The Partnership Podcast is all about falling in design together: creativity, business, and makin’ it happen. We’re especially keen on creative teams that do unusual and compelling work. Our second episode is how it all started: a trip through our own individual creative histories, and the paths we took to meet and form our partnership.

Welcome to the Partnership Podcast! My name is Keir DuBois, designer and co-founder of Tight Ship Design. My partner and co-founder in Tight Ship is designer Julia Sevin. Together we create branding and design for events and conferences.

As event brand designers we’re curious about unique or unusual challenges. We like to see how other partnerships of our size approach and deal with these kinds of projects.

Our latest episode is all about how we got here: our creative history, collaborative philosophy, and forming our partnership. It’s a little bit of everything: design, radio, music, events, business, challenges, successes, and friendship. It’s why we do what we do, and what we’ll continue to explore with other creative partnerships as this podcast continues!

Listen in here:

Photo by Tomas Raul

Keir’s Origins: Web and News and Rock & Roll

Julia: I will let you go first and talk about your origins as a designer, and then you can cover anything that you want to for your own professional course.

Keir: Okay so, I never had very many art classes in school. I’m not very educated as far as Capital-A Art. I had an eighth grade art class and a senior year of high school art class. I enjoyed those classes, but I never thought of it as something to do for a job, right? Creativity wasn’t something that you got paid for. I didn’t know what a graphic designer was.

When I was a kid at the record store, I saw that the Police album had the same three colored stripes on the album cover and then on the singles too, right? That was the first time I was like, “Oh, these things match up. That—of course that makes sense!” But I didn’t realize that it was actually a thing.

I grew up right next to Laguna College of Art and Design. Never went there. My life might have been totally different! I mean, it makes me deficient in some things, but it also kinda makes me stand out, I think, from design school grads in that I wasn’t taught the Canon so I don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong—

Julia: So where are you learning what’s right and wrong? Where are you learning what works and doesn’t work?

Keir: I would learn by doing it. A lot of it was just “what looks good?” Well, that combined with learning how to analyze literature taught me if you can think critically about one form of creativity, you can probably apply that to all the others.

That grew out of learn by doing, and I didn’t know that design was actually a thing until I was doing stuff for bands. That was the first design/creative stuff that I did. I made all the CD covers and flyers and stuff for these bands and the website for this band.

Julia: And what were your feelings about that role as you were doing those things for the first few times, doing the album art or the websites? How’d you feel about that responsibility?

Keir: I was really arrogant, I thought I had the best ideas. I was “the only one who actually cared about it,” so I had all these ideas about what the thing could look like and I don’t know if it was just because they wanted to just let me do it or just because they thought they wouldn’t be able to talk me out of it. I just did it, and I made all those choices and they just ran with it.

And that went for Honey White too, when I started doing that, like 2002, 2005. It wasn’t trained, it wasn’t knowledgeable. It’s just like “I’ve seen a bunch of album covers in my life. I know what they’re supposed to look like. I like these styles. I like these colors. How can you visually represent a sound?”

And all the amateur stuff that I’d done for bands was in my portfolio when I took a night school class. At the time, UC Santa Barbara had an extension program for graphic design, web design, and I took that. I kind of crashed and burned in journalism. I didn’t do any of the layout, I was a columnist—

Julia: And at the time you were aiming to become a journalist?

Keir: Um, well I was an English major. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. English was what I could finish in two and a half years. It was something that I was good at already, and so I got training for language in college, and training for visual arts once I nailed down a design job.

But I did have some on-campus jobs and I was going to uh, extension at UCSB for design and I used my portfolio of CD art and band flyers and stuff, and the final class was taught by my first design employer. That class was “How to build your portfolio.” So my first actual design job was at a small, woman-run business, and so this firm was basically where I learned everything about design before I ever came in touch with AIGA.

I had been working there for maybe about five and a half or six years when AIGA Santa Barbara did a studio tour at BBM&D in Ventura, and that’s how I was turned on to it. And at the time I was doing web design, um, I was doing stuff on Dreamweaver. I didn’t know about HTML, I was just applying all the stuff that I knew how to do for design to web in a small firm, in a mid-size town, with very little professional contact other than my coworkers.

