Agile Businesses: Roman Stikkelorum Of Verve Agency On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Watch, talk and learn: You’re not the first company that encounters disruptive challenges. There are a lot of existing playbooks, methodologies and people around that have been in your shoes. You might be able to adopt certain methodologies that have worked in another company, and reaching out on LinkedIn for a quick call is easier than ever. Expand your network and share amongst each other.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roman Stikkelorum.
Roman Stikkelorum is co-founder and managing director at Verve Agency. With a solid brand story foundation, Verve builds outspoken visual identities and digital platforms that convert clients into loyal fans. The branding agency has made their mark in the industry by turning ambitious unicorns like Miro and leading organizations like Juni, Tuum and Dutch Design Week into love marks.
With a background in design, Roman addresses complex issues using the design thinking method, which means starting from an overarching vision to create positive online and offline experiences. Working from the inside out, he builds strong brands, brand strategies and online strategies that result in value, growth and impact.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My name is Roman Stikkelorum, I’m one of the three founders of Verve. Verve is a digital branding agency, founded after the shared insight that Dutch Design could play a big role in branding the digital world. I started at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, where my companions Rindor Golverdingen and Michael Danker and I grew into self-taught entrepreneurs and managers. We moved from designing and selling t-shirts and events, towards more and more digital products. Now, we’re fully focused on digital branding projects for fast-growing companies all around the world.
Within my role as managing director, I’m always looking for the opportunities to learn more and it brings me joy to seeing my team develop and grow within our journey to becoming “The #1 Digital Branding Agency in the World.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Every mistake is a learning opportunity. Although that sounds like a cliché, we’ve always looked at the bright side of things and pivoted when necessary. We’re grounded in this Pippi Longstocking-mentality: the belief that if we’ve never done it, we definitely can do it. This belief has always brought us further, rethinking situations and changing directions without losing track of our core. That’s why a lot of decisions we make do not really feel like mistakes. We’ve always fought our way through it. With success.
In hindsight, some might consider our name a funny mistake. Around 2007 when we founded our agency, it was a trend to name your company as a funny, weird word. We chose Vruchtvlees (literal translation: pulp). We liked it, because there’s a duality in it. It sounded weird, hence the reason people always remembered it. However, once we started growing and doing bigger assignments, we always had to explain what we do and why we were named as such. We started adding a descriptor to it to make it even clearer.
At the same time, we welcomed more and more international clients, attended conferences, won awards and every time we had to pronounce our name multiple times and then people thought “whatever”. The Dutch word with the hard “G” is very hard to pronounce and to remember if you’re not Dutch. Although the name brought us a lot of recognition and appraisal within the design field, it was only when we rebranded to Verve that everything really took off.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
We have encountered multiple clients that gave us an enormous amount of trust.
One of them is Irma Benliyan, former project lead of the online Literature Museum. She dared to invest in a huge project, when we were still a small agency at the time. She believed that we could build that ambitious project, even though we had never done it before. Irma chose to be highly involved in the process and to offer the right feedback, direction and guidance. With her mentality, mindset and vision, this project became a huge success. Her approach also taught me a lot about collaboration. You have to give full confidence to your team, but also roll up your sleeves and continue to direct and give feedback.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The goal has always been to bring digital and branding closer together. We like to bring strong brands to the internet. Even though we’re now 15 years in and the world has changed a lot, our purpose remains the same. We see potential in organizations, people and the world and we aim to realize that to its fullest potential. We have been holding on to our values ever since the start: to sense, to challenge and to simply love what we do. This has been our strong suit from the start. And even though we’re no longer just the three of us, this DNA and shared mission is what brings the team together.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
At Verve, we turn good brands into great ones. We create brand strategies, visual identities and digital platforms that stand out in a sea of sameness. We like to work for rapid-growing brands that make us enthusiastic and challenge us as a team. We see these branding exercises as real collaboration with in-house teams, so we can offer a valuable addition.
Within our work, the common denominator is optimism and positivity. In this day and age, brands have a lot of influence in building the world of tomorrow. To make that happen, they have to become lovemarks and expand their reach. In this way we hope to make the world around us more fun and beautiful.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
I think we’ve all experienced a huge shift in how we work. Even before the pandemic hit, our profession as branding specialists was about to change. The ability to co-create remotely within tools like Miro, Figma and Zoom did not only make our processes much more efficient, but also changed the nature of our profession. This has helped to create more agile brand identity systems and motion-driven identities. But it has also opened up the world as our playing field. It’s now easier than ever to collaborate with the best people across the world. Before, we were stuck sending over Adobe Illustrator files, keynote templates and numbers of emails back and forth, now we can actually collaborate on everything at the same time.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We embraced the opportunities and took a big leap with our proposition. We changed our name from the unpronounceable Vruchtvlees to Verve and decided to shift our positioning from being a local player to one with a more international perspective. We started hiring a more international team, streamlined our marketing assets and target persona and branded ourselves as the go-to branding agency for rapidly growing companies. Our working methods were already grounded with digital tools, so to move fully digital felt like a natural evolution for us.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There have been a number of moments when we have come to realize that changing our name and positioning was the best way forward. The real “Aha moment” came when we won the rebranding pitch for online whiteboarding tool Miro. Being a company focused on global and online collaboration, we got our first taste for a full remote rebranding project within an international context. With an ambitious timeline, a tight-knit collaboration with the client and working across timezones, we felt like a fish in the water.
