Episode 30: Great projects come from passion and exploration with Jim Coudal
We’re super excited to have Jim Coudal on Overtime. Jim is the founder of Coudal Partners, a design and interactive studio in Chicago. So many amazing projects have sprung out of Coudal Partners including The Deck Network, Layer Tennis, and Field Notes.
In this episode, Jim shares solid advice on sharing what you love with others, how to remain genuine while running a business, and knowing when it’s time to let a project go. Jim also teases the next big project from Field Notes!
This episode is brought to you by Wix. Push the limits of design and start creating beautiful, impactful websites that are uniquely yours at wix.com/dribbble.
Links Mentioned in Overtime
- Jim Coudal
- Jim Coudal on Twitter
- Layer Tennis
- Field Notes Brand
- Aaron Draplin
- The Deck
- Copy Goes Here
- Sean Inman Layer Tennis
- Dribbble’s Hang Time Seattle
Dan: Hey, everybody. Welcome to Overtime. This is Dribbble’s official podcast. I’m Dan Cederholm, your host. This is episode 30 with Jim Coudal. Jim is founder of Coudal Partners, a design and interactive studio in Chicago. Out of Coudal Partners has sprung so many cool things. I’ve always been impressed with Jim and the way he runs his businesses and respects the community and the audience that he has. It’s just a terrific talk that we had.
Dan: We talk about The Deck Network, which was really instrumental in Dribbble’s early days. We talk about Layer Tennis, obviously Field Notes. The list goes on and on in terms of the successful stuff that Jim has created. You’re really going to enjoy hearing from him today.
Dan: A couple of things before we get started. This week’s episode is, again, brought to you by our friends at wix.com. Push the limits of design and start creating beautiful, impactful websites that are uniquely yours with Wix. We’ll be talking more about Wix later on in the episode.
Dan: I also want to, again, mention Hang Time Seattle. This is Dribbble’s big one-day event in Seattle on May 15th. Tickets are available at a discounted price right now. You’re going to want to go grab tickets while they’re available. We’ve got quite a schedule planned for Hang Time Seattle, lots of cool guests and speakers and activities and an after-party. You’re going to want to come hear Aaron Draplin speak, and Dana Tanamachi and Nathan Yoder and Khoi Vinh among many others.
Dan: Just go to dribbble.com/hangtime for more info and to get tickets. We’ll see you in Seattle. Now let’s get on with our chat with Jim Coudal. Welcome to overtime Jim Coudal.
Jim: Thanks, Dan.
Dan: Yeah. Thanks for being here. I was going to say we go way back, but I mean, honestly, I’ve been a fan of yours for forever and of coudal.com and all the different things you’ve been doing over the years. I don’t even know where to begin, whether we’ll ask you about Field Notes or even Jewelboxing or Layer Tennis-
Jim: Oh, Jesus.
Dan: … and all this stuff. Where to start?
Jim: Remember, Dan, remember when blogs meant something? Remember that? I think that’s how we met each other.
Jim: You were writing yours-
Jim: … and we were writing Coudal, and we were linking each other. Geez, you can put a link in a blog and people would actually visit the site. It seems like a long time ago now.
Dan: Oh, it sure does. I mean it’s true. That’s what started it all. I owe probably everything in my career to writing a blog and I guess being in the right place at the right time with that. But when did coudal.com start? Because I was a big fan for as long as I can remember reading websites, to be honest.
Jim: All right. Well, I was going to date myself. The site actually debuted at Halloween in 1999. That was the beginning-
Jim: … of this site. It only went through really three major iterations in the course of all that time. I had been writing news for K10k for a while. Remember that?
Dan: Oh, yes, one of my favorite sites of all time.
Jim: Yeah. Then we just started the site just because we wanted to mess around with publishing technology. I guess we were early enough that there wasn’t so much competition, and we built up a pretty good following pretty quickly. I think that was because we’re generous with the links and there weren’t that many places to go and find links to interesting things on the web. We were tied in to you and Zeldman and Kottke and Daring Fireball, lots of other people. We were linking out to various web design and general design and writing projects. We got a following pretty quickly at coudal.com.
Jim: I, like you, I think we owe the whole career of the firm to that silly decision to start a … I guess it was a blog, but there wasn’t really anything. In fact, when we started it, we were updating the Fresh Signals in the HTML by hand. I remember that.
Dan: Wow! Yeah.
Jim: Then we finally hooked into movable type, I think, and then we figured out there was a way to do it that was easier and archivable, and the individual entries could be linkable. We’re still publishing links to Fresh Signals. We’re not getting the kind of traffic we used to get. We still get thousands of people coming, but it’s not like it used to be.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. It is not like it used to be, but I miss those days of updating the site by hand, even though it was a pain in the ass and different. I mean you wouldn’t immediately know that people are even reading it, and maybe that was a good thing.
