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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.