How We Started Up as a Design Agency

 
 

Maform was founded during a time where there was scarce opportunity for product designers in Hungary. We joined forces with Géza (Géza Csire, co-founder and CEO) in 2010 after completing university a year before and working as freelancers in design.

The university years

Although the fall of socialism was 20 years earlier, the effects were still very real: designers who used to work at large state-owned firms lost their jobs in the ‘90-s first started a freelance career, but as the industry got smaller and smaller, they found refuge at universities. We heard over and over again: “you cannot work as designers because there is no industry anymore”. Indeed, after finishing university, we had limited opportunities for full time work as industrial designers in Hungary. Multinational companies hadn’t yet acknowledged the value a local industrial designer could offer, and UX was still called web design and done mostly by freelancers. To pay the bills Géza worked as a mechanical engineer and I worked as a graphic designer. Most of our friends decided to leave the country to find a fitting job. We really wanted to work as industrial designers too, yet we wanted to stay.

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Peter Molnar

CEO & Co-Founder

 
Szerencs Art Camp group photo from 2010. This is where it all started.. (Géza in Superman T-Shirt, Peter is yellow in the fourth row. Photo credit: Julia Standovar

Szerencs Art Camp group photo from 2010. This is where it all started.. (Géza in Superman T-Shirt, Peter is yellow in the fourth row. Photo credit: Julia Standovar

The window of our first office. We literally started out as an underground initiative. Photo credit: Google StreetView

The window of our first office. We literally started out as an underground initiative. Photo credit: Google StreetView

 

Dream and dedication

The idea for Maform Design was developed in a constructivist arts camp in a Hungarian village called Szerencs. Although the pair had known of each other during University they never really spoke much. Over passing conversation at camp, we expressed our dream to work in Industrial design full time creating products that would change the world and consumer behaviour for the better. Driven by our passion to become product designers we decided to set up a company and start working on what we want to work on.

Determined to make it work, we rented a room in my brother’s apartment and put our plan into action. We had no entrepreneurial or business background, but luckily, we found a 3-day workshop about entrepreneurship. Since we had no money either, we only joined for the first day, because that was for free. We received a booklet and followed the step-by-step guides on how to establish a business plan. Looking back, the following few weeks were the most fruitful time in business development we ever had – with the whole thing written on discarded continuous stationary (paper for matrix printers) that we colleceted from the university. After settling with our vision of making Hungarian design exportable and providing a cool workplace for designers in the region, we channelled all our freelance work into the company and only published the ones we found promising. Since most of our paid work were not at all promising, we also started working on our own projects.

First sketches of our name and logo. Maform is already there, and you can see the explanation of the logo in the top left corner: we designed a 3D object that can be rotated to each letter of the name “maform”.

First sketches of our name and logo. Maform is already there, and you can see the explanation of the logo in the top left corner: we designed a 3D object that can be rotated to each letter of the name “maform”.

Our very first business plan was drafted on sheets of discarded continuous stationary that we found at the university campus. Most surprisingly, we pretty much kept our original plan – overachieved a bit.

Our very first business plan was drafted on sheets of discarded continuous stationary that we found at the university campus. Most surprisingly, we pretty much kept our original plan – overachieved a bit.

 

From seed to a prospective business

Two years later the Budapest hardware tech startup scene began to take off. It was then that the sales process began. Following strings of enquiries, we got to work with a number of startups on product designs. The more designs we worked on, the more work we got offered. We had no dedicated sales at that time. A major breakthrough in bringing Maform to life happened in 2013 when we received a call from Hungarian engineering entrepreneur Csaba Mészáros about a fully electric bus that he was developing with his company. We won the contract to take care of its design and execution. Following the development of the Modulo city bus, we invited Csaba to become a professional investor. In 2014 we closed the deal and since then, we work alongside the prestigious evopro group owning the majority of Maform.

For the first time in our lives we had liquidity and professional engineering and production experience and we started to experience growth. We were able to reach out and convince mid-sized Hungarian companies about the importance of design and the strength of our design services. We were also extremely lucky as some of our startup connections had started to grow also. A seed had transformed into a prospective business.

It was stunning to see the first prototype of the Modulo bus run in the actual environment to where it was designed to run.

It was stunning to see the first prototype of the Modulo bus run in the actual environment to where it was designed to run.

Look how happy we were about our first real office in an actual office building! We even uploaded this burned-out image to Facebook.

Look how happy we were about our first real office in an actual office building! We even uploaded this burned-out image to Facebook.

 

Why is this important?

How we started out had a fundamental effect on our company culture and DNA. We learned how to survive in an unknown environment with scarce resources. We learned how little we know and how important it is to always spend time on learning and research. We used what we learned about business in design, and we used our design knowledge to build (design) a business. In time we specialized in projects that are hard to grasp and have high risk, and our very existence as a business taught us how to deal with this risk. Here are a few tips that you can consider if you plan to start working on your own ideas:

1) Always be prepared. You never know when an opportunity hits you. You should know how to explain your goals simply in a few sentences.

2) Have a plan. No matter if you have the necessary resources. Make a plan that sets your goals straight, so you can focus on how to reach them.

3) Trust other people. This of course means that you will sometimes be dissappointed. But without trust you just won’t make real progress.

4) Be persistent. This is something you hear from every coach. And they are right… You will fail and you will have to try again and again. It helps if you think of failure as a step in a process, and not as the end of a process.

5) Focus on your goals. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of an opportunity that seems to be promising in the short term, let’s say, financially. But you have to learn how to say no. While you are working on something that are not in line with your goals, you lose precious time that you could spend on reaching your goals. In the end you might end up with some money, but you will lose precious opportunities.

To be continued…

In the next part I will share some insights about how we managed to sell our first license, and how we managed to integrate research and development activities into our daily routine.