Alexander Kovalsky, CreativePeople: from design punks to design evangelists

    Hello Megamind!

    Today it’s the turn to talk about the success stories of CreativePeople . I think these guys no longer need an introduction. These are true web design evangelists with a beard and a squirrel in their hand.

    Someone will say that their story is banal. Students gathered, made websites for several years, and eventually gained fame. But what a fame! Their works are in designer collections around the world, and on the shelves in the office are awards of famous advertising festivals and site contests. In addition, they have been on the jury of the Awwwards international competition for several years, and now they are judging sites on the Runet Rating.

    In general, the guys have something to brag about, but today they will not do it. Alexander Kovalsky, CreativePeople CEO and Creative Director, honestly talks about how they became a creative agency from freelance artels. And along the way, about his approach to business and design, about partners that you should not work with, about unworthy PR and relations with Photoshop, which is still the working tool of the CEO.

    Want to get an avalanche of inspiration? Then read.

    PS Do you know how CreativePeople captured Crimea? A little over a year passed and Sergei Prokofiev, Commercial Director, told me this story. In just a few days, she will appear on Megamind. Subscribe to our blog if you do not want to miss.

    Brief information about the company:

    Positioning: interactive creative agency
    Brands: YOTA, VitrA, KIA, Canon, Otkritie Bank, Econika, Amway, Bank of Moscow
    Offices: Moscow, Sevastopol
    Staff: 50 employees
    Ratings: 11th place (Tagline 2015) , 13 place (Ruward 2015), 1 place Creativity rating "Runet Rating 2015".

    Background: how we caught a squirrel

    - For many, if not all, CreativePeople is associated with bearded man and squirrel. How did you come to this? Where does this visual image come from and is it related to your story?

    - The image of a bearded man appeared only after five years of work of our agency. And in the form as it is now, and even more. But still, it is connected with our history, this is a tribute to the path traveled ...

    At the very beginning we were really design punks. It was 2003. We were students and had fun at work. It should be noted that in those years the concept of "freelance" in the form of a layer of free specialists working for different customers did not exist. There were people who worked officially during the day, and at night and on the weekend earned extra, third-party orders. It is difficult to imagine a situation when someone then worked without a salary, waiting for incoming customers. Due to the lack of a freelance market in those years, the appearance of studios named after themselves: Artemy Lebedev Studio, Bolotov Studio, Pirogov's Bureau. If you wanted to draw something of your own, you had to open your own studio. We were lucky with the name a little more.

    As often happens, our company appeared by chance, from an adventure. My friend worked as a technical director on a major project of the American online auction. The client wanted to leave this company and was looking for new developers. It was a big jackpot, and we decided to offer him ourselves as performers. To make everything look respectable, we rented an office, put together a small team, equipped jobs ... After a month it became clear that the client would not leave the old contractor, the risks were too great. We parted with my main partner, who was responsible for the technical part (he went to another company), and began to engage in design. A colleague left the project right away, and I decided to continue.

    For several years, CreativePeople was more like a freelance team than a business. We studied at the same institute together, ate one Doshirak, sat in the same room and smoked Java cigarettes. I still hate the smell of a goby stewed in Lipton tea. The next tenants who entered our office had to burn the carpet, it was so saturated with our tears, then, with alcohol and cigarettes. Sometimes we could not go to a meeting with a client just because we did not have money for the subway. But it was the best time.

    - How many people were on your team?

    - Creating a studio, I invited several people to the team. After some permutations, a team of 4 people formed. The first employees appeared a couple of years later.

    A few years later, the co-owner, the technical director, left us and three of us remained: me, Sergey Prokofiev and Sergey Kalyuzhny. In this composition, we manage the company so far.

    Each of us (co-owners) undertook any work. I was called a werewolf director: during the day I was a manager, accountant, sold and invented, and at night I painted behind our main treasure - a huge 22-inch monitor. Until 2008, I drew all the design concepts of CreativePeople. Probably the only thing I have not tried in this business is hardcore programming.

    Almost every project was a test for us, so we constantly studied and pumped our skills. The market has developed rapidly. Design education did not exist (and now it does not exist, to be honest). Experience was gained through trial and error.

    - Where did you find the first customers?

    The first client appeared simply. I selected some of the most sonorous domains and wrote them in the mail. Someone answered, and a day later there was a meeting.

