11 minutes

How to Build an Award-Winning Branding Agency:
A Story of Milestones, Failures, and Lessons Learned as Told by Funktional’s CEO

From an outsider’s perspective, Funktional is considered to be a rather recognizable branding agency in Cracow’s landscape. According to The Manifest, we’re the #1 agency in Poland. We have a team of 20 incredibly talented designers, brand specialists, marketers, project managers, and all-around creative individuals. We’re lucky to have a client list featuring a selection of international and local-level brands, like Coldwell Banker (through InnerWorkings), 3A Composites Mobility, Bioderma, Telefonika, Esthederm, Royal Canin, TVN, ICE Kraków, the City of Kraków or OMG KRK – Poland’s biggest startup community.

But, 8 years ago, “Funktional” was just an idea.

So how did we get here from square one? There were many twists and turns along the way—and in the process of writing out my speech, I realized that exposing the inner workings of Funktional’s story could be even more valuable than simply boasting about our portfolio, or compiling a list of the awards we’ve won along our 8-year lifespan.

But, before I dig into Funktional’s life story, I should probably tell you a little bit about my own.

The Story Before the Story: My Early Years

Growing up, I was always a curious child (maybe even too curious, at times—as my parents might tell you). I was always trying to figure out how things worked—I enjoyed breaking them down, tearing them apart, and seeing for myself how all the parts came together to make a whole. Tinkering was much more than my favourite pastime; it was the way I learned about the world around me.

Naturally, I turned out to be a classic geek, so the real fun for me started when I got my first computer. I would stay up all through the night scouring the internet, reading as much as I could about absolutely everything. Soon after, I learned how to code in HTML. I started using Photoshop and Macromedia Flash, which enabled me to make websites. In high school, I designed a website that won an award in Motorola’s Diversity Contest.

But then, life happened, and tinkering with computers fell somewhat to the background as the responsibilities that came with the whole “being an adult” thing came to the forefront. At 21, the restaurant I co-owned and operated, which was located in the city center, was awarded with the title “Cracow’s Best New Place 2007” by Cracow Life, the city’s leading travel guide. Despite the external recognition and overall success of the business, I felt unsettled—I had never really felt like this was the way I had wanted to develop myself professionally. And, pretty much just like that, I had an idea: why not start a creative business? This decision injected marketing and design back into my career path—a direction that continues to make me happy, challenged, and fulfilled to this day.

The Birth of Funktional: One Idea, Two Partners, and a Pack of $40 Business Cards

In 2010, my partner Szymon Waloszek and I came together with the idea to start a branding agency—but at that point, it was just that: an idea. The slate was clean; we had to do everything from scratch.

So, where do you start when you don’t have a leg to stand on? Well, we knew we needed three things: a name, some sort of a visual identity to go along with it, and—above all, we needed clients.

One day, while sitting in traffic, I came up with the name “Funktional.” It stuck. Soon after, I designed my first logo. Then, we invested $40 in a stack of business cards, and just like that, the journey began. Before we knew it, our little $40 investment had already paid for itself—and then some.

Growing Pains and Harsh Realities

Full disclosure: when we were first starting out, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’ll admit, I mostly got into it for the fun of it. Even the logo specifically placed emphasis on the word “fun” in “Funktional.”

What motivated us to work was our passion for one thing: creativity. Bit by bit, we gained more and more clients, we made our first hires, and the business started to grow.

In the second year, we brought in over half a million złoty in revenue (around $180K USD at that time). The kicker? This whole time, our website only said two words: “Coming soon.”

We relied solely on referrals—and that was enough to keep the wheels turning. But, as the team grew, we also had to drive sales in order to sustain the business.

But, it wasn’t always sunshine and roses; along with bigger projects came bigger problems.

As I didn’t have enough experience in this kind of role, I made for a pretty bad manager at the time. I assumed that everyone in the team would do well by themselves. To top it off, I was always pushing for everything to be perfect—and as you can imagine, that made me a very hard-to-satisfy kind of boss.

It took me a long time to understand that it’s not actually about being perfect—both in business, as well as in my personal life.

