Build an asset for the company that allowed customers to feel secure and comfortable (especially when compared to their on-set agency experience), educate and prompt enterprise customers on digital content, provide account managers the project tools they needed to do their job more effectively in far less time, enable sales to sell, securely manage tens of thousands of assets, increase retention and credit usage, and support what was sold and while the company was consistently developing new services.
Creatively Squared was a multi-sided managed marketplace which meant they needed to cater to customers, creators and their own internal teams. Prior to joining, the company had been working with third-party systems and two engineers were conducting design and development. There had previously been a rollback of an unstable debut platform. The team needed a plan and the startup needed users onboard so I jumped in. Within three months we resolved the launch issues, agreed on scope, and decided on the tech and design debt we would have to carry. Two platforms launched for customers and administrators with functionality in place to create simple briefs and upload galleries.
As a fully managed solution, customers were not used to creating briefs so I worked with the projects team to onboard customers to provide product education and introduce them to the new system. The projects team did a tremendous job with this while I jumped on the opportunity for customer research. Endless calls later, every customer was fully onboarded and I was armed with a raft of useful insights, usage needs and behaviors.
We quickly built a demo environment for the Sales team so they could auto-generate custom projects with example galleries. The team could now login during their calls and meetings to show off the platform usage and service outputs. This environment also doubled as our final testing ground prior to production deployments and allowed for the ability to mock projects and create marketing assets without adding faux data to our live environment.
One of the interesting things to manage was the sheer number of notifications and events. These were required so that the right people knew at the right time when a project began, what stage a project was in, when feedback was given for which asset and more. As a manual service was provided, but remotely managed by an account manager between customers and creators, alongside an editing team and customer support, there were many moments in the journey where notifications needed to happen. I set up a system to manage the emails to customers and Slack notifications for the relevant teams. As the platform progressed we later added event notifications so there were relevant prompts for customers and an activity stream for all internal teams to track credits, downloads, gallery events, commenting and feedback.
One of the key data pieces showed that nearly all customers were satisfied with the end result - the quality of the assets delivered. What needed to change was that to get them started and through the process required mass amounts of manual effort and dipped their satisfaction before it raised again. Post-delivery there were also numerous avenues being missed that they fulfilled elsewhere and a lot of money left on the table for work Creatively Squared had already done or could easily do.
To get everybody on the same page and understanding the value proposition and key areas to leverage and improve, I gathered the insights and developed the business model canvas and journey map. The mapping included the back-stage actions which were imperative to the delivery of the services. Along with customer research, this provided us key points that customers struggled with in switching to Creatively Squared from other solutions and where it was needed to internally develop more scalable methods of delivering results.
With a moment of breathing space post-launch it was time to start setting up product operations and a roadmap to discuss important features and how we were going to implement them. With a very small team and big company goals, we determined that we could hold-off on building a creator platform and focus our attention on our services that directly impacted customers and internal processes. The first platform had only offered the basics so I worked with the founders, sales, community and project teams to consider what they needed in order to perform their jobs effectively, and undertook research and data analysis for customers.
Though the structure was growing from a simple feature platform, it had required a significant amount of code to perform administrative functions, so there were demands for hundreds of features big and small. In the coming phase we released many. By way of example of what we were building at this stage:
• Gallery sharing and previews
• Asset and project ratings
• Asset commenting and editing
• Uploading PDFs and moodboards
• Gallery management for account managers
• Automated asset sizes for different licenses
I used team discussions, customer insights and industry direction to plan our product strategy for 18 months. I often find strategy sets direction and gets everybody on the same page but is difficult to translate into tangibles so I created five clear product goals to bring the strategy to life and ensured our roadmap items aligned with these. Our product goals set out what we were focusing on to achieve that quarter, staying flexible enough to shift as needed. The strategy also served to discuss our positioning and highlight it in a way sales could effectively utilize, and it was designed as a reflection piece; are we still here or have we moved? From research, industry events and previous work I was able to spot key trends to differentiate the company including diverse and inclusive representation, cultural specificity (which hits where localization and personalization often miss), authenticity and realness, and sustainability.
I reconstructed the roadmap and set a direction in motion. From now, we only grew epics. That is, we only placed in items of consideration, started with basic information and then developed them if, and as, they moved through shaping. This kept our level of information to what we needed to know, as we needed to know it rather than overburdening.
I established cycles and setup Linear for ease of task management and development planning. I worked with the team to implement a consistent process for releases including staging, QA testing, demo environment to production and release notes and communication. We never had to rollback a release nor did we introduce any major bugs into the platform. Overtime we worked together to reduce the bugs pushed from dev into staging in order for testing to be more effective.