Jim: Yeah, maybe. But you would see the repercussions of it. You would post it and then people were pretty generous with “via.” You’d say, “I swiped this from Kottke,” or that sort of thing. Then we started playing around with Photoshop Tennis, which later became Layer Tennis. That was just a goof for us to do that, but it got a really big audience really quickly.
Jim: The other thing that was a huge benefit to us is that we had to find people to play and people to write the commentary, and so our circle of co-conspirators grew exponentially by trying to get people set up to play on Fridays. Then, eventually, Adobe saw the value in it and they sponsored it for three or four seasons and it became … I remember one day when we were still doing Photoshop Tennis. I don’t remember who was playing, but we were looking at the web stats and there was 35,000 people refreshing the page waiting for the next layer to come up. I was, like, “Holy shit. That is the United Center filled twice with total nerds who are not getting anything done at work on a Friday afternoon.” I always thought that was pretty cool.
Dan: That was amazing. I remember it killed my Friday.
Jim: You and a lot of other people.
Dan: The productivity-
Jim: People always ask if it’s coming back, and I’m like, “You guys are all playing Layer Tennis and slack every day all day long already.” You know what I mean? When we were doing it, people weren’t really collaborating in real time on design work.
Dan: Yeah, that’s true.
Jim: I remember you played, I think, in one of the events where we started it in Australia and we passed the file every 15 minutes all the way around the world. We thought that was pretty cool. Now it seems every day. But let’s not talk about all of that stuff.
Dan: I think it’s still cool.
Dan: I know we could go on and on about … But I think, honestly, the history is important there. It’s still fun because it felt like an event. I think that’s what’s neat about it. It felt like a shared experience that was happening in real time, which is the promise of what the web is or was.
Dan: Also … Yeah.
Jim: I was just going to say the other thing about it, we didn’t know we were doing at the time, but by doing it on Friday afternoons, we were like … Because no one at that time was scheduling anything on the web. New stuff would just come up when it would come up, but we actually were doing this thing at a given time. I think that that made a big difference in the time during the week where people were ready to blow off for the weekend anyhow and were looking for an excuse to procrastinate.
Dan: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: It was quite interesting.
Dan: It’s a good example. Layer Tennis is a good example of one of your many projects, where I’ve always been impressed by the stuff that you do at Coudal Partners in that I always assumed that it was this hundred-person firm that had all these irons in the fire, all these projects going on, and all of them were executed really well. That’s probably why I assumed that there was a giant team behind it, but there really wasn’t. I mean it’s a pretty small, tight-knit group there.
Jim: Right. It has only been basically around a dozen full time employees pretty much the whole run. Before, when we were just doing client work, we probably had another maybe 18 people or something. But once we started taking more control of what we’re doing and doing our own projects like Layer Tennis or The Deck or The Show or various other things that we did, I don’t know, we felt like … I felt like that 10, 11, 12 people was the most I could manage and be happy. I don’t know. Was that a weird thing?
Dan: No, no. It’s not.
Jim: I’ve always liked to set type and write copy and edit video and code a little bit. When we got bigger than that, I found that I was pitching and going to meetings and making phone calls, and I didn’t really get into it for that. I wanted to be part of the idea part of it. We’ve maintained that size. Whether it was a good idea or a bad idea, I’m not sure.
Jim: Also, if there’s people out there who have no idea what Layer Tennis is, layertennis.com is still up and running. It shows the archives of a lot of old matches and it shows the most recent season, which was about four years ago now, but it does occur to me that there’s probably lots of Dribbblers who have no idea what it is.
Dan: That’s a good point. I’m glad you mentioned it. We’ll be linking to all these stuff in the show notes.
Jim: All right.
Dan: There’s going to be a ton for people to check out. Yeah, I think I totally agree with you, too. I’m the same way in that I like to make things and less manage things. But you’ve managed to make a lot of things but also have them be successful. What’s the secret there? Basically, you’ve turned a lot of interesting ideas into small businesses of their own.
Jim: Yeah. Well, nobody remembers the ones that burst into flames right out of the gate, but I think our thing was we always trusted that … I guess it comes down to this. We have lots of people who were checking our site every day. We’re linking all these crazy things and doing all these experimental films and various stuff, and the people just kept coming back. We just assumed, as a matter of faith, that there were a lot of people who were like us in the world, or not a lot, enough people like us in the world that would be interested in things that we were interested in. We didn’t go any farther than that.
Jim: If we felt like there was room for a new kind of an ad network that would work for us both as a publisher and as an advertiser, then there’s probably other people who are publishers and advertisers and readers who would appreciate a new take on the ad network. We had so much fun on Friday afternoons playing Photoshop Tennis for ourselves that we’re like, “Well, there’s got to be people who would be interested in watching this with us.”
