Architecture & Design, Arts & Entertainment, and Small Business & Startups

Clothing line founders get creative

Entrepreneurs launch content creation agency using talents of college art and design students to provide affordable options.

May 12, 2017
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Last year, Jack VanGessel and three of his friends launched Southern Hound, a clothing line inspired by popular styles and culture originating from the South.

But a couple of months after the start of their new venture, the four business partners were beginning to feel dissatisfied with the amount of money they were paying for creative services. VanGessel, a student at Grand Rapids Community College, and co-founder Conor Conaboy, a student at Michigan State University, brainstormed ideas and concluded one day, it might be a fun endeavor to start their own creative agency. That day came sooner than they expected.

Last month, VanGessel, Conaboy and Ryan Dayton officially launched Honest Projects, a content creation agency using the talents of college art and design students across the country to provide an affordable alternative to expensive creative services.

“There are two ends to the creative industry — the traditional brick and mortar, high human capital, expensive agencies, and on the other hand, you’ve got this online model that offers anywhere from unlimited options like Design Pickle, to a marketplace like 99designs where people bid on designs,” VanGessel said. “But there wasn’t anything that took the resources and talents of the traditional creative agency with the accessibility and cost of these open marketplaces. So, we identified the synergies of those and meshed them into what ultimately became Honest Projects.”

Honest Projects offers à la carte graphic design for both print and online mediums, photography and web design services. Full brand design costs $1,000, while a logo design costs $600. The company offers a flat $300 studio rate for photography services and charges $150 to design social media advertisements.

But aside from pricing, VanGessel said what sets the startup apart from the pack is its unique content creation system. Honest Projects leverages a network of art and design students looking to add experience to their portfolio while earning some extra cash.

Designers can punch in whenever it fits their schedule and log as many working hours as they desire. The model helps Honest Projects reduce costs while also benefitting from a younger talent pool more open to taking creative risks, generating interesting and unique content.

“After talking with dozens of college art and design students, we decided we needed to find a way to tap in and empower these students who said they felt fearful of business and the general disconnect between their skills and correlating them into the marketplace,” VanGessel said.

Because Honest Projects employs a student workforce, it needs to be prepared to handle the attrition that comes with students graduating and moving on to full-time jobs. But VanGessel said getting those designers out into the workforce is the point of Honest Projects.

“We want the kids to go on and work for these companies after they design for us, we want them out in the marketplace, either working for another creative agency or even one of our clients,” he said. “We want them to hire our creatives, so it becomes built-in from a branding standpoint — that Honest Projects is seen as a premier institution to work for while in college because you have access to major companies from around the country.”

Currently, Honest Projects has a stable of four designers, but VanGessel said there are another eight to 10 students who they can go to if demand ramps up. He and Conaboy have tapped into their own network while also using platforms like Handshake to recruit designers.

VanGessel said the startup is in the pre-seed stage, and he noted he has been working with investors at both the local and national level to secure funding.

To secure clients, VanGessel deploys a guerilla technique — he scrolls through countless LinkedIn profiles, searches Craigslist and other posting boards to discover companies looking for design work. VanGessel acknowledges the strategy “sounds obnoxious,” but it has paid off.

“That’s how we got in front of (London department store chain) Harrods,” he said.

In its first few weeks, Honest Projects has provided design work for business newsletter Morning Brew and Axe Body Spray; VanGessel said the firm has a roster of about 12 clients.

Once Honest Projects gets into its groove, VanGessel said he wants to find a co-working space in Grand Rapids that would provide designers with a quiet spot to get some work done.

“There’s a need for honest design, honest storytelling, Honest Projects,” VanGessel said. “That trust you put in us, there’s transparency from start to finish. It’s about open communication, trusting that the creative on the project will kill it.

“With our pricing, we position ourselves well for a range of businesses, and with the talented students we have working with us, we’re going to blow them out of the water.”

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