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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Going From University Professor to Agency Founder

Ziad Foty
Ziad Foty
January 24, 2023
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Going From University Professor to Agency Founder

Ziad Foty
Ziad Foty
January 24, 2023
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Ziad had an extensive academic background when he decided to start the Washington-based digital design agency, Design In DC. Here's his story.



Hi Ziad! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Nico! I'm the CEO and Co-Founder of Design in DC, a digital design agency. I come out of the film world and am also a writer. 

As the CEO of a digital design agency, I believe in art as being disruptive. I didn’t want to start a business that would just recreate art as a means of regurgitating the same things that everyone is doing. This is especially something that I wanted to bring into the digital design agency world, where there is a lot of sameness. 

What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?

It’s been a fun journey getting to where I am. Before being CEO and founder, I've been a film, film theory, history, and production professor. I taught universities all across the DC area. 

I'm a Howard alum and did my MFA there. I taught at Howard, taught at Catholic University, and taught at George Mason University. I even taught a course on Global Horror Cinema and wrote a book with another professor Samirah Alkassim at George Mason University. It was a course book for students to examine a horror film within a global context and how, essentially, horror films can be a perfect way to talk about the repressed emotions that lie within a given society. 

I come from these dual experiences: a very academic background in some ways. I went to Trinity College, Dublin, and did some Ph.D. work in Montreal. But in another sense, I have a very extensive background in film production working in the production world, and I've taught both.

And that's what led me to founding Design in DC. My partner, Rob, and I met in Canada playing basketball. We were actually going to school at Concordia University. He came out of the web design and digital agency world, having worked for some pretty big agencies in Canada and North America, and he always wanted to start his own thing. 

I wasn't a coder or web designer, but  I always thought the web design experience needed to be more interactive.

It didn't have a very compelling storytelling dynamic to it, so I wanted websites to have compelling visuals. So I want us to bring in the animation, the film component, and the photography. And that's been a nice partnership because so many of these web design clients need all those other kinds of digital assets — and it's what brings their website to life. So that's how I started Design in DC with Rob. 

How did you build Design In DC?

I believe that the most sustainable businesses are built gradually. Nothing can be done overnight. It all starts with that first project. Finding the right people was very important. Some of the most successful people do many things simultaneously, contrary to popular belief. We encourage our team to pursue their passions outside of work. This has helped us retain people. There is a continuity in your team that is necessary for it to grow.

Design In DC Leadership Team

The other way that we have built our company is through storytelling.  Storytelling has been a way that we have built the brand. We are in a saturated industry, so how do we stand out? Storytelling. 

You can engage the user from a storytelling perspective in many different ways. Every user has a different journey and path to understanding the story. 

So it’s important to make sure there are stories with multiple layers being told. Telling more layered stories will cater to multiple different audiences. That way, we're not just telling one static story but a dynamic one that gets the conversation started. For us, it's all about conversation and collaboration and creativity. That's what makes the world turn. 

And you know, if someone doesn't want to engage with the story, then they're not going to want to engage with your product, or whatever you may be doing, whatever you may be selling, even if it's an idea. So, it's all about storytelling to push direct engagement. Without that thought to storytelling, we wouldn’t have acquired nearly as many customers as we have. 

Which are your acquisition channels?

One of the keys to a sound business is having a diverse set of acquisition channels. Our most fruitful acquisition channel is specialized directories like Clutch, Design Rush, and The Manifest. This is because those websites are top-ranking for intent-based keywords. People are looking for a service that we can provide. So investing in our presence on those specialized directories is a must. 

Design In DC in Clutch

But we can’t rely on just one acquisition channel. We find a lot of leads through Google searches, especially Google Maps, social media, YouTube, Google Ads, referrals, and more. Referrals are easy to get once you are established and have a strong reputation.

But we are also always looking for the next thing. We are appearing in newsletters. We are looking into advertising on buses and train stations. There are so many ways to be found that you can never stop at one. 

What are your goals for the future?

I can let you in on our kind of bigger plan for what we want Design In DC to be. The concept of “design in” is very important to us. We want our designers and workforce to understand the local market, which is why we tried to employ a lot of DC-based people who understand the intricacies and the ins and outs of how DC works but also can bring a fresh approach to DC. 

So for us, DC was a very kind of government, stuffy-suits town. And if you compare it to New York, for example, New York has that fashion feel — a center of fashion, a center of art. DC feels much more government oriented. 

I’m very interested in dialectics and how the clash of ideas creates progress. We always have to be operating on this continuum where we're clashing with different ideas.

I even talked about the idea of having people with radically different political ideas in the same room and how that is good for creating change because whenever one is isolated, it's much more difficult to see the other person's perspective. I don't mean it in this very happy, PC way because that can also be a way to be very stagnant. It has to be a direct clash and a clash in a productive and meaningful way. 

But all that to say, that's kind of how we approach design. It's all through conversations with the client. 

