Should You Start Your Own Firm?

I seldom give up my 17,000-person blog platform to guests. Keeping your attention is important and my primary marketing tool. But, I read a blog last week that Mark Busse wrote, and I thought it was brilliant. I'm sharing it here with his permission:

Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare.

You should think twice before starting your own business. I am flattered that so many young designers ask me for advice about what they should do after graduation. Truth is, my opinions hardly matter as everyone is faced with a unique path that they must follow. But I am truly baffled by how many choose to go solo or even start new design firms. I understand the urge to follow your dreams, but that just sounds like a nightmare to me.

I was reminded of this recently when Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay announced he was closing his two Vancouver restaurants after less than two years. Mackay publicly admitted that he now realized how bold he was to go out on his own so soon, unaware of how saturated the market was or how high operating costs really were. Although he was an award-winning chef, Mackay lacked the experience, financial backing--and I would suggest a unique enough offering--to operate a successful restaurant business.

Recently I heard from two former students of mine. As they entered the industry a few years ago we had some honest talks about their options, and against my advice they decided to skip internships or junior positions--which they felt were both beneath them--and went into partnership together with another classmate to form their own design studio. After some early success working for friends and family, their studio quickly fell into chaos, the partnership dissolved, and the company folded, leaving their clients in rough shape. They recently visited me and explained how their own hubris had led them down a path of disappointment and hurt not only them, damaging their careers and reputation, but the clients that they served.

These are common stories unfortunately. I suspect there are a number of reasons why young designers feel so compelled to strike out on their own so early these days. Besides a crappy economy where creating a job for yourself might seem easier than finding one, over the past 20 years I've increasingly heard encouraging statements like "follow your passion" or "do what you love and love what you do" which of course feeds right into the "we can change the world" millennial ethos of those entering the workforce now. With the fairytale of the freedom, flexibility and personal reward that comes with being your own boss--especially with stories of startups making millions for their young founders--combined with the bold problem solving and confident communication skills that come with a design education, it's no wonder 25-year-olds think they should be a creative director or studio owner!

Of course there are legendary success stories about young designers making it big, but those are exceptions--and by that I mean exceptionally talented and lucky designers. I'll spare you the customary lecture about the need to possess a deep understanding and knowledge of business fundamentals like finances, accounting, management, and marketing required to succeed as a business owner. You can just Google that stuff, right? I'll even spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I'd hoped for after 15 years--and I have a business degree--and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let's talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.

You heard me: lazy, short-sighted and dangerous. Think about that for a second. There are few choices more self-indulgent than starting a business because you don't want to put in the time to earn a position at an established company and invest the time to learn from experienced experts. Businesses that survive their first few years--less than 15% by the way--are those that have something unique to offer their customers. Are you so sure that your design business will have something special to offer its clients, or are you just thinking of yourself? A young graphic designer's motivation should be to solve communication problems using creativity, design thinking and production skills, not feeding their ego by playing the role of young entrepreneur. Ego and impatience are a designer's enemies. Are you really so confident that you feel you've not only mastered our craft but can also already manage a profitable business? If your own ignorance or inexperience lead you to fail, then your own selfish needs just potentially harmed someone else. Are you ready to take responsibility for that?

Your job after design school is to master design. No wait, it's to get a job, Hang on, it's both! It may be harder than ever to land good designer positions these days, but that should be viewed as a challenge to overcome. Much like any client design project, your career is now your design project and deserves even more time, effort and energy than school did. Do the research. Invest the time to get it right. And slow down, for God's sake! Give yourself a little time to look around, see how others do things, and fail a few times without ruining yours or anyone else's business.

Oh, and that "do what you love and love what you do" paradigm? Uh, that might be a little messed up kidlings. I may not agree entirely with David C. Baker's perspective on the issue, but it's worth a read and a deep think. It's called work for a reason, and if you got into the design field because you thought it was going to be fun and easy, you're in for a bumpy ride with a nasty ending.

I'm sure Dale MacKay will survive this bump in his career, and ultimately gain wisdom and experience from his own arrogance. But he will forever have this failure on his CV and attached to his professional reputation, not to mention the impact it made on his friends and family who trusted him with their investment money. And my two former students both learned valuable lessons and are now back on track, a little behind schedule perhaps, but destined for success now that they've renewed their commitment to their careers instead of their egos.

There are literally dozens of other motivations for starting a design business, and dozens of other reasons why that choice might be foolhardy.

What are the issues most important to you? And what steps have you taken in the pursuit of your dream to own your own design business?

Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (BC Chapter), and a design writer and educator. This article first appeared in on August 30, 2012.

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Ryan Brandt

Over my 16 year career I haven't met a (straight out of college) designer or individual for that matter who was ready to run their own business. Additionally, I've only met a few experienced designers that had the skills necessary to run and be successful with a real business.