Jim: The same thing with our current thing is Field Notes is, and the story’s been told many times, but Aaron Draplin, who is our co-conspirator in Field Notes, he made a little run of Field Notes on a local printer and rounded the corners himself. They didn’t look exactly like the current Field Notes, but they had the same voice and vibe. He sent them out as Christmas presents. I was lucky enough to be on Aaron’s list and I got one. I called him right up and I said, “Aaron.” He said, “What do you think about my stupid little Christmas present?” I said, “I don’t think maybe it’s so stupid. Maybe we should make some of these and see if people want them.”
Jim: I think that’s it, is having enough faith to pursue an idea that makes you happy and assume that it’s going to be appealing to people who are like you. We didn’t even know … Field Notes is like 95% of what we do now because it’s all we can do to manage it. We’re really happy doing that. I don’t know, maybe … Well, we are working on this other thing, but maybe Field Notes is the thing. I think we’ve been good at starting things and we’ve been pretty good at managing them and we’ve been excellent at shutting them down. I think that that’s a lesson, too, is that when the horse can’t run anymore, get off the horse.
Jim: Like with The Deck or The Show, which was super successful, but of the moment, we would send a couple of people out on tour with bands, The Pixies and a number of other bands, to take an unmixed, unmastered feed off of the soundboard on any particular concert evening, then we would actually ship that feedback to another partner we had in Boston who owned a studio, and he would mix and master it.
Jim: Then the people who were at The Show would sell those recordings to the people who went to The Show with the promise that they would get a beautifully designed and beautifully mixed and mastered copy of their concert experience in a couple of weeks in the mail. That was in this little slot when the technology was portable and the web was monetizable enough that we could sell these CDs. It was before every bit of music was streamed.
Jim: The Show existed for, I don’t know, three years in the middle. Once everything got to streaming and everything started changing, we realized either it was going to have to become this big, huge thing with lawyers and record labels and everything else or we were going to have to let it go, so we let it go.
Jim: I think that try stuff out. If it’s a moderate success, try to figure out how to make it a bigger success. If you can’t figure out how to make it bigger, then go on to the next idea, sort of, would be my advice.
Dan: Yeah. Oh, that’s great advice, honestly. Has it been difficult to let go of certain things? I mean you mentioned The Deck, actually, which, first of all, I have to thank you personally for creating The Deck because it really helped me out with simple bits, and then, later, Dribbble became a member of The Deck for a long time. It really, really helped us out.
Dan: When Rich and I started Dribbble, that was a big deal. It was something we didn’t have to worry about. It took a lot of work off our play in terms of getting advertising. Obviously, advertising has changed, and that probably led to the shutdown. But was that a difficult decision, or because all this other stuff’s going on, too, maybe it wasn’t as difficult?
Jim: It was difficult but not for the reason that you’re implying. It was difficult because I couldn’t let go of the idea that I was letting people down. It wasn’t from a business standpoint, it wasn’t a difficult decision. I’m not an accountant, but I can read a spreadsheet. It was just a matter of time before what was a good business and then a great business and then a good business and then an okay business was pretty soon going to be not a good business.
Jim: From a business standpoint, I don’t have any regrets, but I do think that the way that that grew organically, it really grew by me and us putting together a group of like-minded people, like making an ad network out of my bookmarks really. Those are the people that I had a lot of respect for, you included and everyone else, and that I couldn’t let go of the idea that I was letting everybody down. That really was hard for me personally, and it took me a long time to realize that that was one thing, but it couldn’t continue.
Jim: Then people are like, “Well, why didn’t you sell The Deck?” and I felt like it was built on personal relationships, and I didn’t feel like those were mine to sell in a way.
Dan: Wow! Wow!
Jim: I know that’s weird, too, but I don’t know. I’m okay with it now. I’m glad that it existed. I think we gave a lot of people the room to experiment and publish and produce great work that lots of people appreciated, and we made some money. But, yeah, that was hard to shirk down on a personal level, but, from a business level, the writing was on the wall pretty much at that point. Either we would try to expand in get a full sales force and do all these things that weren’t really interested to us at all.
Jim: In the meantime, here’s this Field Notes thing, which out of nowhere is starting to grow into this other thing. I’m thinking that the time and focus I give to The Deck is taking away from time and focus … If you’ve got two things, and one of them is stagnating and the other one is growing like crazy, where should you put your effort?
Dan: Yeah, right. Right.
Jim: I don’t know. I don’t know, maybe that’s too … I don’t know, but that’s how I dealt with it, or did or didn’t deal with it, I guess. But I made a lot of great friends, and everybody said what you said. Everybody was like, “Wow! It was great while it lasted. Thanks so much.” My worry that I was letting everybody down, of course, was just my own Catholic guilt.
