08 November 2006
Diane Richard
Diane Richard

Striking out on your own is a bold move. But if your style is more Mr. Rogers than Mr. T, you can ease into your role as a business owner. A year and a half into the life of his firm, Steve Hartman has discovered that this strategy is the key to his success.

Steve Hartman is a graphic designer-not a writer. So perhaps we shouldn't be hard on him just because the first essay on his Web site ( suffers from an excess of evangelizing and bootstrap business-ese.

The point the St. Louis-based designer is trying to make, in all earnestness, is this: "If you could stand up and make a difference in your industry, make your community notable, and at the same time make yourself more marketable than anyone else, wouldn't you jump at the opportunity?"

Hartman's answer to this rhetorical question is "yes." And it was this calling that inspired him in late 1999 to leap the conventional confines of corporate design and stretch his wings. Since then, Hartman, 31, has devoted his practice to 1) making a difference in the industry, by following his convictions and learning from his mistakes; 2) making the St. Louis design community notable, by becoming an enthusiastic leader of AIGA/St. Louis; and 3) making himself more marketable, through confident work and good client relationships.

Mr. Hartman's Neighborhood
Hartman's agency is called Creativille Inc., and he is its sole citizen. But it s not as lonely as it sounds. His office is a 127sq.ft., second-story bedroom in a refurbished bungalow, not far from a gargantuan "Amoco" sign that serves as a neighborhood landmark. Hartman, who focuses on annual-report design, rents space from his friend and mentor, Karen Handelman, who runs 501creative on the first floor. Her firm specializes in design for nonprofits.

Their relationship is symbiotic: Hartman is chief coffee-brewing officer, while Handelman acts as his idea-bouncing board. They avoid competition for clients by keeping to their particular markets; when nonprofits approach Hartman, he offers the referral to Handelman-although he does take on pro-bono work-and when for-profits come to Handelman, she calls on Hartman. There has to be trust and understanding between us, he says.

What's more, Handelman shares her firm's worthy traditions: Tuesday is Massage Day for her five employees-a perk that Hartman quickly adopted. "I worked eight years at my last job, and no way in hell would we have had anything like that, " Hartman says of his days at The Falk Design Group, now Falk Harrison Creative, based in St. Louis. "I had back problems, neck problems. When I started working on my own, I bought the proper chair." That s the Aeron Chair by Herman Miller, which Hartman occupies at an oversized library table strewn with paper. (Handelman has one word for Hartman's office: disaster.)

"I'm taking care of myself," Hartman continues. "If that costs money, so be it. For massages, that s about $1,000 a year." A pause, then a rationale: "You've got to spend money to make money."

To be sure, Hartman's years at the agency were well-spent. He calls Falk "my graduate school." There, he was trained in the nuts and bolts of design; specializing in annual reports, he learned everything from creative direction to production, seasoning himself for the tasks he now must handle alone.

Hartman considers himself lucky to have landed the job at Falk. Graduating in 1992 from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in art, Hartman stepped out into weak economic times. His job search, however, was directed by the not-so-subtle manipulations of his well-intentioned mother.

"My mom gave me a Valentine's Day card with five job postings in it from the St. Louis Post Dispatch," he says. "Usually she'd give me $20 or something. I sent out five resumes and got four rejection letters." But Falk wanted to meet him. Three interviews later, Hartman was hired.

It's You I Like
Still, he aspired to own his own company. The opportunity came nearly eight years later, when Hartman decided to leave Falk-not for any dramatic reason, only a creeping knowledge that he wanted out. Hartman started with one pivotal client, Helzberg Diamonds, which hired him to design its annual report. Before that, he was Falk s creative director on the Kansas City, MO-based retailer s account. (Never having signed a noncompete agreement at Falk but concerned about ethical propriety, Hartman agreed not to pursue his former employer's clients for a year unless they contacted him, which Helzberg Diamonds did.)

Pam Rodriguez, creative director at Helzberg Diamonds, says Hartman is the kind of person who needs to be doing his own thing. "He's a designer, that s his first love," she says. "But he really has a great understanding of every aspect of putting a job together, from concept and strategy to research. Being analytical, he's great at that. Then, of course, he's a great designer. He also has an extraordinary grasp of the production side of things: Will that die-cut work? A lot of designers just think, 'Make it work.' He sees the whole picture. "

Hartman calls Rodriguez a dream client. "She questions me on everything and pushes, but she gives me my room," he says. Hartman's other clients include Atrek Dance Company, the St. Louis Zoo and May Department Stores Co. Hartman's main challenge now is to find another client as lucrative and great to work with as Helzberg. "The challenges of being self-motivated and keeping clients happy come easily for him, " Handelman says.

