There are many reasons for exploring your own business venture: self-expression, greater creative control, a more diversified business model or perhaps the identification of a particular product or service that would be beneficial to the public that doesn't yet exist.
While many are content to work on staff in a creative firm, in-house at a company requiring creative services or running a consultancy, others are looking for a way to utilize their unique set of interests and skills, inside and outside of visual communications, to produce a product or service and create a more fulfilling career in the long run.
The following six firms represent a variety of business models. Some are adjunct businesses to existing design consultancies. In others the designers have chosen to put all their energy into their new venture. what they have in common is a lot of determination and a lot of hard work.
DINAH COOPS NATURALLY MODERN SUSTAINABLE DESIGN
After twenty years as an art director, designer and creative director, Dinah Coops started her Seattle, Washington-based business in 2007 to create a collection of useful home products that combine modern design sensibility and sustainability.
“I began researching sustainable materials and practices and fairly early on ran across PaperStone, a wonderful product made in the Pacific Northwest out of recycled paper and petroleum-free resin used predominantly for countertops,” she said. “PaperStone became the outlet for my first products, which were a series of silk-screened coasters and tablemats.”
For Coops, a primary challenge is that the U.S. economy still does not easily support a business trying to be sustainable. “Finding materials that are toxin-free or fabric made in the U.S. is difficult,” Coops said. “Even when I do find sustainable materials, they are often extremely high-priced. My designs are well received, but being committed to sustainability consumes a great deal of my time and results in higher-priced products. It would be far easier and cheaper to just manufacture in developing nations like so many do.”
Coops started out by selling directly to local retailers, which built a solid local base in Seattle and the Northwest. She said, “I’ve also participated in local design shows. We have an excellent modern craft venue in Seattle called Urban Craft Uprising, which supports local artists and is a great place to both sell and gain direct feedback from customers. I’ve also promoted my product through submissions to different media such as magazines and design blogs. This year, I participated in the New York International Gift Fair in order to reach retailers outside the Northwest more directly.”
San Diego, California-based designer Juliana de Freitas-Draper started Giacini Atelier in 2007 shortly after her grandmother, Catherine Giacini, passed away. “She designed gowns in New York in the 1920s and her impeccable taste was contagious,” de Freitas-Draper said. “I have been surrounded by fabric my whole life, sewing with my grandmother and in later years designing textiles for American and European markets. When I looked at the types of fabric bags in the market, I noticed they were either too bohemian in style or always had leather trim. A few of the many things that makes us different from other labels are that we manufacture exclusively in the U.S. and our bags are leather-free and light to carry.”
While most of the other firms profiled here self-funded their ventures, de Freitas-Draper started hers with a mixture of a business loan, private funds and a business plan. “I sought help at the local Small Business Development Center and was fortunate to work with an amazing counselor,” she said. “If you don’t at least have a roadmap of where you want to go, you will most certainly get lost! I find this to be true in business as well.”
As with Coops, sourcing and manufacturing domestically has also been a challenge for de Freitas-Draper. “It took two years prior to launching to find a good manufacturer to work with,” she said. “Additionally, there is the higher cost of producing in the U.S., which affects the retail price point. What most people seem to forget is that it’s also reflected in the higher quality of our products. We take quality control, as well as paying a living wage to our vendors, very seriously.”
Originally, her business model was to sell exclusively wholesale to stores, but she quickly had to adapt to a different model. “I launched right when the economy started to tank,” she said. “Store buyers were not taking big risks with new brands. Luckily our products got such great response from consumers that we sold to individuals as opposed to higher-volume to stores as originally planned. When you are in business you have to constantly review and evaluate what you are doing, developing what’s working and changing what’s not.”
For marketing, de Freitas-Draper mixes new and traditional approaches. “We do a lot of new-client outreach, where we contact potential stores and buyers with our catalogs and line sheets,” she said. “We attend vendor tradeshows and exhibit in buyer tradeshows and we also do tons of networking and participate in key online publication ad campaigns, but one of the best promoting venues that worked for us has been good old word-of-mouth.”
STORE AT GRANT DESIGN COLLABORATIVE
Founded in 1996 by Bill Grant, in Canton, Georgia, Grant Design Collaborative creates brand identities and strategies, product development, communication design, interactive, advertising, packaging and branded interior design. After designing and launching several products, Grant began to explore new ways to launch and distribute products in the marketplace. “Then the recession took hold, and many clients began to slow their product development ventures,” Grant said. “Our brand design business also slowed and our design team had more free time than usual. We took this opportunity to do some ‘spring cleaning’ and found we had a tremendous amount of materials in the office: paper, packaging, product prototypes, amenity samples, etc. At the height of the recession last spring, our team was brainstorming and had the idea to open our own retail venture in the ground floor space below our offices that had been vacant for over six months.