Dan: Yeah. Oh, I bet. Oh, I bet. I bet, because I think everybody was very appreciative that was a part of it. That’s really a refreshing … I don’t know. It’s refreshing to hear that, that you said it was built on personal relationships and that’s why you didn’t sell it. Clearly, you care. I think that’s what comes across, too, in the products that you work on, is that you really do care about these things. That matters immensely, I think. I mean in terms of … I mean I hate to equate it with brand, but it’s true, that you’ve built up this goodwill over the years with really a community, right?
Jim: Yeah. I hope so.
Dan: And then you care.
Jim: Yeah, we do. I mean we get into knockdown, drag-out fights about whether something is Field Notesy enough. You know what I mean? It’s like everybody cares. We all care about that. But let me sit in the questioner’s chair for a second because I always had the impression that Dribbble was, in many ways, a passion project that was an experiment that got out of hand by growing, right? I mean that’s how it looked like from the outside to me.
Dan: No, absolutely.
Jim: I never felt like you guys sat down and made a business plan about how we’re going to get to where we want to be in 2016. You were just doing something that you enjoyed and, lo and behold, there’s these tens of thousands of people who appreciate the same things.
Dan: Exactly, yeah. That’s why what you said earlier really resonates for me as well. I think there’s a theme there with create something that you want to see in the world first, and maybe other people will like it, too, because you like it and your friends like it. I think it’s a really healthy way to start projects that may or may not become businesses, but at least you’re having fun along the way and you’re not creating something that just has a business plan because it needs one.
Dan: Like you said, too, you’re good at shutting down things. If you’re okay with the fact that some things are going to be failures and some are going to be successful, then you really can enjoy the ride more, I think. I don’t know.
Jim: I agree. I agree.
Dan: Does that make sense for you, too?
Jim: Yeah, it totally makes sense to me. I think it’s not even a binary decision of whether some things are going to be successful and some things aren’t. There’s a lot of room in between there. The three years we ran The Show, we were still doing client work. From a revenue standpoint, The Show was, by far, our biggest client. The years that we were doing sponsored Layer Tennis, we still had other client work and other things. But Layer Tennis was, by far, the number one revenue producer for the company.
Jim: Things can be okay successful. You know what I mean? It’s not like, “Well, this is either going to be a success or failure.” It’s not to say that we haven’t done plenty of things that have been abject failures, too, but I think that don’t underestimate getting out of bed and wanting to go to work as part of the equation of success or failure.
Jim: For me, personally, and I hope I’m speaking for people who work for me, I assume I am, but is that idea that I’m always working in my head currently on Field Notes and then I get up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to work. That’s part of the success formula. I mean we have to make money so that we can pay our mortgages and so that we can send our kids to good schools and all that sort of thing.
Jim: That goes without saying, but that’s not the only or even the most important part of the equation of are we having fun? Fun doesn’t mean just goofy, screwing around. Fun means using your talents to their highest calling in a way. You know what I mean? I know they’re only notebooks, but we spend a lot of time on the thematic part of them and on the films that go with them and the printing processes. You know why? It’s because we’re nerds about that stuff and we’re happy to do it. We love to come up with a project, let’s say, in addition for Field Notes, where we can sate our curiosity. That’s like, “Oh, my God.” I don’t know how long we have, but I’ll tell a really quick story. Last fall-
Dan: Yes, please.
Jim: We do four limited editions a year, and last fall’s was this thing called the Dime Novel. It was made in the form and design aspect of, you could make the argument, the very first mass market paperbacks ever produced in America. That would have been in 1860 in New York City. These two brothers started this company that made these novels.
Jim: This is my perfect project because we’re always on the lookout for what our next quarterly edition is or the one after the next or the one after that. I somehow fell down this rabbit hole online investigating these dime novels, that they were so interesting. That started because I was interested in the typography and the printing process. But later, the more I got into it, the more I read this story, I was completely fascinated with it. If it didn’t have anything to do with business, it would have been exactly the kind of things I would obsessively fascinated with anyhow.
Jim: Bryan Bedell, who works here, is a student of American design history and publishing and printing Techniques. I said to Bryan, I said, “Have you ever heard of these two Beadles brothers, these guys in this dime novel, these things that look like this?” He was like, “No, I never have.” We got on the phone and we called Aaron. If anybody is a student of American design and publishing history, it’s Aaron.
Jim: He goes, “No, I never heard about that either.” I’m like, “Well, we’ve got to do this thing,” because if us three don’t know what this is, then I know that people like Dan Cederholm don’t know what this thing is and lots of other people don’t know what this thing is. Let’s figure out the history of it.
Jim: To do that, we produced the dime novel edition, which has some really fascinating printing techniques and binding and all of that sort of stuff, but at the same time, we did all this research and found experts at universities who know about the beginnings of the American publishing paperback industry. We went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and did a mini documentary with this guy who is even nerdier than we are about it.
