Monday, January 31, 2011

Jett Butler: How to Run a Successful Design Studio

There are a lot of nice places in Austin. One of them is Malverde, a contemporary bar/club in downtown Austin. They had a grand opening about two years ago, and I have attended the club quite a few times ever since. In fact, I met a lot of great people there, including one of my best friends who organized a kick-off party for one of Austin’s magazines back in the day. Malverde’s branding was designed by FÖDA, a design studio founded by Jett Butler.

I read about Jett and his studio in Austin Magazine. Shortly after, we met at the coffee shop in mid January. Jett has a very charming, soft-spoken manner of carrying a conversation. He later shared that in any business involved personal sales (attention, my dear artists and photographers) you have to be a good psychologist first and listen to your client carefully, picking up all clues, including the client’s word choices. We agreed that there are a lot of talented and skilled creative people around the world, but if these guys don’t learn how to understand the needs of their prospective buyers and don’t master the art of sales, in most cases they are doomed to fail financially.

Jett was born and raised in the USA, but found himself on a freelance assignment in Sweden in 2003. This trip inspired the creation of his studio. FÖDA is a Swedish word that translates to English as “to conceive.” Jett was driven by a desire to treat “architecture as art,” and after spending a few years working for architecture firms he decided he would not achieve his creative goals staying solely in that field.

Jett borrowed money on his credit card to buy a laptop and to print business cards. In the beginning he did a lot of low-paid or free work just to build his portfolio. When he started out, he didn’t know how much to charge for his work. A year later he met with his uncle, a successful entrepreneur who ran a construction business. They had the following conversation. The uncle asked Jett, “What would you like making this year?” Jett gave him his number. His uncle: “Double it!” Jett: “I thought, Ok, I’d be happy with that number. But then we did a math, added taxes and overhead expenses to that number and divided by hours you work per year, and this is your rate.”

Since then, Jett’s studio won numerous awards. He was invited to give lectures at universities across the USA. His work was featured on the cover of ArchiCAD 9, a software package for architects made by Graphisoft.
The best advertising for Jett’s business is word of mouth. Thus, he said that in any client acquisition there is always a triangle: 1) he and his studio – 2) a friend or a past client – 3) a prospective client, referred by the friend or by the existing client. Even though only one or two out of ten meetings turn into a partnership, Jett never misses an opportunity to meet with everyone who expressed interest in his studio.

Another brilliant promotional idea that Jett kindly shared with me was to organize an annual party for all existing clients. Jett hosts a private party once a year at the venue his studio designed and invites all his clients. Clients often bring their friends to the party. Besides cheerful celebration, such event is an avid demonstration of appreciation of Jett’s studio and its work. People see that there are a lot of other distinguished folks who have used FÖDA’s services and are happy with the designs. It also turns into a great networking opportunity for all attendees. Therefore, clients look forward to this annual event.

Jett loves his job and what he does on a daily basis. I asked him whether he sometimes feels overworked: in spite of having a few staff members, he still does all of the sales, runs the business, and serves as creative director and principal designer on most projects. He does feel that sometimes he’d appreciate more rest; yet, Austin is a highly competitive environment and he needs to keep going to retain and expand his business. I wish Jett great success and am looking forward to see his new projects.

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