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Running Your Own Studio with Noah Norman

The Fabled Studio

This week I chatted with one of my favourite colleagues, Noah Norman. He runs Hard Work Party, a studio that makes artwork and experiences with complex inner lives. We always have had good times digging into the ups and downs of the projects, the life of studio owners, traveling to China together, and generally wearing many hats. I decided he would be the best person to talk to about running a studio / business, since he’s been in the game for a while and he’s doing well in terms of the cool projects he gets to work on and the life that he’s managed to carve out for himself. The reason I thought this is an important topic is the sheer number of people who ask me “Should I start a studio?” when they feel unsure about their direction or have just come out of school. It’s as if running your own studio is a panacea that cures all your previous ailments and your life is sweet after that. I wish!!! Without further ado, here’s Noah Norman:

running a studio with noah norman
Noah Norman of Hard Work Party

What’s the best part about running a studio?

Elburz: For me it’s the “freedom”, and I use that word lightly because you usually end up perpetually broke and working non-stop for years when you first start your studio. The ability to kind of turn on or off as I “please” is nice, seeing as I can sometimes eschew regular office hours (although not as often as I like!). I like being able to take regular breaks to keep my sanity, decide our overall direction, working remotely while doing business development in other countries, these kinds of “freedoms” I value quite a bit.

Noah: The best thing that’s come out of running my own studio is the self-determination. When I don’t have client work (which includes the weekend days I ‘take off’), I make an immediate transition to working on personal / studio development projects. That means R&D, software library building, in-house art projects, and learning new platforms and techniques. There are probably some jobs where, working in somebody else’s shop, I’d have that kind of freedom, but it’s everything to my work now, and it extends to my being able to select client work based on the things I’m interested in at the moment.

What’s the worst part about running a studio?

Noah: Definitely has to be admin. Just dealing with the bookkeeping and insurance and contracts and banking and all that … not something I enjoy, and, as such, something I get better at very slowly, which prolongs the pain. I try to take my medicine and study up regularly, but I can feel myself giving over only a fraction of my attention to those topics even while I’m working on them, and it makes for slow and painful results. It’s part of the job, so it’s something I need to keep getting better at.

Elburz: I 100% agree with you on that. The worst part was the fact that all the aspects of running a studio basically pulled me away from being a full-time artist/developer. I’d say I’m more accurately a part-time developer (with occasional on-site never-sleep work days) and a full-time business owner.

What do you tell someone who asks you “Should I start a studio?”

Elburz: You know I’m always vocal about telling people that they’d probably have more fun working a “regular job” vs the headaches of starting your own studio. I find you end up more often than not spending your time dealing with things that aren’t what motivated you to start the studio in the first place, whereas if you get a job at a company you like, you could be doing the thing you enjoy all the time, more or less carefree. I also find, mostly anecdotal statistics, that most people getting into interactive art are artists or creatives more so than they might be entrepreneurial or managerial.

Noah: I think if you’re in the right field and you have the right personality type (more of a risk-prone rather than risk-averse personality), you’ll love going it alone. I try to talk people into it all the time, but only the right people. Some folks just prefer the stability of a full-time gig, and while I don’t feel that way myself, I get why it works.

Elburz: There is something really exciting about going it alone. But I think a lot of people might think that stability comes at the expense of creativity and that you just become a code monkey, which is really not the case at lot of these cool new studios.

What are your thoughts on business partners vs going solo?

Noah: On paper, it sounds great, but I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of taking on a partner other than another person who does what I do (to ‘join forces’). Which is to say, I’ve never really considered taking on a ‘business’ partner, as you put it. I think it’s really because I value my freedom so much that the idea that someone else would have a vote in what work I take on scares me. Sometimes I get an opportunity to do a months-long project abroad at the drop of a hat and it sounds great – the idea that I’d need to discuss that with a business partner doesn’t sound nearly as great. Sure, it’d be nice to have someone take on the parts of the business I’m not crazy about, but I don’t know that anything could be worth the tradeoff in self-determination.

Elburz: Interesting, I hear where you’re coming from. I think a big aspect of it is personality. I was pretty lucky and my business partner and myself clicked pretty instantly. If someone is hell bent on starting a studio/company, I always recommend they find a business partner. Someone who can have their back, trade off and less-than-fun work, bounce ideas back and forth, and ideally someone who can handle the business while you handle your art. I found my overall business life improved greatly once I brought on a partner. With that said, I think your concerns are valid in that most people might just grab the first business jabrone who wants to get into our field and sign some legally binding paperwork with them, whereas maybe they could try to just work together on a few small things and see how it goes.

If you could travel back in time, would you convince yourself to get a job, start a studio, or do something else entirely?

Elburz: It’s a tough one for me, I definitely enjoy where I’ve ended up and my experiences have added up quite a bit into things that make me stronger than I was previously and ever would have dreamed I would be. But with that said I probably could have saved myself a lot of stress over the years, had less workaholic tendencies, been closer with my family, honestly probably saved a ton of money in the bank, and ended up in a good place (although it would have been different in many ways). So it’s a toss up for me, but I think currently I’d lean towards just giving myself some advice instead of steering myself away from running a company.

