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Should Graduates Start Their Own Businesses?

Starting your own shop/studio/firm/solo-practice requires a different attitude and set of skills from landing a 9-5 job at an agency.

Each mode of working requires its own separate risks. A 9-5 job can disappear in a cloud of stock-induced pink-slips and marketing cutbacks. On the flip side, a lack of business experience or market factors can destroy a startup design business before it even has a chance to get going.

According to a US Census report entitled Business Success: Factors Leading to Surviving and Closing Successfully, of participants surveyed —half of new firms with employees and about a third of new firms without employees made it to four years.

Why did you choose to start a new firm/studio/solo-practice? Why did you choose to join the 9-5 workforce? How did you make that decision? What have been your experience, regrets, accomplishments, and epiphanies?

1. 10 Rules of Cash Flow (paragraph 2 has reference to 80%)
2. US Census report: “Business Success: Factors Leading to Surviving and Closing Successfully”

+ Topic and entry posted on behalf of Gahlord Dewald

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PUBLISHED ON May.13.2004 BY Tan
Armin’s comment is:

Man, graduates are getting all the attention this week…

I, personally, don't think they should — everybody is free to do whatever they want of course. Not because I don't commend or encourage entrepreneurship and being gutsy, but the amount of stuff that can be absorved in 1, 2, 3 years at a design firm is invaluable. Specially interaction with people (designers, vendors, clients, etc.) after being surrounded by other students during college. There is too much to learn from employers and higher-ranking creatives, passing on that opportunity (if it arises) negates the apprenticeship aspect of design — which can be rewarding if in the correct environment. There are many, many benefits to being in a 9 to 5 initially.

Obviously there is no better learning tool — even if hard — than throwing yourself in the water and see if you can swim. Starting a business must be hard, but millions of people have done it so it can't be that hard. If a designer has the itch (or the need) to open a firm or go solo: godspeed. But they might be passing on a real important experience of working in a design firm.

On May.13.2004 at 08:37 PM
Gahlord Dewald’s comment is:

Certainly, Armin. Nothing beats learning the biz from the inside. _Especially_ where dealing with vendors comes into play.

But the recent graduates have also been posting angst and fear that all jobs are requiring 3-5 years experience. Leaving, supposedly, no real choice but to start their own business.

Armin, why did you choose you to go the route you did? Skip the "advice to graduates" stuff, and tell us why you work the way you do. ;)


On May.13.2004 at 08:47 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

First off, I wouldn't advise any graduate to start a business. But I also wouldn't advise them not to.

I graduated in '00. Before and during school I was deep into web design and development. So much so that at the time I could have run circles around most of the studios in town that offered web design.

We had a few studio principals come into class to talk to us about the field and what they expected of junior designers. What I heard was arrogance and low pay. I was actually angry at these people. I had seen what they were selling as "web design" and the idea that they were going to pay me a totally shitty salary when I would be adding an immense amount of value to that part of their service offering left me a little disinterested. I knew I didn't want to bust my ass for these people.

So I took a job at a web dev company as their only designer. I left a year later for health reasons, and since getting back on track I have been working freelance.

What I regret is not having been able to get serve an apprenticeship at a studio and learn all that I would have learned. At times it's been a trial by fire.

What I've gained is freedom, decent pay, and no one telling me when to work or how to work. I've seen the way some studios operate and I could never work in those environments. Maybe I'm too proud and too competitive.

On May.13.2004 at 09:00 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Armin, why did you choose you to go the route you did? Skip the "advice to graduates" stuff, and tell us why you work the way you do. ;)

Well, without getting too autobiographical, there are many reasons why I am where I am. First and foremost, I am employed because being from Mexico requires so for me to be legally here. So, that pretty much ties me to the 9 to 5 option. Which is not a bad thing. marchFIRST could have not been a better place to get started and get the culture shock out of the way, I was in a highly corporate setting with all the politics involved, but I learned how to deal with coworkers, bosses, supervisors, etc. Currently — still employed — I have much more autonomy being in a small office but still within a set framework of doing business not my own. Again, not a bad thing. I sit, I work, I observe, I learn. Not much more to it really.

