Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

From Pivot To Pandemic: How The Kimp Team Launched & Scaled

Senthu Velnayagam
Senthu Velnayagam
May 4, 2021
Category of startup
Design
Country of startup
Canada
Revenue of startups
No Data
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

From Pivot To Pandemic: How The Kimp Team Launched & Scaled

Senthu Velnayagam
Senthu Velnayagam
May 4, 2021
Category of startup
Design
Country of startup
Canada
Cause of failure of the startup

Senthu co-founded Kimp, a subscription-based design company that offers graphic design and video design for a flat monthly fee. After pivoting from their previous businesses, they used that revenue to bootstrap Kimp and scale it to a worldwide remote company with dozens of employees.

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Who are you and what are you currently working on?

I’m Senthu Velnayagam, and I’m the Co-Founder of Kimp. I’m mainly based in Canada - though I’m often traveling to connect with my team members who are based in different countries.

Kimp is a subscription-based design company that offers graphic design and video design for a flat monthly fee. As a Co-Founder, I wear a lot of different hats but my main focus is on growth and innovation. I’m always looking at how we can improve and optimize our service.

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

Before I started Kimp I was a bit of a serial entrepreneur, launching and running a few different design startups. I started as a one-man operation, designing web banners back in 2003. Those were the early days of digital marketing and I was able to find clients on marketing forums. There was a shortage of designers for web banners, and that was fortunate for me in a couple of ways. I was a horrible designer at first. But I loved it and I was looking for work.

To make it easier to land a job I set up an eCommerce site called BannersMall.com. And pretty soon one job led to another, and I had way more work than I could handle. Including brands like HostGator, Endurance International Group, and Russell Brunson. Between 2003-2007 I partnered with an LA-based designer named Chris Hevoyan. After a few great years, Chris moved on to other projects and I partnered with my brother, Ven who is also a Co-Founder of Kimp.

Ven and I worked together to grow BannersMall and then launch Doto (a design agency so that we could take on the more complex projects that our clients kept bringing our way.) For a few years, we continued focusing on web banners for digital marketers through BannersMall. And we did this alongside more extensive design projects, motion graphics, and website design and development for other clients.

We were doing great, business was booming and we were able to hire quite a few designers as well. But then about 3 years ago a steady decline started.

On the BannersMall side of business, competitors had not only sprung up, but they’d innovated too. Meanwhile, we’d kept just things going steady. So our customers started increasingly opting for other services. On the Doto side of the business, we had that fatal flaw that a lot of agencies struggle with. Our bottom line was much too dependent on the big accounts of a few clients.

When 2017 rolled around most of our work was with clients in the real estate and property development industries. Recognizing this we’d started building out some proprietary software for them, and positioning ourselves to secure more clients as a real estate/development marketing and design specialists. But with the market’s fluctuations, our client’s marketing and design budgets also took a big dip.

And at what felt like breakneck speed we had to pivot. We had an awesome group of designers depending on us. And even with all of the upheaval we were experiencing, we knew there were a lot of other industries that would continue to need design services on an ongoing basis.

So as we started bleeding money we went through different business models and landed back on subscription-based graphic design. We’d thought about tackling it in 2015. But at the time we were already spreading ourselves pretty thin. Now with everything on the line we dove in.

I’d initially learned about unlimited graphic design when I found out about Design Pickle. The company had turned design into a productized service with huge success. And we believed we could put our twist on it. Enter, Kimp.

Kimp Landing Page

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How did you go from idea to product?

We took inspiration from what we already saw on the market for subscription-based design. And then started breaking down what we thought others in the market were doing well, what we could do better, and identifying any gaps that we could see. 

And we were doing all this while pivoting from our previous businesses. It felt like months of walking on eggshells, trying to keep up with existing clients to who we’d committed projects. And then trying to build and launch a new brand, along with its operations. With revenue from BannersMall and Doto being used to bootstrap Kimp we were burning the candle at both ends.

But in hindsight, there were a lot of blessings in disguise during that time. A few of our most recent hires that had been made to help expand Doto now became big players in launching Kimp. And through Kimp we’ve been able to give new opportunities to our team members to grow. And to serve clients around the world whereas we were previously focused on North America. For years we didn’t know if we could gain traction anywhere else.

But within a month of launching, we were already getting uptake from multiple regions. Our initial launch was done fairly quietly as a soft launch. There was a lot we were trying to tweak, but we wanted to get proof of concept too. So we began reaching out to past clients to see if they’d be interested in trying Kimp out. 

And we also started running social media ads. A couple of our campaigns took off and we saw a huge influx in sign-ups between the end of February and throughout March. So much so that we were often building our workflows as fast as we were breaking them. And oftentimes relying on client feedback to gain insight into our blind spots so that we could account for them.

Near the end of April 2019, it felt like we were hitting a stride. This was definitely in part a result of bringing on more team members. And having some breathing room to look at how we were doing and where we wanted to go.