So like, all I knew about design or all I knew about the business was the way that this business did design. I learned how to be discerning and I learned how to run a business in, in one way. And I learned how to have taste. But I also learned things like snobbery and paranoia and how to deal with irate clients and things like that, that I’m not sure that I would have learned if I was a freelancer where I would just be happy to get work, you know?

Julia: Yeah.

Keir: But yeah, AIGA helped me break out of the bubble and um, from like 2010-2011 where AIGA Santa Barbara did the studio tour at BBM&D to joining the board in 2012, um—I was communications director—I got a whole new network, a local network of everybody from San Luis Obispo to Ventura who had done anything in design for the past 30-ish years. I got the narrative, the whole creative narrative of the region, right, cause I would talk to people who’d been doing this stuff since 1970-whatever.

And I went to Philadelphia for the AIGA retreat, I drank a bunch of Kool-Aid, I met a bunch of brilliant people including you, and within two or three months after that I had jumped that job. I left the job. I didn’t know that it was a responsible thing to do if you’re not feeling healthy or if you’re miserable. But yeah, that particular year, 2013, was very pivotal for me.

And that’ll bring me up to speed so, we could just jump right into what you want to talk about, like origins and everything, right?

Julia: Yeah!

Photo by Tomas Raul

Julia’s Origins: Parisian Style Horror Radio

Keir: Are there any specific things you want to start with? Like art you made for yourself—

Julia: I have something very funny that I want to send you right now, that I pulled up earlier this evening. It is the very earliest piece of graphic design that I can possibly show you from my life. It was advertising my radio show.

Keir: You had a radio show?

Julia: I had a radio show in high school.

Keir: I didn’t know you had a radio show in high school!

Julia: Yes, and it was completely illegitimate because in order to have a radio show in one of the after-school slots, you had to have completed a certain course of education with a certain teacher. I’m saying this like “oh, it’s like a school bureaucratic requirement”—no, it’s not.

If you’re going to be broadcasting, you have to know and adhere to a certain set of standards, and neither of us did those. But it was very fun, and so I’m sending you this flier that I found among my things in Mendocino one of the last times I visited, because it is a flyer, complete with like an illustration and a slogan, it’s—

Keir: “The Rose and Erica Show: 90 Minutes of Totally Sweet Music! Live Request Line!”

Julia: This would have been like ’97, but this was not new for me, because my father was a graphic designer and I remember being as young as about seven or eight years old and using Photoshop on his computer. And around ’89-’90 when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I wrote a brief Photoshop tutorial on how to repair damaged pictures using the various tools available.

Keir: So what was the first professional design job that you did for money?

Julia: First professional design job I think would’ve been… the logo for a San Francisco-based GO organization. And for a while it was just Craigslist jobs. I would do logos for like 50 bucks because I was really just doing it as a lark.

Like you, I was super into just the idea of being in school. I went to UC Santa Cruz, and I was so excited to take intro to anything that I had any level of interest in, you know? Astrophysics, uh, Latin American history, and environmental sciences, but ultimately ended up settling for English because I’m like, well I can write those papers easily. I know how to pass an English class. So I guess I just figured eventually I’ll be a teacher and that’ll be fine.

But it ended up not mattering because I dropped out of school like two quarters later. I came down to New Orleans to visit RJ, and I’ve stayed here since then, so I never returned to UC Santa Cruz even though I was credit-wise, like, halfway through my junior year, I could have been done very quickly. And that’s one of the regrets of my life is that like, it was so close to being within reach and I didn’t quite get it.

But when I moved in with RJ, we started working on a publishing business together and it was through that business that I became interested in laying out books, creating jackets, taking advantage of the opportunities and the limitations in every different layout and every different format.

Keir: You would publish books and anthologies and stuff.

Julia: Yes. And we would do all of the—we would foot the printing and do the fulfillment ourselves. After Katrina, we lived in Texas for a little over a year and then we moved back down to Metairie and I found a print house/direct-mail house in Metairie.

