Around The Shop

Ten Years of CODO

2009 – 2019

Today is CODO’s 10th anniversary. As we roll into our tenth year of business, I initially sat down to write out all the business lessons we’ve learned along the way. But as we work with and read books written by those who have run their own businesses 10, 20 and 30+ years longer than us, I figured that would be self indulgent, if not a bit masturbatory.

So instead, I tried to capture how I feel today. On one hand, Cody and I aren’t overly sentimental and would rather put our heads down and keep working. On the other hand, when I reflect on a decade of getting kicked in the teeth and scratching out a living in the creative industry, I’m humbled by what we’ve accomplished.

Cody and I met in 2006 at Herron School of Art & Design. I was fresh off of an abusive relationship with an attempted Biology Major and rebounding by diving head first into a graphic design program. Cody was interested in an illustration degree (something that, luckily for me, wasn’t available at Herron). By chance, we ended up in the same Visual Communication cadre at Herron and spent the next few years working together on class projects, grinding away on whatever freelance work we could pull together on the side and bonding over this new thing called “craft beer.” A lot of said beer was consumed sitting in my old Jeep on the roof of Herron’s parking garage (in-between, after, and sometimes during class time). We were more hood rat than design luminaries, but we were good kids.

Late junior year, we started talking about opening a design shop. Why not, we have laptops, how hard could it be to run a business??? Internship experiences that he and I each had solidified this idea while also giving us a battle flag. We each saw the creative industry creating a barrier between clients and designers. There was, and still is, a pervasive dogma that clients don’t know anything about design (or even their industry) and that a designer can come in as a panacea and fix all of their problems better than they can. It’s the unfortunate Don Draper myth that will. not. die.

We saw this create myriad problems like blown budgets and deadlines, unhappy clients, and subpar work. Design firms were more concerned about tracking billable hours than they were with getting shoulder-to-shoulder with clients to get to know them and what makes their business special. We felt then, and even more so today, that if we put collaboration at the center of everything we do, we could create better work; that if we engaged our clients as passionate subject matter experts, we could create better work, together.

That idea in mind, we graduated on Saturday, May 10, 2009 and founded CODO the following Monday (though our official anniversary is July 25, 2009 according to when we got our state paperwork wrapped up).

Our first office, after graduating from Herron. Note, that Tom Selleck picture has dutifully watched over all of our offices.

These first few years are a blur. Through a remarkable stroke of luck, Cody and I met Kiera Amstutz, Executive Director (and one hell of a leader) of Indiana Humanities. She offered to rent us a small office space in the back of their gorgeous building at 15th and Delaware and we were able to work with her team for trade for most of that first year. It was Cody and I in a 10′ x 10′ room with old furniture scrounged from Indiana Humanities and our laptops (which were, by this point, 3.5 years old with some serious city miles on them). There was a large, single pane window in the room—we sweated our asses off during the summer and had to wear gloves through the winter like surly, Dickensian characters.

We started out working with nonprofits around Indianapolis and earned this work by cold calling, emailing and sending out hand-written notes to anyone we thought was doing cool work. Cody and I would spend hours designing, printing, folding and gluing up cool little note cards that we then sent out to different organizations around town. We’d mail people (that we’d never met) bottles of (poorly made) home brew (without their permission). We’d show up at corporate nonprofit offices and ask to talk to their head of marketing as though they were expecting us.

And inexplicably, this approach worked.

Home brew beer hangtags and note cards we sent out for business development. We later found out that some of our beers were over-carbed, though thankfully, no one reported any exploding bottles.

Time and time again, busy non profit directors, community leaders, and business owners said yes to our invitation for coffee or beer (we racked up hundred of these meetings over our first few years of business). We’d get together, share our portfolio and end with the hardest of hard sells, “If you ever have a project come up, give us a call.”

And they did.

This approach developed a rich network of local clients. And in our first years, you could draw a line from our latest project to our earlist ones via referrals. This has been one of my favorite things about building a business in Indiana—if you do great work, people love to refer you and sing your name. Early projects at this time included: Indiana Artisan, Humane Society of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Early Music, Active Indy Tours, Little Red Door, Indy Food Council, Indiana Humanities, Indiana Historical Society, Boy Scouts of America, FFA, Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation and Fresh Bucks Indy.

And to help us field this work, we brought on our first employee, Micah. A quiet backbone of our company (and a fellow 2009 Herron grad), she’s still with us today creating some of the best websites in the industry.

In 2010, we reached out to Stevi and Vicki at the Indianapolis City Market. They took a chance on us and we went on to partner on several projects including Tomlinson Tap Room (still one of our favorite beer bars in the city). This was a big break for us as it put us in front of the Brewers of Indiana Guild and several awesome food artisans, including Natural Born Juicers (a friendship that we’re proud to maintain to this day). It also connected us with 450 North, our first brewery client (another relationship that we’re proud to maintain, 8+ years later).

Cody and I were getting growler fills at Sun King one day—anyone else remember $5 Fridays?—and decided, while standing in line, that we wanted to shift our focus from nonprofits to the food and beverage industry moving forward. We weren’t well read on positioning at this point, but through lots of lucky breaks and Indiana’s goodwill, we were able to start moving in that direction.