You Do Important Things Now
What doesn't come so easily for Hartman are fiscal matters, so he's looking for someone to balance the books. "I'm not the best money manager," he says. "I'd love to be able to sell and to design and have this other person manage."

Not yet profitable but breaking even, he describes his income as "a decent living, paying my mortgage and for my cars," a black VW Jetta and a red Austin Healy Bugeye Sprite.
A dislike for fiduciary duties still leaves Hartman with strengths in marketing, sales and, of course, design. "I like to pick the clients I work for, rather than telling someone, 'Go get them'," he says. In bushwhacking for clients, Hartman is focused on corporate-communications and investor-relations departments, where he s hunting for
big game. "I'm going after the annual report," he says. "It's what I'm trained at, good at and love to do. "

Although he sometimes wishes he had forced himself to develop formal business and marketing plans, Hartman doesn't think he needs to, he says, because he funds the business himself. But he's careful not to neglect soliciting new business, even when work is plentiful.

"I've compiled a list of a few hundred companies, which I'll target through the rest of the year," he says. He forces himself to make dreaded follow-up calls each week. Other promotions include a Creativille Web site and last year's New Year's mailing of Boring Postcards, a Phaidon book that Hartman sent to 30 current and prospective clients.
As any fledgling business owner knows, landing clients is one thing; knowing which ones to keep is quite another. And it didn't take long for Hartman to be burned by a deadbeat client who refused to pay. "I didn't have a contract, so I just dropped it," he says. "I just gave them a lot of phone calls, which they didn't appreciate." The lesson? Heed your gut.
"If I don't feel I can trust someone, I'll just bow out, which is hard to do when you start your own company and you feel you should just take anything."

And sometimes the chemistry just isn't right - another reason Hartman gives for parting ways. One client, for instance, set hairpin deadlines and could never meet before 6 p.m. "It gave me a really interesting portfolio piece but so much anxiety and stress I decided not to work with that client anymore," he says. "It was just maddening."

Those who have observed Hartman's first year are impressed by his choosiness. "He's not willing to compromise," Handelman says. "There's a certain level of client he's looking for, and he'll actively seek it out." Hartman wants to work for clients who allow him to do work he's proud of. He knows this selectivity is a luxury, one he's not as likely to have once he hires a staff.

It s Such a Good Feeling
Although Hartman's ultimate goal is to populate Creativille, he says, "I'm not in a hurry to get there." The company moniker reflects this desire as well as Hartman's modesty, which kept his own name from hanging above the door.

"I don't want to be this guy who s out trying to attract attention, " he says. "It's self- serving."

A sense of duty, rather than ego, also characterizes Hartman's term on the board of AIGA/St. Louis. First as vice president, then as president from 1999-2001, Hartman oversaw the chapter's resurrection under the leadership of a reinvigorated board. During his term, membership rose from 80 to 200 and cash reserves from $3,000 to more than $20,000; meanwhile, he shed his shyness and grew to like the limelight. But he's quick to share any glory. "I can't take credit for raising money or membership, " he says, describing his role as a cheerleader and motivator.

"People ask me what was the spark that made things go again," he says. "I don't have an answer except getting people on the board who were excited, and an upturn in the market. Maybe we came around at the right time."

Handelman, who has watched Hartman grow into a leader through AIGA, thinks his quiet confidence will take him far in business. "He's always treated [his work] like a business 'I'm going to grow this as big as I can', not 'I'm Steve Hartman and I m working out of my back bedroom,'" she says. "As soon as he gets that next big client, he'll be more than Steve Hartman. He's almost there."

For now, Hartman isn't making any promises. But he's happy with the progress he's made-personally and professionally-in the past year. "Every time I jump over one of these hurdles and get over it without hyperventilating or dying or whatever, I'm proud," he says. "I don't want to walk in and take charge. I want to build up to it. "

About this article
Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine, December 2001.

About the Author
Diane Richard is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has worked as a copywriter at graphic-design agencies in the Twin Cities and is the author of Chicago Architecture: Holabird & Root, 1880-1992, published by Birkhauser Press. She writes about architecture, design and the people who make it their avocation.

About HOW Magazine
HOW Magazine provides graphic-design professionals with essential business information, features cutting-edge technological advances, profiles renowned and up-and-coming designers, details noteworthy projects and provides creative inspiration.