What an Indonesian heavy metal band taught me about running a design business

Voice of Baceprot (VoB) is not your typical heavy metal group. They’re from a small village in Indonesia, possibly the last place on earth you’d expect to find a trio that rages this hard. They’re also Muslim women, who perform in the same hijabs they wear in everyday life, playing an industry mostly dominated by men.

But perhaps most remarkable is their intentional, creative approach to band development, marketing, and messaging. They’re leaps ahead of any other band I’ve met at a similar stage — so much so that I ended up learning a huge amount from them about these topics, during the days I spent with them and their management team in Jakarta during the summer of 2021.

As someone who’s worked in creative industries for many years, I was surprised by how relevant these lessons were for almost any creative team, studio, or company. In my current role at Modernist, I work with groups like this on a regular basis, which is what prompted me to distill this learning down to three main insights that can be applied to internal Design Organizations or Design Studios. They’re presented here, and hopefully useful to others in a similar position:

1 . Invest — really invest — in your people.

A band is made of musicians, and a company is made of employees. Without these talented people, no organization exists.

Every year, most companies run performance reviews for their employees, providing a few lines of feedback and a numeric score that corresponds to a bonus. That’s often where the feedback starts and ends. Professional development, if it’s provided, is a day here and there, more as a morale-building exercise than a genuine skill-building opportunity.

But sitting with Voice of Baceprot, I quickly realized that their success wasn’t simply about music. Their craft and songs always came first, but the band was also a business, and invested heavily in its members: English courses, media training and communication classes to be effective in interviews, personal training to stay in shape for performances, and more. While VoB’s output is music, they realized that their overall success depends on a lot of different factors.

At companies and in offices, we’ve somehow accepted that learning stops when school ends. We see work as applying that learning, and maybe picking things up as you go. In fields like software or design, most people never get training in communication, writing, facilitation, or executive skills, even though most of us recognize that these are critical skills for advancement. They’re left to chance, or individual initiative.

As remote and distributed work becomes more common, skills that aren’t considered “core” for software teams have become critical. We’re all working on our communication, writing, and presentation skills (over video or audio), because it’s the main way we collaborate now, yet companies are still negligent in investing more in these skills.

If companies looked closer at how they invest in training and education, and took these “secondary” skills more seriously, they might consider making such skill development a more frequent event — perhaps even weekly. That’s how you create more effective teams, build skills quicker, and function at a higher level: by being intentional about it.

A rising tide lifts all boats. The more companies invest in their teams, the better for everyone.

2. Get serious about marketing.

Sitting with VoB and their management team over a recent long weekend, it was clear that marketing was a key pillar in the band’s growth. They divided the tasks into a few key areas: social media presence, press stories, band image, and interviews. Each of these had consistent narratives, built around singles and songs they released during the year. This allowed them to deliver cohesive messages across all platforms, gave the band members talking points during interviews, and focused their delivery.

In working and running design studios and consultancies for a decade, I’ve come to realize that Marketing and PR may be the most under-utilized and misunderstood disciplines in the world of designers. Used properly, they can drive awareness, support, sales, and ultimately growth. Without them, companies can languish in obscurity.

Often, design teams — whether in-house or in a studio or consultancy — view their work as the one key element that drives business. The designers might be great at the craft itself, but are often cruddy at the business, and a failure to take marketing seriously is a big part of this. This is especially true in smaller studios, which are often the ones that most need to stand out of the crowd. In fact, I’d say that if you’re starting a design studio today, and a great marketing person isn’t one of your first 10–20 hires, you’re going to struggle — no matter how beautiful your work is.

In the same way VoB uses Marketing and PR to drive ticket sales, promote tours, and promote music releases, design studios can use these techniques to identify messaging themes, and establish distinct points of views on topics relevant to their clients. That’s ultimately how you drive new business in a saturated field like design. Your work starts with awareness, and if no one sees you, you don’t exist.

These points of view can inform articles or blog posts, which draw interest from publications. These in turn drive broader interest in the studio, and convey what types of programs you’re best at taking on. The resulting communication “flywheel” establishes you as an expert on a topic and raises your media profile, which helps you further clarify your point of view. Internally, teams can also use marketing to raise awareness of their programs, and build influence inside the organization.

But all of these efforts start with a clear understanding of what you want to say. Have a well-defined story, theme, and point of view, and ensure it’s unique or offers something new and relevant. Then get it out into the world, as if your business (or career) depended on it.

3. Tell a story with conviction and purpose.

Voice of Baceprot have a defining, three-word motto: Fight, Dream, Believe. I don’t remember the exact breakdown from the team (apologies to the VoB staff), but they looked at this as their overall approach:

  • Fight for women in a field dominated by men, and a culture dominated by patriarchal systems.
  • Dream of what is possible: touring, inspiring, and building bridges across cultures.
  • Believe in yourself, especially as a young woman.

They are a band who writes music, but their story is one of cutting through an industry and being different in the face of a monoculture. It’s not simply music, but message!

Most design studios start because a few individuals have a love for their craft and an entrepreneurial desire. So they tend to see the work as the goal.

But the work is what the client sees after they hire you. And before that can happen, you need to give them a reason to hire you. There are thousands of design studios and many of those with amazing designers. It’s a crowded market, and you need to stand out.

Most designers and entrepreneurs don’t have a story as clear and compelling as a heavy metal band that’s fighting against the status quo, but any group of people motivated to start a company are doing it for more than just because it’s fun. Starting a studio is often not fun. It’s hard work, and frequently feels like an uphill battle.

If we dig down, most of us start and build companies because we see a path that can be improved. We see something to be strengthened. We do have a purpose, and a story. But we need to clarify that story, and tell it in a way that gives purpose to our existence. Not just to tell clients, but to tell ourselves. We need a story that explains why this company or team isn’t just another on the list, but is instead cutting through the mass of predictability, to deliver a better or more innovative product, that sets them apart.

Like it or not, you’re a business.

It’s hard to find a market these days that isn’t already saturated. Global competition and the pace of change have made entering almost any category more difficult, and retaining good talent more of a challenge.

As designers, it’s easy to become complacent — even antiquated — in how we run our teams and think about our processes. We confidently tell individuals and companies how to make their products more useful, usable, and desirable, by focusing on the experience of using them. Yet we rarely apply those tools to our own situation, considering the experience of our clients and our team members, in order to grow, adapt, and stay relevant.

It might sound a little obvious, but to run a business, you have to have a business strategy. In my experience, many design organizations simply don’t, trusting instead in the quality of their craft and people’s innate ability to recognize that quality, seek it out, and grow their business for them. Maybe there was a time when that was enough — when the world was small enough and the availability of good creative talent was limited enough — but it isn’t today.

Whether you’re a Design Studio, a digital design team, or a heavy metal band from an Indonesian village, you’ve got to think in terms of a broader comprehensive strategy, so you can keep making the beautiful work (or music) that you love.

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