The Myth of the Design Studio Turned Product Company

Posted: June 27, 2014 Comments(4)


37Signals successfully navigated the path of going from a design studio to being a software company. In the process of doing that they unknowingly started the mythology that every design or development studio should become a product company.

Kevin and I have on more than one occasion sat back and talked about what it would look like to pursue a product “on the side”. We dipped our toe in the water with a couple of (wicked) small offerings that exposed us to what that would look like on a more consistent basis. While that effort showed potential success, it didn’t take long to realize that it wouldn’t be sustainable.

I’m not sure how much that directly correlates to us being a two man shop with no intention of hiring/expanding, but that little experience was eye opening for us. It directly challenged what we had established as foundational for client work, it proved to distract from that very quickly. And we were barely in the game.

We realized that we started Iron to Iron as a client services company. We feel that we have a solid process down, happy clients, and we’re really proud of the work. We actually liked client work. Why are we rocking that boat? I think this article really nails down the subconscious that I think formed for both Kevin and I (and the rest of the industry) from stories like 37Signals’.

It seems like everyone is still striving to become some sort of overnight success by building a product that takes the world by storm and gets them out of client work. I’m not sure about all of the other shops pursuing products, but I think if you’re in that boat it makes more sense to think about whether you’re trying to build a product or simply get out of client work.

Edit/Update: I read this article as I was catching up on my to-read queue, it was published more than half a year ago. It turns out it caused a bit of a discussion, to which a lengthy reply was published. All that to say: there are definitely multiple angles to think about here, and as many others have mentioned I tend to agree with the overarching myth being how long things take as opposed to the very specific correlation with a single company in all of history.

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  1. I think that’s a terrific article, but I also feel there’s a significant difference between a side project and a company trying to build a product aimed at getting them out of client work.

    Existing design and development shops are likely working on internal projects that are ‘stupid’ and without much direct focus, but there are also shops out there working nights and weekends to build a product that represents their “freedom” from client work.

    I absolutely think side projects are awesome. I have more barely started projects that were more stupid than I care to admit, and as the article mentioned: the byproducts of those side projects are invaluable. But they didn’t split the focus of my company’s objectives.

  2. Great thoughts here Johnathan,

    While I don’t necessarily disagree, I think it totally depends on what the goals, and working styles are of the company.

    If you goal is to execute work as a very small and nimble team, it might be harder to execute a larger startup idea, however if the goal is to grow and build a larger well versed team, pivoting a highly cohesive team to work on a startup might be easier and more inline with the team’s capabilities.

    At Authentic F&F we’re in a similar boat, to some extent. We’re a small lean team, as of now, and love doing client work. While we’re not really setting out sites on any major products at this point, one long-term goal is to build a team strong and cohesive enough to eventually make a move like this. Both when the team is right, the time is right, and the idea is right.

  3. Both when the team is right, the time is right, and the idea is right.

    I love that! A product is in your playbook, but you’re being mindful of the approach. You aren’t doing client work to “pay the bills” while you’re really trying to focus on building a product that serves to get you out of client work. I think that’s my biggest hangup as I think through this more. It feels like if you’re running a shop that’s rallied around building a product to get out of client work, you’re primarily focusing on the product (and the immense stress that comes with that) which as a byproduct puts your client work on the back burner to a degree. Yes you are likely working very hard for your clients, but if we’re honest with ourselves we can’t fully focus on two projects at the same time.

    I think a key word you’ve mentioned is pivot. I see that as being different than trying to tackle two business models at once. If you’re going to completely shift away from client work to focus on a product I think that’s great. I think trying to serve two masters by doing client work to facilitate product development is where the trouble comes in. I’m all for products; I think building one and having it be a success is an amazing accomplishment. I also take client work very seriously though, and question the position that client work is something to be overcome so as to graduate to being a product company. I don’t think that’s a universal stigma, but it’s definitely present.

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