Hoodzpah Shines On

The creative duo behind Southern California’s Hoodzpah design agency share their experiences growing a business from nothing and creating a brand identity for their most important client—themselves.

Hoodzpah Shines On

The creative duo behind Southern California’s Hoodzpah design agency share their experiences growing a business from nothing and creating a brand identity for their most important client—themselves.

When twin sisters Amy and Jennifer Hood needed a name for their fledgling graphic design company, they went with a playful take on the Yiddish word chutzpah, the admirable audacity of taking risks.

It’s a fitting moniker for the Southern California pair.

With a combination of careful self-branding and straight-up tenacity, the Hoods have grown their company, Hoodzpah, from a small upstart producing logos and art for friends to a sought-after design house with a roster of A-list clients and a schedule that books up months in advance.  

Meet the Hood sisters in this short video.

Meet the Hood sisters in this short video.

“Growing up with our mom and our grandma, they always had their own companies,” says Amy. “Whenever we wanted to do something, they would just be like, ‘OK, go do it. Better get started.’”

It’s advice the sisters took to heart. So when the magazine they were apprenticing at early in their careers suddenly folded and they found other employers unwilling to take a chance on them without a college degree, the sisters did what came naturally: They created their own jobs.

“We just reached out to everybody who had ever asked us for something and said, ‘Hey, we’re open for business,’” recalls Amy. “We started taking on projects with all of our friends who were doing cool things and then shamelessly promoting them.” 

The sisters soaked up as much advice as they could get, both from fellow designers and financially savvy friends from other fields, asking how to improve their skills and grow the business. They joined meetups to connect with other professionals and artists; immersed themselves in Instagram, Twitter, and other social platforms; and became masters of the hashtag. “It was really about being a part of the community and not just sitting at home hoping things will work out and that people will find you and call you.”

They also took whatever work they could, even if it wasn’t at ideal rates, to get some portfolio work under their belt. “We didn’t make that much money at the beginning, but we were young and hungry and it was fun,” says Amy.

To ensure they didn’t get stuck at hungry-designer rates forever, the sisters were careful to tell early clients (who were mostly friends and family) that they were getting a special  price, and that if they liked the work, they should pass on the recommendation to others—ideally without mentioning the discount. “It’s funny; you do right by a couple of customers and you get a good reputation with just a few key people and they want to refer you. Everybody wants to be the person who hooks up somebody else,” Amy adds. “I think by year three we were actually charging fair rates for our work.”

“It was really about being a part of the community and not just sitting at home hoping things will work out and that people will find you and call you.” —Amy Hood  

Today, nine years after launching Hoodzpah, the Hood sisters have amassed a broad client list that encompasses both well-known names, like Red Bull and 20th Century Fox, and new companies looking to establish a cohesive identity from scratch. They’ve helped create branding for everything from a local brewery to an energy company to a service that turns the cremation ashes of loved ones into glittering diamonds. 

“It’s really exciting to be able to work with different industries so you’re not stuck in one lane,” says Jennifer. “Every time you meet a new client, you get to be immersed in their world.” There’s a Wild West aspect to defining a client’s message for the first time, sometimes explaining concepts that are entirely new and—in the case of cremation diamonds—perhaps even a little unsettling. “I think our whole life we’ve enjoyed explaining complex things with a little bit of humor, making it very playful and fun and just engaging.”

While there’s enough demand to justify growing the firm, both designers say they prefer to stay small so they can focus on the creative side, rather than managing an office full of creatives. 

“I don’t think that it hurts us that we’re small,” says Jennifer. “We can still make a really good profit margin if we keep elevating our name and we become a sought-after limited commodity.”

That means being selective about which clients and projects they take on. With limited hours in a day, it’s a balancing act of ensuring they have a ready supply of interesting work that keeps pushing their skills forward while not burning out entirely from the workload—or alienating future clients. As any creative will tell you, saying no to good money is hard. The answer, says Jennifer, is to not say no, but instead, to explain that while you’re booked up right now, you can put them on the calendar for a later date. “You’re not really saying no, you’re saying soon. It almost creates this thing of: ‘Oh my gosh, we’d better lock them in now or else we won’t even get them in two months.’ A lot of times, we’re booking a month and a half to sometimes two months out.”

To make sure the work they’re attracting is a good fit for them, the two designers curate Hoodzpah’s brand as meticulously as they would any client’s.

