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.
Max Lipsey's Studio
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.
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.
4. Don't do it all by yourselfBrett Lovelady credits his success with Astro Studios and Astro Gaming, in part, to hiring the right advisers. "The day I hired my comptroller is the day Astro started doubling our business," he says. Know your weaknesses, be clear on what you can and cannot do, and break the habit of doing everything yourself. "It's a fine balance of knowing when to do it yourself and when to bring in experts," Built NY's Aaron Lown says.
5. Master at least one form of marketingMax Lipsey suggests learning to take high-quality product photography. Laurene Leon Boym is active on social-media channels. Jonathan Olivares prefers good old-fashioned face-to-face networking. All designers should probably be doing all of these things—but, at the very least, make sure you're putting serious effort into one of them. And if you can't keep up with it yourself, see #4 above and consider hiring a PR professional to help out.
6. Define success
Do you want growth? Do you want to remain small? Do you want shareholders? These are questions to ask yourself regularly, lest you accidentally build a business that doesn't really suit your goals or your temperament. "It's easy to create something that you can be trapped by if you're not careful," Jason Miller warns. So what does success look like to you? Do you want to spend your days designing, or would you be happy managing a team of creatives while looking at the bigger picture? Understanding your personal goals will help you manage decisions moving forward.
7. Take a break!
Starting a new business can be a big rush, and in the beginning it's all too easy to work 23-hour days. Some of this is probably unavoidable; as Just Mobile's Erich Huang says, "You need to have the energy to eat dinner at midnight." But over time, that kind of workaholism is a recipe for burnout, and most of my interviewees make of point of getting away from their businesses sometimes. OgoSport's Jenie Fu goes to the gym in the mornings; her business partner, Kevin Williams, takes time to get his kids off to school. Ecovative's Eben Bayer forces the office to go on an annual retreat, even though everyone would rather keep working. "The reality in a start-up is there isn't balance, so carving out a few days to get out of the office is important," Bayer says. Jonathan Olivares said that he regrets not taking better care of himself in the early years of his studio. "Your first priority should be your savings account and your health insurance over hiring a new person because you want to do more work," he says.
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a journalist, author, and editor whose articles, essays, and fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Baltimore Sun, The Atlantic Cities, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and Metropolis, among others.
Dickinson is a contributing editor at Architect and Architectural Lighting magazines and has served as guest editor for publications like Johns Hopkins Magazine and Next American City. She was also the editor-in-chief of Urbanite magazine in Baltimore for three years. She is an adjunct faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) where she teaches graduate level writing.