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Opinion / Graphic Design

How and when do you shut down your studio? Carly Ayres on the decision to close HAWRAF

Carly Ayres is a writer and creative director. Until recently, she was the partner of HAWRAF, an interactive design and development studio based in New York that has since closed. Below, Carly details the formation of the studio, its growth and the reasons it decided to close.

People often say that starting a business with a partner is like getting married. At least, that was the metaphor repeatedly offered up when we told people we were starting a studio together.

Andrew, Nicky, Pedro and I had met working together at Google’s Creative Lab in New York. Only two of us had known each other and only one of us had experience with being married. None of us had ever started a company before.

Those sage wisdom-doler-outers weren’t wrong. If marriage was starting a business together, dating was the time we spent over dinners at Mrs Kim’s, discussing our respective values and ambitions. In each other, we found our missing pieces – skills, experiences, and perspectives that we individually lacked but knew would be instrumental in starting a studio.

Very quickly, we learned a lot about each other. Sure, we already knew a few of each other’s fortés, vices, and quirks from working together, but soon we were required to brush up on each other’s finances, outstanding debts, personal relationships, and potential risks that might impact the business we were about to embark on together.

Like a marriage, we were making a commitment to each other so we set ground rules. First, as a Google Doc with straightforward line items like “Always be honest” and “Don’t be an asshole” but later as a verbose legal agreement drafted by a lawyer, then painstakingly (and painfully) reviewed by each of us. It outlined the rules of this engagement, what we would do if things went well, but, more importantly, if they didn’t. In it, we had to give numbers of what we perceived to be our own value – what we brought to the table, how we would make decisions, and how much each of our voices should count in those decisions.

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HAWRAF INTL Rules / Idealisms Google Doc. (2015)

Quantifying your own value and articulating it is a difficult task in itself. Doing that, while also trying to estimate your future impact is near impossible. Who will put in the most hours? Who will bring in the best projects? The highest paying clients? Who will have the steepest learning curve? Who has the most to lose by taking this risk? The most to gain?

Ultimately, it comes down to knowing that you can only make, at best, an educated guess at that moment and then build in the flexibility. Often, when talking to founders (or couples) about why their relationships fell apart, it’s because that relationship failed to evolve and was unable to continue to serve the needs and interests of everyone involved. At the core of those breakups or breakdowns is a lack of communication, a compounding issue that, when not addressed, leads to fissures that eventually fracture the foundation of the relationship itself, leading to the dissolution of anything built on top of it.

Ours was a tad less dramatic. At risk of employing metaphors ad nauseam, the one Andrew uses is that starting HAWRAF was like getting into a boat, except the moment we stepped foot into that boat, we realised that it was full of holes. We immediately had to start plugging the holes – these gaps in our own knowledge of how to run a stable business – figuring out how to stop the boat from sinking, and then bailing out all the water we took on during that time. Once we did that, we sat up, grabbed our oars, and then had to decide where to go next. Turns out, we hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about that while we were busy plugging holes.

We talked about a lot of other things. Like a lot of newlyweds, we had a lot to talk about. Everything was exciting and new. We talked about our hopes and dreams, intangible aspirations in the far-out distant future. We opened up a joint business bank account and deposited our first check. We moved into our first home together, sent out our first proposals and began our first projects. Our honeymoon period even included a trip to Brazil to visit Pedro, who would join the studio after fulfilling a promise to himself to travel before committing to something full-time.

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Andrew and Pedro in Brazil. (February 2017)

All honeymoons come to an end, and shortly after we returned from Brazil we had another shared first: skipping our paychecks after coming back to an empty pipeline. We missed our (ir)regular distributions a few more times that year as we waited on unpaid invoices and timelines that stretched longer than anticipated. Our anti-establishment, anti-status-quo ethos, or perhaps our fears of taking ourselves too seriously, kept us from developing any internal hierarchy, making it challenging to define responsibilities and, therefore, hold each other accountable. Bickering led to a dedicated hour called “Feelings Friday” where we would hash out lingering emotions before the weekend.

As the studio continued to grow, we took on fewer, bigger projects with higher budgets and were able to be more critical about the type of work we took on. We got better healthcare plans and paid ourselves more money. Pedro joined the team and we moved into a spacious studio in Brooklyn where we painted the walls a peachy colour and bought plants. We talked less about our personal ambitions and more about the weekends and the weather. We took on more client work and Feelings Fridays became less frequent as we prioritised other projects and, frankly, some level of self-preservation over arduous conversations.

I can’t say that we were entirely unaware of how things were progressing. As the studio was “succeeding” on paper, it became clear that those hopes and dreams we had talked about abstractly were capable of becoming tangible in the not-so-distant future. In fact, we had won a million-dollar retainer and were confronted with the reality that we would need to grow our team to complete the impending scope of work.

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V is for Vest, part of our A-Z Project where we made something for every letter of the alphabet. (2016)

Somewhere between getting married, the honeymoon, Brazil, and the boat, we had decided that we didn’t want to have kids.

Hell, maybe we didn’t even want to be married. A few sleepless nights and tête-à-têtes later, we agreed that we did not want to run a studio together forever. So, how long did we want to run it for? Another year? Two years? If starting a business taught us anything, it was to apply learnings quickly and often. Learn, iterate, repeat. We all had different directions we wanted to go in, things we wanted to learn, most of which we couldn’t learn together – nor did we necessarily want to. Rather than figuring out how to evolve the studio to meet our now misaligned ambitions or go through the exacting exercise of splitting, selling, rebranding, or any number of tedious and likely demanding separation proceedings, we opted for a clean break: Shut it down. We turned down the retainer and began a plan to wind the studio down as gracefully as possible.

The process of shutting down something you put a deep, sincere, and manifold effort into for several years is an exhausting one. Yet there’s something to be said for letting go of something before it has to be pried from your cold, dead hands. Our risk assessment of the situation yielded that we would much prefer to walk away relatively unscathed with relationships still intact, versus attempting to calculate the valuation of the studio or put energy and legal fees towards a less savoury scenario.

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Photos from our Retro Workshop facilitated by Julia Kaganskiy. (March 2019)

Gracefully ending our design studio proved to be a slow death. After making the decision to shut down HAWRAF in November, it took three months to wrap up our projects to a place where we felt comfortable telling our clients. Breaking up and continuing to live in what was effectively the same house for three months has been nothing short of a testament to the respect and admiration we have for each other, evidenced by the fact that no one has been murdered yet. (As of this draft, two weeks to go. Wish us luck.)

One of the best gifts we gave ourselves was investing in a Retro Workshop facilitated by a friend of the studio. In it, we reflected on the lifecycle of the studio, starting with a year in review and ending with a candid feedback session. There’s nothing like having three people who have sat alongside you for the past few years, seeing you at your best and worst, writing down what they consider to be your greatest opportunity for growth. Feedback is a fucking gift.

And then there was the Drive. Starting a studio, for us, has always been an exercise in learning by doing. Along the way, we tried to share what we know by talking through our finances at conferences or by sharing where our clients came from on Instagram. Or writing this lengthy editorial. Sharing our own docs was something we had wanted to do for a while, and shutting down the studio presented the perfect opportunity. It’s something I wish we had had when starting HAWRAF, so hopefully, it’s helpful to someone else just starting out themselves. At the very least, they can see that even a short-lived, semi-successful design studio was just run on a bunch of poorly colour-coded Google Sheets.