“We try to make sure that we’re not getting pigeonholed,” explains Jennifer. “Early on we were getting a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, those are the girls who do the hand-drawn lettering stuff.’ And we were like, we don’t want to just be that. We want to be serious brand designers. So we did have to reposition ourselves. We made a conscious effort to take stuff off [the website] that we didn’t want to get much of anymore. And then we started building out case studies to show the visual identity as a whole.”

When they recognized that many of their customers were coming to them for only logos, they began upselling clients on larger packages that included a complete branding overhaul for just a slight increase in cost, making it almost silly to not invest in the larger package. They then began promoting the branding packages on their site to bring in new clients. 

“It’s weird,” says Jennifer. “You show it and then people start coming to you and saying, ‘I need the same thing. I need the whole suite, not just the logo.’ Because we weren’t showing just logos anymore.” 

“We realized that if people can’t see it, they can’t really imagine it,” adds Amy. 

For markets they didn’t yet have experience with, they began giving themselves in-house projects that could showcase their design chops. To attract clients who needed packaging, for example, they created an accessory company called Odds and Sods and created custom dye-cut packaging for it. “We’re always thinking about whether there’s a fun client gift or project we can do that could get us on the radar of companies we want to work with or industries we want to work within,” says Amy. “You have to take the time to make the dream work you want to get paid for.”

 

Free Download: How to Calculate Your Hourly Rate

 

In their book Freelance, and Business, and Stuff, the Hoods share an incredible amount of solid, practical information. This downloadable worksheet is adapted from the “Pricing and Proposals” chapter.

Download the worksheet

In addition to their client work, the pair also creates custom fonts, which Amy designs in Adobe Illustrator, as well as artwork, and downloadable templates that can be used for client presentations. They even offer a self-published book, titled Freelance, and Business, and Stuff, with hard-earned advice for managing the business side of independent design.

In-house projects offer an opportunity to define the Hoodzpah brand in a way that client work often can’t. Amy and Jennifer try to keep the color palette, fonts, and illustration style consistent across all of their passion projects.  

“You want to have consistency in your feed because it helps people remember you as having a certain style, and that makes you memorable,” explains Amy. Consistency with your own brand also helps clients better understand what you can offer them. “If you’re specialized, you’re going to get higher rates. You’re not someone who does a little of everything, Cheesecake Factory style; you’re the Italian joint that does the best meatball sub in all of Southern California. You’re letting people know you’re a specialist—that you know the ins and outs of what you do.”

Follow Along with the Hoods

In this video and text tutorial, the Hood sisters show you how to make an album cover in Adobe Illustrator..

Try the how-to

To make sure internal branding is consistent, the team maintains an Adobe Creative Cloud library with all the Hoodzpah assets, including color palettes, logos in all their variations, typefaces, and texture effects. “We have it all ready for anyone to use,” says Amy. “That consistency is going to make you memorable. People start saying, ‘Oh, that’s the Hoodzpah style.’”

That level of organization is one of the secrets to their success, says Amy, who admits to being slightly obsessive about the company’s file- and asset-management systems. When time is money, wasting any of it trying to track down a missing file or dragging in all of your color swatches is precious dollars out the window. Having everything organized also means that anyone on the team can pick up a project and work on it. “If you want a competitive advantage, just be organized and be on time. You won’t believe how many jobs you’ll get and how fast you’ll move up the ranks.”

Samples of their Lone Pine typeface.

Another secret to success, say the pair, is great communication skills. “You could have great work, but if you don’t know how to present it to somebody and sell them on an idea, you’re not going to get clients,” says Amy. Often, getting to “yes” requires taking the time to walk clients through the thought process, rather than simply offering up a final design. For that explanation process, the team relies on presentation decks created in Adobe InDesign. “Every proof we send, we have so many key interactions with our clients, and we want to make sure that we’re walking them through it,” says Jennifer. “That way, we don’t have this big moment of, ‘Well, we don't like anything.’”

For young designers looking to break into the business, the sisters advise getting work out into the world as often as possible—even if it’s not perfect. “A lot of us put these constraints on ourselves like, ‘I’m not good enough yet, ’” says Jennifer. “But if you were to post something tomorrow that you thought wasn’t good enough, I bet 10 people would be like, ‘That’s really amazing.’ And it starts to put in their mind that you’re there, you’re doing it, and maybe you could help them with something in the future.”

“You’re not someone who does a little of everything, Cheesecake Factory style; you’re the Italian joint that does the best meatball sub in all of Southern California. You’re letting people know you’re a specialist—that you know the ins and outs of what you do.”—Amy Hood

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