Jim: That’s the perfect project because we are producing a product that we’re super proud of that we’re going to trust that our customer base is going to love, and, of course, they did. It sold out immediately. Then at the same time we’re learning. In our learning about this subject, we get to teach about this subject, or at least point to resources that can teach about the subject.
Jim: Going all the way back to where that story started is it was great that we got to make the dime novel because it was so fun to use these old printing techniques, and it was really great that everybody loved it and we got to sell a lot of them because that made us money and made Field Notes grow, but it was equally as great to investigate a subject and stay curious about it and figure out what it was all about. You balance those things out, and that’s how you decide is this business a success. You don’t know one of those things in itself is the total scale by which you can judge something a success.
Jim: Then, of course, we’re all giddy with excitement about this thing because we know nobody knows about it. When we launch this thing, people are going to be like, “Oh, my God. I never heard of it.” Not every project is quite so clean-cut, as an example, but that is the ideal of Field Notes for us is that we can make fun stuff, surprise people, and learn along the way. That’s a long way to probe for a simple answer.
Dan: Yeah. I’m a subscriber, happy subscriber, and I remember being really impressed with that one. That’s really cool. Part of the success measurement for you, and I think this is true for myself, too, is the learning along the way, being part of it. I would assume that that’s true for a lot of people that make good things.
Dan: From the outside, I might have said Field Notes is an expert in dime novel history and, therefore, they decided to make this edition that not a lot of people know about, but they’re experts and they made this and it’s incredible, and now I’ve learned a little bit about it, when in reality you stumbled upon it and then learned along the way, which I think is really cool.
Jim: Right. That’s true of …I’ll just pick one out of the past … the Fire Spotter Edition, where we became experts. There’s this cool company in Chicago that made these fire watchtowers that could be assembled by a kit. They were all over the Midwest because they were relatively cheap to ship by rail and assemble. They were there for somebody to be up there to keep an eye on the forest to make sure the forests were burning down.
Jim: We somehow got on that topic and then we found one that was still in place in the Nicolet National Forest in Central North Wisconsin. We said, “Well, we’ve got to go see that.” Then we went there and we made a film like so. We learned a lot more than we ever thought we would learn about fire spotting in the ’20s and ’30s in the Midwest. That’s the fun part.
Dan: That’s amazing. That is the fun part, nerding out about this stuff. I wanted to pause here and tell you more about our sponsor for this week’s episode. It’s wix.com. With Wix, the web is your playground. Start with a blank slate and design your website in any layout you want. Work with advanced features like retina-ready image galleries, custom font sets, and sophisticated design effects. Each feature is intuitive to use, so you’re in control from design to live.
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Dan: Were special editions always an obvious thing for Field Notes to do? I mean you did the original one, which was probably similar to Aaron’s Christmas gift. Then what made you say, “Hey, let’s make one that’s special edition or a different style.” I just wonder the progression of, “Let’s make this mass produced notebook,” to what it is today, which is this giant thing where you can buy a subscription and you’re doing all this different styles. It’s incredible.
Jim: Yeah. Well, we had done the original and still our bestselling product of all is the kraft paper-colored notebook that. That’s the genuine article. Then we did, in 2000, oh, I don’t know, nine I guess it was, we did some orange ones and some blue ones just to see what would happen, and they sold out really quickly.
Jim: I don’t even know how it happened, we decided that we would do a series of different ones. Then it didn’t take long for somebody to write us an email and said, “Can I pay you now to make sure that I can get the next edition?” We’re like, “Oh. Wait a minute. That’s something.” Then we turned it into a quarterly thing.
Jim: The subscription model for us has always been a big part of the business. It’s by no means the biggest part of our business at all, but it allows us a couple of really interesting things. First of all, people are paying us for products we haven’t made yet, which is good for the bottom line and the balance sheet. It’s an ongoing Kickstarter of our own.
Jim: Then, secondly, having a base of thousands of subscribers makes us able to make a larger print run of these, which opens up lots of different printing and production techniques that we really couldn’t afford to do if we were only doing about a thousand of them. Then, thirdly, and maybe most importantly, it gives us four really terrific reasons to communicate with our customers every year.
Jim: When Field Notes sends a mail, people don’t quit the list. When Field Notes sends a mail, it’s, “Here is the new product and you’re getting a look at it first.” We don’t go to the well very often. We do a couple of promotions every year and then we have these four product launch mails. For us, that’s been really, really helpful.
Jim: Also, there are events in a way. There’s a huge community of people who just buy Field Notes and use them and love them, but there’s also a pretty large community of people who are a little bit crazy about them-
Dan: Yeah, right. Collectors.
