Tucked away behind a coffee shop and below an arts collective in the heart of Omaha’s Benson neighborhood sits the welcoming offices of Fruitful Design, a design agency that focuses on simple and fun designs for their clients. While their office and staff may be small, the visions of co-owners Ben Lueders and Raj Lulla is anything but.
Started in the basement of his home in 2011, Fruitful Design began as a way for Lueders to supplement income alongside his first job at another firm.
“How my boss found me was through an article in Silicon Prairie News, surprisingly enough. I won tickets to Big Omaha and got in with that crowd and was offered a job, but it wasn’t really enough to pay the bills with a wife and a growing family.”
He worked on the evenings and weekends until Fruitful Design grew to the point where he felt like he could take it on as a full-time business without a lot of risk.
An entrepreneur never rests though, and Lueders took on a new side job teaching piano lessons at the 402 Arts Collective. (Which required moving an upright piano up a set of narrow and steep stairs into his office.) He would design half the day and then teach piano the other half.
During that time, he met Lulla, the then communications director at Nebraska Christian College. Lulla was looking for designers to help with college publications and two were introduced through a mutual friend. The project was a huge hit and Raj started bringing Ben more work from the college.
Eventually, Lueders had enough work to stop giving piano lessons and he started finding contractors to hire on for projects which he dubbed his “Fruitful Friends.”
Lulla said he liked working with Lueders because of how he made himself available to his clients. They started to work together more frequently and Lulla’s position at Fruitful Design started to feel more like a contractor than a client.
“He started bringing me some big clients and he would do strategy, consulting and sell clients on Fruitful design packages,” explained Lueders. “It was kind of a fun, crazy way to start a company. Along the way, we hired Erin Pille. She was our first official hire.”
“Her business card says ‘Actual Employee’,” said Lulla.
Ben’s wife Megan also jumped in as an office administrator.
“We end up hiring the people who hang around the longest,” said Lueders with a laugh. “Erin started freelancing and started sitting on one of our teal chairs doing her work. She was present and available. It’s just amazing what [being present and available] can do for a growing company.”
“A lot of it is about chemistry and fit too,” added Lulla. “The people who want to hang out here are people who get along with us and we get along with them.”
The Fruitful Friends partnership between Lueders and Lulla didn’t feel complete, though. Lueders decided to bring Lulla on as an employee and eventually business partner. They’re currently in the process of finalizing that move and looking ahead to the future of Fruitful Design.
One thing they’re doing to enhance their Fruitful Friends network is to include more services like the execution of social media plans, custom web development and coding, app development and video services.
Fruitful Design has already expanded out of the world of straightforward graphic design work and has worked with companies to design apps and intranets. They also created a pack of Apple Messenger stickers with coder Allen Gilbert that caught the eye of Apple.
“Apple taking notice of something we’ve done is incredible,” said Lueders.
They worked with Gilbert to design an app that manages the energy output of buildings such as the Empire State Building. They also worked with H4 Technology to provide the UI/UX design for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ Compass application and are working on the intranet for Fusion Medical Staffing.
“The technology is so important, but in our opinion, its success rises or falls on the user experience,” said Lulla. “That’s really where design and technology need each other so desperately. You can have a great idea but if it’s poorly executed, it’s not going to catch on.”
Lueders and Lulla also have some partnerships in the works to help clients understand and utilize the power of their newly designed content. They want their clients to know that Fruitful Design isn’t just a design agency, they’re also investing in the future success of their clients.
Whichever path they decide to take, it won’t be a move they make without putting in lots of time and thought.
“There have been these moments of identity check where we decide are we hiring five more designers, or are we hiring a strategist” said Lulla. “How wide are we going to get in our focus?”
“It kind of comes back to the name,” said Lueders. “The idea behind Fruitful is really wanting our clients to be fruitful. It’s not just a pretty logo or a pretty website, but we want to be more invested in the actual outcomes of the things we design. We want it to be a holistic package.”
Lueders and Lulla see their trajectory from side-gig to growing design firm reflected in the stories of other Omaha startups.
“When we go to Big Omaha, we hear the stories that sound like ours,” said Lulla. “The relationships, having to have good chemistry on your teams. Hearing the stories of people creating things, it’s exactly what we’ve gone through.”
They believe in collaboration both between their Fruitful Friends network and with other businesses in the area, whether that’s talking business tips with Dusty Davidson from Flywheel or connecting with Agape Red to design a project.
“There can be a lot of competition and sizing up, but at the end of the day, we love working with awesome people and there’s a lot of awesome people in our area,” said Lueders.
Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.