“We designed and produced limited-edition notecards, greeting cards, hand-bound journals, placecards, amenity items and more,” Grant said. “We also assigned teams to brand, design the interior and launch the store. After two months of frantic design and implementation, we opened the Store at Grant Design Collaborative in June 2009.
“The first challenges involved creating enough inventory to fill the store and the actual build-out of the existing space,” Grant continued. “After opening the Store, we were faced with staffing and basic operational issues. We self-staff the Store, and our designers rotate between the Store and upstairs in the design studio. We were also challenged with launching a design-driven retail venture in a less than design-savvy bedroom community of Atlanta. Our goal was to not only design and sell unique products to the average consumer on Main Street, but also to generate interest in our brand design firm. While we had been in Canton for over ten years when the Store opened, most people in the community did not understand what we did in our business.”
In addition to the firm’s handmade products, the Store features products designed for clients including custom area rugs created for Jaipur Rugs and commercial wallcovering for Set Wallcovering Systems. Grant is currently designing three new outdoor furniture collections for Caluco.
“The Store at Grant Design Collaborative evolves on a daily basis,” Grant said. “We have labeled the venture as a ‘retail stream-of-consciousness for cockeyed optimists,’ so we experiment with product offerings, hours of operation, social media strategy and market research. Retail is a moving target, especially in this economic climate.”
L2 DESIGN COLLECTIVE
When Jeff Matz and Paul Mastriani launched Lure Design in Orlando, Florida, in 1998, they did everything by the book. They had a clear vision and a written plan. The launch of their sideline business, L2 Design Collective, was somewhat different. After Lure installed screen-printing equipment to produce posters, Kim Fox, their studio manager at the time, suggested they try their hand at creating screen-printed notecards and journals in addition to posters. “We figured, why not?,” Matz said. “So we created a small line of cards and schlepped them to the 2005 National Stationery Show in New York to test the waters. Much to our surprise, the cards sold. We were thrilled.
“Now that we’ve been doing it a while, there’s more of a plan in place, but because the screen-printed products come second to our design work, it’s still loose from a business point-of-view,” Matz said. “One of the hardest things for us was simply making time in our schedules to create the designs and print them. But that was just the beginning. We weren’t aware of other studios doing anything similar, so we were just out there, trial and error, doing what we thought was right, making mistakes, sure, but having fun and seeing tons of possibilities.
“The other part that’s hard is getting the word out,” Matz continued. “The Stationery Show is always a great way to gain buyers, but the interest always trickles off following the show. We have seen that each year we gain more and more recognition with the help of blogs and our bigger buyers. We also show our line at craft fairs and local art shows and find that word simply gets around. Building on word-of-mouth means that we always have to be putting unique pieces into the market, which is the only thing that’s going to keep people talking. That challenge is both motivating and inspiring.”
Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, partners Julie Belcher and Kevin Bradley of Yee-Haw Industries have used lead and wood typography combined with woodcuts and salvaged, antique letterpress printing equipment to create posters and custom fine-art designs since 1996.
“We were excited by the opportunity to build a fine letterpress facility that was capable of producing a volume of work to our own specifications—and it turned into an obsession,” Belcher said. “It’s always evolving, we adapt to changing markets while still keeping true to our ideals.”
For Belcher and Bradley, funding was difficult. Bradley said, “Try getting bankers to loan money to buy obsolete equipment and insurance companies to cover irreplaceable typography—not easy. We started very small and with a tiny bank loan and help from our families—free rent and fried chicken and we were on our way. Now we try to pay as we go.”
For promotion Belcher and Bradley started out by putting their company name, phone number and Web site on everything they printed. Belcher said, “We spent our first year sending out promo pieces to let the design world know we existed. Folks got excited about a hand-printed promo packet in the mail that smelled like ink. We have since opened our own retail store, online store, we do social networking and just get our work out there.”
The pair also exhibits at tradeshows and has found that their design backgrounds increase their visibility. Bradley put it more succinctly: “We stick out like a turd in a punchbowl,” he said. “We know there is some heartfelt intrinsic value to an original hand-printed product, but sometimes you wonder why America loves fake crap so much.”