Mark DiMassimo

Some people are entrepreneurial, and their early entrepreneurial failures are no more damaging to themselves and others than the early design failures that most new graduates will perpetrate on the world.

When I read this article, I feel like I'm living in a very different culture. A culture in which starting and ending a business is somewhat fluid and not a scarlet letter one must wear for life.

I feel as if the author, like me, is writing with the benefit of a great deal of experience. That he knows, as I do, just how hard it is to run a successful creative business. He's trying to warn off the innocent, naive and arrogant. He's doing the work of the angels here, because mark my words there will be pain...

I started a few companies in my twenties. Most were ultimately successful, though we're not talking Facebook here. ALL were exquisitely painful. I was in over my head and trying to swim. These weren't design or advertising agencies. I knew I wanted to start an advertising and design firm, but felt I didn't know enough to make it different enough to be successful. So, I did work for other agencies for eight years, and I really did and still do miss my best bosses.

The agency I ultimately founded is now 16 years old and going strong. I've worked hard every year to master all the complexities of running a business and being an artist too. We've grown. I've done well financially. And often I still feel as if I'm in over my head. And I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to find someone who will volunteer to agree ;-)

My feeling is that if you're right out of school, you need experience and you are going to get it. The question is, what kind of experience do you want? Whether you take a job or start a business, you are likely to be rather painful to the people you work for. It's hard to keep clients when you inadvertently cause them a lot of pain.

So, yeah, think twice. Think hard. But don't be afraid to do. Get started. Because whatever you do at this point, you are going to fuck it up anyway.

And that's ok.


Jeff Matson

I couldn't agree more. After 24 years in the design business, I've seen countless design firms fail, usually because the owners have absolutely no business sense. None. Simple things like not paying attention to details, continually missing deadlines, not responding to inquiries immediately, lack of continual marketing, ignoring receivables and many more.


Phil Ryan

If I hadn't spent my first five years interning at major agencies in Montreal, I'd have never understood the mechanics in a whole - the design part of the business counts for less than half of what you need to succeed. Even when we thought we knew what we were doing, it again took mentoring from David Baker to get to the next level. If after reading this article, you still feel cocky enough to launch from out of school... Good luck with that!


Lynn O'Connell

Every young creative grad needs to read this article! Over the past 23 years, hundreds of design interns and junior designers have worked for my firm. In some ways the most talented designers are the ones who have the most to learn about dealing with the real world. Think about it for a minute -- you were the best in nigh school, the best in college, have always gotten straight A's, won all the design competitions. You don't know a thing about rejection. But, there is no client in the world who is going to like everything you do. You have to learn how to react, when to accept their direction and when to fight them. School has not prepared you for that.

Design firms and agencies are brutal businesses to build and run, and the thin profit margins leave little room for error. Why not learn the ropes on someone else's dime? I don't care how good you are, you need to learn real world creative and review process. Plus, you need to learn the art and science of managing clients. Get a job working for the best firm you can find, and watch how they do it. Then when you start your business, you can build on what you've learned, including improving on things you didn't like at firms you worked for.

I was 29 when I launched my agency. Although we were successful and grew quickly, I look back and can't believe how much we didn't know even after 5 years in the business. Managing a successful, fast-growing firm is incredibly hard, and it gets geometrically harder the faster you grow. I didn't have a vacation, a day off, and possibly not even an hour off for the first three or four years. Do you really want to do that in your twenties? I was married and my business partner is also my husband. Although that brings on its own problems, it made the lack of a social life much more bearable!

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


Chris Willis

Anyone who is tickled with even the most remote entrepreneurial itch should first read "The E-Myth". Being good at your craft is only of moderate importance in launching and succeeding in a business venture. And, if you are very good at your craft, running a business will simply annoyingly keep you from practicing your craft and steal your joy. It is the very rare individual indeed who, fresh in their career, has mastered both their craft and the art of running a successful business, and has the maturity and follow-through to meet all the diametrically opposed commitments of client needs, business needs, as well as having anything at all resembling a social life. After 20 years in business, ask me how I know this ...


Mark Busse

An interesting thing happened as I was writing this article (which took five re-writes to remove the jaded, snarky, professorial tone). Our intern, who sits next to me and often is my copy editing sounding board, was inspired to write an article of her own from the young intern's perspective.


Mark Marsiglio

Mark - Polina's post is great, thanks for sharing that.

I routinely tell people that my biggest mistake in starting the design/marketing/web dev firm was doing it too early and ignoring the requirements of my major which included completing an internship.