The person who interviewed me was a designer named Robert Greenhalge, and he and I became immediate friends. This was in September/October of 2010. The work ended up being a lot of designing, like, cash-for-gold flyers, and Liberty Tax, and rent-to own-furniture and a lot of like, grocery store circulars. It was mind-numbing work, it wasn’t great.

My favorite part of the job was when we invented “Parisian style.” We worked in an open office where we could hear the, uh, every conversation with the sales people were having and the receptionists were having, and so we couldn’t be very open about our very snobby takes on how the office was being run or the qualities that business passing through.

So we came up with a very quick and dirty slang phrase, which was just we would call something “Parisian style” if we decided we were so sick and tired of clients coming back with unnecessary revisions that we were just given the worst design we could possibly imagine and we called that Parisian style. Because if you say “worst design anyone could possibly imagine,” for some reason the boss gets a little bent out of shape.

So I worked at that job for about a year and then when Robert, my superior, quit, they fired me. And then I was hired into a position where I was doing pretty similar work: low level graphic design, quick turn-around, not a big creative team. It was really just me and my boss and also the work was largely for political clients.

This was again not a cultural fit for me in the office, but I thought “well on the plus side, at least I’ll be alone most of the time,” but it turned out that being alone most of the time was really not very good for me. I didn’t have any windows where I was sitting. I was just too far removed to go anywhere during my lunch break and it ended up being, like, a pretty dark time in my life.

Your work conditions are where you choose to be 40 hours of your week, and if they aren’t good for you, you’re going to feel that impact, and I was having a really, really hard time.

Keir: So when, in the middle of all this, was Upanotch?

Julia: I started Upanotch after that second print shop job, and at that point I’d gotten really discouraged about my ability to be an employee, because now it had been twice that I had been let go because of just losing my spark and getting a bad attitude after a while.

This was when I discovered AIGA, and I grabbed onto it like you would to a life preserver. I was so excited that there were other people practicing the same thing as I was practicing and like, wanting to meet each other and share ideas. I was so attracted to it.

Before I joined AIGA I had been, at this point, a few years into a very stable and non-demanding print shop job. And within a couple of years after that I had already left that job, started another business, joined the board, got hired to another business—all of a sudden my ambitions just exploded.

I saw the possibilities and I wanted to do a bunch of different things. I really wanted more. I don’t know how I can see Tight Ship happening in my life if I hadn’t had AIGA playing the role in my life that it did.

Photo by Tomas Raul

AIGA: All the President’s Friends

Keir: Yeah, absolutely. So do you remember how we met each other in Philadelphia? Because I’m not sure that I do.

Julia: No, I don’t remember the exact moment. I couldn’t tell you the moment that we met. I’m sure that we were in the same breakout group once or twice or something.

But then at some point there was probably some activity where my anxiety took hold of me and I just sort of like drifted away from the group and you probably happened to drift away in the same direction, and after the fact, I remember that we characterized our meeting as “two wallflowers” and I think that’s very accurate.

Keir: The wallflower bit I remember from Michigan, and the working group bit, I remember from Denver because I got there a day late. The opening night party was just breaking up and you were the first one out of the door, like maybe your, you know, your instincts had already kicked in or something and you were on a mission, you were going somewhere.

But I recognized you because you were at Philadelphia the previous year. And so I said something like, “Hey, let’s hang out or talk or something or do something.” And you were just like, “yeah, okay.” And then you were out.

Julia: Yeah, that’s probably right. When I think about you, I remember the ballroom in Denver—I don’t even remember what it looked like in Philadelphia.

Keir: I don’t think we really started to, like, plot and plan things until Michigan.

Julia: Mmm-hmm. And another thing from Denver is you asked me the question, “would [you] advise becoming a chapter president?” That was in Denver, that was your question. And you were asking multiple presidents at that point, and I think I had only just become president at that time, and you were looking at doing it six months in your own future.

So I felt like I wasn’t really qualified to give you a lot of advice in that area and I had a lot of fears about how my own chapter was going to run. The challenge of AIGA is I feel like it’s an automatic winner. It’s just about getting the visibility to get people to recognize how great the connections are for them.

