INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
William Villalobos, Founder of The Futures, Tells Us How His Team is Building How the World will Consume Design in a Post-Pandemic Digital Age
We talked to William Villalobos of The Futures about on-demand graphic design and video design delivered in just hours.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
William Villalobos: We are good. Of course, just the idea of getting a cold or a little cough can always make you a bit paranoid, but it seems like that is part of the kind of times we are living in. Our primal instincts of self-preservation as humans have certainly kicked in, and we are ever more alert than in past generations.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded The Futures.
William Villalobos: I come from a design background. I’ve always been involved in the design industries- for almost 20 years now. I have both an undergraduate degree in Design and Architecture (Summa Cum Laude) and a Master’s degree in Design and Architecture (Honors).
Growing up in a household wherein some years we were considered lower middle class, and in other better years we were considered middle class we would always be moving from town to town and changing school to school every 2-3 years. Sometimes I attended government-subsidized public schools, and other times I was able to attend private schools. So every year, I found myself in a whole different environment surrounded by a whole new set of new acquaintances; this, of course, made it hard to find a steady group of friends.
This whole idea of jumping from place to place seemed normal to me at the time and somehow adventurous, but this was just the result of living in a split household with divorced parents.
There is sometimes a certain kind of beauty to chaos, but I realized from an early age and with time that without the ability to plan or being able to create structures, I would always live a life filled with improvisations and little connection to people if I ever wanted to achieve anything I needed to understand order and steadiness. That’s when I decided that I needed to focus on something that could bring back control to a life that I felt otherwise was led by improvisation and chaos – I think that is why I was initially drawn to design; design offered both beauty and structure. Through my youth, I became obsessed with design and architecture magazines. I ended up moving from South America (Venezuela) to The United States in pursuit of an Architecture and Design career.
Design became my refuge and escaped, as it gave sense to things that were constantly, in my eyes, disorderly by design, so instead of using design as a tool to get myself a job or profession, I used it to make sense of the world I lived in.
I ended up working in the Architecture and Design world for many years; most notably, I worked for Norman Foster in the UK for almost 6 years and created and built many amazing projects, anything from architecture to product design. One day we would be designing the tallest skyscraper of a country, the next month, I would be designing a boat, and a few months later, we would be conceptualizing brands and even the design of a completely new city completely from scratch somewhere in a desolated area on the other side of the globe. It was indeed an incredible time filled with hard work and learning. While I was working, I created several failed side projects. Each of those projects was basically stepping stones and testbeds to what we are now building.
I ran a conceptual architecture agency in which, in a short time, we were already winning international competitions and being recognized for our conceptual works. However, I was frustrated with the amount of time it took to get something from paper to the physical realm. Then I dabbled into the creation of an app that connected home-made meal makers to a city. I think this is where I learned how to deal with developers, and that’s when I understood clearly how there is a need for good design in the tech world as well. Then I almost single-handedly created the largest distributed Spanish speaking Newspaper in the UK. I helped build everything, from the operations, sales, ad placement, design, team building, etc, but the business was one that was not reflective of our digital era, and it had so many moving parts that it seemed unsustainable and it lost its lure.
At one point, I started running a digital/ marketing agency, and that is when it stroke me that most of our customers were constantly asking me to also do the design for them. That’s when I suddenly found myself building a team to make this happen, and at some point, I realized that I had more fun helping our customers create their content rather than conceptualizing their campaigns. I was really good at building marketing campaigns, but I already had a background in design, and that’s where things got more interesting to me.
Not having many resources growing up influenced my entrepreneurial spirit, but it was through the discoveries made through my design career and my failed side hustle projects paired with my long experience in design and interest in processes and tech that I started obsessing about the idea that design could be automated.
As we know, the design is highly subjective. Its perception has a lot to do with how the receiver perceives the world and their world. But that is what for me makes it interesting.
In architecture, there is certain engineering that goes with its function and beauty, and that engineering determines whether a building falls or not. I believe that with The Futures, we are creating that piece of architecture/engineering, but for the content creation world.
How does The Futures innovate?
William Villalobos: As I mentioned before, I believe that with The Futures, we are creating that piece of architecture/engineering that will eventually automate content creation, and I think this is specifically where we innovate.
All of the options out there focus on basically 4 things, DYI platforms. You go to these platforms and pick templates, and then you end up doing all of the work yourself, but just aided with an easier to use design tool, but you will still need to be there for like 4 hours doing yourself.
Then you have Agencies, but who wants to pay thousands of dollars for something that, to be honest, we at The Futures are already doing for almost 90% less the costs.