The launch, trust of the client and quality of work, sparked a lot of enthusiasm and pride across the team, and we realized we wanted to do these kinds of projects more often. We immediately knew that to make that happen, we had to rethink our positioning and our name.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
It’s going even better than we could ever have imagined! The Miro rebranding might have kicked off our new direction, but the real growth potential happened after our own rebranding. We’ve found better ways to pitch our vision, and have found our niche in rapid growing, business-to-business focused companies that are looking for outspoken and creative brand strategies and identities.
We’re now in the fortunate position that we are getting more requests than we can handle, so we have the luxury to choose who we’re going to work for, which is an amazing position to be in.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We were often seen as the underdog that had a shot with the Miro rebrand. After the rename, we no longer had to prove our vision and the Miro rebrand opened even more doors. Now we’re talking to C-level executives that already see the importance of branding. We can really tie together product, business and brand as one holistic entity. We’re involved early on, in a pivot phase for these rapid-growing businesses and that translates into real partnerships.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
For us, it has always been very important to involve the team with big company decisions. Because our purpose has always been clear from the start — become “The #1 Digital Branding Agency in the World” — we figure out the best way to get to Z along the way. We know our way from A to B, and we know where Z is. But all the small steps in between are still to be considered.
We share our goals, wins and challenges every quarter, and include a cross-section of the team in crucial business decisions. What we’ve learned, mostly during the Covid-crisis and working from home, is that being vulnerable and acknowledging current challenges is the best way to move forward as a leader in a disruptive period.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
We always aim to take our team on a journey. They are important players in reaching our business goals, and realizing our mission. At the moment, one of our biggest challenges is expanding our team. We ask a lot from the team, and we acknowledge that this is one of the growing pains in our growth journey. What works for us, is a general stand-up every Monday to share the current status of the company including the wins and challenges of that week. Every quarter, we invite every unit (strategy, design, digital design and development), to showcase a success story. We do a lot that we can be really proud of, but in this transition period — and working from home — we too often take it for granted. Working hard is good, but having fun as a team is just as important.
To boost morale, we have introduced a party commission and given them a budget to celebrate small and big events within the company. We never really know what to expect, but they’ve been introducing small gestures with big impact. On Valentine’s Day, they gave out small compliments to the entire team, during Easter a spontaneous egg hunt took place and an airhorn can catch us by surprise when we’ve achieved a personal or professional win.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Communication is key! Always be sincere and honest with your team to ensure everyone knows how things are going. By regularly sharing information about the current state of business, everyone stays involved. Transparency is super important, both in good and bad times. And don’t forget to celebrate the small wins!
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
What’s interesting about our work is that companies come to us when they’re on a pivoting moment of their business journey. What we’ve encountered are the following three things:
1. Jump on every opportunity
Before businesses take a step back and look at their core business, they tend to jump on every business or marketing opportunity. This does not only confuse the team, but also their customers. Make sure to streamline efforts and rethink what fits your core DNA best, before jumping on every opportunity. How will it benefit your brand? How much time will you spend in overhead to make it happen?
2. Not involving the team
Don’t just stay in the C-suite, take your team along the way. Acknowledge the challenges and be open. And who knows, your team might surprise you with out-of- the-box solutions that will actually solve and shift focus to what’s really the main issue.
3. Don’t be afraid when people leave
You might lose some of the team members along the way. If they don’t fit the vision or lack the belief in the new direction, thank them and say goodbye. You don’t need people holding you back or longing for the good old days. Maybe their time has come to leave and the best way to do that is to support their decisions and stick to your vision.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Work in shorter time frames: When things are changing rapidly, check up on your team. We use daily stand-ups to wrap our heads around impediments rapidly, do motivational Monday status updates of the company and the direction we’re moving towards. We’ve also moved from year plans to quarterly plans. Our audacious goal is still clear, but we’re taking smaller steps to get there, one focal point at a time.
2. Keep an open mind: There’s this saying that in rapid-growing companies, you can expect your role to change every six months. The league you’re working in is changing, your team is growing rapidly and so are the expectations of your clients. What used to be normal, can be completely out of date within a few weeks or months. When we first started out, we as a management team were involved on many different levels. Now that we’re growing, we have to let go of certain tasks and specialize more in our roles. This allows us to grow and become stronger leaders.
3. Iterate, iterate, iterate: What you think might be the best solution, might not actually work. Iterate on your first ideas, fail, adjust and win harder. When you’re working in shorter time frames, it allows you to quickly adapt to specific situations. At Verve, we’re really focused on improving our processes. Every project is a learning opportunity and we adjust our processes every time and every time we improve, test and learn.
4. Watch, talk and learn: You’re not the first company that encounters disruptive challenges. There are a lot of existing playbooks, methodologies and people around that have been in your shoes. You might be able to adopt certain methodologies that have worked in another company, and reaching out on LinkedIn for a quick call is easier than ever. Expand your network and share amongst each other.
5. Keep an eye on your BHAG: Whatever you do, do not lose track of your “big hairy audacious goal”. It takes courage to get there, you have to keep your vision alive for yourself, but also for your team. So whenever we’re faced with specific challenges, we keep our eyes on the price of becoming “The #1 Digital Branding Agency in the World”. All new things we have to solve are always presented within that context whether they are positive or negative.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
At Verve, we always liked the idea of “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” which is a famous quote by Paul Arden, creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi. By setting ambitious goals and projecting yourself always one step ahead, I’ve learned that you can actually bring those ambitions to life if you set your mind to it. This has helped me, but also the team to reach higher goals I couldn’t have dreamt of a few years ago.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you’d like to hear more about our vision on branding, you can follow Verve on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/vervetheagency/) and Instagram (instagram.com/vervetheagency), or head to verveagency.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Agile Businesses: Roman Stikkelorum Of Verve Agency On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.