04/05/2022 Business @porto_rocha Interview by Harry Bennett
“For every ‘no’ there is always going to be another client that values design and the team behind it”: Porto Rocha on the reality of running a studio and financial creativity

Setting new precedence and industry expectations for how to run a studio, dutifully balancing personality, professionalism, play and proficiency, New-York-based creative studio Porto Rocha has undoubtedly made an impact since their two founders – Leo Porto and Felipe Rocha – made their collaborative freelancing official in 2020. Two years on the team have grown by to almost twenty talented creatives from across the globe, working for the likes of Nike, Vevo, AirBnB, Upwork and more.

This success certainly comes from not only Porto Rocha’s creative mastery and management but also their acute financial savvy – having built up strong professional and commercial relationships to further sustain and maintain the studio’s progression and growth.

  We’ve spoken to Founders and Creative Directors Felipe and Leo, alongside their Operations and Business Lead Nick Schroder, on making the transition from freelancing to founding, pricing projects, and financial anxiety.

Hey Felipe and Leo! How are you both?

Felipe: We are good, busy, excited because this week we have our full team here in NY and we are about to have a party to celebrate our new studio space.
Leo: Same!

For those who might not be privy to Porto Rocha’s story, could you outline it for us? When did you ‘officially’ start as a studio, and how long were you freelancing before?

Felipe and Leo: We started collaborating as a duo around 5 years ago, helping each other out with freelance projects. Over time, these projects became more frequent, larger and more complex — which gave us the confidence to open up our own studio. When we opened 2.5 years ago, we had around 4 active projects, 3 designers and 1 project manager working with us. Now we are a team of 19 working on a variety of projects, primarily focusing on branding and strategy for global brands. Felipe: My journey before PORTO ROCHA is kind of a long story. But to keep it short: I started working in design back in 2007 and have since worked at different places and areas of design. I was previously in-house at Spotify’s creative team leading brand and design initiatives. Before working in-house, I also worked at Sagmeister & Walsh, co-founded a graphic design studio in São Paulo called Arnold and completed a scholarship at FABRICA, Italy, where I worked for a magazine called COLORS.
Leo: My background is quite similar to Felipe's but also different in some respects. I'm also from Brazil and started designing when I was very young. I moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, which is when I realized design could actually be a viable career choice. Before opening PORTO ROCHA I worked at a few different studios and agencies, including COLLINS where I was Design Director, Pentagram, Mother, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.

How did you find the financial and mental transition between being two freelancers to running a studio with multiple people (and paychecks!)?

Leo: There is always a level of stress when you’re not only responsible for yourself but also a team, their growth and development, and of course finances. That was probably our biggest and hardest transition — from independent designers to managing a whole business with all sorts of needs that go beyond design. Ultimately it has paid off and seeing people's growth as the studio taking a life of its own is extremely gratifying. Felipe: It was somewhat comfortable. I was working full-time for a big tech company, was able to pay all my bills but at the same time NY is extremely expensive and I also financially support my family back in Brazil. We didn’t plan much, but we had a few potential clients and projects, which gave us enough confidence to make that decision.

How long did it take you to fall into a somewhat regular rhythm of work, and did you ever have moments of no work?

Nick: We fell into a regular rhythm of work surprisingly quickly. There has been one less busy moment shortly after we opened the studio. COVID happened, which resulted in a few paused projects and slower new business. That time gave us the opportunity to work on our website and first case studies which was an important step for the foundation of the studio. A few months after the first wave and ever since then, we’ve had the privilege to receive a constant and growing flow of new projects.

Financial stress is a major player in mental health. How was your mental health affected when you both first started freelance work, were there certain financial triggers, and how did you tackle these stresses?

Felipe: The best way to not be stressed about money is to learn about financial planning and make sure you clearly understand the company’s financial health. On a personal level, therapy also helps!
Leo: While financial planning is crucial, our ambitions are not measured in dollars or rapid growth. Instead, we are more focused on creating good work and working with good people — and consequently, our clients value what we have to offer and allow us to be a growing, sustainable business.

For many, the process of pricing – be it project rates or day rates – is incredibly challenging, anxiety-inducing and mentally stressful. How do you tackle pricing, and how differently do you tackle pricing projects now compared to when you were freelancing?

Felipe: It always varies according to each project’s context, but the more we create proposals and project scopes, the easier it gets to calculate our budget. I’m way more confident now than during my freelance years. The biggest difference is that now we need to account not only for us as individuals but for the entire agency’s structure. Leo: Pricing is tricky indeed. Like Felipe mentioned, as a business, we have a much more robust structure and several expenses we didn't have when we were working as a freelance duo. So we have calculations that allow us to charge precisely given the resources we have allocated for a specific project. On the other hand, we also consider other factors when budgeting — Is it for a good cause? Is this project creatively stimulating? Is it a big opportunity?

Making sure the client values and respects your time and isn't being unreasonable with deadlines that could compromise the quality of your work or your health.

Many freelancers often end up undervaluing their services because they worry about ‘overcharging’ clients, and the risk they may say no, when in reality, being a freelance creative is a job. A job that pays the bills. Did you both find yourselves in this position, do you perhaps still sometimes feel the same now, and how have you overcome it?

Nick: That is definitely true. At the risk of losing certain projects, we’ve found that by only sharing budgets that we feel comfortable with and make sense for the work, we’re never in a situation where we need to either compromise the quality of work or feel like we’re undercharging (for our sake and for the industry’s!). For every “no”, there is always going to be another client that values design and the team behind it. That being said, there are certainly opportunities when you’re first starting out that may not be the most valuable financially, but are important in helping you position yourself in a particular market or type of project that will in turn bring in new (and higher budget) clients.

On a more practical note, are there softwares that you use for invoicing and general accountancy? Would you recommend people use them, or is it best to learn as you go?

Nick: We use Quickbooks for general accounting and invoicing, as well as classic spreadsheets for putting together budgets, tracking finances and planning for the future. We also use Float—an easy-to-use resourcing and time tracking tool, which gives us a better understanding of how the team’s time is being spent and where we might be over budget.

Were there any particular financial resources that you found helpful when you first started freelancing, and again when you founded your studio?

Leo: When we first started we were free-styling it. I used Google/Youtube to learn the basics and asked friends that also have their own businesses for advice.

What financial-related thing do you wish you’d known, or wish you’d done, when you first started freelancing, and what’s one piece of advice you’d give freelancers just starting out?

Felipe: I wish I knew I could charge more than I actually did when I started freelancing lol. Besides that, I’m grateful for learning by doing, I think that’s probably the best advice I would give freelancers… Instead of wanting to figure everything out when you start and having all the answers, I think it’s nice to find your own path and learn your own way.
Leo: The best advice I think is to learn your limits and the time it actually takes to get good quality work done. Making sure the client values and respects your time and isn't being unreasonable with deadlines that could compromise the quality of your work or your health.

What is one thing people just starting out should avoid doing?

Leo: Unpaid internships Felipe: Dictating rules ;)

What question do you wish we’d asked you? 

Felipe: Nothing that came to my mind. You didn’t ask what my favorite typeface is, so that’s already amazing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any final Porto Rocha words of wisdom?

Felipe: Recently we had a talk and in one of the slides we wrote that “to be a designer is to make decisions”. I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

Thanks so much for your time guys! Always a pleasure!

Porto Rocha’s Recommendations!

Film: Aquarius

Show: Succession

Book: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Podcast: The Cutting Room Floor

Album: Liniker – Indigo Borboleta Anil