We had the good fortune of connecting with Nadia Okhunova and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Nadia, how did you come up with the idea for your business?

From freelancing to your own business: the story of the K917 agency

Nadia Okhunova and Natasha Gladysh, the co-founders of K917 digital media agency, talk about opening a niche agency, surviving among competitors, building a self-government culture, and launching special projects with global brands.

What is K917?

K917 is a digital agency with a focus on start-ups, new product launches, and collaborations. The agency is engaged in brand strategy, PR, special project launches with local and global brands, along with top bloggers, and content production for social media.


In the last four years, we’ve worked with Les Jardins d’Etretat in France, gardens on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the digital ELK Academy, and built an FMCG startup brand R.A.W. LIFE from scratch with more than 40 SKUs of healthy snack products in Russia. We also participated in projects in partnership with Puma, Samsung, Adidas, Buro, TedxMoscow, and Natalia Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation. 

We were working together at the same agency, and at the same time, we were carrying out various outsourced projects. At some point, there were too many clients, so we decided to join forces and build our team. Together, many issues have become easier and faster to solve. We didn’t want to conquer the world; we wanted to do exciting projects, play by our own rules, choose those with whom we want to work, build our schedule, and have a work-life balance.

We registered a company, started pooling clients, rented an office on Artplay in Moscow from our friends with two cats, hired a couple of managers, a photographer, and a copywriter. We had the first five employees and payroll obligations. Everything worked out without loans as we stepped into this new work format quite quickly. We must say that there is practically nothing more pleasant in the agency business than receiving prepayment and feeling that you are already working with minimal risks.

At first, we only dealt with Social Media Management; we ran commercial social networks. In the first year, we ran dozens of companies simultaneously with a team of five people – from restaurant chains to IT companies. Then we realized that more does not mean better. It is more profitable to invest in three to five large projects and build long-term relationships than to agree to everything for the sake of profit. So the quality of work improved, and so did the portfolio. In general, this is how we found our niche, focusing on new and growing companies, startups.

We can now say that we grew in parallel with our clients’ businesses and grew to offer more services. We began to engage in PR, develop marketing and communication strategies, and launch special projects. International brands started to come to us.

Nadia studied in New York and is now a community member of local entrepreneurs and startups. Natasha completed her marketing master’s degree in France and lived in Paris for a year, then for several months in both London and Los Angeles.

In Europe, we worked with a garden in the city of Etretat in France – Les Jardins d’Etretat from the UNESCO World Heritage List and one of the Great Gardens of the World. Their goal was to attract more tourists from different European cities and, in general, to increase their worldwide recognition. Social networks have worked well here. We have organized tours to the garden for influencers and publishers with a million-strong audience in art, tourism, architecture. For example, Elle Decoration, Art Cube, Foursquare talked about the parks in their social networks. We had 5-10 million user coverage per month. This PR campaign led to the desired result: people began to share information about the gardens in their social networks down the chain. Fashion publications began filming advertising campaigns there. During the season, the flow of tourists doubled.

We also opened a new direction of photo and video production in New York. Our creative director Julia Fomenko made the concept and set design for Brother Values and La Botanica Magazine brands.

We have formed the core of the team – ten people. The agency has a horizontal management structure without micromanagement, strict control, and schedule. Every team member has their area of responsibility where they make independent decisions. We always welcome criticism, comments, ideas, and suggestions. Informal communication creates the necessary freedom to express your thoughts and brainstorm collectively.

We even stopped working in the office (even before the pandemic); working remotely is much more efficient, people do not burn out and are always more productive. We resolve almost all issues online, and our team members have enough freedom to reach their potential. We are all friends and love to spend time together outside of work, whether it’s yachting, traveling, or volunteering at charity events.

We use online programs for project management in teams (such as Notion, Asana, Slack) and chats in instant messengers, where we swiftly conduct all business correspondence with clients.

More structure and regulations have appeared with growth, but we strive to maintain the spirit of freedom. For example, employees can be located in different cities and countries, engaging in other projects in parallel.

We now have ten regular clients. We started as an SMM agency, and now we focus on creating a product from scratch: from positioning to full-fledged branding.

We also started to advise companies and startups on digital marketing and entering the international market. Many of our clients strive to do business in the United States, so we, among other things, help them immerse themselves in the context of a different culture and understand the principles of commerce with Western partners.

Summing up our results so far, we grew a business from two people into a full-fledged digital agency. At the same time, we’ve seen a 40% increase in profits over the past year. Our staff has increased to 10 people, plus we are assembling teams for individual projects.

Companies also began to turn to us for advice in digital marketing and Russian startups that enter the world market – we help them with pitches for accelerators, tools for finding partners, and clients in conjunction with the ELK Digital Academy.

Now we are planning to work with more startups in the foreign market, as this arena rapidly  develops. We have an education and career development client who raised their first investment. We’re at the branding and go-to-market stage with them

In general, the experience of working “for ourselves” allows us to do what we like and not depend on anyone. We would like to change the idea of the agency business; without an office and burnout, we maintain a work-life balance. At the beginning of the agency business, we  experienced burnout at work, so we are now very sensitive to the health of our colleagues and advise taking unscheduled vacations as they see necessary. We believe that the better a person can rest, recharge, and be inspired, the better they perform.

What should our readers know about your business?

From our experience, we can give some advice to young agencies:

– immediately discuss the KPI and the necessary budgetary tasks with the client and fix them in the contract. This document helps with disputes and if the client “remembers other conditions.”

– draw up a contract and take an advance payment for your work. Contract examples are easy to Google, or even better, ask colleagues from other agencies.

– place additional tasks in a separate estimate.

– create a “safety cushion” in case there are delays in payment from the customer (usually 15-30% of the profit).

– use tenders as an opportunity for team development, but do not offer the entire strategy at once in the hope of “selling” yourself to the client. Many people use the open call as an opportunity to collect ideas for free.

– consult with colleagues from other agencies, collaborate, attend seminars and online conferences, in general, be visible in professional circles.

– be sure to implement all the tools that help automate or simplify many processes, save team time and energy, and make the routine more enjoyable.

– create the conditions for pleasant teamwork: from informal dinners to joint entertainment.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The Getty Museum, Hauser & Wirth Gallery and Norton Simon museum for art! KazuNori: Hand Roll Bar; The Original Farmers Market; Plant Food + Wine for lunch or dinner; Gjusta Bakery and Tartine Bakery for brunch; Mount Analog and Stories Books to buy records and books;  Elysian Park and Griffith Park to walk and hike. Santa Monica State Beach to chill and eat some seafood in the area. 

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?

Anastasia Chernikova https://www.linkedin.com/in/anastasia-chernikova-61156733/

Website: https://k917.studio/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ahu_nova/ https://www.instagram.com/nataglad/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nadia-okhunova-09b601109/ https://www.linkedin.com/in/natalia-gladysh-50152542/

Image Credits
by Nadia Okhunova

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