    You had to sell it on your fingers: when you come to a client without a website, without a portfolio, a name in the market, a team and sell, in fact, a new solution even for you. This incredibly pumped us as sales people. But most importantly, this taught the team to adapt to the needs of the client. We did not sell what we were the strongest of, but what we were ready to figure out. It was an honest exchange. The client understood the risk, but he was comfortable working with us for a low price.

    - Did you even have your own website? At least a portfolio in the form of a presentation?

    - We were and remain perfectionists. We always looked at the best abroad. The first few years, it seemed to us that our work was not good enough to be demonstrated to everyone (it was). At the same time, we made inexpensive websites, logos and could not break into a new level of complexity in order to make more visible and expensive projects. It was a vicious circle. Perfectionism almost ruined us. We ourselves did not notice how we grew up, became qualitatively better, but still hid the portfolio in folders. Now, when every icon is laid out on Dribbble, it seems more than strange. But we worked on ourselves, and it was great.

    2009 could be the last year in our history, but in fact it was the first year of the company that you know as CreativePeople. Restarting the site and portfolio immediately raised us to 52nd place in the Tagline, and the quality of work was enough to talk about us. The site with a bearded man and a squirrel was remembered by everyone.

    - What was on the site?

    Portfolio only. Then it still did not make sense to make complex cases, since only real projects that were delivered to real customers and published on the network were valued. Maximum for filing: picture, title and link.

    However, it was more important that the site was remembered the first time. A huge photorealistic illustration and animated navigation through sections - for 2008 it was unusual enough to get into dozens of selections on foreign design resources in a few months.

    There were two bearded men. The first was painted in one night. In the basement where we were sitting, the unshaven Prokofiev was put against the wall, photographed with a leaflet (which was supposed to cover his face) and a lighter (an accident). No point, I just wanted to make an illustration. A month later, foreign traffic to the site went through the roof, thousands of people did not like it then, but simply shared this link in forums and chat rooms. We even came up with the slogan Light it up! ("They light up.")

    We have appeared on many foreign sites as “the best agency website”, “the best portfolio website” or “the best one-page website”. You have to understand that it was 2008 and about a hundred people knew about us in Russia, we were in the basement and I alone drew so much around the clock that I loaded four of our programmers.

    In less than a year, we restarted the site. There was a story with a squirrel. But if I drew the first site intuitively, then in the second I applied a conscious visual move. The remake turned out to be more successful than the name, logo or slogan. Today it is an easily recognizable part of our visual image, which is as difficult to change as the name. In general, he is very similar to us - in appearance, in mood ... Maybe because this is not a real person, but a collage created by me from the three founders of the agency.

    - 2008, the crisis itself is a bad time to restart ...

    - In 2009, we entered the TOP99 Creative Agency Awards (Belgium), becoming the agency from which the list of the best independent creative agencies in Europe began. They were placed on the first page of the book, which was distributed worldwide.

    In 2010, the authoritative publishing house Design Index included several of our works in the annual collection of the best web sites in the world and asked for permission to place an illustration from the CreativePeople website on the cover. This book is still sold in bookstores in Europe.

    But this happened later, and in the winter of 2008 - 2009, for four months not a single ruble appeared at the box office and we gave all our money to our employees, because the most important thing is to keep the team. A few months before the crisis, we broke up with our partner (he was the technical director of the studio), all the programmers left with him, except for one (we are still working with him). This has defined our development as a creative and design agency.

    - Yes, I know, many agency leaders mark this time as transitional for their companies. How did you overcome it?

    For me, this is the time when I was tempered as an entrepreneur. Having survived for four long months, the market began to recover: customers began to move to us from larger and more expensive studios.

    At that time we were already about 10 people. We were visited by customers who made sites with Lebedev, DEFA, ADV. Such migration allowed us to survive, close the cash gap and build the right business model. During this period, all the accumulated experience came in handy. If we did not provide the right quality for these customers, our cooperation would end as quickly as it began.

    - Your brightest first projects?

    - They just belong to this stage. In 2009, VTB24 Bank contacted us, they ordered a flash game for their third anniversary. More than 15,000 discs were supposed to fly around the country in a month. And we did this in 4 weeks, from the idea to packing the discs in boxes. Although they have never created anything like it.

