Max Lipsey's studio
For the past ten weeks, I've been talking to a variety of American design entrepreneurs about the realities of running an I.D. business today. The designers I interviewed work on a diverse range of products, from antler lamps to gaming headphones, lawn darts to wine-bottle carriers, stacking chairs to Mushroom Insulation. But their day-to-day work lives have a lot in common. This was especially apparent when I asked them to share some advice for other design entrepreneurs—over and over, certain common lessons (and warnings) cropped up in their answers.
So to cap off this profile series, I wanted to share the following seven key recommendations for aspiring and practicing I.D. entrepreneurs. These tips can't guarantee success (nothing can do that), but they should at least steer you in the right direction.
1. Make a business plan . . . eventually
A surprising number of the entrepreneurs I interviewed admitted to having no traditional business plan at the start. "My studio was totally organic," Jason Miller told me. "It started from nothing and became a small but functioning business." What each person did have, however, was passion for their work and a clear vision for what they wanted to achieve. Eventually, a business plan becomes a necessity—but at least at the outset, don't let your ideas get straightjacketed by a too-rigid focus on business objectives.
2. Let focus be a priority
For hungry young designers bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, one of the biggest challenges is forcing yourself to not pursue every idea. "When you're starting out, you can do any project," says ODLCO's Lisa Smith. "Learning to say no and pick your projects is really important." Max Lipsey expressed a similar sentiment, ticking off all the questions he asks himself before he pursues a new design idea. Jenie Fu of OgoSport would agree: "Whenever we have these new ideas, we compare the concept against our mission and quickly realize which will work and not work." Built NY also uses a mission statement to stay true to its core values. And Just Mobile is a good example of a company that has found success by relentlessly focusing on a specific niche.
Models for Jonathan Olivares's recent OAC chair for Knoll
3. Find another way to make some cash
Most new design businesses do not make much money at first, so you'd do well to figure out some other method of paying the rent—especially if it complements your design enterprise. Jonathan Olivares has financed his design office largely through writing and research projects. Max Lipsey stays afloat by taking on occasional welding jobs. The founders of ODLCO both teach. Laurene Leon Boym teaches and does consulting work for businesses and cultural organizations. Kevin Williams ran a product-design consultancy while launching OgoSport. Having another source of income can also keep you from rushing a product to the market or otherwise moving too fast in your business venture.
Erich Huang (left) and Nils Gustafsson with Just Mobile's Encore iPad stand and Xtand Pro
This is the tenth—and final—profile in our series on design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
If you've purchased a new smartphone or tablet recently, there's a good chance you've been disappointed by the quality of the available accessories—so many third-party cases, docks, touch pens, stands and other add-ons just don't display the same attention to industrial design as the devices themselves.
Just Mobile, a technology design brand founded in 2005 by Nils Gustafsson and Erich Huang, is one company trying to right this imbalance. "There has been an unbelievable boom in the market for the iPhone, the iPad and other mobile devices," Gustafsson says, "and a lot of companies are trying to get a cut of the accessories business. In this fast market, the quality is often missing. Most accessories don't reach the level of quality a company like Apple delivers in its hardware."
Just Mobile's latest releases include the AluPocket (above) and AluCup (below).
Quality design was the thing that first brought Gustafsson and Huang together. They met by chance in a German museum, where they found themselves admiring the same Wilhelm Wagenfeld table lamp. This sparked a conversation about their shared passion for stylish design and quality execution. Just Mobile initially focused on Windows mobile phones, but when Apple released its first iPhone in 2007, the company tabled every other project to focus on the new smartphone. The result was the wildly popular Xtand for iPhone. Today, the company has over 30 product lines for sale in Apple Stores and at the MoMA Design Store, among other outlets, as well as a laundry list of accolades, including several Red Dot awards. You know you're on to something when artists like David Hockney buy your AluPen, a pencil-shaped stylus for touch screens. "That was a great honor," Huang says.
Eben Bayer (left) and Gavin McIntyre founded Ecovative in 2007.
This is the ninth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In June, the Green Island, New York company Ecovative "grew" a house. From mushrooms. This is just the latest radical experiment from the materials-production outfit known for using mycelium—or the roots of mushrooms—to create biomaterials for everyday applications like wall insulation and packaging. For the aforementioned house, the company filled the pine tongue-and-groove walls of a 60-square-foot structure with its fire-resistant, environmentally-friendly Mushroom Insulation. "That house is still alive," says Ecovative's 28-year-old co-founder Eben Bayer. "If you were to cut a hole in the wall to run wiring, for example, the material would be dry. If you spritzed it with water, it would grow back and close in around the wiring."
