Taking the plunge to abandon the freelance world of design and set up your own studio can be daunting. Seán O’Beacháin and Clara FitzGerald did it, created So&So and talk about the process and experience.
What was the catalyst for beginning your own studio? How did it come about?
Sean: I had been freelancing in Dublin for a few years. It suited me perfectly at the time, but eventually I got bored with only being involved with projects briefly or not being around long enough to finish them out.
Clara: I had gone back to do a Masters and was only newly freelancing when I met Sean. We worked together briefly but I had a feeling we could work well together in the future if it ever came about. We had stayed in touch through work and when an opportunity arose, I called Sean to chat about the industry etc. We had a couple of subsequent conversations about the possibility of working together and it seemed we had very similar views and ideals.
How was the transition from regular freelance work like?
Sean: It was pretty straightforward. I had originally planned to cut back on freelancing over time, while building up my own client base. I soon realised it was too tricky trying to manage both; I needed to be able to react to my own clients’ requests as they came up but I couldn’t do that while freelancing at the same time. Some of the studios I was working with needed to book me for long stints and it wasn’t realistic to expect my own clients to wait until I was free so I could work on their projects. I could have managed if I was willing to work late nights and weekends but, with young kids, that wasn’t really an option. Eventually I decided to give up freelancing altogether. This meant cutting off a steady source of income but I couldn’t really see any other way of being able to make it work.
Clara: I had felt unsettled work-wise for a long time after I had the kids. I found it hard to juggle work and kids at the same time. I think I had arrived at a place where I needed to be making my own decisions and have the flexibility of being able to attend to my family life if I needed.
How did the agencies that relied on you take it?
Sean: They were great, and very supportive. That’s one of the nice things about the local design community, there’s no sense of us all competing against each other, everyone is willing to share information and help out.
How do you find your clients? How do you find that part of your role now?
Sean: Most of our new clients come through word of mouth or referrals. At the start, I spent a lot of time contacting businesses out of the blue; I did manage to get a few projects that way, but it’s really just pot luck.
Ultimately, I think it’s better when a client gets in touch of their own accord, that means they’re ready and keen to fully engage with the whole process. New clients are coming to us based on what we’ve done before and what they’ve heard about us. They feel confident we’ll be the right fit for them.
Clara: I think it’s important that people like what you do. That our way of working as well as our aesthetic, resonates with them. Word of mouth helps – we find that past clients are our best sales people!
What are the biggest challenges of starting your own creative business?
Sean: For me, the biggest challenge has been sticking to our own work ideals. I think it’s important to focus on the projects you enjoy doing because that will bring similar projects your way.
Clara: I’ve always found the best work comes from allowing a good chunk of time in the discovery / research phase. Good insights and intuition spawn good creative output.
How would you define your approach and work? What sets you apart?
Clara: I guess what we were saying above plus we really think creative strategy is important. We’re not necessarily unique in that regard – plenty of agencies take the same approach. I like to think our USP is our complementary skills and personalities. We have the same values and vision but have different strengths and ways of working. I also think the male/female balance has it advantages too – it can inform the work and help clients feel comfortable.
Your favourite project so far? What made it so?
Sean: For me it has to be the work we did on The Nature of Things, a range essential oils. We had a really good team for it; Tom Abbiss Smith did the illustrations, Johan Van Der Merwe helped with the styling and Brendan Ryan took care of the photography. Benoit, the client, was great to work with and was always open to hearing our ideas and thoughts. He’s got plenty more interesting ideas to come so we look forward to continuing to work with him. The project has also been a really good profile piece for us and won us the award for best packaging in this year’s IDIs.
The perfect client in 3 sentences…
Sean: 1. Comes to us because they like our previous work. 2. Is nice to work with. 3. Is willing to work with us collaboratively to create something unique.
If you had it do it all again, what 3 things would you do differently?
Clara: I’m not a big believer in looking back. I think everything happens for a reason. Any mistakes we made or make are all part of the learning process and it helps to build a more robust way of working.
The perfect project you have yet to be commissioned for…
Sean: I’d still love to work on the branding for a festival or cultural institution like a museum, theatre or venue.
Clara: Personally I love art direction, so a beautiful product photoshoot with an amazing creative team would be my dream project. I also love the thought of designing for a hotel or restaurant where we have been involved in every inch of the identity creation – from textiles to delph design.
The one thing you hate doing but it comes with the role…
Sean: I’ve never been a fan of presenting… boardroom tables are the stuff of nightmares for me. There are lots of other aspects to running your own studio that I didn’t realise would take up quite as much time; admin, proposals, scheduling, responding to emails.
Clara: It’s funny I don’t mind presentations but I don’t like artwork and production which Sean executes perfectly! We were fully transparent about our strengths and weaknesses and luckily we can support each other in the areas that we don’t feel fully comfortable in. I don’t think any creative really enjoys the admin parts but it certainly plays a huge part.
You mentioned before about seeking out a better work/life balance? How do you achieve that without letting the stress take over, maybe you just don’t stress?
Sean: Work/life balance is really important for the two of us. We both have young families and partners who sometimes need to work unpredictable hours. It’s important for us to have flexibility without our work suffering. Design is one of those professions where projects can become personal, we always want to do the best job possible, so it can be difficult if things don’t go the way you had originally planned. Ultimately, we’re not saving lives so I think it’s important to keep that in mind.
Clara: The flexibility is great. Young school age kids require a lot of extra curricular time, so it’s really important that I’m there for that and don’t miss the golden years. It might mean working in the evening or over the weekend in order to attend a mid-week school commitment but it’s worth it.
As a service industry it’s hard not to feel tenacious about projects and let them seep into your personal life but I think you become used to it over time. Our industry allows us to dip our toes into a myriad of worlds and meet interesting, diverse people. One day we’re chatting about government policy and the next about the consistency of a chocolate drink…being able to step back and recognise how refreshing that is can help minimise stress, I think.
Do you intend to scale more over the coming year? What’s a nice size for you all?
Sean: We’d like to take on an intern this summer. I started out as an intern way back and I think it’s a really useful introduction to the industry. It’s also a really good way of finding the best talent as it comes on the market!
In terms of how we’d like to grow over the next year or so, it’d be great to get someone to help with the admin and business side of things, then ideally we’d like to take on another designer. We don’t ever want to be a big studio, five people seems like a nice number.
Clara: Yes, we hope so. I’m finding it harder to get the creative / non-screen time I need. I think more clearly with pen and paper. Getting ideas and thoughts down in my notebook is how I do my best work and planning. Having more people in the studio, will hopefully free us up to do more of that thinking.
Words: Richard Seabrooke
Portraits: Myles Shelley
The Nature of Things illustration: Tom Abbiss Smith
CES illustration: Ben the Illustrator
Spike Island photography: Brendan Ryan
LouYoga photography: Al Higgins
Dishy photography: Sean Breithaupt