Meet Anton Zykin, CEO and co-founder of SFCD. He was born and raised in Kirov, a small city in Russia. He was obsessed with the internet and software since an early age and built websites in his early teens. That passion led him to create his first application for Windows, which he sold on the internet. He went on to create more successful products and had a decent flow of income as a student.
“The solutions are there, you just need to find a path to it,” he says, ever an optimist.
Quickly realizing the huge need for high-quality design services and software knowledge, he co-founded SFCD and engaged with clients such as Uber, Path, and Sengrid.
The company later opened their offices in New York and worked with ADP, T-Mobile, Sony, Huawei, and advertising agencies such as Droga5 and Wieden+Kennedy.
Anton wants to make lives better by creating useful and beautiful software and products that will make a positive impact on humanity.
The New Savvy: Hello, Anton. Tell us about yourself and how you started your business.
Anton: I was born and raised in a small city in Russia called Kirov. I graduated with an engineering degree in polymer technology from a local university but never intended to work in that industry. I’ve been obsessed with the internet and software since my high school days. I first started to build websites when I was 15 or 16, and this passion led me to create my first application for Windows in 2003, which I began to sell on the Internet.
Later, I released a couple more products that were quite successful, and I had a decent income for a student. While working on my products and conversing with fellow developers, I realized that there was a huge need for high-quality design services and that people were struggling to find good designers who knew a thing or two about software.
So I decided to help a few friends with some design work and iconography for their products. They liked the work, and it led to some more projects, and eventually, this side business became a full-time thing. That’s how the company was born.
However, we quickly outgrew the indie developer market and needed to secure some bigger contracts to keep growing. That was when we hired our first employees and signed a lease for our first office. We had no experience working with enterprise software, and I decided to pitch some of the companies who specialized in retail and banking software.
I put together a proposal and our vision for a redesign of a gas station management software, which we presented in person to a board of executives of one of those companies – they liked our novel approach and focused on the user rather than purely business. We won that contract, and it led to a multi-year engagement where we redesigned their entire product line of software for supermarket chain retail management.
In 2011, we started to see a lot of demand for our services in Silicon Valley and decided to start providing our services to the Bay Area startups. I travelled to the United States to meet with some of the folks I was introduced to and realized that there was a lack of both design and engineering talent. Given our world-class team and affordable costs (one of the benefits to having a team in Russia), we were lucky enough to engage with such clients as Uber, Path, and Sengrid while they were just starting.
The next big decision I made was to move closer to our clients to provide even better service and also to win more significant contracts. That’s why we opened our New York offices in early 2013. A few months later, we re-launched our website and ran a massive social media campaign, which helped to spark interest from some of the big names like ADP and T-Mobile.
The biggest win was a multi-year contract with ADP after presenting our vision for their mobile solutions where the main point was having a uniform foundation and a flexible interface across platforms and screens.
From 2013-2015 we were fortunate enough to work with lots of startups and enterprises, growing our portfolio of mobile and web projects. From underwater apps for Sony and payroll software to a corporate education app and a social network for athletes.
In 2015, we made a long-awaited comeback to San Francisco and opened our West Coast office. I moved there along with our Creative Director and a few of our designers to lead the development of the new location. We’re planning on expanding our San Francisco presence to provide a full-service offering to our clients here.
The New Savvy: Tell us more about your business.
Anton: We’re a full-cycle digital product agency. We work with everyone from early-stage startups and entrepreneurs to leading brands and advertising agencies, providing services on strategy, design, and development for mobile apps, websites, and emerging technologies such as VR and computer vision.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with such clients as ADP, T-Mobile, Sony, Huawei, and advertising agencies such as Droga5 and Wieden+Kennedy.
Clients come to us when they need a world-class mobile app or a website, and we work closely with them to bring their ideas to life. I personally oversee and nurture every engagement, and I think that helps to earn trust and build a healthy working relationship.
The New Savvy: What are your business’s Unique Selling Points?
Anton: Our main selling point and strength is our strategic design approach and our focus on user experience, which means that all products that we create for our clients meet their business goals and user needs. Our ultimate goal is building products people love to use.
For example, we’ve been helping Speedtest.net with the brand and product design for over five years. Their products are used by tens of millions of people around the world. We worked with ADP, the largest payroll services provider in the US, to design software which millions of employees at various companies use on a daily basis. It is the highest achievement for us when things we create for our clients become widely adopted and even loved.
Most development shops just write code paying little attention to who will use the product and how they will do it. We always start with a deep dive into our client’s industry and user research before we start to build anything. This helps us create a product vision that becomes a guideline to everything we do later – from planning and information architecture to design and development.
The New Savvy: Why do you do what you do?
Anton: Since the moment I started this company, my primary goal has remained the same – I want to make people’s lives better by creating useful and beautiful software. People are overwhelmed with technology, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Designers can make complex things more approachable so that anyone can use them. I’m here to create software products that are simple, useful, and delightful at the same time.
The New Savvy: What was the first experience in your life when you realized you had the power to do something meaningful?
Anton: It was in 2009, and we were working on a massive project for a large chain of supermarkets in Russia. We spent weeks understanding how everything worked in the industry, and we learned that there was a significant human factor involved. We learned everything about our target user, and we designed a solution that solved their problem.