    The second project was animatedsocial network with several games and chat for Malabar chewing gum . We did it in three months. Three months for several games, chats, animations, contests and admin panel in Python. I honestly admit that today we would not undertake such a project, although we have vast experience. But then we took on any projects and studied on them.

    In general, in 2009 we created our strongest portfolio. 6 years have passed, and many of our works are relevant and are still working. For example, the Paradigma advertising agency uses a site that was created in 2009. It is technically outdated, but still looks good. Then for him we received our first award - silver at the Kiev Advertising Festival.

    - Do you remember all your awards?

    - Good question. In 2011, I was on the jury at the White Square festival and there I met with the head of the Baltic agency. I asked how many awards they had, and the answer baffled me: "When we got our 100th award, we stopped counting." Then I was horrified, his answer seemed very arrogant to me. And today, I also can’t say the approximate number of our awards. For example, in the contest of sites of the “Runet Rating”, the results of which were summed up two weeks ago, we took seven awards, but I don’t know how many of them have now become ... The fact is that it’s really important not how many there were, but can you to confirm these awards every year, with any team, with any customers.

    Therefore, when we participate in the tender, we only talk about what we have done over the past year. Usually this is enough to be competitive.

    We have companies on the market that are haunted by the ghost of the past. Once they had success, and now they live on the same achievements, not having real ones.
    I would not want to turn into a ghost.

    We are not positioned as a group of companies

    - CreativePeople is a creative agency. Do you specialize in creativity?

    “Not really.” Our specialization is quality strategies, ideas and production. That is, we are both the head and hands. We create a comprehensive service. As an example, we took some Western agencies that are long-distance partner for the client. For example, we work with Yota and do everything for them that relates to design in interactive. This makes it possible to merge with the client so much that you can offer some things in the future, be proactive. Such long projects can save on sales and be more profitable.

    - How many people do you have in the team that you can cover the client's need for a range of work?

    - Now we have about 50 people. We are trying to maintain this balance and have not deliberately inflated the staff for three years now. Companies with 50 and 100 employees can have the same profit at different speeds. Our task is to be more marginal and more efficient due to well-established business processes, quality optimization, and rejection of high-risk projects.

    - Do all 50 people work at CreativePeople?

    - No, they are divided into several business units. We have a creative agency CreativePeople, production Pirateсode, company Western Jack, which is engaged in the creation of advertising prints. It works in a completely different market, but is also integrated into our structure.

    - Are you positioned as a group of companies?

    - No, this is a matter of business ethics. Piratecode and Western Jack work not only for us (we download them no more than a third). They outsource the tasks of external customers, the same web studios or advertising agencies that could potentially look like our competitors. This is a great responsibility. Therefore, Sergey Prokofiev is engaged in Piratecode, and I have no idea what clients he works with and what tasks they solve. Moreover, specialists working with CreativePeople and other agencies do not overlap.

    - Who are the co-owners of the agency today?

    Sergey Prokofiev - Executive and Commercial Director. He oversees all processes related to finance, planning, etc., and also leads our Piratecode division.

    Sergey Kalyuzhny, creative director, is responsible for the digital cluster, vision of SMM and creativity.

    I am the CEO, I have operational management, strategy and everything related to design and quality. Sometimes I can draw a design concept myself and always do it when there is such an opportunity.

    - You do not have conflicts due to the intersection of areas of responsibility?

    - Not now. But there was some time when we all grew up as managers and began to push our elbows. Then we found a very simple way out of the situation. We divided the sheet of paper into three parts and distributed who does what. This method for 4 years determined how we delegate each other powers. We repeat this procedure once every six months - a year, depending on the dynamics of growth. It works great.

    We do not have a sales department.

    - So, we come to the topic of sales in a web studio. Where do customers come from?

    - It seems that other issues of the agency are no longer of interest. Design studios, web studios, creative agencies do not think about what and how they do, but discuss in articles and conferences how to sell, what margin, sales funnel, conversion, etc. It’s as if sales depend on which chain you lead the customer to.

    I do not know any other way to get high-quality leads, except how to make good projects. If you made a website for a fitness club and it became the best, all fitness clubs will know it and will come to you for the same. It works that your projects fall into the client’s collections, and not your presentation at hundreds of conferences.

