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Interview with Go Media’s Jeff Finley

by Grant Friedman

on May 8, 2009

in Interviews

This week I had the opportunity to interview Go Media’s Jeff Finley (@Jeff_Finley). If you’re an avid design blogger, odds are you know Jeff and his company. Go Media is a Cleveland, Ohio-based design studio that blogs and also sells high quality stock vector art. I’ve always admired Go Media for what they have been able to accomplish as a business and as a design blog so I really appreciated Jeff taking the time to answer some of my questions. In this interview Jeff discusses everything from the recession, to the role and effect of freebies on the design community. This is definitely a good read. Check it out!

Jeff, thank you so much for participating in this interview. I’ve been a big fan of Go Media for quite some time and I have wanted to interview you for a while. Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself? Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How did you get your start as a designer?

I’m 26, recently married, and currently looking to buy my first house.  I live in the greater Cleveland area on the west side. I studied 3D modeling and animation at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and I’ve been designing professionally since 2004.

I freelanced under the alias “Mylkhead” and modeled my business after some of my favorite designers Rob Dobi, Derek Hess, and Angryblue.  I started by designing t-shirts for bands and apparel companies on Myspace.

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Tell us a little about your company, Go Media. How did Go Media get its start? What do you guys do and how long have you guys been in business?

Go Media is a full service design firm.  We do art direction, branding, print and web design, illustration, and motion graphics.  Our portfolio site is at gomedia.us. We also sell design resources in our store called The Arsenal and we write articles and tutorials on our blog called GoMediaZine.

The backstory:

In 2005 I had done some freelance projects for Go Media but didn’t start full time until 2006. Prior to that, Bill Beachy and Chris Wilson (now known as Wilson Revehl) formed Go Media in 2003 after a handful of successful collaborations in their respective freelance businesses. Meanwhile, I was finishing up college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh where I studied 3D Animation and Design. I freelanced under the alias “Mylkhead” for two years and had some inspiring conversations with the Go Media duo.

They had recently hired Oliver Barrett as a designer, and the three of them convinced me to join the team over some delicious Max and Erma’s burgers on a cold December evening in 2005. Our goal was to build Go Media into a recognized leader in the design industry. 3 years and lots of blood, sweat, and tears later, here I am today. Still sweating, bleeding, and crying, but I love it. We’ve got a great staff of 13 on payroll and a snazzy custom built office space near Ohio City. But this is just the beginning. As Wilson always says “We haven’t even launched this company yet.”

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I understand that Go Media has three owners. Can you tell us a little about who makes up Go Media? What is your relationship with the others and what are your roles?

Bill and Chris started Go Media and built the foundation.  Bill’s been a talented comic book illustrator and great business man.  Originally, he handled all the “business” stuff – accounting, legal, sales, etc. We have since hired staff to manage those things, but Bill still has final say on the “biz” side of things.  Wilson is a dedicated and hard working designer with a passion for business and technology.  He handles the technology – servers, hosting, web sites, etc. I’m a designer with a passion for business and marketing and I generally handle online promotion and social media.  If anyone can associate a face with Go Media, it’s most likely my face.  The rest of our staff includes an office manager, sales/project manager, information designer, marketing director, and other illustrators and designers.

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Tell us a little about Go Media’s Arsenal Packs. Why did you guys decide to start selling stock vectors in addition to your design services? Are you surprised with their popularity? What should we expect to see in the future?

It was summer 2006. We had folders full of vector art that we had used and reused from project to project. After going back and forth, we decided to just make our first Vector Pack and put it up on our site and tell people about it.  Much to our surprise, we sold a handful the very first day!  We were amazed that it worked.  People kept buying, so we had to make a 2nd pack.  We thought the trend would die any day so we were always so excited when they were making us money.

In 2007, we were featured in lots of design magazines like Computer Arts and IDN magazine and our Vector Packs were a big hit around the blogosphere.  We knew we weren’t doing anything NEW by selling stock vector art, but it seemed like everyone else really bought into it and supported us.  As a result, we saw handfuls of new sites just like ours selling similar products.  We knew this was big.

We saw the competition and also the abundance of “freebies” being distributed all over the web.  This was tough for business so we started selling other stock resources like textures, Photoshop brushes, fonts, and animated motion packs. And this past year we have released our t-shirt templates which have proven to be pretty popular.

As we continue into 2009, we’ll be creating more and more products and hopefully find new ways to help designers.  We’ve got lots of ideas in the pipe.

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There are a lot of design firms that are struggling right now because of the current economic climate. Go Media is a rather unique design studio in that you guys also have a popular blog and the Arsenal Packs to fall back on. Do you believe that these items have put you in a stronger position to help ride out the storm?

We’ve also been hit hard by the recession.  It’s always scary when you do your best work, but clients don’t come back.  Or you release an amazing product, but sales are still the same.  Or even worse, you spend thousands on advertising and see no ROI.  These are things every business is struggling with.

Having what we’d consider “The Big 3” definitely helps.  Services, Products, and Knowledge.  Our core business model is designing for clients, but the Arsenal has been a saving grace.  While sales are down, it’s definitely helped us ride out the storm.  And the GoMediaZine is a minor boost in income each month from advertising sales, but I feel it has a direct result on how well the rest of our business does.

We also manage our money wisely.  We carry no debt (aside from the mortgage on our office building which will be paid off in less than 2 years).  That’s helped us. We grow organically when we need to.  Some businesses like to borrow a lot in the beginning and work hard to pay it back.  The way we choose to run things can be slower, but it’s paying off big time during the recession.

