Talking Shop is an interview series where we talk to freelancers about freelancing. In this interview, we talk to Cameron Koczon, partner and CEO at Fictive Kin, a digital engineering & design studio in Brooklyn, New York.
Who are you and what do you do?
Cameron Koczon: My name is Cameron Koczon (rhymes with “clothes on”). I'm a partner at Fictive Kin. We’re an engineering and design studio based in Brooklyn. We describe ourselves as the product studio of your dreams. lol. Before getting into client services, we worked on a bunch of projects including Brooklyn Beta, TeuxDeux, Very Goods, and Gimme Bar.
When we worked out of Studiomates together, you told me that you owned the domain name noclientwork.com. How did you get from there to client services?
Heh. I bought that domain in 2010, I think. At that time, I had absolutely no understanding of what client work was or how it worked. There’s no better time to undervalue something then when you have no clue about it.
I can’t totally get back to that mental place, but I was probably thinking that the only “cool” businesses were consumer product startups. Obviously a pretty limited worldview, but one that I think is fairly common.
In the end, we were thrust into client work accidentally. If not for that, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to realize just how good of a fit it is for us.
In what ways does client work suit you well?
Client work brings us a greater variety of challenges, more genuine opportunities for scale, and most importantly, a certain kind of long-term freedom. We’re free to develop our identity as a company and our perspective on the work and the world. At any given moment, we have a variety of client responsibilities, but these are fundamentally different from the kind of long-term responsibilities that a startup has to its investors. In the latter case, they have power over the trajectory and narrative of the company as a whole.
Does your desire for freedom have anything to do with why you are a remote team?
I hadn’t thought of it like that, but probably. The one thing we try to hold constant is the quality of people we work with. We like working with talented, kind-hearted people. Pretty much anything else in our model can change as long as we hang on to that. Hence the name, Fictive Kin.
If you’ve found someone great, why would you ever want to stop working them? Teamwork has a compound interest effect. The longer we work together the better we’ll be as a unified team (as opposed to a smattering of talented individuals). So, if someone’s life takes them away from HQ, we’d prefer to maintain the relationship. Our belief is that any negatives created by the distance will be more than made up for by the compound interest effect of teamwork.
Any pro tips that come to mind for operating as a remote team?
Ironically, the thing that has helped us most as a remote team is face-to-face time. We’ve done this with regular in-person retreats. They are a reminder that there are real people behind the usernames you engage with online on a daily basis.
For new hires—depending on when they are hired—they might go months without meeting anyone at the company in person, including me and other people who hired them.
As a result there is very much a Before Retreat / After Retreat mental shift.
After an employee’s first retreat, things tend to make much more sense. It’s like joining any new social group. At first, there’s all this vocabulary that you hear and subtext that you feel make no sense to you. Then, brick by brick, it starts to become logical. For us, retreats really accelerate that learning.
How do new projects come about?
Most often it’s word-of-mouth from existing and past clients. If you’re just starting out in client services, this is kind of a depressing answer because presumably you have no existing or past clients.
Early on, don’t be surprised if your projects require more of a tooth-and-nail approach. Then, whenever you successfully land a project, you need to remember that it is your fuel for future projects. You must do an excellent job to keep the momentum going.
Even many years in, if I look at all of the work we’ve done in the last 9-12 months, almost every project we’ve touched has come through a current client, a former client, a current colleague, or a former colleague. I’m not even sure that we’ve ever worked with a client who we didn’t have some connection to.
Another nice thing about meeting a client through someone you know is that it is a two-way verification. The client can more easily trust us —which is essential to doing great work—and more selfishly, we can easily trust the client. This goes a long way because some would-be clients are bonkers. They’ve taken up a ten-year lease in Bonkers Town, USA.
How do you balance doing the work with bringing in the work?
I currently don’t do it well at all. It’s my main project for 2017 to change that. We’re shifting roles and responsibilities so that I have more time to focus on bringing in new work and being attentive to our existing clients. We have plenty of people who can design, develop, and project manage better than me, but I’m the best at telling the FK story so I should be doing that.
I also really like sales. I think it is maybe still a dirty word in the web circles I run in, but whatever. When done right, sales is a ton of fun. It all comes down to what you’re selling.
“If your product is valuable, sales is just clear communication paired with passion. On the other hand, if what you’re selling is valueless, then sales is more or less lying.”
Fictive Kin is unique and our work is valuable so selling those services is a treat.
What does client services look like for you now versus when you were just starting out?
When we were starting out, and I assume this is relatively universal, we just took what we could get. We mostly operated at break-even. We were ravenous for any client who was doing anything purposeful and exciting. We’d happily work at break-even or at a loss to get a chance to show what we could do. It shouldn’t be too surprising, that when you get work in this way, the clients aren’t always the best and the work can be a bit of a nightmare. Financial stress does not improve the quality of intelligent output.
Then, after doing some solid work, we started to get some breathing room financially. Once we had that oxygen, we were able to start choosing our clients a bit more often. All of a sudden, clients were less of a nightmare and more of a dream. Looking back, it seems like the toughest clients were a byproduct of our survival instinct. Kind of like a Maslow hierarchy of needs, once your survival need is met, you can find fulfillment at higher levels. You can find clients who are partners and who have incredible challenges and powerful platforms. That’s when it gets very easy to show up at the office every morning and get to work.
You can visit Cameron Koczon’s website at https://fictivekin.com.