Day 91

Day 91

As curious people who love to learn, the idea of jumping into the deep end of the pool and learning about various businesses is very satisfying.

— Jim Coudal

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After we wrote about Aaron Draplin this week on Day 89, we realized that we had not yet posted about Jim Coudal, founder of Coudal Partners, and the creative force behind Field Notes, Layer Tennis, and The Deck. It’s about time that we give the man his due as an early forerunner of design entrepreneurship—he started Coudal Partners back in 1994, after leaving his position as creative director at a Chicago ad agency.

We recently watched Jim’s Creative Mornings Chicago talk, where he gives background on how he got to where he is today, what it means to take control of your work, and how to use what you’ve learned to go out on your own. Jim struggles to define what Coudal Partners “does” everyday. He joked, “We are a pretty traditional ad agency and design firm, except we have no clients.”

He went to say that he’s not against client business, it’s just that the disadvantages of working for clients became bigger than the advantages, “most notably, not being in control of his own destiny.” Jim believes that you can easily transfer the knowledge you’ve learned from client-service work—the skills and systems you’ve put in place—and apply those to work that you own. That’s exactly what he did, and when he left the creative agency he took the client work mentality with him. He treats his own projects with the same level of importance and relishes in the freedom to learn. Jim said, “As curious people who love to learn, the idea of jumping into the deep end of the pool and learning about various businesses is very satisfying and it keeps things from getting boring.” He also urges us to take side projects seriously. He said, “Whoever said that work expands to fill the time allotted for it is a genius, because it certainly does. The problem with doing a project in your spare time is that there isn’t any. So, if you’re at work, and the only time you’re working on a project is at 5 o’clock, then how important is the project to you?”

When Coudal Partners was first getting it’s start, they had a pretty popular website, but Jim readily admits that they didn’t know what they were doing. They just learned and adapted. Their first project, Jewelboxing, a short run dvd and cd packaging service for creatives, and their second project, The Show, which recorded and manufactured limited-edition recordings of live concert performances, both called for extensive back-end packing and shipping operations—so they built in their own. They realized that to get reach a larger audience for Jewelboxing, they would need an ad network, so they built The Deck. Jim said, “It started as much as a way for us to advertise our products as it was to create an ad network. Now there are 55 services and sites in The Deck and we serve up 100 million ads every month for advertisers like Neenah, Adobe, and Microsoft.” Like many of our contributors, they solved a problem in their own life which often ends up solving problems and creating opportunities for yourself, and others.

We love Jim’s story about his collaboration with Field Notes. He said, “We had all this capacity for packing and shipping and we are always looking for another product. Aaron Draplin was doing a series of goofy notebooks for all of his friends, and when we got his present, we took one look at it and said, ‘Well, this isn’t so goofy.” They didn’t talk the idea to death (one of Jim’s mottos) and moved quickly on the partnership. They took an ad out on The Deck, and now Field Notes is in 300 stores, with thousands for sale online, and they’re growing.

He ended his talk with a quote from Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, and said, “The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals—not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them—we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.” It’s a great point. It encourages us to dream big, and think about what will truly make us happy. Jim, like many other design entrepreneurs, has taken his career into his own hands and now controls his work, and his “destiny.” He urges us to get started down a path to doing what we love. He said, “Every design entrepreneur I’ve talked to, has said the same exact thing, “I should have done it sooner.” So, to quote Jim, “Don’t do it in six months. Do it tomorrow.”