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Bloggers regularly give items away for free. Giving items away for free is a great way to increase traffic on a website but also to build loyal readership. It seems to me that Go Media has to walk a fine line. You guys are a design studio, a design blog, and a stock graphics reseller. How do you guys balance these roles while still managing to make a buck at the end of the day?

Great question!  We do have to walk a fine line. It’s pretty easy to assume that when you are selling a product/service and then other people in your industry offer a similar product/service for free, it’s going to hurt your sales.  For that we grit our teeth and bare it. From a business perspective, we adapt and create a better product and do the best we can.

We sometimes have this irrational fear that people will stop paying for design services, resources, etc.  But truthfully, people know that you get what you pay for.  There are free versions of just about everything digital these days.  Free stuff exposes newbies to the premium stuff.  People may not even have known about the Arsenal if they didn’t download some freebies from another person’s blog.

When we release a new product, we like to give away a free sample for a few reasons.  It’s content for the zine, which is always good.  People generally respond positively and are more likely to purchase the entire pack.  It will also boost traffic and subscribers.

However, giving away too much candy can make people sick.  Sometimes you need to give people some steak (to take away an analogy from @Adam_Wagner). Teach them how to fish!  Provide insight with articles and tutorials that give a user more confidence to make their own business better.

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This is going to be a tough question but I’m going to ask anyway. Do you guys see design blogs who give design resources away for free to be a competitor, friend, or something in between? Do you feel that these sites do a service or disservice to the industry?

Another great question Grant, I like these.  I think it’s a little of both.  They’re competitors in the fact that we are providing similar content to the same audience.  Chances are the readers of the GoMediazine are also readers of Colorburned, PSDtuts, etc.  Although the relationships between these bloggers is friendly, there is still a competition for reader’s attention.  Freebies are a good way to shine the light and say “hey look at me!”

The blogosphere is an interesting place.  I consider it friendly competition.  In the past I would get salty over another blogger posting a freebie just after I released an Arsenal product.  Or if I would see another blogger get 100 comments on their post, but my similar post only got 10 comments, I might go pout in the corner and feel sorry for myself (haha).  I imagine a lot of bloggers feel that way.

However, more and more I’m learning that this is just how it works.  In the end we want to provide our readers with great content and give our customers amazing service.  If you’re nice and friendly, you’ll be well-liked by your peers.  If you’re a jerk and aren’t social, you’ll probably not do so well.  Transparency is more important than ever before.

Also, most of these bloggers are not design consultancies like we are.  The Arsenal and GoMediaZine were started as small side projects that grew into their own animal that needs nurturing and attention to keep them alive.  If our blog has 15,000 subscribers, that’s still an amazing thing to note considering that it wasn’t meant to be our primary business model.

So are freebies doing a service to the industry?  Yes and no.  Yes because they’re still good content for our readers/customers.  From a customer’s perspective it’s a hell of a deal!  On the other hand, is it devaluing the hard work and effort the skilled artists put into these freebies?  If designers can create this amazing piece of art and give it away for free, how can designers justify charging a client a premium for the same thing?

The same could be said for the Arsenal.  We are putting a low price on original art and simply removing ourselves from the design process.  Which a design consultancy would probably never want to do, right?

However, we’re finding that Arsenal customers are not the same customers who hire us for design work.  They’re other design studios, freelancers, or small start ups who don’t have the budget to hire us anyway, but probably will in the future when they’re ready to get to that next level.

And as a design consultancy, it’s our job to give the client more value than just the final artwork.  We’re paid for our knowledge of the industry, trends, peace of mind, customer service, etc.  Something you can’t get with freebies.

So I think freebies have their place in the world.  But like I said, too much candy can make people sick!

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I was surprised to find out that you guys are based in Cleveland, Ohio. Can you tell us a little about what it’s like working in the Midwest as opposed to New York or Los Angeles? Do you find it difficult to locate qualified artists or potential clients?

I don’t have any experience working on the west or east coast to be honest. With the internet, it’s so easy to work with people from those cities so it’s nothing we ever think about.  However, if I was in NY, there are potentially lots of meet and greet opportunities that could lead to more projects, but truthfully, I’m not the NYC or LA type.  I spend more time in the office working and networking online and probably wouldn’t be too impressed with schmoozing in the big apple.  There are creative people everywhere.

However, I have experienced some issues when trying to hire talented people out of state.  I’ve been told “Cleveland is a tough sell.” So that’s obviously a problem when the talent you want isn’t interested because of your location.  But hey, I’m not losing sleep over it.

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Ok, let’s change gears a little bit. Tell us a bit about your workflow. How do you typically go from a sketch to finished product? Do you prefer working in Photoshop or Illustrator?

Yes, I typically sketch first, scan, and finish on the computer.  However, if I already have a solid idea in my head of the finished product, it’s sometimes quicker just to start the design digitally.  I like AI and PS, but lately I prefer working in PS mostly because I like to work with textures and my Wacom works better for me in PS. I also use 3DS Max for my 3D work.

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Finally, can you recommend 3 designers or bloggers that you would like to see interviewed on this site?

I couldn’t think of just 3.

Well, I recommend interviewing my colleague Oliver Barrett – he’s got a lot of good ideas and it would be really cool to get a different perspective from inside the Go Media roof.   I can only explain things from my experience.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/oliveroliverbarrett

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To learn more about Jeff Finley, connect with him on Twitter, visit his personal website, or check out the Go Media website and blog.

About Grant Friedman

Grant Friedman is a graphic design, blogger, and author. In addition to being the founder of this website, Grant is also the editor of Psdtuts, one of the world's most popular tutorial websites.