So there’s this table with three chairs around it. It’s a very old table. These same people have been sitting here forever. The guy who created a product sits in one spot. Across from him is the guy who buys the product. And then there’s that other chair.
We’ve sat there frequently. Basically, the first guy pays us to find the second guy and convince him to buy what the first guy is selling. It’s a pretty important function, maybe the most important. Without it, there’s just one guy sitting at a table and nothing happens.
For performing this function, generally we are contracted on a “work-for-hire” basis. That’s nice and frequently lucrative. But, over time, we’ve developed some problems with it. You see, once we hand over our creative work we lose all connection to it and immediately stop profiting from it.
If I were an actor and was cast in a potato chip commercial I’d be getting a check every thirteen weeks for as long as they used the film of me doing a simple “bite and smile.” But, if I create a potato chip brand name and identity system out of whole cloth for a corporation and they sell millions of those salty snacks every month, I get nothing beyond my original fee. Of course, I’m the one who made that awful deal. It’s my fault if I enter into an agreement that sells myself short. True enough, but there is very little room for earning on the ‘residual value’ of creative in the marketplace and it’s important to remember that someone else will always be willing to charge a little less than you to get the business.
Aside from all that, the client/creative relationship can often be contentious and result in the production of professional work that may or may not be effective and more important to us, may or may not be great. There’s nothing worse than sweating over a project and then not wanting to show it to anyone after it’s complete. No amount of money is going to make that feel better.
It occurred to us about two and a half years ago that there was only one way to take complete control of our own destiny as creatives. We needed to sit at all the chairs at that old table.
Like many small firms, we saw a lot of business dry up in 2002. Marketing and advertising budgets tend to be the first costs sacrificed in the face of a tough economy. At the time, it seemed like we were being conspired against. First one loyal client would get bought and they’d hire someone else, and then another would slash their budget to almost nothing. Long-term this was a positive because it made us reevaluate what it means to be “successful.” But it wasn’t much fun.
If business hadn’t slowed down, who knows what would have happened. It’s very easy to get caught up in the rush for new business and the need to service clients and then expand staff and then have to chase more business to pay for that. It happened to us because we didn’t have time to reflect on the fact that we were producing art and copy we didn’t love. We just couldn’t see any other possibility. Nothing will make you think faster or more creatively than knowing there is less in the bank account on Tuesday than you need to make payroll on Friday.
Frankly, we were tired of being at the whim of forces that we could not control and we set a goal of converting half of the studio’s revenue into businesses we owned outright or relationships with companies we believed in that would allow us to share financially in the success of the work we did on their behalf. And then we didn’t do anything about it for a while. Except think.
On the plus side, we had talent, taste and enthusiasm and a lot of knowledge about the crafts of design, advertising and marketing. Plus, we had coudal.com, our studio site, that we had been faithfully updating since Halloween of 1999 and that generates thousands and thousands of page views every day.
At SXSW this year, I answered the question “should my business have a weblog?” like this. If you need to make copies of documents you should have a Xerox machine and if you have information about your product or service that needs to be updated regularly then you should have a blog. But the really interesting question is this, “Should my blog have a business?”
The old idea is to create a product and go looking for a market. “If you build it they will come.” The minute we saw this equation from the other side we knew what we had to do. Without realizing it, we had already built the audience, now we needed to create a product for it. “If they come, you will build it.”
The people visiting our site seem very familiar to us. They like what we like. They read what we read. They buy what we buy. That’s why they come to the site or subscribe to our feed and take part in our goofy features and contests and write us emails and send us links.
We’ve spent a lifetime trying to think like “the target market” on behalf of clients. That’s always a challenge, but this is different. There’s an amazing freedom in building something for yourself.
I’ll refrain from telling the whole story of how Jewelboxing became our first studio business, or how a political dinner conversation became Lowercase Tees. And the one about how we put The Show together in 72 hours is fairly interesting too, but what it all comes down to is this. If you want to free yourself from the tyranny of clients you have to become one.
We share more than just a loft studio and a mania for simplicity and white-space with Jason Fried and 37signals. We share a lot of ideas about independence and building big things with small teams too. 37signals needed a way to manage communications on client projects that was “stupid simple” so they built Basecamp and thousands of other people just like them needed it too. Jason said, “When you are your own target audience you can’t help but make better products.” Same goes for David Greiner, who, as part of the Switch I.T. design firm in Australia, hated the options available for managing email campaigns and so they built Campaign Monitor, “We focused on the features we needed and it turns out that thousands of other web designers found those features just as useful.”
There has been a bit of talk here and there lately about “design entrepreneurship” and I guess that’s as good a title as any. New tools and technology have made it much easier for small teams to run the manufacturing, financial and distribution side of things. The cost of entry for a new business can be calculated more often in hours of work than in sums of cash.
Real value is found in creativity and in the application of craft as it relates to marketing and communications. I wonder, what kind of companies are best suited for that sort of thing?
Disclaimer. When I refer to “clients” in the discussion of this matter it should be assumed that I am referencing fictitious people who bear no resemblence to real individuals, living or dead and especially not to current clients of Coudal Partners who are uncommonly generous, open-minded and insightful.