I'm one, maybe two years away from doing my (well our, actually) own thing and I still feel like there is a lot to learn from working with others but I know that is not what I ultimately want to end up doing — just learning from others, without learning on my own. So I look forward to eventually screwing up on my own, celebrating on my own, and maybe teaching some young graduate on my own.

On May.13.2004 at 09:05 PM
Sam Sherwood’s comment is:

I echo Patrick's statement pretty much spot on. I wouldn't advise anyone to go it alone fresh out of school, but there are definitely special cases everywhere.

I worked at a young clothing catalog as their lead designer (yes, waaaay underpaid) for almost 2 years; however, before that, I lived with two self-employed individuals my entire life — my parents. During my catalog stint, I pretty much changed the entire direction of their online and offline presence, dealt with vendors, managed materials, developed plans, etcetera. It was trial by fire, and online help was always a click away.

So, you could say that many online professionals I've known personally have been my mentors. I have my own accountant, I've been to SBA seminars, and I have contacts that cover the gambit locally. It also helps to have a bit of that entrepreneurial spirit!

Being self-employed isn't for everyone, but it never hurts to give it a shot.

On May.13.2004 at 09:28 PM
Chris from Scottsdale’s comment is:

I often wish I had spent more time working at other design firms before I started mine. Like Armin, I worked at marchFIRST for about a year (Phoenix office) and had some great experiences, met a lot of great people - many whom I work with even today, and also learned a lot of techniques for doing things.

Now that I have my own firm, with employees and clients to manage, I sometimes feel like it's a great experiment - where if one thing doesn't produce the results you want, you try something different.

So, with that said, I wouldn't miss the opportunity to run your own company but realize that working for others for a period of years may in fact make starting your own business easier - and enable you to produce the results and earn the revenue you want - faster.

Thanks for the great topic.


On May.13.2004 at 09:40 PM
jayna’s comment is:

I echo Patrick's statement pretty much spot on. I wouldn't advise anyone to go it alone fresh out of school, but there are definitely special cases everywhere.

I'll second that. But, there seem to be quite a few "firms" here in Columbus made up of 2-man teams fresh out of college. Some damn fine work they put out too.

I started out at one of those pre-dot-com-burst media firms -- with the ping pong table and the PlayStation and the plasma TVs on the walls. Probably the best part about that job was that there were a few "Senior" designers (none of us had titles) who were really talented, and really willing to help us youngsters learn a thing or two. Many of them I still keep in touch with today.

That being said, after a couple years there I jumped ship to become a freelancer. Unless you're an excellent salesperson, accountant, project manager, computer technician, lawyer and collection services agent I wouldn't recommend it. I had just barely enough work to get by -- and from many different sources as well (relying on one big client to pay your bills is never a good idea either). But between the bounced checks I got from clients (when I got them), and the creeps who wanted to get as much work as they could for as little money as possible, I never want to experience that ever ever again. Oh, and contracts are nice, but unless you can afford the lawyer to back you up when your client still doesn't pay you, well, good luck with that.

Personally I like getting up the same time every morning and having somewhere to go and getting a steady paycheck (with health insurance!) and being able to interact with real living people on a daily basis. I never thought I would say that. But once you've seen how the other half lives maybe the grass isn't greener after all.

On May.13.2004 at 10:29 PM
Dan’s comment is:

I've followed the other post about this and I'll offer my situation.

I graduated exactly a year ago and sent out resumes in hopes of getting a full-time design job. Instead, I got a freelance gig for a couple months doing web production. I worked a little with an art director and other designers, but they hired me to just do the stuff and stay out of their hair.

That job dried up, so I sent more resumes. I got another freelance gig, this time at a print firm. I worked there for a few months, produced an annual, designed a website. That dried up too.

I just sent out more resumes. Guess what? I just got another freelance job.

Now, technically I am a small business, but it wasn't my intention. If it keeps up like it is then I've considered starting a business...

So my situation, a freelance/small business (I guess) has happened by accident. That said, I'm pretty happy being able to coast for a couple weeks every few months, and financially it seems to work just fine. For me it hasn't been too risky. The biggest concern I have is that, as a freelancer, companies won't/cannot put in time to train me on the little things. But with this new job I think that'll change. And being young, I can't say I have any regrets, accomplishments, or epiphanies just yet.

