HAWRAF’S homepage

A lot of design businesses claim to be open and transparent, but ask them a pointed question (even off-the-record), and they will either blanket you in business-speak or clam up entirely and hide behind their PR rep. In this regard—and in many others—interdisciplinary design studio HAWRAF (an acronym for “Hard at Work, Rude as Fuck”) stands apart in a crowded field of creative companies. Or rather, stood. As of a few weeks ago, the studio that burst onto the design scene just three years back announced that it had flamed out, but it wasn’t due to a lack of clients, a lack of revenue, or lack of growth potential.

Not only was their work different—playful, expressive, experimental, and tech-forward—but the four partners were surprisingly (and refreshingly) honest and straightforward about everything from their opinions on the design industry to how much money they made from each client ($167,000 for a marketing project for a Series B startup; $550 for 10 illustrations for a large search engine technology company). I know this because now that Carly Ayres, Andrew Herzog, Pedro Sanches, and Nicky Tesla have decided to call it quits, they’ve publicly released their business docs—financial statements, revenue breakdown, pricing guidelines—as well as earnest manifestos and “rules/idealisms,” which is exactly what a radically transparent studio would do. It’s so HAWRAF. And it’s kind of amazing.

HAWRAF founding partners Andrew Herzog, Carly Ayres, and Nicky Tesla; photo by Julia Robbs

When I speak with designers, especially those in the early phases of their careers, they struggle with the mechanics of running their own business and aren’t sure where to turn for real talk. In that sense, these docs are HAWRAF’s parting gift to the design world (as is their great “Guide to Working With Clients,” published last year by The Creative Independent). If you’ve ever flirted with the idea of founding a studio of your own, you’d do well to pore over these docs. On the other hand, if even the thought of that sounds boring, then perhaps starting a design business isn’t the right move for you. Either way, a “Thanks, HAWRAF” is in order for doing the legwork.

Knowing that there had to be more where these docs came from, I caught up with Ayres to find out what else she’s learned in her three years of running a studio. She was fresh from a studio “retro,” a kind of facilitated post-mortem offsite, and as such was feeling rather raw about the whole experience. Her business partners had clearly become as close as family, and like family, they knew how to cut to the quick.

To set the stage for our conversation, she shared a story from a business class she enrolled in shortly after founding HAWRAF.

“On the first day of class,” she says, “the instructor had us form groups and make these shitty quilts. She gave us new materials to work with as we went, but what we didn’t realize was that over time she was giving shittier and shittier materials, and then she started adding more people to the group who are all trying to weave different kinds of quilts. People started to get really defensive about their quilts. After a little while, she stopped us and asked what we all just learned. And she said, ‘At the end of the day, your business will continue to get larger, you won’t have the resources you want, and things will continue to get shittier and shittier and you’ll have to make compromises… And there’s only six ways your business can go: you sell for competitive reasons; you sell for financial reasons; you give it to your kids, who probably don’t want it; you give it to your employees, and they probably also don’t want it; you shut it down; or you die at your desk.’ We chose to shut it down.”

The shut down came three years after HAWRAF began, right when the studio was on the “precipice of exploding,” Ayres says. They had just landed a million-dollar retainer with a large social media network that would have positioned them for rapid expansion. Faced with that impending reality, the partners were forced to confront a few truths they’d been avoiding for a while.  

“I’m glad that we started the studio together with partners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of our next endeavors involve not having partners.”

“Over the years, we swept a lot of stuff under the rug, and then it reached a point where people are done with the studio. And you’re like, whoa, whoa. When did we get here? And the answer was we were constantly like moving closer to that.” HAWRAF had a ritual called Feelings Friday, designed to root out any underlying qualms or anxieties, but it wasn’t enough to surface the tensions that ultimately divided the studio. And so, when the million-dollar moment came, they realized they weren’t all-in anymore, so they got out. Ayres and her partners have since reflected on what they could have done differently, and conversely, what they did that really worked.

Still from one of HAWRAF’S projects for Google

Have a goal. Agree on it. Write it down.

