Consulting with Specialists on the Business of Design with Matt Burns: Podcast #35

CSP 035 | Business Of Design

Every business owner starting up has this mindset that they need to get everything done from day one. Startups spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and trying to get everything done before they even open. He went through this phase as well. He broke out of that and went to a level higher by taking action to find out what would work to get the results that he wanted, and then adjusted it to get to where he is right now as the Creative Director of Thirst Craft. He had a direction and moved towards it when he focused on specialize beers, wine, and spirits by learning the business of design as well as dealing with the mindset of losing opportunities.

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Consulting with Specialists on the Business of Design with Matt Burns

I’m very excited to have Matt Burns joining us. Matt, welcome.

Thanks for having me.

I’m excited to do this here with you, Matt. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, take a moment and explain what you do.

I’m the Creative Director of Thirst Craft. We are a design agency and we specialize in the drinks industry. We specialize in beer, wine, and spirits.

There’re a lot of questions that I have percolating when you say that and will be very relevant for consultants as they’re looking to scale up and grow their business. Let’s go back to what you were doing before. Take me back to your school days. What were you studying? What were your goals, your plans? Where were you way back then?

I’m Australian, but we’re based in Scotland, so I’ve been living in Scotland for six years. When I was a younger, I was always into illustrations. I loved drawing portraits. Going through school days, I never knew exactly what I wanted to pursue as a career. After leaving school, I eventually started photography. I didn’t fall in love with it as much as I would’ve liked and eventually started studying graphic design. I loved it straight away, creating brand identities. After leaving design school, I had a job in a design agency in Sydney. What was great was it was a small agency.

What I started to learn at that job was the business of design and how you can think about design from a business point of view, that it’s not fun and games, and start thinking about things a little bit more seriously. I thought it’d be great to work for myself. At that point, I hadn’t stumbled across this specialization thing yet. That was a few years later. After being in that job for a little while and started working for myself, I went to a design talk in Sydney one night and Blair Enns was speaking and that was a big moment for me. I remember sitting in that room thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to specialize in another passion of mine, which is craft beer? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

Not too long after that, I started working through a couple of small breweries in Sydney and also a beer publication, but I still had a broad range of clients, like corporate clients. I never focused in terms of client base. There started to be a few beer clients there. It wasn’t until I moved to Scotland where I wanted to continue to do my graphic design practice. I tried to bring as many clients with me to Scotland as possible, but not many of them were interested in working with a designer on the other side of the world. Some of my current clients did.

The brewery Doctor’ Orders is bringing us work for now. He was cool with me living over here and the beer publication as well, but when I moved to Scotland, I didn’t have a great deal of work. I was effectively starting from scratch again. Without any strategy about how to find new clients over here in the UK, I kept it very simple. I made a spreadsheet of every brewery in Scotland and I thought I’d email every single one of them thinking, “All I need is one,” and I did. I got a bite from a brewery here in Scotland called Fyn Ales. They’re a very well-respected brewery and they were the base. They were the starting point.

What also happened when I started working for Fyne Ales, I became very good mates with the marketing manager there. We became close and we started talking about maybe starting a business together. We wanted to start a brewery, but we don’t know how to brew, so that was a bit of a problem. We also wanted to open a bar, which we still might one day, but at the time we didn’t have any capital to put into creating a bar. We thought, “Let’s stick to our guns and do what we’re good at, which is effectively selling beer” with him on the marketing side and me on the design side.

Did he leave his position at Fyn Ales to join you?

Our vision from the beginning was to be like a satellite marketing office for a lot of the breweries around the UK who couldn’t afford a marketing team. We thought we could offer our skills and knowledge to service these breweries. It’s completely still a craft beer industry. That evolved quickly to the marketing side in terms of social media and marketing strategy. That part of the business wasn’t firing as much as the design side. The design side was doing great. We were working for a lot of breweries here in the UK but also at the time, we’re working with some breweries in Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand. We started working for a soft drink company in Hong Kong. The design side was firing, and the marketing side not so much. My business partner, Chris, was doing a lot of looking after the business. We did stumble upon it by accident, but looking back now, that was one of the best things that happened to us, where we had someone completely dedicated to looking after the operations of the business where I could focus on the design side.

