Studio Q&A – Motherbird

Published:  January 11, 2012
Studio Q&A – Motherbird

The story of Motherbird is a great one. Three high school friends – Dan Evans, Chris Murphy and Jack Mussett – meet in high school, get accepted into the same design course at university and, once graduated, decide to set up their own studio.

Winners of the 2010 Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards (won the previous year by Tin&Ed), the trio has quickly established a name for themselves in only two short years, partly though immersing themselves in the design community through the likes of the State of Design festival, AGDA and a few high profile pro bono projects. Armed with a stack of questions from desktop’s Twitter and Facebook fans, we met with Chris and Dan in their inner-city studio to see what makes this mother fly.

Studio Stationery

The Motherbird story – how did it all begin?
Dan: Basically the three of us all went through high school together, where we found our passion for design. We were then all accepted to do communication design at Swinburne University.

So you finished uni at the same time?
Dan: Chris deferred for a year to work, while Jack and I went through to complete honours, so we all finished the same year. We had a chat and decided starting the company was a good idea.

Were you inspired by a particular studio to start up your own business?
Dan: Not really. A few good opportunities presented themselves, including a great space
in South Melbourne, so we jumped on them.
Chris: We are always inspired by studios, but I don’t think that was what inspired us to do it. We just saw an opportunity to give it a go before we had too many serious other commitments in our lives.

So you had an opportunity for a space?
Dan: We stumbled across a space in South Melbourne that was perfect in helping us ground and establish ourselves as a studio. We have since moved on to a space in Flinders Lane, but it was a fantastic stepping stone for us.

Billy Blue brand campaign

What was involved in starting up?
Chris: Set-up costs were minimal, because our initial set-up was pretty basic – just the bare essentials; computers, software, phone lines etc.

What was your biggest fear about starting your own studio?
Dan: I think excitement at the time really overwhelmed any fears we had.
Chris: We just decided to see what happened and have fun with it. As we get increasingly
serious as a business, fears can definitely sneak in; however, we are solving problems as they arise. Really, you just push them aside and get on with things.

Did you give yourselves a time-frame to reach a stable amount of business?
Chris: I actually don’t recall if we even had a discussion. It was very much ‘let’s see and give it a go’. Looking back, it’s actually a little worrying how little planning was in place at the beginning.
Dan: I agree. We were never really concerned about money in our first year. Over time as the business has developed, this has become more of a priority and a learning process for us.

So, in terms of expenses, how have they grown since you first started?
Chris: They have grown quickly, and continue to grow. Rent and wages are obviously big ones; however, there are a huge amount of other expenses, which are often easily overlooked: phone lines, internet, accountants – these all grow very quickly as the business does. In fact, I wish they would stop!

Did you struggle with anything that you didn’t necessarily learn in uni?
Chris: As far as the design side of things, everything we learned at uni and in time spent in the industry was relevant. We are all confident in design and delivery. However, there has been a huge learning curve in understanding how to run a business successfully – invoicing, quoting, client relationships, production etc. We jumped in the deep end with this, and continue to learn more every day. It’s been a very fun part of the whole experience. I think we were quite naïve about that at the beginning and, as we’ve progressed, things have become more complicated, and so we have had to learn more to account for this. The management and accounts side of the business has definitely been the hardest thing for us.

Have you had anyone or any resource you can turn to in order to learn these things?
Chris: It’s very much been ‘learn as we go’ and draw on any advice as we come across it and need it – whether that’s from contacts in the industry, family or friends.
Dan: We’ve been fortunate enough to have a great network of people we can turn to for
advice, which has been invaluable.

Album Artwork for Felix Riebl

Do you ever wish that you’d obtained more experience in someone else’s studio before starting your own, to learn these kinds of things?
Chris: Sometimes, I think it very much depends on the size of studio you’re at, whether or not you come in contact with the business side of things. At a larger studio, you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to the problems and politics that go into the day-to-day running of the business.
Dan: With having two years’ experience in a studio, and through industry placement, I feel
that I did develop my skills in dealing with clients and production management, but of
course there is always more to be learned.

