Derek Nelson – Partner and Co-founder at Clique Studios


I fell in love with the idea of creating things with tech — putting my head down and building a thing that didn’t exist before.

Derek Nelson is a partner and co-founder at Clique Studios, a leading design and engineering company that builds digital experiences for high-growth organizations. Clique Studios was named one of Chicago’s “Best and Brightest Companies to Work For” in 2015, was honored at the Webby Awards in 2015, and took home a Gold Stevie Award at the American Business Awards in 2014.

Derek started designing and developing when he was 12. He now teaches “Designing for Conversion” at the Startup Institute, is a mentor at 1871 and General Assembly, and occasionally writes and speaks on mobile conversion. Previously, he worked on the 2008 Barack Obama campaign as a field organizer and graduated with honors from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. He sits on the Young Leaders Board for Cure Violence (known locally as CeaseFire) and the President’s Circle of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Where did the idea for Clique Studios come from?

I grew up around technology. My dad worked as an engineer, designing circuit boards at companies like Zenith and USRobotics. I remember the day my own computer came in the mail. Remember those cow-themed Gateway boxes?

I started designing and coding on it, and I haven’t stopped since. I fell in love with the idea of creating things with tech — putting my head down and building a thing that didn’t exist before.

When I met Ted Novak, and he invited me to start this business with him, he had that mentality. That’s still what drives us today.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

There aren’t many typical days anymore, which is how I like it. Generally, it’s focused on the work at hand: a couple of meetings with current clients, a couple of internal checkpoints (i.e., design reviews, developer reviews), a couple of calls or meetings with prospective clients, and then whatever pops up during the day.

I get home, unplug with the wife and baby, then log back on or get up early for the deep work: proposals, designs, and business planning. The most productive days balance the two — the efficient, point-and-shoot flow on one side and the deeper thought and planning on the other.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We try to have a healthy impatience in everything we do. There’s a quote I read once: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”

We’re always fine-tuning our process. When we leave our discovery sessions, we immediately try to turn that into movement: goals, creative briefs, timelines, technical documentation, etc. We try to fast-track any difficult conversations we may have to minimize surprises down the line. We then show concepts, prototypes, and wireframes, iterating with our clients at every step. We bring that to our engineering process, which has targeted deliveries for every feature, and an arduous and thoughtful launch and testing process.

Bringing something to life is rarely about the core idea; it’s usually about paying attention to the 500 details that make the idea real.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m excited about some recent signals that mobile development could be moving away from native applications, which puts the focus back where it should be: on content that is open, searchable, indexable, permanent, and less subject to the control of two companies.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I try to go past a surface-level understanding of things. Getting a deep understanding of the subject matter — for us, it’s design, conversion, code, servers, or marketing — allows you to make better decisions about all of them.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I had a summer job painting houses. It was hot, it was tough, and my last couple paychecks never came. All I learned was that with the right Beastie Boys album, no job was that bad.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Not much. We’ve had a lot of success identifying smart people and providing them with the environment, support, tools, and training to progress quickly and grow into leadership roles. If I had to do it again, I’d do that even faster.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

We always try to ask ourselves, “What will actually achieve something today, and what will just make us feel like we did?” So much time in the corporate world is spent staying busy instead of staying productive.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We kept an organic growth strategy from day one. We decided that in a service business if the work itself — and the relationships we built by doing it — wasn’t enough to grow us, nothing else should.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

For a long time, the two of us designed and developed nearly everything in our portfolio. It reached a critical mass and became impossible to keep the work standards as high as we’d like. We realized we had to grow the team. When we did, it was an incredibly humbling and rewarding experience to see other people create work better than we could have ever done ourselves.

Since then, we’ve made training and growth a huge priority, even hiring a full-time educator to help Clique University, and we’re so much better off because of it. I love our team.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Intercom buzzer systems in condos and office buildings need some smart disruption.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

My most recent Amazon order was a great book by Rick Webb called “Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing” and a book about Napoleon. Oh, and a deep fryer.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We use a lot of enterprise cloud tools (i.e., Google Apps, Slack, Redmine, Bitbucket, UberConference) and some homegrown tools we built for employee engagement, uptime monitoring, and some other needs. I’m especially proud of those.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’d recommend the Robert Caro biographies the-books/) of Lyndon B. Johnson. For all his failings as a person and a president, he ultimately mastered the ugly business of getting things done. He understood what motivates people and what causes them to act in the real world, not an ideal one.