A List Apart


When You Are Your Own Client, Who Are You Going To Make Fun Of At The Bar?

When You Are Your Own Client, Who Are You Going To Make Fun Of At The Bar?

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.

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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.

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