Designer Stephanie Sabbe purchased dozens of business books, but never came across one that she could actually get through. Then she found Eli Altman’s Run Studio Run.
While there are countless ways to approach leading a firm, industry insiders have long agreed that design schools often fall short when preparing students for the realities of entrepreneurship. After all, running a design business is just that—business. To compensate for this, Stephanie Sabbe has self-educated through business books since founding her Nashville design firm in 2010—and the one that stands out from the crowd is Run Studio Run, written specifically for entrepreneurs in charge of creative studios with 20 employees or fewer.
By the time author Eli Altman set out to write the book, which was published in 2017, he had long known that creative entrepreneurs learn differently than other business owners. A creative himself, he had pored over dozens of business books; while they offered a wealth of information, the delivery was rarely (if ever) engaging. He wrote Run Studio Run to fill that gap, addressing creative business owners head-on through frank prose informed by his experience as the creative director of Berkeley, California–based naming and branding studio A Hundred Monkeys. “A big part of our work is writing in a way that people want to read,” says Altman. “I know that people don’t want to read a ton—or, if you are going to get them to read a lot, you need to break it up in a way that’s interesting and engaging.” Before picking up Run Studio Run, Sabbe had skimmed or sidelined almost every business book she’d ever purchased. But Altman’s book, which came highly recommended by a local architect, was different. When she finally got her copy, she devoured it, thanks to the balance of content and creative packaging. “Your book is the only business book I’ve ever read from the beginning to the end,” Sabbe told Altman when BOH connected the designer and the author this spring. “I always quit [other books]. But I love the graphics. I love the visual breaks. How did you know that we all needed a mix of pages that are basically large-format signage to keep us going?”
To achieve something that was both useful and visually stimulating, Altman tapped Moniker, a San Francisco–based creative studio, to design the book and its accompanying poster. The resulting read is stylish and succinct—steered by pared-back graphics, it comes across as a design object more than an instructive text. As for the content, the author set out to write the book that he never found when seeking advice to grow his studio. “My life would have been a lot easier if someone had written a book like Run Studio Run already,” he says. “I would have read it and felt good about what I needed to do to improve my business—but when I didn’t find anything, I started doing my own research. [I] always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to write [the book for] a creative audience. It took applying this stuff on my own to see that this actually works. Our sales stabilized, then grew. Our team is growing. It’s one thing to read something; it’s another to apply it. And it took us applying those things and seeing that it had an effect on the business to feel like I can say these things now and not feel like a fraud.”
Stephanie Sabbe and Run Studio Run author Eli Altman discuss delegating, knowing your worth and the importance of writing it all down.
Stephanie Sabbe: In the book, you talk about being a bottleneck. As a business owner where you’ve created the brand—with my company, for instance, my name is on the door—and you want your brand to be very apparent, how do you avoid being the bottleneck?
Eli Altman: You become a bottleneck if you don’t codify your processes. If your “process” is “Talk to Stephanie, have her say it’s OK, and then move on,” then everything needs to run through you to move forward. Whereas if you sit down—with your team [or] with an adviser—and you’re saying, “OK, these are our processes: This is how you submit a brief. This is how you respond to a client concern,” you are no longer the bottleneck. Whatever the core activities of your business are, you commit to having it on paper. Somebody else, whether it’s a new hire or somebody who’s been with you for a while, can read that and say, “If I execute this step for step, then I don’t need to check in with you until this point.”
If everything your company does represents you personally or you want to have the stamp of approval on everything, it becomes a low-pressure situation to someone who works for you, because, generally speaking, their name’s not on it. If the client gets mad, they’re not going to yell at them—they’re going to yell at you. On the other side of that equation, [you’re] motivating people to learn more and feel that real sense of responsibility. I think we’ve all worked in places where it doesn’t feel like we’re personally on the line for what’s being delivered, and it’s hard to really feel ownership in those situations. It’s about taking away the safety net and putting people in the firing line—to say, “OK, this is your work, you’re going to present it, and if the client doesn’t like it, I’m curious what you’re going to say.” You get to see whether they sink or swim, they get to feel ownership over what they’re doing, and they start to feel like they have an impact on how the studio is progressing. It’s beneficial for everyone involved if people feel a sense of authority, even if it’s just over a particular aspect of the process—and you can always build out from there. [It can happen] slowly; you don’t have to do this all at once, but start with training wheels.
I had heard about “process” in the past, and it just did not click for me. But when I read your book, I was like, Duh, this makes so much sense—especially things like writing down each person’s job description and thinking through every little thing, like who’s responsible for making sure there’s printer paper. That seems so dumb when you have [a team of] five people, but it runs out a lot!
If the paper runs out and somebody comes to you and is like, “Where’s the paper?” you can approach that problem one of two ways: You can tell them where it is, or you can zoom out and say, “When this happens, I want you to be responsible for it, and this is exactly what I want you to do. Any questions?” Be explicit in saying, “This is yours now.” That does a couple things: It empowers the employee, and you know that you don’t have to hear about it again. What ends up happening to people running their own businesses is they’re involved in all of these tiny things that they’re hiring people to take off their plate, but it isn’t really taking anything off their plate because it’s still a conversation. Being explicit about what you want to pass off gets you some help, but much more importantly, it frees up your own mental space to be able to focus on the things that bring the most value to your business. I find that a lot of people are doing things that are well below their pay grade when they’ve hired people literally to take care of those things. It’s just a process to actually do that as opposed to some operating assumption that people will pick things up through osmosis.