The reason why I wanted to have you come on to The Consulting Success Podcast is because of your decision to specialize. There’s other stuff here that you mentioned in terms of marketing and how you started the business. Let’s talk about the specialization, because there’s a lot of levels of specialization. Starting off, you could have decided to be a design consultancy, doing all kinds of different graphic design or web design or print design. There’s a lot of different areas. We could look at that as the broadest top level. You could have also decided to say, “We’re going to be a design agency or consultancy specializing only in branding.”

Even within branding, there’s a lot of different kinds of branding from visual identities and logos. You could have also gone and said, “We’re going to be experts in packaging,” and do all kinds of different packaging from products, boxes, retails. You took it even a level further than that. You said, “We’re going to be real specialist consultants and experts in packaging for beer, wine, and spirits.” There’re so many levels of specialization there. Talk me through a little bit more. For you, craft beer is a real passion and area of interest, but how did you get there? What pushed you to say, “I’m going to hone in and focus to this level?”

CSP 035 | Business Of Design

I’m the guy that if I’m going to do something, I do it all out. When I fell in love with beer, I thought, “This is what I want to do. I don’t just want to do design for it, but I want to know everything about it.” By no means am I as great as expert about beer as other people, but for a design agency, we could have the most knowledge out of anyone. That specialization has evolved at the time. When we first started out, we were specializing within the beer industry, but we were still broad because we weren’t just doing design and packaging, we were doing social media marketing as well. We refined that specialization at the time.

What triggered it for me in the beginning was I remember Blair saying, “The world doesn’t need another generalist.” I was also listening to one of your podcasts, and the gentleman’s name was Tony Signorelli. He was saying that it’s not about the story you tell, it’s about the questions you ask. That was absolutely brilliant. It’s not something I thought of before. That’s exactly right because we can walk into a room with any brewery and we know their business challenges. We know what that brewery takes, and I don’t know other agency that will know that, so rather than be that generalist design agency, we thought we will be the experts in the field, and that will be a great way to leverage what we do. We love beer, we love wine, we love spirits, so it’s an easy industry to be passionate about and be a specialist in.

One thing that you mentioned there is so important, and that is that you didn’t arrive at your final destination of clarity around your ideal clients and where you want to focus until after you started taking action. So many people who are wanting to specialize or want to grow their business think that they have to have everything done from day one, and so they end up spending so much time thinking and planning and trying to get everything right that they don’t take action. You took action, and you learned that social media and managing other kinds of marketing, even though initially you tried it and you thought it’s what would work, didn’t resonate or it didn’t create the response or the results that you were looking for, and so you adjusted. That is what allowed you to get to where you are today.

It’s constantly evolving. Even the way we specialize is constantly evolving. We started off doing beer, and that was pretty much what we did. It was beer. The natural progression from beer was the spirits, especially in Scotland. There’re so many opportunities within the spirits industry. The natural progression from that is wine and then soft drinks. As that drink industry broadened a little bit, what we did at the same time was reduce the amount of services that we’re offering, so that still maintained a high level of focus. For instance, for a long time we were doing websites, but we realized, “Our strengths are in the brand and packaging, so let’s get that stronger and push that harder, but reduce the amount of services that we’re offering.” That idea of specialization has evolved as we have. It’s loose strategy. It’s organic. We’re not saying, “We have to do it. It has to be this way.” We’re being responsive to time. We’re not too calculated.

It sounds like you have a direction and you’re moving towards it. Rather than trying to have everything right, you’re taking what I often refer to as imperfect action. You’re moving in a direction and learning along the way, and that’s what’s helping you to make real progress. A lot of the audience will feel that it’s resonating with them in terms of knowing that they should be focusing more and that there’s greater refinement they can make, but the big elephant in the room, the big challenge that holds people back is the mindset of they are going to lose opportunities.

