If you are passionate about design, how can you turn your passion into profit? Last week I tackled this question with Almitra Inocencio (partner at Definery), Andrew Graunke, (head of enterprise at Toptal), and Ramona Ortega (founder of My Money My Future and entrepreneur in residence at Azlo). We had an enthusiastic audience listen to us talk about the business of design in downtown Oakland at the very comfortable Alice Collective event space.
Designers are tasked with handling a wide range of issues: we solve complex problems, communicate abstract concepts, and make things beautiful. But what about when designers are also running their own businesses? All of the things that make us great designers don’t make solving day-to-day issues that arise in running a business any easier.
How to make the leap to starting your own business
It can be terrifying to take the first step into starting your own business. Here are some of the things we discussed about what gave us the opportunity or push to take that leap.
Failure as the first step
My own opportunity to become an entrepreneur came when my co-founders and I were working at a startup that went out of business. The three of us realized that we had a great synergy and complementary skills of marketing, technology, and creativity. We combined what we had learned working at other agencies and streamlined our own processes when we started our own digital agency. Eight years later, we’re still strategizing, creating, and building digital products and services.
Get things done your way
Almitra Inocencio saw creating her own business as the only path toward doing things the way she wanted to have them done. “I kept running against systems and people told me that if I wanted to do it a certain way, I should start my own business. So I did.”
Build a solution for your community
Ramona Ortega agreed. “That’s essentially what happened with me as well. I was working in the FinTech space and didn’t like any of the existing solutions. None of them were catering to the needs of minorities, so I decided to go ahead and build my own solution. In that process you realize how hard it is to deliver a quality product. It is a humbling experience.”
How to handle the transition
Going from the position of working for someone else to being your own boss can be quite an adjustment. So what was the hardest part of the transition?
Don’t get overwhelmed
Andrew Graunke mentioned the chaos of having so many things that need to get done all at the same time when you start a business. “For me, the hardest thing was learning when to focus on what. Try not to get overwhelmed and tackle one thing at a time.”
MBA? or YouTube?
Almitra decided she needed more education about running a business. She said, “Taxes suck. They are very complicated and nuanced. I felt I didn’t have a solid grasp on all the nuances of running a business, so I went ahead and did an MBA after starting my business only to find out I could have probably learned that information from YouTube or by asking someone in my network to explain it for me.”
For me personally, I had to learn how to manage my time. While I had done my fair share of business development and pitches, the amount of work I was responsible for went up exponentially. I was a business owner on top of executing on the design work I had already committed to. I had many late nights as I juggled two full-time jobs of design work and business management.
What are the biggest challenges?
We discussed what had been the most challenging parts about growing a business and the things we wish we’d known before starting out on this path.
Feast and famine
Almitra found the biggest challenges in predicting and scheduling workload. “We’re a project-by-project agency, so having visibility into what our workload will be three weeks from now is challenging. All of a sudden we might get super busy and I might not sleep too much.” She also wishes that someone had told her at the beginning not to be afraid to ask for help. “When you ask, people who genuinely care in your life will help.”
Andrew’s biggest challenges were around payments. “Figure out your payments structure and set the system in place from the get-go of the project. Charge 50% upfront and 50% upon delivery. The longer it has been since you’ve worked with someone without them paying you, the lesser your chances of getting paid. You’re running a business. Without getting paid you’ll be out of business pretty quickly.”
Finding and keeping the right team
In my own experience, the biggest challenge is in hiring, onboarding, and retaining great team members. You’ve got to find the right fit for your business needs and culture, but also find the best way of working and growing together. Our industry changes so quickly, and part of thriving is keeping on top of these changes. Sometimes you grow together and sometimes you grow apart. Being aware and having honest conversations about where your team members are in their life and career can help you maximize strengths, see blindspots, and help people transition to other roles inside or out of the company.
What are some unexpected joys?
Enough about challenges! There are a ton of unexpected joys you encounter along the way as a business owner.
Seeing (and helping) people grow in their careers
Seeing people genuinely grow and blossom in their careers has been a huge win for me. I’ve hired recent graduates as interns that become junior designers. Then they grow into designer roles and at some point they naturally move onto roles outside the company. On multiple occasions I’ve met their new employers praise their design and work ethic, saying, “I’m impressed how we’ll you’ve trained this person.” While we clearly can’t take all the credit for how well they turned out, it definitely fills me with pride and joy!
Almitra agreed, “Seeing people blossom into their careers is very rewarding. I’m very proud of the team we have built and how we work together.”
It’s also very fulfilling to be a small business owner and to provide jobs and a positive work environment for members of the community. As a business owner, I’m thrilled to be able to support our thriving office of talented designers, strategists, and technology workers.
Making high quality work you are proud of
Another jolt of energy comes from knowing that at the end of the day, you are 100% responsible for a successful campaign or product. When your company is the one that built it, you get to claim complete credit.
How do you find time for personal growth?
As a creative and entrepreneur, we must carve out time for our own personal growth. Here are some ways we discussed handling this.
“Growth is about figuring out how to increase impact where you already have ability.”
– Nine Lies about work, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
Ramona is a fan of conferences and podcasts. “I listen to podcasts and attend conferences to stay on top of what’s happening in my industry. Podcasts are a great resource for me, as I can learn on the go.”
Life coach, business coach
I’ve always been an avid student— reading books and newsletters, watching videos of whichever topics or industries I’m working with, attending conferences and talks of topics I’m interested in, consuming blogs to understand the latest trends, and getting coached in different areas like pitching or public speaking. But once I became a mother and was faced with raising a young child, I took the opportunity to do some really deep inner work that I should have probably tended to previously but never prioritized. That took many shapes and forms, but I’ve gained the most value from working with a life coach and a business coach.
Is work/life balance possible as entrepreneurs and designers?
“My work—even though there are difficult days—is part of my life. In terms of balancing family needs with work needs (and granted, I work with my co-founder husband), I’ve cultivated a love for the arts in my child, so we bond over painting and arts and crafts projects. Also, there are times I just need to mentally disconnect and have a glass of wine and watch Netflix,” said Almitra.
Andrew agrees that it is possible. “I work from home and sometimes have calls where my baby is around. If I really need to clear my head, I’ll head out surfing.”
“I hate the term work/life balance,” said Ramona, smiling as the room laughed.
For me personally, “balance” is an unachievable goal. It asks us to aim for momentary stasis in a world that is ever-changing. We spend the majority of our waking hours “working.” It is important to find work that you love. We are very lucky to work in this industry, in this location, doing what we love, and making a living.
Some daily practices that help me remain as balanced as possible:
Set clear boundaries (in other words, no all-nighters)
Proactively schedule. I’ll block out time for my team, time for clients, time for deep thinking, and time for planning the future. This allows me to be more fully present at each of those instances.
Reassess priorities every day. I look at my list of tasks and am honest about what I can tackle that day.
Advice for someone starting their own business
Finally, we addressed any advice we had for designers or creatives who are thinking about going out on their own, talking about the difference between freelancing and creating your own agency.
Find what you love
Everyone’s journey is unique. Before I created an agency, I freelanced and found what I love doing and where I find joy in my working life. Once I had a clear understanding of that, it was easier to express my vision and value in order to bring others onboard the business.
Discover what you love to do, how you can contribute your talents to the best of your ability, and when that contribution leaves you feeling more energized. Once you have clarity on that and have identified where the market needs meet with your talents, then I’d encourage you to take the leap and start a business.
Almitra left us with parting wisdom: “Give it a try. You can always go back to your old job.”