PRO: You set your own hours
There’s no more 9–5, Monday to Friday. No more forcing yourself out of bed to make a profit for some boss. When I need time during the afternoon for a dental appointment, to visit the bank, or to simply go for a walk along the coast, I can. I don’t need to ask for permission or to let someone know where I’m going. Of course, it’s still essential to have a routine, and to set specific hours when your clients can reach you, but in general, you’ll have a lot more flexibility when organizing your life.
CON: People expect you to work 24/7
I started working with clients all around the world in very different time zones. Taking full responsibility for every detail of a project was new to me, and I wasn’t careful enough about setting boundaries. So my phone rang in the middle of the night, when I was in bed, fast asleep, and certainly not thinking about serving clients.
PRO: You set your own rates
The sky’s the limit for what you decide to quote. There are no predefined income brackets that someone else places you in, and there are no annual pay reviews where you attempt to convince your superior that you’re worth a place in the next bracket. As a self-employed person, it’s up to you to determine what your skills are worth. That was a huge incentive for me, but it also leads to one of my biggest headaches.
CON: How do you know what to charge?
This is new territory. No one can tell you exactly what figure to show on your project quotes. No one knows your education and work history as well as you do. No one knows the attention to detail you put into each and every client project. This is your call. Other people can help, and we’ll look closely at pricing in chapter 16, but ultimately, this is your call. It’s not easy.
PRO: You’re doing the job you love
That’s why you’re in it for the long haul. You love it. Think about your friends and family, and ask yourself how many of them truly love the jobs they’re doing. When I think of those close to me and how many of them work just to pay the bills and support their families, it makes me incredibly thankful for the position in which I find myself.
You also need to love your job because for everything that’s great about running your own design business, it’s not all roses. Your passion will get you through the hard times and through those situations when a particular project isn’t everything you’d hoped it would be. But there are other situations that can test your love. Check chapter 14 for advice on what to do then.
CON: Some people think that because you love your job, you’ll happily work for free
If you’ve not encountered this problem already, you soon will. On this very day, when I’m writing these words, I received yet another email from a potential client without a design budget. What did he offer me? A link to my portfolio at the foot of his website.
“Think of the exposure!”
It’s incredibly common that people believe they can get something for nothing, regardless of the product or service they need. Thanks, but no thanks. When you have and show respect for yourself and your work, others will learn to respect what you offer.
PRO: You make the rules
This is where small businesses have a huge advantage over large organizations. If you want to start a new marketing campaign, you can do it today. There’s no need for meeting after meeting to vainly attempt to predict the outcome before spending money on the idea. Go right ahead. You’re in charge.
When I was beginning, I wanted to attract local clients—people I could meet face-to-face so I could build more of a relationship than I could through purely online means. So I designed my corporate stationery, got it printed at a local print shop, polished my portfolio, put on my best shoes, and hit the city center. Was it successful? Not particularly, but I was trying. I decided to cold-call market myself in person and just got out there and did it. A few days of preparation were all that was necessary. Now, imagine if the Coca-Cola Company was implementing a door-to-door marketing push. How many meetings and how many months of preparation do you think that would take?
CON: No one explains the rules
I admit that much of what I did in my early days involved flying by the seat of my pants. In hindsight, I was certainly more naïve than I would have hoped.
My first business name was New Dawn Graphics. Yes, it makes me cringe. The website was geared up to make me look like a team of design professionals rather than what my business really was—just me. I did plan to bring other people on board and to subcontract much of the work, but in those early days none of that happened, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the generic business name.
When I finally switched the brand name to David Airey, that wasn’t the end of the mistakes. I made plenty—especially with my website—and I’ll tell you about the worst Web mistakes in chapter 10. (If you want to know about naming your brand, there’s some excellent advice from Bernadette Jiwa in chapter 7.)
You, on the other hand, you were paying particular attention throughout your studio experience, weren’t you? Maybe? If not, it is vital that you start now: Pick up as much advice as possible while in design employment—in project management, dealing with clients, bookkeeping, pricing, and so on—because the more prepared you are, the smoother the transition to self-employment will be. My cold-call, door-to-door approach, for instance—that’s not the way to approach potential clients. Chapter 11 contains marketing advice that’s infinitely more useful.
