Two years ago, Brandon Satterlee and Paul Tefft started The Forest, a design firm serving technology, consumer goods, architecture and other industries. The duo of young entrepreneurs sat down with MiBiz to discuss the West Michigan design community, why they started a company here, and what business lessons can be learned from “The A-Team.”
Why start a design firm in West Michigan?
Brandon Satterlee: I think young entrepreneurs stay here because, one, we’re Michiganders. We’re hardy already. We can take the punishment. And two, at least in West Michigan, it’s an atmosphere that’s conducive to startups. Not only that, but it is a design-centric community and it has been for a very long time.
When you started The Forest, you did it by yourselves the old-fashioned way by bootstrapping. Walk me through the company’s origins.
Paul Tefft: There wasn’t a lot of room for error. I was in Austin, Texas. I was playing a lot of music and doing some freelance writing, generally having a blast but at the same time, I was just sort of living. Brandon called – we were best friends – and we had been talking throughout my stay down there. He called me one night and said, ‘Do you want to go into business? Do you want to come back home and work with me?’ I was just really excited and eager, so I said yes. We got our ducks in a row and hit the ground running.
Brandon Satterlee: We had two computers and one desk that we shared in my house. We started from the ground, from nothing. We just kept our heads down and worked hard. We made great work and we didn’t try to worry about anything else.
It seems that many startup firms focus on the wrong things, for example, telling people how good they are with a flashy website and marketing. But they don’t necessarily have the chops to back that up. With The Forest, you’ve intentionally stayed under the radar to this point and focused on doing your work.
Paul Tefft: Word of mouth is really rewarding. If you’re an awesome band, people talk about your last show. We like to think that translates through our work. We may not be completely at market, we may not have our site launched yet – it will very soon – but the work was our focus.
Brandon Satterlee: It was very purposeful to wait to go out to market full bore. It was really building clientele, our reputation and creating a work culture that supported the type of work that we want to cerate here.
Why is now a good time to talk more about what you’re doing?
Brandon Satterlee: Being silent for two years is kind of a long time. We’ve grown, and there are some things happening. It makes it exciting to be able to do that. Also, we’re proud of what we make.
Paul Tefft: We’re ready and we’re confident. We’ve proven to ourselves and others that we’ve found a good spot here, a good group of people here. We want to stay here. So let’s let the community know.
How do you describe your company?
Brandon Satterlee: We’re a creative agency for the digital landscape. Our key disciplines are really storytelling, engagement and experience. … Emerging technology is something that’s extremely interesting to us. We like experimenting and finding out what is coming up, and staying up to date on those things and how that translates out to real-world experience. We’re doing a lot of digital publication on tablet devices. We’re really experimenting what’s possible with a publication on a tablet. We also do tools and design apps. We are a creative agency, so it’s fairly holistic. We can create a product, create a brand and also help launch that brand. We can create a digital advertising campaign and help them get those customers.
What was the best mistake you made in business so far?
Brandon Satterlee: Losing a bid, a big bid. It taught me to never do it again. That ate me up inside. We never had (gone for a big bid) before. Things were going well and we’re growing, and it just reminded me that I have to treat every project like it’s the first project. Do it like it’s the only one and the last one.
After two years, now you’ve got six people working with you. Where do you see The Forest growing from here?
Satterlee: That’s about it. I’m not interested in getting lot of people and turning and burning work out. To me, your maximum is somewhere between seven and nine people, or more realistically, how many people you can fit in a van. To us, it’s all about the quality of the creative (process). You’ve got to be able to fit everybody into van like the A Team.
How do you find the right people and the right partners?
Paul Tefft: We’ve gotten really lucky in that respect. Many of our peers have made the same decision to do work here in West Michigan. Primarily, everyone is right around the corner. It’s a matter of finding a common bond, the style of work, the quality of work, shared experiences. Then it’s just using our judgment. Sometimes we’ll try a project out, and if things go well, we just continue to build that.
Brandon Satterlee: That’s one of the most fun things about this business is just collaborating with other people, whether it’s another creative team or a different type of designer. That’s how great work gets made. It’s by collaborating with like-minded peers that have vastly different skill sets. We’re young and we’re hungry and we’re trying to find different ways to work together. We know that makes the work better and our companies better.