I ignored this advice because I had already started my company and did not want to shut it down to go work for someone else for free. However, that means I missed what might have been the biggest return on investment I could have earned in those early years. It has been 17 years now and I have recovered from all of the potentially business-ending mistakes that I made and learned very good lessons. But as the other commenters mentioned I could have learned many of those lessons by exposing myself to the experience and wisdom that I could gain from other well-run businesses.

The turnaround for my business started after I started to follow and take to heart David Baker's advice and began to specialize. It takes a great deal of organizational maturity to be able to make the hard decision to focus your marketing and we have by no means mastered that yet. The more of that maturity you can gain learning from other firms the better.


Bronson Ma

Young designers should surround themselves with incredibly talented seasoned designers to learn. There are a lot of things that happen in the real world that schools do not prepare you for. I waited to start my own firm after 8.5 years working with an incredibly talented group of people. Without that experience, I would not be able to operate my own business for the past 9 years.


Matt Politano

Living in a smaller urban centre, I can fully understand the financial motivation for starting a business straight out of school: there simply aren't many jobs/internships/whatever and bills (and loans) must be paid. Hard to argue with that.

However, I think that many, many designers that do start their own shops right out of school do it - exactly as Mark suggests - for more selfish, lazy reasons; out of a sense of entitlement and arrogance, really.

I started a small studio with two friends when I graduated and we learned very quickly what a big mistake that was. Do I regret it, though? No - because I recognized the error and decided to go do some serious life learning before ever trying THAT again.

Now, 13 years later, I'm 5+ years into running my own modestly successful business and I couldn't have pulled it off without having spent many years working in various positions and capacities, carefully observing the mistakes and victories, processes and relationships that drove the companies & organizations I worked at. I also screwed up a lot and had to learn how to deal with that (often with help from more senior co-workers). Valuable stuff.

I was asked a while ago what advice I would give a young designer just starting out. Here was my answer: Go work for lots of people, businesses. Work in-house and learn what makes an organization tick. Work for government. Work at a non-profit. Ask questions. Observe. Make note of what works and what doesn't. Then, if you decide to start your own business one day, you'll be wiser, smarter and much more likely to succeed.


Leslie Stone

While I enjoyed reading all these posts, I realize I must be one of the exceptions to the rule. And there must be more of you out there! I started my own freelance business right out of college in 1976. I supplemented my income by taking temporary jobs at other firms and learning a bit about how they do things. But for over 35 years, I have valued the freedom I get from having my own design business. I found that the most sound business principles are being prompt, friendly, reliable, confident, collaborative, assertive, keeping track of expenses and income projections, paying yourself enough (or don't do it), being kind to employees, not racking up debt, having sound ethics in all your business dealings, making your client look good to their boss and board, and correcting your mistakes with dignity. If your ego gets involved, it won't work. I wanted to work for myself because I found that no matter how hard I work, if I'm doing it because it's my own business, it's worth it. If I were working this hard and doing it for someone else who doesn't appreciate it, promote me, or value what I do, It's not worth it. You must be self-motivated and not rely on the constant approval of others.


Frank McClung

This is what America needs - more employees and less people willing to start their own business and fail. Most successful people fail their first, second, third and tenth attempt to do something right. Look through history and you will quickly see that "start up" failures produce valuable lessons along the way that would not have been gained working for someone else.

Most people look at the story of the prodigal son as a tale of personal ruin that should be avoided. I would contend that the prodigal son learned extremely valuable lessons though it cost him everything he had.

When designers are young and right out of school, they are not battered and jaded by years of painful experiences. And they don't have a reputation to be damaged. They should try new things like starting their own studio. Let them fail and learn from it. This is the attitude that America needs now. These are the qualities that lead to growth and maturation that employment cannot offer. Failure is a great teacher and friend.


David C. Baker

Frank, I understand the sentiment, but I'd point out two things that "young starters" ought to think about. First, avoid debt entirely. It's one thing to fail and then move on to the next challenge. It's another thing to fail and have to clean up the mess DURING your next challenge. Second, keep in mind that hiring people and then failing as a business creates tremendous displacement for people (as in employees), especially if they have quit a decent or good job to join the new young firm.


Chris Willis

So, Frank, wouldn't you want your next surgery - or even medical diagnosis - to be performed by a doctor who has completed their internship and residency - not someone fresh out of a pre-med program? One may even make a valid argument that a newly licensed doctor is up on the latest that research and technology has to offer - but she won't have the benefit of experience or network or resources to guide her when something unexpectedly goes sideways. Wouldn't the ideal medical team include a mix of experience and fresh perspective?