Shortly after this conversation, we were fortunate enough to start working with Eric Freeman and Dig-IN, Indiana’s premier farm to fork food festival. This allowed us to buy brand new iMacs(!!!) and give our school laptops the Viking funerals they deserved. Then we got the opportunity to work with one of the most important food minds in Indiana, Neal Brown. And then we helped BK & Nolan build out Backbone Bourbon Company. And then Marcus Agresta tapped us to rebrand the Indianapolis institution, Piazza Produce.

A new office means new desks and handmade tap handles for our kegerator.

And then (~2012) we moved to a larger office (a whopping 900 sq/ft!) in the basement of Indiana Humanities’ building (3 adults in a 10’x10′ room, complete with bikes and desks was getting a bit cozy). This gave us more room to breathe and entertain clients. Selfishly, it also gave me an excuse to spend several weeks in the wood shop building new desks and a conference table.

Around this time, we realized that we needed more help. We still didn’t know how to forecast and budget (and thought a P&L was some sort of venereal disease), but we took a chance on someone and figured it out along the way. That person is Ryan Herrmann and he’s still with us today (we recently celebrated his 6th anniversary!). He’s one of the most talented, and completely unassuming, designers we’ve ever met.

And then, in July 2012, someone broke into our office and relieved us of nearly $10,000 worth of equipment (pro tip: back up your files). But we were too busy to mope around. A few weeks later, we flew out to Alaska to help Nic and Marsh develop the Sitka Salmon Shares brand (another group that we still proudly partner with to this day).

And then Eddie and Scott reached out to discuss a new brewpub concept called Big Lug Canteen. And again and again and again and again, these opportunities kept coming our way.

And after a few years of working in the food and beverage space, we noticed that the craft beer industry was starting to explode and started writing about what we were seeing. A few months after our first blog was published on Craft Brewing Business (2014), we landed 3 new projects around the country. Just. Like. That. Now we’re national and traveling around the country getting paid to eat and drink our way through cool places branding startup breweries.

This period is personally special because it’s when Cody and I decided to double down on long form writing as our main form of marketing. With social media and smart phone addiction driving everyone to shorten their messaging as much as possible, we would stubbornly put out project reviews ranging anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 words. And we’ve consistently had huge page view times on these pieces, proving our hunch that if you can spin a good yarn, people will stick around long enough to read it. It could also just be our moms?

We met Li’l Sebastian while working with Mallow Run Winery.

Around this time, we took a brief detour to start a side business that Cody and I were passionate about. It didn’t go well.

The next few years saw more bar, restaurant, hospitality group, brewery, winery and distillery projects. Around this time, we hired an old friend from college, Marshall Jones. He came in and started crushing it on day one.

This period (2014–2017) gets blurry for me. By this point, we’ve worked with around 25 breweries. We’re flying around the country almost monthly and the opportunities keep getting bigger. This experience of traveling to work with breweries and speak at conferences show us there’s a need for educating brewery folks about branding. So we write the Craft Beer Branding Guide, and launch it as a free website that helps people brand their own brewery.

And the website is so well received in the beer community that it gains the attention of Neenah Packaging, who approaches us to partner on a printed book. We graciously accept their offer and spend our entire 2016/2017 holiday break rewriting and editing the website into a book. Then, we spend our entire first quarter designing, printing and promoting the book ahead of its debut at the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference in Washington DC. This project was one of the most electric things we’ve ever handled—it was all hands on deck with the tightest timeline we’ve ever faced.

And we pulled it off.

Then, more blurry time. More work, some international stuff now (Mexico, Argentina, China, Amsterdam, Australia) and other huge opportunities around the States. International travel (including an amazing trip to Beijing). We start landing some fun cannabis branding jobs around the country (man, that wasn’t even legal when we started out). More conference speaking gigs. More writing. Even longer-form content. Major industry press.

Around this time, Marshall breaks our hearts by selling his house and moving to Los Angeles. To replace him, we bring on Ryan Pickard—one of the funniest, most talented designers we’ve ever met.

Projects are continuing to get bigger and more challenging. We’re starting to take on more rebrands with some of the biggest breweries and CPG food artisans in the country.

And then we’re able to hire Allison Tylek away from her freelance design pursuits. She’s a killer designer that we’ve had our eye on for years and has been a wonderful fit from day one.

Now we’re busier than ever. Cody and I no longer get to design anything. Instead, we spend our days overseeing brand strategy, project management and working on CODO. We also take weekly turns scrubbing the office bathrooms and cleaning our kegerator lines.

And just like that, we’re ten years old.

We’ve watched folks on our team get married (not to each other), buy houses, pay off debt, become fathers, wreck cars (not at fault!), adopt dogs, cats and guinea pigs, get questionable tattoos, turn down competing job opportunities and continue flourishing as designers and people.

We’ve watched some of our oldest clients grow from small one-person shops to multi-million dollar companies. We’ve seen clients sell their businesses at absurdly high valuations and have seen clients and colleagues launched into the national spotlight for the great work that they do. We’ve seen people work through struggle in business and their personal lives with honor, dignity and grace.

I don’t know what the next ten years look like. I don’t even know what the next three years look like. But I’m confident we’ll continue including our clients in the creative process. I’m positive we’ll continue investing in our team and our community. And I guarantee Cody and I won’t become so highfalutin that we can’t sneak in a quick beer on top of some random parking garage somewhere in the midwest.

All of this is remarkable. Every single minute of it. And there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing.

Isaac

July 25, 2019

2009 – 2019