Click Communication Arts
Charleston, South Carolina
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September 21, 2021
Creative Director + Partner
Do you really need an office?
I'm the son of a entrepreneur and a business owner, and I've always just seen that through who my father was. I was indoctrinated into the belief that you had to own your own future. I always knew that at some point I'd own a business, I didn't know it would be graphic design. I thought it would be furniture design or a cabinet maker.
Was there any specific set of moments or experiences that helped you see yourself as a small business owner was there like a pivotal point?
Obviously, there are times. When you are working for other people you know and other businesses. You start to say, well, that's not maybe the way I would do that, how I would handle that it's, you know, I don't know. I think it was just natural progression for me. I think this happens to a lot of designers and professionals—a client might say to you, “Hey, have you thought about opening your own shop?” And and so I think that is often how professionals start our own business because you need that first client right? You need some way to feed yourself when you jump out because it's quite scary to go from having a steady paycheck to being responsible for 100% of your income, especially if you've got a house or a family? You kind of have to do that math right and say, “well, you can do this. I think I can bill this many hours per month.” You should count on making about half as much as you think you would when you start off.
It's quite scary to go from having a steady paycheck to being responsible for 100% of your income, especially if you've got a house or family.
I tell students that, you know! When they're negotiating their first position, if it's in house or agency (I don't even touch freelance with this advice). I always say take a third of that paycheck and just throw it out the window because it's going to go to myriad other things that you're not even thinking about yet.
Now I've got a couple of extra questions that I'm just throwing in here, but what is the work that you mainly focus on? What kind of clients do you work with?
So as an agency the types of clients we have seem to fall within a couple of genres. Mainly due to just how our careers might have evolved or who we worked for with in the past. It's not something that's sort of a conscious thing but, we have a lot of home builder clients. I have worked in the past for a handful of the top one builders in the country. Just from working in agencies in the past I spent a lot of time and had a lot of experience working on those types of clients and projects and was really familiar with how they market themselves. And the same goes for two of my other partners. They had some similar experiences. And so collectively we bring a lot to the table and just being able to talk the language, understand the challenges but and so we've actually had some of the builders that have come to us and ask if we’d be open to working with them. Which is obviously what you want as a professional, to have people coming to you for your for your expertise and skill sets. I have also done a lot of work in the past for healthcare, which is a totally different set of problems altogether. And then again that comes from having worked through that network and agencies with a couple of hospital systems and I was actually on contract for a large hospital system here in, in the area for a couple of years. And then they kind of carried over. And things just kind of steam roll. Right. So people see things. In your portfolio and people see things that are familiar to them and they say, “OK. This person understands my set of communication problems!” I think that's just how it's worked. You know this is very much a relationship business to me. It’s been like that over the course of my career, you know, your network expands so more about you gets out. People like what you've done for a similar type of industry, pretty soon all you're doing is that work.
Long has the art of the click been in business and the businesses that you work with, do they tend to be local, regional, national?
It is current incarnation. Click has been around for about 6 years and I would say that yes, the majority of our clients are in the region in the southeast at least, you know one of our biggest clients is based in Charlotte, NC, and we handle all of their divisions up and down the eastern seaboard from Atlanta to the Richmond and so they're one of our bigger, more spread out clients.
We work closely with the PR firm in Atlanta on a lot of the creative for their clients and when they have marketing needs. You know, sometimes we'll do a few PR presentation one offs for their clients. If they if someone approaches them and says, “hey, we need to talk about a new band refreshing.” We will kind of work with them on that basis. That's a whole separate segment of our business, but we enjoy it a lot.
About how many people do you have working at Click?
Just four of us.
So if we go back to for a moment to March 2020, schools and businesses began to shut down. I know I'm triggering—I apologize. Hospitals began to become overwhelmed with cases and first responders were becoming overwhelmed. What were your initial thoughts as a business owner and your greatest immediate concerns?
We had just hired a designer.
Yeah, it was an interesting time, obviously for everyone. I personally I had just turned 50 on March 14th, which—at least here—was when things were really started to come to a head and you couldn't really ignore the noise anymore, right? We're seeing more cases. It's not just going to be something that is limited to some geographic area, it's already here. It's not coming, it's already here.
