What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Wednesday Edition

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Coudal Partners

killed the cat and then some

My Friend Chris

by Jim Coudal

This is an abridged version of Jim's opening remarks at SXSW Interactive 2006. If you'd rather listen than read, a podcast of the presentation can be found here.

Ok, I know this guy Chris. You probably know him too. Well you might not know him personally but I'm pretty sure you have your own version of Chris in your life.

Chris knows that that new hot nightclub is passe before you've ever heard anyone even utter its name. Chris already saw that small offbeat movie you think you discovered. Not only that, he went drinking with the director once in Williamsburg. You tell Chris about this new band you just heard and he tells you about how their old guitarist was really the bomb and that the guitarist's new band is opening for Radiohead in London this summer, but that's not announced yet, so dont tell anybody. That is so Chris.

Chris knows pretty much everything about everything. In short, Chris is a tiresome pain in the ass. But, I stay in touch with Chris, not only because he always has a line on tickets but he's also sort of my barometer for what's happening.

A couple years ago, like many of my friends, Chris was in a band. They were pretty good, a sort of punkier My Morning Jacket with more angst and less reverb. He did that for a while but then decided, like a lot of my friends, he should be writing screenplays, mostly Rushmore-ish dark comedies that always seem to have a role for Steve Buscemi. He was OK at that too, but you may have guessed where this is going, I just talked to Chris recently and you know what he's doing now?

Chris is developing a web app. Of course he is. Some sort of social bookmarking thing. You could say that Chris has always been in beta. Now I don't know if this is a signal that the whole "put together a small team, launch a webservice and become superfamous" idea has peaked or that its just that getting laid has become less of a priority for Chris, because unlike rock and roll and movie making, I'm not sure the phrase "Hey Baby, I'm building a web app." has the same sort of impact when chatting up a girl in a crowded nightclub.

Another type of barometer is to simply look over the names and descriptions of the panels and presentations at this conference. A couple years ago they were mostly about tools and processes and banding together to hash out standards and important stuff like that. And there's still plenty of that type of essential specific knowledge to be shared.

But this year especially, it seems they're much more about how to use those tools to build businesses and how to be happy and successful doing it. That's all very cool because we talk to people all the time that started out as writers or designers or coders and are now building web services or online magazines or offering limited-edition artwork and posters and apparel and records and movies and ebooks and a million other products and services. They're doing it because they want to be successful and I think, because they want to control their own lives. And a lot if them are here and there's a lot to be learned by trading ideas with each other.

You know its sort of a standing thing in the design/advertising world that when someone tells you they work for an in-house creative department for a big company that manufactures or sells or markets or distributes something, you nod knowingly and say 'thats cool' but you're really thinking that 'in-house' means cheezy newsletters, Comic Sans, poorly kerned headlines, awful sales videos parodying the reality show of the moment, and of course a bunch of stupid toys decorating cubicles, as a sort of sign saying "Beware! Creatives on the loose."

Now I didnt make this stereotype up and if you're at an in-house creative dept, I'm sorry. Really I am.

But its always been thought that to do really good creative work you had to be independent of the client (now how a junior art director at J. Walter Thompson working on some shampoo product is in any way independent is a question for another time). But how are we going to deal with this? Now we're seeing creative firms with 'in-house' manufacturing, sales, marketing and distribution departments. Hell they're not even departments, they're just folders in an email client. How cool is that?

Corporate America thought so little of 'creative thinking' that if they could just toss a few of 'those people' in the back of the office they would be all set. And now the shoe is on the other foot. It's the creative firms, the designers, writers, artists and coders who figure they can handle all those previously front-line operations in-house and due to technology available for the most part they can. The barrier to entry in most new businesses can be calculated in hours spent and not in capital raised.

This isn't to say the creative types are gonna rule the world although that's a nice idea and maybe there's even a book in it. Except that Dan Pink already wrote it last year. It's called A Whole New Mind.

I think the heart of the matter is learning, is staying curious, and to me that's what this whole conference is about too.

There's a lot of talent in our studio and most of it comes to the fore in the application of craft. Illustration, color-theory, writing clean markup, typography, printing technique, cinematography, layouts, etc. In the past most of that craft has been applied to work-for-hire, in some ways that's all our clients were buying from us. And that's also why and how we learned those crafts.

Lately at Coudal, we have been trying to find ways to apply those crafts to our own businesses, to take a greater control of our own creative, to allow the work we produce to generate residual, instead of one-time value.

So that's all neat and tidy now, it rocks even. We already know all this stuff, all these crafts and now we'll just do them for ourselves. Simple right? Not really, because once we step into this new business we're creating, whether it's a downloaded product or a physical product like limited-edition disc sets from the Pixies or a web-based service like Basecamp, we're going to be faced with a whole slew of issues that our comfy little work-for-hire world didn't prepare us for.

Stuff like international shipping regulations and customs, sales forecasting, tax ramifications, clustered servers, redundancy, data security, customer service procedures, media buying, and a million other details that you'll have no way to expect and no way to avoid. So unless one of the crafts we're going to port over to this world of design entrepreneurship is the ability to learn new things quickly, then we're gonna be in trouble.

We evaluate every opportunity at Coudal whether it's our own initiative or one from a client or partner, by asking three questions:

Will we be able to do great work?

Will we be able to make money?

Will we learn something new?

Now these three aren't exactly equal. Once in a while we'll take a job that allows us to create something really great for mediocre money. We'll even, I'm not particularly proud to say, sometimes take a job which we know at the end will result is fairly mediocre work yet it pays a lot of money. But there's two things we won't do. We won't do mediocre work for mediocre money and more importantly, we won't take any job or start any project where we won't be able to learn a little something new along them way.

That is really the point and that's the craft that the work-for-hire world has best prepared us for, in terms of advertising and design anyway. A client comes to us and says "here's my business." We didn't know the first thing about that business yesterday. Then he says, "here's my problem," and we didn't know anything about that yesterday either, but we have to get up to speed on how his business and industry works and try to immediately become an expert and find a solution to his problem. And we gotta love doing it. That's the key craft we need to take with us. The ability to jump into the deep end of the pool and start swimming.

The meek shall inherit the earth. Well maybe, if by meek you mean friendly and introverted, I guess it's possible. If by meek you mean an unwillingness to take a chance then, forget about it.

The creative shall inherit the earth. Nope. I think one look at the conference schedule or a little eavesdropping in the hallways proves that there's are very practical, pragmatic matters that must be addressed through logic and science to be successful.

And it's not going to be my damn friend Chris who inherits the earth either, by the time we get to earth-inheriting, he'll be onto something else entirely.

So if I was a betting man and I had to make a big wager on who was going to inherit the earth, my money would be on the curious.

A Thing We Made:

We hated the options available for custom packaging DVDs and CDs so we created a brand that gives creative professionals and hobbyists the tools to make great stuff.

Another Thing we Made: The Show

Limited-edition, professionally mixed and mastered, custom-designed live performances on CD. That's The Show. With partners like The Pixies and Dead Can Dance. Lots more news soon.