12 × 12: Dawn Hancock

1 2 x 1 2: Twelve Interviews. A Dozen Answers.

To kick off this interview series, the first person to come to mind was my friend Dawn Hancock, Owner + Managing Director of Firebelly. Dawn and I have known each other for 6 years. In fact, we worked together for 5 of those 6 years at Firebelly during which time she afforded me many amazing learning opportunities, pushed me launch my own t-shirt company and made me a vegetarian pescatarian.

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1) It’s January. Do you make New Year resolutions? If so, how do keep yourself accountable? If not, how do you plan/goal set for the year?

DH: I don’t call them resolutions per se, but I do set goals every year both for myself and Firebelly. I set different types of goals—immediate things I can do right now to make changes, some that are months down the line before I’ll be able to achieve them and others that are a year or more. I keep the list in my wallet and on my computer so I see it regularly. The most important thing that I believe you need to actually achieve what you set out to do is momentum. Easier on short term things, but much harder to continue with longer goals. Creating small achievable steps throughout the process is very helpful to keep the momentum going. I also find that making my goals known to others is helpful to gain support and keep myself in check.

2) What are 5 trends you predict will take hold in 2011?

DH: I’m not much of a trend forecaster. I tend to just do things by instinct + inspiration.

3) Well where do you go for inspiration? How do you stay current/relevant/ahead of the curve?

DH: I certainly follow a variety of blogs, read magazines and travel as often as I can. I love seeing other cultures and ways of life. I pay attention to everything from food to pop culture and business to typography. I really have a wide array of interests and bring that to Firebelly.

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4) A year-end ritual I have is spending a whole day tidying up and reviewing all my bookmarks. This month I was shocked to see how many studios, shops and portfolio sites closed in the last year. What’s your advice for creative people and small studios trying to stay afloat through lean times?

DH: Having been through 2 really difficult economies in the last 12 years, I think the biggest reason we’ve persevered is because I’ve remained flexible and open to change. When the economy was in the shitter in ’01 and ’08, I was candid and honest about the state of our company with the entire office. I truly believe everyone in the studio from our interns to our senior people have valuable ideas so I listened to their suggestions and implemented a lot of their recommendations. And while I can be hardheaded at times, some would even call me stubborn, ha!, the last thing I want is to see my company fail because I didn’t try everything. There are a lot of people counting on Firebelly… the people who work here, the ones who hire us, the folks in the community we collaborate with and the ones who look to us for inspiration we’ve never even met. That’s a lot of responsibility.

5) Speaking of responsibility, you recently named Will Miller as Firebelly’s Creative Director. How do you hope this will impact the studio? What’s your role/title now?

DH: Yep. He really has been in that role for a while now without having the ‘official’ title. Over the last few years, I’ve seen him really mature and grow as a designer and not only with his work, but with his thinking. He’s become really strategic in the way he approaches our client’s needs, as well his design vision is so expansive I’m consistently in awe of his ideas and his collaborations within the studio.

As for how it will impact the studio, I’m excited about two things. First I hope it will alleviate what some companies/nonprofits go through called Founder’s Syndrome. Will and I have very different ways we think and approach things. I value this distinction and believe that Firebelly will be a better company with his leadership. Second, it will further give him the respect he deserves with our clients and others outside the studio, which will in turn give me a bit more time to focus on some of our other ventures.

6) Yes, other ventures…! It’s rumored you’ve started another business. Care to reveal any details?

DH: Yes, I’ve started an investment company called Fingers Crossed. Our first investment is for a website that Firebelly is developing. Unfortunately that is as much about the site as I can say at this time. I do hope that Fingers Crossed will be the spot for several other investments down the line. There are definitely a few more I’m interested in.

7) Sticking with the business theme for a bit, what’s the hardest/worst part of running a small studio? What’s the best/most rewarding part?

DH: Most difficult are the employees—that’s not to say they are difficult people, but having folks who rely on you to pay their mortgages and buy baby food every month is a good amount of stress to take on. I would equally say that employees are the most rewarding part. It amazes and humbles me everyday that there are a group of people excited to march forward with my unconventional vision and put forth an effort as if they are the owners of the company. I certainly couldn’t do this alone.

8) Lots of designers (especially students) say they eventually want to own their own studio. But freelancing isn’t the same as running a small business. What’s it take to be successful? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? Can anybody do it or does it require a certain personality?

DH: I think there are lots of ways to run a studio, so I don’t want to list every possible scenario here, but depending on your strengths you can find people to compliment what you’re good at. I don’t do all our accounting, bookkeeping or even manage our payroll any longer. Once I realized it was getting too complicated for me and in turn, not advancing our business forward, I found people to do those jobs for me. As well, I’ve hired some incredibly talented + creative people who do what they do way better than I could, thus I’m almost completely focused on client relationships and managing projects. It’s a rarity that I design something anymore. I don’t feel bad about that, in fact it makes me really happy to have found the thing I know I excel at and uses my ADD + OCD tendencies.

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9) Who are Firebelly’s dream clients (People you haven’t worked with yet, but would love the chance to)?

DH: What I’ve found over the years is that it isn’t the brand name that makes a good client. We’ve worked with a lot of amazing people in the tiniest of nonprofits who’ve inspired us more than any big name (for profit or nonprofit) could do, so I hesitate to identify dream clients. That said, there are two proposals I wrote recently that I really, really wanted, but did not get. One was for FLOR and the other was for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s CeaseFire campaign. And while we weren’t chosen, I was excited that were were even being considered and both said they hope to work with us in the future.

10) Nice! That sounds promising. Besides working at Firebelly, where else can people find meaning in their work, rewarding projects and/or opportunities to help good clients and causes?

DH: I would hope that one of the things that someone would learn at Firebelly or through our speaking/writing/doing, is that you can do anything you want. If their job doesn’t offer the opportunity they are looking for and they aren’t looking to start their own thing (and by this I don’t necessarily mean their own company or nonprofit, it could be throwing an event), there are always volunteer opportunities. Organizations like EPIC give creative people of all types the chance to collaborate with nonprofits on rewarding work. As well there are sites like VolunteerMatch and Idealist to connect you with organizations.

11) Those are all great organizations. As the Community Outreach Chair for AIGA Chicago, you also help organize the chapter’s Mentor Program. So who’s mentored/influenced you?

DH: I think the word ‘mentor’ implies someone older + wiser than yourself. I’d say I try to learn from everyone around me, regardless of their level of experience or age. I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of awesome people in my life who have taught me a ton. If I were to single out just a few, I’d first say Michelle Fire, the owner of Tweet + Big Chicks has been a really powerful force in my life. She understands how to treat her customers, has created a space where everyone feels comfortable, and has done it all her own way for the past 25 years. And a close second is Rick Valicenti who runs Thirst. He’s been my go-to for many years with questions on business, leadership and my place in the community. I think of both Michelle and Rick as family and continue to look to them for guidance and inspiration.

12) In a word, what’s it all about?


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  1. Davey

    Great questions!

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