We had the great pleasure to sit down and have a talk with Christian Etter, founder of Etter Studio and co-founder Museum of Digital Art (MuDA). We met him on a late September morning in his office at MuDA, where we asked him about his experience with entrepreneurship and his way of working when designing corporate identities.
What did you do before you became an entrepreneur?
I founded my first company when I was 20. Before that, I made an apprenticeship in typography at the Neue Züricher Zeitung. This took me four years and I learned absolutely everything about typography, the micrometers between the letters and so on. It was really wonderful.
What made you take the plunge and start up on your own?
I think there were two things: On the one hand, there was a big demand. I taught myself how to do websites – this was in 1998 – and there were not many people that could do websites, so it was very easy to get clients. The demand already started at the time when I was doing my apprenticeship when people would ask me to do their websites. On the other hand, I had come to the understanding that I have problems with authority. Therefore, it was just easier if I started up my own business... So these two things matched nicely; there was a demand and there was me thinking that it was a good path for me to go down.
What do you consider the assets and liabilities of being an entrepreneur?
The hard part is that you can not put the blame on anyone else, in the end, it is just you… In the night… Sorting out stuff when everyone else left. You have to take on responsibility and make it work because you are completely accountable. But interestingly, because it is only you having all responsibility, you can do whatever you want which gives a lot of freedom too.
I have had to learn to find my own balance. In my first company, I often felt employed by my employees, because I always had to ‘feed the machine’; make sure everyone was happy and had enough work. Which was why with my second [company] I decided to do things differently and I keep it small. For instance, we do not take more than three projects a year. To me, it is not about growing the company as big as possible. That is of course not the conventional idea for a successful company, but I realized that I had to find my own formula to make things work. And for me, this works well and I am happy.
How does your typical work-day look?
Sort out the children. Eat breakfast. Go to work. Sit in front of a computer. Probably for eight hours. And then go home. *Etter says and chuckles*
But it depends on the project. Because what we also do is robotics and physical stuff – and that is always fun – because it includes standing in the workshop prototyping. Or traveling around the world to meet and work with manufacturers, and so on. So that is really the fun part, but 95% of the time it is just eight hours in front of the computer.
What do you do to get inspired?
I try to always find my inspiration outside of the projects that I am working on. What I find fascinating is the mechanisms of different systems and finding out ways to apply these to other things.
I have a good example I can give you: At MuDA we are thinking of building a social network, but there came up this question about accountability. Then I remember that when I worked in Italy I asked a guy: “Why are so many cousins, uncles and so on employed in the same company?” And he told me that there was a problem within the legal system – this was in the time of Berlusconi – it would take six to seven years before a court case would get started and in that time the legal time limit to be accountable would be over. So the only way they could hold people accountable was by knowing their mother – so that you could call her and say “Hi, your child messed up, you need to fix this”. So we try to take mechanisms like that and apply it on a different subject.
How do you spot a good business idea?
One of the main things that I look for is sustainability – that it adds something positive to the world or reduces something negative. It needs to be a positive force. Additionally, I look for systems that are self-enforcing. For example, systems that get more efficient as they grow; that is a good indicator for scalability. And if you have that, plus it is a positive force for the world, that is a wonderful business.
What is your greatest failure? What did you learn from it?
*Etter laughs* Oh, that is such a good question. There are so many… There was a software project that I worked on for five years that went nowhere. That was a huge failure, but I still learned so much.
I think failure is hard to define, but something I realized – a mistake that I had to do a few times before I really understood it, which was really painful – was that you need to build up a core first – this applies to anything – and it needs to be small and good. And once you have this [core] you can add things and make it more complex.
With my very first company at 20, I co-started a software project, which turned out to be enormous. Because there were more and more people coming in and they all had different demands and different functionality needs. And it became very complex and unstable. I see the same pattern in other things that I do. And the problem is that you think your system needs to be able to do everything, but in reality, what you will end up with, is a system that does not work properly for anything.
So, the lesson I have learned is that it is important to work and focus on what you have – your core – and not get lost in infinite possibilities.
What keeps you going?
Stubbornness. I am lucky that I am very stubborn because this helps me a lot when things get a bit rough.
In one word: What characterizes a successful entrepreneur?
You could use the word “disciplined”. But in my own case, I do not think I am very disciplined – but I am very stubborn.
Often you go through a process, which is a journey. You will make many mistakes along the way – in the end, you will have learned from it and it will all be helpful – however, this is the moment that might seem most hopeless. But this is also the moment where you should not give up. Because then you would have made the mistakes for nothing.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a start-up project?
Keep it small and focus on the core. If what you build up gets really popular you can always add stuff.
What is one tool for business that you would not be able to function without?
Computers are a really great tool, they speed things up. We run a lot of simulations… The other thing is more of a mental tool: Bouncing off ideas with other people, especially if they are not from the same field. It is always super useful to have an outsider look at an idea or a prototype. For example, last week, we tested a virtual robot prototype on old people; above the age of 70. And we got some wonderful feedback because they seemed to be much more honest than younger people. They were not taken aback by the novelty, they focused more on its usefulness: Thinking in terms of “how is this useful to me”.
What are your personal measures for success?
There is this quote: “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it” (Dalai Lama XIV ).
I think for some people it can be very easy to be successful just because of circumstances – parents, location, genes and so on – and there are people for whom it is really hard – when even small things can be such huge successes. Therefore, I think you always need to see things in relation to where they come from and that is also what I try to measure myself by.
What is the focal point between business and identity?
When creating a corporate identity for a company you need to capture its core values – in just a few lines of text or a graphic depiction. To achieve this, I think it is really important to first understand the company, and then think about how it can be visualized in a way that even people that do not know the company will get a sense of it. This does not necessarily need to include an understanding of their product, it is more about getting a sense of the company.
What are the most essential elements that a corporate identity should reflect?
It is about various functions. One thing is the distinction, making the company clearly identifiable. For some brands, e.g. Coca Cola an important aspect is to make the consumer identify their drink (a product) on a shelf full of drinks… For a bank (service provider) there is a very different kind of demand for visual identity... It really depends on the industry. My experience is that if you sell products you have a much greater outward focus and if you are a service provider the focus is more inwards. But it is hard to say, I do not think there is a universal answer to this, there are a lot of things you need to combine. In the end, you need to make trade-offs because it is really about finding the right balance.
What is the difference between designing a corporate identity for a major company and a smaller business?
Big companies with popular products need to appeal to a much broader audience, so you need to think more universal than if you design for a small company that has a more specific target group. There you get to be a bit nerdier. That is actually the only difference. Because there should not be any difference in how much care you take or how much time you spend or how good the quality should be.
You have created the corporate identity for Nightnurse Images, how did that process go down?
It was really easy actually. We shared an office at that time and I knew them [Christopher, Christoph, and Lutz] since they started up the company. So I initially had a good understanding of who they are.
The process itself was mainly thinking about the three founders [Christopher, Christoph, and Lutz]; how they are each very different and bring their own strength to the company. And how that kind of creates a new common identity that is the company. And of course, what they do; thinking about how to turn an idea into a visualization, often in 3D. So, I was sort of combining these two things and that was how I came up with the logotype.
The three bars represent the three founders and they are arranged in a certain way so it creates the “N” [for Nightnurse Images] ). Additionally, it plays with perspective, which is related to the visualization of space.
Often find that simple ideas are the best. You do not need to over complicate things. Especially, when it comes to corporate identity, where such a small thing, like a logo, needs to do so many things. You simply can not compromise, you need to have one really good idea and go fully with that, instead of trying to merge too many things together.