In 2011, a decade-plus into my graphic design career, I felt undervalued and underpaid. So I did something crazy: I quit my job and started my own design business. I’d been freelancing for a while, but this was different. It wasn’t going to be me sitting at home designing in my pajamas. It was going to be an actual corporation with an office lease, overhead, and payroll. Yes it was modest, but I was going to be working for myself.
And it was fucking terrifying.
20% of small businesses fail in the first year.
It’s tough landing work when you first start out. Clients won’t hire you because they have no idea if you can handle the work—your portfolio may show your skillset, but as a business owner, you haven’t proven yourself.
To combat this, I relied on networking. I reached out to everyone I personally knew, people who already had trust in me, and let them know I was available for hire. I made fancy business cards. I talked up my business everywhere I went to anyone who’d listen. Looking back, I’m positive I came across as a pushy asshole, but they believed in me anyway. I landed a few regular clients, got a lot of smaller one-off projects, and at the end of my first year, my design business was in the black. It may have been only a fraction of my previous salary, and I may have been eating a lot of ramen, but at least I hadn’t lost money. My doors were still open.
50% of small businesses fail by the fifth year.
For me, the anxiety and stress of running a business was an order of magnitude greater than being an employee. With that pressure came long hours, typically 70+ hours a week. I never had panic attacks when I was an employee, but they were a regular occurrence as a business owner.
At my five year mark, I realized I wasn’t running a design business. The design business was running me. I was working twice as much as when I was employed. Yes, I was making a little more money, but not even close to twice as much. I had bigger and better office space, but with that came bigger overhead.
And oh yeah, I got a divorce. I’m not saying it’s because of the business (it wasn’t) but the anxiety, stress, and long hours didn’t help.
So five years in, I asked myself if it was all worth it. I understood why some people chose to go back and get a ‘real job’ with sane hours and a steady paycheck. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider it. It seemed like an easier, less stressful path.
But, it sounded too much like giving up. Failure.
Instead, a complete reboot.
So, there’s a woman involved. She was my first serious relationship after my divorce. We’d only been together a few months when she was given the opportunity to transfer to the east coast. I said, “Hey, I want to go with you.” She replied, “Hey, okay!” As crazy as that may sound, she was right and the timing was right. Personally and professionally, I was ripe for a reboot.
We made a preliminary visit to Richmond, Virginia and found a raw, unfinished downtown office space on main street, one block from the state capitol. I got to pick the finish out, but unfortunately it wouldn’t be complete until after I arrived. I would nee to put my stuff in storage and work for a month in temporary space—which turned out to be a glorified closet. Still though. Totally worth it.
Sidenote: Moving a business to another state is a real bitch. The amount of paperwork to domesticate a corporation in a new state, dissolve it in the original, and file with the SEC is staggering. I leaned heavily on both my CPA and attorney.
Design business = two words. Design. Business.
For five years, I’d solely focused on the first word. In my reboot, I decided to actually focus on the business part. I’d mastered my craft years ago, but had just skated by on the business side of things. For the first time, I put sales, scheduling, and project management on the same level as design.
Focusing on business worked. I mean it really worked.
I just finished my billing for June 2018, which was my seventh business anniversary. It was my biggest month ever.
Revenue for the month—one single month—was equal to my entire annual salary at my last ‘real job’ and on average, I only worked 50 hours a week. Yes, that’s more than a ‘real job’ but it’s nothing like the 70+ hours I used to work. No sugar coating though: it takes extreme discipline and precisely managed projects to make it work.
Having my biggest month ever fall on my 7th business anniversary is nice, but matching my previous annual salary in a single month was the real surprise. That is a milestone I never expected.
To everyone involved in this journey—clients, partners, employees, family, friends—thank you.