It's good to have your friends around you, especially in these uncertain economic times. If your friends happen to be LDs, as well, that's even better — because then you can combine forces. No matter how temperate the economic climate, segments of the entertainment lighting industry go through continual ups and downs. One year, concert tours are up, and the next, corporate shows are plentiful or themed attractions are sprouting everywhere. While many LDs prefer to go it alone, more and more are finding that having a partner (or two or more) offers several advantages.
First, and perhaps more obvious, is the financial benefit. Pooling money for business cards, stationery, resumes, website, insurance, legal fees — all those little shared expenses add up. Also, most lighting designers were trained in design, not business, so it helps to have support in billing clients — and getting paid. Perhaps the most common reason designers choose to have partners is to relieve the all too common “feast or famine” freelance dilemma. When you're already in the midst of a project and you're offered another one, you can say, “I can't do it, but I've got someone great in my company who can.”
There are as many types of partnerships as there are lighting design styles — here, members of three lighting design partnerships discuss their reasons for hooking up.
Based in Van Nuys, CA, Visual Terrain, Inc. was formed in April 2001 by the merger of Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Lighting Design, Inc. and Passamonte Lighting Design, Inc. Its long list of credits includes architectural projects, themed attractions, special projects, television and film, and concerts. Its first incarnation was Moody/Ravitz Design Partners, Inc., formed in 1991 by Jim Moody and Jeff Ravitz. Later, the name changed to Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth when designer Dawn Hollingsworth joined the partners, bringing with her 10 years of architectural lighting experience — and an MBA. In January 2003, Moody left to teach and write full-time, although he continues to work with the company as a freelancer. Today the three designers — Jeff Ravitz (principal), Dawn Hollingsworth (managing design principal), and Lisa Passamonte Green (principal) — work out of their Van Nuys, CA office under a neutral name that they unanimously decided upon.
“We could not conceive of inflicting a tongue-twister like Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth Passamonte Green on the world,” Ravitz says. “We also don't want to be limited by having ‘Lighting Design’ in our name. So we decided on something a bit more indicative of what we do, which is provide solutions for everything pertaining to a client's visual needs on a project.”
When Ravitz and Moody first joined up, they were working in different areas of the entertainment arena (television, concerts, etc.). Ravitz had begun to delve into architectural lighting as well, which made Hollingsworth a very attractive partner. While racking up more architectural clients, the designers had slowed down on the number of themed entertainment projects they did — that segment was the specialty of Passamonte Green's company.
“Our original partnership idea was to have someone we could count on to cover our clients when we were stretched too thin to do it ourselves,” Ravitz says. “We always believed that, as freelancers, the most important thing we could do was to have a certain level of diversification among our projects so that, when one segment goes dry, we can still survive. While we could take on more work, we realized quickly that we had to do that because we suddenly had overhead that you have to cover, but we weren't necessarily charging more for our fees. The cost of doing business suddenly grew by two- or three-fold. Bringing Lisa in brought these concerns up for us again because now we're cramped for space and thinking of moving into a larger space. That will mean that we'll need more work to cover the additional expenses.
“There are days when I wonder why don't I just go back to the simple life, working off of my dining room table,” Ravitz admits. “But then I realize I'd be leaving such an incredible support system. How many designers who are freelancers have a support staff back at the office? When I'm out on the road and a client asks me for a promotional packet on our company, I can phone the office and they'll put it together and send it. Or when I'm offered something while I'm still working on something, I can suggest anyone in this group to handle it. So the ability to maneuver through the complexities of a business like ours becomes a lot easier with this kind of support system. Being out on your own seems less complicated, but in this world, it's a pretty lonely and cold place to be.”
As owner of her own company for seven years, Passamonte Green knows that only too well. “I used to be the only one responsible for the company, so I would just plow ahead and make the best decisions that I could,” says the LD. “But you don't have any kind of checks and balances. So one of the best aspects about joining a partnership was that I now have this wealth of experience available to me. That's really appealing and educational — especially in the personal growth area.”
Hollingsworth never considered navigating the business on her own. “Growing up, my father's business was structured much the same way, and I saw that he was able to trade off and get different days or weekends off,” she says. “So it's always been in my business makeup to want to be in a partnership. At the same time, you realize it's like a marriage — in that you agree on some things and not on others and you feel very passionately about some things. In these kinds of creative partnerships you also have very strong personalities and very opinionated people and you have to weigh that against the alternative of being out there by yourself and not have anyone to bounce ideas off of.
“Someone else can always bring a new perspective into the decision making process — whether it's a decision about design, equipment, someone's experience out on the road, or a business-related decision,” she continues. “Sometimes you may not really want to hear certain information because you already want to go down a certain road; you want the other person to validate your opinion — and they may do that — but they may not. So this just happens to be a format that works for our personalities and our mindsets, but that isn't to say that it's for everybody. For us, being in a firm allows us to have additional resources and that's really critical. You just can't be in all places at all times.”
For additional support, the partners also rely on with four in-house designers, a CAD specialist, and an office manager, and they almost always have an intern. They also have a satellite office in Orlando, which is headed up by Greg Randle, and a group of freelancers they work with regularly. “We've always managed to do a good job for our clients while giving away less business to the competition by virtue of keeping it in the company,” Ravitz concludes. “Can you do that without having a company? Sure, you can have a few friends that you always share business with, but it's clumsier and a little more difficult. With us, the client is always coming to Visual Terrain. It might be a model that more people may want to follow in the future.”