Kimp Offices

For instance, adding in a video design subscription as we continuously received requests from clients. And then rebranding our subscriptions to Kimp Graphics, Kimp Video, and Kimp Graphics + Video.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

After launching Kimp, we’ve relied on a combination of social media marketing, affiliate marketing, referral marketing, and Google Ads in particular. We’ve found each of these methods to be fairly effective so far, with the caveat that at times social media marketing can be a bit tricky/unpredictable as algorithms shift.

Apart from these different marketing channels, we’ve also been very particular about our messaging and copy. We try to ensure that we’re always highlighting the aspects of our service that are unique to others in the subscription-based design space.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

Today we’ve thankfully weathered the pandemic fairly well, and are operating as an entirely remote company. When the pandemic began, like any other business we were anxious about the safety of our team members, our clients and weren’t sure how we’d be moving forward. At that point last year we’d been operating for about a year and a few months, and our teams in different locations operated out of physical offices together.

In having to shift to remote operations and establish new workflows we realized we could also expand our team to new regions. It had been on our radar to eventually explore this type of expansion. But in a world of remote work new opportunities came up. Our team is now dispersed across the Asia-Pacific region, North America, as well as Central and South America. 

In terms of our goals for growth, we want to create employee hubs in each region that we have teams. In these spaces, we want to create not only training and social initiatives for our team members, but also training opportunities for aspiring designers. While we will continue operating remotely, we hope that the pandemic will soon be on the decline, and make way for a return to some level of in-person interactions.

We’re also really excited about the custom software we’re building for our clients to enhance their experience of the service. “Kimp 360” as it’s known internally is going to be a completely customized project management tool that will make it easier to request, organize and access designs. It’ll also include resources to help clients looking for inspiration or best practices for designs that get a higher ROI. And internally it’ll provide our team with a greater level of insight into the client experience and client needs and interactions. We currently use a customized Trello dashboard for each client. And while we love Trello and it’s been a great way to work with clients, there’s just a lot more that we want to be able to give our clients over time.

Since starting Kimp, what have been your main lessons?

I’ve always valued my team and their many strengths, but in the past few years, I’ve come to realize just how powerful it is when we work together. There were so many moments that I wasn’t sure if we’d make it. But we pulled through and pushed each other to keep going. I wouldn’t say this is a new lesson learned since launching Kimp, but once that’s been reinforced. Your team matters so much more than your vision. Because without the first the second is going nowhere.

Another lesson that I’d say is tied to launching Kimp is around business growth, development, and innovation. In my previous businesses, we were often reacting to our clients’ needs. But with Kimp I’m always pushing to see how we can innovate and optimize our processes and offerings. If we hadn’t pivoted, Kimp would have never existed. And we would have just lost everything after 15 years of running our design businesses. But in going beyond what we thought we could do, we’ve realized more of what we can. And I’m going to keep pushing that ceiling.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

In addition to the pivot, the early stages of the pandemic are no doubt at the top of the list. Trying to connect with team members across regions and time zones when we were used to collaborating in-person and real-time was a big challenge. Especially given how much our team members rely on and support one another.

Finding team members who are the right fit, remotely, is an ongoing challenge. It’s one we’ve overcome with some roles, but still face with others. We want to continue building a supportive, creative culture for our team, especially as we’re working remotely. But recruiting remotely can make assessing that quite a challenge.

In terms of mistakes, there’s nothing much that I would call the worst because our missteps have often led to finding new ways to do things. Like building out our CRM and productivity tools to measure and assess how we’re doing. If I had to choose I’d say it’s pushing ourselves too hard. Burnout is tough to bounce back from. And while you want to give your customers a great experience, and support your team members to the fullest of your abilities, you have to step back from time to time to rest and recharge.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

We love Trello. It allowed us to get up and running faster than we could have if we waited to build out a project management tool first. And it’s highly effective and intuitive for our clients and team members. For internal projects we rely on Basecamp and to document processes, we’re using Notion. We use Zapier to build in automation and different integrations.

Kimp Trello

Our website’s live chat is operated through Crisp and we use Flock to share instant messages and updates within the team.

We’ve also built some tools for ourselves as well, including our CRM and a web app to track individual projects, and overall account metrics.

AppSumo is a great resource for deals on software and up-and-coming tools. You can get lifetime deals on there as an early adopter!

In terms of inspiration and business insights, I read a lot of ebooks and guides from marketers and entrepreneurs. I can always count on Product Hunt, G2, Reddit, and Facebook Groups to find some great reads. And as far as all-time favorites I’d recommend Expert Secrets and Dotcom Secrets by Russell Brunson, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, and Looptail by Bruce Poon Tip.

Russell Brunson’s books provide great tips for scaling a business online. The Lean Startup drives home that need for constant innovation. And Looptail is a great read for any entrepreneur, especially if you're feeling a bit worn out by the daily grind. In it, the Founder of G Adventures shares his incredible story of building a business without compromising his values.

Where can we go to learn more?

To find out more about Kimp, the best place to turn is our site of course. And we also regularly update our blog and social media (find @getkimp on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn) with examples of our work.

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