    We experiment with banners in ratings, work at specialized conferences. We build hypotheses, confirm or refute them. But I can say that the main thing is not an incoming call, but a formed desire of a person on the other end of the line to work with you. Your portfolio should sell for you.

    It is not the crowd who comes to the meeting, but the one who can give high-quality feedback, consider the problem, immediately propose a solution. You do not need a large sales team if you need to take six good projects a month.

    - How is your sales system arranged? It is amazing how a fairly simple mechanism for the sales department can be completely different in individual companies. My experience with web studio executives every time proves this.

    - I will try to fit my description into a concise, but very understandable scheme.

    The sales process is divided into three stages. The first is the processing of an incoming request. We have a separate specialist doing this. He evaluates the client and his request: how serious he is, adequate and falls into our specialization.

    In the second stage, if the request has passed the initial filter and primary communication, the project falls to highly qualified specialists. This may be the head of the direction, me or Sergei Prokofiev. That is, to someone who is as close as possible in qualifications and will be able to give the most competent answer about the vision of the project, its cost and timing.

    The third stage is the rationale for the meeting. The client either agrees or refuses to cooperate. Everything is like everyone else.

    When the sale is completed, the project goes to the appropriate creation department under the wing of the account. He accompanies activity on this project throughout the history of communication.

    The main indicator of the work of our sales system is the minimum costs. I am smiled by the words of some representatives of our market that they four go to meetings with a client. Yes, this is an invaluable sale. It costs crazy money. Winning does not help.

    The most cost-effective way to work with upsale. This is what our account deals with, closely familiar with the client. He understands the tasks and can offer something useful. We won’t boil it, for a long relationship it’s like poison that can kill faith in you.

    - What is your project manager busy with? Is there such a unit in your project management system?

    - Of course. He is responsible for developing a single process. For example, for a client we carry out many activities, one of which is an online store. He is engaged in PM. Moreover, he can communicate directly with the client, and can communicate through an account.

    - Alexander, share your personal recipe for winning tenders.

    - Firstly, the primary screening. The right tender will save you time and money. Because there are initially low-quality or custom-made tenders. As a result, you invest only in those projects where you have the maximum chance of winning.

    For example, we avoid tenders where you need to do design for free. Two years ago, we participated in 10 tenders, where we completely drew the design concept. We won only in two. At the same time, design competence is at a high level. What is this talking about? The selection criterion for the contractor comes down to a subjective assessment of the picture. Now we offer a concept, a sketch, the logic of the project, because from the beginning of the project to design a long road.

    Those resources that we spent on work for the presale, now we can sell expensive. To earn more, you need to spend less.

    Secondly, you must understand that each time you sell something specific at the tender: your approach (when you know how to solve the problem), your experience (when you have already done something similar), the predicted result, the team (those people with whom the customer will have to communicate for a long time).
    The most important thing I think is the predicted result. This is a huge risk for the customer in the tender, and if you remove it, the criterion of value goes into the background.

    - Do you use CRM?

    - We use a Google mail app that reflects a sales funnel. It stores the entire history of communications, cooled and potential leads.

    We did not need special software. The fact is that our main task - to automatically filter out low-quality leads - is not solved by any CRM.

    It all depends on the business scheme. If you have 40 programmers and you create sites for 200 thousand rubles, you need to scroll through a huge number of monthly inboxes. Almost every request will be of high quality. And our leader with a budget of 5 million rubles may be of poor quality due to the fact that his tasks are not within the scope of our specialization. He will eat a lot of resources and will not allow to earn.

    - I will ask one more question that is of great interest to the community of studio and agency leaders. How do you deal with receivables?

    - We don’t have it. All our projects are divided into stages, after each client can leave with a calm mind (but does not leave). Each stage is documented and closed by acts of acceptance and payment and payment. Therefore, we do not have receivables in the classical sense when you have completed the project and are waiting for several months to pay. We have a waiting time of a maximum of 10 days and only as part of a separate stage.

    Sometimes we can lend to regular customers, working with postpay, but this scheme can only be with the support department.

    Work with subcontractors: the customer must understand with whom he works

    - Do you take teams to outsource?

    - This is a separate story. Outsourcing is one of the biggest disappointments of recent years.