On May.13.2004 at 10:30 PM
Dan’s comment is:

And I don't have health insurance. I should probably do something about that.

On May.13.2004 at 10:36 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

I won't stop anyone from fulfilling their dream.

Whatever, their heart content.


1. Don't go into business without at least

3-5 clients that will keep you busy.

2. Bid on Government Contracts in your locale.

The work is SHIT. But it pays the bills. The Gov't

will never stiff you for payment. They don't always pay on time. You will get paid!!!!!!!

3. Find your niche. Capatalize on what you do best. Perhaps, offer different services from your competition.

4. If you have a strong identifiable style.

Hire an Agent or Representative. To handle your

marketing and attract new business.

Many agents or reps will not handle green talent.

Better, hire a retired account manager and/or

expert in business development. To acquire

new accounts or new business ventures.

5. Be careful whom you make a business partner.

6. Never due spec work. Get paid what you're worth. It's a respectability issue.

7. Have at least $ 50.000.00 dollars of your own capitol.

8. If not acquire a small business loan.

9. Worse case scenerio pitch your busines idea to a venture capitalist. Backed by a sound business plan.

10. Doesn't hurt to acquaint yourself with local politicians. A proven process to generate new business. Based on referals and word of mouth.

Success is based on who you know and how they met you.

Design is an ACCOMMODATIONIST PROFESSION. However, lucrative.

The sooner one learn this the better.

There are exceptions to the rule.

But they are deceased. Few personalities exist

in our arena that does not play this game.

Most important:

Decide if you want to be a creative or manage creative talent. You will not be able to do both.

On May.13.2004 at 11:15 PM
marian’s comment is:

Despite 10 years in business for myself, sometimes I still think I'd benefit from a couple of years in a good studio.

I sure would like to see how other people do things.

And it would be really nice to look up to someone else for a change.

Think they'd let me take off in the middle of the day to go to the beach?

On May.14.2004 at 12:53 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Tan & Gahlord, thanks for this topic.

Tan, when I read your comment in the hire discussion about learning how to be a good employee a shudder went through my body. But on reflection I think it makes very good sense to spend some time as an employee before you start on your own.

You probably already have most of the design skills you need. Try to get a job somewhere where you can learn the non-design skills you need.

I spent 10 years as a good employee running the youth department at a church. (Being 18 & having to deal with stroppy teenagers and their stroppy parents is a great way to prepare for difficult clients.)

If you are a graduate, my advice is don't decide (as opposed to it just happening to you, like Dan) to start out on your own unless you've got an unshakeable compulsion to do it AND a couple older wiser people that you respect who recognise & can validate that compulsion.

That inner drive is what will keep you going because it's bigger than you are. Just be sure you've got it. At least 95% of the people don't.

On May.14.2004 at 04:04 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

please read everything Design Maven wrote in this discussion twice.

On May.14.2004 at 07:09 AM
graham’s comment is:

debbie-"please read everything Design Maven wrote in this discussion twice."

definitely-and then twice more times. again.

On May.14.2004 at 07:23 AM
Gahlord Dewald’s comment is:

Those of you who worked a companies that went under and/or had to let people go, does that experience have much impact on your feeling of security in your new job?

It seems to me that the security of a 9-5 is one of it's biggest emotional draws (that's an assumption on my part, I only worked for someone else for a year and that was in a client-liaison type position, so please correct me if I'm out of line there). Is that feeling of security still there?

It would be nice to get some strong responses from people who consciously chose and are really in love with their 9-5 gigs.


[Armin, you can form an LLC or S-corp and hire yourself, that would eliminate your "needing to have a job" visa issues. Not that pushing you on it, just saying that the limitation you mentioned is not a real one.

Dan, get health insurance. Being a freelancer is the most at-risk way to work. If you were to come down with an illness and couldn't work you'd be in deep shit. Also, your state may have a state health program and you should look into it so you have at least something. Everyone tells you not to mess with that so I'm sure you've heard it before... but really, get some coverage or marry someone who has it.]