Then you have online marketplaces. I think these are ok for mini tasks here and there. But if you have a recurrent need for creative content, then these can become a minefield, as people in those platforms tend to disappear after a while, and you end up wasting more time trying to negotiate terms, conditions, and timings; it is like HR/ hiring 2.0.
Finally, you can have your own internal freelancer or designer. But if it is not the right fit, you are stuck with this person for a while, and you are going to end up with mostly one-view of the world, never new, fresh ideas.
The Futures right now focuses largely on creating new technology that takes designs that usually take a normal agency or designer days and does it for you in just hours. We do this by triangulating data and evolving our internal algorithms to make for higher quality, faster creative outputs. We also never ever missed a deadline and produced most of our work in under 24 hours. In the last couple of months alone, we produced over 27,000 images for customers worldwide. That’s unheard of for any traditional design provider.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
William Villalobos: We have been a digital tech/service provider since day one, so we were used to delivering work through our systems and platform. I think what the pandemic did was to force a certain clientele we didn’t have before to start using us as they just didn’t have many other options to literally have their design created during the pandemic. Non-believers are now becoming loyal customers, but it took a moment in the world like the one during the pandemic to accelerate this new way of thinking for some industries.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
William Villalobos: I feel like we make difficult decisions every month, with or without a pandemic. Constantly developing technology and evolving a business is a lot like growing your teeth for the first time. It hurts when they’re coming out. But without them, you cannot chew or eat better meals. I’ve learned that company culture is huge! When you’re building technology, you always tend to want everything to be somehow less human and more automated.
But, building this less human and automated world actually takes humans! So you can’t really escape the reality that whatever company you’re building, you have to keep with the pulse of how your team is feeling, their wants, and needs, but also the way in which they are all lined up and working in sync towards a goal they all feel a part of.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and The Futures in the future?
William Villalobos: I tend to do this thing in which I pace around whatever room I am in, my bedroom, a conference room, an office space, etc. I usually go around in circles and kind of start talking to myself in my mind about possible solutions to whatever needs a solution. I try to approach every situation not as a problem but as a new puzzle that needs to be reconsidered and rebuilt and act differently if necessary.
Earlier in the year, we had 2 leaders of 2 completely different teams, both had a great experience, but one seemed constantly stressed out, and the other seemed not to be getting any success in achieving their KPIs. After several long conversations among the 3 of us, I suddenly remembered this exercise some professors would do in architecture school when a student would run out of ideas.
They would literally grab a physical model of the building design being discussed and would flip it upside down and say: ‘What if we just flip the whole darn thing? I mean who says we can’t, why shouldn’t we try this?’ – So in this specific situation, I did just that! I asked the 2 leaders: ‘What would happen if we flip the whole thing? What would happen if we switch your roles and you do what the other one does for a week or a month?’ – At first, it seemed like an extreme, kind of crazy idea, but we ended up doing it! — And man, did it work! It was suddenly like night and day! We started getting record growth and ratings in a matter of weeks. Somehow we managed to find their fit in positions they never thought they would end up doing!
So I think that answers how we project ourselves and The Futures into the future. We are a company, but we are also a thesis, all while being the future of how people will consume creativity in the decades to come. In our opinion, our customers are part of something that hasn’t happened before in the market in the way we do it specifically. We aren’t afraid of experimenting and quick testing if it is for the benefit of the user. We love what we do, and we really love that those that use us also love how much more productive we are making them while making their brands functional in a beautiful way.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
William Villalobos: Any design shop or hiring marketplace could be considered our competitor. Although, all of those always offer broken and cumbersome processes. We believe in a world where things are constant, predictable, and cohesive. People can sell their services any time of the day online, but if your processes don’t seem easily digestible or easy to grasp and receive, then you are still another website with a service stamped to it.
Your final thoughts?
William Villalobos: When you start a business, you are usually focused on making it run and getting it noticed. Though as the business grows, you begin to realize how much of an impact your product does can have on the livelihood of many.
I’ve lost track of the times I’ve gotten touched by how some of our customers are literally changing their lives through the simple fact that we helped them create something that looked more credible to their customers, investors, or even close ones. A design has a huge impact in this world. We consume design every day, and it affects how we feel about our lives, neighborhoods, business, and surroundings in general. Design can really make a difference in something that was previously hard to grasp by an audience. I am extremely proud and humbled by the team of creatives, developers, and leaders within The Futures that make design happen in an easier and better way for our customers worldwide day after day.
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