A couple Thursdays ago I moved out all of our equipment and belongings from our offices at 231 Bowery in Manhattan into a storage unit in Brooklyn. It was a pretty uneventful and kind of sad moment.
231 Bowery is the address of something called NewInc. NewInc is a program that was started at New Museum in New York to create a workspace and professional development program for artists, startups, companies and technologists working at the intersection of art and technology, culture and social issues, and much much more. It has been my home away from home for the past three years.
I originally was interested in NewInc shortly after I left my previous job at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, because I was looking for a community. I was interested in becoming a freelance developer and consultant for museums, and I guess, also sort of trying to find that feeling I had when I was in grad school at MICA in Baltimore–that desire to surround myself with creatives, artists, thinkers, and friends. I figured I’d find that again at a place like NewInc, and I was right.
NewInc became more than just a workspace for me. I applied to be a part of the Museum Technology Track which meant I’d receive a grant to be able to use the space for free for a year, and I’d get a little money to do some research and visit a few cities to conduct that research. At the same time I was part of the professional development program which meant I was attending lectures, workshops, and one-on-one sessions with mentors. It was super fun.
During the course of the first year I realized that I wanted to do something more than focus on freelancing. Through the program I came to the conclusion, pretty quickly, that I wanted to direct teams, and put together projects for clients in the museum world that would allow those clients to have access to the kind of brain-trust I had experienced while on the digital team at Cooper Hewitt. The idea, as I called it, was Digital Things for Cultural Orgs, where we’d serve as a kind of “digital department on demand” for museums that didn’t have those kinds of capabilities or resources. From these ideas and a few super gracious early clients, Micah Walter Studio was born. I usually joke that the name came to me in a dream.
I was recently re-reading a post I published when I first announced The Studio. In it I mention a few key points that I’m still really excited about.
“I’ll be collaborating with like minded museum professionals, artists, creative technologists, engineers and designers. Through these new partnerships, we will form a new studio practice focused on helping organizations build foundational infrastructure, well designed, sustainable digital products, and accessible and inclusive content and programs.
The studio will encourage a creative laboratory atmosphere for the development and application of new and experimental technologies. We will perform research, build prototypes, ship products, rinse and repeat.”
I still think these words hold true. Creating a laboratory style space, where we can be experimental, iterate on our ideas, and develop new products and services that the larger community can take advantage of is very core to what I think The Studio is all about.
Back then I sort of imagined a small group of designers and technologists working on a handful of projects for a handful of clients. I sort of pictured us all sitting in the same office area, drawing up our funny ideas on whiteboards and sticking sticky notes all over the place, with purpose. I imagined our clients being very happy and excited to work with us, inspired and invigorated to take our work and run with it. In many cases this is exactly what has happened, maybe with a few less sticky notes.
In the second year, I re-applied to the same program and was accepted. The program focus shifted a bit towards product development and I ran with that idea and started sketching out ideas for a product that we are still building today called Accession. I even got up in front of about 150 people and gave a five minute pitch about the idea and how important I thought it would be for the sector. What a day that was!
We are still working on Accession today, and through the generous support of the Knight Foundation and a handful of very trusting and supportive early adopters, we’ve been building a platform for the cultural sector that I think will one day have a great impact on how those organizations are able to make their own collections and institutional knowledge accessible to the world around them and the audiences they serve.
(Lots of marketing speak here, I’ll get back to the feelings stuff soon, I promise.)
I also added a full time employee, and expanded the Studio’s network to include an engineer in the U.K. as well as partnerships with many other designers, artists, and software developers. We did exactly what I had in mind to do, and have created some amazing work over the past three years.
But it hasn’t been all fun and happy feelings. Running a small business is super hard, and an enormous source of stress. Being a freelancer is hard too, but in a completely different way. As a freelancer you are essentially responsible for one person and one person only–yourself. If you do it right, you might have nearly zero expenses, and every little bit of work you do is income. You can easily be 100% profitable right out of the gate.
This is exactly how things were when I first started freelancing–99% profitable with a giant tax bill due each quarter. It was clean and simple. I would get jobs, do the jobs, collect my money and pay the tax man.
As a small business owner everything just gets more and more complicated the bigger you get. Once you add employees, and contractors, and other freelancers, and larger projects and more complicated projects, and bigger contracts which require bigger lawyers, and accountants, and rent, and salaries and benefits and I could go on–things just begin to feel like a never ending, unsolvable math equation. Profitability goes down to nearly zero, or less when you pay yourself a salary, and at the end of the project, you are lucky if you’ve netted anything additional that you can throw back into the business to … make it grow even bigger?
But more than all of that number crunching stuff is that overwhelming feeling of responsibility. All the sudden a bunch of people depend on you, and when problems come up, and you can’t pay them on time, or deals fall through that mean they won’t be working this month, it pulls every ounce of happiness from your soul and makes you wonder why you ever started down this road in the first place.
But just as you start to feel like it was maybe all a giant mistake, a new project comes along–something exciting and shiny and perfect. You think of just the right team for the job, and how great it’s going to feel again to get everyone together and working on something spectacular all over again, only this time you’re not going to make the same mistakes you made the last time, right?
As I was packing up our computer screens and keyboards and the coffee equipment, I pulled out from under our desk-clump a large cardboard box. Inside were the last remaining copies of Thoughtforms, a newspaper we produced, printed and distributed to about 1000 people. I had a ton of fun working on that project, and I hardly had to do anything. I asked Justine to develop the design, Meghan to manage the project, and we invited about a dozen industry experts to contribute their words. The end result was printed at Newspaper Club on broad-sheet, and delivered to us in giant boxes. We handed out copies for free and MuseumNext and MCN and we even sold a small pile through our website to folks who couldn’t make it to those events. I recall a really fun moment looking over the proofs with Meghan and Justine, examining the layout, looking for mistakes, me wielding a red pen like a boss. It felt great, and people really seemed to enjoy reading it. Ink on paper, who knew.
Finding that box under the desk reminded me of how much I love this little thing I’ve created out of thin air. The Studio is something really special, not because it’s been a way to make me a ton of money, but because of all the people I’ve come to work with along the way.
These days we are still at it. We’ve got a nice tight-knit team, and I’m always looking to collaborate with new people. We’ve got a great stable of clients, and we are pushing forward on lots of exciting projects. The running of the business stuff I hope is something I’ll get better at over time, but I am always wondering how to find the right balance, the right size and scale of things and the right dynamic within the team.
Since COVID has happened, we are 100% remote, working from our homes all over the map. We meet up once a week in a video chat and communicate through Slack & Asana throughout the week as needed. We all have different lives, schedules, and situations, and that’s just fine. My image of a small group of people working around the same bunch of desks is maybe a picture of something from my past life at Cooper Hewitt. Today we are completely connected even though we’re apart. It’s been an adjustment, but one that started even before COVID.
More than remote work, I’ve been thinking deeply about the kind of work we do. If we should continue to focus on large scale projects for individual clients, or if we should become more of a product company, building tools and services that anyone can use. I wonder if I should scale things back and act more as a freelancer like I had first intended, or if we will scale up with more employees and partners. Mostly, I just wonder if the work we are doing is helping–that’s always been my North Star.
NewInc was a special place. It was our home for three years, and now it’s not. It’s ok. I will miss it and all the moments and people I met there, but it’s time to move on, and onward we will go.
See ya next week!