From a personal standpoint, you start to see your stock market. You know, if you're watching the stock market that's a real indicator of consumer fear. And I would say interesting for us because for the previous two months we’d been on the search for the new graphic designer, we wanted to add another person to our staff. And we had just literally hired a new designer in right about that same two week period.
You're going to work remotely for two weeks.
We had no idea how it was going to impact our clients. You know, and no one knew how was going to impact them. And so there was, there was a lot of theory. So, we brought back our new hire, we kind of said, “Here is. Here's how we do things. You're going to go work remotely for two weeks.” We originally had just enough technology to be able to work remotely. And so we did that for about a month and then felt comfortable enough being such a small group and our building here is set up in a way that you don't have to make contact with a lot of people if you don't want and it's really easy to get in and out. The hallways are really wide. We have dividers in our office it's. It's fairly safe, not having to be in close contact with even the people that you work with. So we we got a comfort level there. We were incredibly fortunate that our client base for the most part was not only like the home builders were, they were just not effected terribly, they actually boomed during COVID-19. And so you know, some of the marketing tactics they depended on and a lot of the creative designing was, was different, the messaging was different to kind of you know work around those, the kind of new awareness, right. For home builders, you know, people got to retreat to their homes and think, “wow, this place is really small. Let’s get something bigger!” I think that was kind of the national thought, what happened there. Anyone was in the hospitality industry, I think they would suffer. You know, there were some tech clients that kind of pulled back. The fortunate thing is we were able to obviously keep our new hire. Which was really, nice because you know we just, we would hate to hire someone and then immediately have to let them go. So that's all worked out. We've been incredibly fortunate and blessed to thrive through the entire situation, honestly.
That's great to hear my follow up to that was how did those concerns evolve over the six months that followed from March of 2020 and then up to December of 2020 and in the middle of a holiday season, but it sounds like your company did fairly well.
Our staff is very small and we're not top heavy. You know, there's no tiers of hierarchy, really to speak of. And we watch each other's backs a lot. And in the middle of August I and some friends and I took a motorcycle trip across country, so we had shipped our motorcycles to Portland OR and, we'd been trying to do this thing for about a year and a half, and we, you know, thought we would do it, come hell or high water! It was a little bit freaky to fly in August, but at that time. The numbers were down you know and things had opened up a little. So we did that and we took a month. We came across country on motorcycles on mainly back roads and dirt roads. Back country stuff. So we crossed the entire country during that time and saw you know just about everything. We flew to Portland at the tail end of the protests, that were happening there downtown. We were also camping a lot, but so we didn't have as much contact if we didn't want to. But it was interesting to see the attitudes of people and the levels of concern in a way I guess, you know, in different parts of the country.
The numbers were down you know and things had opened up a little.
Let me ask you about working remotely. What kind of an impact did you see that having on your business? Because many of the people that I'm going to talk to for these interviews, they were either in the hospitality business, restaurants, right hotels and things like that—your business is unique in this compilation of businesses. And so was there any impact on the company working remotely?
I would say that the biggest impact was that it caused us to reassess how we were doing things, you know and how we can better work remotely. I think that's probably been universal for any, anyone, any profession.
There's a really unique set of problems for creative individuals.
And what we've discovered is that there's a really unique set of problems for creative professionals, right? Because of the file sizes that we have to work with. You know you've got, you've got big Illustrator files, big Photoshop files or video files, and in order to have some kind of a shared work environment or do any kind of cloud work, it's really tough and the answer is no one's really figured out how to do it in an easy package that you could just go buy. And so in fact, we're right now we just made an investment of some funds to buy some new equipment and to take the next evolutionary step on how we do that. And but it's still not where we want to be. And so I would say that a lot of design firms are seeing these similar types of challenges. I'm a huge fan of monopolies or big business, but I really can't believe that Adobe hasn’t figured out a way to create a virtual desktop and work environment that you can edit your photos in the cloud with software. So you're just kind of doing an emulation on your desktop. It just doesn't exist yet. It's really not there, you know?
It's yeah, it's VPN or remote. Completely different from the Facebook metaverse, but also very, very good space for Adobe to be investing time.
