Coudal Partners, our officemates, are a great example of what a design firm can do when it decides to take control of its own destiny.

Coudal used to generate revenues almost exclusively from client work. Anyone who’s done client work knows the inherent frustrations that come along with that. But instead of merely accepting these frustrations as “the real world” (aka The Way It Has To Be), Coudal searched for another path.

From Jewelboxing to Field Notes
When they had trouble finding great CD packaging, they realized other designers probably had the same issue. So Jewelboxing was born.

It was a hit and soon more products came down the pipe: lowercase tees, The Deck, Pinsetter, and Field Notes. Some were bigger hits than others, but, overall, the strategy has succeeded: Coudal now gets the majority of its income from products it creates.

And you can tell they’re having fun along the way too. They also created Swap Meat “in an attempt to make lots of people as happy as we are when the FedEx guy shows up unannounced.” And they even financed and shot a movie, Copy Goes Here, “for no very good reason.”

Client work
They still do client work, but it’s for clients who get it instead of whomever comes along. They partnered with a restaurant chain to do design work and agreed to a deal that involved a percentage of the business instead of just a flat rate.

Risky? Sure, but it’s paid off. Sometimes you need to risk to get reward. The reward for Coudal is a real sense of ownership in the project, from both a financial and creative standpoint.

Advice from Jim Coudal
I asked Jim Coudal if he had any advice for work-for-hire types that want to into selling their own products. His reply:

Two quick points. Not every idea is going to work. Know that going in. Ideas tend to follow the path of least resistance and more often than not that path is the one where you find yourself talking an idea to death, by getting hung up on the “what ifs.” So you need to actively push ideas out and embrace failure.  Fail spectacularly whenever possible.

Secondly, every single person I have ever met or corresponded with about leaving the work-for-hire world and trying to create something of their own, something that they really care about, says exactly the same thing. Win, lose or draw they always express the same thought and most of the time they say it in exactly these words.

What they say is, “I should have done this sooner.”

Nice. For more on the idea of embracing failure, check out these related SvN posts: James Dyson on living a life of failure, Define your own success, and Embrace Obscurity.

More on the company’s approach
This Print Solutions profile of Coudal offers more insight into the company’s approach:

Forming Jewelboxing enabled Coudal Partners to become choosier when picking clients, Bedell says, because the company doesn’t have to rely on as much conventional income. “If we can think of a way to improve a product or design, or solve a problem that’ll make us happier, chances are the client will feel the same way,” he says…

The company prefers working with clients that don’t expect 100-page reports that justify what it provides. “Our idea is to get the creative work as close as possible to the place where the decision is made.” Says Everett: “To me, design is primarily a verb, not a noun. The interactions and conversations that guide it are very important to the final result.”

Coudal shows you don’t have to just accept the traditional status quo model when you run a business. Thanks for the inspiration guys!