“Design is our business,” Belcher said. “Since we make everything by hand in Tennessee, we’ve had to find an audience that will pay a bit more and retailers with customers who appreciate eco-friendly products handmade in the U.S.”
After twenty years in the business, Lisa Levin was getting burned out on graphic design; new projects didn’t excite her the way they once had. “At the same time, I began to have health problems that were later diagnosed as fibromyalgia, a syndrome similar to chronic fatigue,” Levin said. “I took a break from my design work and hired talented freelancers to take over my projects. I began to take classes in landscape design, but found that my real interest was at the intersection of plants and healing. I studied with a local herbalist and began making herbal remedies, trying them on my friends and myself. As I experienced the power of botanical remedies, I wondered why there weren’t many products on the market that were filled with healing ingredients and beautifully packaged too.
I saw a real hole in the market that I wanted to fill.”
Like many of the other entrepreneurs featured in this article, Levin did not have a business plan when she launched Pharmacopia in 1999. She said, “If I had, I probably wouldn’t have started the business, because I would have seen how much work and capital it would take. Be that as it may, I highly recommend doing a business plan, because it helps you see some of what is not forseeable when you just plunge ahead. Because a business plan requires you to really know the market and your competitors, it forces you to completely understand your strengths and weaknesses and those of your product. It also helps focus your energy on the most productive path.”
Levin financed Pharmacopia with money from selling her interest in her design partnership. She used her home equity line and credit cards after that. “It took both more money and work than I thought,” Levin said. “I reached a point where I really needed to bring in a partner, who had complementary skills, to raise capital for growth. I found my business partner through a friend and I can honestly say that the business is still around because of her stepping in to shoulder some of the burden. We eventually brought in some family and friends as investors.”
Levin initially used independent gift reps to sell Pharmacopia wholesale into gift and lifestyle stores. She also exhibited at the New York and San Francisco gift shows, but later changed her focus to include natural groceries and spas and began exhibiting at the Natural Products Expo. She said, “It wasn’t until much later that we began selling on the Web and sending e-mail newsletters to retail customers. We also did lots of product demos, using product sampling to gain customers and later hired an in-house sales manager.
“If I were starting the business today, I would probably put more emphasis on building my retail customer base by selling directly, using the Web and social media, before selling wholesale. This helps drive sell-through at retail when you don’t have a big advertising budget. We recently added a Facebook fan page and Twitter page. I think this holds immense potential to reach customers without having to go through the regular wholesale channels, which can be very expensive.”
A year ago Pharmacopia partnered with a large manufacturer who now handles manufacturing, distribution, operations and provides capital for growth. “This has opened up many opportunities including launching a line of green hotel amenities and two new scents,” Levin said. “I still work on product development, PR and marketing.”
CONTEMPLATING LAUNCHING YOUR OWN PRODUCT?
I asked each of the entrepreneurs if they had any advice for other creatives considering new business ventures. “It is very important to have an advisory board with a spectrum of skills—finance, marketing, product development and distribution,” Levin said.
“Product design is a very different animal than graphic design,” Grant said. “It can often take years for products to get into the marketplace and the financial compensation has to be approached in a very different manner than communication design projects. In addition, you can’t have successful products without a robust distribution system. Great products that never see the light-of-day in the market essentially have no value. Lastly, intellectual property attorneys are mandatory to protect your design solutions in the marketplace, and solid business partnership contracts have to be in place from the beginning.”
“Spend some time and see how many people are out there trying to do the same thing,” Matz said. “There are quite a few regional gift and stationery shows around the country. Attend them as guests and pick up all the industry publications you can get your hands on. Try to involve yourself in local shows as well. If you can establish a strong reputation with your innovative approach, it’s a first step toward gaining national/international recognition.”
Coops warns, “Be aware that being a designer may give you a great foundation for creating products that people will respond to, but manufacturing can demand a high learning curve. In addition, the selling process for products is substantially different than design services. Find as many ways as you can to augment your own expertise with what others know and can do.”
“Working for yourself is very different than being an employee,” de Freitas-Draper said. “To go into business for yourself means a lot of hard work and at times sacrifices. In this industry you really have to know how to balance your business skills with your creative talent. There are a lot of talented designers out there who can’t get it together to have a successful business and others who make a mediocre product but run a profitable company.”
Belcher concluded, “Figure out how to get samples made so you don’t have a lot invested in thousands of one item that the public might not be ready for. Stick with it, be ready to work seven days a week to keep up and forget about having a normal life.” ca