It often takes years to become an overnight success. By October 2013, Robby Cuthbert, a soft-spoken psychology and art double major, knew he didn’t have a lot of time left before he would have to start looking for a “real job.” He had spent the last two years creating artistic furniture. The first year he lived with his parents in Pittsfield, working out of their garage and selling small sculptures on Etsy to pay for his materials. Now, living with his girlfriend in Palo Alto, the money from a previous Kickstarter campaign was running low, and he figured he had a few months to see if he could turn his project into a sustainable business or move on.
The idea for Cuthbert’s work came from his senior seminar art class at Williams. In search of a capstone project, Cuthbert sought the advice of his Professor, Ed Epping: “We were talking about muscles and how they come in pairs and work together – real abstract art stuff, which I’ve never actually been that into.” That conversation led Cuthbert to begin playing around with connecting curved pieces of wood with wire cables. “The idea was that the two pieces of curved wood are sort of like muscles in an artsy way. Some of the cables are trying to pull them together and some are pulling apart – you end up with something that is totally stable.”
After graduation, Cuthbert liked the direction the project was headed and decided to put off any “real job” plans in order to see it through. Recognizing the stability of his tension-wire design, Cuthbert sought real world applications for the art and began to apply his technique to furniture. By mid-summer 2013, he had assembled a small line of items – a coffee table, a few lamps, a bookshelf.
Unsure how to go about advertising his new designs, Cuthbert put together a small photo album and sent it around to architectural blogs. On a whim, Cuthbert also posted his album on Reddit, a massive user-generated site where posts rise and fall on the homepage based on reader feedback. Within a day, Cuthbert’s album rose all the way to the number one spot, where it stayed for twelve hours.
For weeks, Cuthbert’s website had been generating around 100 views a day, “mostly from friends and family through facebook.” The day his album appeared on Reddit, the number of views jumped to 175,000. That day, he received 30 orders. By the end of the week, the number was well over 50. Soon other news sites began posting the album. His work was featured in design magazines and discussed on a variety of blogs. A few weeks later, he was invited to the prestigious Architectural Digest Design Show in New York. “I originally had put on the site that orders would ship in 2 weeks, but I had to email everyone to push that back because I had so many orders to try and fill.” Nearly three years removed from his conversation with Professor Epping, Robby Cuthbert had arrived.
Obscured in the story of Cuthbert’s business success is a story of creation. I met Cuthbert in his one bedroom apartment a few miles from the Stanford campus. The space was filled with the makings of an artist. Small statues lined the windowsill. Artistic picture frames decorated the counter. The coffee table, one of Cuthbert’s early designs, was littered with small scraps of paper containing sketches of new ideas. True to the liberal arts ideal, Cuthbert’s success is largely a factor of his curiosity and eagerness to learn.
“I really love creating things – I always have. The act of creation necessitates learning new skills. When I have an idea, I won’t necessarily know everything that I need to in order to make that idea a reality.” Instead of backing down in the face of that unknown, Cuthbert is invigorated by the opportunity to learn more.
Halfway through our conversation, Cuthbert walked to his room and brought back a pair of white plastic clips. “I go running a lot and like listening to music. I didn’t want to spend $100 on sport headphones, and I like the microphone on my apple headphones. I came up with an idea to make clips that attach to the apple headphone and wrap around your ear for stability.” It’s a simple idea – one that many people have likely thought of, but, to my knowledge, no one has yet produced. To put it into practice, Cuthbert learned to use CAD software and 3-d printing.
When he entered the “real world”, Cuthbert’s art was little more than an idea in his head. His small wire statues had an aesthetic appeal, but no one, including Cuthbert, thought of them as much more than that. “I sort of always assumed that it wouldn’t work out. Leaving Williams, I had no clue what my art would develop into. I didn’t see it becoming a successful business.”
Cuthbert’s advice to Williams students emphasizes the value of the creative process. “If you’re really into your art, it’s important not to jump into a job that’s going to consume all your time and not allow you to explore what you’re really passionate about… Get a waiting job to pay the bills that allows you to spend most of your time working on your idea.” It took two years of tinkering with his designs for Cuthbert to come up with his first coffee table. It took him another six months before his big break allowed him to begin making money off his work. Along the way, he learned to use design software he’d never encountered at Williams, became adept at setting up and managing a small business, and developed skills in marketing, photography, and logistics. Even if his album had languished at the bottom of the Reddit site, even if he had been forced to put his projects aside in favor of design school or a move into industry, it’s hard to see those two years as a waste. “It takes a little time to play around with ideas and develop them into something that can be profitable… Take a year or two or three to see if your passion can lead to some form of more sustainable income.”
Also be sure to watch this video as Cuthbert gives his advice to Williams students: