Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

Building a design studio

Building a design studio
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I was pretty scared when we started to build our firm. The possibility of failure was never far away. We had little experience in running a studio, and even a little less money. When Eric Shelkie and I first planned smashLAB, all we had was a computer each, and about $200 for a make-shift server. I always knew that if worst came to worst, I could sell my car and squeeze a bit out of that.

From what I understand, that’s not an uncommon way to start a business. Frank Palmer from DDB Canada has been a really gracious fellow to us. He has guided us a little over the years and has been willing to share thoughts on his own journey. He noted that when he started, he had about $5,000, a new mortgage, and a baby on the way. Perhaps there’s something to be said for being scared–you certainly do your best to not screw up when there’s so much at stake.

This coming May marks six years of business for smashLAB. We’re still small, but we’re looking quite stable. Our sales doubled last year, our work is continually improving, and our new office has super-wonderful opening windows. We’re not Pentagram, but most days, we’re pretty happy with the work we are creating, and where we are headed.

Over these past years, we have done a great number of things wrong; however, I equally believe that we have done a few things right. Although everyone’s experience and circumstances are different, my hope is that these same lessons would be useful to anyone considering starting their own studio.

Never expecting it to be easy

Our company started operating in 2000. For those of you who may have chosen to block out this particular period of time, I’ll remind you that this was right when dot-coms were dropping like flies. As a result, many companies became rather shell-shocked, and few wanted to spend money on the web, or for that matter, any kind of design. Additionally, we were situated in a town of 70,000 where a regional slump was forcing a number of companies to either tighten their belts, or at worst, close their businesses. Sales were very tough to come by, and as such we appreciated every project we earned. It was a great time to start a business. It taught us that things can be very difficult, and you can’t expect to be lucky. It was tough, but I felt more sympathy for the studios who expected $100k gigs to fall in their laps. We will always be prepared for a downturn.

The banker never became our friend

Part of why this didn’t hurt us so badly, was that we didn’t have a need to make our office more than it was. We didn’t get big bank loans, and spend them on things that didn’t return on their investment. We quickly came to learn that credit card debt never really goes away, and that bank loans generally steal from your future opportunities. Additionally, we never really liked the idea that another person could determine what we could or couldn’t do with our company.

Cheap is often good

When you have no money, but need a number of things in order to run your business, you learn to become rather industrious. You can start a business on a shoestring. Save buying a Herman Miller chair until you land your first fifty thousand dollar gig. In the meanwhile, check the auctions, craigslist, and the local Buy & Sell. Some foolhardy sort likely bought a bunch of stuff he/she couldn’t afford, and is willing to nearly give it away, just to stave off a creditor. We also live by the adage that it’s not really a good deal if you didn’t need it in the first place.

Working with people we like

Whether clients or employees, one’s life in business is made far easier by working with good people. On one level, we look for people who are good at what they do and with whom we can readily share information and ideas. On another level, we like to engage with people who we can carry a conversation with. In the early years, we made the choice to cut out some potential clients/partners who just didn’t feel right. At the time I worried that we were missing out on opportunities. We weren’t.

Focus, focus, focus

I’m terrible at this one. I want to do a bit of everything. In the past six years, I have had at least a few dozen different ideas for companies, or projects we should consider. Luckily, both my dad and my business partner keep bringing my flights of fancy back to earth. As my dad often says, “You have a good business–concentrate on that. Once you have one working well, you can think about other things.” With time I get better at this, but a bit of patience is really a virtue in business. You just have to keep focused, and give your company time to mature.

We work

As much as our spouses often loathe this, my business partner and I have a work ethic that little comes in the way of. We work on weekends and evenings and holidays. We work on Christmas Eve, and often do a few things on Christmas Day. We aren’t hung over on New Year’s day. We are working. When we are sick, we are working. When we are sad, we are working. I often used to note that the reason we would succeed was that while everyone else was sleeping, we were still working. I’m not advocating an unbalanced life; however, most businesses in their first five years are like newborns. They require a disproportionate amount of attention in order to thrive.

Learning about time/task management

I remember a moment about six months ago, when I was reading email, responding to an instant message, and had a phone in each of my hands with a different person on each line. At that moment, someone also walked in the door. It sounds a little melodramatic, but it’s really true. A studio like ours has endless demands which often coalesce at precisely the same moment. As such, we use Outlook extensively. We make lots of notes. We respond to emails once, and then file them out of sight. We set alarms, and even double alarms for important meetings. No one cares what your reasons are for not following through. We learned early that we just have to keep on top of things and get the job done.

We built processes

Part of what helped us manage tasks efficiently, was our effort to build stable and flexible processes. At first, they were exhaustive and laborious, but with time, we refined them to be more intuitive and simple. It made for a heck of a difference. We have standardized methods for doing anything from estimating on projects to building an identity. The nice part is that when you find a process that works, everyone in the studio can utilize the same methods, and gain the same time efficiencies and thoroughness. Plus, it leaves us with more time to focus on creative.

Get something running, see how it works, and revise

Planning is good, but there is such a thing as paralysis by planning. As such, we started to find that our best planning has afforded room for change, and was to the point. I’ve met many entrepreneurs who have planned their businesses out to a “t”, only to find that their plans couldn’t adapt to the daily realities they encountered. Good planning has certainly been more useful for us than lots of planning.

Do what you say you are going to do

There have been endless opportunities in which we have been asked to do something that was beyond our capabilities. Those situations have often promised either great growth or tremendous failure. We’ve always thought about these opportunities very carefully, in order to determine whether we just had to learn some new skills, or were taking on something out of our league. In our first year, a hundred thousand dollar project came to us. As tough as it was, we knew we weren’t truly equipped to take it on. As a result, we turned it down. Knowing that we can deliver on our promises has built a lot of credibility and repeat work for our little shop.

Keep going… just keep going

Around smashLAB, we often comment that we climbed through the “ass-hole of design”. (If you are ever in the neighbourhood, ask me to show you the 112 page newsprint publication we made in our first year, and you will understand.) There were plenty of contracts that didn’t materialize, or went askew for some reason or another. There were ups and downs, and lots of times where it felt like nothing was happening at all. We watched weaker designers grab contracts that we were better suited for, and often felt like the whole thing would never reach fruition. And through all of this, we never stopped. We were either determined or foolish enough to just keep going, and sometimes that is just what it takes.

I urge you to find a five year old copy of the yellow pages and compare its list of design firms to this year’s book. You’ll note that an awful lot of them have disappeared.

If you are passionate about design, you have one half of the necessary desire to run a successful design studio. If you enjoy business, or can partner with someone who does, you may want to think about this thing seriously. If not, just love being a designer and continue working for someone else. Honestly, the hours are way, way better.

This is a tough business. If you are going out on your own, I wish you the best. You’ll learn a lot about business, and perhaps even some things about life.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Maaike says:

    This is a very interesting entry. I agree with most things you say, except for the part about working on holidays, weekends etc. Sure, this can happen, but I think it's not very healthy to let it become routine (if you have a choice).
    Tip: I just finished the book 'tellmewhy' by Karlssonwilker inc. It's about their first 2 years as a design company and I highly recommend it. Their experiences may not be very typical (they'd already worked with Stefan Sagmeister and had some great clients from the start), but still it's a very good read.

  2. Dan says:

    Well Eric,

    You guys have certainly come a long way since you started working out of your house in PG. Your success is a result of hardwork and a lot of time spent thinking about how to so things better than everyone else. It is the ethic that you have created that causes me to refer every aspiring designer that I meet to your webpage so that they can see an example of 2 guys that really have their shit together (though I know you'd say otherwise).

  3. Steve Perry says:

    Very interesting and inspiring read, thank you and keep up the great work.

  4. Judd says:

    Many truisms. Sucess in the graphic design industry seems to come down to attrition. Just keep showing up, do a good job, and you'll get the gig. I think with design you just have to do it longer than most...

    As for it being a tough industry - its not that bad - try being tied to a record contract that only pays you 10% of every dollar earned. Ew.

  5. BJ Vicks says:

    Great article...

    In finding your rhythm, the heart may skip a beat or two now and then. The strength of the pulse, however, is so much more powerful when you're building something for yourself. Shaping things as you go and finding a pace and structure that works best for the people involved is all part of the process. Companies that fail make bad decisions that allow problems to become obstacles. It's hard to say no to any project, no matter how inappropriate, when there's no work to speak of.

    Hard work and great results speak for themselves in the long run.

  6. Ryan says:

    This was a great article, and this site is great as well. I'm currently going through the EXACT same thing that this article pertains to and it's nice to see that it can work out even when things seem so overwhelming right now.

  7. This is great article. It inspired me to start planning my own business... Maybe it will sound kinda stupid, but i think that here, in Poland it won;t look different than you have wrote :)

    I wish you such a great another year of great exhibitions :) I will stay in touch with your site :)

  8. Steve says:

    Great article... quite inspiring to a guy who's basically waiting in the wings for the green light to go it alone. The waiting period feels like the mountain lion (or pussy cat) waiting in the tall grass for that right exact second to pounce. Really, I'm just waiting to sell my house.
    Anyway, I've just stumbled on your site and love love love the design of your blog and am truly inspired by your creative work and hard work.
    You mention your processes and how the refinement of them has basically been a saving grace... can you write more about that?
    Best Regards,

  9. Yes, processes have been important for us, and something we still struggle with. At smashLAB there were two key aspects to the development of our processes. The first was an effort to create a system of checks and balances to ensure that the minutiae of a project were all taken care of. (i.e. managing folder size at the end of a job.)
    The second (and more important) aspect of our system was to create a consistent way of working, which all designers in the studio can share, in order to create a way to break down the steps in a project. This process gives ample time for research, exploration, production, et cetera, and can be augmented when we find that things aren't working as they could be.
    Our processes are a work in progress. They haven't been sorted out entirely, but I believe that the effort is worth investing in, particularly for firms who intend to grow to any more than two people.
    Processes and systems have to fit your personality, and the nature of the firm you are building. You will likely have to strike a balance between the rigidity of the system and the nature of your work habits. That being said it certainly is nice to examine how you work, where you can find efficiencies, and how you can build transparency for clients.
    There's a book on this topic called the E-myth, by Michael E. Gerber, which is worth a quick read. It's a bit general, and does border on talking down to the reader, but the general notions are certainly worthy of consideration.

  10. Shafaat Awan says:

    This was really a great reading, I came to know lots of imortant aspects to run through a bussiness.

    Thank you very much

    Shafaat Awan
    Lahore, Paksitan

  11. Nadia A says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences here. You mentioned in another post that you almost ended up going to a Business School but you didn't and it was a better choice not to. I find myself at a similar point where I am contemplating whether I should go to a business school after all only because I find my job a bit limiting. I want to do so much more. Look at the big picture, not just make clever ads and designs. There is so much intangible going on. I feel that as long as I remain a creative designer, people will never recognise that I could be a trend spotter or consultant or a planner or marketer. At least not at the current job. I have been thinking about starting on my own only because I feel frustrated that my abilities are under utalised. I love studying people and I feel that sitting behind the desk doesn't allow me to really create and innovate new ways of doing things and creating new markets.
    To cut the long story short, I would really appreciate it if you could tell me what was the reason you started your own company, and why do you think that not going to a business school was better.
    About myself: Currently working at an advertisng agency in Dubai that incidently does branding also. I went Central Saint Martins in London UK for an MA in Design Studies, which aims to push the boundaries of the working relationship between business and creativity; altering perceptions of how the two work together. It provides a particular approach to the study and application of creative innovation, and gives you the confidence to question convention, anticipate the future and experiment with new forms and content.

  12. Hi Nadia,

    To answer your question, my business partner and I started the firm because we wanted to do something significant, and the opportunity excited us immensely.

    That being said, I feel that these are choices that each person has to weigh out carefully. I'm quite entrepreneurial in nature, and I don't believe that business school would have fostered such characteristics. (I suppose it all depends upon what you are looking to achieve through the process.)

    In response to your desire to be involved in more "big-picture" discussions, I believe you play the biggest part in this. It's your responsibility to engage clients in discussion regarding their design strategy, and not the other way around. You may find that as you help them solve problems, they will increasingly look to you for such expertise.

    Everyone's busy; as such, it may not be practical to wait for others to recognize your potential. Perhaps you simply have to show them how great you are at it. :-)

    Best wishes,


  13. GREAT article. love the candor. appreciate the notes.


    oscar rabeiro
    cre8ive pixel : design

  14. Nadia says:

    I wanted to know how many people subscribe to your blog? I am writing about designers who are thinkers. I am including your blog in that and to make a certain point I need to include some figures. It would be great to know the number. I will send you the link where I made a special mention of your blog.

  15. Hi Nadia,

    We have about 100 people who "subscribe" to the site, which is quite low. I believe that most are receiving updates through the RSS feeds as we're seeing around 60,000 monthly visitors.

    I hope that helps! :-)


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