Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’re introducing a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, will answer reader questions related to the unchartered waters of beginning a career. To kick things off, Mitch takes on a personal question.
Q. What mistakes did you make starting out in your career? And how can I avoid them?
My design partner (and now wife) Anne Jordan and I started our design studio in June of 2007. I had graduated with my BFA the year before, and Anne had just finished school that month. We had no business plan, no income or growth projections, no marketing strategy, and no experience. What we did each have were several freelance clients, so clearly the smart move was to start a business together even though we had no idea what we were doing. We actually said to ourselves “How hard could it be? We’ll learn along the way.”
And learn along the way we did. We had some success, and many failures. One of our first mistakes was not finding the right people to help us run the business side of the studio. We immediately hired an accountant, and the first thing he did was make us spend money we did not have to incorporate the business, so we would be able to grow rapidly (even though we did not plan on hiring anyone else — but just in case, we were ready!). We spent lots of extra money on incorporation fees and business taxes, and spent lots of time on paperwork and filling out forms that we did not need.
Had we done more research or gotten a second opinion, we could have structured our business in a much simpler way. Money is challenging, so having an accountant is critically important, and something any freelancer or small business owner should do — but make sure you find someone you trust, and who understands what you really need. This person was a great accountant for a multi-million dollar company, but not so great for a couple of naive graduates trying to make next month’s rent.
Initially, we priced most work by project instead of by hour. As new designers, we didn’t really know how long it would take to complete most of our early projects. Our biggest screw up in the first year was a bid for the design of an enormous electrical and lighting parts catalog. We did some calculating about how long we thought it would take to design each page, multiplied by the number of pages, added a little time for surprises, and sent out the bid. The client immediately approved our proposal and fee.
Fortunately, we are friends with many more experienced designers, one of whom looked at the project, looked at our fee, and told us we were off by an order of magnitude. She told us that we had bid about 1/10th as much as we should have, and from experience she knew that the project would take far, far longer than we thought — the design fee the client accepted would have completely bankrupted us. One incredibly awkward client phone call later, we were out of the project and had learned a valuable lesson.
It was not all mistakes, though. Something that we did well was having a few experienced designer friends we could talk to with questions about how to run a design studio. In addition to leaning on each other, we were able to get advice from people who had made the same mistakes we were about to make. This is incredibly important: no matter where you go to school, you will never learn everything you need to know about running a design business.
Some of it you will have to figure out as you go along (like remembering to put an invoice number on invoices — yes, that was embarrassing.) Having people we could talk to made this much easier, and avoided a few major disasters. This is where design organizations like the AIGA and events like Creative Mornings can be so valuable — they are places to meet people who know all the stuff you don’t. Design is way more fun when you don’t try to do it alone.
Got a question for Mitch? Tweet it to us @99U and we’ll pose them to him in the coming months.