Finding the right design agency to work with can be invaluable for startups looking to start off on the right foot. Sarah Morton of Matter of Focus – a mission-led, Edinburgh-based company that works with public service organisations – shares with us the valuable lessons learned from a couple of false starts.

I’m Sarah Morton, one of the founders and directors of our company Matter of Focus. We work with public service organisations in order to help them understand and track the differences they make to the people and communities they serve. We offer consultancy and a software product to help them do this. My co-founder Ailsa Cook and I set up the company in June 2017, and since then we have grown from two women around our kitchen tables to a team of seven with a product and a successful first year behind us.

In this blog I’m going to talk about the journey we have been on to find a design company that really understands our values and our brand, and can support us in our growth ambitions. As a company offering consultancy and software, we need design support for our overall look and feel; our logo, website and social media; and for our software product.

Starting out

We had quite strong ideas about what we wanted from our brand, but to say we had a strategy from the start would be an exaggeration! We knew that we wanted our clients to feel that we were new and fresh – a different approach to what they were used to. We wanted to communicate that we were innovative, friendly and that we are a values-based company. But we were also a startup with limited funds and we were very pragmatic about what we could spend on branding.

So, we started with a logo and brand that had been developed by my business partner when she was a sole trader consultant. Once we had identified someone to work with us to develop our software, we took their recommendation of a design company that they had worked with in the past.

We liked the look of their website and, rather than getting lots of quotes (especially as we were struggling to keep on top of everything that needed to be done), we decided to go with them. They didn’t live in the same city as us, but we thought it would be fine to work remotely with them. However, quite quickly we started to really struggle. We wanted support with the look for our software, but when their ideas came in we really didn’t like them.

Design agency no. 2

Unfortunately, the timing for this was really bad, so we took another opportunistic step that meant we could move fast.  This was with a larger and local design agency that had a User Experience (UX) lead who we knew from our neighbourhood. We had a great workshop session with the UX lead, as well as a designer and software developer from that company, which really helped us to set out what design features we wanted for the software. Following this, they did some rapid logo development for us and set up a website that was based on one they had made for a previous client. It was all looking good. We then launched our website in December 2017, which meant we had an online presence that we were happy with.

However, the software development progressed more slowly. The disadvantage of working with a large agency was that, being such a small project for them, we didn’t feel as if we were a high priority. Once the leads in the company had set up the project, it was handed to less experienced staff and communication channels became slow and cumbersome. It soon became apparent that they had underestimated the software design job and they were reluctant to put more time in than the minimum. We struggled on and encountered further problems in getting them to sort out problems with our website.

The final blow to our relationship with the second agency was that an intellectual property (IP) audit showed that the logo they had developed for us was far too similar to that of a big international brand, meaning we would probably need to change our name. We decided it was time to try again.

Moving forwards

We decided to interview a few design agencies that we had identified through word of mouth and networking. The advice given to us from other startups in our incubator space was to go for a small company where we would be a significant client, hopefully leading to a situation where we might grow together.

In the end, we chose a new local company: a small team who took a really fresh approach. What stood out about them was that they really listened to what we wanted, had great ideas and also shared our values as a company. They focus on collaboration as a key part of the design process, which works well for us. We have spent an exciting few months with them developing our new brand identity, including a new company name. By the end of the process we will have a new look and feel that we can really get behind. This will give us the confidence to sell to our next tranche of clients.

What we learned:

  • If designers don’t take the time to learn about you and listen to you, then they are probably not going to be a good fit.
  • Find out exactly who in the design agency will carry out work for you. How will the project be managed and what are the communication channels like? For us, the fewer people involved in the process, the better.
  • When things aren’t working out take action quickly – wasted time can be costly to the business.

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