Switching gears from employees to clients, one thing I think I’ve done a better job at lately is understanding that not every client is my client, and I’m not every client’s interior designer. Can you talk about the two-way interview process and how you screen?
It’s about being clear about what projects you like and why you like them. Again, it’s one thing to think through this; it’s another to write it down. You can commit to the types of clients that you want to work with and refine it over time, because you’re never going to get it perfect. It’s not one step where you sit down and nail it. We’ve been refining our list of the type of people we want to work with and what those red flags are continuously over the last 10 years. It’s still evolving. It’s about staying in that learning mindset and having debriefs after projects to say, “Did we like that project? Would we want their referrals?” or “What was an early sign that this project was going to be a pain in the ass that we didn’t listen to?” Have those conversations so you’re clear on what’s working, what isn’t, and why that happens. The work begets your work: The work that you do leads to the work that you’re going to do. If you focus on the people you really enjoy working with, the relationships that you really want to have, then those people will likely refer you to people who are more like them, and that referral will come with the context of your working experience. If you have this kind of catch-all-the-rain-you-can mentality, you’ll wind up working with a bunch of people who really aren’t a good fit for you. Those projects take more time, it’s more stress, more hassle, they’re not the best learning opportunities, and you’re doing work you don’t want to be doing. That could be a project for someone who’s starting out or is willing to take on smaller projects that you would find annoying and not worth it.
We recently had a client tell us that she wanted to do cheap cabinets with fancy hardware and nobody would know, and I still didn’t quit. I was like, “Eli would not approve.” We’ve parted ways since, but it was a big red flag. How do you just, in the middle of a meeting, be like, “We gotta quit now”?
While that might be a total nightmare for you, for someone [else], that might be their thing. It sounds like there’s an issue of scope. You’re [also] dealing with something that’s so subjective—if you’re working with someone who can’t make decisions about subjective things, or is not willing to trust you about decisions relating to subjective things, that’s going to create a ton of work for you that you don’t really want to do, which is more akin to therapy than interior design. So unless you signed up for that and want to do that, then that’s just you doing a bunch of work that you’re not excited about.
I was at a meeting yesterday [where] I wish I could have said, “If you don’t trust me with the subjective things, then my time here is useless.” Being able to tell a client, “We’ll interview [you], and then we’ll see”—that is goals.
It is. And that will establish you as a hot commodity, too.
Oh, yeah. You get to a certain point and it’s like, “I’m interviewing you,” and they’ll throw money at you. Part of it is about being desirable, and if you can be someone that maybe their friends try to hire and can’t, that’s super attractive. It’s about rarity. It’s like the club with a big line out the door. You have no idea what’s happening inside, but there’s a big line, so it must be something good. Same principle.
I’m curious, based on what you said about that client meeting: How do you transition from someone who is going to be fun to someone who’s a little more circumspect? What do you think would be helpful going from one place to another without losing the personality that’s gotten your business to where it is?
I’m struggling with that. I do feel like people hire me a lot based on my personality. I put a lot on Instagram, and I enjoy it—being funny and having commentary—and lately, I’ve had people call who are saying, “I feel like you’d be really fun.” But what they’re not saying is, “I really love your work.” I would love any advice on that, especially because you’ve built a very successful company without your name on the door and without your personality being out there. I feel like I’m tap dancing a lot. It’s a hard thing to change—and at the same time, the tap dance has brought me a lot of opportunities, especially this year.
Well, the success speaks for itself, right? So I think part of it is being clear about which component is really driving it. That wouldn’t just vanish if you started being more critical with new people you let through the door, because that’s not indicative of how you’re going to work with a magazine or a showhouse. I think what you’re talking about is a friendship-level thing, and that’s fine, but it’s a two-way street. Just because they feel that about you doesn’t mean you feel that way about them, and you need to figure out if you feel that way about them before you put too much skin in the game to the point where it would be awkward if you backed out. You know how assistants in movies have a list of people they put through immediately? You could do a version of that—like, what are the [ideal] opportunities [you’re seeking that you] don’t put any roadblocks in the way of and want to be in touch about immediately? I think that’s useful in a couple of ways: One, it’s functional instruction for someone who works for you, and two, it helps you be explicit about the opportunities that you’d drop anything for. The question is: How do you get someone else to do a really effective prescreen for you? Maybe that’s working on the interview that you’re having someone else doing to really understand [a potential client’s] personality, or [figuring out] the tests you could provide to really get that sense of whether it’s someone you would enjoy spending time with. All this comes back to you being really clear about what you want, because if you’re not clear, then you’re using your projects as a way to figure that out.
Homepage image: Stephanie Sabbe | Cameron Jones