After six years of running a small design studio, we decided it was the right moment to make significant changes. So, as of the first day of 2020, XXIX is joining Sanctuary Computer.
You’ve probably read a dozen of this type of announcement so you’re justified in rolling your eyes (I’d be the first to do so). Now, though, having gone through the process of building a company and then finding a good fit for it that will ensure its future, I can understand why people want to write that story down.
Jake and I worked together for a while with no official name until we had to sign the lease for the studio and needed a legal entity to do so. I suggested the name Twenty Nine (we used XXIX for the simple shapes of the letters but mostly because it was easier to get the domain).
As I was turning 30, I was just finishing a tough run at an agency that left me really disillusioned. I thought about the ways I didn’t want to spend my 30s – working long hours on projects I didn’t believe in – so I picked a name that would remind me to always make decisions like I was still 29.
That being the perspective we brought to starting a business, a lot of our decision-making was just based on doing the opposite of what we’d seen so far in our careers. Some of it was just youthful hubris, but some of those decisions actually made a lot of sense and we practice them to this day.
Aside from two or three projects that didn’t go exactly how I hoped and some anxiety here and there, the first three years of running our studio went pretty smoothly. Our projects were getting better, and, while we still paid ourselves pretty modestly compared to what we could make at other design jobs, the business was growing year-over-year.
In the autumn of 2017, we took on a project that was our studio’s first and only disaster. At the end of it, we realized that we needed to be a lot more thoughtful about who we worked with and what kinds of products we helped sell.
For unrelated reasons, over the next few months we lost 26 consecutive project proposals. For the next three to four months, Jake and I paid our employees out of our own pockets, and when we could no longer afford to pay them, we had to lay off part of our team. That day was the worst of my professional life, without question.
About a week later, on a Thursday night in early spring, we all went to a farewell dinner and put on our best faces. The next day, we got three emails accepting old proposals we’d submitted but by then it was too late. I’ll never forget that.
Those four or so months made us think a lot about the kind of business we wanted to run, and we stared work on re-building everything from the ground up: from the name to our mission. But before long we were busy again and most of that work sat in unfinished design files and text documents.
A lot of the changes we discussed were put into place but we were never able to really share them with anyone outside the studio, even though we thought a lot of it would be really useful for our peers to hear.
I would like to think that partially as a result of those changes, our business thrived from then on. 2019 was our best year ever by about 200%.
So it came as a real shocker when Jake told me in May of last year that he was moving to Austin and that our collaboration would probably come to an end. It wouldn’t have been the first time Jake and I worked together remotely, but I think we were both at a point where we were ready to hang it up.
I went from distraught to accepting to being excited for a change. The scars of those four months still hadn’t fully healed, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to move past them.
But as we talked about it, I realized a few things: I didn’t want to go back to working for someone else, I wanted to continue working with Jake, and I wanted to continue working in a field related to design but with less emphasis on commissioned work.
Over soup dumplings with our friend Hugh one evening (coincidentally I met Hugh during that fateful agency project), it came up in conversation that we were thinking about closing the studio. Over the following few weeks, we started talking about a different option: joining the team at Sanctuary Computer.
They’ve built up a solid portfolio of projects and I’ve always been impressed hearing Hugh talk about their work. Being a development studio, it seemed like they were a natural complement to the work we were doing. And reading about how he runs Sanctuary, I saw a company that was actually doing a lot of the things we had been talking about.
Selling a company, even a small one with few assets, is complicated but all the conversations we had were easy and it just became clear that this was the right move.
Scaling a small design studio is tough, also. At our biggest size, we’ve never been more than 6 people (and only three of those were full-time). Most of the work that we’ve done is the result of three people and a handful of collaborators. We were always slammed, except for the time we were almost out of business, so a lot of basic things always fell by the wayside.
We saw this as an opportunity to get some support in some areas we needed help with, to inject some new ideas into our work, and make good on all the things we wanted to do but never had the time or resources for.
A new model
For the past few years I’ve thought of our studio (or the ideal version of it anyway) as a refuge for designers; I think that same idea is also reflected in the name Sanctuary Computer.
In our conversations with Hugh, we all aligned on keeping the best aspects of being small, thinking about alternate ways of structuring a studio, only working on projects that we believe in, and making the absolute best workplace we can.
We have imagined a collection of specialized studios with deep expertise in their respective fields all working together. As such, XXIX will continue to exist as its own studio (but a better version of itself) and I’m looking forward to growing our team a little bit and bringing Sanctuary’s deep technical expertise to the work we do.