"We've been quite lucky, but there's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Not exactly a rags to riches tale, but it's an impressive career so far"
Barely three years ago, a nascent graphics design company - actually consisting of just two people - sent some work off to Computer Arts magazine for inclusion in the regular Exposure section. To their delight, the designers were judged that issue's best contributors and won a printer for their trouble.
Calendar pages riffle, autumn leaves blow by, and we're back in the present. That same company, the strangely monikered iLovedust, is not just thriving but positively bulging with commissions from the likes of Coca-Cola, Hugo Boss, Warner Brothers Records, Marks & Spencer, Nike and, indeed, Computer Arts. Of course that's a testament to the talent of the four designers who now work there, but as iLD's Mark Graham admits, that early exposure (in every sense) certainly helped. "We're still using that printer now, actually," he laughs.
The idea of iLD arrived when Mark and founding partner Ben Beech began doing freelance work while working at day jobs - Mark creating housing brochures and Ben at a T-shirt company. "We tried to hassle as many people as we could to do some work and kind of went on from there, so persistence paid off in the long run," explains Mark.
In other words, getting themselves out there - quite literally. With no real clients to rely on (or poach) from their previous jobs, Mark says "It was more a case of knocking on as many doors as we could, especially locally to begin with. We'd walk round every shop and see if they needed a website or a business card or something like that. It's best to meet them personally rather than on the phone, say, and show them your portfolio that way."
Easy enough if you have money sitting in the bank or another source of regular income while you build up your contacts, but iLovedust had neither at that point. "We originally had a backer, if you like, someone who thought we could do it, so he put some money into the company. And then he subsequently decided, three months later, that we weren't going to do it after all and pulled out again."
A round of borrowing on credit cards and remortgaging houses followed - and in true entrepreneurial spirit, Mark decided to see this as a positive: "In some ways that whole situation was better for us, because it drove us on perhaps a bit more than otherwise - to prove them wrong!"
Cashflow, he stresses, is by far the most important aspect to focus on (and worry about) during the initial period of striking out on your own. It's sometimes easy to forget that jobs don't always go smoothly and clients almost never pay on time anyway, especially if you're an unknown quantity to them.
"You get some work in, it takes a month for them to agree it, it takes a month for you to finish it and then it might take them a month to pay the invoice. So having some cash behind you is so important. We spent a lot of time worrying about those kinds of things, so make sure you have money in the bank," says Mark.
"It'll go so quickly when you have to buy equipment and software and pay rent up front and bills and telephones and all that stuff you don't really think about when you first start up. If you're a sole trader then maybe it's a little easier, but we always wanted to have more people working there and bring in more clients."
Despite the limited budget, it was essential for the company to get off to a professional start, so it hired a small studio office in "one of those industrial centres that help new businesses. We thought it was quite important to have a separate areaâ€¦ A lot of people work from home, but then it's hard to differentiate between the two sometimes."
As with most small businesses, the first few months at iLovedust consisted of work, work and a bit more work. Mark believes there are small, quiet stages of progression which should encourage any new company. For iLovedust, this came after six months or so and a commission to create a website for Ash, the band.
"It wasn't very much money but we felt like we were starting to get somewhere," says Mark. "It was good for us working with someone we knew. Sort of being associated with a known brand, I suppose you'd say. It was a nightmare to do and I so wish we could change it to be more how we saw it, but I guess when you start, that is by the by. I think it was then that we thought, yeah, we can go somewhere with all this."
Chances and breakthroughs
Mark also believes that new design businesses in particular can't afford to be too sniffy about who they work for. That may seem obvious, but it can be all too easy to let your perceived need for some sort of design cred stand in the way of real work and hence income. The Ash website, for instance, led to a commission for Marks & Spencer's Per Una women's clothing range - two projects which could hardly be more different in terms of market and style. For iLovedust, it was just another opportunity, albeit one born entirely of a chance meeting.
"We just did a very small job for them, literally a thousand pounds or something like that," explains Mark. "We overdelivered on that, got asked to do another small job, and overdelivered again. So it was a little foot in the door and you make of it what you will, which is always a good idea."
iLD has certainly made the most of it. A new campaign for OgilvyOne (part of the all-conquering Ogilvy & Mather ad agency) and Coca-Cola sits alongside T-shirt designs for FreshCotton. The company can make time for both American Airlines in-flight magazine illos and A Book Designed to Help for the Tsunami charity aid fund. Website designs range from Trendy Golf to Playaway - luxury hols for the young and presumably minted.
All this work has that certain iLD flavour, though, as Mark admits, that's impossible to define. "We don't ever set out to make something in the iLovedust style. We know when something's not quite right and doesn't have the feel, which is when we'll try to Dust it up a little bit, if you like."
But, he says, at the end of the day the client is always right when it comes to style. "If we ever think we could do something better or it's not quite right then we'll try and show them another option, but you have to give them what they want. Our job is to get them to understand how a better idea would work and why. Maybe half the time they'll stick with what they want and half they'll give us a bit of leeway."
And while traditionally certain clients go down the 'safer' route, it's often the reverse for iLD. "Some people want to use us because we're not the safer option. For instance, we've just done some comps for Hasbro for some of the new Trivial Pursuit stuff that's coming out, and they wanted it to be very much our style, which is refreshing."
So the future's bright, although there's no particular ambition plan as the company enters its third busy year. It's a case of more collaborations, more experimentation and, of course, more fun.
"I think if we wanted to work in particular niches, we'd actively try to find something there," adds Mark. "So we wanted to do album covers, and now we are. We wanted to do stuff with shoe companies, and we are. We've been quite lucky really, but there's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears of course. It's obviously nice to work with people such as Apple and Nike. We'd like to do stuff for the Hoover company, for obvious reasons."