By this point in time, my partner Szymon and I were having some disagreements about the direction of the company. In early 2014, he left Funktional and moved to Dubai.

Evolution (… and Maybe a Little Love Story)

Around the same time, we acquired our first large-scale client. That moment was a real turning point for us—and in order for us to up our ante, we decided to bring in a few really talented designers. I was on the hunt for as many high-quality designers as I could find, and fast. It was then that a friend of mine connected me with Ania Misiuda, who at the time was lecturing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow—and therefore had access to a lot of up-and-coming and passionate designers in the city.

Although we met on a purely business level, our meeting happened to take place on Valentine’s Day. Come to think of it, this probably introduced some elements of overhanging romance into the atmosphere; but at the time, neither of us was ready for that or even attuned to notice it. (Side note: I had just recently gotten out of a 7-year-long relationship, which ended in a broken off engagement—6 weeks prior to “the big day.”) Romance aside, the meeting was a success—we clicked on multiple levels, and I very much appreciated her insights and outlook. She started consulting for us on one project, and then another—and before we knew it, she was working with us in a full-time role.

Ania was like a breath of fresh air for our business. She opened our eyes to a whole new way of thinking about design, and brought in a big wave of empathy along with her. She was the catalyst to many changes within the company; it’s really thanks to her that our design department flourished and excelled the way it did. Thanks to Ania’s empathy-driven philosophy, we implemented design thinking as our company’s core methodology. We were no longer doing things that looked nice—instead, we were doing things that worked. At that point, the name of the company started to take on a completely new meaning. It wasn’t just about the “fun” anymore—it was truly about doing functional design. What’s most important, though, is that we had managed to build a truly incredible and talented team. Since joining Funktional in 2014, Ania has gone on to become our Creative Director, as well as my beloved wife.

On a personal level, what connected us was what can only be described as a mutual passion for awesomeness. We are both obsessed with aesthetics, attention to fine detail, and we both have a painfully high bar when it comes to quality. Nevertheless, our beginnings were modest—while something was pulling us together, neither of us was in a mindset of wanting to get into a serious relationship. So, we’d go on dates at pretty much one-month intervals, and our private relationship just sort of slowly evolved over the year. In 2015, we started living together, and in 2016, I proposed to her—at the Time Warp Festival in Germany. I guess I should also add that our love for music and the unconventional is another thing that connects us—we got married half a year later at Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City in Nevada. We even got our wedding bands inscribed with “BM2016—Crazy Together Forever.”

We’ve been running the business together for almost four years now, and we still haven’t killed each other! I take that as a good sign.

Re-Focused Growth

Thanks to these shifts in the company makeup, I was able to also move my focus away from managing to developing my skills in marketing and strategy. I enrolled in Brand Strategy School, which gave me a whole different perspective on how the business of running a branding agency should look.

We were now on a mission of building brands.

In 2015, we rebranded and changed our logo—which I’m proud to boast was done by one of our in-house designers, Michał Pac.

In the same year, we started cooperating with some of the biggest clients we had ever worked with to date.

It was also somewhere at this point that I decided I should put effort into setting up a LinkedIn profile. I started connecting with people from all over the world—I had no idea how valuable that would soon become.

At the beginning of 2016, I received a message from the VP of one of the biggest global agencies serving to Fortune 500 companies. They were scouting potential agencies to work with in Poland—and we were on their shortlist. Their Managing Director came to Cracow and met with us, along with three other selected local agencies. Ultimately, they chose us. And so the adventure began.

By the end of 2016, we were working on an enormous project for one of the biggest real estate companies in the US. To meet the increased demand, we acquired a graphic design studio along with a whole team. Altogether, that meant we had around 25 people on board.

Believe me, it’s much easier to type that out than to actually have lived through that whole process. The whole management perspective completely shifted, as did my role (again). I was not able to be directly involved in each project anymore, as there was so much going on that needed my attention.

More Growing Pains, Even Harsher Realities

More business, bigger clients, more staff, bigger projects… all that sounds great. But do you know what else comes with that seemingly pretty package? A whole bunch of completely new, unexpected, and even bigger problems that start popping up. Again.

