If you don’t count his brief stint at a hardware store during college, my grandfather held one job his entire life. Until the day he retired in his 60s, he worked as an architect for the same firm that convinced him to drop out of college and come work for them. He loved being a one-company man, and he doesn’t know why anyone would do it any other way.
Until recently, designer Matt Luckhurst was following a career path my grandfather would approve of. After dropping out of business school, Luckhurst did a 180 and enrolled in the graphic design program at SVA, where he caught the eye of one of his professors, Brian Collins. You know his eponymous studio; it’s the one behind the rebrand of Spotify, Mailchimp, and Vitamin Water. Soon after he co-founded it with Leland Maschmeyer (current CCO of Chobani), he plucked Luckhurst to join their growing design team in 2010.
A year later, Collins hired an unlikely candidate to help manage its quickly growing staff. After studying photography in college, Seth Mroczka went to work at Bruce Weber’s studio as an assistant. With a firsthand understanding of visual work and a knack for the tricky logistics of running a successful creative business, what Mroczka lacked in traditional management experience he made up for with a natural savvy and acquired taste for wrangling together a large group of passionate and opinionated people into well-oiled design machine. In the six years he spent with Collins, Mroczka oversaw the company’s growth from a handful of employees to well over 50. And he did it with zero ego and a zen-like calm that is even harder to come by in this industry than successful young design businesses are.
Scaling a company is exhausting work, and if my grandfather were in Luckhurst’s and Mroczka’s shoes, he would have happily swiveled around his corner office until it was time to collect his pension. But Luckhurst and Mroczka have something else in mind for their futures, which is why late this past year they announced they were setting up shop together in San Francisco as The New Company. And if their website is any indication (it’s one of the best we’ve seen in a while) they’re off to a promising start. I must have played with all the fun easter eggs on the homepage for a full 10 minutes.
As someone who’s found themselves running a small business more or less by accident (that would be Eye on Design), I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a successful company. Is it sheer talent? A healthy work culture? Clever marketing? Financial wizardry? A high tolerance for spreadsheets? Fortunately our smart design friends have a lot of advice to dispense on the matter. For the past several years, Mroczka himself has acted as a mentor to young businesses, and I can personally attest to the pearls of wisdom that drop regularly from his mouth. We’ve also heard from young luminaries like Carly Ayres, of the recently shuttered HAWRAF, about her radically transparent approach to knowledge-sharing, as well as her honest account of all the things that can go wrong when you get into business with close friends.
While there were a lot of scary leaps to make when Luckhurst and Mroczka were getting started, the prospect of working together wasn’t one of them. Of course, the pair had their shared experience at Collins, so they already knew how their individual strengths complemented one another. But starting The New Company was based on more than just business rationale. “I don’t think either of us would have started a company with anyone else,” said Luckhurst, who calls Mroczka his best friend.
They had the willpower, the experience, and Luckhurst had something else, too: a baby. A new father, he understood that if he wanted to try something different with his career, the time was now. The planets aligned for Mroczka, too. He had spent the previous year at the New York Times’ T Brand Studio as the director of business operations, and found that “the corporate environment was not the right fit… there are many layers of approvals and it moves a little slow.” When Luckhurst told him he was looking to open up his own shop, Mroczka was all in. “It was a wild time, having a two-month-old and trying to figure out how you’re going to start a company and make money,” says Luckhurst.
To add to that anxiety, they didn’t have any clients or projects lined up before they first struck out on their own. “We knew we might have a terrible couple of years ahead of us,” Luckhurst continues. “But we were confident that in the long run, it would work out. We knew that if we had to, we could run this company with just the two of us—with Seth on operations and production and myself doing the design and creative work—so for that reason it never felt that scary. We didn’t need to set up a big expensive company; we just needed some laptops and we needed to start working.”
So far their portfolio is largely made up of film- and photography-led campaigns for Nike, with a few more traditional graphic design projects in the mix, like their work for mental health clinic Two Chairs. Going forward, they’d like to mix those mediums up even more. “I don’t think we ever envisioned [our work] as just being a set of graphics solutions at the end,” says Luckhurst.
For that reason, their most recent Nike job posed a particularly exciting opportunity. For the campaign, which highlights lesser-known female athletes of color, they set out to create a series of short, narrative-driven films without ever having done that kind of work before. It was certainly a direction they wanted to move The New Company in, but testing the waters with a very big client is what some might deem rather risky—especially considering that overseeing this underserved-women-of-color campaign were Luckhurst and Mroczka, two white men. That didn’t deter them one bit. “I think if you’re a smart, empathetic human being you understand that these are stories that are beautiful and haven’t been told enough. We want to be part of changing that,” says Luckhurst.
As with any project, it came down to assembling a diverse team of talented people—people from different backgrounds and with different skill sets—in this case, a women-led creative team that included four women directors.
One of those directors was Aimee Hoffman, a filmmaker, photographer, and musician, who never thought she would work with an agency, but after this Nike job, she was so won over by Luckhurst’s and Mroczka’s process that she’s now a full-time creative director with The New Company; she’ll be opening up their new L.A. office later this summer.