And so the New Orleans chapter struggle was always with visibility and I really felt like I was going to get that off the ground and my hang-ups about it were always that that was really up to me, and if it didn’t work it was because of me.

My tenure as president, it was not incredibly encouraging, but I learned a lot during that time because of my position and the fact that I was directly in charge of so much programming. [It] really taught me to get out and talk to people in different positions, vendors, sponsors, just people in all different levels. I had to learn how to have conversations with them and deal with them and it sort of takes your fear away of those things.

Keir: I would call it “the president mask.” Like you said, you’re a wallflower, I’m a wallflower. That’s my natural state. I don’t go out and glad-handle and smile at people, and AIGA taught me how to do that. The only time I really liked to be on stage was when there are three other jokers up there with me and we all have instruments and we’re making loud noise.

And you’re sort of like that on the board. But then as you found out, and then later as I found out, a lot of the things that I ran up against, like I thought “this is exactly what happened to Julia, like six months ago.” I was a little prepared for it, so I appreciate that. I think like one of the lasting legacies that I was able to do for my chapter was to digitalize it, and I would’ve never been able to do that without the framework that you worked with.

Julia: But the foundation of our friendship really came from both of us being president at the same time, and being present on the president calls, constantly needing somebody to talk to who understand this extremely difficult volunteer position we put ourselves into.

So having somebody who I could talk to, who was experiencing something similar, was really important to me. And that’s really the, the foundation of us understanding each others’ values, and what kind of accountability we expect from other people. So it was really more like the foundation for Tight Ship.

Keir: Yeah, it was one of the things that just kind of seemed to happen. It just did, it just happened organically. That is rare for me that’s—it just works and you just kind of say, “okay, well let’s see what happens.”

That was kind of unique for me because I’d never had a chance to be deliberate as far as major life decisions go. Like, I made two major adult decisions in my life, like one at 19 and one at 22 and those were both crazy interpersonal-familial-big dramatic things, where I just would react on instinct and it turns out later in hindsight, yes, I made the right choices. Starting Tight Ship was a choice that I could do deliberately, and we both did that. We spent six months doing that.

But like you said, the foundation for all this was started when you would run up against something like “there’s this crisis happening, I’m trying this, but it’s not working! What do you think I should do?” Or I would say something like “our sponsor just bailed on us for this event. What’s going on? Like has this happened to you? Do you know how to deal with it?”

My understanding was that this sort of relationship happened with other AIGA presidents. Two or three people would get a really strong kind of working relationship that way and they’d often be on other sides of the country, like you and I are now, and it was a safe space. It was even a safe space from other presidents or or from National, like you said.

Julia: the retreat is the greatest perk of that responsibility because the other presidents are the best perk of AIGA. Getting to meet the other people who have, you know, gotten to that level of dedication to their chapter. They’ve put in that much time or they have that much interest.

It’s really wonderful. Those retreats are absolutely delightful, and the presidents are such a stellar lot of people, it is very easy to form bonds with them. It introduced me to 60-some-odd other great people, and also gave me the opportunity to form a really special bond with one.

Photo by Tomas Raul

Collaboration: Testing the Waters

Keir: Yeah, same. And then from there what we ended up doing was a few extracurricular projects together. The biggest one, at least the first biggest one was when you guys were doing the design conference in New Orleans.

Julia: Yes. It was the 2015 AIGA Design Conference and it was held in New Orleans. So as the local chapter, we were the boots on the ground and we were expected to come up with a certain amount of facilitating and also staging our own events. And the chapter was not at a strong point then—hadn’t really built up the manpower that we were supposed to have by then. I was wrangling these events on my own.

I was really grateful that we had a non-event project happening at the same time, which was this Print History Walking Tour that you and I and Joseph put together using your mapping skills and Joseph’s historic archive and knowledge of New Orleans to create an app that allowed you to walk around the city, and it would identify nearby points of historical interest to material culture mavens.

And you helped to make that happen. And then we developed an actual walking tour around it, and Joseph guided the tour and led them to a lecture at the historic New Orleans collection. And it was just terrific. It was really a part of the whole experience that I really enjoyed. And getting to develop that and have it as a piece that actually still survives was really special to me.