The idea to grow home-compostable bioplastics from living materials began in 2007 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), when Bayer and fellow student Gavin McIntyre first used mycelium to create a rigid, moldable material. With the encouragement of a professor, Bayer and McIntyre founded Ecovative out of RPI's Business Incubator—which turned out to be a valuable resource for the budding entrepreneurs. "Depending on the one you're in, [business incubators] can provide a lot of services like networking and coaching," Bayer says. "But the thing that RPI did for us that was life-changing was that for the first six months they gave us free office space."
Bayer says that they also benefitted from being left alone. "What we really needed was a wet lab," Bayer says. "Trying to do biology with carpeting is not easy. We put up walls so people wouldn't know what we were doing, and there was steam coming out from under our door. They ignored us."
Eben Bayer with a sheet of Ecovative's Mushroom Insulation
Mushroom Packaging used for wine shipping
This is the eighth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In 2004, when Kevin Williams co-founded OgoSport with a friend from the Pratt Institute, Rick Goodwin, they had a simple philosophy: design toys to get people moving and thinking, toys that wouldn't silence kids with distraction but encourage active play and creativity. (The "Ogo" part of the name stands for Oh, Go Outside.)
Soon, products like the Super SportsDisk—which can be slung like a Frisbee or used to catch and throw balls, among other possibilities—were winning awards and getting airtime from the likes of Regis & Kelly and Stephen Colbert. Today, the company has an extensive portfolio of clever toys that embrace the same spirit of creative play, like the OGOBILD Pod, a lightweight construction set you can kick, spin and throw.
Getting established in the saturated toy market was not an easy road, however. "The toy business has a low barrier to entry," says partner Jenie Fu, who joined OgoSport in 2008. "Anyone can get into it."
As a result, making a name—and a profit—can be challenging. "Some people hope for a get-rich-quick path, which isn't attainable in hard products," Williams says. "Maybe it is in technology, but in this case we know that we will have to grow organically."
Left: Kevin Williams and Jenie Fu. Right: VOLO Darts
In fact, Williams initially continued to run his (now defunct) product design consultancy, Make, while launching the toy company. "That business was paying the bills for the first three or four years after I started OgoSport," he says.
It wasn't always clear that Williams, who grew up in New Orleans and had an early affinity for making things, would go on to launch several industrial design businesses. "As a kid, I always had these projects at home, like Frankenstein-ing bikes together," he says. "Since I could make stuff, I thought that I should make buildings, so I went to school for architecture. In my third year, an ID firm came and presented to us. And I remember going, 'Oh, crap! I'm in the wrong program.'"
Williams later graduated with Goodwin from Pratt's industrial design master's program. They both went on to do other things, but would get together every few months to brainstorm. "After a few years of this, Rick says: 'Lets go make toys together!'" Williams remembers. Goodwin later brought in Fu, who was one of his students at Pratt.
OgoSport now sustains a total of seven employees (including Williams and Fu), plus two consultants—but, Fu says, each year is still an unknown. "Major events have happened every year where we've thought: This could be it," she says. "We didn't freak out and we dealt with it the best we could, and we came through."
This is the seventh profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In 2007, Dwell magazine described the Brooklyn-based designer Jason Miller as witty, youthful and enjoying a "meteoric rise" in the U.S. design scene. Today, Miller, 41, laughs at the notion of sudden success. "I've been doing this for many years," he says, "so it doesn't feel meteoric."
Still, Miller did cause a splash when he opened Jason Miller Studio in 2001 and released lighting designs like his Antlers series, which captured the animal-head-as-decor trend with a chandelier composed of glazed ceramic replicas of deer antlers.
In 2010, Miller spun off a new company, Roll & Hill, to manufacture high-end contemporary lights by a variety of designers. "We sell relatively expensive things, we make them on demand, and we make them to the customer's specifications," Miller explains. "While we are a manufacturing company, we are not a mass producer; we still make everything to order."
Above and below: Miller's office in his Brooklyn studio
Miller now helms his studio and serves as the creative director and CEO of Roll & Hill. He has 20 employees between the two businesses and is having to deal with fast expansion. This, ahem, meteoric rise in company growth means that staff needs have outpaced the infrastructure of business management. "When you have two or three people working with you, it's easy to stop in the hall and ask questions and have an impromptu meeting," Miller says. "But now that I have 20 employees, it's easy to get lost in that world. It's easy to be in meetings all day. My door, unfortunately, is glass, so people peer in thinking that any minute I'll be free."