Ask an Anchor: Can we get un-stuck? My partner’s business partners won’t let me work.

Hi Sarah, 

I am an artist and illustrator who has dabbled in graphic design and home design. I am up to date on design trends and run my own business. My partner recently started a brewery with his brother and a third partner who was brought in to help with the financial end. The two brothers have always had a fun, creative vision, and I was never worried about the taproom design or logo process until we actually got down to it. 

Initially, I wanted to help with both logo and taproom design as I was confident that I could turn their personalities and spirit of brewing into visuals. I soon came to realize that these three men all have very strong, differing opinions on the ‘look’ they want. The challenge is that they could not verbalize their desires and could not come to unanimous conclusions. Getting to the bottom of visual work with one person is difficult, but with three, it is impossible. 

This has been going on for months. I’ve tried different ways to hone in on the process, including making a ‘lookbook’ and meeting one-on-one. Generally, I feel that they should be giving a designer (either me or a professional) the trust and respect to pick what he/she knows would work best for the business (not necessarily what they like, but what the customer would like). Projects are either on hold due to disputes or settled in the middle (resulting in a flat, boring look, including their logo). 

It is clear to me that my personal proximity to these people means they are not likely to treat me as a professional, but if this is the case, how do I convince them of the importance of hiring a professional (especially for the logo). It is also clear that a lack of communication between the 3 guys is a huge problem, they each have very different personalities. I also feel that the brothers could work it all out, but the third person seems to upset the balance. I would love to step back and let someone else work with these guys because I care too much to let them fail over lack of design consideration. I mean their product really is fantastic! 

Thanks so much for any advice you can give. 

Sincerely,

The Fourth Wheel


Dear Fourth Wheel,

Business partnerships are complicated. I commend you for putting yourself right in the thick of it and caring so much to help your partner and their team find solutions. 

It sounds like these are all first-time entrepreneurs. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t matter much in regards to what I’m about to say: If they cannot move forward with this simple task and learn to let go of their ego, embrace imperfection, compromise and prioritize the business’ best interests (i.e., their customers), they will fail before they even begin. If the team cannot figure out how to divide and conquer, they will find this exact complication at every single turn in the business, and that kind of distraction will lead to failure.  

I firmly believe in the power of graphic design, but it will never be as important as the product. 

Branding is significant, but it will not make or break this venture [I will now hide under the desk as all designers fling their keyboards at me!] Initial customers will come to you based on the look of the product, but if you don’t deliver on your promise, no matter if it’s quality beer or perfect design assets, you will not survive. I assume they won’t and cannot compete by price, no one can really compete with the commoditization of big industry beer. So they are going to have to lean on the few assets they have within their control: quality and variation of the product, sales strategy, internal systems for foundational strength, customer service, an intimate understanding of profit margins, and last and least: design. All of the actual core aspects of business take much more effort, thought, and fear. Which is why people like to take their anxiety out on the “brand” and design.

In my business’ case, I spent the first two years growing Anchor & Orbit with only a splash page that contained a brief bio and a simple contact form. What really grew my business? I honed my skills, worked hard along the way, delivered beyond expectations, and after that, my clients wanted me to be successful, so the referrals rolled in. Eventually, when I did “brand,” the goals I outlined for the designer  were as follows: accessible, warm colors, create a sense of experience and have the layout feel like you were talking to a friend about your business’ needs. Outside of that, I let the designer run with anything she felt was best. And guess what? It worked. I let her be the expert to create something that (still) stands out from the crowd while being wholly relatable. She did the work, research, and implementation, and I asked for very few revisions. If I tried to create a brand for myself, I would still be working on my website now, three years later. She worked for my company’s vision and what my clients wanted from me, but not for me. I highly recommend all designers give this gift of creativity and expertise to their clients. But that’s another blog post (or book) altogether.  

What does branding do? A brand and good design will get people in the door (and their attention) and helps you gain industry respect. But, if your product speaks for itself, then the branding will not matter in the long run. The opposite is true as well - there are plenty of garbage products and businesses out there with great brands. You know when you meet someone really beautiful, but their personality sucks? Are they as attractive once you figure out their dirty secret?

In regards to beer, I’ve done my fair share of research by proximity. I’ve visited some kind of beer establishment most cities I pass through. Across the board, the brand and design of the taproom never indicate whether or not the beer will be delicious. But! Good branding and beautiful space will help us make a choice between two places. So, if you’re simply using me as a case study, you and your partner are fighting the good fight.

Here’s the real deal: I fear that the “brand” problem is code for a bad situation. 

And that this team is stuck in this conflict and that they’re having a hard time moving forward in this simple task are worrisome signs. I have something to say about this third partner who is there to help with the ”financial side” but seems to hold up decisions: get rid of him. He signed on to take what the visionaries have created and leverage their financial assets to help them succeed. He needs to step back and let them work, or he needs to leave. I fear that this “CFO” will always be the “nay-sayer” and with that, the business will struggle for its entire existence with him in it. Severing a business relationship once the company is up and running (and making money) is SO MUCH MORE costly than cutting ties early on, even if it slows things down temporarily. Long ago, a mentor taught me that “those who seek control lack talent.” Take a beat - think about that statement for a second. It seems that this third person needs to enforce their power, just to have a voice, even when it’s not the best move for the business. Considering all business problems, this is an easy one, so imagine this dynamic when there is a real challenge in front of them. Each person on that small, essential team should do everything in their power to push this project forward, not slow it down.

Those who seek control lack talent.

As for you, Fourth Wheel, you may have to step away to be the business owner’s partner and not the designer. Whether they are saying it or not, they might be trying not to offend you if they don’t like the direction. This could be the case even if you have stated that you can take the criticism and also if you are objectively correct about the design choices you’re presenting. I don’t think you’re the reason this project is sputtering, but I’m not sure you’re helping either. I do understand the fantasy of working with your partner and saying that it was a full-on family project. So, lead by example! Step away to let them work. As you know, there’s a shift in people’s psyche when they pay “an expert.” Expect a fire in their bellies to not to drag it out forever because, money.

If and when they move forward, I have one last bit of advice to help them in their long term success: each person must have their own role or “department” and once in that role, they must be trusted and in charge of their tasks. For example, if they are staying on-trend, they will want to change their labels and alter branding with every new release of seasonal beer. To do this, one person must be in charge of guiding the graphic designer. They can have a voting system and guidance about the vision from the team, but ultimately, final decisions need to come from one person. It’ll be the same when they assign who is in charge of their financials, sales, brewing, distribution, and employee management (to name a few).

No matter how much they like each other, especially the brothers, if they continually negotiate small decisions rather than assigning specialties and trusting in the others’ abilities, they are in for a long, resentful relationship - in and out of the taproom.

Sarah

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