On May.14.2004 at 07:36 AM
Patrick C’s comment is:

The security issue is a big one. I think I'm biased on that account because I watched the industry implode in '00/'01. There was a lot of fallout from the dot com bust no matter what your studio did. As a result I didn't see the studio world as being that secure.

The 9-5 thing that keeps coming up sometimes makes me snicker. That was another reason I didn't want to work for a studio (in-house is different as they usually follow 9-5). At the studios I've seen it's more like 9-whenever we say. And could you come in on the weekend? Thanks.

Again, I'm not giving up my life to work at a design studio for the kind of money that's offered.

On May.14.2004 at 08:24 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Armin, you can form an LLC or S-corp and hire yourself

Ah, if it only were that easy Gahlord… you wouldn't believe the freaking requirements and limitations one has when on visas and applying for a Green Card — but I don't want to bore anybody with immigration issues.

> Those of you who worked a companies that went under and/or had to let people go, does that experience have much impact on your feeling of security in your new job?

You know, it does have an impact. I was with m1 until the last day, when they gathered us (all 50-60, 40% of what we used to be) to hand pink slips and no severance. I already had this job so I wasn't that bummed but seeing everybody else was terrible. The problem lies in that things like that can be out of [employee's] control, one can be as hard-working and enthusiastic but if the economy doesn't cooperate, well, it's not good.

The thing is to remain optimist. And if you work hard, karma find its way to repay you — sorry for getting all corny and advicey

On May.14.2004 at 08:35 AM
Gahlord Dewald’s comment is:

No no Armin. That was exactly what I was interested in hearing. Even if it was corny.


On May.14.2004 at 08:41 AM
Scott d’s comment is:

Those of you who worked a companies that went under and/or had to let people go, does that experience have much impact on your feeling of security in your new job?

I graduated from college a year ago and had a 9-5 job lined up that seemed really good. The company was creating a marketing department in-house. They hired a marketing director, me, and another employee to handle PR. After a month I began to notice things weren't as good as they seemed, and a month after that my boss resigned (marketing director). The writing on the wall of clear. Two days after his resignation, and after assuring me that I was safe, I was called into the HR office and told that I was being given a "30 day vacation," unpaid, and effective immediately. All this after I busted my ass and designed everything (marketing collateral, corporate ID, website, etc.) in under two months. I was mad as hell, but a few hours later I realized that they did me a huge favor.

Two weeks later I was hired by a small advertising firm that wasn't even looking to hire anyone. I feel secure in my new job because I know the risk my boss took in hiring me (I'm one of three employees). Additionally, I'm not asked to be just a production artist-I'm involved in every step of the process, and that makes me feel secure.

I never changed my mind after my bad experience right out of school, I still wanted a 9-5 job. However, I expect in about 5-10 years I might decide to go it alone. My feeling is that I need to learn the business and gain more experience before I start my own. I've seen what it takes to run a business alone (my father has run his own business since I was born, and my current employer has been own his own for 10 years now) and I know I'm not ready, yet.

On May.14.2004 at 08:54 AM
Peter Scherrer (ps)’s comment is:

sure read everything that design maven said twice, but, it doesn't have to be that way. sometimes you just have to try without all the back-up in place. i know of a guy that had $3200, no savings, no loans, one potential longer term client and for some reason it worked out for him. a strong drive, hard work and more hard work got him there. what he did have was a couple of years under his belt working for a couple design firms, during which he learned how he would not want to organize his business.

i know, i know, the percentages show that without proper backup businesses have slimmer chances of making it, but if you don't have any responsibilities other than yourself -- why not take the risk.

On May.14.2004 at 09:36 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Excellent point PS. I was preparing a similar comment. One other issue I have with DesignMaven's advice is no.8; acquire a small business loan. For my situation a loan is not a wise decision. My expenses are generally related to living -- mortgage, internet, electricity, etc. After looking into the small business loan angle, I decided to choose a business line of credit instead. That way I can draw upon the money as needed and only pay interest on the portion used.

