Justin Ahrens’ enthusiasm and generosity are matched by the quality of his team’s creative work. The founder of Rule29 in Geneva, IL, Justin is all about making creative matter (to quote his firm’s motto). His book “Life Kerning,” published last fall, offers a clue about what drives him: He aspires to help other creative pros find a life where work has meaning and life is lived with passion and purpose.
I hopped on iChat for an energizing conversation with Justin about how difficult circumstances (both his own and others’) have shaped his career and his success. A period of challenge in running his own firm several years ago taught Justin how to make smarter business decisions. And his ongoing work with a non-profit group in Africa is teaching him what’s really important.
Here’s a sample of what we discussed … and you’ll want to mark Justin’s session at the HOW Design Conference as a must-attend.
A few years ago, you and I shared a stage at the HOW Design Conference in a panel discussion, and we talked about your early experience running a design firm. You made some mistakes and got burned out, and you went to work for someone else before relaunching your studio, with lessons learned. How did that experience set you up for success today?
I started Rule 29 after coming from an in-house role. Then I hit a horrible downturn, and one of my clients asked me to go work for them. I realized the first day when the elevator opened that I’d made a mistake. But it was the best thing that ever happened, because it made me sit down and think, “Where is it that I failed?”
Designers typically suck at running businesses. But how can we become good advisors and partners with our clients if we don’t understand business? I looked at every aspect of my company and figured out what I was really bad at, and how I could about getting better. I did things like creating an advisory group of business leaders that had different experience than I did, and I use them constantly. I realized that to be successful, I was going to have to do some stuff that I don’t want to do … This being our 8th year since I re-started the business, there’s no way I’d be here without having gone through that rigamarole. Every year, I’ve built on that moment.
A lot of creative professionals have a really difficult time putting the business hat on. How do you view the business work—the admin, the management, the finance— through a creative lens so you no longer suck at it so much?
If you love design, then you should do whatever the hell you need to do to make sure you can keep designing.
If I want to do the kind of work that inspires me or build a company that fosters other creatives, then I have a responsibility to run my business well.
Here’s one of the ways I do that: Every single employee at Rule 29 has one extra specialized task that focuses on their strengths and supports the company. For example, one of my senior designers loves people and wants us to have a name in the community, so she’s in charge of our community outreach. I have someone else who loves process, so she’s in charge of redesigning all of my forms. I used to do all of that myself. It’s all about creating an ecosystem that capitalizes on what you’re good at.
Tell me a little about your advisory board. You have four people, and you’ve been working with them since you re-launched your firm in 2003.
I picked people who were in business much longer than I, who knew me well enough to know when I’m not being straightforward. And I knew that if they were giving me some tough info, that they were doing it because there’s nothing there but care. And all of them have some understanding of the creative business, and that’s invaluable. I have one advisor who’s the president of a printing company in a different part of the country, one who teaches business at a university, one gentleman who’s a photographer and the last one is my father-in-law, who’s retired and has a background in economics.
I give them quarterly updates—profit and loss figures, personnel—and I ask them business questions. And we get together once a year in person. None of these guys knew each other ahead of time, and now they’re all friends, we all advise each other.
Stay tuned for more of my interview with Justin later this week, when we’ll chat about how he maintains his creative energy and how his work with a non-profit organization has changed his life.
In the meantime, learn more about Justin’s session at HOW Design Live in June (and register before the end of this month to score Early Bird savings). Plus, catch an exclusive interview with Justin Ahrens.