    3 years ago at CreativePeople we focused solely on design and engineering. We decided to do what we are strong at as high quality as possible. We tried to completely abandon our own production department. But, the market was not ready for this - everyone needed a finished product (design + assembly).

    Customers did not want to share work between several customers. We attracted contractors, but a long relationship did not work out: after several successful projects, the contractors ceased to perceive subcontracting as a model of partnership. They had ambitions that they themselves could do such projects. We hired a designer, project manager and started selling. Relations spoiled, as they put our interests in the minimum priority.

    The boiling point was the situation when showing your portfolio at the next meeting with the client, it became clear that the contractors use cooperation with us only for self-promotion: “Why are you showing us this site? There were guys in front of you, they said that you only drew it, they did the main work, ”we heard such words from the client. You can convince the client that the design is 1/10 of the project, a few pictures. Having said nothing about the task of the site, animation scripts, design. Often this front of work can take 4 months, while pure programming - 1. They did not begin to swear. But the issue with the contractors was closed.

    - Does the NDA not rule out such situations?

    - From the very beginning, we strove to create a system in which the customer understands with whom he works. We boldly said that our partners will participate in the project. Outsourcing development is effective only if the project is quick and alienated: without telling the client your subcontractors, you quickly transfer the work, take it back and give it to the client.

    It so happened that we anticipated the events and burned ourselves. Now the situation has changed. The projects have become so large and complex that the client has to build up production competencies and involve several teams in the project. For example, we act as designers and designers, the front-end team comes separately and the back-end is pulled. So we have been working with Yota for more than a year. There are no teams on the market that could fully pull their project. The client would have to buy the whole studio, which would deal only with them.

    But all that is done is for the best. Now we have debugged business processes of such a partnership, and we are ready to work with the market according to their rules.

    By the way, sometimes at meetings we are told that before us in the meeting room there were studios that say that they do everything for us (draw and program). We know them by name and send rays of anger in their direction.

    The right team is a self-regulatory community

    - What do you focus on when selecting people for a team? Who is involved in the selection? Do you have HR?

    We never had pr managers and headhunters. There is no work for them.
    As I said, 50 people is the best staff. Since 2009, we have had constant growth, we eagerly recruited people. But the specifics of the market is such that it is difficult to make money in the long run. You need to be profitable at the moment, then it doesn’t happen. We add people slowly and consciously.

    Job seekers are selected by department heads. If they have passed this filter, candidates will be interviewed by me. I appreciate how they will join our environment, in the team.

    I had a case when we took an excellent salesman, but in two months he “tired” the team so much that I had to fire him. I thought that if I left him, I would lose much more than I would gain.

    - And you are engaged in the development of corporate culture?

    - If you choose the right people, they themselves form a corporate culture.

    We do not have a declared mission and values ​​- we have the excitement and desire to grow professionally. I believe that corporate culture is the atmosphere that prevails in the company. If the atmosphere is healthy, there are no contradictions, scandals, people will be happy to go to work.

    - But what about the beer bar at work or scooters typical of creative companies? Is it necessary?

    - For a while we brought such things to the employees' working life, but people did not use them, they are busy with business. At the same time, they themselves regularly organize joint events, such as alcoves or a collective trip on vacation. If people are chosen correctly, they turn into a self-regulatory community, creating their own rules and emotional background.

    - How do you motivate the team?

    - For me, motivation consists of two aspects. The first is the emotional component, which actually creates a corporate culture. And the second is professional growth. And it seems to me that this is objectively the main component of motivation.

    What are we doing? We index the salary every year, but not because the employee began working for the company one more year longer. Each year, we set a specialist certain goals to which he should grow. And raise the salary in accordance with the achievement of these goals. A person understands that in order to receive a higher salary, one does not need to go to another company. And the market is so raising the bar for quality and productivity, it is testing each of us so much that this growth is necessary if only to keep up with the realities of the market.

    By the way, there is one factor that protects us from headhunters. Our people are trained on our internal processes and are ineffective in other conditions. The employees who left us did not get even cooler in other conditions. But it was also so that we could not open up, and in another company he showed excellent results. This is normal.

    - Do you have any established system of advanced training? How do you train newbies?

    “Throughout the entire existence of CreativePeople, we have not found a better way to increase the level of an employee than a master and apprentice.” In a creative environment, the principle of succession works best.