Keir: You had said at some point before that, though, that your favorite thing to do with friends was to do projects. And you wanted to hook me up with Joseph because we were both geeks about similar things, and basically I prepared this box for him to put all of his, you know, really rich historical data into, and I love the way that turned out. It’s still one of my favorite things that I love to show off to people all the time.

I got major FOMO for that conference. Like I thought, “you know what? I should really be there and I’m not going to be there.” And the a story that I tell people sometimes is that “I was feeling bad and then Julia and Sam said ‘help us make a map, Keir,’ and so I did and I felt better.” And I got to lighten the burden a little bit.

I really enjoyed bringing you and Lianna out here to Santa Barbara for Convert Like Crazy, which was the next spring, as the next project that we did together. It was an AIGA event for my chapter, for Santa Barbara, but it was based on a presentation that you and Lianna had already been doing, um for…?

Julia: Copy and design for website conversion.

Keir: For website conversion, yeah. I got to pull AIGA together, and Startup Santa Barbara, and I was working for Oniracom at the time and they kicked in some cash to fly you guys out here, so they made it happen.

But I feel like one of my big coups was also being able to drive you down to Ventura and do the portfolio review the next day with a bunch of students at the Brooks studio lot. So you know, being able to show you both around town, drive you up and down the coast—that double-header weekend was a lot of fun for me and I was really glad that I could bring you both out here.

That was a big project number two, and then I can’t remember what was first—when we talked about working together as a company, or when we had this massive, like, $30,000 book project that you had been approached about. I don’t remember all the details about it other than it was a lot of money and we ultimately decided that we weren’t going to do it because—

Julia: Well, as I recall, it was the lot of money figure that we came up with that made it undoable. But no, I think we had been talking about a business together for a while.

I want to back up and I’d like to talk through what your work experience was from when you joined AIGA through when we formed Tight Ship and then I’ll, I’ll catch up the same way.

Keir: Okay. You know, Oniracom and AIGA is kind of wrapped up together in my head because that was roughly the same time.

I came in as a web developer. But what I ended up doing was a lot of pixel pushing, because these guys were all programmers, and so design for them was sort of “okay, first design does this, then development does this and then strategy does this,” and they’re all different little silos. And as I changed positions there—like I was a developer and then I was a strategist and then I was a designer and then after the art director left, I was the only designer there—that further siloed design away.

So what I discovered was the fact that if you can do three things different or better than the person who’s currently your superior—if you can make better decisions than the people who are writing your paychecks, if you know those are better decisions based on your experience—then you should do that job for yourself somewhere else.

And I knew I could make better decisions than the people who were writing my checks. My commute was not healthy for me—like, I started to get back problems—so I knew it was time to make some sort of a change. And so I was already getting comfortable with the idea of working remote for a substantial amount of time.

So I was thinking about what I could do before I became as miserable as I had been at my last job. And then you asked me if I wanted to start a company.

Julia: Yeah, so at that point I had worked for myself and with another partner for a couple of years doing graphic design, and I ended up joining, for the first time, an agency that was doing something beyond just printing.

This company was selling Internet marketing, and it was really cool for me to be part of a small and very new company that was really interested in the most up to date ways of advertising. I was really interested in learning about inbound marketing because I’m very dismissive of outbound marketing for a number of reasons, including that I just don’t want to see it personally. I literally do not want to receive junk mail, so it felt really icky to be a person who was designing junk mail.

Inbound marketing is the opposite of that. Instead of paying for ad placement, you are creating content at your website that is attractive enough that the people who are most interested, and most likely to want to buy your product, are just ending up your website naturally.

I was really interested in the machinations of it. I was really excited to learn how all of this operated, and it was really great to work in an environment that was inclusive enough that I was there for a lot of the, like, marketing strategy meetings where we were coming up with the top level ideas for our various clients. I had never been involved in anything like that. I’m always just sent the creative and told like, “here’s what you have to put together and here’s where it has to look like.” So it was very cool to be at the table, literally at the table, helping to contribute ideas during that stage of development.

