Ben Anderson on making life ‘easy & beautiful’

Ben Anderson. (Courtesy of Ben Anderson)

Ben Anderson owns and operates Eight Seven Central and Crown Cleaners with his brother, Zach Anderson. If you’ve lived in Des Moines or worked in a company that doesn’t have sh—y t-shirts you’ve probably worn his work at one point or another.

Ben doesn’t really talk until he decides to and when he opens his mouth, he speaks thoughtfully. His family keeps us all in comfortable clothes, awash in good branding, and inspired.

His focus on the work has always given him a unique lens on life, ideas, and the people intertwined in both.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

BPM: If you had all the money in the world, you told me one time you’d just basically build more stuff. What do you think got you excited about building things in the first place?

BA: My grandpa contracted polio when he was 19 … and was left paralyzed from the waist down. He ended up farming for the next 45 years of his life by inventing a lot of contraptions that allowed him to keep going. They might not have been the most elegant inventions, but this was rural Nebraska way before (the Americans with Disabilities Act) existed. And he was just welding levers and winches and old golf carts together. I’m not really a fan of the idea of machines taking jobs, but damn if he didn’t build cool stuff to make his life easier.

My grandma will also be disappointed if I don’t mention that she gave me hundreds of issues of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science from somewhere in the 1930’s to 1950’s era. Like the really iconic era of inventions where we could pretend we knew what space and the future would be like before we had to back up our ideas with anything. The stuff that Grandpa built was functional, but the illustrations in the magazines were beautiful.

I think I’ve always wanted to combine those two to make life easy & beautiful.

BPM: In the last six months, what is something you built that you’re proud of? 

BA: I’ve overseen the buildout of some order-processing software that I think is pretty functional, but the number of people who will get to see beauty from it is minimal.

I (collaborated) to shoot a few videos which I am sort of proud of. One of them involves tater tots and bacon.

I described a conference table idea that Adam (Ferry) drew … and it turned out pretty cool and used up some scrap material we had around the shop.

(My son) Camden is really into stacking blocks right now, so I’ve built some pretty kick-ass towers.

BPM: In the last six months, what is something someone else built that really piqued your interest? 

BA: There are so many. The Fontenelle boys are on to something pretty cool. Peace Tree’s new taproom is amazing. All the buildings that are going up in the East Village are pretty exciting. …

Probably the biggest thing that I have been blown away by is the quality talent that the Industrial Design Program at Iowa State University is kicking out. I know it’s only a few years old, but I think every forward thinking design shop should be paying attention to what they are doing.

BPM: You have $111,000 at your disposal. What do you do with it?

BA: … I’ve also wanted to build a mobile print facility inside of a food truck. Like get rid of the food stuff and put a print shop in it’s place. I don’t really know what I would do with the truck after it gets built out, but it sounds like fun.

For personal uses, I’d probably see if I could go pay to be an apprentice for this guy for a few months. Then I’d come back, build out a set wood shop factory, and start building a furniture company. Beautiful furniture and beautiful garage doors. There are so many ugly garage doors in this city.

BPM: You work directly with your brother Zach in two different companies. What’s the most hilarious thing about working with family building companies?

BA: Family is the best thing when it comes to business. It’s also not just Zach, it’s also my younger brother (Joe), and my dad (Alan). And Mom, and Kristen, and Zach’s wife, and my two sisters, and my brothers-in-law. Business as a family sort of cascades to include everyone that it impacts. Even (my son) Desmond and I have had some pretty good talks about the ins and outs of making customers happy.

It’s hilarious when Mom starts getting sick of talking about it at Thanksgiving. It’s hilarious when Des runs around the shop and talks to people.

On the sober end of hilarious, there’s nothing better than knowing that your relationships are all in place when s–t hits the fan. Zach and I have been through a lot of ups and downs together. There’s a silent hilarity to when we are together when we get bad news. It’s just sort of a really quick look that’s a combination of every emotion of ReactionGifs in one look. Usually it’s something we’ve seen before, sometimes it’s something a little bit different, sometimes it’s something totally new.

Whatever the bad news is, it’s still probably not going to be as bad as that one thing that happened that one time.

We know we will get through it. And if we are lucky, we’ll have another pretty good story to tell.

BPM: We all buy our t-shirts from Eight Seven Central. When I say that we both know I mean it. How in God’s name did you carve out this niche where everyone in a 100-mile radius just knows you go to 87c for custom stuff?

BA: It’s all about enabling some really amazingly talented people to do some really cool stuff. And then spend a whole lot of time building relationships. It sort of sounds really simple when you boil it down to that, but it’s really complex. We like to tell people that we have to work twice as hard to make it look like we are having fun. We sort of try really hard to make our social feed look like we just goof around all day.