By all means, if a fresh grad wants to hang out a shingle as a freelancer, I believe they should knock themselves out. The stakes are relatively low and the market whips one into shape soon enough. Being a company of one is a great way to determine whether one's desire is to practice as a craftsperson doing client work or an entrepreneurial consultant in training. I just believe that when it comes to actually starting a studio/agency - with partner(s) and/or employees - it is a rare individual who out of the box possesses the experience and maturity to know their own heart, let alone spread themselves that thin and still having something of real value to offer clients. Hell, most colleges do such a poor job of preparing students for the demands of work in the real world, I find it challenging enough coaching a new grad as a team member, let alone entrusting them to produce client-ready work completely on their own or lead a project team to success. They don't know what they don't know without completing the equivalent of an internship and residency. Until then, if they choose to practice without a license, they risk bringing down their team members and clients with them.


Frank McClung

@David I'm all for avoiding debt, like the one that young designers incur just getting their design degree much less the debt one can incur starting a business. Would we discourage young designers not to get a formal design education because it creates a financial debt? Not necessarily. It is thought that that educational debt will prepare them to be great designers as well as secure future employment. As Chris contends maybe a very poor job is done at the educational level which leaves them in debt, looking for employment at a firm or studio rather than trying to carve their own niche and create business. As for displacement when businesses fail, that's no reason not to start one.

@Chris I think you summed it up well when you said, "The stakes are relatively low and the market whips one into shape soon enough." Doctor's "practice" on patients everyday with their "diagnosis" and "procedures". Every decision they make involves risks and unknowns to one degree or another. It depends on how they manage it - some well, others not so. And so it is with design/agency start ups.

I'm all for the benefits of apprenticeship, mastering your craft, etc. in whatever environment best suits the individuals personality, vision and skills at the time. I just didn't appreciate the underlying assumptions of this article. Stating that starting your own business is "lazy, short sighted and dangerous" isn't going to renew our communities, our economy or our country and pull us out of an economic recession. This is a time in our country's history where we, like generations of Americans before us, need to take more risks, be more creative, try more new things that may utter fail - not less.


David C. Baker

"Would we discourage young designers not to get a formal design education because it creates a financial debt? Not necessarily. It is thought that that educational debt will prepare them to be great designers as well as secure future employment."

--Yes, we should not only discourage debt for education, we should forbid it (as parents)! :)


Mark Busse

@Leslie, something to remember with your example is that you started in 1976. The world, your education, youth culture, our industry, and the opportunities available were all vastly different in 1976. And you yourself say you took jobs at other firms and learning along the way, now four decades later you are reaping the benefits. This article was not written with you in mind and no one is saying that owning a design business can't be a wonderful thing indeed. Clearly you are indeed one of those exceptions mentioned. Congratulations on your continued success!


Kirsty Armstrong

Thanks for your perspective @Frank, but if you re-read the article, you'll notice that it says "how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business CAN be." Not is. There's a big difference, right?

Have you spent much time with young designers these days? I have. The majority of young grads that want to start their own business believe the grunt work and junior experience is beneath them. I have been fortunate enough to dig through a pile of portfolios and resumes to find a select few who are eager to learn from others before burning through the investments of their friends and family.

I also worked from a small design firm that had been in business for 10 years that was started by someone right out of school. The business was still terribly in debt a decade later and my pay cheques frequently bounced. I can comfortably say the business was driven by ego and not much else.

Being from a small community I'm frequently shocked that young designers don't even consider moving to earn a job at a great studio or agency. Not to mention a shitty studio or agency. A lot to learn from both.

I don't disagree with you that now is the time for taking risks and being more creative, there are always exceptional talents who rise above their circumstances—but I'd argue the underlying assumption of this article is in fact that a smarter, more strategic, long-tail approach will better benefit individuals, design firms, their clients, and ultimately the economy.


Phil Ryan

Best one yet Kirsty!



@Kirsty I think what David said about debt and education also applies to starting your own business. Avoid debt at all costs when starting out. The attitude you are describing among young designers I know is out there (I see it in all types of start ups these days). I'm not advocating starting your own studio with the money of friends and family--I think it should be your own. You tend to be a bit more responsible with your start up when everything comes from your own pocket. If I were a studio, I'm not sure I would hire an out of school designer unless they had already run their own business. If they failed and could tell me what they learned, even better. They would make great partners. I think everyone can be an exceptional talent in their own right and we need not relegate the risk of starting your own business to superstars.


Jason Swenk

I actually think everyone should start their business right out of school. You will learn so much more than taking a job at a bigger company. I did and grew my digital agency to a multi million dollar agency with clients from Hitachi, AT&T and many more. I eventually sold the agency after 12 years. I am telling you this to brag but to let people know it is possible.

I made many failures but learned from them. I remember my first client asking me to send them an invoice for the project and I didn't know what an invoice was. The biggest thing is to be happy when you win and to get smarter when you fail.


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