INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Senthu Velnayagam Tells Us How Kimp Is Scaling Subscription Design during a Pandemic
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Senthu Velnayagam: We’re doing well – thankfully we’re all healthy and trying to find ways to cope with the new normal. It’s definitely something that involves an ongoing learning curve. And some days can be trickier than others. So we take each day as it comes, and try to prioritize what we can do to keep ourselves healthy and feeling as much balance as we can.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kimp.
Senthu Velnayagam: I was born and raised in Sri Lanka during its civil war, and came to Canada when I was 17. I think I’ve had an entrepreneurial mindset even before I knew to call it that. I just wanted to pave my own way. And when I was able to get to Canada, it wasn’t easy to do so, but it was finally possible.
After graduating in 2002, I had my first taste of startup life, helping my cousins with their design and web hosting startups. And when I say the first taste of startup life, I mean no holds barred. The startups struggled and failed, but I had been introduced to being a web entrepreneur, graphic design and digital marketing. And that definitely lit a spark for me. I started to focus on freelance designing and began working towards a degree in design.
My freelance gigs picked up though, as digital marketing became a household name. And I was faced with the choice of riding the wave or pursuing a degree with the hope that one day I would. I chose freelancing and entrepreneurship and never looked back.
At first, I’d get projects by posting to web forums where digital marketers discussed their needs. Most people seemed to really want web banners. And there didn’t seem to be anyone focusing on designing them. I took on the banner design, and as more work came my way in 2003, I launched BannersMall. Once the site was up the orders went from trickling in, to becoming a steady stream. I ended up bringing on a partner, Chris Hevoyan, to help me keep up.
And the especially exciting thing for me was to see brands that I was well aware of becoming clients. Like Hostator, Endurance International Group, Russell Brunson, 1&1, and Mike Filsaime.
In 2007, Chris decided to pursue other projects and so my brother Ven, who is the Co-Founder of Kimp, partnered with me on BannersMall in 2008.
Around that time, it became clear that a two-person operation wasn’t going to be able to manage for much longer. I looked into different options and then got on a plane to India in 2009 to try and set up a creative team. I didn’t know it then, but it was great timing. India was home to tech hubs and creative scenes that were booming. And there was a huge pool of talented designers. But I was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to build a team for the first time, in a country I’d never been to. At that point, I was just overwhelmed. I even came very close to packing up and coming back. And it just so happened that I would meet our first designer the same day that I was seriously considering leaving.
It seemed that was what we needed to build momentum. After that first hire, we were able to build and grow our team. And to grow beyond focusing on designing banners alone.
In 2010 we started Doto, with a design agency model, to tackle more varied and complex projects for our clients. This meant that I would travel between India and Canada to build out our team and focus on strategic growth. And Ven would manage our team members in Canada and oversee our business development and sales.
BannersMall and Doto had a great run for a while. Eventually though, about 2 ½ years ago, things started slowing down. And while we could see why it was happening, it was too late to be able to act on that. We had been first on the scene to specialize in web banner design. But being first doesn’t have staying power. We hadn’t innovated like our competitors. And by the time things slowed down for Banners Mall, we realized they were outpacing us when it came to rolling out new offerings.
With Doto, it was a different story. As with all design agencies, the bulk of our bottom line was very much so dependent on a small group of clients. They were amazing clients, yes like the agencies who got our help with designing for the likes of Aveeno, Axe, Dell, Lorel, Subway, Pfizer, and major Canadian Banks. But by 2017, most of our clients were in real estate and scaling back on their marketing budgets as they dealt with dips in the market.
We were faced with tough calls to make and questions of whether we’d get through 2018. At the same time, even though clients and opportunities were decreasing, we still had a great team of designers. And we didn’t want to give up on what we could build together. In a matter of months, we went through multiple new business models. And then landed on one we’d be considering since 2015, but just didn’t have the capacity to act on subscription graphic design and video design.
I first learned about unlimited graphic design, aka subscription graphic design via Design Pickle. Their Founder Russ Perry had come up with this new model for graphic design and was scaling it with much success.
But could we do this with our own take on the business model? Especially when we were faced with a do-or-die situation? These were questions that would crop up from time to time but were quickly sidestepped in order to pivot from Doto and BannersMall to Kimp.io. There just wasn’t room to focus on any of our doubts. We had to keep things going smoothly with our existing business models so that our existing clients were still taken care of, while we tried to build and launch Kimp. There just wasn’t any time to pause. We had a limited runway and had to accelerate, to make sure that the revenue from our agency model could fuel the launch of Kimp.
And it ultimately did. In early 2019 Kimp was up and running. We’d made it to the other side of what seemed like an impossible situation and had the confidence that we could build something meaningful for our team members and our clients.
