This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year’s Core77 Conference, “Now What? Launching & Growing Your Creative Business” , a one-day event aimed to equip attendees with tangible skills and toolkits to help produce and promote their products or services.
The tale of launching a creative studio is age-old, and yet, somehow the ins and outs of that journey are still cloaked in mystery, and the helpful, frank tips young designers hunger for are often out of reach. It’s easy as a young person to view your lack of knowledge as a serious disadvantage, but Carly Ayres, Pedro Sanches, Nicky Tesla, and Andrew Herzog, co-founders of experimental interaction design studio HAWRAF, recognized their steep learning curve as an opportunity. Two years ago, the group introduced HAWRAF into the world with a mission to share their journey of starting a design studio with other young creatives. The launch of HAWRAF began with “A-Z”, a 26 hour live marathon where they would tackle 26 different design briefs on video. From then on, in addition to working on some truly pioneering interactive projects with companies big and small, they’ve also dedicated their practice to publicly sharing guides and tips on how to get clients and get paid what you’re worth, all while doing what you love and pushing your industry forward.
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We recently sat down for some online coffee talk with Pedro and Carly—who will also be speaking at this year’s Core77 Conference—to learn more about their professional journey over the past two years and what they’ve learned from their successes and hiccups.
Can you tell me a little more about the work HAWRAF does and your studio mission?
Carly: HAWRAF is an interactive design and technology studio based in Brooklyn. Our work focuses on engaging audiences in new and interesting ways, usually using some form of new technology. The work itself really runs the gamut in terms of how that manifests, but our special spot is either creating or taking a strong brand, a message, and getting someone to want to pay attention.
Pedro: We’re always trying to think, how will someone interact with this? How will someone participate? And, hopefully, understand or care a little bit more about whatever it is that they’re being asked to interact with through that process.
And what would you say are some of your cornerstone projects?
Carly: We did a mirrored poster for a dental startup that was covered with illustrated smiles, so you could add a smile to your selfie, and collaborated with SuperUnion to do a sound-reactive logo for the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra.
Pedro: Most recently, we did an e-commerce site for Los Angeles-based clothing brand, Entireworld, where the entire experience is super voyeuristic, telling you how many people are on the website at any given time and where they’re coming from, bringing everyone together in one internet space. It also generates tones based on where you hover your mouse, creating a unique composition with every browsing experience.
Can you tell me more about your mission of sharing your process of starting the studio, and why personally it was especially important for you all to do that?
Carly: When we started the studio, we had all these ideas around how we wanted to run a creative practice, but very little knowledge around the tactical and practical necessities of starting a business. We did a lot of research, talked to founders, read books, but none of it told us about how you should file an LLC or create a partnership agreement. How are decisions made? How do you handle disagreements? How do you file an LLC? People are quick to share the highlight reel, but few talk about the nitty-gritty, way less glamorous aspects of setting up a successful business. So, in starting the studio, we wanted to illuminate some of those darker corners and hopefully save some other folks a few steps of the long, hard, stupid path we stumbled along. It’s a good journey, and we learned a lot along the way, but we there’s a lot others can hopefully take away from our mistakes, missteps, failures, and, every so often, successes.
Pedro: And to that first point— when we started we also had all these ways of working and thinking that we wanted to try out. We were seeing a lot of discussion around how design studios were dying out because companies were developing in-house design teams instead. Large agencies seemed to be dominating what was left of that work, and we really felt like there needed to be a change in how a contemporary design practice operated in order to survive. What’s the studio of 2018, 2019, 3019? As we test out our ideas, we want to share our findings there, as well.
And I’m sure that you’ve learned a lot throughout that process. I’m curious to hear about your experience as young designers working in the industry. From your perspective, what do you think that landscape is like for young designers? Do people take young designers seriously? And how can you, as a young designer, assert yourself as not an affordable option, but the best option, in an industry that might be skeptical of your experience or even your worth?
Pedro: I feel like we’re still young designers. Some days we’re younger than others. I think there’s a skepticism around [young designers] being too idealistic, but that’s actually one of the things I’m trying to not lose. I think the idealism of a young designer is a double-edged sword; some dismiss their ideas because they think they’re impractical when, in reality, they might just be on the edge of what’s next and all that’s needed is a bit of imagination to make it a reality.
Carly: There’s an element of trust that needs to take place. We earn that trust through existing relationships, or from the work that we do. Good work begets more work. When you’re just starting out, it’s all relationships. All of the projects we did our first year—and we’re hitting the two year mark now—were with people we already knew and they trusted us to do good work. Beyond that, it’s about finding the clients who are willing to take that risk on you.
Youth aside, we had a lot of conversations when we were starting out where they’d say, “Get back to me in five years… if you’re still around.” The subtext being: If you can maintain a business for five years, you’ll be a reliable enough to hire. E-commerce is a great example of that. We had a slew of conversations that went nowhere until Scott was willing to take a chance on us with Entireworld. He found our work, loved it, and hired us to design and develop this site. Once we did that, the floodgates opened and [other clients were] like, “Oh, we’ll do it now. We’d love to work with you.” Some people don’t want to take that initial risk, but for the people who do, it’s rewarding to work with them.
Another question that I had is, from the stuff that you’ve learned over the past two years, what are a few things that stick out the most as something that you wish you would have known prior to starting?