Our cashflow was better than ever, but I was too busy to focus on what was really important. We were definitely not ready to scale that quickly, and we weren’t equipped or prepared to sustain a team of that size when that project would (inevitably) come to an end. We didn’t have inbound marketing, a proper website, or lead generation channels in place, and we knew nothing about sales. (Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now—as they say, hindsight is 20/20.)

By the time we hit early 2017, we didn’t have a whole lot of new prospects lined up. As a result, we had to scale down. You know how the saying goes—when it rains, it pours. There was a looming perspective of all-around bad things ahead, just hanging in the overhead like a menacing stormcloud.

Surrender

2017 was probably the hardest year in my life.

The stress finally really got to me. I became depressed, and I was riddled with constant feelings of overwhelming anxiety. I worried over whether or not we’d be able to pay all of the company’s financial liabilities. That, combined with the possibility of losing something I’d been working on so hard—and for so many years—was killing me. It was like all the happiness and purpose suddenly fled from my life. These were dark times; even smiling became a strange sensation my face wasn’t used to contorting into.

I started to completely shut down. I closed myself off mentally, keeping my mind in a prison, constantly obsessing over all the possible and potential negative outcomes of my situation. I couldn’t sleep, and at times it felt like even the simplest of tasks were the biggest, most impossible obstacles to overcome. The fear and anxiety I felt were so consuming and exhausting—not to mention it was all enough to absorb nearly all of my energy. Every day was a fight just to keep going.

Of course, the situation was not as bad as I saw it to be at the time, but as Seneca said, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Looking back now, I can say what I was really afraid of was failure.

At some point, I realized that I couldn’t give in to this way of being, so I decided to turn myself around. In order to do that, I needed to get to the bottom of why I was reacting this way in the first place.

A Journey Inward

I started reading about anxiety, depression and ways of dealing with them. I met with and spoke to various shamans. After reading an interview with Michał Kiciński, one of the founders of CD Projekt Red, who had similar problems, I decided to try Vipassana meditation—a 10-day intensive program where you meditate for more than 10 hours a day, don’t speak to anybody, and have no contact with the outside world. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter practices it as well.

That opened up a whole different world that I had no idea existed inside of me. I understood that in order to succeed in business, I need to conquer my fears and find inner peace. What’s interesting here, is that this realization is nothing new. Almost every entrepreneur will tell you the same thing. The big difference here, is that “knowing” it and really feeling it deep down, are two completely different things. In order to do it, “knowing” just isn’t enough. Thanks to that Vipassana retreat, I was able to transition into a level of balance and calm that I haven’t experienced in my life before.

2017, and everything I experienced throughout it, led me on a completely new path. I learned more than ever before about myself, and I completely changed my perspective—or at least started to change it, because anyone going through it will tell you it’s a long, arduous, ongoing process.

Phase VIII: To Be Continued

In late 2017, thanks to our amazing team, we were able to launch a new website (finally!) The website won us a considerable amount of awards, including: gold place in the website design category by Indigo Awards, an honorable mention in Awwwards, “Site of the Day” from Csswinner, and special kudos from CSS Design Awards. It also got featured on many international websites, generated 40K unique users within the first month of it going live, and brought in a lot of new business.

At the beginning of 2018, we hired Piotr Zembura, an experienced Managing Director from a big tech company. Since then, we’ve focused on mapping processes, analyzing mistakes, and learning from them in a much quicker way than ever before.

While all that does sound great, the transformation itself was a mess. A few people left the company and we lost a very important client.

But, as a result, we managed to completely reorganize the company—and I can easily say that it’s never been better in regard to operations and company culture. We are still working out a lot of things, like how to reach our target group in an efficient way, how to position ourselves better, and how to provide more value to our customers in a frictionless way.

We can finally focus on scaling the company. This time, we’re prepared for it.

This was the first chapter of our story. In the next blog posts, I will share my 9 personal paths to success in business and the continued story of Funktional’s becoming the best agency it can be.

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