This morning I woke up to a fascinating post by designer Tobias van Schneider called: The agency is dead. Long live the agency.
What he’s talking about is the phenomenon of design agencies being gobbled up or “acqui-hired” by product firms such as Facebook and Google. The latest of which is (or was) Toronto-based design agency Teehan+Lax. The partners have closed up shop and are in the process of moving to San Francisco to join Facebook Design.
But what he’s really talking about is the pull from services to products.
When you’re a services firm, you do work for outside clients and they pay you for that work. But there are only so many hours in the day, which is why the marginal cost of taking on new clients is relatively high – to scale up you generally need lots more people.
On the other hand, when you’re a software company creating products, the marginal cost of serving additional customers is almost nothing. Sure, there are some variable costs, but the impact to your cost structure is not nearly as significant as when you’re a services firm. That’s how a company like Instagram can be bought for $1 billion with 30 million users and only 13 employees.
So products are a bit of a holy grail in some circles. You can achieve greater scale. You can focus on fewer projects as opposed to jumping around from client to client. And you can make a lot of money.
But it’s often easier said than done. Back in 2012, Teehan+Lax wrote a great post where they talked about the allure of products and the challenges they faced in trying to build their own:
37Signals* was the worst thing to happen to services businesses trying to make products. They fucked it up for all of us, because they made it. For those of us old enough to remember, 37Signals was a services company like Teehan+Lax. They had clients and did work for hire. Of course, 37signals isn’t a services company anymore. They make amazing digital products and their success is enviable. (*37Signals became Basecamp)
So why is it so hard to transition from services to products?
Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation, says, “you can’t start a disruptive business from inside an incumbent one.” The incumbent business will always take the resources from the disruptive one. He argues that if you want to create a disruptive business you need to isolate it from the incumbent business. The disruptive business needs its own values, processes and resources to be successful.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to build something disruptive or not, amazing products are hard to build. They take focus.
But what’s also interesting about services and products is that there’s a parallel in the world of architecture and real estate development. As an architect, you’re basically a service provider. You have clients and they pay you for the work that you do. However, as a real estate developer, you offer a product: physical space. The cost structures are not nearly as beneficial as with software, but it’s a product nonetheless.
And similarly, we’re already starting to see some developers bring architecture in-house. Will we see more of this in the future? Will there be a similar pull from services, to products?