Most businesses don’t work, and most of the ones that do will tell you they were visionaries from the start. Arc & Co. Design Collective opens up about how it did right by doing everything wrong
After diving headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship and opening Arc & Co. Design Collective in 2011, Annie Chou and Robert Cortez found themselves facing an interesting quandary: they had no idea what they were doing. It’s something they can laugh heartily about now, but was the source of sleepless nights at the time. They committed a number of sins of omission: having no specialty, no marketing plan or strategy for securing new clients, no clear definition of each other’s duties. They knew from previous experiences that they wanted to do things differently, but it was becoming evident that they didn’t quite know how to go about it.
Cortez and Chou met in 2008 while working for Umbra’s in-house design team. It was a high-paced environment that taught them the wizardly ways of quick turnaround at high volumes. While they both concentrated on graphics and packaging, Chou was also gaining occasional experience in trade show booth design. “I started becoming very interested in seeing a brand in a 3D way,” she says. It was a taste of what Arc & Co. would later identify as its specialty—the three-dimensional, structural world of packaging and exhibit design, and the big-picture sphere of brand development. Brands in space.
A year later they crossed paths again at Wild Eye Designs, a gift and table wear company that tapped them (separately and coincidentally) to help establish a design team for a new line of products. They were trusted to shape things from the ground up and were handling everything from catalogue design to photo shoots and trade shows. The freedom, and their success in making the most of it, was eye opening. “That was when we started saying ‘Oh my god, we can do this’,” Cortez recalls.
After more than two years of repetitive product launch seasons, the itch to “do this” grew to an undeniable urge. One day, they went for lunch and Cortez got serious. “Do you really want to open a business?” he asked. By the end of their meal they had a name. Soon after, they had a logo and financing plan. Within a week, they were incorporated. “I didn’t even realize how fast it was,” he says from Arc & Co.’s east end Toronto office, where they now work with two other designers on staff. They opened in September that year. Come February of 2012, they were sweating.
Their initial laissez-faire style of generating business wasn’t working. “We were thinking like artisans,” Chou says. “We were doing what we call ‘reactionary work,’ sitting there and waiting for work to come.” The tipping point was a frustrating influx of inquiries about web design—something they can and still do when part of a larger branding project, but definitely not a niche they were trying to carve out for themselves. How did they lose control of their own trajectory?
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Thus began six months of intense study. They pored over books about business and selling. They found a six-week boot camp offered by Enterprise Toronto, a city-run initiative for small business owners. They attended five classes a week learning marketing, sales, and how to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. “We saw holes,” says Cortez. “We knew how to market a rug or a product, but we didn’t know how to market a service [like design].”
They came out of the process with more than just a specialty. They set roles for each other—Chou became head of sales; Cortez, head of operations and marketing—and stopped needlessly tackling every task as a duo. Resources from the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) told them most new business is generated through referrals, which they took to heart by establishing a referral rewards program. Referrals now account for 85% of the company’s clients.
The new business mindset helped steady the boat and soon was seeping into every aspect of Arc & Co. They found themselves talking to clients differently, no longer as designers but now as business owners. “Clients think that designers don’t understand [their business concerns], which can be sort of true,” Chou says. She recalls a lesson she learned at a previous job placement, where her boss commented that the design department was operating as if on an island, closed off from the rest of the company.
“Now that we have our own company, we needed to not be on that island,” Cortez says. “At the end of the day, we all want that company, or whoever our client is, to thrive.” Combining their early high-paced work schedules, their experience heading a team at Wild Eye Designs, and their crash course in entrepreneurship, they’re now able to look at a client’s company more deeply and talk about ideas more clearly. Conversations about packaging design fold seamlessly into discussions about materials, cost, inventory tracking and storage—speaking a client’s language and essentially showing them design possibilities from a vantage point they can relate to.
Arc & Co.’s tailored approach can be seen in its work for Designboom Mart, a recurring marketplace at the annual Interior Design Show in Toronto. For four years running, Arc & Co. has designed the exhibit space, each time with a radically different look. For 2016, the studio was challenged to use Fijian mahogany without cutting or damaging the re-usable wood supply—staying frugal while also communicating “sustainability.” Its straps-and-beams solution created beautiful angles that stood out on the showroom floor while also successfully meeting the challenge.
Meanwhile, a recent project for Nügateau patisserie in Toronto shows the firm’s eye for lucid branding. While Nügateau’s original concept was to sell all manner of fancy choux pastries, Arc & Co. suggested it concentrate specifically on éclairs—a choux pastry, but one that required no further explanation. The business opened in late 2015 and its éclair-only selling point got local media and food bloggers salivating.
Chou and Cortez circle back to their early dilemma of knowing how to sell an object but not a service. “Most of our clients have products,” Chou says. “It’s physical, it’s tangible, and it’s either good or bad. People will judge it by themselves. But us? How do we sell trust? How do we sell experience?” Cortez responds excitedly, getting serious in a way one would imagine he did when he and Chou went for lunch and launched a business. “That’s what it is! You’re selling trust,” he says. “Trust, with colour.”
[Images courtesy of Arc & Co. except where noted. Butter Avenue photo: Therese De Jesus; Will essential oils photo: Danielle Matar; Designboom Mart 2015 photos: Peter A. Sellar. Designedge Canada neglected to credit these photographers in the print edition of this article; we apologize for the omission.]
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.