For you as you’re moving through this, you also faced some resistance in your own mind or from other people that you were working with by saying, “We’re only going to be focusing on the beverage industry, craft beer, wine, and spirits.” It means that you’ll lose a lot of other potential business that may come your way or that you could land. How did you deal with that?

It’s something that I tend not to think about. It’s potentially something that I would get bogged down in and I’ll lose focus. Rather than thinking about that too much, I probably tend to focus on what I’m trying to achieve because I know it works. I’m confident in the idea of this working. At first it was slow, especially when I was still a one-man band. I was still half-heartedly specializing. I always believed in it and that’s where I wanted to get to, but I still had to do the odd jobs on the side to make sure that would work.

When you first started, you were doing work in different areas?

This was more so when I was still back in Sydney, when I first moved to Scotland, and when I formed first the brand with my business partner, Chris. It was that idea, especially when I was still a one-man band, that this is what I want to achieve. When we made that commitment and when we had those first few clients in the door, it was like, “Let’s do this. Let’s 100% go at it and not look back.”

A big thing that I often recommend to people who are thinking through trying to deal with this challenge in their mind is that the most important commitment to make is where you’re going to be, who your ideal clients are, and where are you going to focus your efforts for marketing. In the early days, if you get business that comes your way from a completely different industry, as long as you feel that you want to take that project on and it aligns with your overall goals and it feels right to you, there’s nothing wrong with taking it on in the early days. It’s business.

The key is that you have focus and your energy is put towards a specific area so that you can make an impact, rather than putting your energy across so many different industries and so many different types of ideal clients. That sounds like what you were essentially doing. When you first came to Scotland and you made the decision that you wanted to get into craft beer, doing branding and design, and consulting work with people in those industries, you made a list of all the different breweries and you sent them an email, a letter. What did you send out?

CSP 035 | Business Of Design

It was an email. I have a portfolio, which is packaged up in a PDF. It puts a smile on my face because I wouldn’t do that thing now. Even when Chris and I joined forces and we didn’t have any clients at first and we didn’t have any money coming in, it’s the same scenario. You go into survival mode and you’re trying to think of a way and joining dots together. At that time when I moved here I thought, “This is my way of joining the dots together. Let’s make a spreadsheet, let’s gather up the email addresses and then hope that one gets back in touch.” Scotland is a small country, so I emailed 60 breweries at the time. My vision was that I’ll build the career, I’ll build the craft beer portfolio in Scotland around them, and that’s exactly what happened. I suppose I put myself in a position for some good luck to happen.

You took the first step towards something potentially happening. You sent out 60 emails, did you do some follow-up or not?

There’s one that wrote back. It was fortunate that they were a well-respected brewery. There were a few other little bites, but I thought the one that I got gave me a fair bit of work, which was great. Off the back of that, I tried to use those works, then go back out to the other breweries to show them that this is what I’m doing now with a brewery here in Scotland and these are things I can do for you. It was slow. It wasn’t the easiest at times, and that probably took a good three years to gather up any momentum where I wasn’t having to go fishing a lot for clients. My profile was starting to grow up in that like three or four-year period, then I found work coming to me rather than having to go find it.

Let’s talk about those three years where you landed this first client. They’re sending plenty of business your way. Things are going well. Sounds like you’re surviving, you’re eating, and you’re taking care of yourself. In order to build a business and get that second, third, fourth, and fifth client, what did you do? How did you land those clients?

A great way that I’ve always found generating work in the design industry, and this is even outside the drinks industry, is the online journals and blogs. A lot of breweries, distillers, and wine-makers, if they’re going to look to revitalize their brand or get a new piece of packaging for the new wine, one of the first things they might do is go onto a packaging design blog. That’s a great place to go and have your work featured. We do that now. It’s a part of our range at Thirst. When we finish a piece of work, we photograph it, we create a nice-looking project out of it, and then we send it out to all the blogs, because that’s where our work comes from. Rather than going and doing all the door-knocking, we think that the first place that a potential client will go look is blog. That’s part of it and that’s what I did back then as well. As soon as I finish a project, I’ll go straight onto as many blogs as I could and try to send that work out to get it all over the Internet.