In terms of March of 2021, March of this year—so we're we're looping a full 12 months now past the motorcycle adventure of August which we need to talk about after this interview—In March of 2021, we saw we saw many Americans beginning to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And did you see any impact on those numbers and that opening up even on your business?
Yes, and that a lot of our clients again you know I'm referring mainly to our home builder clients, they went from like say virtual showings of homes to people being able to come back in and do kind of in person showings for their communities and things like that. And so that, you know, loosened things up a lot.
I would say that for some of the healthcare clients, you know. They were able to feel a lot more comfortable about doing in person treatments, you know, especially there's one client that does aesthetics like weight loss and skin treatments and things like that. That had clearly impacted their business, so they were able to, you know make it through the pandemic, but not unscathed. So we go to be a little more active than just in general.
It seems like a 50/50 split between people that are still willing to wear masks.
There's about, it seems like a 50/50 split between people that are still willing to wear masks whether they're vaccinated or not. And I think that affects how everyone does business, you know if it's going to the grocery store, the hardware store to a restaurant. I think that people have kind of accepted “either I'm on one side of this fence or, you know, or the other.”
How about your ability to work with vendors, which is a unique question for you? You know spec-ing print, etc—your ability to work with vendors based on some of this impact.
I haven't personally met with print rep in quite a while. And honestly, a lot of the output that we create now is digital media. So it I would say that really hasn't affected us very much. You know, I can't really remember the last time that a paper rep came around to bring me a new box.
That's a good point. My last question in terms of the pandemic is: What was one of, or maybe a couple of the hardest decisions that you had to make for your business based on all of the effects of COVID-19? And were there any easy decisions for you to make with regard to your business?
You know I would say that it’s interesting because the easiest decision and the hardest decision were almost one in the same in a way. So, we had to decide whether or not to renew the lease in our office probably four months ago, I guess, and which brings up the question: Do you really need an office? You know can we just go to being fully remote?
There was a lot of fear.
And one of my partners actually moved to North Carolina. So he's no longer here and so he’s got a little bit different perspective. But we feel like that for the work culture and team bonding that we really needed to keep a physical office even though it's expensive to do it. So we renegotiated our lease. At the same time, we were, you know we were looking at opportunities for creating a better, faster virtual environment, you know, work environment. And at one point there was a cost analysis of the office versus this virtual work environment and they were almost the same. So which one do you do? Which one is better today versus which one do we want five years from now? That was a bit of a struggle to figure out how to think, but ultimately we came to keep the office and take the next step for our virtual capabilities. Fortunately again we've been successful enough and we've kept our, our buildings have been in a place where we didn't have to be forced to make that decision.
The easiest decision was to keep fighting. We’ve got a good group and it was worth working hard to keep our clients happy and to keep things and moving ahead to be successful.
I think that encapsulates it for me. The easiest decision is to keep fighting. I have just one question left as we wrap this up and that is what is next for you and Click.
So you know, we would obviously like to keep going. You know, we're actually very conservative in terms of how we run our business. We value stability a lot for, you know, for us as individuals and as a group, we're really careful about the types of clients that we bring in and because we've all worked as freelancers. And so we recognize the strength of what we have as a group and in collaboration.
We also recognize that the fragility of running a small business and the challenges is using our time wisely. Maintaining a certain level of profit. There’s the designer side that's supposed to make everybody happy and make cool things. And then there's the business owner side that’s got to be profitable and maximize our, you know, opportunities. And so we would like to grow and then the big struggle is how do we do that in a way that strengthens the business? You know from a fiscal standpoint and culturally as well. We have decided that we want to bring in a senior type of a designer. Someone that can work hand in hand with us and it doesn't need to be supervised. They might bring in some of their own client base as well so. You know, we could have identified how we want to do that pretty specifically. And I think when we find the right person, we will.
The easiest decision was to keep fighting.
That is exciting! Bobby, I want to thank you so much for generously taking this time to speak with me today and to be part of this interview process. Your involvement in this project is what's making this project possible. So, I'm really grateful for you and your time. And it's so wonderful to meet you and to hear more about your work and what you do.