Our first customer was from Canada, which was wonderful. And from that point onwards we were able to bring on clients from around the world.
How does Kimp innovate?
Senthu Velnayagam: In part by taking our clients’ feedback to heart, and in part by anticipating their needs. There’s a quote from Steve Jobs that “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s often cited by entrepreneurs, but I think that’s just a part of the entrepreneurial journey – coming up with and delivering new experiences for your customers. A big part of any company’s ability to innovate comes from keeping a close eye on customer feedback and recognizing pain points to be solved. Some of the best ideas come to life after a conversation with a customer who says “You know what, it would be really great if…”
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Senthu Velnayagam: At the start of 2020, we were thinking about making our first remote hires. Fast forward a couple of months and the entire company went remote. We saw the restrictions starting to go into place around the world, and as we learned more about Covid-19, we moved to get our team members out of our offices and working from home as fast as we could.
It was stressful at times, trying to get ahead of the pandemic and make sure that our team members were all supported to safely relocate and work from home. But we’re grateful that it was possible. And that the processes that we put into place with our existing team created the framework that allowed us to hire and bring on more remote team members.
The pandemic had also impacted how and when we expanded our services and operations this year. We’ve had to take much smaller steps, and backtrack or course-correct more often than we thought we would have to. But I think that’s ultimately helping us move forward with more strength.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Senthu Velnayagam: When it came to launching Kimp and pivoting to do so, we had to make sure that we became much more focused on what we were going to offer. For years we had included services like web design and development as part of what we offered through Doto. We offered things a la carte and customized workflows to our clients. As we shifted towards standardizing everything for a subscription model, we had to part ways with some clients, and some team members moved on to organizations that could provide more opportunities for their specific skill sets.
When you have to say goodbye to some opportunities, in order to create the space for new ones, the uncertainty can be tough, especially when you don’t have a detailed roadmap for the way ahead. You’re building it as you go. But it’s ultimately necessary to see if your vision is possible and what it can really become.
Alongside this lesson on launching, in the past couple of years, the importance of innovating has really been hammered home for me. A lack of innovation is why Doto and BannersMall weren’t able to grow beyond a certain point. And it’s definitely why they stopped being sustainable. When it came to Kimp constantly innovating became a top priority. You just can’t grow the company that you want to if you keep running your company as it is. And diminishing returns aren’t just real; they can be brutal when your business’ boom becomes a bust.
This is why today, we try to anticipate all of the different paths we can take and map out plans for each. Of course, the best-laid plans can go out the window – we’ve all learned that the hard way with the pandemic. But the more ideas and plans we come up with, and try to execute, even before we’re ready, the more we have to learn from. And on that note, the value of having people you can call on as sounding boards and advisors cannot be underestimated. Clients are an incredible source of learning. But to have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of those who have also been on their own entrepreneurial or entrepreneurial journeys is huge.
One more particularly valuable lesson I’ll speak to is the need to reflect and evaluate often. It’s the reason the greatest athletes study film from their games and from those of their opponents. It’s not enough to think you have an objective lens on certain things. You have to study your data and analyze your strengths and weaknesses to know what your next moves should be. A SWOT analysis can be really helpful for this.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Senthu Velnayagam: By taking challenges as they come, and looking for the lessons and opportunities within them. Everything that my team and I have built has been a result of the experiences we’ve faced. And knowing that every obstacle we encounter will ultimately push us forward, helps me to keep perspective.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that things don’t build up and cause stress. And to that end, I try to make sure that my mornings allow me to burn off steam and get focused for the day. I try to work out every morning, and once I sit down to work one of the first things I will do is listen to a motivational podcast or audio clip.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Senthu Velnayagam: There are a ton of subscription design services today, including Design Pickle, who was first on the scene, and others like Flocksy or ManyPixels. Across the board, there are common elements in the marketing you’ll see from our companies, and our offerings have some overlap in this space. We’re reaching out to similar target audiences after all.
But decreasing that overlap is how we plan to stay in the game, by continuously rolling out new elements to our service – like our video design subscription, Kimp Video, which was launched this year. Or by offering one graphic design subscription instead of having multiple tiers. We pack in everything, including services like custom illustrations, which other services only include in their higher tiers of service, or as add-ons. And by becoming more and more focused on the types of clients who can benefit best from our subscription graphic design and video design services and the way we deliver them.
Your final thoughts?
Senthu Velnayagam: I couldn’t have gotten this far without having a great team. And I think this speaks to the importance of making sure that you have a solid team when you are looking to launch a new service or product. Your founding team can be a gift or a curse, and that will define whether you are a success or not. No matter how amazing your product or service is or could be.
Investing in great people is the best decision any entrepreneur can make because you have to launch early and launch fast in order to validate your ideas or figure out new ways forward. And you can go so much further with a great team than you’ll ever go alone.
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