Re: Lessons From Running A Design Studio (Way) Outside Of A Major City

After almost 2 weeks away, it’s so nice to come home to St Augustine. It’s a little crazy how at home I feel after less than 2 years of moving away from San Francisco, which I considered and still do consider to be one of the most ideal cities in the world in terms of lifestyle and location. I think many people considered our move to be a rejection of SF, a sign of trouble or escape, but the one thing we’ve tried to explain many times over is that we simply felt a desire for change and were looking ahead to inject a different experience into our lives. Moving to St. Augustine may sound safe to some because it’s a smaller town, a nice place to raise a family, etc.  But in reality, at the time it felt like a terrifying risk because we weren’t moving to raise a family, we were moving with a very young, volatile business and no plan of what we would do if it didn’t work out.

Some of you may have seen the article in FastCo that covers our experience of running a brand outside of a large city center. We met Meg at ICFF and enjoyed talking with her about the pros and cons of our transition from running our 2 person studio in SF, to growing our larger team here in Florida. It is an interesting article, especially viewed from our perspective since it chronicles something we know so closely. Since we're often asked about this decision and how things have panned out, I wanted to take a moment to expand on the article. 

 

Priced out of San Francisco

Pricing is the hot topic whenever SF comes up in any conversation, and rightfully so -- it’s out of control. However, I think it really dominates over issues that have quite a bit more nuance. 

While money was a huge factor for us, considering we were self-employed and growing a business without funding, we weren’t simply priced out. We had a small but beautiful apartment that was rent-controlled and incredibly affordable for SF, and we had a good deal on our studio. Fortunately, we didn’t have any terrible stories of being evicted by a greedy landlord, or really any circumstances that were driving us away except for our personal desire for something different. We weren't struggling much in the immediate sense, but when we thought about where we wanted to be in a few years time, we had difficulty imagining getting there on our current path.

There are plenty of people who make it work by tailoring their business to the city they’re in; many will look into alternative funding options/partnerships or grow it on the side with more freelance as sustenance. These were all viable options, just not the paths we were interested in taking, so we decided SF wasn’t worth the trouble in the end. That’s probably the hardest point for most to grasp. 
 

On St Augustine

Yes, it is really small. But is it accurate to say that there is "no design scene to speak of”? Absolutely not. If you’re viewing “design” through a very particular product focused / industrial design lense, there may be something to that as I don’t know of many other Industrial Designers or product design agencies in the immediate area. When speaking of design in a broader sense, we are surrounded by talented designers and artists in town who play a major part in making this city what it is. 

St. Augustine certainly has its tourist draw since it is the oldest European settlement in the US, but that doesn’t wholly define the city for locals. It’s also not defined by the elderly drivers, golf courses and bad politics that come to mind for many people when they think of Florida. The distinctive quality of our city is due in large part to the creative talents that exist here and have a presence far beyond the college’s influence. I think the walkability, history, and natural beauty have drawn certain personalities to live and remain here. It makes for a small town with a very high percentage of good food, good drinks, and active lifestyles that wouldn’t come about in a community that isn’t engaged and appreciative of their surroundings.
 

On small town vs big city in general

As someone who spent years never imagining I’d leave SF, it’s a little surreal still to find myself in a sense advocating for this change. The main thing that Andrew and I often stress when we’re asked to share our opinions on this topic, is that we wouldn’t trade our time in SF for anything. The experiences we had both in school and professionally in the city were critical in shaping us. The friendships and connections that we bring from that time remain.

Years of city life experience is obviously not a prereq for doing good work, plenty of others have shown that. But I do think that Andrew and I were the type to highly value the growth from changing our perspectives and needed to get some distance from small towns and the South at that time in our lives. 

If you’re selling product to an international audience like we are, the internet and tradeshows are more critical to success than the physical location of your business. We may expand in a way that allows us to open physical retail in a few major cities at some point, but no matter where we go, we foresee St. Augustine remaining home.