For Spanish entrepreneur Koldo Ugarte, it's always been clear that finding 'the big idea' is merely the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey; the real challenge lies in making it work.
Koldo is the co-founder of Living Crowdland, a digital consulting agency specializing in product design and brand development services, operating since 2014. Employing a holistic methodology, the company tackles the challenges of the contemporary design landscape by providing solutions that modernize brands and create effective, sustainable strategies. Koldo is entirely committed to innovation through experimentation, which drove him to create two startups, Fresh Snow and Share Your Board, to act as testing grounds for new business ideas.
Taking the plunge
There are various factors and life experiences that propel individuals towards entrepreneurship. For Koldo, it was a fusion of two. After spending years working for big names in the digital marketing and advertising industry, he would often witness opportunities slip away due to rigid corporate philosophies or processes, facing constant barriers to innovation. One particular moment stands out to him, right before coworking spaces became popular: "Back in J. W. Thomson, we were going through a tough period, had a lot of extra office space, and I suggested creating a coworking space. At that time, there were none anywhere, and I proposed bringing all our partner suppliers here, having them close, and possibly generating more synergies. Well, that was seen as crazy at that time. People thought I was insane — how could you bring outsiders into the office?" he recalls.
The urge to do things his way was a great motivation to start a business. However, the prospect of taking the entrepreneurial plunge had been simmering in his thoughts when a pivotal life event precipitated the decision: the birth of his eldest daughter. Building a company while raising a child may seem quite risky. Still, this moment was, for Koldo, the final push to go after what he had always wanted. "I wanted to be able to grow alongside my daughter, not miss out on job opportunities, and show that it's possible to balance having a daughter, being there for her, leading a market, working effectively, innovating, and not becoming stagnant."
In a crowded space like the digital marketing industry, success requires a powerful tool, a breakthrough innovation, or a well-connected client network to drive the business forward. This is why Koldo embarked on his entrepreneurial journey at 35. By this time, he had already spent 15 years cultivating relationships, gathering experience, and securing clients, giving him a solid foundation and enabling him to bring genuine value to the table.
Because of the market's competitiveness, Koldo acknowledged the need to devise strategies to distinguish himself, and one practical approach was developing his alternative products. Apart from Living Crowdland, he and co-founder Mariano Pelaez have given rise to two other startups, Fresh Snow and Share Your Board. These ventures were born from their hobbies: Mariano's passion for skiing and Koldo's deep connection to surfing. Fresh Snow provides precise data on fresh snow accumulation on slopes. Share Your Board offers a platform where fellow surf enthusiasts can directly exchange boards, fostering community and allowing people to enjoy a good surf session wherever they are.
These other startups also serve a more significant purpose; they act as testing grounds for Koldo and Mariano to evaluate processes and technology that can be implemented with their Living Crowdland clients. This way, they gain valuable knowledge and an understanding of which strategies work and which don't. "We integrate new technology and processes that we can't use on a client simply because they might not demand them or be able to pay for them. So, we incorporate these into our projects, leading to insights we can later implement in the agency's more service-focused aspect," Koldo elaborates.
Living Crowdland has prioritized technology, user experience, and long-term client relationships, recognizing the highly competitive market. Over the past three years, the company has focused on an innovative offering, the 'Design System.' Koldo describes this as a comprehensive platform, a tool that houses all brand assets, from logos to templates, banners, and posts — basically, everything a brand needs. This tool empowers clients to create autonomously. "The client no longer needs agencies for everything; they only need us when we bring substantial value, not for routine tasks. They can download Figma and, with it, can alter what's needed under certain templates and parameters and then export it. With our system, we're ensuring the client saves 40% on agency expenses or resources and gains 40% in time efficiency," he explains.
A new way to work
By parallel testing ideas in his other startups, Koldo discovered that alternative approaches to problem-solving were possible. These new work systems proved to be more effective and productive, all without sacrificing creativity. The challenge, however, lay in communicating this notion to clients, particularly in the context of the Design System: "Many clients compared it to a brand book and said, 'I already have a brand book, I have logos and everything.' You explain that you take that and provide teams, templates, tools, new identities, creative identities. But everyone says no, that it stifles creativity. However, the reality is different; it actually fosters creativity. But it does standardize the workflow process, making it more efficient."
Having firsthand experience in testing these concepts and clearly understanding what works and what doesn't has solidified Living Crowdland's knowledge of user experience. This has earned them a reputation for being unafraid to decline client requests: "Sometimes, cutting through their imagination, their expectations, isn't a barrier, but it's been counterproductive for them. They don't quite grasp why an agency wouldn't just say yes to everything they suggest."
Koldo believes transparency is the key to their enduring client relationships. Selling these complex products relies on a one-to-one approach built on direct relationships, contacts, and partnerships. "That's somewhat the most direct and effective way to build new businesses, steering away from automation, which might work for others, but in our business model, it's not as effective," he says.
The AI revolution
Technology plays an undeniably significant role at Living Crowdland; the company is adding a new layer to its Design System, enabling it to generate content autonomously. In the same way clients ask his agency, they can request content in a specific style, and the system will independently fulfill these requests.
In response to the rapidly evolving AI landscape, Koldo emphasizes the importance of leveraging AI to enhance efficiency and productivity, integrating it into the company's workflow while avoiding excessive standardization. "I think that's the challenge, not just artificial intelligence as such — which is also part of it — but how you can integrate various software solutions that are already on the market into your workflow to become more efficient, require fewer resources, and deliver an enhanced package or improved materials," he elaborates.
While AI can be incredibly beneficial for specific challenges, it's essential to recognize that it will not provide differentiation: "Eventually, you have to seek the human touch; individuals have to figure out how to maximize the potential of that software. I believe that's where the challenge lies: integrating technologies or software into the production system within the agency framework and finding ways to bring value. Not just integrating technology, but extracting the utmost benefit from it."
The fact that Koldo and Mariano have two other companies at their disposal provides a substantial competitive advantage. These serve as real-world laboratories where they can refine strategies, adapt processes, and effectively navigate the AI revolution. Through these hands-on experiences, they can gain insights that can then be channeled back into Living Crowdland, ensuring the company remains at the forefront of innovation and always prepared to meet the needs of its clients.
Now surpassing the eight-year mark, Living Crowdland has collaborated with notable clients. Over the years, the company has grown primarily through word-of-mouth referrals. Clients like IE and Las Muns have been loyal partners for years. In the case of Las Muns, an empanada startup based initially in Spain, the partnership started with the visual identity of their first e-commerce platform and has continued to this day, spanning over a decade of collaboration. IE Business School is another big success case for Living Crowdland. Over the past three years, the Design System has been progressively integrated into all departments and is now implemented by over 200 employees worldwide.
As Koldo looks into the future, his plan is for Share Your Board and Fresh Snow to lead their market revenue in the future: "We realize that customer service-oriented business could be one avenue, which might have limitations. But, at the very least, we need to explore new projects and products like these to distinguish ourselves and, in the future, have a larger revenue beyond what we earn from servicing external clients."
His entrepreneurial journey shows the importance of experimentation, flexibility, and learning from experience. And though he always knew the path was far from rosy, his experience ultimately led to major personal realizations and substantial growth. "When I began working, I set high expectations for myself, wanting to conquer the world, earn a lot of money, achieve some nebulous notion of success. I used to manage 30 people and earn much more [money] than I do now. But I feel more fulfilled now. I think the expectations you set for yourself are crucial in terms of finding your balance. I adjusted mine, meaning I earn less now, and I have no problem with that. I'm happier than before," he concludes.