I worked at that workplace for six months, which is about the typical amount of time that I last at a workplace because I usually end up having the same problem that you did, which is that if I feel like the place is not being run as well as I would run it, there’s some kind of like, an organ that activates inside me that makes me just like, prissy and superior and dismissive and I wish it wasn’t that way, but that’s just how I am. If I have to work for somebody who I don’t think is competent enough, I am definitely unmanageable.

So that was the first job that I ended up quitting, just because of disagreements with how it was being run. And I’m very thankful that at that point you and I had already been talking, so I wasn’t like, quitting and going, “Oh my God, what am I gonna do?”

Photo by Tomas Raul

Launching Tight Ship: Events, Inbound, and…Tarot?

Julia: And you and I had settled on this idea of marketing to event planners, and marketing for the event collateral space, because we had both done a lot of it individually in our professional careers. But more importantly, we had done a ton of it through AIGA. We had done a ton of volunteer work both as the designers of the collateral and as the people actually executing the events.

So we had a lot of, I think, kinship with the people who execute these events—obviously at a much higher level—but we can relate to last minute venue changes and inaccurate RSVPs. So those are things that actually resonate with us personally. So I think it made us a really good fit for that vertical.

But I was very happy to, to pick that as a niche to market to because I’ve been for a very long time aware of my tendency to push work back until it’s right up on the deadline. And that’s why I specifically wanted to go for a vertical where there is a deadline and it’s very non-negotiable, because I know that I do the work and I know that I do a very good job at it, so I might as well build in those countdown bomb timers!

Keir: That hard date was something that I had to get used to as well. But fortunately I was able to do that with Oniracom where we would do a lot of branding for music festivals. Their methodology was very similar, they would work backwards from the concert date, or from the festival date, and they would apply that to production strategy and timelines and everything else. So I was already trained to think that way a little bit and [from] the experience doing it with AIGA as well.

The other thing that I tell people about what made us jump to do this was that it just seemed like the right work with the right person at the right time. We know what work we want to do, we know why we want to do it—how are we going to get it?

And so if I recall correctly, you had said “let’s do inbound marketing! I’m gonna need you to do this and this HubSpot thing, I’m going to need to do a lot of blogging, and this is my sales strategy, and it’s based on inbound marketing,” which you learned from Story Block.

Julia: Yes, I had become inbound-certified through HubSpot, and that’s a pretty rigorous course despite being free, and I recommend it for anybody who wants to get into content marketing. Through that I learned every area you could consider of client acquisition because with the HubSpot model, sales and marketing are really integrated.

I knew that I was really attracted to any model that does not require either investing in or harassing people by advertising, and I’m certainly attracted to anything that requires creating content, which is sort of the graphic designer’s equivalent of creating art. I liked the idea that we could do a lot of writing and making graphics, and media for different platforms, and also it’s no cost—I mean apart from our time, which of course has been considerable. We’ve been tracking our hours.

That’s one of the decisions we made at the beginning of the business—because we’re both kind of data hounds—was to fastidiously track our hours in every area of the business, from sales to admin. We have like maybe ten different categories that we track our hours in, but it allows us to do seasonal audits where we go back and say, does this seem like an appropriate amount of time to sort of spent on this topic? Is there any way for us to delegate it or reduce it?

But going back to the beginning of the business: I had one evening where I was out on a date with my then-husband, and we had gone for African food in the French quarter, and then after a bit of wine, we were in Jackson Square and I met a very compelling psychic named Jade, and I couldn’t tell if she was like 25 or 60 but she gave me a tarot reading in which she recommended that I form a partnership with a mentor. And you were the first person who came to mind!

My attitude about tarot, astrology, anything of that sort is not that I think it has any kind of merit within itself, but it creates a platform for having conversations with yourself that you wouldn’t ordinarily have. It changes the conditions that you’re willing to look at things under because suddenly you’re willing to invite the supernatural so you willing to shed your biases.