At Lightswitch, the company members operate under the de facto (and tongue-in-cheek) motto: “World domination with a sense of humor.” They have several offices spread out across the country with principals Norm Schwab (in San Francisco), John Featherstone (in Chicago) and Howard Werner (in New York City). Associate partners Brad Malkus and Greg Cunningham are based in Orlando and Los Angeles, respectively. Schwab and Featherstone co-founded the consortium in 1992; the designers' credits include corporate shows, architectural projects, projection designs, themed attractions, music and entertainment.
“At first, we just really wanted to broaden our opportunities and share our different experiences — between rock and roll, corporate, trade show, and architectural,” Schwab explains. “As individuals, marketing was especially difficult because we'd get many different jobs in many different time periods. So by combining forces and eventually enlisting a few other designers, we are able to take on a lot more work. The idea was to build up a trust in clients so that they knew that, when they hired Lightswitch, they would be getting a well-managed, well-designed project — whether it was being done by John or myself or someone else our staff.”
Choosing a neutral company name allowed the designers to create an organization that others could move in and out of. “We work with both independent designers and permalancers — our name for permanent freelancers — but we treat Lightswitch like a brand, which makes it stronger than an individual. Some people get that and some don't. Design can be a very individualistic, expressionistic medium, so some designers want to take personal credit — they don't always feel comfortable working under Lightswitch's name.
“Some clients feel there is a stigma, in that maybe they are not always getting Norm Schwab or John Featherstone,” Schwab continues. “But we make them understand that, by having an organization, there is strength in our size and not a weakness, in that we're pawning someone off on them. That's a potential misconception that we have to battle now. If anything we've tried not to become this big pig of an organization that is faceless or doesn't have a heart. We still want to be a lean company that can move quickly. Yes, size does matter! Sometimes it's good and other times it can be a problem.”
While Schwab and Featherstone started Lightswitch as a simple partnership, they gradually soon realized how advantageous it was to have associates all over the country. Werner joined Lightswitch last year. “I do a lot of theatrical work, but also quite a lot of corporate shows and lots of projection — Pani and Pigi — design,” he explains. “So my background brings an interesting mix into the whole Lightswitch dynamic. Each of us has our own network of people that we work with, but getting to add in the staff of the four other offices is great. It's allowed me to really collaborate with other people in a way that an independent designer doesn't really get to do.”
Featherstone adds, “The most enjoyable factor is the ability to be able to ask all the questions about lighting that you were afraid to ask. As an artist, you can share the wealth of other people's experience within the organization and you get this synergy of it being more than the sum of its parts. We all work very hard to build up our clientele and, unfortunately, scheduling often conspires to make it impossible to do everything that we would like to do for every show that we get asked to do. So having an organization behind us not only gives all of us the security of knowing that it's going to get handled right but also that every project is treated in a consistent and cohesive way.
“Yet, one of our greatest advantages, which has helped us avoid some of the pitfalls and tensions that are always inevitable in any business partnership, is that we are geographically diverse,” Featherstone concludes. “We have a large degree of autonomy in how we choose to run our offices. The separation lets everyone run their office however they want to run it, but we're still under a common umbrella.”
LDs Brian Gale, Abbey Holmes and Manny Treeson formed NyxDesign in January 2002. The designers' backgrounds are in themed attractions, concerts, theatre productions, corporate events, and architectural projects. The name, Nyx, is from the goddess of night — who gave birth to day or the sun. “It depends on which version of Greek mythology you read,” Treeson says. “We wanted to work under one name and it also works as a good conversation piece.”
Good conversations played a key role in the company's formation. Both Gale and Treeson live in Los Angeles — while Holmes lives in New York City — but even before forming the partnership, they talked pretty much every day about their independent work. “We also had the opportunity to talk with other people and look at other partnerships so we could make certain choices in setting up our own,” Treeson explains. “We created a model for ourselves about how to work with each other that would remove any issues of any kind and make it a mutually satisfying situation. It helps that we've worked together a lot. So when we sat down to hang out the shingle as it were, we had all those details worked out.”
Their plan was to create a mutually supportive group of individuals who do interesting work together — and support each other doing that work. “We still want to be who we are and do the work we want to do. None of us are really interested in having a lot of employees. We're planning on remaining a very loose and limber company. Of course, when you need to staff up for a project, you do that. But we want to do the work we enjoy and that doesn't encumber us. On a business side, overhead can encumber you, because you have to start feeding the beast. We don't want that.
“If I feel like doing a theatre conference, and I have to take off a month and half of work time to see that launched, I want to feel comfortable about doing that,” Treeson continues. “So we've created a situation where that's possible. That's very freeing to have that. We all know that we need to have a balance. It makes us better people to do the things we do for the sake of doing them. All three of us have strengths in particular fields, but we've all done a lot of different projects, and that makes for a much stronger design group. It helps me as a designer to have such strong partners. They have an amazing depth of knowledge about how light works, how it helps to tell a story and how it affects an audience. It's incredible. It's like the three of us have this ongoing design conversation. The projects just intersect this larger conversation we always have going about techniques and style, and the business aligning as well — vendors bidding, and all those details.”
Gale adds that one of the best points of having partners is help with all those business management details. “I like doing the work, I just don't like billing for it,” Gale says. “That's the hard part of about running your own business. But the transition really hasn't been difficult because when I had work I couldn't do in the past, I'd often pass it on to Manny or Abbey anyway. NyxDesign has the benefit of the aggregate resumé and portfolio. It just has more clout than your individual credits. So now, when a job comes in that one of us can't do, we divert it to another of us, and it stays in the family. You don't lose a client that way. When you put all of our resumes together, there is nothing we can't do.”