AMA: Anton Zykin, CEO and Co-Founder of SFCD (formerly SoftFacade)

over 7 years ago from , CEO at co-founder at Clay

Hey all!

I’m Anton Zykin, CEO and co-founder of SFCD (formerly SoftFacade), a digital product agency focused on mobile and web apps. We’ve worked with enterprise and startups clients such as ADP, T-Mobile, Sony, Huawei, Speedtest.net, and many others.

I started the company in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2007 and I was the only designer for about 2 years. We became world famous for our ultra-photorealistic icons, but people had no idea we were also creating products.

In 2012 we moved to NYC to better collaborate with our clients (most of them were in the US).

In 2014, when the icon work was no longer in high demand, we decided to rebrand as SFCD to get rid of our skeuomorphic past and to position ourselves as a full-service product agency.

We also created Miranda, a minimalist time zone converter for iPhone which was featured by Apple on multiple occasions.

We just opened our San Francisco office to better serve our West coast clientele.

Feel free to ask me anything, but I don’t know much about politics :)

I'll begin answering questions Wednesday, October 7 at 4:00 PST


  • Will HurleyWill Hurley, over 7 years ago

    Hi Anton,

    What is your team structure in the SFCD design team? Also what support does your team give to new designers getting up to speed with your work processes and expectations(onboarding)?

    Cheers, Will

    PS. Big fan of your work and the effort you guys go to in presenting case studies on your website.

    3 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      The design team is led by our UX Director and 2 Creative Directors – they basically serve as project managers working with clients directly in addition to their main responsibilities. This helps us to eliminate the middle-layer of account managers and non-designers, which in turn helps us create better designs faster.

      For each project we assemble a small and focused team of 1-2 Designers (usually 1 Senior + 1 Junior) or more. UX and Creative Directors actively participate in the design process hands-on during the initial phases (concepts, strategy) and then they mostly oversee the team providing direction,.

      Onboarding is tricky and I'll be honest with you we don't have a very well established process for that. So far, the best way to get a new designer up to speed is to let them work on a real project alongside with a more experienced colleague.

      0 points
  • Will ThomasWill Thomas, over 7 years ago

    Hey Anton.

    It's interesting to hear you were the only designer for so long, I'm in that same situation right now. I was wondering if you had any difficulty getting others around you in the company interested in the value of design? Also did you find it hard not having other designers at hand to bounce ideas off of?


    1 point
    • , over 7 years ago

      It wasn't a problem for me to convince others to believe in the value of design, because there were no other people besides my other technical co-founder. It was basically a two person operation taking small design and dev assignments.

      Not having other designers which whom I could discuss and seek feedback from was the main problem. At times, it felt to me that the design decisions I was making weren't right or something could be done better, but I had no one to consult with. I tried to compensate for the lack of company by talking to designers from other companies and my designer friends, but that wasn't enough.

      And now I think that being the only designer for such a long time affected negatively the company growth and quality of work. Because in addition to design duties, I had to deal with clients, contracts, sales etc. which left little to no time for focused design work.

      2 points
  • Denis P.Denis P., over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

    Hey Anton,

    Hello from Ramotion :)

    You said that you involved in 'product strategy and design'. As I understood it is the initial part of any PotentialClient<>SFÇD collaboration.

    Could you please share a bit more details about it? How long it usually go? How does the final result look like? Does it include user research etc.? I'd very appreciate if you list all the things that the phase includes.

    Thank you beforehand!


    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      I would say that we're trying to understand our client's challenges, goals, and come up with a potential plan of attack early on.

      1. It helps us to vet new clients and see if they are a good fit for us. It works the same way for clients – they see if we're a good fit or not, risk free.

      2. Usually we don't go beyond 2-3 meetings + calls/email conversations. Once we have a good understanding of the project, we send them our proposal and ask to begin a formal discovery/strategy process. We don't do any user research or any other tangible work before we have a contract in place

      3. Usually, this initial pre-sale discovery process is something that I do with the help from our CTO, Creative and UX directors. Again, clients will get to know the people who will work on their projects and get some feedback from our top resources. We don't charge for that.

      4. We don't go through this process with every potential client weeding out unpromising leads and weak ideas.

      0 points
  • Radley MarxRadley Marx, over 7 years ago

    We've been considering a similar move. What was involved in rebranding? Forming new company? Migrating assets?

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      We didn't form a new company, so our legal name remained the same. But you can do a DBA – you can consult a corporate lawyer for that.

      Obviously, we had to come up with a new name, design a new logo, website, write copy etc. But that's the easiest part.

      The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was migrating to a new domain name. Even if you set up all redirects properly via Google Webmaster tools, the grim reality is your website will lose all your SEO power and will rank low in Google's SERP.

      This means less visitors to your website and less leads. It will take anywhere between 3-8 months to regain your positions if you do a good job of promoting your new site.

      That being said, think twice before you rebrand, especially if most of your leads are coming from Google.

      0 points
  • Tatyana Golubeva, over 7 years ago

    Hi Anton, I liked your case studies a lot. My question is about responsive sites, is there a process you follow while designing for different break points, and what software you use to deliver visuals to dev team?

    Best, —T

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      We usually start by defining how many breakpoints we want, then we create designs for each one of them. We just deliver PSD files and our front-end team takes care of the rest. Once the HTML/CSS is done, our designers start testing the implemented version across all breakpoints making fixes right in the code.

      1 point
  • Slavo Glinsky, over 7 years ago

    Hello Anton, I won't be here at that time, however I have question about your marketing and sales activities. Is there need for company like yours to do some marketing and specific sales? What exactly do you do? I am looking forward hearing advice on that from designer. :) Wish you good luck in business

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      Yes, you need to prioritize sales and marketing over everything else. This is so simple. No clients –> no need to design anything.

