In 2011, Modern Dog cofounders Robynne Raye and Michael Strassburger, were facing a legal copyright battle with Disney Consumer Products and Target Corporation, and they had to make some difficult choices. If they pursued the copyright lawsuit against the mammoth companies, they would need as many resources as possible, which meant possibly going bankrupt and losing their business. Or they could give up, which is what a lot of small companies do when faced with this reality. Raye says she learned a valuable lesson from this case: “Copyright laws are pretty much set up to protect corporations, not people or small businesses, because they are the only ones who can afford to fight it.” If you’re not familiar with the case, you can read the back story here and here.
Fortunately for the design community, Modern Dog did fight back. After more than two and a half years of building a case and hiring attorneys and expert witnesses—which created a financial hardship for Raye and Strassburger—the defendants eventually settled with Modern Dog rather than going to trial. But, the damage was already done. In the process, they downsized and restructured Modern Dog, letting go of their employees, and selling the building that was home to their studio. Strassburger got a full-time job, and Raye teaches full time. Modern Dog is now a part-time endeavor.
However, instead of being bitter about this, they are relieved. After running a business for 28 years, they were burnt out. Raye says, “Every month we knew we had to pull in $25,000 just to keep the business going—paying employee salaries and health benefits, taxes, and everything else.” She also admits that many times her business judgment was clouded by emotions. “I’ve taken care of a lot people. Before I would pay myself, I did things like pay attorney’s to help sponsor H1B visa employees . Extra costs are really hard for most small businesses to absorb. I don’t regret any of it but I do realize that it did not necessarily make me a good manager. I just don’t want to take care of anyone any more.”
She adds, “It’s actually quite liberating not having a staff that’s dependent on you. I’m a lot happier and I’m making the same amount of money doing less projects because I don’t have all that overhead.” She brought Modern Dog home, literally, building a new office in the lower level of her home using some of the money from the sale of the studio. She and Strassburger now take on limited projects as Modern Dog, which allows them to pick and choose what’s right for them. “I have to be really careful not to overbook myself. If someone needs something fast, I can’t do it. After working this long in the field, I feel I’m entitled to working under different, and more realistic, conditions. My work is much better when I have time to think before I hit the paper or computer,” she says.
In the end, Raye has created a nice life/career balance. She teaches design full-time at Cornish College of the Arts, which still enables her to nurture people, without being emotionally and financially invested in their lives. She also loves the creative work she is now doing. She recently finished a big project for Nordstrom, in which she created cityscape illustrations for gift cards. When she showed the project to a friend—someone she’s known for 15 years—he said he had no idea she could do illustrations. It hit her, that as a business owner, she turned over this kind of work to her staff, rather than taking it on herself. “It’s so nice being able to do more of the creative. Working with Nordstrom was fun and I’m really proud of the work that I did for them.”