Meet David Martin, CEO and CCO of Fantasy, the multi-award winning design agency combining digital strategy, UX and design to help clients think beyond ordinary. Having launched in 1999 in Stockholm, Fantasy opened their New York office in 2005 followed by a new San Francisco location in 2010. As of 2016, Fantasy have worked with the likes of Twitter, Spotify, Facebook and more. David has had an incredible journey to entrepreneurship; before Founding Fantasy David had a job as a cleaner in Germany. Using his vivid imagination from his Irish childhood, David explored everything the internet had to offer on his own accord and has grown a small company to achieve even more than some of their largest competitors. David defines success as being able to fly his family out to California once a year and is the kind of CEO who will spend a whole day listening to any 1 his employees, whether an intern or his second in command. Here’s how he got to where he is today, his greatest regrets, fears, hopes and dreams…
Getting to Know David
What values were instilled in you as a child?
First and foremost, imagination. I grew up in Dublin, Ireland, near the city centre. There wasn’t lots to do in Ireland and everything I saw on TV was like ‘life on the outside’. TV sparked my imagination and inspired me to build go-carts, treehouses and anything else you’d likely find in a Goonies movie. Secondly, competition was instilled in me as a core value. Through building my own creations I was able to compete against what I saw on film screens. I also ran for my school, my county and for one of four provinces in Ireland. Imagination and competitiveness are both values that I’ve carried through to Fantasy.
“TV sparked my imagination and inspired me to build go-carts, treehouses and anything else you’d likely find in a Goonies movie.”
What was your perception of money growing up?
I thought money was amazing; mainly because we didn’t have a lot of it. I knew it would enable me to achieve what I see on TV. Having said that, the concept of a career was also incredibly exciting. A career was always something I always understood as having the potential to set you up for life. For me, the career path didn’t matter as such, the important part was the feeling that whatever I did, I needed to be the best at it, otherwise there was no point.
“the career path didn’t matter as such, the important part was the feeling that whatever I did, I needed to be the best at it, otherwise there was no point.”
What was your first memory of self expression?
My bedroom. I had my stereo, Nintendo and a million piles of self creations stacked next to one another. I wanted everything to look like it was a movie set. I used to steal huge signs from events, get them on the bus, barely get them through the house door and then hoard them in my room. It was a lot like a Hollywood film set.
When did you decide to start the company?
I was visiting my girlfriend in Sweden, who later became my wife. Whilst I was out there I had to figure out what our lives were going to be like. My last job before Fantasy was cleaning toilets in Germany. That was not the future I planned for us. Initially we’d planned on getting cruise ship jobs which would take us to America, but we had no clue we needed a Visa so got rejected from about 40 jobs. Whilst the rejections were flowing, I started to discover the internet and everything it had to offer. I began creating my own designs online and I got hooked. I was addicted. I needed more people to help me build what I wanted to achieve, which resulted in the company. The name ‘Fantasy’ came from the notion: ‘what if?’ It was enabling this dream to be executed, rather than letting it lie in the imagination. When we started the company the movie ‘Final Fantasy’ had also just come out, which played a part in the name as well.
“My last job before Fantasy was cleaning toilets in Germany. That was not the future I planned for us.“
How did you employ your first person?
The first guy I hired was someone I worked with in Germany. He understood programming so I got him to teach me what he knew about flash. I then hired another guy who was Swedish. Two more people followed after this including a Photoshop designer. The five of us formed what was just the beginning for Fantasy as a company.
Why did you move to America?
I had always wanted to live in America, Sweden just kind of happened; it has a very special culture and it’s not for everyone. Our team reached the figure of around 35 people in Stockholm; we weren’t huge but we were doing great work for great clients and winning lots of awards. It was a good time for us to move to New York in 2005. Our clients at the time included MTV and AOL who were already in the States. Within two weeks we found an office and an apartment. We met a Visa attorney as soon as we arrived, to figure out how we could stay in the US. We made some immediate hires upon landing and gradually some of the Stockholm team made the permanent move. The main office gradually transitioned from Stockholm to New York.