Design In DC wireframes

We do a lot of workshops in the early phase before we even get to the actual, high-fidelity mockups where we're trying to push the client both from a content and a design perspective. “Can we combine these two sections? Why do you have two sections that are saying the same thing?” We're trying to think of the user journey, user experience, and then how the design works with that.

The larger idea of Design In is to create this “Design In” brand where we have many different kinds of companies all across the nation and potentially across the world that cater to the local market and the idea of “Designing In” physically and more conceptually. So that's where we're going. We're about to launch our Design In New York brand and have plans for other subsidiaries across the nation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?

Definitely, the decision to go “all in” with Design In while still being a professor. I loved teaching and poured everything I loved about it into the company. There is a lot of management experience that comes from being a professor. However, it was taking a lot of time away from the potential of growing Design In. 

I always dreamed of owning a company with friends, family, and like-minded folks. We want to build an equitable world together in the design space. 

Once I went all in, things started to change, and there were a lot more opportunities that eventually came in. But the psychological challenge of giving up security for greater potential prosperity is a tough barrier to overcome. I strongly encourage anyone starting their own business to face that psychological challenge and not get discouraged when it’s painful to get out of your comfort zone. 

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

One of our biggest disadvantages was that we had no startup funding. We were built on the backs of our founding team. When owning an agency, it’s challenging to get started without funding. Finding those inbound leads and first clients takes a lot more work than when you are established with a proven track record. 

Not seeking funding is risky, but I think it pays off if you can make it work. The benefit of it is that you have no debt. There’s a very real downside to having investors that we found overpowered the challenges we faced. We have a lot of friends that have companies with investors. They seem to always try to satisfy the investors with reports rather than working on their business.

We have a lot more control over the decisions that we can make. I’m happy that we never brought on investors, but it did open the door to one of my greatest mistakes. 

That was underestimating the true impact of how cash flow works. Especially when you are working in an industry that has long sales cycles. In service-based industries, you have to think beyond the sale. There are sometimes going to be issues that come up that increase the budget of the project, and you have to account for that. 

During the height of the pandemic, we found ourselves in financial trouble. I assumed all of the risks financially because people needed to get paid. So I spent a large sum of my own money to ensure that everything was okay for our team. That was always the priority. Luckily, I made the money back pretty quickly. But I didn’t know that at the time, and you have to assume the financial risks of ownership because people are counting on you. 

In the beginning, Rob and I didn’t pay ourselves. I don’t think that was a good idea. It deflated us. Owners do get paid last. That is true. Everyone needs to get paid first.  

But not taking care of yourself also causes a ton of stress, which negatively impacts the business. So I committed to ensuring we pay ourselves a nominal amount every month. That was two years ago. And we haven’t stopped for one month since. It’s been a motivating factor, and it makes us work smarter every month to make sure that it can happen.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

We have some people on our team who are absolutely masterful at building out processes and systems for everything we do. I would have loved to have started that sooner. In the beginning, our team was small, and we worked from one project to the next without considering if we were spending too much time on things that could be done much faster. Working smarter, not just harder, is something I would do differently. 

Design In DC's methodology

So I'm always a devil of detail. I think every company problem starts from one small detail going wrong. So one big transformational thing we've done here is addressing the HR side and the legal side, as well as the designers and developers so that there is more of a fluid communication channel between everything. Because as our lawyers were always telling us, legal is always a business conversation, and business is always a legal conversation. The two cannot be de-linked, so for us, transforming our communication strategies. 

For a long time, every touchpoint was with Rob and me because we were the founders, and everything came from our vision. So, where we've transformed in these last two years is by trusting the people we've hired to transform their specific departments.

Hiring the best takes time, and I’m glad that we didn’t settle when it comes to that. I’m constantly astounded by our people's ideas and how masterful they are in their own domains.

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

A book that really changed the way I think was The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. An idea conveyed in the book that struck me was as a small business owner, you can be as much of a slave to the work as you could with a job. Owning your own business does not automatically mean financial freedom. You are almost doing everything, and you are the chef. So what I learned from this book are systems. You need systems, not just goals.

We are continuously building out and improving our systems. We recently have been working on this in our sales department. The more responsibilities and day-to-day tasks others can take, the more time the founding team has to focus on growing the business rather than constantly working on the business. Systems are repeatable and scalable. Being a micromanager is not. 

I would say that one of the most challenging things as an entrepreneur is being on so many different platforms that communication gets lost. And as you grow, it's really important to have repeatable processes that are easy to understand, and when we deviate, what are the plans behind that? It's what allows growth. If you are tethered as the business owner to every day-to-day process, you will never be able to grow. 

Where can we go to learn more?

For anyone interested in our services, I’d love for them to check out designindc.com

We also have a newsletter now called The Human Future Journal, which focuses on technology that can positively impact humanity. My dream society is a place where we utilize technology to become more communal and less isolated.


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