“We were so naive and so ambitious in what we set out to do,” says Ayres. “But we knew that no one else was doing really playful, interactive work that makes like technology more accessible, and pushes the boundaries of the web, and is transparent, and shows their process. All that stuff.”

You and your partners might know this intuitively, or you may have expressed it in so many words, but if you write it down it becomes a reference point in times when things get crazy and you can’t stand the sight of one another. Because rest assured, “There are going to be times when you hate each other.”

You’ll also have independent goals. Ayres and Herzog wanted to figure out how to run a studio and a creative practice. Tesla and Sanches were both less interested in the client side and much more interested in the projects, and Sanches wanted to figure out how to be part of this team while spending time with his family in Brazil. These are also people in their mid-20s, whose “wants and needs are constantly shifting,” Ayres acknowledges. Ultimately, she says, “You’re growing and changing so much as a human that it was very difficult to keep moving forward in the same way together. I’m glad that we started the studio together with partners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of our next endeavors involve not having partners… I certainly wouldn’t have four partners. That’s a lot of partners. It makes it hard to make decisions. It was like a car with every wheel spinning in a different direction; that car’s going to have a really hard time moving forward.”

This is a political poster, by HAWRAF

Run your studio on the side while you get it going.

One of the questions Ayres is asked most frequently is, “How do you get work? How do you find clients?” The answer is: relationships. And those take time to develop. Someone you chatted with at a party or who you worked with on a separate project may come back to you for work down the road, but that road might be long, and a brand new studio typically can’t wait that long.

When HAWRAF launched, the partners quit their gigs at Google’s Creative Lab to commit to the studio full-time, which put a lot of pressure on finding immediate work. HAWRAF’s first paid gig was $1,500. “It took probably a year and a half to get people to trust us. No one wants to be your guinea pig project.”

Now Ayres realizes they could have all kept freelancing at the beginning while they ramped up. A lot of studios that seem like full-time operations are really made up of a handful of people all working full-time jobs elsewhere. This can go on for years—and that’s okay. In fact, that can be to your benefit; when you eventually quit your day job you can say you’ve been running your studio for years already.

Throw yourself into the early work—but watch out for sharks.

HAWRAF’s next gig paid a lot more—$35,000 for a dental marketing campaign—and they poured everything they had into the project. First, because it was fun and they wanted to do a good job. But they also needed to get some finished work up on their site. “We fucking worked for that money. We did two videos… theater and TV commercials. We did the copy, the animation, wallpaper patterns for their office, and the pictures they hung there, and the marketing campaign and we even ran their social accounts for several months.” If they had tracked their time, the project probably netted out, but at that point they hadn’t yet discovered the fine art of time tracking.

After the dental work, they were approached by a large toy manufacturer who asked them to come up with ideas for games. Sounds like a dreamy gig, but the payout was a little complicated. “The offer on the table was either we own all the intellectual property, but we’d only get paid if they produced one of our ideas; or they’d pay us a flat fee of $5,000 for our time. And we thought there was no way this big company was ever going to make one of our ideas. So we said ‘Yes, we’ll take the $5,000, please.” They came in to pitch their deck, which contained more than a hundred ideas—and five of them turned into actual games. Ayres doesn’t know what the IP would have been, but it’s safe to say it’s worth more than $5,000.

Establish a process.

“For me, our greatest shortcoming was that we didn’t really have a process,” says Ayres, bemoaning the fact that HAWRAF’s ad hoc methods meant it was never set up as “a scalable, sustainable business. It paid us and we had health insurance, and it existed, but it didn’t have any sort of staying power.”

They had the very basics: each project had a project lead and there were regular check-ins, but there was no measure of accountability. Since all four members were partners, no one felt like they were in a position tell another person what to do, and certainly “no one liked being told what to do.”

Creativity is never enough.

When you’re partnering up, bringing on people with different creative skillsets is great, but don’t forget about the less sexy jobs that are crucial to making a business work, like management, business development, and administrative tasks. Who’s going to interact with clients? Who’s going to take all those coffee meetings? Who’s going to make sure the electricity bill is paid and the fridge gets cleaned out?

