Want to run your own design business one day?

For 8 years I did the studio agency thing. I worked with a bunch incredibly kind/smart and wonderful people over that time. From a milk moustached kid doing small design tasks for no name clients, to doing creative direction and working with global brands years later. In the end I ended up with a nice wage, a design team and a fancy title. But by then I wasn’t learning any more, I’d lost passion for most of the work and I’d lost the zest to get up in the morning and head into the office. By then I knew it was time so I resigned and decided to drop it all.

A couple of twists and turns happened and in the end I ended up running my own design business. I should’ve been shit scared but I backed myself and had blind ambition and belief that it would work out somehow. Let's just say it was naive optimism, but I think a big part of it was I was confident in the skills, connections and mindset that I had built 8 years prior to going solo. Everything was preparation for this one race. Rather than harp on too much you can read about some that here.

So it’s been 2.5 years since that moment, approaching 3 years and boy has it gone quick. It’s afforded me tremendous freedom, and the luxuries of working to my own rhythm and passions. There have been a lot of highs and lows, like everything in life. If you want to run your own design business or product you definitely have to have the stomach and mindset for it. You can be really comfortable one minute and then thrown completely thrown out of your comfort zone the next. So that environment has to resonate with your personality and fortunately it does with me. Overall it’s been a wonderful experience and I’ve managed to build different things that I’ve always wanted. You know the “maybe one day I’d get around to it stuff”. Well ever since I ventured out on my own I managed to accomplish some of ‘that stuff’. I’m enjoying the process, the journey and I know what I want to achieve. Here are some things I’ve accomplished in the last 2 ½ years:

1. Launched a blog – I launched Verse. I’ve always wanted to share some of my thoughts. It has been amazing connecting and growing the blog. Connecting with so many talented designers, and the fact that there are people that are resonating with my writing and thoughts is very inspiring and humbling. I’m grateful that a few thousand designers bother to tune in every week. And beyond the blog is building a strong email list, which is the lifeblood of many small businesses.

2. Launched a product  – I launched the Process Masterclass, and brought a product to market which is scheduled to gross over $100k in less than a year. I can’t explain the feeling of having a simple idea and nurturing into fruition. I read as much as I could on product launches and strategy. And it was amazing to couple my design knowledge with all the new things I’d learnt and see it all working.  When I got the first purchase it was an amazing rush and feeling. When I received emails and stories of people enjoying the class it fills me with great pride and joy. I love design, and the opportunities it has presented to me. And being able to share that and connect with others designers has been amazing. It’s a great time to be able to mentor a little again, which is one thing I miss about not working at an agency any more. This is definitely one of my proudest accomplishments and getting it off the ground was scary and fucking hard but I’m glad I did it.

3. Freelanced for amazing clients – I left my full time position predominantly because I wasn’t outputting the kind of work I wanted to do anymore. So over the last 2.5 years I’ve worked on some great projects for some lovely clients. The kind of work that aligns with what I want to create and that has been very creatively fulfilling! The ability to pick the clients I work with has been awesome and a real blessing.  

4. Built a profitable business – I’ve made more working on my own than working for an agency. I’ve done a few hundred thousand in revenue to date and am grateful for the opportunities. It’s not just about how much you make though, but how you made it. And I can honestly say that all the little initiatives above, providing value to others regardless if it comes with a pay check or not, doing the best that I can, being good to people and doing good work manifested itself into profit for my business. Business 101 to me is just giving a shit about people and doing good work that creates outcomes. 

5. Worked less hours and on a more flexible schedule – I think this is the best thing about being an independent designer/maker/freelancer and running your own thing. No more 9am-6pm slog and artificial 40 hour work week. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a fixed schedule, actually some days I prefer having a schedule but for my personality the ability to do whatever the fuck on want on a Tuesday for example is liberating. Focus more on outcomes rather than just logging time.

6. Investing in myself and my business for growth – I’ve read/watched a ton of books, articles, resources, videos and bought and learnt from a few courses When you are working on less projects for higher value, it gives you time to invest in yourself and to grow. I’ve experienced firsthand the more I’ve read, the more I’ve been able to achieve. I just love the process of learning, and then growing.

Ok so these are the things that I managed to accomplish. All this is just a small stepping stone to:

1. Retire my parents

2. Support my family indefinitely

3. Give to those who are less fortunate

4. Build a design innovation lab to build interesting products and experiments that we can bring to market. I’d love to work with and collab with people way smarter/better than I am. And build a proper studio space to facilitate this.