When you say, “Send to those blogs,” is there a designer or someone that’s running the blog, and they feature and hand select work that they like and then write about and talk about it or is it more like a portfolio type of website?

You will submit it to them and they will choose whether to feature it or not. Not always do they feature your work. They are selective, but that’s a good thing. It kicks up the high caliber of work to feature, but the amount of work and referrals that way to take from blogs is enormous. Another thing that I was doing as well was that the beer industry is very word of mouth and it is very network-based. I was trying to meet as many people as I could and every opportunity that I could be referred by another brewery, I definitely appreciated that. It was a slow grind at first, but I had to believe that it was going to work.

A lot of us, when we’re getting started in the early days, we will certainly face this where things don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes it feels like you’re pushing a big rock up the mountain, but when you get to that tipping point, it’s amazing. I’ve worked with hundreds of consultants all around the world in many different industries and I can consistently see that as long as you’re doing the right things and you have the right plan in place and you’re working consistently, you’re going to reach that tipping point.

When you reach that tipping point, things change. It’ll feel like overnight, some magical success has come your way, but it’s been the accumulation of everything that you’ve been putting into this over time. It sounds like for you, sending your work to blogs and building relationships and getting referrals and putting the word out there as much as you can over that period of time, then suddenly you hit that tipping point. When you hit that tipping point, you start getting a lot more work coming your way.

CSP 035 | Business Of Design

One of your biggest enemies in this work is complacency. As soon as you become complacent, that’s when things go bad. I’m the Creative Director so I’m not good when it comes to the accounts That’s not my strong point, but Chris, my business partner, has great control of the business. What that has allowed us to do is it allows me to focus on the projects, focus on the design aspects of the projects and look after our creative team. Chris is keeping the business ticking over as well. That is what allows us to always be thinking about what’s next, rather than when I was by myself, I was doing the design work, I was doing the business development, I was trying to do the accounts, I was trying to get the stuff into the blogs, and when you’re doing one thing, you’re not spending time for other things. When you have a business partner who is not about the craft of the company, he’s doing a completely different aspect of the company, that allowed the business to thrive. That’s one of the things that I’ll always say to another graphic designer looking to join business with someone. Rather than joining forces with another graphic designer, I immediately joined forces with someone who is going to look off to the company because it makes a lot of sense. We did stumble across it by accident, but it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to us.

As a design consultancy, the approach that you’ve used to scale your business is that building your team, partnering, and bringing together people with complementary skill sets that then allows you and allows everyone to focus on their areas of greatest value and put together is what moves things forward. Is everyone full-time aside from you and Chris? Do you typically use contractors on an as-needed basis? What’s your team set up?

Everyone at Thirst is full-time. The growth has happened organically where people initially were contractors. As we’ve grown, people have signed up to be full-time. That’s what we love as well. When you have contractors, we were always wondering where the focus was, if they were truly focused on working towards what the company’s trying to achieve, but when people are full-time, you get their 100% dedication. It’s different having someone full-time and fully dedicated to the company versus contractors where they have lots of different clients, lots of different responsibilities. As soon as we could make someone full-time, we did.

Our growth has been mainly on the design front. During the middle of last year, we have hired someone who is our Strategic Director, which has strengthened us in a completely other way. She thinks about projects from a completely strategic point of view. That’s formalizing the creative brief and working with the clients to work out what’s going on in their head. It allows us designers to not have to worry about the clients’ problems as much and purely focus on their creative problems at hand. Our team is six at the moment, we are looking to become seven quite soon.

This has been an enjoyable conversation, Matt. I appreciate you coming on and sharing your story here. I find your focus fascinating. I love the work that you do. For the audience, make sure that you go over and check all the work that this company is up to. It’s spectacular. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?

Our website is ThirstCraft.com. We’re on all the platforms, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. If anyone would like to get in touch, just drop us a line.

Matt, thanks so much for coming on.

Thank you very much for having me.

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