Write These Down: A Notebook Designer’s Tips on How to Start a Business
One year into his job as the co-founder of eco-friendly notebook line Baron Fig and Joey Cofone has learned a thing or two about what it takes to start a business. We spoke to Joey about his life as a designer and the value of a “people-centric process” — an important element of Baron Fig’s business. (This interview has been edited for both length and clarity.)
Tell us about your background. How did you get started as a designer?
When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. It was so important to me that I spent four years studying literature and philosophy, filling my head with ideas from history’s brightest minds. At the time, I thought I enjoyed writing itself, but eventually I realized that what I truly enjoyed was the ability to communicate a message. Studying the works of other writers was fantastic, but I was left wanting more.
I decided to go to the School of Visual Arts for a degree in Illustration. Drawing was always a strong interest of mine, so it made sense to explore it. The very first semester, one of my teachers was paying close attention to the work I was doing, and at some point she came up to me and said, “You’re not an illustrator. You’re a designer.” I didn’t even know what a designer was, but I listened — and she was spot on. As a designer I get to communicate ideas with both images and words, and it’s the most fulfilling way I can imagine spending my life. I’m incredibly grateful to have had an educator that cared so much. Each showed me that love was at the core of everything, that connecting with people was the key to happiness, and that everyone is worth your time.
Was there a specific factor that motivated you to start a business that followed your love for design?
I grew up in a family of plumbers and carpenters who ran their own businesses, which likely influenced me to be self-sufficient. I also got into a lot of trouble when I was young, which made me realize that getting into trouble — i.e. failure — wasn’t as bad as we make it out to be.
My mother, grandfather and uncle were all inspirations. They each had a unique way about them. My mother’s strong personality commanded a room in a way that made everyone comfortable. My grandfather, as a master plumber, had incredible technical knowledge, with the ability to picture vast infrastructure in his mind. My uncle, a carpenter since childhood, could fix anything, solving problems people didn’t know they had. Each showed me that love was at the core of everything, that connecting with people was the key to happiness, and that everyone is worth your time.
What have you learned from starting Baron Fig?
There’s a phrase permanently written on our whiteboard, which says “people-centric process.” Despite the fact that we may look like a design-focused company from the outside, behind the doors of Baron Fig everything points toward one thing: the customer. Before we make a decision, we weigh the effects it will have on the people who interact with our products. Our mission mirrors this sentiment: To champion thinkers in their journey to create and inspire the world.
As far as great successes or failures, Adam Kornfield, our co-founder, and I don’t tend to frame things as either. A failure isn’t a failure if you keep on going, and a success isn’t a success when you realize that it’s just a stepping stone. We pat ourselves on the back for small wins, but generally we keep our heads down and move forward, little by little.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Baron Fig is the fifth venture I’ve worked on building from scratch. The other four were a design studio for creatives, an online art school, a flight optimization web tool and my personal branding studio. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Everything I did, whether effective or ineffective, was a lesson that has contributed to what I’m doing today. Likewise, the things I do today are educating me on what to do tomorrow. A failure isn’t a failure if you keep on going, and a success isn’t a success when you realize that it’s just a stepping stone.
What’s your best piece of business or design advice? What would you tell new designers/entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
I have two pieces of advice for fellow designers looking to start a business or jump into entrepreneurship:
- Design is only a small fraction of what you’ll be doing. Other roles include customer service, administration, logistics, marketing, production, finance, etc. If this doesn’t excite you, don’t do it. If it does — high five.
- Partner with a non-designer. You need someone who fills in the gaps of what you bring to the table, not someone who makes your skills redundant. Adam was a finance guy on Wall Street before we partnered up; between the two of us we can handle a lot.
What’s next for Baron Fig?
That’s the question! We’re just about one year out of the gate, and in that year we’ve managed to accomplish a few key milestones. These include launching the company, introducing a second product (the Apprentice pocket notebook), designing limited editions and expanding to 30 countries. Next up, the App for Ideas. We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on.
How do you stay inspired or motivated?
Psychological endurance is huge. Building a company isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Every day we take small steps toward big goals, which don’t look like much independently, but they add up over time. We’re not immune to fatigue, of course. Adam and I lean on each other when we need to—that’s the beauty of having a business partner. Overall we know exactly what we want to accomplish, and it’s only a matter of time until we do.
For those who want to start a business and are curious about the practical aspects, Joey recommends “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, “Ed is the president of Pixar, and in the book he shares what he’s learned over the years growing the best animation and storytelling studio since classic Disney.” And for those who are just looking for a some fun reading, Joey recommends Norton Juster’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth” because “it reminds us what it’s like to be playful.” He adds: “Reading is fantastic, but we mustn’t forget to exercise our brain in both directions. (After all, that’s why we started Baron Fig.) So grab a blank notebook and start regularly outputting your thoughts.”
Jot down your entrepreneurial ambitions in your own Baron Fig journal — we’re giving away a selection! Head over to Instagram to enter.