Carly: Ask for more money. Iterate quickly. I feel like our proposal template changed with every project for a while as we stumbled upon various obstacles and tough client conversations that we wished we had known to bring up earlier in the project. Communication is everything. Our kickoff process even includes a mutual communication agreement in colloquial language that outlines how often we answer emails, when and how feedback is expected, and so on.
What are some of the most common questions that young designers ask you guys about?
Carly: Everyone wants to know how you started. How did you know it was time to make the jump? How did you know who you wanted to make that jump with? The answer is that there’s never a right time. You’re never completely ready. When Pedro, Andrew, Nicky & I met at Google we realized that we had shared ambitions, similar values, and different skills. We all really valued the ability and privilege to learn, which is fortunate because we certainly got a huge dose of that out of our first year together. How do you find clients? Strong relationships.
And you guys aren’t just a studio but also community leaders who value starting conversations in real life. Is that part of the network building? What drives you to have those conversations? To inspire your work? To meet more people?
Carly: Sharing has always been great way for us to reflect and to digest what we’ve learned. We just did a guide for The Creative Independent on working with clients. That was such a cathartic process. When you say it out loud, you’re able to either reaffirm or question why it is so. You open yourself up to questions, as well, ideally from people who have different perspectives of your own. And it always comes back.
Pedro: Yeah, the design world is pretty small in New York.
Well, in order to survive, you have to rely on each other, right? You need that community to find new clients and things like that…
Pedro: Absolutely. And we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are today without others who shared their own processes, experiences, documents —that has been so helpful to us. We still ask each other things like, “What printers do you know? How much do they charge for something like this?”
Carly: It’s true. You never know who or what experience will lead to the next thing you’re going to do. The world is small. We love introducing people to other people, to jobs, opportunities, resources. You don’t know where it will lead, but it always leads somewhere. We relied so much on others who did that for us, and will forever be grateful. The moment you know something, you know it, but it means the world to you at the time. We never want to lose sight of that feeling.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, because it’s hard to maintain a fresh perspective once you’ve gained some knowledge about something. So staying sort of naïve in a way.
Carly: Yeah, or empathetic. Like, remember how hard that was? That was the worst.
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Lastly—you guys left pretty comfortable positions working at Google. So, what was the impetus for taking that leap and going out on your own even though that’s a terrifying prospect, and how has it been rewarding for you all personally?
Pedro: For me, I went into Google never thinking it was going to be forever. You’re right; it’s one of those places you can get really comfortable. And the work can be very satisfying, too, but I wasn’t planning a future there. I wanted to be my own boss. I didn’t want to work with one client. I wanted to do different projects with different clients in order to learn. I wasn’t sure it was the right time or even a great idea, but I knew we were going to learn a lot. And we did.
Carly: Learning was definitely a large motivator. We all wanted to learn and, as it turns out, there’s a lot to learn when starting a business. There’s still so much to learn. But having partners, people you can really trust, who check in with you and share accountability with— makes it easier.
Freelancing was very isolating for me. I felt frustrated not always getting to choose my team, lacking control over the output, feeling like I was only pitching a piece of the puzzle. As a team, we’re able to do so much more, all while growing together.
Pedro: The last thing I could say about that is I think, as a person, you’re constantly growing and building these skills over and over again. When we left Google, we didn’t know if we were going to succeed or not.
Carly: We still don’t know if we’re going to succeed.
Pedro: And I feel like you could always go back to Google if I have to.
Carly: You can always get a job. I should note, we are speaking from a place of privilege and acknowledging that. We were at a point in our careers and our lives, coming out of Google, where we could take that risk.
Yeah. And often those risks that you take, like you’re saying if you do lose a lot or whatever, it’s something that people notice as part of your character that they want, whether you’re working for yourself or later on you’re going to work for someone else, so it seems like it’s worth it.
Carly: Maybe. Check back in with us in five years and we’ll see. We try to check in with each other often. How is it going? How is this feeling? Did you like that project? Did you not like that project? We’re always making sure our values are aligned, making sure that we’re still working towards the same goals, and what we want out of work and life. As we’re all growing and changing, we’re not always growing and changing in the same direction, so we try to make sure that we’re at least keeping open communication around those things, because who knows what the future holds.
You guys sound like a married couple.
Carly: Well, it’s a commitment. You’re contractually committing to each other.
Yeah. I think if you start a company with someone, you have to be able to have this screaming moment, but then like 10 minutes later you’re like, you know what, I know that was for the greater good and don’t need to take that personally, or something.
Carly: Oof. I think we’ve outgrown screaming moments. We do, however, have “Feelings Friday.”
So what does that entail? Can I hear a little bit more?
Carly: It’s about making the space. For us, that’s an hour at the end of every week where we check in with each other and see how everyone is feeling. Even when everything is going swimmingly, we talk about it. That way, when it’s not, that time is still there. We talk about it. Then do it all over again the next week.
Yeah, it sounds pretty crucial if you’re in it for the long haul.
Carly: Yeah, I don’t know. People are people. I happen to be a people with a lot of feelings, so I find it to be very important.
Pedro: I think it’s good. For the first year of the studio, I was traveling for the most part and wasn’t quite fulltime in the studio. Chatting online didn’t even compare. Face-to-face time is essential.
Definitely. Okay, any closing thoughts? Any inspiring mantras, whatnot?
Carly: Always be honest.
Pedro: Always learn. Never stop learning.
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