I established a process to run experiments, launched a number of them and brought all cross-team functions together to conduct workshops, seek input from each team on a regular rhythm based on customer feedback and their own needs. Some of our experiments included payment for fast turn around times, extended licensing and bonus assets.
Feature evaluation is often understandably missed in start-up environments but it's imperative to comprehend how a feature is performing, if it's meeting goals and requirements, how it can be improved or grown, and if it (or a part of it) should be sunsetted so that you don't need to factor in design and tech allowances. Without evaluation, you're simply a feature factory likely complying to management demands. I set up the feature evaluation so we could collect data, team and customer commentary, and link back enhancements and ideas. With an appropriate review period we were able to prioritize and pull across changes as either enhancements or epics into our cycles and roadmap, giving an easier process for this.
We needed to be able to communicate and educate both our internal teams and customers with each new feature. I setup a public area so that customers could easily view what was coming up and what had been released. Internally for releases I highlighted key points and high-demand features and bug resolves. I developed a help section for team members for all platforms to know what to do, what edge cases existed and the workarounds, and how to help themselves or a customer. This empowered teams with the answers and also proved beneficial for each new team member that joined, saving a lot of my time in answering questions!
By now, we had our agreed product goals (particularly related to enabling internal teams, reducing customer barriers and creating more activity) but we needed to figure out how we were going to meet those goals. I dug into a significant number of research projects to work out what the next steps needed to entail. This coincided with bringing new engineers onboard in order to invest in the next steps of the product build.
Price is difficult positioning so we wanted to change this. It's hard to defend and can incentivize poor customer behavior, business goals and labor; - it's ultimately a race to the bottom. A lot of these brands are able and willing to spend the money (particularly as this was still a cost saving) - but as it had felt difficult for sales to sell this given they needed to first understand they had a problem - we needed to show them the value in it and what need was being filled.
It was time to grow the team just as the pandemic kicked into full force and the market went wild. Without being able to compete on salaries or being fully remote (suddenly everyone was) there was a dry supply of lower quality candidates. I put together a process of activities to attract more experienced talent, perks to offer and highlight, and different ways of working and recruiting. We were able to grow the team internally in Europe and by gluing onto an extension with an exceptionally skilled team in Ukraine for long-term support.
One other hurdle we had to overcome was that recruiting engineers in a tight market to work on a platform that needed refactoring and had a lot of technical frustrations is incredibly difficult. After much consideration it helped that deciding to refactor where needed would also allow for a better working environment and this transparency and challenge drew in more suitable engineers.
Lastly, I wrote the job descriptions, developed inclusive company language, and put in place new tactics to ensure we attracted more diversity. Budget, timeframe and market during my time made this difficult but I'm hopeful this pays off for the team in the long-term.
With growing comes changes to communication so after a number of chats together I outlined a plan; how we can stay clear, kind and effective, how we can best resolve difficulties between design, front end and back end requirements, and which channel is best for what. We also tested and then implemented a new shaping communication process so that engineers were able to feed in from the beginning and we could handle the numerous questions and decisions in a succinct manner. This ended up working better than expected with a single source of truth and past decision references, and I think we were all grateful to not have to do this in hundreds of Slack threads.
I set up an industry research system and joined forces with the new marketing member so that she could get the information needed for marketing and sales, and we could get the information needed in product. It allowed for quick competitive examples, industry inspiration and was useful to understand customer experiences with other vendors along with how to position the company in sales calls particularly during objections or procurement processes.
I was lucky to spend time with customers across the globe hearing how they do things, their expectations and the pressures and goals of their positions. Alongside many customer calls I also setup a regular review with the Head of Sales to garner insights from wins and losses. One other useful trick was a dedicated Slack channel for any customer or team feedback as our teams used the platform the most and were in daily contact with our customers and their frustrations and needs.
While enterprise customers had bigger budgets, they were long sales cycles with varying requirements, and often not meeting a use case expected for a digitally native solution. There was a growing slice of Direct to Consumer brands who were rapidly challenging their industries and already understand their content problem. They were needing hundreds of assets from ads, to ecommerce to social and needed a mix of high-end looks and user generated content. But, would they have the budgets? Do they receive enough free assests purely in brands fans they can utilize? Are they all in-housing?