    We send employees to external training, but, honestly, I have never heard that it turned out to be more useful than six months of work in the thick of it. As a leader, I would gladly give money to accelerate the growth of my designer. But I do not see such stories on the market.

    - And where do you study and gain knowledge that help you grow as a designer and as a manager?

    - By education, I am a lawyer with a specialization in Entrepreneurial Law. I graduated from the Higher School of Economics, and honestly tried to hold out all 3 years of graduate school. I didn’t have enough for a dissertation, CreativePeople consumed all my time. I like to be a designer, but objectively I am a manager engaged in strategy, planning, profitability, products and services. This versatility has become my career choice.

    The market makes you learn. But this is mostly self-education. I will not name you specific courses that will make you a specialist or an effective manager. I read an insane amount of books in an attempt to understand my own processes and come up with new ones. Constantly introducing new ideas into life, trying, measuring.

    In addition, we work closely with customers and understand how their business works. It turns out that CreativePeople is an MBA for me. Every day before my eyes I have real business cases with performance indicators, comments and experience of top companies, with analysis and KPI that they want to reach. It remains only to take this information and use it for yourself in the future.

    I talk a lot and often with colleagues from foreign studios. In the Runet Rating, we have assembled a foreign jury for one of the nominations. They themselves were judged in the foreign rating Awwwards. I can say that they have a completely different business model. Now we are looking at several other foreign agencies. We have a lot to learn from Russian studios, but we are on the same level and in the same dynamics of development. Their experience does not allow to look beyond the horizon in a year or two.

    There is nowhere to learn design in Russia. Only my own experience, practice and looking at other people's work works here. To train designers inside CreativePeople, I made my own model, it is simple, understandable and has been working for more than a year.

    Associations and Ratings

    - The necessity of joining the associations turned out to be a rather controversial issue in our market. Tell us which associations CreativePeople is in and what it gives you?

    - We are a member of the Association of Interactive Agencies, AKAR and several other less formal societies. We actively support Design Weekend and Re: vision.

    Why do we need this? We operate in a very dynamic market. Five years ago, no one thought about what to do if the complexity of sites in terms of technology changes so much. And in 2003, no one could have thought that there would be such a story as Digital. Dozens of new directions fly by - SMM, games on social networks, and public. The more communication you have with other market players, the more accurately you predict.

    There are companies that left the web development market on time and started making games. They caught this trend. And someone went there last and flew out. Someone managed to distribute elephants when several key players broke through the digital theme. And there were companies that did not believe in SMM, while others grew up in SMM monsters and now serve all major brands.

    - What is your attitude to the ratings, which in Russia are huge in contrast to the Western market?

    - In fact, there are also many ratings, but they are not local, but global. Russian customers do not look there. And then the market offered a solution. The situation coincided with the very moment when our advertising market threw out a whole industry of web development. "Runet Rating" picked up the fallen banner and organized a website contest. Tagline also once came to the scorched earth and gave customers what they wanted.

    Ratings are a great phenomenon, they provide an opportunity for young agencies and studios to compete on a par with long-known companies in the market.

    - What is your PR strategy aimed at?

    - For a long time we focused on design. We like to understand this, design is an ongoing part of our communication.

    Now that it seems that all agencies have switched to pumping up sales departments, we remain in this area among a very small number of like-minded people. In articles, at conferences, in social networks, everyone is only interested in how to make money on the client. We are out of this PR race. Now I again feel that a new vision of design is ripening in our country, with which we are ready to go to the conference again. And the market has a need for this.

    At the "Runet Rating" award ceremony, I talked with many studio leaders and asked the question: "How do you control the quality of design and creativity?" The answer is no way. And we have our own system of internal audit of a creative product. There is nothing to compare it with yet. This is our competitive advantage.
    In addition, we have something to tell about the processes, the strategy, and the large complex projects that are created within the framework of annual budgets. But everyone asks again and again only about sales :)

    It was Alexander’s opinion, but do you have anything to argue with?

    By the way, if you are developing sites and participating in work contests, you have a great opportunity to find out from CreativePeople executives what criteria the jury of these contests are guided by and how to get the treasured statuette. I am pleased to hear your comments. And together with Alexander Kovalsky I will answer any questions.

    I am Mariya Azizova, editor of the business ideas blog Simtech Development

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