“Whenever a letter would come to the studio addressed to the ‘CEO,’ I would put it on Andrew’s desk and he would put it on my desk,” recalls Ayres. “No one wanted to take that role. We were all so anti-establishment and refused to give ourselves traditional titles, but it made things very complicated. If had we had continued to grow and expand, what a fucking mess that would have been.”

“Sometimes you have to take some shit, and if you take some shit, either you have to eat the shit or feed the shit to someone else.”

Ayres ended up taking the lead on client acquisition and management. It’s true that she had more relationships to leverage, but when I pointed out how common this dynamic was in mixed-gender teams, she said, “Working with three dudes, we definitely fell into what I consider to be gender stereotypes and tropes.”

It made working with large companies particularly challenging, but for other reasons. “People would assume I was an account manager or project manager, and I would end up being the one to handle those relationships entirely. When you’re working with a large organization, they have way more people assigned to your project. And my entire job would just be answering emails and coordinating and scheduling things, essentially being a project manager.” It wasn’t just a creative drain for Ayres, but it meant 25% of their team wasn’t able to contribute creatively because she was stuck in inbox hell.

Repeat yourself.

Part of establishing a process means you do it over and over again, refining and perfecting as you go. Creating a new process takes time—you’re essentially starting from scratch—and as HAWRAF eventually learned, time really does = money.

“It’s exciting to do something new each time, to learn new skills, work with new platforms and new tech, but it’s incredibly expensive,” says Ayres. “Like, if we do one sound-reactive identity system, the next one’s gonna be like a lot cheaper because now we know how to do it. But Andrew, and Nicky, and Pedro, and I, we all wanted to constantly learn and do different things. Still, if we had done the same thing at least twice, maybe we could have recouped a bit. That’s how you make money. You make the same microsite over and over and over again and then you can have other projects that allow you to like do a one-off sound-reactive identity system.”

For example, when HAWRAF revamped their own website they made it a drawing website (meaning, your cursor is a drawing tool that allows you to mark up and interact with the homepage), which spurred lots of incoming requests for other drawing websites—all of which they turned down. “We were like, we already did a drawing website. It’s our website. We don’t want to do another drawing website.”

Schedule creative time.

Sometimes ideas come readily, and sometimes they don’t. When you’re setting a project timeline, you have to actively build in extra time for that. “We learned very early on that we had to give ourselves enough time to come up with good ideas,” says Ayres. “If we scheduled a brainstorm for a Friday, and set the first round due the following Friday, sometimes it’d work out it—we’d have a great idea, make it into a deck, and share it. And then sometimes all the ideas would suck. We quickly discovered that we needed to give ourselves more time to have that first conversation and then go off, take a shower, go for a run, read a book, and come back and share more ideas.”

Schedule paid time off.

As a founder, it can be tempting to work all the time, which isn’t healthy or sustainable. Ayres highly recommends not just taking vacation time, but instituting a clear vacation policy. “Unlimited vacation is such a scam!” she says. “People want to know the rules. It’s good to have guidelines.”

Work by HAWRAF

Sometimes you have to eat shit.

“Everyone was the quintessential creative genius in the sense that everyone was creative and talented. With that comes some level of ego—myself definitely included—but it also made it very hard to get certain things done,” says Ayres about taking certain projects that might be less creatively fulfilling, but would help pay the rent.

They had all recently left jobs where they were told what to work on, whether they wanted to or not. So they were understandably mindful of not letting HAWRAF’s work “become just like every other like set of constraints” that they were initially trying to avoid when starting their own studio. “But at the same time,” says Ayres, “that’s what allows you to like build a sustainable business, one where people feel comfortable taking vacations, and where you can hire people, and where you can grow. To do that, sometimes you have to take some shit, and if you take some shit, either you have to eat the shit or feed the shit to someone else.” In this case, shit being a shitty but perhaps well-paying project. “I don’t think we ever got to that point, but I think the fear of that was why we ultimately decided to shut down the studio.”