Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.

Each month, we ask an influential San Diegan: What was it like for you in the beginning?

Don Hollis

Owner, creative director, brand guru and supporter of the arts at Hollis Brand Culture,  Co-owner of Subtext Gallery,
Live: I just recently relocated from Bankers Hill to North Park, near Morley Field.
Work: Little Italy
How Long: 5 years

If you have dined or stayed in San Diego, you have likely experienced Don’s work firsthand. As a catalyst in the ‘90s with high profile, much-loved environments for Chive Cuisine Moderne and D’lush Beverage Joint, HollisBC’s clients are among San Diego’s best defined places. These include Tower23 Hotel, Georges at the Cove, JRDN, The Hard Rock Hotel, W San Diego, The Sofia Hotel, Vagabond, Currant Restaurant, R-Gang Eatery, Blanca, East Village Tavern & Bowl, Bencotto and many more. 

On the flip side, UCSD Scripps Forum, Challenged Athletes Foundation, United Way, Monarch School and the Museum of Photographic Arts round out some impactful community projects.

What was the defining moment that propelled you to start Subtext?

I had an opportunity to bring something different to my then downtown warehouse design studio. Our friends Missy and Josh from RE:UP had just lost their lease on 9th and Market, and my friend and now gallery partner, Dylan Jones and I had been chatting about a common desire for more exposure to art, design and culture that inspired us here in San Diego. It didn’t get off the ground right away, but the result of that dialogue became Subtext, with our first location in Public’s Dutra Brown building, across from the now bustling Craft & Commerce, and near our good friend Gary Benzel of Igloo fame. When I relocated to Little Italy, the stars aligned and we had found the perfect place and space.

What struggles did you face when starting your own businesses?
The design studio is a self-financed venture. Lots of sweat equity and growing pains during the early ‘90s recession made it a tough time. I was busy right from the start, and one project led to two more, and so on. I focused on working hard and making every project count. Producing high quality work has been my focus from the beginning, but often that requires extra creativity and perseverance. (insert new recession > repeat).

What was the riskiest move you ever made?
My move to San Diego came without a safety net. I was an art director at a very creative Philadelphia agency, came here for vacation, went back and packed up for the West Coast, never looking back. I was reminded quickly of how important relationships were when I landed here, only knowing one or two people, with no job, during a recession. It was a sink or swim moment for me.

If you could change the past, is there anything involving your career that you would do differently?
Financing and strategic partnerships make the world an easier place to navigate and help cultivate the business you want. I would do it all again without question, but it would be way more fun without the start up phase. If I rode the time machine way back, I would have attended college on the West Coast and studied under some of my design heroes like Syd Mead, Deborah Sussman and Doyald Young. 

Could you ever go back to a “normal job,” working for someone else? 
Normal is boring and life is too short. A partnership with complimentary, but like-minded souls would be an exciting evolution. I have a lot of projects and spin off ventures on paper. It would be great to kick some of these off. I would work with someone else, but not for someone else. I know great salesmen that promote average work really well and that disappoints me because I work hard to kick ass for my clients. I’ve built such a strong portfolio that a proper marketing and account team would likely be rocket fuel for us.What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do?

Call me Tenacious D. Tenacity, persistence, optimism, perseverance, and a steadfast commitment to excellence are all essential to create differentiation and not blend into the mediocre masses.

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?

The feeling is exactly the same today as then. Do great work (the rest will all fall into place).