Jim: … and collect them or swap them, or always looking for rare ones. This subscription thing has really been great for us. From a selfish reason, as the boss of Field Notes, the other thing that it does is that it gives us four hard and fast deadlines every year. We do lots of other things, but we’ve got these four really big things that we have to do in a year. When you’re running your own business, it’s easy to let your foot off the gas a little bit. Have you noticed that?
Dan: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Definitely.
Jim: We have these four deadlines that we have to create a complete concept and all the marketing and the print and the production and all the support materials four times a year. That’s really great for us to keep our knives sharp.
Dan: I love it.
Jim: It was an accident how it started, and Field Notes couldn’t be successful without it, I suppose, but, again, it’s that theory of money plus happiness and curiosity is how you judge success, not just money.
Jim: We’re working on this thing for the spring, but you’re not going to air this for two weeks, so I can’t talk about it. But holy crap-
Dan: Oh, shoot.
Jim: … this is going to be amazing. It’s so fun.
Dan: Oh, like the spring edition of Field Notes?
Dan: Yeah, cool.
Jim: The 2018 Spring quarterly edition.
Dan: Great. Great, great, yeah.
Jim: Keeping it quiet is a lot of the fun, too, because there’s all these Reddits and Facebook and different places where people are trying to guess what we’re doing. We like to give really obtuse hints. I would actually admit that more than we would even ever want to say that people really guess these things. Even out of the blue, I’ll see a post somewhere and I’m like, “Holy moly, this person has just guessed what we’re doing for the summer.” It’s interesting.
Dan: You have a rabid following, and I know this for a fact. This was years ago. Somebody emailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, look. I know you were a speaker in [Aveno Park 00:35:18] in 2008 or something.” I don’t know when it was, but I know it was a long time ago. “You got a special Field Notes that had the Aveno Park logo on the back. Do you happen to still have it? If you do … ,” he was offering crazy money for it because he wanted to be a completionist of Field Notes.
Jim: Yeah, a completionist.
Dan: At that point, I knew it meant they were on to something giant here.
Jim: Well, I don’t know about giant, giant might be too big of a word. But they’re just a [inaudible 00:35:55]. That’s interesting that people … I remember Michelle here got a mail from somebody in Italy buying one. She was like, “Well, we don’t really sell that one. That was a thing we did as collaboration,” whatever. The guy wrote back very politely and said, “Yes, but I must have it because I must have one of all of them.” I was like, “Really? Oh, boy.” That was when we started to see this was coming around. It’s all fun, though.
Dan: Oh, yeah.
Jim: It’s a built-in … I think those people are evangelists, too. We actually did a quick study of sales. The people who subscribe, they pay $100 a year to get all four of our editions and a bunch of extras and stuff, are also, aside from that purchase, are our best customers. Outside of their purchase for the subscription, they’re also buying other products in larger amounts than non-subscribing customers.
Dan: Oh, interesting.
Jim: It’s sort of on a per-person basis. It’s interesting that way, too. I think we’re on 39. I think spring is 39. I’m not sure. That’s a lot of quarterly editions.
Dan: Is that right?
Dan: Wow! It looks so much fun, too. I mean you’ve got the boxes for the collectors, where they can keep all their editions in one thing, and there’s all this offshoot products that you’ve done, too.
Dan: There’s a question that I wanted to ask because you mentioned films a couple of times before. I know that’s something I’ve always admired about what you’re doing there, is that you always manage to tell a really good story about whatever it is you’re creating, and the use of video early on, I think, in the web to help tell that. It always made it feel really legitimate. Not that it wasn’t …
Jim: No, no. I get it.
Dan: … but it elevated it. It elevated it to a certain level. One of my favorite things, I think, you’ve made was one video from a video series called Habits. This one was specifically about hobbies. It’s just one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, honestly, still. What’s cool about that video, and we’ll link it up in the show notes, but it’s just this actor describing what you were talking about earlier when you said you get excited about stuff and then some things stick, some things don’t, you move on. But I guess I wonder if video continues to be important for you in terms of marketing. How did that start? How did you know that was going to be important early on, I guess?
Jim: I don’t know exactly. I mean we did this film … Steve Delahoyde is a part of Field Notes. He also owns his own production company, so we joked that we have half Steve. He has generally been the leading force in all of our filmmaking, or most of it anyhow. We all write and work on films together, but Steve is the shooter and the editor and the director. He came into the office once, this was pre-Field Notes, with this idea for a film in which we hired a copywriter, and he gradually realized that we were all art directors and that none of us knew how to read. That movie is called Copy Goes Here.
Dan: Yeah, it’s brilliant.
Jim: Yeah. We did a little scene of it. It’s still up in lovely standard definition on our site. Then we wrote to our friends at Veer, which is no longer around, which was a stock photo and typography retailer for a long time, a really great company, and asked them if they’d sponsor it. They were like, “Uh, okay,” and so they did. We put it out there and it got all kinds of views. This was pre-YouTube, but our server bills were big and like that.
