the Design Office of Matt Stevens - Direction + Design + Illustration


Thoughts: 3 Years in. What I've learned / Pt.1

Hard to believe, but after being an employee my entire creative career, I've been out on my own for just about 3 years. I've done some things right, done a lot of things wrong and ultimately, have learned a ton. For those of you out there on your own, or considering it, I thought I'd gather some of my thoughts and share what I've learned. For those of you out there that have been doing this longer than me, I'd love for you add your 2 cents in the comments. I'm sure I have even more I can learn from you.

THE LEAP / I thought it was worth taking the time to go into some detail about how I ended up out on my own. Within that story are some things that will be helpful and encompass many of the questions and fears that is inherent in this process. 

I was never the type that thought I wanted to own my own business. I was intimidated by the thought of dealing with the sales and business side and was convinced I didn't have a head for it. Numbers are not my forte and I often find myself procrastinating the little things I don't want to do. I considered this "knowing my limitations" so I was convinced the safety* of having someone else deal with all of that outweighed any benefit to being out on my own. In a way, the stars had to align for me to make the leap. 

I had been working at a small brand agency as senior designer and then Creative Director for over 10 years. Things were steady and stable, but I found that my side projects were taking off & my roster of freelance was growing. For over a year and a half I juggled this extra work with a full-time job and the demands of a family. The hours I was keeping were not sustainable for the long term. The energy and enjoyment I was getting out of the freelance and my own side works was enough to keep me energized, but I knew it couldn't last forever and I was beginning to hit the wall. It was around this time that I began working with JJ's Red Hots. The project was substantial enough that I began to ponder making the jump out on my own. In the middle of this decision process, I was invited by my freelance client, Facebook, to come out and spend 90 days with them, to work on some special projects and see it if was a fit for full-time employment. This was exciting but daunting. To pick up and be away for 3 months would be difficult, but I felt like the stars had aligned in a way that they may never again. It was an amazing and challenging time. I was working with the best of the best in a great environment, but it was tough being away from home. I was full time at Facebook during the day and working on JJ's work at nights and on the weekends, to get things ready for them to launch. Every two weeks or so I'd catch the redeye home on a Friday night and then be back to California by Monday. 

Ultimately my decision to not take a full time position was a family one. I just couldn't uproot and be so far from extended family. But the year and half of freelance and the opportunity to take on a project the size of JJ's and working full time at Facebook gave me the cushion I needed to make the leap. When I pondered going out on my own, I ended up full of fear and anxiety every time. I kept trying to find a way to remove all the risk from the inherent riskiness of what I was thinking of doing. One day I was meeting with a friend who had his own business for several years and shared with him my bind. He gave me the simplest and best advice I'd been given and was just what I needed to hear as a risk-averse, right-brained, indecisive person. "Have 3-6 months of money saved up, have a pretty full plate of upcoming/ongoing projects and just go for it." Hearing it that simply and in those concrete terms really helped me. There was no magic. There was no secret way that no one could tell me about. It was a combination of being smart about how to do it and being brave enough to just do it. 

SLOW TIMES / After being on my own for the first few busy months, I hit my first slow period. It didn't take long for panic to set in. I was used to the rhythm of agency life. Although within an agency, you have slow times, you are shielded from just how that effects the bottom line of the company and ultimately your security as an employee. Ignorance truly is bliss in this case. When it's just you, you feel the slow times and you see in full detail, the slowing of income. Early on, it was easy to panic, but ultimately you are adjusting to a new rhythm. The slow times and way too busy times are all part of the deal. You can do your best to control and regulate workflow, but it's not possible when you are project to project. I was in Charleston for a design event and meeting with my good friend, Adam, who has been running his own successful film/video studio for several years. He confirmed that these up and downs are normal with even the best of planning. (I hope you're seeing a theme of reaching out and asking for help from those that have been there before)

After a few days of worry, I dove in on some personal projects that I had ideas for. My Junk Drawer series came from this first slow period. I used it to explore an idea, try out a new style and make something. It's not a guarantee, but often times these side ventures lead to new projects and opportunities and at minimum, help to develop your craft and creative thinking. The slow times will come. Stay calm and use the time wisely.

THE CHURN / Early on, I saw every project inquiry that hit my inbox as a sure thing. So when it turned out that most of these didn't come through, it felt like I had failed somehow. Over time I've realized that so many things can happen and consequently, many things have to go right in order to land a project, many of these factors outside of my control. The person on the other end is dealing with their own set of problems to try and get their job done. You are often just one piece of a much larger picture. They may just be trying to get some numbers together to get the project approved, or they may be approaching multiple people for the same work. They may have the project cancelled or it may take a different direction and that may be outside their control. I have lovingly called this process "the churn." I've found that I get maybe 20 - 25% of these opportunities that are presented. Knowing that, I still get disappointed when the job I'm dying to have doesn't work out, but I'm not crushed every time. I don't call a project "mine" until the SOW is signed and/or the deposit check is in hand. 

TAXES / I can keep this pretty short. Make sure you are putting money aside for taxes. If you are a sole proprietor, Don't see that 100 dollars you earned as a dollar, you just earned 60 dollars. Be diligent about paying your taxes quarterly or you will pay a penalty and make sure you are setting it aside along the way. If you know you'll be going solo for a while, meet with smart people like CPA's and attorneys that can help set you up as a business and can save you come tax time. I am very uncomfortable with this side of running my own business, so investing the money and leaning on outside resources is very important for me. 

2 MONTHS OUT / Someone said this to me in this last year and at first it freaked me out, but like most things, embracing the truth and reality end up being reassuring. It's obvious to me now, but a friend who had run their own business described project work as a designer as "never knowing what you would be doing 2 months out." Yikes. But it really is the truth. Sometimes there can be longer term projects or a retainer situation, but often times you just don't know what you'll be working on past the near future. If you're thinking of doing your own thing, this is something to be realistic about and embrace.

SPACE / I tried working from home early on. It took about 6 months for me to realize it was not for me. I have kids at home, which made it tougher, but I also realized I just needed the routine of leaving the house. Just the process of getting ready, leaving the house, getting my coffee, was an integral part of signaling my work day had begun. We're all different, but I realized this routine was important for me and having outside space forced me to do that. When I worked from home, I'd often just roll over to the computer, dive in to my emails and work, and before I realized it, it was the middle of the afternoon and I hadn't eaten or taken a break. Now that I have my own space, I use coffee shop work sessions and working from home 1 day a week or so to break up the routine. Again, everyone is different and you have to figure out what works for you, but I found that having this separation was important for me. I briefly tried a co-working space and have also rented an office within two local creative agencies. It's been nice to have my own space but to be in an office where creative work is happening.  

Thanks for reading! Look out for Part 2 that will include thoughts on speaking, personal brand, pricing, and the dangers of comparison. Coming soon...


*The reality is I could have been fired at any time

Matt Stevens9 Comments