John reveals to IIBN that Context Studio was founded in Dublin in 2018 with the goal of encouraging the application of service design for the betterment of Irish business and public services. We’re a dedicated service design studio, based in Ireland, and on a mission to improve the services Irish people experience every day. We’ve already got an international client base, and we’re growing the market here at home.

You can visit Context Studio website here

Service Design improves the experience of both users and stakeholders by better supporting “service journeys” – or the delivery/experience of a service over time. It involves research with customers and stakeholders, collaborative innovation involving the teams who deliver services every day, and prototyping – building and testing a service at low cost to learn and de-risk implementation.

Service Design turns ideas into action, and accounts for the underlying technologies, processes and people that make an experience feasible.

The approach has been used with great success by companies and governments around the world, with standout examples being the “Government Digital Service (GDS)” in the U.K., and the approach of global digital platforms like AirBnB, who have developed their offerings with  a service design process.

How did you get the idea/ concept for your business?

I worked in Copenhagen and London as a designer before returning home to join a large corporate consultancy. Within two years I felt I wanted to do something which could have a more tangible impact on Irish businesses and services. I wanted to accelerate in Ireland the huge positive impact I’d seen service design have in Scandinavia and the UK.

Give a brief account of your education background.

I studied Multimedia in DCU in 2004 which gave me a strong understanding of technology and programming skills. After six years working as a developer I wanted to learn how to make better design decisions so I moved to Denmark in 2011 to study the Interaction Design Programme at Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design. This was a life changing experience, uncovering both the power of user-centred research to uncover new possibilities, and the magic of rapid prototyping to test new ideas with low risk and in a quick time frame.

Did you always know/ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger?

No. I fell into entrepreneurship in my twenties thanks to my unwillingness to accept poor design and implementation! I worked hard as a sole trader delivering projects to the highest standards I could achieve. In employment since then I’ve been lucky to sometimes work in fantastic teams and the decision to start a business is in part fueled by my desire to establish a great team, to deliver fantastic work.

Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family?

Not at all… they probably see me as the crazy in the family! I’ve learned a lot from my family though… not least the art of being careful with money.

Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?

I was grateful to have built up an extensive global network and gained almost 15 years of design and digital development experience before setting up my company.

What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?

I’d worked in a dedicated design studio in both London and Copenhagen, and I’d worked as a  software developer. During my time in Denmark we competed with the biggest studios in the world. This gave me a strong understanding of how to meet client needs, but I carried along with me my technical skills and the language of software and hardware development which are key in understanding and communicating how a service should be delivered.

How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc)

The business has so far been entirely self-funded. Before establishing Context Studio, I had secured our first major client, Cookpad, a global digital platform for recipe sharing which originated in Japan. We worked with them to help develop a process for “product discovery” – understanding user needs and developing new features to drive engagement and growth.

Looking back, would you have changed the method of funding you chose?

Not so far. I think It’s important to deliver value from the outset, and when you are self-funded that is absolutely necessary. Eighteen months later we are still in business because we really delivered for those first few clients. It also means that we have grown organically.

In the future it might be necessary to access support to help us grow the team in order to meet a customers needs, or to develop any digital products which we might have in the pipeline, but for now, very happy to be bootstrapped.

Did you encounter any financial difficulties in the first year of operation? If yes, what did you do to surpass them?

Yes, the pipeline of work was quiet during that first summer with repercussions in the autumn but not so bad that tightening the belt didn’t get us through. The first year was always about survival while this year we are really focussed on developing awareness of the potential for Service Design here in Ireland, both in customer experience, b2b services, and in-service innovation.

What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?

I am genuinely impact driven and have already turned down work because we don’t want to get involved in the “innovation theatre” or workshops and design sprints that lack a tangible outcome.

Delivering successful service innovation is as important to us on a project as it is to our clients. I think that is something that resonates very well with clients, who realise they’ll get more bang from their buck. Context Studio will cease to exist if we are not solving problems with our customers, as that is our purpose.

To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?

Two things… the first is the network of collaborators and potential clients I’ve built up over the years prior to founding the company. The second is down to our tireless work to advocate for Service Design, develop talent and to repeatedly explain the process and the potential benefits here at home as well as overseas.

What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?

As you’ll see from my earlier answers. It’s essential. Before starting Context Studio I met with and interviewed over thirty experienced professionals from my network, I got fantastic advice. Every client, every project we’ve landed since has come through that network. It’s the single most important thing.

Growing that network is something that has happened naturally, and through organisations like IIBN and the ‘Back for Business’ programme to which I was accepted this year. Every new connection is a new possibility.

In particular, as I meet with more and more entrepreneurs, I’m learning more about running a business. Likewise, I’m finding entrepreneurs are keen to hear more about service design and how it might benefit them in their work. I’d love to connect directly with IIBN members who might be interested in service design, perhaps we could establish a network within the network!

Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?

I don’t think the fundamentals have changed. When I look back to my time working in small companies in the 00’s and being a sole trader, the hustle is still the same. Technology has made things faster. At the end of the day it comes down to the establishment of trust… whether that’s over the course of a series of meetings or as a result of a referral, network, or some other dynamic.

Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?

Yes. I already work with and mentor start-ups in Scandinavia and it’s a fantastic world. I’d very much like to develop a digital product someday. I’m confident that service design could enhance that effort.

If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?

When I was considering starting this company I did something I learned to do at design school… research! I asked a lot of professionals in the industry from around the world for their advice. This was a vital exercise. Any entrepreneur should do their research.

Don’t go out there asking “should I do this?” That, you should already be certain of.  Do ask, “how should I do this?” and “why should I do this?”. Ask others and ask yourself. I’ve found that invaluable, and I haven’t stopped asking those questions to this day.