Jim: We knew right away that if we could use film in a way to advance our cause, that that would be a good thing. Field notes is the perfect client for people who like to make movies because we never say no to anything. We’ll do a whole film about a Field Notes edition, and we won’t even show it.
Jim: We did this edition a couple of falls ago called Shenandoah, mostly because the highlight drive that goes to the Shenandoah National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the United States, and I had happened to have just taken that drive when I was looking at colleges with my one of my daughters. I came back and I said, “Well, we have to figure out a way to make a film about the Shenandoah Valley.”
Jim: Then that was an idea where the marketing led it. Then we figured out how to make an edition that fit with the marketing. By the time Steve and Bryan came back with the footage and edit it together, the only thing we added to it was some words by Thomas Jefferson, and we never even showed the product. But it’s still one of my favorite things that we’ve ever done. We like to have …
Jim: This thing, this spring, I know I’m talking about something I can’t talk about, but I am going to go out on a limb and guarantee that the film we are making to go with this unexplained spring edition will be the largest use of time, money, and resources for a film that is the most obvious and dumb thing in the history of the world, or at least in the history of Field Notes, and we can’t wait to do it. I mean it’s just completely ridiculous, but the minute we had the idea in a meeting, we’re like, “Oh, we have to do that. We totally have to do it.” I guess that’s a tease to stay tuned for spring.
Dan: Are you hiring, Jim, by any chance?
Jim: Yeah, sure. Come on over.
Dan: All right. It sounds like-
Jim: My question is are you okay with Futura?
Dan: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I love it. I do love it.
Jim: Century Schoolbook here and there, but 90% Futura.
Dan: Yeah, I know, which is great. Futura. That’s interesting you brought that up, because I remember web fonts have finally … They’re finally here, or they’ve been here for a while, I guess, but that makes your branding a little easier in terms of Field Notes’ website.
Jim: Yeah, that is 90% Draplin. The original Field Notes were set in Futura. I mean that’s part of what it is, man. It is what it is.
Dan: It’s an important part of it. No, I can imagine. It’s brilliant. This thing in the spring, this is a Field Notes related thing or a separate-
Dan: Okay, great.
Jim: This is the spring limited edition, a quarterly limited edition for spring-
Dan: Right, got you.
Jim: … is a fairly straightforward concept that is done in an over-the-top printed way, but the film that supports the spring edition is a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and money. That’s what we have to look forward to.
Dan: This is what’s refreshing about all of this is, is your motivation for creating this stuff. It’s not the bottom line pushing you guys forward, it’s genuine curiosity, like you said, and wanting to share this stuff with the world.
Jim: We did a collaboration with Bellroy from Australia in a really nice little leather cover for Field Notes. When we did the film for that, we realized that we had never done a “commercial”, like a 30-second spot. We’ve never ever done that. We’ve all these … We tend to go on and on in long, unrelated things. We went into the film for that with the idea of, “Well, let’s make a spot.” We cast it and we did it in this location, and it came out great. Then people wrote me and they’re like, “That film is really great, but it felt an ad.” They were rating this, like, “I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t know if I liked that or not.” It was interesting so that when we actually did what we were supposed to do, nobody liked it.
Dan: Oh, that’s crazy.
Jim: I mean I think people liked it, but they didn’t like it that it felt …
Jim: Our films don’t feel like a commercial for a product mostly.
Dan: No. No, not at all.
Jim: This one did, and people were like, “Oh.” We have a rule in filmmaking. Our filmmaking is no fiction. If we’re going to show a kindly grandfather at his work bench in the Vermont winter tying fly fishing flies, then we really have to find somebody’s kindly grandfather in Vermont in the winter at their workshop tying fly fishing flies. We don’t cast somebody who looks like somebody’s grandfather. You know what I mean? That’s our idea.
Jim: Obviously, a lot of our films are printing porn, where we actually show the way that things are made and the whole process and some of the interesting, old school printing processes that we employ in a modern way, and some of them are documentaries, like the dime novel, which, of course, is nonfiction, but even when we do something that’s more high concept, we always keep in mind that we really can’t do … It’s a good guiding light for us is that we just don’t … That’s a good idea, but it’s fiction. Fiction isn’t Field Notes in a way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but-
Dan: Well, it’s amazing because you could turn around and say back to them, “Well, we’ve been showing you commercial or advertisements for years,” but that says a lot about the genuineness of what you’re sharing, I think.
Jim: That’s what we’re trying to do. Yeah, once again, and we sound like a broken record, but we’re making films we’d want to watch. The products are secondary. The products are an excuse for making the film in a way. Sometimes the film is an excuse for making the product even. It’s interesting.
