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Michael DiTullo | California | Global Impact!

My name is Michael DiTullo and I run a design studio. We help clients create industry leading halo products and brand experiences that are memorable. We do this work principally across automotive, sportswear, medical, and tech industries with a bit of work in toys and architecture. I started the studio after working for other people for 18 years, example: {small consulting studio as a designer for 4 years (Evo Design), and a massive consulting agency as a creative director (frog design). Then a huge global brand as a design director (Nike), and at smaller, sub billion dollar tech company as a Chief Design Officer reporting directly to the CEO (Sound United)}. My vision was to combine everything I learned working both corporate and consulting to create a design studio that could act as a special forces team, taking on some of the most interesting but challenging projects our clients could throw at us. In the past 2 years we have collaborated with for big companies like Hasbro, Georgia Pacific, SAIC, and Cole Haan, as well as some really interesting tech start ups like Dotifi, Shot Tracker, and Nocira. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always idolized people like Raymond Loewy, Richard Powell, Walter Dorwin Teage, and Hartmut Essliner. Designers who created their own studios and who shaped the objects of our everyday lives across many industries. Loewy in particular worked on almost everything; branding, packaging, architecture, products, furniture, transportation, industrial goods, consumer goods. I think one of the best ways to have that kind of scope and impact is to have your own studio. I’ve always seen the objects we use everyday as future artifacts. Most people don’t have Picasso paintings or live in Frank Lloyd Wright homes, but they do have watches, shoes, headphones, pens, chairs, cars, and sunglasses. If I can make everyday things a little better, a little more enjoyable, a little more satisfying, a little more lovable then I’m happy.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?

Even though we have only been in business 2 years, this has been a 20 year journey. In a lot of ways I’m so happy I waited. It gave me a chance to build an amazing network, a reputation for doing good work, and portfolio that shows I can do work in any industry. I think because I waited we haven’t had many hurdles. We signed 2 contracts with clients in our first week of business and have been steady busy since. It is an adjustment from working corporate. Going from having my own dedicated team of 20+ people and a budget in a millions to having a team of 3-5 is definitely a shift. But the trade off is freedom and creativity. I’m the kind of person that likes to keep my hands in the work, and being this scale allows me to do that. We only take on 2-3 projects at a time and we say no to more things than we say yes to. I’ve helped to bring about 1000 products to market. At this point in my career I really want to focus the studio on things that have an impact, objects that earn the right to be loved.

What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?

I read a lot of speculative science fiction. I like things that stretch my imagination. Anything that gets me to think as far beyond the horizon as possible. I’m particularly drawn to any science fiction that imagines technical advancements and the socio-political impacts they might have. Currently I’m reading an older SciFi piece from the 80s by Greg Bear called "Eon". Next up is "Immortal Life" by Stanley Bing and "After On" by Rob Reid.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?

My wife, Kristina Bell DiTullo, has always been amazingly supportive. After 20 years of working for other people, she is the one who really gave me the confidence to start the studio. Kristina is a full partner in the business. She runs the financial side of things, reviews pitches and proposals, helps decide if we take a project or pass on it, and is the final set of eyes that sees everything before it goes to clients. I really couldn’t do this without her. I like to say she is the Ray to my Charles.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?

My business success is 100% due to my network. Almost all the work we do comes from referrals and I have been really surprised by how many referrals we get. One of our top 5 clients came to us after pitching a VC for funding. One of the gentlemen at the VC firm had been a VP of finance years earlier at a company I worked for. The client called me up and said the VC would only work with him if he hired us to handle all of the design. That is an unbeatable recommendation. Frankly, we are not always the easiest studio to work with, and we are defiantly not the cheapest, but I think our clients know that I personally will not rest until we have something that we can all be proud of, that will move their business forward, and that people will love. That is what people buy from us, that reassurance that comes from knowing at the end of the process they are going to have something special.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?

I spent a year before I started the studio interviewing small business owners and I asked all of them this very question. After interviewing my 15th business owner a very clear theme emerged, and I’ll share that with you. The advice they gave me was to not be afraid of staying small. Once the business gets up and running it can be really tempting to scale rapidly. You get a sense for what works and what doesn’t, you get in a rhythm of how to run things, and so the natural inclination is to grow. Almost all of the people I spoke with had grown their business from 5-10 people to 60-80 people. They shared with me that at that scale they were less involved in the actual end product, and more focused on keeping the machine running. Due to the exponential growth of overhead, they were sometimes less profitable or personally taking home the same amount. If your intention is to grow a business and sell it, maybe this is a good strategy, grow the top line. I want to own a business and enjoy it over the long term. So I’d rather stay small but profitable, saying no to things that are the wrong fit, and really focusing my effort on loving the projects we do take on.

What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?

I’m so thankful to have started a business in our current time. I graduated from college in 1998 and it was a very different time in terms of running a small business. Our clients are all over the world; NY, London, Montreal, LA, even though we are a tiny group here on the beach just North of San Diego. So my advice is to never underestimate yourself. With the tools we have available today, you can have a global impact with a local footprint. My other piece of advice is to try to enjoy yourself. Remember why you started your business in the first place. Focus on that, love that, have fun with that.


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