How to start your own design firm and end up with night terrors.

Mark Busse – 4 Comments

I was recently honoured to publish another article on Design Edge Magazine’s website, this time entitled Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare. To my surprise and delight, one of my industry heros and mentors, David C. Baker, republished the article on his blog under the title Should You Start Your Own Firm? Check out the discussion in the comments beneath the article—interesting stuff. Below is an early, longer draft of the article that goes into a bit more of my argument surrounding this topic I thought worthy of sharing here. Tell me what you think by adding your comments below!

After reading the title of this article, you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh great. That grouch Busse is sitting on his high horse again, going off on another rant.” Well, believe me when I say I’m not. I am grateful to have the opportunity to give you advice, and appreciate that some of you might actually take it. Your future isn’t a joke to me. I want you to do well and succeed as designers, so I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to trample all over your dreams with some elitist and assuming opinion. I mean to give you an earnest bit of life experience and reality about starting your own design business.

If you are a young designer fresh out of school looking to start a career, among the decisions presented to you (entering as a junior designer and freelancing being some of them), you may be entertaining the possibility of starting your own design business. Why not? The economy is crappy and you don’t want to sit around and wait for your moment to realize your dreams as a designer. These days, young designers in your industry are encouraged to “follow their passions”, resulting in a generation that feels entrepreneurial and invincible. You don’t want to work for “The Man” and see no reason why you shouldn’t take the world into your own hands.

Alas, if only things were so simple. Unless you are an exception to the rule—and by exception, I mean really exceptional—starting a design business may leave you with night terrors. It certainly did for me—and I have a business degree and waited until I was nearly a decade into my career before starting my business. So, if you are a young designer thinking about starting your own design business, you may want to first listen to what I learned from starting my own. Unless you have all the expertise in place, opening a design studio is ultimately a harmful and selfish decision.

Nobody is a natural born entrepreneur

Business thinking and problem solving are inherent parts of what we do as communication designers, so budding designers can certainly gain a rudimentary understanding of business fundamentals, right? Of course they can. In fact, many young designers have started successful design firms right out of school. Unfortunately, that success simply won’t apply to everyone. Young designers haven’t yet invested the years it takes to become a competent designer, let alone gained the deep knowledge and understanding of financial, accounting, marketing, management, and operational functions required to succeed as a business owner. The reality is, success as a young business owner is rare without that body of knowledge.

Being your own boss can suck

Where did the romantic notion of being your own boss come from, anyways? When I was young, the boss was quite often the overworked, frugal grouch nobody liked. Now, it seems that everybody wants to be a designy version of Scrooge. I suspect the frequent stories about startups making young designers rich and famous have seduced an entire generation. So I’m here to tell you that being self employed can really suck hard.

Creative reward? Flexible hours? Freedom to work with whomever you want? Higher income? All part of a fairytale. These benefits do come to the lucky ones, but they are almost always those who’ve invested years and years of hard, dedicated work—like working long hours, saying yes to clients & projects that sucked, and incurring all the costs and risks personally. And when you are the boss, there’s no one to pay for your training, benefits, holidays, or sick time either. You’re on your own.

Responsibility Over Creativity

Designers like control and think that being their own boss will provide it, but in reality, owning a business actually reduces control drastically. When you are the boss, you are controlled by your clients, your vendors, your staff, your financiers, etc. You are accountable for all aspects of the business. So if you got into this business to be creatively productive as a hands on designer, consider how much time you’ll have for actual design when more and more of your time is taken up by business management and administration tasks. Or if you value work/life balance, then you might want to ask yourself how important the ‘freedom’ that comes with owning your business is to you in the long term. It’s just as they say—you are working on your business, not in it. If you want to start your own design business, this is a sacrifice that you have to be sure you are ready to make. As soon as you start a business, your job is to run the business properly—not to make good design.

There are few choices in life more selfish than starting a business

Think about that for a second. There are few choices in life more selfish than starting a business—and selfishness is entirely incongruent with a designer’s  identity. Although like art, design is rooted in creativity, an artist gets full control and direction over his or her creativity; a designer is completely in service of his or her client. A designer’s job is to provide the creativity, talent, skills, and business expertise to meet the client’s objectives as best as possible. If your own ignorance or inexperience leads you to fail, it means you weren’t ready to take on the responsibility of servicing others. Are you ready to make that crucial mistake?

When I started my design business, I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into. I let people down. I made mistakes. I damaged my own reputation with my lack of capability. My unconscious incompetence hindered me from moving forward. And this wasn’t when I graduated—this was ten years after I had worked in the business AND completed a business degree. It was a deeply emotional and difficult experience.

That was then, though. Design hadn’t been so democratized and there was much more opportunity than nowadays. In a way, it was much less risky to start a design business then that it is now—and if that’s what I experienced when it was easier for designers, I can’t even imagine how traumatizing it would be for a young design business owner to fail in our current competitive economy. And honestly, would I start a design business again? I’m not so sure.

Speaking of failure, though, I am convinced that failure is a critical part of learning—so do so as an apprentice. If you invest the time to apprentice, you are permitted (and even encouraged) to fail. Failure as an apprentice is expected and leads to skills and confidence while not exposing the client to serious implications.

Enter at Your Own Risk

There’s being entrepreneurial, and then there’s jumping the gun. If you want to solve real problems and make positive change, consider this: how will you develop the skills and credibility to gain direct access to the decision-makers in your clients’ organizations without the business experience solely acquired through direct experience? Unless you have a business degree (not a bad idea actually), you shouldn’t feel qualified to start a business on your own. Even if you went to a top design school that offered marketing and economics classes amidst your design curriculum, I doubt you have deep knowledge and understanding of critical business fundamentals, or even how to build and maintain a network of computers, storage devices, and back-up technologies. That lack of understanding can land a young designer in a difficult and costly situation—perhaps even a lawsuit. Additionally, do you have a masterful grasp of project management? Or how to structure a partnership contract or business incorporation in such a way that protects you legally? They don’t say “the more you know, the less you know” for nothing. This first stage of experience and expertise is commonly referred to as “unconscious incompetence”. So, pursue at your own risk.

Take Your Time

If, after all this, you feel the calling to go at it alone, or form a design studio with someone, go into it with eyes wide open. Understand the uncomfortable truth that prematurely starting a design business can hurt you, stunt your career growth, harm the very clients you serve, and may even ruin your best years as a creative professional, forever sullying your love for design. It takes a special kind of self awareness and humility to commit to a strategic approach to a design career that involves avoiding easy opportunities in favour of taking the slow road. The most important thing isn’t how talented, determined, inspired, or creative you are. As a business owner, your self-discipline is the number one thing that will make or break your business. Are you ready to commit to the self-discipline of running a design business?

I’m all for following passions, doing what you love, and making dreams come true, and if yours is to own and manage your own design firm, then I’m all for it. But don’t rush it. You’re young. You have time to reconcile the above and learn to successfully run a business on someone else’s dime—or even if running a business is something that you’ll even enjoy. You won’t be forgotten. Take the time to gain wisdom, experience, vision, and direction before striking out on your own and you’ll avoid your dream turning out to be a nightmare. Don’t start a design business for selfish reasons. Start one because you are sure that you can excel at your job—servicing others and running a business.