Armed with a number of hypotheses I undertook research into this segment through interviews and analysis to see whether it was a good market to test with and how to test it. I found that those turning over in excess of X amount per year fit the bill and had solid use cases. Though they had more modern expectations of the sales process and how software works, their end needs suited the services. A halo side effect I wanted to garner: getting some of these brands aboard builds buzz - in modern media, through their networks and in genuine excitement - which helps reach the creatives and marketers inside large enterprises who often uses these products too. I pulled together a plan to reach these companies and test alongside ensuring that self-serve, onboarding and support was implemented and worked for them.
Creatively Squared originally didn't include talent outside of what a creator chose to include. Over time the service expanded but it was customized for each project and customer. That's where Product needed to step in. How would talent be charged? What's included for a creative concept? What does diversity for a gallery mean? Do we charge when creators are the talent? Full bodies vs hands vs cultural requirements vs body specifics? Do we allow photoshopping requests? How will creators access talent? Should we allow customers to approve talent first? Can we make talent exclusive to the platform? What about commercial rights and model licenses? Talent of a specific culture in a different country? What about if products can only be sent to certain locations?
I gathered all the customer feedback, industry standards, and led the workshops to bring insights, teams and customer needs together, eventually resulting in a clear service of what Creatively Squared does and doesn't do, what the agreed customer fees were and what grey areas still existed that needed company decisions. We were then able to implement this into a concept-level within briefs and automate credit usage thereby creating consistent pricing, charging customers appropriately, increasing revenue, and having a standardized service all departments could communicate and manage.
One of the key product goals was to bring in project management so that account managers could do their work more effectively and enjoyably. I conducted a time analysis (thank you AMs) to understand where most of the time was being spent, what the true cost of the services were, what processes needed to change, which services were most profitable, and what could be brought in-platform. With a small engineering team and a designer of one (that's me!) this also allowed us to prioritize internal features of higher value and quick wins. We built a number of admin features from this and redeveloped the uploading process so that dealing with project gallery deliveries didn't result in hours of lost time with duplication, failed uploads, order discrepancies and crashing browsers. Big thanks to the engineers for these improvements.
While the sales team brought onboard new logos and deals, without a dedicated customer success team there was money being left on the table with current customers. These customers were highly satisfied and had excellent relationships with the account managers. I conducted quick research and brought in a plan to classify customers per account manager into four categories and created the templates and examples to expand the relationship into a new region, encourage a new brief submission, or try a new service.
I worked on product marketing efforts particularly to bring in customers rather than a sole reliance on the sales team and to educate past the barriers and objections that existed in commencing. As a sugar product - a nice to have, we wanted to change this to a panadol - solving a headache which should be the case in a market where daily content is required. I worked with a new marketing lead to determine six overarching themes that could be used to talk about the trajectory and the unique selling proposition. Additionally I worked with the founders and Head of Sales to ensure there was a clear proposition and position the team could gather around and sell.
I also developed a storyboard for a video reel for the team to promote, explain and entice the service. I wrote the copy and structure for in-bound pages focused on use case by role types (such as marketing, digital, brand), industry (such as food and beverage, personal care, pet care) and purpose (such as scalable content, marketplaces, and diversity).
And of course - catchy copy drills to stop thumbs and eyes!
Eventually we could no longer keep running the level of tech debt and incompatibilities we had with upcoming features. Although we'd manage to hide most it from customers we also had two significant areas to fix and a new brief system to implement which would require modern development standards.
Additionally, without the technology to operate more effectively and house data and processes, with increasing salaries, partners or investors generally don't favor always increasing labor. With a goal of creating freelance work for thousands of creators and hitting multiples of revenue targets, the company needed something far more scalable.
Having been an MVP, the front-end needed a full rebuild while the back-end needed to refactor key features and architect a new briefing system. We took the opportunity to design the platform, implement a component library, and add many new enhancements, features and bug fixes. No Product Manager ever wants to rebuild or refactor this amount of work (or at least, I'm yet to meet one!), but ultimately 9 months of work would result in a singular platform, project management, new galleries, data for everyone, a briefing system aligned with requirements, endless new features and the ability to scale and build sustainably.
We built a platform that was suitable for enterprise customers and other viable markets and marketing strategies. The new platform meant new features could be more fluidly developed and tested, and resulted in a far smoother experience for the internal teams and customers. Knowing the creator side of the platform was upcoming, we also built to allow for this. Finally, we could all login and share from one area making our front end code more efficient. Huge thanks to the team who worked to the highest level of skill to create this.