PRO: If you want a holiday, you take a holiday
Are your friends going away on a last-minute trip? Did some festival tickets suddenly become available? Have you been more stressed than normal lately? You no longer need to juggle your time off around your work colleagues’ prebooked holidays. Your only concern is with your current clients. Treat them well. Then treat yourself. There’s no boss to give you a Christmas bonus, or to tell you to have the rest of the day off. That privilege rests on your shoulders. Don’t let it slip away.
Since going independent, in addition to working harder, I’ve seen a lot more of the world, too, spending time off in Malaysia, Spain, Russia, Thailand, the United States, India, China, Turkey, Vietnam, and many other destinations. I would never have had the time off to do so many things had I still been working in someone else’s office.
CON: You don’t get paid for time off
A definite downside of self-employment—you can forget about those paid holidays, paid sick days, and paid maternity/paternity leave days. Those are comforts you can no longer afford, unless you add passive income streams into your business. (Speaking of those, we’ll get to some in chapter 20.)
PRO: You get to wear a lot of different hats
Design, branding, marketing, communications, project management, accounting, public relations, business management, IT, Web development—these are just a few of the many hats you need to wear. What is it people say about the spice of life?
In my days of formal education, I took a post-graduate course in management, and although I don’t manage a team of employees, what I learned from that course has definitely helped me tackle the non-design side of my business. You’ll need to be well-rounded, as they say.
CON: Sometimes you just want to wear your favorite hat
Rest assured that at some point you’ll want to be a designer at the exact time you need to be an accountant. I’ve been knee-deep in the design research stage of a project right when it was time to sort out my invoices for the year and file my tax return.
The solution here, of course, is simple time management. When it comes to taxes, for instance, I’ve learned to get mine sorted at the end of the financial year rather than let them interfere with design time later. The point is, you can’t ignore the other hats no matter how uncomfortable the fit.
PRO: Your clients come from all walks of life, all around the world
One of the best parts of my job is the amount of variety supplied by my clients. They can just as easily be halfway around the world, in a completely different culture, as they can the other side of town. In fact, given the nature of my search-engine optimization, the clients that find me through my website are actually more likely to hail from the other side of the Atlantic. (You’ll find advice on boosting your own search-engine rankings in chapter 10.)
It’s not just working with different people that inspires me. It’s how the nature of their businesses changes with almost every project. With one project I’ll be learning about surfing, in another about tequila, then in another about luxury fashion or medical advances or digital music. The topics you get to study are limited only by those clients you choose to work with, and that certainly keeps my job interesting.
CON: You probably can’t meet every client in person
It’s hard to beat meeting face-to-face when it comes to building relationships, so with the vast majority of my client base being overseas, I’m unlikely to create bonds as strong as they could be. This doesn’t mean I can’t surpass clients’ expectations. It’s just that I won’t always be in the room to see the delight on their faces.
There’s a positive in there, too, though: On many past projects, I’ve saved valuable time when all the process needs is a video call rather than the hours I would have spent traveling to and from face-to-face meetings.
PRO: The 10-meter commute from bedroom to home studio
Not having to climb into a freezing cold car each winter morning and battle the rush-hour traffic to get to work, as well as paying for gas and parking, are all great reminders of why I chose self-employment. Now I save the money and time I’d normally spend commuting and use those resources to do what I want to do.
CON: The inability to leave your work “at the office”
When your workplace is where you live, it’s all too easy to work incredibly long hours. When your office is meters from your living room, there’s a temptation to pop back into “work” when it’s more important to spend time with your family. Avoid using your laptop in bed, because it’s a lot easier to get a good night’s sleep when you associate your bed with sleeping—not watching TV or reading, and definitely not working. I’ve previously contributed to many sleepless nights by checking emails when propped up by pillows. It has quickly led to an inability to switch off, and when I’ve been able to get some sleep I’ve found myself waking up with headaches after grinding teeth through stress (or waking up with a shove from my wife when my teeth grinding has disturbed her sleep). Self-discipline is essential.
PRO: Taking your laptop outdoors
The sun’s shining, there’s blue sky as far as the eye can see, and it’s definitely not a day to be cooped up in the office. So leave! Get your laptop and head to the park, the beach, the countryside, a beer garden. Or, remember what I said about holidays and taking the afternoon off? Feel free to leave the laptop in the office. Take your partner, instead.
CON: The weather doesn’t always cooperate
I’m not even sure this is a “con.” See the entry on “10-meter commute,” above. Enough said.