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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