Ted Novak – Partner and Managing Director at Clique Studios

A concept and a direction are the only two ingredients you need to bring an idea to life.

Ted Novak is a partner and managing director at Clique Studios, a leading design, and engineering company that builds digital experiences for high-growth organizations. Clique Studios has been named one of Chicago’s “Best and Brightest Companies to Work For,” received honors at the Webby Awards for design in education, and has taken home a Gold Stevie Award at the American Business Awards.

Prior to Clique Studios, Ted held a senior management position with a privately owned business and technology consulting firm, where he focused on healthcare, mergers and acquisitions, and enterprise business applications. Ted leverages his extensive background in enterprise and consulting to help clients strategically utilize technology and design to make growing their businesses through online channels simple. Ted has a passion for making an impact in the lives of others and bringing excitement to the way people communicate and do business.

Where did the idea for Clique Studios come from?

I spent several years as the creative guy in the business world. The enterprise organizations I worked with were obsessed with solving business problems and operational efficiencies with technology, but attention to design and usability was often secondary. On the flip side, the small- to medium-sized market was focused more on brand and image than the opportunity to leverage digital technology as a business tool.

At the time, the idea of switching from the “creative guy in the business world” to the “business guy in the creative world” felt like a bigger opportunity to make an impact. What’s exciting is that the mindset has come full circle, and enterprise organizations are now hiring us to improve the design and usability of their technology, and SMBs are hiring us to implement technology to power their companies.

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

A typical day starts off with waving at my son and daughter as I walk to the train. With a 20-minute ride in the morning, I’ve worked the “caffeine nap” into my daily routine, which is drinking a cup of coffee and then taking a nap for 15 minutes. This saves me a good 45 minutes when I get to the office, as I’m already caffeinated and ready to go!

At work, I check in with as many people as I can to see how things are going. With a team that grew from two to 30 in a couple years in an office as busy as ours, it’s important to proactively do this. Otherwise, you can wind up going weeks without talking to someone.

Nearly every day, something will occur that requires my attention, and nothing kills productivity more than when you don’t plan for the unexpected. I also realized what work is suited for which environment. Writing a proposal for a project never works when I’m in the office because there are too many distractions to think through an engagement properly, so I write most proposals in the evening. In the same sense, working through project plans or feedback on deliverables is almost exclusively done in the office, where collaboration helps me reach conclusions quicker.

How do you bring ideas to life?

A concept and a direction are the only two ingredients you need to bring an idea to life. Of course, you need to do some research, but there’s a lot of analysis paralysis that can inhibit someone from ever getting started. If you’re worried about failing, ask yourself, “Would it be better to fail at the beginning and learn from it or spend time and money overengineering every possible outcome before bringing it to market and failing then?”

This approach also forces you to start simple and lets the results of your first steps inform your next steps. Like a newborn baby, it’s when the idea is brought to life that the work begins and the opportunities present themselves.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The customer-to-customer commerce of “craft” anything (e.g., craft beers, Etsy shops, etc.) is amplifying individuality in both producers and consumers.

On the producer side, it’s enabling individuals to be passionate about their interests and, in some cases, to make a living from it. On the consumer side, it’s providing a forum for people to socialize around things other than what the big-box brands are saying we should like. It’s also creating tertiary marketplaces with education and DIY content, inspiring individuals to try and build something themselves.

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

The only habit that helps me get more done is not necessarily a good one, and that is working when most others are sleeping! I’m not unique at all in the entrepreneur community when it comes to this, and maybe that’s the message. If you’re someone who can wait until the morning to write a song that’s in your head, write down an idea on your mind, or clear out a handful of tasks that just need to get done, then being an entrepreneur might not be the best path for you.

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

One thing I’ve learned in all my jobs is that there’s always an opportunity to carve your own niche. Don’t be the mailroom guy who poses as an executive to land the next big deal, though. Or the guy in team meetings challenging every process in the organization based on a book you read.

If you have a job that’s not ideal, respect your employer and execute what you’re getting paid to do. Then, seek opportunities to contribute in other ways more meaningful to your career goals. In other words, get your homework done first before diving into extracurricular activities. If you do it right, any employer who sees value in what you’re bringing to the table will look for ways to make it part of your role.

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

Looking at all the things we do differently at Clique compared to when we started, we needed to experience the things that led us to how we work now. There were opportunities to hire an expert where we instead decided to figure things out ourselves, but that was part of the drive in the first place. I definitely care more about the journey than the destination.

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

Panic. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but the key is to never feel comfortable with where your business is at. Comfortable is when you stop acting like an entrepreneur and start acting like the owner of a corporation — like the one you probably left when you decided to start your business.

Similar to the transition from teenager to parent, you have new responsibilities, and you need to step up to that. However, the trick is to not let the fulfillment of those responsibilities make you feel successful because, if you do, congrats, you just started a company and worked your tail off so you could wind up right back where you started — in a job.

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

Get a business partner. You need someone to challenge you, bounce ideas off, and motivate you while understanding 100 percent of the circumstances and assuming 100 percent of the risk along with you. Some will have success using a strategic adviser or mentor for this capacity, but it’s not the same and not as fun.

We also recruit people who put pride in the work they do above all else. We treat every project like it’s the only project that defines us, and that’s the easiest growth ingredient within our control. You can’t always regulate the conversation that leads to a sale, but you have full control to do the best you can. Ultimately, we don’t hire designers and developers; we hire entrepreneurs who can design or can develop. They have a great work ethic and the drive to continuously do their best work, and they help us focus on new opportunities in client work to keep things interesting.

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

One of the opportunities we had was to convert our tailored methodology for client delivery into a package solution for delivering e-commerce websites with a fixed set of features and options.

It was a great business model, but the failure was that running this model was diametrically opposed to how our organization worked. Ultimately, we terminated the offering (after ensuring our partner had someone else to approach), and we now help those same businesses with custom approaches like every other client. There are a million ways to generate revenue, especially in our industry, so the advice I give is to know where your strengths are and put all your energy there.

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

I want a site where I can plug in my interests, contacts, and available nights or weekends throughout the year and the site will match me and my wife up with our friends and make all the get-together arrangements for us. We have too many options, and most of us have decision fatigue. It would seem that all the data and technology is available to make this decision for you.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

Amazon Prime.

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

For most things outside of design and development tools, we are largely a Google Apps shop. The biggest benefits are integrating across the product suite and accessing documents securely from anywhere without thinking about it.

The other software that was life-changing for our business was FreshBooks. It’s a cloud-based accounting platform that automates most aspects of invoicing and expense tracking. After implementing it and setting up the automated invoice reminders, our accounts receivable went from 30 percent to about 5 percent of revenue coming in past the 30-day mark.

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

“The Art of Money Getting: Golden Rules for Making Money” by P.T. Barnum. First, it’s a very quick read. You can absorb it in one sitting. Second, while P.T. Barnum is recognized as being a hustler with notable quotes like “There’s a sucker born every minute,” there’s a lot of actual business sense baked into his methodology.

With sections titled “Don’t Mistake Your Vocation,” “Advertise Your Business,” and “Whatever You Do, Do It With All Your Might,” the table of contents alone should be framed and hung in the office of every startup. It has the added plus of being written with an old-time dialect!

Which people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Most people who have influenced me have come from personal experiences; I’ve drawn from individuals I admire and interact with for one reason or another. And while I’m sure some of those individuals, such as my father, would love to chat if you gave them a call, the real recommendation is to observe the behaviors of people you admire in your life.


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Ted Novak on LinkedIn: tednovak