So for whatever reason, it had not occurred to me to have a partnership with you before that, but then I was like, “That totally makes sense. That’d be great. We’d be awesome together.” The fact that it happened to be a tarot reader in Jackson Square telling me that was irrelevant. It could just as easily have been a hobo saying like, “Hey by the way, form a business with Keir!” and I would have been like, “You do not seem like a great source for this, but that is definitely a good idea!”

Keir: How can you say no to that, right? I mean it’s just—I could not. We ended up launching in March of 2017, after five or six months of really building it up and being deliberate and “should we do this?” and “can we do this?” and “how are we going to do this? Here’s our plan.”

So we got to launch and I remember that one of the things that we had to do was to have face to face meetings. “Well, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is happening on March blahbidy blah.” For me it was great, cause I’d never been to New Orleans before. I love going to new cities. I especially love going to new cities when I have a fixer of your capability, who knows the city.

So there was that part of seeing a new city, starting a new endeavor, and then doing it in the context of Entrepreneur Week where you had a conference full of people taking control of their lives, making decisions about their business, and having like, serious strategic thought and planning—and you and Lianna were doing your email marketing talk. It was an all-around great way to to start a business: “Yeah, we’re launching this week!” And we had an instant topic of conversation with everybody.

That was a conscious part of the strategy too—since we’re marketing for event professionals and conferences, we’ve made a point to go to as many of these things as we can, at whatever level that we can. Like you came to L.A. for BizBash later that summer, I went to my final AIGA Leadership conference, but I didn’t just go as a president. I went in with a strategy of, “okay, we’re going to take over this conference.” You sent me something that Aaron Orendorff had written about how he took over a conference, and so we ended up doing that the same way.

That kind of giddy terror that I had all throughout Launch Week was very different for me, and I really liked it, and it was the same sort of a kick that I got from being president and from going to the leadership retreats and suddenly being a rock star in ways that I never felt like when I was in actual bands, you know?

Photo by Tomas Raul

Two Years at Sea: Tacking and Pivoting

Keir: So just because we said we market events didn’t mean that we were exclusionary to everything else. I was still working with Oniracom a lot. You still work with Todd Ragusa a lot, so—

Julia: And that’s still true. We will, we’ll do—we consider ourselves a full service graphic design agency. But if we say that we work in event collateral and event design, then suddenly we are actually getting placed in people’s search results. So if we’re then getting referrals through those people to organizations that are not events, that’s fine and certainly we get tons of referrals, still, through people who we’ve worked with in the past.

Keir: But that kind of stuff would insulate us from that stereotypical freelancer feast-or-famine kind of thing.

Julia: Yes, those sort of medium-level clients have have definitely buoyed us through a lot of months.

Keir: So the first year went pretty well. We made some money, and we had some highs and lows, and then we just had kind of like a sophomore slump year. We were doing some serious projects, maybe one or two big projects and then we had about a month in between that and our next humongous project, which we’ve been working on for the past eight or nine months. But we do have substantial work and it’s still a combination of that with you know, various other kinds of non-event design work that we do.

And every once in a while we’ll do passion projects—like for me, whether it’s album covers or dataviz stuff or maps—but we came to a point where we realized that we were going to have to to find more of a particular type of client, because we had some very lucrative work that we were doing and we thought “Let’s just work with people like this!” Because we’d rather work with people and not companies. So you came up with this idea of a pivot that we could do, and it wasn’t like a Capital-P Pivot, but that’s the best word that we had.

Julia: Yeah. It was meant to be like a top-to-bottom analysis of how we had been running things and how we might change how we ran things. And this really coincided with us having who we considered, he has a dream client. It was a very big win, and once we realized that we could get and manage this level of client, it made us really re-examine the level of clients that we had been marketing to.

So that’s why we made the decision to really do a top-to-bottom assessment of our market demographic, and therefore our messaging, and then simultaneously our own personal values, and therefore what we wanted the entire setup to look like.

I think of it as the miniaturization of inbound marketing, because I’m applying all of the same logical points—everything that works about it—but for every single one of those points you have to consider, “well, how does that work if you’re only trying to get, you know, one-one thousandth or one one-hundred-thousandth the scale of leads?”

