I designed something today and it was fun.

You’ve heard it before: if you want to spend your days designing cool stuff then you should get a job as a designer and not become a business owner.

When I started Po Campo, I was prepared to say adieu to my days at the sketch table for the opportunity to try and bring a good idea to market and make it a real business. For the first 2.5 years or so, I had a partner, a fellow industrial designer, who led the design and production efforts while I led sales and marketing. After my partner and I amicably split and I gained control of the whole company, I quit my day job to make time for my new responsibilities. I was excited to have design become become part of my daily job again, as I do love designing products, especially soft goods and especially bags.

Except it didn’t really turn out that way. It turns out that it takes a lot of money to start a business, which means sales and marketing always demand most of my attention, followed by thinking of ways to cut expenses. Whereas I used to preach to my clients about how important good product design was, and how its value warranted every hour I billed for it, I now consider it a “treat” for rewarding myself after spending a week doing things that I dislike, like cold-calling.

Recently, I indulged in some product design to develop Po Campo‘s Spring 2013 line. I turned off my email, turned off my phone, turned up the music, really worked out my ideas, and boy, was it fun. I put together a nice 23 page presentation about my inspiration, market trends, sketches and schematics and shared it with one of my buyers at REI. When we reached the end of the presentation, he said, “I can tell you really enjoy this stuff”. He’s right, I do. It beats the pants off of sales projections and cold-calling any day. It sucks that I can only do it 1% of the time. But it’s even more fun because I feel like it’s laying the foundation for my company’s success. Which means I still believe all those things that I used to tell my clients about how important design is, and that’s good. I’m glad that hasn’t changed.

“I never wanted to be a factory owner”

The title of this post is a quote from Annie Mohaupt, who owns Mohop! shoes. Po Campo shares a space with them in West Town. I recently overheard her say this to someone on the phone in an interview. She may sound regretful about having to transition from a DIY craftswoman to a true manufacturer, but I don’t think she is. She wants her business to grow and succeed, she wants it more than anyone else on this planet, so she is going to become a factory owner to make it happen.

When she said that, I got this familiar feeling I get when I think about my business sometimes. It is a blend of utter terror and thrill. Like maybe something you would feel if you were boarding a super fun roller coaster that people die on sometimes.

Usually I feel it when I sense something really good or really bad is about to happen. This time, I think I felt it because I have no idea of what my future holds. What will I have to become to have my business succeed?

One time in high school, at an overnight church lock-in, my friends and I went into the basement and stood in the middle of a long and wide corridor. We turned off all the lights and tried to see how far we could run at full speed before the fear of running smack into a wall would be too powerful to keep going. You wouldn’t believe how completely scream inducing and terrifying (and fun!) this was.

That’s kind of what I feel like starting a business is like and I don’t think it’s just my inexperience that makes me feel that way. (Read Wilson Harrell’s famous article on entrepreneurial terror here). I’m still running and hoping that my senses keep me from hitting a wall. If I manage to a get to a point where I haven’t killed myself and can turn on the lights, where will I be standing? And will I like where I am?


How I came to start my company

I’m an industrial designer by trade, which means my profession is designing new products that look great and work great. There are some people that may disagree with this simplified definition, but I think it sums it up pretty well.

I spent the bulk of the first 10 years of my career working for Webb deVlam, a design agency where we were hired to creatively solve problems for our clients. This was a fun job, kind of like Mad Men but without all the drinking and blatant sexism. Over time, I migrated from the core industrial design team to leading the strategy and research team, which turned out to be a better fit for me because I’m more of a big picture person and less of an anal detail oriented person.

In this role, my main responsibility was finding white space for our clients to explore and own. I found this to be quite fun because it’s like discovering uncharted waters where brands could really make a splash if they decided to go for the big business opportunity. In most cases, they didn’t because it was too risky and, instead, they thanked me and my team for our great ideas and filed them away somewhere. Regardless, I was always¬† curious to know if our ideas would have made the big splash in the marketplace that I had imagined had they been implemented.

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