In reality, when you get your handful of t-shirts from us, just know that there have been five people who have all (sweated) over making the little decisions to get those shirts into your hands. Our people are immensely hard on themselves. You might like those shirts and think they are amazing, but probably three of those five people lost sleep over something that they think went wrong with those same shirts. Seriously.

BPM: You did some branding work for Men’s Style Lab and I always thought that was amazing. How did that come about and what’s the story behind the branding you all created?

BA: (MSL founder Derian  Baugh) came down to hang out with us when he was just getting going a few years ago. He was renting a U-Haul, driving to Chicago, maxing credit cards, shipping stuff, getting stuff back, and then driving back to Chicago to return stuff that didn’t sell.

It was some serious hustle that was taking place. And you could just see this excited and terrified look in his eyes while he was talking about what he was doing.

Maybe I’m just not very good at running a business, but I think there is this perpetual feeling that what you are doing is just sort of cobbled together and could fall apart at any moment. I think that somehow a solid brand helps to alleviate that feeling, but the feeling never really fully goes away.

… Of course, like everything else, it’s pretty important to always be testing your brand to ensure that it’s still culturally relevant and honest with who you currently are as a company. The MSL brand has gone through a few iterations, although through all of it they have stayed super true to their initial mentality of hustling hard.

BPM: Are you guys at 87c looking for more companies to work with to help create a brand for?

BA: … We don’t really have any salespeople on staff at Eight Seven, just a handful of people who really want to see people/businesses/Des Moines succeed and be a part of something that’s meaningful. We are always looking for projects that seem to be a good fit for us as a company.

… There have been a few instances where the client walked in with a killer idea but no budget to get it done. We are fortunate to be in a situation where we can take, I hope this is the right phrase, an “equity position” in a company in exchange for some design work. Investing in a business is not really our business model, but I really like people and ideas, and I like hearing about them. If it’s a good fit for the company and a good fit for us, then I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen.

BPM: So basically, if a company has great tech but needs some branding help they should come talk to you and you’ll invest in the business artistically but not financially?

BA: Every once in a while a project comes along where we really believe in what a person is doing, we feel like we can add value to their project, and we happen to be in a good spot as a company where we can take some risk. If those stars align, yeah, investing artistically is something we really like to do. Did you just coin that (artistic investing) phrase? Somehow it sort of feels like the opposite equivalent of “Creative work for exposure.”

Moar Taco’s is another example of that type of partnership that has been a lot of fun. “Creative work for Tacos” has a pretty good ring to it.

BPM: 87c has been home to so many amazing people throughout the years. What is it about 87c that attracts talented people the way that you do?

BA: I really don’t know. I think we hit a creative critical mass pretty early as a company, and talent attracts talent. I haven’t really found my personal talent yet, so I know it’s not feeding off of mine. Really, we are just very fortunate to have so many great people who have worked for us over the years.

… I think, as a business owner, it’s really scary when you have an employee that you love and value who is working on a side project, even if it is their passion in life. It’s really scary to think about them getting to the point where they don’t need the job I am providing for them. Probably because I am selfish about that relationship. Maybe because I am a little jealous of their success. Maybe because I think I’ll never be able to replace them and our business will tank.

What we have found, though, is that Eight Seven has its path, and other people have their own path. Embrace the s–t out of those paths when they intersect. It’s taken a long time to be comfortable with that idea. You can’t hold on to people. Make a place where they know they are welcome and you’re pulling for them to succeed at whatever they want to do.

BPM: What does Des Moines need?

BA: More lists and an Ikea! Nah, jk, lol. Des Moines needs to shut up about how great it is. We’ve got a good thing going, let’s keep it all a secret from the masses for a while.

That being said, I’ve always thought Des Moines hasn’t really played into the possibility of embracing our progressive roots, our small-town feel, and the mispronunciation of the city’s name. I think we could tie all of these together and try to convince people with big ideas to come to Des Moines to “demo” projects that require a lot of people to see if they work. Google’s fiber internet? Should have had us test it. Uber’s self-driving taxi network? I think all of the residents of Des Moines would apologize to the autonomous car if they got hit.

I don’t know how you go about making that happen, but it’d be sort of cool if somehow we could convince the rest of the nation that we are an ideal test market for large scale projects. And maybe eventually people will figure out how to pronounce our name.

That’s a free promo idea for you, Catch Des Moines.

BPM: What’s one tip you would give people starting a company in DSM right now. What do they need to know?

BA: Des Moines as a whole wants you to succeed. But, Des Moines doesn’t want to hear about your idea. Des Moines has already heard a lot of ideas. Des Moines wants to see that you’ve started on something and put a lot of work into it and that you have something to show off from your hard work.

Then Des Moines will get behind you.

BPM: What was the best business choice you ever made? 

BA: Marrying my wife and being in business with my brother.

Ben Milne is a co-founder of Clay & Milk and the founder of Dwolla, a technology company in Des Moines.