The Agency Cold Start Problem

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For our design agency Bolster, we’ve been looking to find our way around the agency version of a “cold start problem”. In tech, a cold start problem (as popularized by Andrew Chen’s book on the topic) is the conundrum that startups face when trying to achieve network effects with their product.

For example, for Airbnb, their cold start problem was trying to get both enough host inventory and guest interest at the same time in order for each party to be motivated enough to transact on the platform. This is a problem that appears again and again for marketplaces, dating apps, social networks, SaaS tools, and anywhere else where network effects make the product experience more valuable.

For agencies, the cold start problem is simpler: you need clients, full stop. Clients enable work examples & case studies that make a portfolio more attractive, allowing you to look more credible to other prospective clients. Clients also become valuable referrers, connecting you with warm leads. Clients can also serve as references when a prospect gets serious about buying from you. And an agency with real clients will also be able to have the cash flow and reputation to hire talented people. No clients, no go.

The Bolster Omakase is our solution to the agency “cold start” problem.

At Bolster, we’ve had leads come through our other agencies Barrel and BX Studio, but the volume isn’t quite where we want it to be. An experiment we are running hopes to solve for this, and it involves investing a lot of hours giving away free work. We call it the Bolster Omakase, inspired by the “trust me” sushi chef offering – it’s a free brand design that we create based off of a prospects answers to 3 very simple questions. We deliver something, typically in a couple of weeks, and what you get is what you get. You can like it or hate it or feel meh about it, but it’s our best effort to deliver quality for free. As a pre-condition of agreeing to do a Bolster Omakase, prospects agree to let us market the work we do for them as part of our portfolio.

Our first ever Bolster Omakase was for a Y Combinator-backed startup BlueHill.

The Bolster Omakase is based off of an idea that Sei-Wook and I had nearly 15 years ago, when we were doing quite a bit of branding work for early Barrel clients. Problem was, we used to hate the endless revision rounds it took to get to a final version. We wished that clients would just trust us and take our best shot effort as the first and final work product, much like the diner at an omakase sushi restaurant, where there is no selecting from the menu, just sitting down and trusting the chef to bring out the best. We never went through with this but we did own for several years.

Fast-forward to today and the Bolster Omakase represents what we hope to be an effective growth hack: use it to quickly build up our portfolio and get quality referrals from easily-won clients (hard to resist FREE, especially for small businesses and startups); also use the work to attract more clients by sharing on our site, on social, and in presentation decks shown to prospective clients.

The beauty of the Bolster Omakase is that it helps us quickly show our range across different types of businesses & brand goals. For example, Moonlight (left) is a productivity-focused app while MediaFeed (right) is a content marketing consulting service.

So far, so good. We’ve produced three Bolster Omakase designs, and we’re signing up more businesses every week. We believe some of these Omakase clients will go on to pay for additional design services from Bolster and others will be great leads for BX Studio to do their Webflow website.

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