How important is still remaining creative and doing your own thing, versus clients and making money?
Chris: Of course, you always want to be working on big creative jobs with big budgets and flexible clients, who wholeheartedly trust you, but in reality this isn’t always the case. It’s about finding that balance.
Dan: As designers, we love to work on as much creative work as possible.
Chris: A big part of what we’ve been doing for the last two years has been very much about
grounding ourselves as a company, while building a client base that helps support us, both creatively and as a business. Currently, we’ve had quite a good balance, but would always love to tip the scales towards more creative work. Got any?

How do you three work together?
Dan: We generally split projects up, but, at the end of the day, we’re all sitting side by side, so there is never one project that all three of us haven’t had some influence over in some way or another. Generally, one of us will be the point of contact for the client. Creatively we work as a team.
Chris: The process is very fluid. Depending on the size of the projects, it’s not necessarily a conscious decision. We all know what needs to be done and the process really just flows from there. Communication between the three of us is hugely important.

Jack is on the board of AGDA Victoria, and you do a fair amount of pro bono projects, like the Positive Posters identity. How important are things like these and getting involved in the design community?
Chris: It’s been very important, especially in terms of networking within the design industry, gaining both creative and production contacts. It’s always fantastic getting to know other designers and hearing that the problems we face are normal. Any advice we can gain from this is invaluable. I also like to think we can offer some valuable advice from time to time; it’s always great to support each other where possible. Positive Posters has been great fun to work on, with so many creative people involved. Whenever we get an opportunity to let our hair down, we love to run with it.

Collateral for Sex, Drugs & Helvetica - Positive Posters inaugural student conference.

How do you attract the right kinds of clients for your business?
Dan: Currently, it’s been very organic through friends of friends, word of mouth and networking.
Chris: We’ve been fortunate and have built a solid client base. We’re at a point where we want to start marketing ourselves and targeting particular clients and really working towards finding that balance between love jobs, paid creative and bread and butter work.

Has winning the SOYA (Qantas Spirit of Youth Award) been beneficial in that aspect?
Dan: Yes, definitely, especially gaining Deanne Cheuk as a mentor. Having regular contact with her and being able to pick her brain has been amazing.

And the award has helped you get new business too?
Chris: Absolutely, it has provided us with amazing networking opportunities, as well as given us credibility within the industry. Qantas has been an amazing supporter of us (see Motherbird’s recent project for Qantas which involved branding a Boeing 747 with a support message for Australia’s national Rugby team, the Qantas Wallabies).

Where is the business heading? Do you have a strategic plan?
Chris: At the moment, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, because it seems to be working quite well for us. Paying more attention to the business side of things will become more and more of a priority, as well as marketing and finding those dream jobs. There are no plans to take over the world just yet.
Dan: We’ve been concentrating on getting that solid ground for the business in place. I think we are at the stage now to start pushing things.
Chris: So much about what we’ve been doing in the past two years has just been building a profile for ourselves, seeing what we can do and what we enjoy doing. We’re at the stage now that we are focusing on generating more creative work and really trying to find that mystical balance of work everyone is searching for.

For those students that are thinking about starting their own studio straight out of uni, what would you recommend them to do?
Dan: We have been very lucky that the three of us have complementary skills to bring to the table. Without these, things would have been very difficult. Finding the right people to work with is hugely important.
Chris: We have known each other for so long, and are very familiar with each of our particular strengths and weaknesses. This helps us to complement and build on them when needed. Being great friends is certainly not enough. You have to have a fair bit of willpower and a thick skin to start your own studio. Looking back, I wish I had a more of an understanding about running a business, just to make that learning curve a little less steep. If you have no interest in gaining a good understanding of the administration side of things, you are going to find it fairly difficult, very quickly.

From desktop magazine.

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