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Personal experience: how I opened a design studio
Personal experience: how I opened a design studio

"Now we know how not to do it."

Personal experience: how I opened a design studio
Personal experience: how I opened a design studio

The graphic and web-design studio "Alalai" was created by Sasha Dolzhikov and Anya Ivannikova, who have been friends for over 10 years. They survived two financial crises, were able to get out of debt and organized a project that many people know and love. We talked with Sasha and found out why it is impossible to work with relatives, how to decide on a new business after a failure and what to answer to customers who believe that colored hair automatically makes you frivolous.

Acquaintance with the partner and the origin of the project

Design did not appear in my life right away. At first I was educated as a sociologist, and then I decided to master advertising and PR. When it came time to choose an internship, I ended up at the Moscow Psychological Aid Service: I was hired as a part-time press secretary. It was here that I realized that PR in real life is very different from what is written in textbooks. Before graduating, I started looking for a job where I would like to stay not only for practice. An acquaintance suggested a small advertising agency, where they took me for a manager's vacancy.

In a new place, I met Anya Ivannikova, who held the same position as me. We instantly became friends, started working on joint projects and realized that we understand each other perfectly. It turned out to be a lot of tasks, but we dealt with them professionally, so over time they began to entrust us with difficult clients and projects with a deadline “ended already yesterday”. Once in two weeks it was necessary to decorate 11 car dealerships for the New Year holidays. During the day we communicated beautifully with clients, and at night we unwound kilometers of pine needles and hung balls.

Founders of the design studio "Alalay" Sasha Dolzhikov and Anya Ivannikova
Founders of the design studio "Alalay" Sasha Dolzhikov and Anya Ivannikova

At one point, we realized that we had enough experience and desire to create something of our own. Anya planned to open a full-cycle advertising agency: to do printing and branded products for various companies. She invited me to become a partner, and I agreed.

We didn’t have a business plan, sponsors and a huge budget, but we had pure enthusiasm and about 100,000 rubles. We gave half of the amount for a two-month rent of a room from partners, and with the remaining money we bought three laptops, a printer, several tables, chairs and stationery.

Working with relatives

Our company was called Optimal Solutions Bureau. The first employees were friends and relatives, but now I understand that it was a mistake. It is profitable to hire such people, because in the worst times you may not pay them their salaries and say: "Can you work for a month without money?" But when a person is motivated by friendship, not money, he does not perform well. Such an employee does not want to mess up on purpose, because he treats you well, but sooner or later he will start to cheat anyway. The mechanisms of work, control and solution of problem situations with strangers are clearer, more understandable and strict.

Each person had a role to play. Sister Ani held the position of office manager: she printed documents, signed them, and organized the delivery of finished products. Anya's sister's friend became a sales manager. She found various companies, sent them commercial offers and connected ready clients with me and Anya, because we are professionally able to negotiate with customers.

Of course, the support of our acquaintances saved us, but in fact, we could do this work on our own, and invest the salary money in something more necessary for the development of the business.

Our main success within the “Bureau of Optimal Solutions” is working with the METRO Cash and Carry team. They launched a pilot project - Fasol stores, which were sold under a franchise. A person bought a room and decorated it in accordance with the corporate style: a signboard, clothes for sellers, an interior interior. We were engaged in the development of branded elements, so the "Beans" in the form in which it exists was born thanks to the "Bureau".

Change of focus, burnout and debt

In order to increase earnings and not go to third-party printing houses, we bought two machines and equipped workshops in the Moscow region. True, once we realized that with all the volumes of orders, we still cannot load this equipment 24/7. It is idle, which means that we are doomed to losses. To make a profit, one would have to be more actively involved in the sale of printing, which is produced on these machines. The only problem is that this activity has nothing to do with the advertising agency. In this case, it is impossible to break apart.

All this severely crippled us in terms of finances, and then in 2014 the ruble also collapsed. Materials have risen in price, and advertising budgets have shrunk dramatically.

We began to realize that we were doing everything except what an advertising agency should do. We simply didn’t have enough hands, we were tired, and there was a slight burnout. There were few clients, and losses were growing. Dissatisfaction with work too. Anya by that time was planning to go on maternity leave, so it became clear that the story was nearing its logical conclusion. Each machine cost about 800,000 rubles, but due to the crisis, prices fell sharply, and we ran into debt.

After the "Bureau of Optimal Solutions" I found a good design job and took the position of the head of the production department. True, I did not last long in the new place.

Project revival and rebranding

Despite the closure, orders continued to flow through the "Bureau of Optimal Solutions", because former clients shared our contacts with other people. We carried out some tasks, and refused some of them.

At one point, a request came from a fast service network, and the amount of the transaction was very similar to the amount of our debt - 3 million rubles. Anya and I discussed for some time that we could pay off the debt and feel like free people, but in the end we decided to take into account past mistakes and invest the money we earned in a new business. True, now to choose a narrower direction: the design studio.

For 75,000 rubles a month, we rented a room, which already had tables, internet, a cooler and even a reception for receiving documents. It only remained to acquire equipment. We bought two iMac computers for 150,000 rubles. This time, they were looking for employees through HeadHunter - they simply posted two ads about the search for managers and designers. So we hired four guys and started work.

The girl Nastya, whom we hired as a designer, quickly grew to an art director, because she is very talented. Her level turned out to be 10 goals higher than what we expected at that time. I want to say thank you very much to her, because it is thanks to her efforts that Alalay has become what many people know him.

