Creating a moving business for a moving world

Jim Bull (CCO) shares how he co-founded Moving Brands in 1998 and how you can start your own creative business today.

I often get asked how I started Moving Brands, or how you start your own creative business. To answer this, I should start at the start.

I co-founded Moving Brands in 1998 with five co-founders in London. We were fresh out of college, and we had managed to scrape together just enough money for one month’s rent, one month’s deposit on a building, and two laptops we paid for using our student loans. And, that was it — no buffer, no angel investor, no safety net of any kind. We had four weeks to land a client that would generate enough money to pay the next month’s rent, or we were finished before we started. We were naive, and we believed we could make it work.

What compelled us to build our own business with no money or experience? We knew we had something to say and were committed to doing so. Some of us had interned in traditional agencies and didn’t agree with their appetite for silos. We also had an opinion on — and skills in — design, illustration, brand, photography, art, film, and music. So we did things our way.


Running a business is all about taking risks

Take risks.
I believe a business is the product of the time in which it lives. The economy, technology, fashion, music, and society all conspire to craft and shape you and your business. Moving Brands is now a global creative business, with studios in San Francisco, New York, London, Zurich, and for a few years, Tokyo. We’re still independent (fiercely independent I like to think), and three of the original founders, including me, are still in the business. If you’re looking for advice on starting your own creative business, here are some observations that have stuck with me over the past two decades.

Running a business is all about taking risks. We were lucky that Moving Brands’ founders were all naturally comfortable with risk.

We found that risk was something you have to navigate, and no matter how hard you try, it never goes away. It’s also easier to take big risks early on, when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As your business grows, the stakes will rise — you’ll have employees with families relying on you to make the right call — and you have to take that very seriously.

Elect a leader.
Even between friends you need to choose a leader. You will have multiple ideas and different opinions, and I’ve learned that going in a direction is much more important than arguing about the direction. It’s also a great way to build respect and trust in the team. Everyone knows his or her real talents and place within the team. Having a leader to make the call on behalf of the team, sometimes without any discussion, really helped propel Moving Brands forward in a way that we didn’t witness in our peers.

Win the work.
I’ve always been critical about how the design industry thinks about the right and wrong ways to win work. For us, there is no right and wrong. Just win the work with whatever it takes. A lot of my peers are staunchly against the idea of pitching for free, saying that it undermines the value of design and designers, to give ideas away for free. I’d argue that without being willing to pitch for free, Moving Brands wouldn’t exist. We all need to prove ourselves, and I always see pitching as a great way to show the client you mean business.


Understand independence.
Moving Brands is independent. We work with the clients we choose. We only answer to ourselves and our clients, we deliver the best creative for the job, and there are no ulterior motives driven by a network or parent company’s agenda. Independence also comes with a downside. We are responsible for every single cent that goes in and out of the business. There is no safety net. This motivates us to work hard and perform hard. If we don’t, we don’t survive.

Be an advocate of change.
As a business, you need to foster and be open to change. Your business will need to adapt, restructure, re-invent itself, and adopt new technologies regularly. By doing so, your business will grow. Without change, your business will plateau. So you need to be sensitive and open to change and welcome it even when it feels awkward, expensive, or time-intensive.

You also need to nurture your team and allow it to supersede you. Ten years ago, Mat Heinl, who is now our CEO, started as a designer. He was tenacious, considered, and interested in the business mechanics. He worked hard, and when it was time to find a new CEO, he was the perfect choice. On a day-to-day basis, I now report to Mat. Not many founders can say that. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We made a business that can grow beyond its founders.

To connect and see more content from Jim, follow him on Twitter @jamesmbull

Read more insight and perspectives on the moving world here.