The original platform really suffered for not having a design system. This is common in startups particularly without a dedicated design role. For each new feature we needed to consider a design that wasn't always fit for purpose and we were loading up on UX issues and design debt. Actions that left users perplexed, no navigation system, and some technical trade-offs that had occurred at the expense of the user wasn't helping. Component libraries and design systems are always an upfront cost that pay off massively as you work. I took the opportunity of needing to recode to immediately build in a component library, work with the front end to have a single source of truth and consider platform brand and tone (important when working with industry creatives). This was a rather gigantic task to complete alongside everything else but within two months I created the library and all components as I wireframed the new platform. Prototypes, design, engineering and testing all became far more efficient and pleasant.
During our research into D2C it was clear that self serve was needed, but it was also desired for numerous other reasons. In a service like this it's never one team that does sales; each team needs to support. Increasingly, competitors and industry players were moving down market to increase their revenue and Creatively Squared was in a better position to capture this part of the market as part of their product-led growth goals. During this process I worked in data capturing so trends could be determined and leads could be nurtured by role, industry and painpoint. Self serve allowed five key functions.
• Accessibility to a new market (and the eyeballs of marketers) bringing in sales from a warm market that was ready
• Inbound generation tool to shift away from only outbound
• Automating legalities as these were causing contract delays
• PAYG customer campaigns with a pricing restructure
• (Re)warming leads to encourage no-strings account creation
• Customer comfort and trust as research had shown customers had no idea what they were buying into or what to expect
I developed out the mish-mash of existing gallery actions and new features into a cohesive action system for galleries. At completion, all users within a customer brand could rate assets, comment, upgrade, download and add to collection whether singular or multiple. Projects could be rated and the design was extended to account for post-production services that would need to be implemented in the coming time. We added a nudge for project ratings during project downloads to increase the feedback rate on these which was a key company statistic.
With the new design came the first foray in account managers being able to actively manage their projects within the platform rather than through multiple external tools so the company could start to move toward a single source of truth. The secondary impact of this was that certain indicators could then be measured without any effort to monitor things like average project time, average rating and the number of projects coming up.
I dedicated some research time to working out what would best increase revenue and usage of assets that creators developed. Additionally, customer interviews had proven time and time again that they were used to selecting assets and having more control over this process. I establish a bonus function that allowed for limiting swapping with a manual test, in addition to showcasing other assets that were created in addition to requirements or in different styles or mediums. Customers could then have more control and also immediately select and add additional assets to their gallery, thereby increasing average orders and compensating creators more. A win for everybody!
We undertook a significant amount of work to move beyond a static three-forked workflow (draft, submitted, completed) into a workflow that actually tracked projects in real-time. On the customer side this also allowed us to tailor the statuses shown so they had more insights into the current status and it reduced the manual communication required within each project. In addition to this it would also bring in far more data - how long did a project get stuck in X status on average? Where were the bottlenecks? Did 50% of the projects really get partially delivered? What's the most common reason this is happening now that that data is captured on each project?
The most challenging new feature was an entirely new briefing system. The services had developed at speed since the original platform and the account managers were handling most things manually through emails and calls. Research showed that customers loved the simplicity of the platform but, somewhat contradictory, many also worried they weren't able to give enough information, nor have transparency on concepts. In Product too we also had next to no briefing data to pick up insights and trends and use this data to prioritize, garner ideas, leverage and improve processes. This was a interesting design challenge to meet the needs of creators, sales, account managers, customers and product; often these needs did not align.
One of the co-founders worked closely with projects and created an ideal state for information capture. I worked with these requirements and relevant teams to design a new system that captured the data for all the services, resolved a number of previous woes and made account management life easier, while keeping it as simple as possible.
This resulted in a pipeline of work to standardize company services, outputs and costs as much as practical. I worked with the other co-founder to resolve misaligned pricing so we could then create a clear services wiki that all team members could access to ensure there was a single source of truth for deliverables, inclusions and pricing; the elusive alignment between sales, customers, product, marketing and account managers in an enterprise environment! The system was built to iterate over time as services were refined and new ones added.
One of the other huge features I designed was the asset bank. I worked with the engineers, projects team, community team and sales to get an understanding of internal priorities and desires and then aligned this with customer needs to develop a single solution that only required some additional permissions and views on the admin side. I split the epic into three items so we could do a phased implementation and designed for the bank and how these items would be tagged with their meta data, properties and auto-labels. I then created search and filter functions so all teams and customers could easily find assets such as: videos, with sunset, with people, rated good, between 2021 and 2022 and so-forth.
During the new platform build we developed an in-platform, contextual support guide to help customers during each step of their journey with explanations and examples. This eliminated the need for extensive onboarding calls or for consulting external helpdesks and instead educated customers on how to best brief and what specific things meant. This was designed to increase the comfort of customers, relieve time from account managers and create more manageable briefs for them and creators.
