“…there’s never going
be a good time for anything
right time to start a
business…you have to
jump in with both feet and hope for the best.”
Adam Perlis, Founder and CEO of Academy UX
Adam Perlis started his Brooklyn, New York product design studio, Academy UX, in 2017 after years of honing his craft at companies like AT&T and Time Magazine. Here he discusses his career epiphany of implementing Design Thinking into his work, what motivated him to launch his own business, and the sacrifices and triumphs he’s collected along the way.
What was your journey that led to starting Academy UX?
I was working at AT&T and other agencies and the same things would happen over and over: We’d create a product using a creative brief and spend six months to a year on the project, only to find out from stakeholders that they only want or need half of the features we agreed to. As a creative person who spent a lot of time and energy only to have to scrap it—it was hard. And from a business standpoint, it was a waste of money.
I started to read about Design Thinking and Ideo and Google’s implementation of Design Sprints. I took some of their ideas and started to implement them while still working for the other company and saw strong results. Teams were working more efficiently and we’d get more buy-in from stakeholders. This shifted my career.
I then took job as Head of Design at Time magazine, who didn’t quite understand UX design yet. It was difficult at first, since I needed buy-in with my boss, so I started small with tests. I showed people it worked and got more and more buy-in and we flourished. I taught all design teams at Time the process for Design Thinking and it was implemented across the brand. Soon, I began giving talks at SXSW and would travel around the world to speak about the transformation Design Thinking makes at an organization.
People started asking if I could implement this at their company, which led to the formation of Academy UX. Our product design studio consults with companies to either research and develop, build out full products for clients, or teach other design teams how to implement our Design Thinking framework. Essentially, we make complex products seem simple by crafting digital experiences around them.
What personally drew you to the vision for Academy UX?
It was an ego problem. I had a boss who would tell me how to do something, and often I disagreed and thought, “I can do this better my way.” As a younger designer I had this chip on my shoulder thinking that I was the designer, so I must be right.
Often, a single mistake could cost a company millions of dollars. This got me thinking about ego: if I have a big one, so does my boss. The system that has surrounded us for so long, especially in product design, is broken. Design Thinking celebrates uncertainty. No gut decisions, just certainty. The passion for wanting a more democratic process and diversity of opinions was a better way to do things.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Oh god, yeah. It was terrifying, but I had a plan. I gave myself six months since I had that in savings with some padding. After getting beyond the fear, it was one of the most exciting times for my business. I built a website, printed business cards, took meetings, worked on freelance projects, and built my network. I actually cried when I landed our first project—I was really proud that I had started this thing. Then things started to roll. In two and a half years in business, there have been ups and downs—we almost had to close at one point. But I believe in making your own luck.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding Academy UX?
One of the biggest is juggling all the different parts of the job. As the CEO, you do it all. Contract negotiations, hiring and firing, paying people, deal with lawyers, sales, clients—everything. And these were roles I’ve never taken on before. A struggle was also dealing with growing pains. Early on in the first year, we were getting too much inbound business that I didn’t have enough people to work on existing projects and we missed a client deadline.
The big lesson I took from it was to always have a solid team surrounding you. Overstaff, even if you risk not making as much money.
“As a younger designer I had this chip on my
shoulder thinking that I was the designer, so I must be right.”
Adam Perlis, Founder and CEO of Academy UX
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
We get a lot of interest from interns to come work with us. We trained, worked alongside, and built great relationships with these people. When the internships have ended, we’ve been able to help them get placed at amazing companies, like Facebook, Google, Fidelity, Boston Consulting, etc. This tells me that we’re doing a good job of cultivating talent and growing it.
What has been your biggest sacrifice?
Sacrificing certainty. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just clock in and collect a paycheck at someone else’s company. That’s a sacrifice, but it’s worth it. It takes getting used to. Early on, I had feelings of anxiety where I’d always think, “am I supposed to be doing something right now?” The time being mine is an adjustment. The emotional investment is big. I meditate or exercise or speak to my wife. It takes a big support network and a lot of belief in yourself.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Hiring the right people around you and being able to build really strong relationships. And doing the right thing—never compromising on morals or taking a project that’s just a paycheck if it goes against the principles of the business. We were definitely guilty of this at times. But, if I can devote my time to things that will further the future of the business, it’s money and time better spent for the company.
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a founder?
A good friend from college who’s a fellow entrepreneur and the head of business development at Foursquare told me that in life, there’s never a good time for anything. This goes for getting married, having kids, and it’s definitely never the right time to start a business. In all of these things you have to jump in with both feet and hope for the best. And that’s what I did. If I failed, at least I knew I’d have a great story.
This interview has been lightly edited from a phone conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.