by Jonathan McNamara
“If we are to be experts we must write.”
- Blair Enns, Author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto.
I’ve been meaning to start writing for a long time. So many pieces have been noted down and considered, but never really progressed further than the initial sketched-out stages.
The primary reason for this is that our business has been going through a monumental change over the last couple of years, and until we finally had everything nailed down and finalised, it seemed strange to be writing anything that anyone else would see.
We needed more of a direction - more of a backbone - to hang everything else off and hold it all together.
Well, it felt like that to me anyway.
So, the good news is that after a whole lot of work, we are finally in a position to reveal our brand-new selves to the world.
We’ll get to that in a little while.
"It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
- Ian Brown, The Stone Roses.
But first, a little bit of backstory to set the scene.
A large number of people reading this will know of RetroFuzz as a creative agency that specialises in working at the intersection of music, design and technology. From around 2004 through to 2016 we designed and built websites, apps, products and platforms for pretty much every artist and label going.
Thousands of projects, seen by literally hundreds of millions of people.
We travelled far and wide in pursuit of these projects, working with clients across every continent. We acquired a business. We took on investment. We built our own startups. We had discussions about being acquired. We were even having discussions where people were pitching us about working together.
To an outsider, and I suspect many insiders, it felt like everything was moving in the right direction.
The truth is that neither my co-founder Matt nor I were happy with where the business was at, let alone where it was going. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’d never planned any of it - our success in music mostly came about as a result of being very focused on one sector, being very good at what we did, pricing things at the right level and being dependable.
But honestly, things just didn’t feel right. The vast majority of the work we did in the music industry was very transient, and we were too far away from the strategic end to really measure and understand the impact of what we were delivering for our clients.
So in reaction to this, in the Autumn of 2014 we took on two major new client projects. Projects that were far bigger than anything we’d ever done before, with budgets to match. We were ambitious, and perhaps if we’re being honest - a little naïve.
Alongside these two client wins, we also took onboard a major investment into the business to continue building the company hot on the heels of these client wins.
For a while there, it felt like things were coming together. We were on course to realise our highest ever revenue figure for a single financial year. The client projects were seemingly on track, our pipeline was filling up and we were recruiting aggressively.
But then, things began to fall apart, in ways we’d never thought possible.
The detail of this experience is without a doubt suited to another blog – but ultimately the message from this experience was that we just had to change things up. We knew we had so much more to offer the world, and we really wanted to focus on those projects that afforded us that opportunity.
It was clear that things needed to change. The question was to what?
“Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be markedly consistent in their answers. They all say, ‘I didn’t quit’.”
− Ben Horowitz, Founder, Venture Capitalist and Author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.
As you may have realised by now, I’ve been doing a lot of reading.
It was in early 2016 when I came across this concept that the Japanese have known as Ikigai. Briefly summarised, a person’s Ikigai represents their reason for being, and is made up for four primary elements:
And if you laid it out as a Venn diagram (always a great idea IMO) then it’d look like this:
(The above summary and Venn diagram are from Thomas Oppong’s article Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life Might Just Help You Live a More Fulfilling Life on Medium. Reproduced without permission, but with eternal thanks.)
Given the position we found ourselves in, what struck me most was how closely this concept of Ikigai resembled my own feelings about how I wanted my company to be.
Not just for me as CEO, or for us as founders - but also for our staff and for our clients. Even more than that, this was how I wanted the world to perceive who we were and what we did.
Ultimately, why we are here.
It seemed to me that if we could spend some time working toward and defining what Ikigai was for RetroFuzz as a business, as well as what Ikigai was for us as individuals, we would uncover something truly meaningful – a work/life blend that could provide us with the solid foundations that we needed to push forwards and build something important that would stand the test of time.
So, we got to work.
“A reason for being.”
There has always been another – perhaps less well known – side to RetroFuzz that has been very successful for us. We’ve worked with brands like Eastpak, Lee and Wrangler (amongst many others) to great success over the years and built some great relationships with some great people.
As we took stock and analysed our business in terms of what was working, and what wasn’t, it became increasingly clear to us that working with brands like these on larger scale projects was a much better fit for who we are as people.
These types of client afford us more opportunities to build relationships where we can offer so much more than purely delivering great design and development work. They offer us the opportunity to build upon the years of experience we’ve accumulated working with digital businesses - we can lead with our expertise and advise our clients on matters of strategy from a business perspective, and then assist them to deliver what they need to achieve their goals.
Or as Matt so succinctly put it one day… “Help our clients be sure they are doing the right things, then help them make sure those things are done right.”
I think ultimately with many client relationships over the years, we’ve often found it difficult to do things right if we didn’t believe with our hearts that they were the right things to do.
So, in order to create an environment where we are consistently in this more consultative and advisory position with clients we’ve decided to change who we are.
RetroFuzz is now a digital consultancy and we are focused on helping brands achieve the greatest commercial return from their investments in eCommerce. By understanding audiences and leveraging the brand, we will deliver an eCommerce experience that brings more customers, more sales and more love.
We truly believe that this strategic repositioning ticks all of the Ikigai boxes:
Our Ikigai was always there, and ultimately if we hadn’t been on the journey we have, it’s likely we would never have uncovered it and been in the position we are now.
And the best thing? This new strategy is already bearing fruit for us and we have many exciting developments to share with you over the coming weeks and months.
Stay tuned, we’re only just getting started.