Internally, I created new support guides for the platform and education videos and screenflows for a number of key new features and highlights so everybody could get across these and access support as they needed it (without my need to be awake at 2am!).
This was an interesting feature and shows how product can support shaping the right things at the right time. I had numerous requests from the teams to create collections (folders of selected assets). They had evidence to support these requests but they weren't deal breakers for customer accounts. I had a hypothesis this wasn't actually the core problem as research had taught me users generally downloaded assets and managed them on their internal systems. After listening to review calls, gathering customer feedback and interviewing some potential customers, I narrowed it to three problems.
I take a lot of joy in redesigning sections and components that aren't working as well as possible or can use an upgrade. This happens in every platform from birth until their end - it's a normal part of design evolution and as urgency and resources increase. We enhanced a huge amount of areas with the platform redesign but I had a few favorites. One of those was the region selection. On the old platform you would select your region (an upgrade from the initial version which only had countries!) but if you chose worldwide, every single country in the world would show and you could only get rid of them one by one. If you accidentally hit it; you were screwed.
No longer the case in the upgrade with a clean system to search, select only what you need by region or country and easily back out of any choices or refine them. It was an important enhancement because it was the cause of much unnecessary customer annoyance who had varying needs for this and location being incredibly important for creator recruitment, shipping and knowledge of the end market.
Because the platform had a credit system and we were implementing numerous new features where credits needed to be deducted outside of briefing, I created a standardized checkout system so that each service could be effectively held in a cart and checked out using credits. This worked toward the goal of increasing credit uptake and included the bonus assets, automated asset licensing upgrades and post production services.
We had some fun with some bug squashing weeks. In the platform rebuild we were also able to eliminate all the major issues that existed resulting in a far smoother and expected user experience. I established a bugs board within Linear and we reviewed this each product cycle to move the bugs into sprints. Happily in the redesign I was able to eliminate the old red error screens that existed with no help for the user, and instead provide contextual alerts and errors to users in every relevant step of the platform.
Huge hat tip to our amazing QA Engineer for massively supporting this work and finding every edge case that could possibly exist.
With the focus on scalability, a delight-filled UI wasn't on my task list as it wouldn't provide user value, but occasionally we could add in something that didn't take much longer and made the experience more seamless. Our little slider indicators and rolling navigation items got this treatment for example. Once a dedicated Product Design role comes onboard I'm excited to see the next iteration of the platform through their eyes!
As a growing startup it was time to start thinking about data. Importantly, this would ensure a single source of truth which was often difficult to manually reconcile across different platforms and having data on certain aspects for the first time. Credits were becoming increasingly difficult to manage and we needed an accurate history internally and for customers. I wanted to ensure a culture of data accuracy began to be achieved and that everyone could easily see data for key company indicators alongside building in data for customer success functions and sales reviews. Additionally, it was necessary for product and founders to understand trends and analyze insights and for the whole team to be able to easily pull data in relation to activity and customers. While building this we could also easily account for upcoming enterprise features (such as active user accounts) to ensure support for managing this.
It's always hard to let go of a product especially when you've designed a significant iteration of it, built a team and become close to those who came and went. I worked with a bootstrapped company focused on creators and developing a better marketplace; one that believed in quality not quantity, where a creator was always paid for their work rather than in competition, and creator selection was based on portfolio and potential rather than follower count and influence. It's rare within this industry and with incredible account managers, this is so much more sustainable and enjoyable. The diversity showcased - in creativity, in humans, in locations and homes - was exceptional to be a part of.
I wholeheartedly believe in this creativity, in representation, in ethical products, in local businesses and in beautiful growing brands. Internally though I struggled with the multi-national, corporate side of the industry - and potential customers - which often represented overconsumption, exploitation and greenwashing (particularly in the destruction of biodiversity and emissions that result from an increase in sales, ads that serve as a distraction from core business models, content that misleads the public, or companies that partner with fossil fuels). These were challenging conversations to hold when growing revenue is the key objective and I struggled with this inside my heart. I'd like to reflect more on how we reconcile representation and ethical consumption while engaging local creators to make exceptional things and ensure we - as a world - aren't perpetuating consumerism and poverty and environmental disasters that greatly impact many of these same communities.
Thus, with the product in a good position, a clear roadmap in place (including work on many upcoming features), and the industry poised on the brink of enormous change with artificial intelligence beginning to change processes, the right time to wrap up had arrived.
As for what's next? I'm hoping to play in the real world a little longer. As long as it will last.