Dan: Yeah. I love it. I love the motivation there. Well, Jim this has been awesome. I can’t thank you enough for being on here and sharing some behind-the-scenes gems-
Jim: Oh, thanks.
Dan: … from Field Notes and everything you’re doing over there. It’s amazing.
Jim: I totally dig what you’re doing with this podcast, too. I like that it is unstructured and kind of … Because Dribbble is so many people with so many interests. The thing that brings them together, I think, is, I guess, would you say … Let me interview for a second. Do you think there’s a Dribbble aesthetic?
Dan: That’s interesting. Yeah, there’s definitely … People have mentioned that. I think there probably appears to be, depending on what parts of the site you’re looking at. Obviously, the popular page can show what’s trendy in a way at times.
Jim: Sort of of the moment?
Dan: Of the moment, yeah. I think what’s interesting is if you took a snapshot of all the different popular pages of the day, over the last nine years or whatever, you would see that aesthetic ebb and flow and change, which I think is really cool. If there is a Dribbble aesthetic … That’s a good question … I’m not sure what it would be today. It’s probably different today than it would have been last year, maybe.
Jim: It reminds me of … Remember before, you were a designer before everything was available online in the world, and you would look for inspiration and you would flip through design annuals.
Dan: Yeah, totally.
Jim: If you go back and look at design annuals now, like print or creative arts or whatever it is, and you pick up a year, I don’t know, pick up 2007 and flip through the design annual, you could see there was a 2007 thing. You know what I mean?
Dan: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: I think that the beauty of Dribbble … And I didn’t mean to ask if there’s an aesthetic in a way that makes it pejorative in any way, but I was getting at what your answer was is, yeah, there is an aesthetic today and there’s one tomorrow, and they might not be the same thing.
Dan: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: It would be interesting to do what you said, is somehow make some sort of a film of maybe the 10 most popular designs over time and see … It might be a really interesting timeline certainly about typography but also about taste and design through time. It’s interesting.
Dan: I love it, yes.
Jim: I remember Dribbble was always a big thing for me is when I was trying to find people to play Layer Tennis, because-
Dan: Oh, great. Of course, yeah.
Jim: … the thing about the constraints about Dribbble allowed people to show their design chops, but also try to get an idea across in a really limited format, which was always people who were really good Dribbblers tend to be really good Layer Tennis players, I always thought.
Dan: Yes, yes. In fact, I remember … Shaun Inman first comes to mind because he was an early Dribbble member that was just incredible and had a really good match on Layer Tennis around that same time. You’re absolutely right. Honestly, I think Layer Tennis was nother one of those inspirations for Dribbble in a way. I mean the idea of what you just said, the constraint there in the box and trying to do something interesting in this space with whatever you’ve got. That’s yet another thing we thank you for.
Jim: I don’t want to go too far with this question, but what percentage of Dribbble members post?
Dan: Oh, right. Well, because it’s an invitation-based, only 10% can actually post.
Jim: Oh, I see.
Dan: There’s a lot of members that are simply fans of design or they’re just following the folks that are actually posting. We’ve been growing that. That’s been increasing steadily as we grow the team and have more things in place to ensure that things aren’t being abused and all that kind of thing. That was our main reason for keeping it small initially. Then now that the company is growing, we can open up the gates a little bit and get better about invitations. We just allow people now to upload work in an attempt to get invited to the site. The percentage is still very low compared to the entire membership base.
Jim: I see. Interesting.
Jim: It’s interesting to watch … I used to look at it all the time for UI and web design things than I find myself now. I probably flip through it much faster than I used to, but I find when I’m stuck for an idea, and it might not even be a design idea, it might be a conceptual idea or a writing idea, I find banging through there really quickly. There’s something about this relatively finished image after image after image after image, which breaks down the creative block for me, so thanks for that. Thanks for that.
Dan: Oh, well, that’s awesome to hear. I’m glad it’s useful. I think the cool thing about having everyone on a more level playing field perhaps with that constraint is it makes consuming it really fun and easy and quick. I appreciate that.
Jim: Cool, man.
Dan: Yeah. Well, thanks again, Jim. This has been awesome. There’s so many parts of this conversation where I said, “I’ve got to follow up on this, I’ve got to follow up on that.” This could be easily 10 episodes.
Jim: Well, let’s see if the other people just feel it’s a couple of older web guys talking to each other, then maybe this will be the last one. If people love-
Dan: That’s true. Maybe our work here is done. Hopefully not. I mean we’re going to be excited to watch what happens this spring, obviously, and just in general in the future, but keep up the awesome work, sir.
Jim: Will do. Talk to you soon, Dan.
Dan: Yeah. See you, Jim. Thanks.
Dan: This has been Overtime, Dribbble’s official podcast. I’m Dan Cederholm. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode. Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We’ll see you next time. Thanks again.