Opening two West coast locations in their first two years in business is a feat, but they don’t plan on scaling up big or fast. The L.A. outpost, which will focus on the company’s film work, is opening with just around three people. “We’re running lean, but when you have a clear vision that’s shared by your team, you don’t need to waste time running in circles.”
And in case you, like me, still think that sounds awfully ambitious and you’re wondering how they’re pulling it off, I peppered Luckhurst and Mroczka with questions until they told me. And I organized it all into a nice little list. You’re welcome.
1. Work for a lot of different kinds of companies.
In the midst of Luckhurst’s tenure with Collins, he hopped over to work in-house at one of their biggest clients, Airbnb. (This is more common for agency designers than you might think.) Experiencing the inner workings at both places has been invaluable for him. “I don’t think I could have started a company if I hadn’t gone in-house at some point in my career… I think it’s what made me good at my job.”
He and Mroczka took what they learned from every workplace and from every client to “figure out a different model for design and a different way of thinking about the work.”
2. “Money is complicated. You need a Seth.”
Newsflash, young’uns: The people who will help you be successful aren’t necessarily your creative graphic design friends. “I really believe that there’s a ton of talented small studios out there, but they run into these problems time and time again where they can’t go any further because they started a company with three creative directors—and I’m like, who’s going to do the rest of it?” wonders Luckhurst. Because newsflash #2: “the rest of it” accounts for way more than you think.
Don’t make the rookie mistake of pushing “the business stuff” off to the side. It will not magically take care of itself on its own. This includes knowing how to write a tight scope of work, understanding your budget, managing your cash flow, and negotiating contracts.
“I was just talking to one young company that signed a contract without knowing they had any ability to negotiate,” says Mroczka. “They ended up having to spend around $10,000 in legal fees to clear the work that they were doing.”
“The truth is,” Luckhurst adds, “a lot of big companies retain their clients and are able to get bigger because they have that sophistication that smaller studios don’t.”
3. Networking is a passive—but constant—practice.
Ask a designer how they get clients and most will tell you it’s the result of a random series of connections, built up slowly over time. In a word: relationships. It’s not about cold-pitching your impressive portfolio to every conceivable company. “We really don’t do much,” says Luckhurst. “I reach out to people who are in interesting positions or who I think do interesting work and I say hello. That’s about it. If they think our work is interesting, then they reach back and we form a relationship.”
“There is a certain level of discipline that you have to bring to it,” admits Mroczka. “When things are going well or you land your next client, it can be easy to just focus on that client, but it takes real discipline to always be putting yourself out there and reaching out to people. That took me a long time to learn.”
4. A fun work environment doesn’t mean free snacks and a foosball table.
Next month, The New Company will open a storefront in their SF office with a curated selection of books and swag designed by their staff. It’s as much a branding exercise for the company as it is a creative outlet for its team (have you ever met a designer who didn’t have a cool idea for a t-shirt?), and a tangible way to invite people from the local community directly into their space. In addition to the pro-bono work they do for local organizations, plans to expand with an artist-in-residency program and collabs with other studios are in the works.
5. But great company culture isn’t enough.
Every company likes to think it has the best vibe and the most exciting and welcoming environment. But at the end of the day, your employees are here to work, and money talks. That’s why Mroczka spent time with a lot of MBAs and CPAs to develop a unique profit-sharing program “that rewards every employee at the company,” he says. “They feel like they’re invested in the outcome of The New Company, not just in a particular project or client.”
And because a lot of energy can be wasted when staffers are left wondering what percentage their co-workers are taking home, The New Company is candid about the often uncomfortable topic of money. Many other companies offer incentives and one-off bonuses, “but it’s always this elusive, secretive thing. We want to put it out there and talk about it openly.”
“I think if we can make slightly less money, but if we’re all happier as a company and we work with people as invested in this as we are, that’s the most worthwhile thing you can do,” says Luckhurst.
6. You don’t need to conquer the world.
Most healthy businesses reach a point where they can either grow—and grow rapidly—or they can choose to stay small. The latter is actually much harder, as it can mean turning down big, fun projects for big, sexy brands, and it can feel like it’s “bad for business” to say no to incoming work. But there are numerous benefits to keeping your team tight.
“Our goal is that we’re big enough to handle large campaigns, but that there’s no campaign we ever have to say no to because it’s too small,” says Luckhurst. “How do we do influential work and make sure that we can do it at the highest caliber? It doesn’t mean you need a thousand people.”
That also means there’s no need, and frankly no desire to expand back to the East coast any time soon. I’ve interviewed and spoken with Luckhurst and Mroczka multiple times over the past few years, and this is the first time I’m struck by their aura of calm confidence. Is it a California thing? They seem driven and yet also relaxed in a way many New York designers just aren’t. And it’s so refreshing.
“I’m sure this is part of owning a business, but there’s a sharpness I have now. I just show up differently,” says Mroczka. “The business is connected to our life, and our life is connected to the business—it all blends together, but it feels healthy.”
“We work really hard,” Luckhurst adds, “but only when we’re in the office. We like to see our families and do other things, too.” New company, new concept.