5. Create a $5 million fund

6. Provide as much value as I can, to as many people as I can to promote positive change

But how does this apply to you running your own business one day? Well during all this I realised that there are a few mindsets shifts and traits that you can have to run a thriving business. This is the highlight reel of things I’ve achieved so far. Between it were some of the shitty stuff. Like procrastination. Jobs falling through. Clients paying later than expected. Some clients flaking. Risking it all on a project and launch that might not work. Writing to nobody. Uncertainty for the future. etc. But I simply pushed on. 

And the best part as of writing this is that I am only at the beginning of this journey. There’s still another good 3-5 years left of work in it. (Which I will chronicle here and share with you) So I took a retrospect about some key things and attributes that have helped me along the way. And what will allow me to reach some of the above high level goals. What’s great is these are all traits you can begin working on now. Whether you work in house, for a studio or if you are even a freelancer thinking of launching your own thing.

1. Speed of execution

This is the speed it takes you to go from having an idea to executing. It’s also the moment you have learnt something new to how quick you can apply it and put it into action. The best in the business execute often. I’ve had friends and family who always want to start something, or make something, but it rarely ever turns from idea to action. And if it does they’ll do all the easy but non essential stuff. Working on the logo. Working on the site. Working on social media. But never bringing a product to launch. Never facing the market and launching it. For fear that their precious idea will get trampled on. That maybe there isn’t a market for it. It’s better to believe your idea is great than be told otherwise. They sit on it for a year to 2 years. Then see their ideas come to life by the people who dared to take action. Who had the guts to execute. How many times have you heard people who said that they thought of Uber first, or they always ‘knew’ video on demand would be a thing, or that juice bar was their concept if only they acted they’d be a multi-millionaire. All hypothetical “XYZ” was my idea!

Unfortunately ideas are a dime a dozen. Those who execute are the ones that bring their visions to life. They are also the ones who have to face the music of the market. Whether that’s good or bad. The ones who dare to fail and get back up. And the ones that thrive are the ones that adapt and execute daily based on that feedback. Listen. Learn. Launch. Iterate. Test. Iterate some more. Launch.

I’ve been thinking of getting design network partners for my next launch of the Process Masterclass. I’ve been holding it off because it’s outside of my comfort zone. And I will have to connect with a lot of people and will definitely be faced with a lot of no’s. Because I haven’t built that rapport yet. But amongst all of that there will be people who will say yes. Who will be the right fit. So I just need to execute and stop holding it off. Push back the fear of rejection and keep moving forward. So when you have something you are passionate about. Don’t just talk about it, just do it and make it happen!

2. Patience and tenacity

Next is to have the patience and have the tenacity to show up everyday. To do 1 thing even if it’s small that brings you closer to your vision and the kind of life/business that you want. You have to have the patience to stick it out for 5 years or 10 years to build a worthwhile business. Nothing good comes easy or happens overnight. Feel like a long time doesn’t it? Not when you think of it in terms of a lifetime. Playing the long game and thinking about the macro is super important, what is it that compels you? What is your purpose? What is your vision? And then having the tenacity to show up and execute everyday to make it happen. Because it means that much to you. I used to never think about the future and just took things as they came. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think to thrive – you need the ability to look at the big picture and that patience to wait it out. On the flipside as you are waiting you are at the same time tenaciously executing. Marketing, Writing, Designing, Strategizing, Connecting etc.  It’s this weird ying and yang of pushing and pulling that has helped me find what little small success I have found so far, which I feel will compound much greater into the future. I’m currently building assets and planting seeds that I can sow later. Have the patience and vision to play the long game.

3.Have leverage

Leverage is working on your cashflow. Save enough of that fuck you money, so you don’t become distracted. So you are not at the mercy of every opportunity and can invest in your own projects. So that you can price on value if you do work for clients and stop trading time for money. So you can say no to projects that aren’t a right fit and say yes to the ones that are. It also allows you enough run way to re-invest into your business. You can also build leverage by providing people a ton of value. Try to genuinely help people without thinking of getting anything in return. If you do this selflessly you will build rapport with potential clients (1-1 with clients), with your own audience (blog, email newsletter, social media) and potential customers (targeted channels). Good karma builds leverage. People recommend you to other people. Start building leverage by saving and by helping others.

With these 3 traits, along with the goal setting framework that I use and how to step as a designer. You will be geared to succeed when you do your own thing and leave your mark on the world. I’d say good luck, but you probably won’t need it if you apply these things!