What’s been your biggest mistake so far?
In 2008 I reacted badly to a very big problem. We were experiencing internet outages in our office, at a time when it was supplied via cable wires. Our service provider completely let us down and we weren’t connected for a week. Employees had to work from home and everyone was very upset. I started contacting clients to tell them that we couldn’t deliver the work required. It was horrific. The internet company then sent someone in to fix things and the best he came up with was that ‘it must be a pop up blocker’. I was so outraged that I filmed what he had said. I then sent the video back to the company via YouTube. It wasn’t a private link. I didn’t hold back when I knew I should have. As a result the relationship broke down and we no longer worked together, but if I had handled it better we probably would have had another year or two with the provider.
Do you ever doubt yourself or the business?
Yes, every day. My biggest fear is never the business, but the people. People run the show when it comes to business; they have the talent and are the most valuable commodity. People don’t stick around forever and it’s worrying that companies such as Apple may one day poach them. Sometimes, they do and it’s the worst feeling in the world. I honestly live in fear. We’re growing and we’re doing incredibly well but nothing takes away the fear that your talent might one day move on. If you can’t create that talent or find someone else to step up, I feel like the whole business would fall apart. I’ve been learning to deal with this better but it is a challenge we constantly face. Everything that we do is designed in a way to value our employees, even when it comes to the nitty gritty of how we talk to one another. The employees are the future of the business; not the client.
“My biggest fear is never the business, but the people. People run the show when it comes to business; they have the talent and are the most valuable commodity.”
How do you attract the right talent?
There’s a lot of influence you can have if you’re at the top of any company. Especially when you’re small like us.. I will sit next to any person whether they’re my second in command or my intern. I make sure my attitude is the same for each employee and will listen to them all day long if it’s what they need. People see this as soon as they walk through the door.
“Everything that we do is designed in a way to value our employees, even when it comes to the nitty gritty of how we talk to one another.”
How do you attract big clients?
We’re very much focused on quality; how we present the work and how we market ourselves. There are too many designers in the world for clients to choose from, yet many designers lack pride in how they present their work. We’re a small company, but we compete with major companies. 9 times out of 10 we win over major companies and a lot of clients have no idea how small we are. You have to portray a perception which shows you can handle things and polish work just as well as – if not better than – the bigger players. As a small company you have a lot more control over your work than the bigger companies do.
“it doesn’t take much to live up to and out-perform your competitors.”
It’s also important to watch how other people do things. I would take work from incredible companies and spend time re-creating it so I understood how to pick up on the flaws. From this, I gained the knowledge required to build something just as good. It built my confidence to know that I could not only produce work to a similar level and even do better. Of course, I didn’t publish this work, but what I gained was technique. You need to know that do to this it doesn’t take much to live up to and out-perform your competitors.
Do you have any productivity hacks?
Surround yourself with people who are better than you. They can see what you do and help you. Handle things as efficiently as possible and don’t get caught up in any drama.
What’s your definition of success?
Honestly, I’ve never felt successful, which sounds crazy to some people. If I can spend time with my family and fly everyone out here at least once a year then that’s the one point in life that I feel successful.
“If I can spend time with my family and fly everyone out here at least once a year then that’s the one point in life that I feel successful.”
Rebel Wrap Up
Who do you look to for inspiration?
My employees. They are the best source of inspiration. Untapped youth is also like gold.
What’s your definition of entrepreneurship?
Someone who is not just a dreamer. Someone who has a vision but also has a legitimate plan to execute it. The plan for execution also has to be set up for success in a marketplace which lacks that particular vision.
If you could change one law what would it be?
America’s law on guns. It needs to be abolished. I know it’s not exactly possible or practical but it needs to happen. I fear for my son being at school, knowing that at any point a psychopath could wander in with a gun and start blowing everybody up. It’s a legitimate fear and I wouldn’t have that fear if I was living in Ireland or England.