This is what’s nice about the pivot, is it’s not exactly a pivot because we’re not starting over. All we’re doing is looking at the structures we already have and saying, how can we refine this to work for us even better?

Keir: In nautical terms, we’ll just say we’re tacking. Zig-zagging up against the wind, in the channel.

Julia: Exactly. I’ve been very happy to be business partners with you because we’re both so organization minded. It’s really delightful to me. I’m really proud of the kind of degree of direction that we set.

Like I feel like we had a really clear picture of what we wanted to do and how we were going to get there, and we were aware that if we had any concern about how we were running, it was just in revenue flow and that was simply from not having enough focus on sales.

Because we both had total mastery of the technical elements of it, and a pretty good grasp of the creative/future trends aspect of it, and enough knowledge of the industry. We just didn’t have enough experience within the multiple roles that running your own agency requires.

The only sales I’ve ever done before this were working at tables for conventions, and the only way I eventually became excited about doing those was when I realized that some people are actually excited to buy. Some people want to be sold to.

That’s what’s translating over into my attitude about sales for Tight Ship is. I’m not here to convince anybody to spend money on something that they don’t think is a good idea. I’m just here to connect people to services that they’ve kind of already realized they might need, and point out the ways that this might be good for them.

Keir: When we were thinking about who we wanted to work for, we would say that was one of our options. Like we want to be able to swoop in and save the day for somebody.

Julia: Yes, yeah.

Keir: We’re giving them something that they already need—that maybe they already can do—but they either don’t have enough time or they don’t have enough leeway from whoever they’re working for, and there’s only so much they can do. And so they would effectively outsource it to us and it would be something that we could be heroes for, and then come back and do bigger projects for them later.

Julia: And that’s not our ideal work, but it is a level of agility that we can offer that bigger agencies really cannot.

Keir: So wrapping up this pivot is going to be the cap on year two and hopefully we’ll be able to do more conferences and more—

Julia: And more data visualization! That’s one thing I appreciate that, like, as we’ve had these long conversations about design and the different areas of it most interesting to us, we’ve honed in on some areas of work that we would love to do more of.

And in addition to creating a lot of content that’s tailored to maximize the search engine results for the audience we want, we also get to load the website up with a bunch of stuff that’s just interesting to us personally, like our passion projects and like the area we’re going to branch into a little bit more, which is data visualization, because I love having designed products that I’m excited about and I’m excited about doing data visualizations.

Keir: Right.

Julia: And when I say “visualization,” I mean something beyond just graphs. I mean something really, something that draws you in.

Keir: Something that represents the problem such that it compels people that want to help solve it. So we’re going to be doing this stuff anyway, and we’re going to be doing it well, so we might as well do it for people who actually need serious stuff done.

Julia: And that’s the thing about creating our own content for this website because that might not be what attracts people through the Google search, but it might be what they click to and decide, “oh, these are actual humans and they have cool interests, and I like them and I want to trust them with my project,” and it has made it really fun to put things on the website that are maybe not anything I ever considered putting in my personal portfolio.

Keir: Just fun stuff, yep. I would say that to different students, too, when I talk about what to put in your portfolio: what would you do anyway? How can you get somebody to pay you to design that thing? For sure.

Julia: And this podcast as well, it’s really just a way for us to get to know each other even better, and to dive into our professional relationship—and I really think it’s such a special relationship—and if it’s helpful to anybody else who wants to run a partnership, that’s even better, because so far we’ve been operating in a sort of unconventional way.

It’s certainly not typical to make a partnership with somebody across the country, and to have a graphic design business that caters specifically to events is something that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented. We haven’t found anybody else who does the same thing.

Keir: Well, we’re going to be talking with other partners that we know, like we talked with Jen and Greg, and we’re going to be talking with other folks specifically from AIGA, like them, but also other people who are creating compelling things that we’re into. So in future episodes, we’ll get down to that and maybe we’ll leave this one right here.


That’s all for this episode of the Partnership Podcast. My name is Keir DuBois. My partner Julia Sevin and I will return with another episode soon! Until then, follow our work at tightshipdesign.com or on social media at tightshipdesign. Thanks for listening!