The company management was euphoric with the product we delivered, but I realized that we did something meaningful only when we visited one of the stores where the new product was implemented. We were inspecting the implementation and talking to the store employees who were telling us some facts about how the new software made their day more streamlined; they could do more, and they weren’t frustrated with the interface of the system they worked with.
The New Savvy: What do you consider a good design? And how do you differentiate a good design from a mediocre one?
Anton: A good design is the one that meets the client’s goals and makes a positive impact on their business. The look and feel don’t matter; it can be anything – what is important is whether it solves the problem or not. There is no such thing as mediocre design – it’s black and white. If the problem is partially solved, it doesn’t count.
The New Savvy: We all know branding is important, but many startups lack the fund to invest in this. How and what is your advice?
Anton: The best advice would be doing it yourself until you can afford it. As a startup founder, you should know what you’re doing and why. You also need to have a vision and some perspective into how you want to be perceived by your customers.
Start with a good name – you just need to have something that you like and think your customers will remember. Then you need some initial graphical representation of it – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, just something that stands out amongst the competition, something unique.
When the time is right, and you’ve got some initial traction, you should not hesitate to hire a professional brand consultant or a firm to take your product to the next level.
The New Savvy: You worked for Huawei and Princeton University – that’s huge. Tell us more about how that happened.
Anton: We’re considered as one of the most respected firms when it comes to designing an interface for mobile phones. And we’ve worked with Huawei before on some related project. I can’t share any details because of the confidentiality clause in our agreement, but it was not only a great project but a big challenge for us. We collaborated with a team in China directly, and there was a delay in communication, because of the time zone difference. Even file sharing wasn’t easy because most of the services are blocked in China.
We were referred to Princeton University by one of our current clients, whose investor and co-founder was a professor there.
The New Savvy: What is Your Ambition?
Anton: My ambition is to work with the world’s top brands such as Nike, Apple, Wikipedia, and Google on projects and products that will make a positive impact on humanity. I also plan to open an office in Asia (Singapore or Hong Kong) and assemble a team of world-class digital designers there. For the past two years, we’ve seen an increased demand for our services from that part of the world.
The New Savvy: Tell us how you “supercharge startups.”
Anton: We work very closely with founders to help them shape their vision and then execute it – we use design thinking to meet their goals and find solutions to their problems. Once the foundation has been built, we assign our best resources to bring their ideas to life. The main difference when working with startups is everything is done in quick iterations and under time and budget constraints.
The New Savvy: What are your keys to success?
Anton: I always try to be nimble and very flexible when it comes to solving problems and dealing with people. The solution is there; you just need to find a path to it. This has helped me many times throughout my life. I also work hard and try to find new solutions by thinking creatively and then communicating my ideas to our team, who can make it happen. I like to wear many hats because when you run a business, you need to be prepared for anything.
The New Savvy: Tell us about your favourite project.
Anton: My favourite project is for sure our website. I’ve been closely involved in every redesign we have ever done. The result feels more rewarding when you work for yourself. Our most recent site redesign grabbed all imaginable website awards and was even nominated for the Webby Awards.
The New Savvy: What’s your superpower?
Anton: I can motivate my team even when the skies are falling. How? I just lead by example, rolling up my sleeves, working hard, and doing the right things. You can’t fake it – people see it.
The New Savvy: If you had a chance for a “do-over” in life, what would you do differently?
Anton: I would have opened an office in San Francisco earlier, just when the current startup boom started, around 2011 or so. Now the market is established, and it’s more challenging to win new clients here, but the reputation and trust we’ve built over the years help a lot for sure.
I know it’s never late to learn new languages, but mastering Chinese has been my dream since childhood. However, I never took this opportunity when I was in high school, even though I practised Kung-Fu for about five years or so. Now, I’m planning to take some beginner Mandarin Chinese lessons, because it will help me a lot in the future in my business.
The New Savvy: How do you think modern women can be more fulfilled in their lives?
Anton: I would say by keeping a healthy balance between work, family, and your personal time.
The New Savvy: What is a skill you think all women should learn and why?
Anton: I don’t think there’s a particular skill that men possess that women don’t. Honestly, I can’t even think of one.
The New Savvy: What is the biggest challenge facing women today?
Anton: I can’t say about all aspects of our lives,
but in the tech industry dominated by men, women are hugely underrepresented and often it’s almost impossible for them to get a job at a tech company.
This is starting to change now, though, especially at bigger companies and startups.
The New Savvy: Which three people (famous or otherwise) would you most like to invite to a dinner party?
Anton: I would invite Steve Jobs, Nicola Tesla, and Lemmy from Motörhead. Unfortunately, this party would only be possible in my dream, but it would be interesting to see how these talented, but completely people would interact with each other.
The New Savvy: What do you do in your free time?
Anton: I don’t have any free time during the week, so I try to combine my hobbies with work. I spend my weekends with my wife and daughter – nothing can beat some quality time with the family.
The New Savvy: Give us a parting quote!
Anton: I would like to share a quote by an Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli:
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“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”