I could not focus on what he was saying.
It was late 2010 and I was interviewing a student who wanted to do an internship with us. His work was solid, I liked his personality and he was enthusiastic about what we were doing. But I was distracted.
As we spoke I thought about what I had worked on that day. I don’t remember the specifics but I know it was ultimately inconsequential and would not be bringing in revenue or new business.
I realized mid-conversation that my company was about to go out of business. I was proud of the work that we had done so far and even if we weren’t famous what little reputation we had was positive. I suddenly saw that we were going to be one of these cool little studios that does a handful of good work, abruptly shuts down and the partners get day jobs while people ask “Hey whatever happened to Insert-Dope-Name here?”. The answer always being “Cool Person that ran it now works at Insert-Boring-Ad-Agency-Name here.”
To preempt this situation, we started looking for jobs so that we could continue to do The MVA on the side but focus on getting our finances stabilized.
Three years later, the MVA is a full-time gig again. Not because we were so busy that it demanded our full-time attention but because Kim’s day job ended and her time opened up and I had to make a decision about whether this was going to be a business or an unbelievably stressful hobby. I chose business.
I’ve spent the last 3 years learning a ton about business, marketing and managing design projects. I have spent every spare minute reading business books, listening to podcasts, and learning how to bring a design project to life without having to actually design it myself. I’ve realized that I don’t want to work for myself so much as own a business. Lastly, I’ve analyzed what went wrong the first time around—too much time spent designing and not enough on business development, too little staff, a fear of growth, and a false belief (albeit a widely-held one) that small businesses are supposed to have chaotic cash flow (a.k.a. “feast or famine”). I’ve also seen multiple friends shut down their small studios and other people that can never get their solo business to pop off properly for the very same reasons that we failed 3 years ago.
We’ve always thought that The MVA would have more partners than just Kim and me. But because we never felt truly “successful” we felt like we couldn’t ask anyone to join us (another false belief).
A month ago I was walking my dog and realized that there was no way we could get the studio to grow without help. Even if we suddenly got enough work to support us we would need assistance in the creative direction and execution of that work. Furthermore, we’d need someone whose work we admired and who “got” what it is we’re after with The MVA—design driven by ideas, marketing driven by honesty, no trends, no gimmicks, no stunts. Almost like an early Modernist design shop before the rise of giant ad agencies.
I sent my MCAD colleague J. Zachary Keenan a text to see if he could get a beer after class that evening.
We’ve known Zach for 12 years. He is the real deal. He’s multi-faceted in design capabilities but has a unique illustration style. He’s fantastic with clients and a great story-teller. He gets the “new” marketing. And we really like being in a room with him coming up with ideas. (He also has a really good resumé with time spent as Senior Design at Olson, Director of MCAD DesignWorks, and Creative Manager at American Public Media | MPR. He’s also been teaching at MCAD since 2007 and incidentally he is the reason I teach there. Huh, I think I may have dropped a few things.)
The direction of The MVA will remain unchanged but the speed with which we move in that direction should be picking up.
Zach—Welcome to The MVA and thank you for contributing your talents to the cause and taking a chance with us.
We promise not to go out of business.