First, a bit of background on OMFGCo. I understand that the partners are Fritz Mesenbrink, Jeremy Pelley and Mathew Foster, and that you three worked at Wieden + Kennedy in a previous career. What led you to join forces and start your own firm? When did you launch? Who are your key clients?
Fritz and Mathew met each other at Wieden + Kennedy, where they first worked together on some core clients (Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola) and also pitching new business. Jeremy was part of W+K’s experimental school WK12 Year Two. The three of us just barely missed being in the building at the same time. After Jeremy graduated from 12, he was hired by Jack Barron, working under his creative direction as art director for Atelier Ace, the design house within the Ace Hotel group. Jeremy then helped to open the hotels in Portland, New York City and Palm Springs. By this time, Fritz and Mathew had left W+K to do freelance work and some short stints at some small design and web development shops. Fritz and Jeremy had always talked about doing something together, and finally decided to start up a company. A mutual friend needed to rent some desks in a studio in Chinatown, so Mathew asked Fritz & Jeremy if they wanted to share the space. We started collaborating right away, and just really worked well together. In November of 2009, we became the official trio.
Describe your typical client project.
We have yet to have a typical project, honestly. We seem to have typical types of clients, though—they are small businesses, usually local, but not always. Our relationships become extremely friendly. We are very lucky to do business with people whose work we believe in and who we tend to enjoy having a drink with.
How long have you been making and selling the shirts, prints, font, etc.? What inspired these sideline projects?
We are thing makers above all else, so selling our own goods was part of the idea from the start. There are these design firms out there (Coudal Partners, Aaron Draplin, Scott Hansen) who have become institutions in their own right, who not only do great client work but also make really rad stuff. A year into this now, the idea is to do as little client work as possible.
Where is the merch available for sale—any other outlets besides your own shop?
Aside from the Spirit of 77 shirt series, which can be purchased at the bar, all of our product is exclusively online at shop.omfgco.com.
Tell me about Spirit of 77: What’s your business involvement in the bar? How did that partnership happen? Tell me about the design work you’ve done for that. Is that a revenue source for your firm?
Spirit of 77 came to us through our friend and benefactor Jack Barron, co-owner of Ace Hotel. The same landlords that own the block of Ace Hotel Portland owned another property that they wanted to make into a sports bar or restaurant, and they came to Jack to see if he was interested. Jack came to us to see if we would want to work on it with him, and we jumped at the opportunity. We’re not your typical sports-bar types, but it sounded like a really fun challenge: there are no truly good sports bars, at least not in Portland, so we decided to try to make one. We exchanged our services for a percentage, profit-sharing ownership, which will be an ongoing revenue source for our company. Our services wound up being dubbed “design/build graphic artists” or something like that. We were both designers and general contractors, and aside from the plumbing and electrical, we designed and built everything in the bar in regards to the brand voice. Jack operated as creative director for the space layout and spearheaded the whole project, and helped to concept the brand and visual direction with us.
Do you spend much time at Spirit of 77, drinking your profits?
We spend a fair amount of time there, finishing up a few projects in the space and thinking about marketing for events as we go on. They’ve wisely put a cap on our tabs—we tend to drink when there’s whiskey in front of us.
What percent of your business revenue comes from your client work vs. your sideline projects?
Our online store is about 5% to 10% of our revenue, but we are definitely going to push that number up in 2011.
How does your personal work creatively inspire or influence your client work, and vice versa?
To us, there’s no difference. We’re always looking at everything around us for inspiration for both personal and client work. We use whatever fits best for the project at hand—inspiration is in no shortage. Sometimes ideas that we’re really excited about for one project won’t work out how we want, so they get put on the back burner, only to later re-emerge as inspiration for an entirely different project that’s an even better fit.
Does your merchandise help promote your design business? How do those two aspects of your business support each other?
It does. We got a lot of attention for our “Fuck Haters” shirt, and it is a core mantra to our company. Any potential client can see how we go about it: they can see our previous projects on our site, and read our company voice on our blog and see it in the products we make. If they like what they see, they reach out to us—if not, they weed themselves out of our client list. It’s natural selection.
How do your design clients find out about you?
Magic? We get cold calls, emails, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and past clients. The major thing we try to be smart about is when to turn a project down, and we’ve kept ourselves busy enough to be able to do that. We’ve been extremely fortunate to not have to really pound the pavement.
Any advice for another designer who wants to create their own product line, regardless of what kind of product it is?
Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And then do it over and over again.
What’s next for you guys?
We are planning on making big strides in the next year. We’ll punch mountains, and maybe blow up the moon … Whatever it is, it will involve a hot tub.
MORE RESOURCES FOR GRAPHIC DESIGNERS
* Want to know more about making and selling your own products? Check out this DesignCast session with Steven Heller: “How to Turn Your Work Into Goods That Sell“