      There is no common scenario on how to improve sales and I'm still figuring stuff out. You always need to find new ways and strategies, be alert and reply to all emails the same day you receive them. Clients is everything for you so treat them well.

      Some things you may want to try: – create a professional portfolio showing your process, not just final result – read a lot, but write more and write about things you know well enough – network with fellow designers and firms – do good work and clients will start recommending you eventually – treat returning clients exceptionally well, they are everything!

      4 points
  • Igor Rastvorov, over 7 years ago

    Hey, Anton! Are you self-taught designer?

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      Yes, I'm self-taught 100%. I got my head start designing icons and interfaces for my own shareware software for Windows before I started offering services to clients.

      I was trying to copy stuff from other designers and it worked like magic. Also, it is important to develop a good design taste and read as many books as possible (and please don't read design books ONLY).

      2 points
  • Poon Ang, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

    Hey Anton!

    I'm a big fan of SFCD's animation work in the mobile space (Yes, I follow you guys on Dribbble). I'm curious how this get implemented in the actual product. Is it done in code or an image sequence?

    Loving the work since the skeumorphic era! —Poon

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      A good question. It depends on a development team implementing them. Sometimes they can recreate them completely in code (we provide reference videos, code in After Effects etc.) or we can use an image sequence or a video if we don't have a lot of time.

      When we work with our developers, we collaborate very closely and they get a lot of guidance in addition to files.

      Thanks for loving our work!

      1 point
  • John Low, over 7 years ago

    How does your agency find new clients? What can you recommend to a freelancer, how to find clients?

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      We have a habit of creating detailed case studies that we publish on our website. Not only they showcase our work and process, they also attract a lot of traffic, and designers (and other people in the industry) are sharing them like crazy.

      Oftentimes, those designers work at companies big or small, and when they need some outside design or dev help, they come to us remembering our case studies.

      It helps a lot to maintain an active blog and it's even better to post your stuff on Medium too, which gives you access to their engaged community of mostly tech professionals.

      Being active on social media is a must, but we haven't been doing a great job with it lately. Like with everything else consistency is key. We also have lots of followers on Dribbble, but the quality of leads from there is very poor.

      After all, it is easier and more predictable for any business to retain existing clients and nurture relationships with them versus finding new ones. I'm not talking about the quality of work and service – it has to be spotless – then, your existing clients will start recommending you to their contacts.

      We mostly rely on word of mouth and recommendations from past clients and we've never done any client outreach. But I'll try that too.

      For freelancers, I recommend creating a good online portfolio and blog a lot on places like Medium. Start with these two steps and you'll see the results almost right away.

      2 points
  • Ryan Allen, over 7 years ago

    How has your position in the company changed throughout the years and what have you learned from your different roles?

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago

      I've been always wearing many hats. Started as the only designer combining it with sales, operations, and project management.

      Then I switched completely to sales, because I felt this way I could bring the most value to the company. Sales is the most important part for any agency, because no matter how good you are, if you have no clients knocking at your door, you'll go out of business sooner rather than later.

      Right now, the sales process for a digital agency have changed drastically. Clients are more educated and they no longer want to talk to a sales person with no design/dev experience. They want to talk to people who will work on their project.

      That's why I'm now heavily involved in product strategy and design – it all starts with sales and my approach is simple. I talk to potential clients to understand what their needs are and how best we can help. We brainstorm, ideate, and strategize even before they've become a client. It helps to build trust and to show that you know what you do well.

      Once they're a client, I stay around and oversee their project from the product strategy perspective. It's not easy, but helps a lot to create quality designs and products.

      1 point
  • Mike JoyceMike Joyce, over 7 years ago

    Hi Anton! Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. I'm curious what your take is on the future of the digital design & development agency? Is the business model broken or dying? (I've read a number of doomsday scenario articles over the past year concerning the future of the agency). Obviously, agencies that can build their own bootstrapped products for niche markets, as a side project focus outside of their client work, can potentially generate a respectable additional revenue source...but, to do that as an agency, I'd assume you'd still need a solid foundation of long term client work to pay the bills & enable that.

    Do you feel that newer entrants into the field would be better served to focus their skill set somewhere else rather than creating an agency? Or, in your opinion, is there still room for new players & is the future still looking bright?

    0 points
    • , over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

      I've also read a lot of articles and thoughts that the agency model is dying and running an agency is not sustainable in the long run. It is right and it is wrong at the same time.

      Days are gone when you could sell anything to a client and they would pay what you ask. And it's not that it's something wrong with agencies, it is the clients that have become more educated and therefore they've also become more picky when it comes to selecting a design partner. Many companies are building their own design departments too, but it doesn't' mean there will be no work left for agencies. It's only a San Francisco fad.

      Agencies will have to adapt to this new grim reality by being more nimble, more proactive, and by constantly improving their service and quality of work. It is the perfect time for small, niche agencies (like product design etc.) to dominate the market. Let me explain why.

      Basically, smaller firms can do the same type of work as bigger guys, but they are less expensive, they don't have to worry about bringing too many projects to keep all their employees busy, and they are more agile. Therefore, they are much more appealing to clients, especially those who are looking to extend their team temporarily.

      I believe that worrying about their workload/meeting payroll was one of the main reasons for Teehan+Lax's acquisition...they couldn't compete with smaller firms hungry for projects.

      Running an agency is stressful and things are unpredictable, but if you've decided to take this path, go for it and start small. Don't hire people unless you're 100% sure you have enough projects/clients. Build relationships and retain existing clients – it's 100 times easier than finding new ones.

      3 points
  • Simone Simone , over 7 years ago

    Anton  — I believe we're at the same office, i'm suite #503, where are you guys at?!

    0 points