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Can a Designer Become a Business Owner?

designer-businessmanMost advertising agencies and design firms began with a designer’s impulse to strike out on their own. This ambition was usually fueled by a combination of desires: a desire for greater creative freedom, higher compensation, or more personal freedom. Sometimes a small group of designers get together and think it would just be a blast to start a boutique firm. Whatever the initial impulses, the actual experience of design firm start-ups is never what was expected. The shine soon wears off–and the original excitement turns to extreme stress. And that big salary increase starts to look more like a big pile of accumulating debt.

That was my experience. I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991 as an illustration major. I worked for a few advertising agencies, then in 1995 I launched a web development company. From 1995-2000 getting web design business was a breeze (being profitable–not so easy). But after 2000, things changed. The dot-com bubble burst caused most web design businesses to dry up overnight. I knew if my company was going to survive it was going to need to be run better. But I had no idea what that meant.

I can’t remember how I found David Baker and his consulting firm ReCourses, but I’m sure glad I did. His advice helped me to turn a corner and learn how to treat my company professionally–not for merely for artistic expression or entertainment.

Part of that transition required that I face the choice of either being an owner of a web developement business, or to continue to be a web developer who happened to have a bunch of employees–at least until unprofitability forced me to shut the doors. That was a hard transition.

I think every artist who stumbles into starting their own business faces this key moment. We didn’t get into this in order to become a business person–we got into it because we love to create. But if we are going to continue, we have to learn to wear a new hat, one that does not fit real well, at least not right away.

Artists don’t tend to make great business leaders. We tend to be allergic to balance sheets, proposals, and contracts. We don’t like the idea of pursuing just one area of expertise; we want a broad canvas to paint on! We prefer free experimentation to focused execution of a plan. The language of business fails to capture our aesthetic imaginations.

When you think about how different the business mindset is to the artistic mindset you’d think it’s almost impossible for any artist to make that change. And many don’t.

But here’s the good news. If you are a talented designer or communications professional, and you can make that transition, there is huge opportunity–because most of your peers will not.

Here is a checklist of things you might need to do in order to make this transition. If you can face them, and embrace them, you might be ready to build a great firm.

  1. Are you ready to stop doing the design work (or whatever part of the “doing” that got you into this business in the first place), and focus on leading your firm?
  2. Are you willing to restructure the ownership and leadership of the firm to make sure only individuals with a commitment to the growth of the firm are in those roles?
  3. Are you ready to commit yourself to identifying your one key area of expertise?
  4. Are you will to start tracking all the time in your firm (including your own)? And even more scary, are you willing to evaluate that data, and listen to what it tells you?
  5. Are you ready to start regularly reviewing your balance sheets and your P&Ls?
  6. Are you willing to stop telling yourself that you’re just having cash flow problems when you’re really experiencing profitability problems?
  7. Are you willing to make changes to how roles are structured in your firm? What if that meant having to let some employees go, and replacing them with ones with the right skills and capacities for those roles? (I know, that’s a hard one.)
  8. Are you willing to let the job of estimating and quoting be rigorously based on actual time data, and not on your desperation to close a deal?
  9. Are you ready to overcome your artistic angst and learn to see the bigger picture and the potential beauty of creating a well-proportioned, well-run, profitable business that brings blessing to others, solid employment for many, and both pleasure and profit for yourself?

If you’re ready to make these kinds of changes you will find yourself in a far better position than most of your fellow artists/design firm owners. And when you’re ready to make these transitions, I’m ready to help you work out the details and help you along the way.

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