/ Design

Nine Questions for Studio Element Founder Brian Barrus

I really believe that quality wins out in the end. If you provide a really good product and a good value (not just a low price) you will succeed.

Beehive Startups:

Tell me about Studio Element’s origins. How did you get started?

Brian Barrus:

After college and an internship in New York, I started working at BYU in their in-house design department. I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug and the intention of one day working for myself, so after gaining some real-world experience at BYU, I got together with a friend who was more business-minded (not a designer), and we started my first studio called Skogen Group in Salt Lake. We were both single and able to survive from very little income, so it seemed like a good time to take a risk.

We started with one client doing a little mail-order catalog. We were hungry, and I was really determined to do the best work I could. That first year we won a bunch of AIGA awards for design (including a best-of-show). We put out a press release that got picked up, and the business gradually started growing. After 5 years we had grown that agency to 12 employees and were pretty successful, but with all that staff and overhead my partner and I had different visions for where we wanted the company to go and couldn’t reconcile them. I wanted to scale back our expenses and focus on doing really quality work, and he wanted to continue to get bigger.

I left that partnership and started Studio Element in 2003 with my sister who was a Marketing Executive for a company in San Jose at the time. Her company was going through a merger, and we both thought it was a good time to try this again. We have been successful with Studio Element over the past 10 years, although on a smaller scale. We do a smaller volume of work, with less staff, but overall we do pretty well. My sister split off to start her own venture in 2010.

Beehive Startups:

Tell our readers a little bit about your background. I’m also interested in the background of your business partner, Lathum Nelson — the firm’s gregarious Account Executive. What’s Studio Element’s area of expertise?

Brian Barrus:

I went through the BFA program in Graphic Design at BYU. I taught as adjunct faculty there for about five years. Lathum worked in Public Relations in Los Angeles for several years in the music industry.

Our expertise is visual design. I love branding and identity work. We do a lot of print design and web design. We also do quite a bit of front-end web development now days.

Beehive Startups:

What was the most challenging aspect of starting a design firm in Provo, Utah?

Brian Barrus:

The biggest challenges for us are the smaller size of the market and finding clients that focus on value more than just price. We don’t try to compete on price — there are always people willing to underbid us — but we feel we can provide a very good value for the money invested in terms of return on investment. We do have clients from around the state (Salt Lake, especially), but Utah County is our sweet spot. On the bright side, there is a great talent pool in Provo. Our ideal client tends to be medium-to-large sized companies, and there are just far less of those in Provo than Salt Lake or larger cities.

Beehive Startups:

Can you remember Studio Element’s first big win?

Brian Barrus:

We created a self-promo portfolio piece that we printed way too many of and figured we would just give those away to everyone we knew or met. They were hand-stitched and looked pretty cool, so we figured people would hang on to them and they would pay for themselves over time. One day we got a call out of the blue from the Creative Director at FranklinCovey who somehow ended up with one and had liked it. They ended up being a great, steady client over the years.

Beehive Startups:

What will Studio Element look like in five years?

Brian Barrus:

I often think about trying to grow larger and there are definite good and bad things about that. At times I think higher volume would mean more stability, but I also know from experience that a large staff creates a lot of management headaches. I think I would ideally like to grow a little larger than we are, but not too big.

Overall, though, I am pretty happy with where we are, but I think if we were a little larger we would have more stability and have to rely less on outside contractors whose schedules and priorities we don’t control. Ironically, I think we need to do a better job of publicizing ourselves in order to get where we would like to be. Our own design work always gets pushed behind paying clients, but is critical to our success.

Beehive Startups:

What advice do you have for up-and-coming graphic designers here in Utah who want to start their own design firm?

Brian Barrus:

I would suggest getting a little experience first by working for a good agency. Learn what you can about how the business works and how to do presentations, etc., and build a good portfolio. Then when you start off on your own, really focus on the quality of the work. Put in the late nights necessary to make each piece as good as you can and you will build a reputation for yourself.

I really believe that quality wins out in the end. If you provide a really good product and a good value (not just a low price) you will succeed. If you don’t have that “sales” personality it might help to partner with someone who does. Partnerships are very tricky, however. I would be very careful in selecting a partner. You both need to have similar visions for the business, and you need to make sure you can get along through stressful times. I don’t know how many business partnerships end up in failure, but feel certain it must be a huge majority. I think “flat” organizations (where no one is above anyone else) seem nice, but end up being a lot harder than hierarchical organizations.

Beehive Startups:

What’s your partnership like with Lathum?

Brian Barrus:

It is great. I don’t know if that’s due to the structure of our organization, or how our personalities and vision match up, but it is the best professional collaboration I have had. That said, there are disagreements and conflicts occasionally, but we are able to deal with them professionally. I think it might be easier that our relationship is mainly through the business and we aren’t old friends. It may help to keep business conflicts from becoming personal — and much harder to deal with. Lathum has a real personal integrity and honesty, and I think that may be the most valuable attribute that allows us to overcome conflicts and challenges.

Beehive Startups:

Why should a Utah startup, established business, or anyone else who may be in the market for branding and design choose to work with Studio Element?

Brian Barrus:

We are easy to work with: We are flexible and can get creative in stretching budgets. You work directly with the most senior, experienced staff.

We provide good value for the money invested. We produce good quality work that is focused on achieving real business outcomes. We have a lot of professional experience but, being a small agency, our rates are better than many competitors with large overheads.

Beehive Startups:

What sets Studio Element apart from other design firms here in Utah?

Brian Barrus:

The nice thing is that there are only a very few agencies in this area that I would consider true competitors. Where some competitors have a larger staff, design work might be overseen by an experienced Creative Director, but the actual design is kicked down to a junior designer. With the small staff we have, we can control our quality and our clients work directly with our most experienced professionals.

Beehive Startups:

For those who are interested in connecting with Studio Element, you can do so by going to their website, calling Lathum at 801–373–4808, or visiting their office on Center St. in Provo.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Brian. I appreciate it.

Brian Barrus:

Thanks, Clint. It was nice talking to you.

Published 12/4/2013