Noah: I guess I’m a hard-liner on this but I’d never tell my young self to get a job. I’d certainly have a ton of advice for young me about direction and how to think more clearly about what I want and how to get there, but the job thing was never right for me.

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What’s the best tip(s) you would give to an artist/developer wanting to start something like nVoid or Hard Work Party?

Elburz: I’d say getting a business partner is huge, running a business is such a struggle sometimes. There’s that joke that says once you start a business the only friends you can have are other people who started businesses, since other people don’t get your life. It’s something you really have to give your all for it to be successful, for at least your first one. Having someone on your side and equally invested as your can really help in the long run. I think that’s what I’d say on the business side of things to start.

Noah: On the artist side of things, I’d say if you really want to make that work, you need to do two things — First one is not optional – finish work regularly. Finish it, document it, and put it out there where people can see it. I really need to work on that one myself. Second – have a style or a topic that ties a lot of your work together. This is not mandatory but it is a much easier way to make your work recognizable and hold together as a oeuvre, which can do a lot for the commercial viability of your work.

Elburz: I tweaked on the word “document.” I think that’s so important. I think I’d also add on the personal development side of things, regardless of what you do, always be in a state of self-reflection. There was a part early in my career where I learned mostly from others, in a sense where I’d have mostly inferior ideas compared to those who have more experience. It’s the nature of learning and being new at something. But as I gained more experience and expertise, I find that most of my progression and growth comes from self-reflection. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t take ideas from others, but ideas at the level that I work at are neither good nor bad, they’re just different approaches to solving problems. I have to take these ideas, bring them into my mental library and sit and reflect on why they might be beneficial or detrimental to what I’m doing and what I want to do. As well, a huge portion of my learning and growth comes from sitting down after I’ve finished something, and reflecting on the whole process alone. I sit quietly and I think about the whole thing I just did. I ask myself questions like “Did it work?”, “Would I do it like that again?”, “Was there anything I could do better?”, “How could I make things easier?”, etc etc. I really just sit and think through the whole thing. This means I can immediately approach the next project or thing I’m working on in a better state than I was previously. Sounds a bit boring, but do this on every project, and you’ll be able to break through all those plateaus and get to higher levels of proficiency you might now have been able to achieve otherwise.

Noah:  On the developer side, I’d say three things —

First — don’t let yourself off the hook. You can do just about anything if you’re capable of setting aside the urge/panic to have it done, to be on the other side of the challenge already.  If you’re a developer, you probably know what I’m talking about. You’ll be confronted with a problem, or a chunk of a project, or a whole project, and as soon as you start you’ll feel this rising panicky feeling that stems from a deep-seated fear that you’re not capable of getting it done at all. You need to learn to squash that. Take a deep breath, turn off the distractions, put the larger project out of your mind, and just focus on the piece you’re working on now. Don’t just build a good-enough version you don’t understand – fully understand the issue now so you never have to revisit this again, and then build a version of the solution you get forwards and back. That’s how you get better.  Recognize that that feeling is actually your brain feeling cornered and looking for an easier out than going through the pain of solving the problem. The only way to squash that feeling is shut off all the outs, calm down, and slowly solve the problem by learning something new.
Second — don’t get dogmatic about technologies or process or what you do and don’t do as a developer. Dabble constantly. Try new languages. Write server-side code. Use new APIs. Muck around with databases and cloud services. Learn to write shaders. Fool around with embedded computing, sensors, motors, daemons, web code, etc. Try to set aside 10-20 hours a month to learn the basics of systems you have never used and don’t see yourself ever using. You’ll frequently find yourself wondering why you thought XYZ tool wasn’t for you, and thinking about how you can use it in your next project.
Third — when a huge project comes your way and it involves figuring out some new, hard stuff, ask yourself, ‘do I want to be an expert in this?’ Because that’s what you’re going to do — you’re going to make yourself an expert in something, and it’s going to take blood, sweat, tears, and a chunk of opportunity that you could have used to be an expert in something else. If you succeed, you’ll be the ________ person, the one who really knows ________, and I promise, your phone will ring again and again with people looking for you to do _________ again and again. Think hard about what you want ___________ to be.

Wrap up

I want to thank Noah again for the time he took to put some words on paper for me. You can get more information about Noah and his work here. Hard Work Party makes artwork and experiences with complex inner lives. Noah and myself see eye to eye on a lot of topics but it’s interesting where we differ in opinion. It goes to show just how personal our work is and that if I had to leave one final thought on starting a studio, which I’m sure Noah would agree with, it’s that you should take the time to really think about what you want to do/be/live like and be true to that first and foremost.

Next post we’ll be talking about large scale installations, the craziness of being on-site, and more with my next special guest.


Noah is hilarious and sent me a ton of amazing pictures when I asked for a headshot, so I now present you the many faces of Noah Norman.