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What is a Small Giant? Is your business one?

I recently set off to Bristol to discuss, alongside a roomful of DBA members, exactly what a ‘Small Giant’ is and why the UK design sector is a great place to find them.

Why do you do what you do? What makes your business tick?

Design agencies tend to be different from many other owner-managed businesses. It was this realisation that led the DBA to promote the concept of ‘Small Giants’ based on the 2005 Bo Burlingham book of the same name.

Small Giants are to be celebrated. They are businesses which look beyond the standard definitions of success (money and size) to focus on goals they consider more important. These companies have an ethos that sets them apart from others – they have what Bo Burlingham describes as ‘mojo’.

https_%2f%2fcdn-evbuc-com%2fimages%2f42458111%2f102399855273%2f1%2foriginalHave a read below of what these three DBA members – Taxi Studio, Mr B and Friends and Supple Studio – had to say on why not getting preoccupied with growth is good business. (And also check out this article by David C Baker on the subject.)

Let me know if anything rings true for your business; I’d love to hear what resonates with you and why:

‘The most successful I have ever felt’

unknown3Small Giants see beyond size as a success factor; exploring bigger choices in the development of their business and the way they work.

“I felt the book (Small Giants) was about staying pure to what you set the company up for in the first place. Set your own definitions of success – you don’t have to be big. The agency I co-founded in London had 12 people. The one I have now in Bath has four – this is the most successful I have felt. We are doing great work, for great clients and we win awards against agencies 100 times our size.”

Jamie Ellul, Founder and Creative Director, Supple Studio

‘Being able to say no’

daniele-levis-pelusi-311031-unsplashSmall Giants resist the prescribed path and external pressures to maintain what’s important to them: control – and the freedom to realise their own vision.

“Control to me is being able to say no to projects that are not right for us, and yes to the projects that really resonate. We only have a few clients, but we service them to the max. It is all about making their lives easy, and we are able to do that because we are flexible due to our size.”

Jamie Ellul, Founder and Creative Director, Supple Studio

‘With great teams comes great culture’

Small Giants treat their people with respect, dignity and integrity, understanding and exercising the value of making their business a great place to work.

unknown“We are focused on creating a great working environment for people to enjoy themselves. When people are enjoying themselves great teams are built. With great teams comes great culture. We have defined three sets of behaviours for everyone at MrB, which really helps us drive the business:

1 “It can be done” – be positive. Don’t just solve problems, seek them out.

2 “Be there” – turning up everyday, being a team member. You can’t do this on your own.

3 “Act like you own it” – empowers the team, but makes them think – ‘if this was my business would I do that?’

Simon Barbato, CEO, Mr B and Friends


“We have developed a culture of distributed responsibility by hiring staff on values – we look for the same core philosophies. We hire those people who you could sit around a dinner table with, who have diverse interests and backgrounds but fit in with your brand. We then follow the teach, equip, trust model. Don’t do it for them. If they make mistakes coach them, don’t dictate.”

Brian Mansfield, Chairman, Taxi Studio

‘Customer satisfaction has gone through the roof’

ep_0445Small Giants take advantage of being small and privately owned to develop and tailor effective, unique management practices. 

“We looked back to when we were 10 people. It was when we were our most productive, most agile and most profitable. So we are now trialling a pod system with a 10 person pod within the business made up of designers, copywriter, account director etc. We are three months into the trail, with the aim of having three pods in place by the end of 2018. Customer satisfaction has gone through the roof because we have been able to react to issues there and then. Plus with the pod’s notional P&L the PBT (profit before tax) has risen to 32%. If we can scale this approach we can be a larger business, while maintaining the entrepreneurial approach.”

Simon Barbato, CEO, Mr B and Friends

‘You build up trust on both sides’

Small Giants create exceptional relationships with their clients and suppliers for long-term benefits, and engage with local communities and issues for a meaningful emotional impact.

“We also try to collaborate with local suppliers and are very loyal to those we work with. You build up trust on both sides. We also try to put something back into the community by doing a pro-bono project for a local organisation each year.”

Jamie Ellul, Founder and Creative Director, Supple Studio

‘Someone in the business needs to care about that side’

Small Giants are proud to work differently for a better result for their company, people and community.

taxi_website2015_team_inpage_brian_mansfield_desktop“Design businesses will always be passionate about the work and the craft, but there is nothing wrong with also being passionate about the business itself – how it is run, how it makes money. Someone in the business needs to care about that side with the same amount of passion. There is no point being a boutique agency doing great work if you don’t make any money.”

Brian Mansfield, Chairman, Taxi Studio

Watch the full interview with Brian Mansfield of Taxi Studio, Jamie Ellul of Supple Studio and Simon Barbato of Mr B and Friends

Image credit: Sutirta Budiman | Unsplash 

Image credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi | Unsplash 

Image credit: Design Week

Image credit: Tech Spark

Image credit: Catchfire funding


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