‘just another design studio’. We’ve always had huge ambitions for the company and there is a long way for it to go. Most people think growth just means taking on more clients and building a larger team, but we think this isn’t enough. Jo and I want to make Morrama into a studio accelerator which can help startups design and launch their hardware products. There are a number of hardware accelerators around, however none have design at their core and as good design is essential for successful, well thought out products, we want to own that market. There are so many entrepreneurs around the world with amazing ideas, yet so few have the hard skills to get their product made. So in the next few years we aim to push Morrama towards fulfilling their needs and putting more great products into the market. We’re also in the process of launching an accompanying brand to Morrama that will help non-profits and charities, but more on that soon.

One of our many wearable tech projects

One of our many wearable tech projects

In the short term we’re going to continue working with great startups, designing awesome products, and building long term relationships with our partners. So if you’re a startup and are in need of design work, be sure to get in touch.

Our top tips

For those looking to do their own thing and start a company, here are our top tips for building a business.These are based purely on our experience and from the many, many mistakes we have made!

Work really hard
OK this is an obvious one, but nothing ever replaces being a hard grafter who puts in the hours needed. You need to be willing to work harder than everyone else and know where the work needs to be put in. Luck really is when preparation meets opportunity, so have the groundwork laid for when something comes up

Take huge risks and learn from mistakes
You’ve got to keep pushing yourself beyond your limits and beyond your understanding, as this is the only way to learn. Read articles, listen to podcasts and get mentors, but nothing beats screwing things up yourself. You can learn a lot, even from small mistakes.

Have confidence in you and your team
Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, then surround yourself with people to compliment that. Successful teams are what makes a company work so focus on building those relationships. A co-founder is crucial (Jo is incredible!) and make sure your roles are well defined. Plus, make sure you always try to hire people better than yourself!

And above all; always work out a way to enjoy what you are doing!

Rob Bye

Rob Bye, London, United Kingdom

Industrial design and a co-founder of morrama. He has worked at startups and top companies such seymourpowell.