Alalay Design Studio
Alalay Design Studio

Sanctions and failure

For two years we existed quite well. It took that time to build the portfolio that I had in mind. Many design companies specialize in just one type of work, such as logos or printing. I always wanted Alalay to be able to develop any design for a client, be it a presentation or packaging. Now we are a studio that can do everything, and this is our trick.

In the summer of 2018, a new crisis stage began. The design work has become significantly less, because the next round of US sanctions prohibited our clients from working with such small companies as ours. They had to select specific contractors that fit within the constraints.

By the summer of 2018, we came up with no orders at all. Despite the lack of work, we did not want to disperse the team with the words “Guys, sorry, we didn’t succeed”. However, employees began to leave on their own. Art-director Nastya was invited to work on a more interesting project, and the others also gradually began to leave us.

By the fall of 2018, we found ourselves without a team.

It was not difficult to find a designer, but we could no longer reach the level that we ourselves declared in the portfolio. As a result, we missed the advertising season and again collapsed into the abyss of debt. At that moment, Anya and I were in a slight shock and did not understand what to do. Everything seemed to be in order, but for some reason it did not work out again.

Co-founder of the design studio "Alalay" Alexander Dolzhikov
Co-founder of the design studio "Alalay" Alexander Dolzhikov

New team and working principles

In 2019, everything fell into place because we listened to smart people and optimized costs. Now we do not have an actual office - only a legal address tied to the rented premises. There is the core of the team, but some of the designers regularly work with us on freelance. There are no managers left at all, their duties are performed by me and Anya. We have been on the market for so many years that we do not need additional advertising or sales. People turn to us because they know and trust.

When we first planned to do design, there was a chance to become the same company as the Bureau of Optimal Solutions - just one of the players. Now I can say, not without pride, that although Alalai does not occupy a place in the ratings, it is known in its own way on the market. We work in our niche: we have a recognizable face and a certain creative competence. Our projects are put together like puzzles and create a single picture.

Alalay design studio logo
Alalay design studio logo

Alalay is a very informal word. Some clients say: "Well, you have a frivolous name." Someone sees something vulgar, someone childish, and someone generally sees a line from a song. For us, this word is a litmus test. It is as unusual as we are. I dye my hair different colors and never come to meetings in a shirt and jacket. Anya is the same, and this is our principled position. If someone doesn't like the way we look, I'm sorry.

It's the same with the name. It clearly filters customers on ours and not quite. Some come and say, "Damn guys, cool word." Most often, we succeed in everything with such people, because they are close to our position and the projects that we are implementing. If someone wants to make a boring logo for a cast iron factory, he is not here for us.

Costs and Benefits

I am not ashamed to admit that we are not 100% successful. Our experience is painful, but now we know how not to do it. After the 2018 crisis, we still have debts, which we are gradually closing. Moreover, the costs are spent on the cost of projects - this is our salary with Anya and payments to designers. We have an accountant who prepares reports and also receives a salary, as well as internal needs, such as communication costs.

It is rather difficult to say the exact profit, because the projects are always different and the amounts are also different. The approximate turnover for the last year is about 8 million.

Errors and insights

It is very important not to accept orders from friends and family. This is a big mistake that we encounter from time to time. The problem is that there is no proper level of business relationship between you. Familiar people who turn to you believe that they are doing a good deed, because they brought the order and money. This usually requires a discount or special treatment, which is expressed in the desire to constantly be in touch with you. There are two options: either you bend and curse yourself, or you do not bend and hear in response: “Oh, did you turn on your officialdom? Clear".

The second mistake is too much freedom. On the one hand, I don't like the corporate framework, when employees have norms for communicating with management. But I am ready to admit my mistake and say that at a certain moment I could not build the proper level of communication between myself and the team. There were moments when I gave specific tasks after the client's edits, and they answered me: "No, we will not do this, because it is ugly." I understood that I was ordering, but the guys did not understand, because the barrier between subordinates and leaders was erased. Sometimes you should be more strict.

Finally, don't be tempted to do it yourself. Novice businessmen often think that they understand everything, so it is easier to complete the task yourself than to entrust it to someone else. Learn to delegate, trust people, and control execution calmly. Ask every five minutes: "How is it?" - not very professional.

Life hacking from Sasha Dolzhikov

  • Don't be afraid to take risks. You need to do it deliberately, but still do it. Try new things and don't worry if you make a mistake. You can read a bunch of tips in smart books, but until you stumble upon something yourself, you will never understand that this is true.
  • Filter other people's advice. Another person's opinion is not a guide to action. You can't take the recommendations blindly, because, most likely, you will succeed differently. Everything needs to be divided in two and think with your own head.
  • Stand out. You can only make a first impression once. The market is very oversaturated, so you need to accept that no one will read the page "About the company", which says how good you are. And no one will look at 200 finished projects, no matter how cool they are. You need to stand out. If you are easily noticed against the background of others, this is already the key to success.
  • Remember that the client isn't always right, and don't be afraid to talk about it sometimes. Of course, it's not worth sending a customer in three letters, but a delicate explanation in compliance with the rules of professional ethics is never superfluous. The client is used to getting his ass licked and doing everything the way he wants. When I began to argue and neatly prove my point of view, it caused surprise. I believe that sometimes it is better to say “no” correctly if you are sure that your experience and professionalism are enough to really do better.

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