Thanks to the nature of design, you’re used to planning. But have you prepared for the worst?
By Johnathon Vaughn Strebly
All of us strive to feel secure and confident in our design businesses. Solid clients? Check. Stable business model? Check. A reliable creative team? Check. As a business owner, you work hard to establish these elements for your studio, but are you future-proofing yourself for the truly unexpected?
In 2008, Richard Hatter and Leif Miltenberger established Hired Guns Creative in Nanaimo, B.C. In a city mostly known for coal mining and pulp mills, Hired Guns Creative quickly became a boutique design shop known across the country as the go-to firm for creative excellence in branding, design and marketing for wineries, craft breweries and distilleries.
By concentrating their business on one highly focused niche, alcohol packaging designs that consumers can’t help but pick up from a shelf, their work was applauded by the industry. Smart and successful, Hired Guns Creative was on a career trajectory that made the industry take notice, regularly getting recognition from the likes of Designedge and the Canadian Regional Design Awards, Applied Arts, CAMRA, the Dieline Awards, Communication Arts and the Lotus Awards.
On the evening of March 30, 2016, things drastically changed. Hired Guns Creative was consumed by a massive blaze.
“Three separate people notified me within five minutes. I was putting my kids to bed at the time. I let my wife take over and quickly drove down to the studio,” said Leif. “I didn’t really know what to think. When I first arrived on the scene it looked like the firefighters had it under control; it was just some smoke coming out of a different part of the building from where our studio was. At that point I was thinking about possible smoke damage and how that might delay things for us. And I immediately thought about our business insurance and wished I could remember the details of our policy.”
The heritage building that housed Hired Guns Creative also contained 14 other local businesses and was part of the tight-knit community of downtown Nanaimo. It took 34 firefighters nearly 12 hours to get the blaze under control. Richard and Leif watched their building burn, powerless to stop the destruction of the physical studio they had built: $10,000 to $15,000 worth of mid-century modern furniture, $30,000 of computer equipment, sentimental items including their children’s drawings, and a reference library of rare books.
“I posted ongoing live status updates and photos on our company social media accounts during the fire for as long as I could until my phone died. Some of our clients found out that way. I emailed the rest of them later that night when I finally got home,” said Leif.
I immediately thought about our business insurance and wished I could remember the details of our policyLeif Miltenberger, Hired Guns Creative
The Hired Guns Creative studio fire and recent wildfire in Fort McMurray remind us that we must all be prepared for the unexpected. There’s a natural human assumption that we are exempt from tragedy. In our mind’s eye, it always happens to someone else, until we’re faced with a sudden hardship that impacts our health, our family, our community, or our livelihood. How do we make sure we can mitigate the impact of hard circumstances on our design businesses?
The night of the fire, Hired Guns Creative, still thinking of the welfare of others, tweeted out some tips to other studios: check the batteries in your smoke detectors and backup your data. They also offered gratitude for their community and the fact that none of their studio mates had been working in the building that evening. And finally, this practical quip: “I’m going to give @nickenable a big ol’ sloppy wet kiss the next time I see him for suggesting we get an automated offsite cloud backup.”
Emergency preparedness workshops often outline the finer details of content insurance and damage control, but rarely do they account for all the tools and assets necessary for a thriving design business to be fully functional. What are the essential tools and organizational management assets we require to be fully functional regardless of what may transpire? Your crisis management assessment should include the personal. What would you do if you lost it all? Who would you contact first? What would your primary needs be… 10 minutes, two hours, or even 12 months after a disaster?
It took Hired Guns Creative eight years to build their studio but, with the support of their community and clients, only 10 days after the fire to re establish it.
“After I put those first few photos of the fire up on social media, we were flooded with people reaching out to us. The volume of it was staggering and overwhelming. By the time I got up the next morning we had four or five offers of spaces we could use to regroup for a few days. One of our Nanaimo-based clients offered us the use of their boardroom and we took them up on it. It turned out to be very helpful to have a quiet space for those two days immediately following the fire,” said Leif. “Another one of our clients reached out to us the day after the fire and asked if there was anything they could do to help. We have a monthly retainer with them and they offered to advance us the balance of the 2016 contract so that we could replace our computers quickly, rather than waiting for insurance to get sorted out—which it still hasn’t. Their generous support in this way was crucial in our quick bounce back.”
The B.C. design community rallied around Hired Guns Creative, a small studio team who had given so much to those around them. The B.C. chapter of the GDC started a Generosity by Indiegogo page to help get Leif and Richard back into business. Shared quickly on social media, this page earned $5,200 in 28 days.
“Before the fire we had never really tested the goodwill that our company has built up over the years. We kind of just did our thing and mostly stuck to ourselves. But when it came to an emergency like the fire…”.
Community is more than just a word; community is everything. Beyond the insurance brokers and agents, the backup services, and the vendors who replace your damaged stuff, there are people. Your support community may seem invisible during the times you are active in your working life, but when you are in a time of need, the collective support and assistance is what makes all of us stronger.
A crisis can often impact much more than just the stuff in our studios. It takes away the peace of mind and confidence that is critical to the creative disposition. Helping one another out in times of need not only builds our economic health but the collective mental health of our community. It feels good to care for others and to have others care for us.
Will you be able to accept help when you need it? How can you reach out and help others? Not sure? Ask yourself—who would I help? Who can I help right now? Now stop asking questions, start looking around. There’s someone out there who could use a helping hand.
Johnathon Vaughn Strebly is the founder and director of The Notice Group in Vancouver, and the president of GDCBC.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.
[Images courtesy of Leif Miltengerber]