If only I knew these things before starting my design business. You know that saying, hindsight is 20/20? It means that it’s always easier to see things when you’re looking back than when you’re looking forward.
Before I decided to leave the print shop where I worked as a graphic designer to start my graphic and web design business in 2006, I had a preconceived notion of what to expect. Some of what I imagined turned out to be accurate and some of what I believed was way off.
For example, I imagined how much I would love running my own business, spending my days designing beautiful things for great clients. It turns out I love it even more than I anticipated. However, I do spend a lot less time designing than I thought I would.
I didn’t know many designers in 2006 who were running their own business. There were a few who used the print shop I worked at for their client’s print work. But they were more of what I call freelance designers. Meaning, they had other sources of income and did design as a side-gig. So there was nobody for me to emulate.
I did have one friend, Jason, with a successful design business in Toronto. I talked to him quite a bit before deciding to go it on my own. But even with those conversations, there was still a lot I didn’t know or wasn’t expecting when I did eventually jump ship.
So here are ten things I wish someone had told me before I started my design business.
1) You don’t need a lot of clients to run a successful design business. Before starting my design business, I thought I would need 50 to 100 clients for my new business to be sustainable. Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that a solo designer could make a good living with only a handful of clients. In fact, during the first two years of my business, I only had 11 or 12 clients. Clients come and go, but on any given basis, a dozen clients is a good number to aim for. More than that and you risk overloading yourself with work.
2) You’ll spend a lot of time on things other than design. Running your own business is a lot of work. And a lot of it is considered non-billable time. Things like invoicing and bookkeeping, keeping track of expenses and taxes, writing pitches, contracts and proposals. And so much more.
I thought I would be spending my days in creative bliss, designing beautiful things for grateful clients. But there have been days when I’m too busy running my business to design anything.
3) You need to become a time management expert. When you work for someone else, they tell you when to take breaks, go for lunch, and call it quits at the end of the day. When you’re running your own design business, there’s nobody prodding you along but yourself.
Learn to take breaks and find time to eat—set boundaries between your work and non-work life. Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out by working days, evenings and weekends, and you’ll start to resent what you do.
Running your own business means a flexible schedule, but you need to learn how to manage your time effectively. When you make your own schedule, you have the freedom to go to the grocery store on a Wednesday morning or to cut your day off early so you can bring your kids to their karate class or their soccer game. That’s the benefit of working for yourself. But you also need to be able to juggle multiple design projects with overlapping deadlines and clients who are not always on time delivering the content they promised you.
Conquering time management is the only way to stay sane in this business.
4) The rejections and criticisms will never stop. Just because your the boss doesn’t mean clients won’t find fault with your work. But don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It doesn’t matter how long you do this work or how good you become. There will always be room for improvement. Clients will reject your proofs or decide no