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Ames Bros on Picking the Right Clients and Building a Business from Scratch

Ames Bros on Picking the Right Clients and Building a Business from Scratch
Published May 8, 2013 by Jake Cook
Designing materials for rock bands and edgy brands might be the ultimate job for visual creatives. The founders of Ames Bros, a Seattle-based design studio, have been doing just that for years with clients like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Harley Davidson, MTV, and K2 Snowboards. Scanning their portfolio from these engagements shows influences from pop culture to modern art with a good dose of humor thrown in when appropriate.

But it wasn't always that way. The two "brothers" painstakingly built up their business after years of creative trial and error. We sat down with the founders, Coby Schultz and Barry Ament, to talk about starting out, creative partnerships, and why they’re still taking risks in business after 19 years. -

Where do you get inspiration?

Barry - The thing we try to do is keep some semblance of a sketchbook. It tends to be lots of little scraps of paper. Anytime something strikes me I try to take a picture of it or text myself a couple of words. It’s usually is on the drive home when inspiration strikes me. So I try to document it somehow to remind myself later. We also have a huge library at our office of magazines and books, so anytime we’re stuck we have a lot of resources to get inspired by.

Can you speak to what it’s like running the business side of things?

Barry - It has always gotten harder and harder to find time to do the creative part. Sometimes we just pull the plug on all the business aspects and block a few days and say, “Okay, we’re just going to try and be creative.” But it’s hard to switch sides of the brain in mid-day. We find it’s kind of the exciting part, so it’s usually something we look forward to.

Coby - The creative can kinda gives you energy if you don’t have too much of it to do. It can also revitalize you.

Sometimes we just pull the plug on all the business aspects and block a few days and say, “Okay, we’re just going to try and be creative.”

What prompted you to take a risk and start the clothing company arm of Ames Bros?

Coby - Probably the biggest reason we decided to start it, pursue it, and keep at it is because it is our own thing. There is nobody peering over your shoulder tell you to do this or that. It’s really about what you create and how it’s perceived by the buyer directly. But it’s just such a huge learning curve and process. We’ve never been here before. When we do a poster that really isn’t true. Getting a trade show booth together and hoping people come that gives me butterflies.

Barry - We wanted to diversify a little bit and felt that the design company could always work at a certain level and we had kinda maxed that out to a degree. So, we were just looking for other opportunities. Anytime you’re doing something for yourself there is a lot of freedom in that. It becomes that much more important and exciting. And I think at the end of day, Coby and I are both pretty independent people and not very employable (laughs).


Clothing from the Ames Bros including "Bigfoot vs. Unicorn" (right) Clothing from the Ames Bros including "Bigfoot vs. Unicorn" (right)

Can you speak to the Ames Bros partnership?

Barry - We’re like an old married couple. We’re not wearing matching jumpsuits yet but we’re pretty darn close. I think we make each other laugh all day and probably have it out with each other about once a year and then we’re good for another year.

Coby - As individuals I think we’re capable of a lot, but as a unit together we’re capable of much, much more together. Strength in numbers for sure. Usually one person picks up where the other leaves off and we keep leap-frogging forward.

How do you pick clients?

Barry -  We try and abide by a set of three rules: It has to be a good budget, a great project, or the people are really fun to work with. So we like to get two out of those three.

Coby - (laughing)  But if we have to make rent, we’ll work for jerks (and have many times). It’s a fun job. I’ve had a lot of really crappy jobs, so I haven’t lost the appreciation. I couldn’t think of a better job. Each project comes with a new challenge and that in itself is exciting.

What do you say to young creatives just starting out?

Barry - I think there is a kind of a tradeoff if you want to do what we’ve done - you know working for rock bands and snowboard companies. The tradeoff being you’re not going to get paid for it (laughing). We always knew that and we’ve managed after years to find a balance. A lot of that work that we did and didn’t get paid for we were able to take it to ad agencies and get some higher paying jobs and bigger exposure. So, one hand kinda washed the other.

To build up a portfolio of exciting work usually comes at a cost. It took quite some time before we were earning a reasonable paycheck. We had friends that got jobs at places like Microsoft and they were making four times as much as us. We felt like idiots at the time that we chose the direction we did but in hindsight there were certain types of people and work we wanted to do at any cost.

And we have absolutely no regrets in doing it that way.

Coby - I’d add that you shouldn’t be afraid to work really hard. Don’t expect things to just come to you. I see younger and younger graduates that just expect to finish school and have a job waiting for them. But that’s very rare now. You really have to think and plan ahead.

More about Jake Cook

Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.

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