My professional career started after graduating from MIAD in 1998 with a job at Glamour Shots (yes, you read that correctly). I started out as just a photographer and quickly moved up to "Head Photographer". That experience has really paid off. I learned to overcome my shyness. I learned how to give people of all backgrounds and language barriers direction. I learned how to make fat people look thinner and minimize sensitive features such as large noses. I learned that by listening and asking the right questions I could make people happy. Personally selling the photos was another great lesson. Doing math on the fly and talking positively about other people and my own work comes in handy, even today. That doesn't mean just BS either; sincere comments. People can smell BS.

Next, came a job as Media Coordinator for an art supply manufacturer/wholesaler. It was a family owned business. My position was created as a way of leveraging change from other family members without the need for direct confrontation. After that game got old, so did my position -- nice severance package though.

During my different fulltime gigs I was freelancing. I'm learning the game. Granted I have no studio experience, but I've watched many people run businesses. I grew up with parents who both always had jobs. My father is a chemical engineer, my mother is a bookkeeper. My wife's parent's have always owned their own businesses. My wife has lived in a camper and above her parents large beautiful restaurant. I seek challenge and change, my wife seeks security. My wife has a home-based network marketing business which supplies us with a steady residual income. That is our solid foundation. This August I plan on leaving my current fulltime position to work for myself fulltime. For me it's a passion that I need to follow through with. I'm not going to spend my life planning for a trip I'll never take.

On May.14.2004 at 11:02 AM
Valon’s comment is:

Wow, there are some great postings today and they really hit close to home.

I think I wrote this few times before, but for topic's sake I will just jot down few words about my position. - I graduated last year with a degree in Graphic Design and I was looking for jobs all over the Metro Area. I finally landed a job at an Advertising Agency as a Jr.G.D. and spent most of the time cutting, pasting, folding, scoring...etc. I hated every bit of it, but in return I learned so much on how to run a business, because I asked and asked and asked so many questions that it drove people nuts. After a year I decided to leave and start my own design studio.

There were few reasons I did this:

1. I wanted to apply my design theories and knowledge to solutions I designed.

2. I wanted to be able to take off and go to Barnes and Nobles in the middle of the day and search for inspiration in various design readings.

3. I wanted to get the glory of being able to be proud of the design I did. (I know this sounds lil' to much, but I am just trying to write down the reasons why I took this road)

4. ...There are so many other reasons, that if I really make it the way I think I will, then I'll put out a book and write all about it.

(I think what I am writing will piss a lot of people off, and make me sound cocky...but, please bare with me.)

Also, the unbeliveable gratifaction of negotiating with clients. This I was afraid of in the begining, but I learned to love negotiations and they are a big part of the outcome of most of my designs.

One way that is really helping me stay afloat is many great tips I am receiving from peers and mentors. Some have been sceptical of my move, and some have been truly supportive and optimistic. I try and pick the positive.

Also, I got lots of great tips from the "Art of Pitch..." (March 31, 2004) AIGA.NY

~~ Debbie M., many thanks for great tips.

I have been open for a month now and the amount of work I have been getting is more than I had anticipated. I am thinking of hiring an intern...And commenting on the previous Topic ~~ Yes, I am going to keep up with the principal of hiring interns and fresh graduates... There are few things they need to learn, but they know more than they think they do, and I applaud that.

God...I wrote to much.

~~ My favorite sentence today! (Armin)

So I look forward to eventually screwing up on my own, celebrating on my own

On May.14.2004 at 11:07 AM
Jason’s comment is:

Having a backup, whether financially or operationally means a lot when you start up your own business. Often, I've met freelancers or contract workers that have "other" jobs to sustain themselves and their checking/savings account. It's a lot like the artist, who works a night job as a janitor. But with designers, I find them selling clothes at Banana Republic or Kenneth Cole—someplace they can get a discount on their own chic black outfits and accessories.

Sure, you've got to pay the bills, but if you're a freelancer, contract worker, or studio principal and need another job to make ends meet, what do you call yourself? A designer? A designer who can't get enough work to support their bills? A part-time designer?

Starting up a business is expensive. You've got to pay for software, hardware, and office equipment somehow, even if it means selling designerly clothing. And who knows what kinds of connections you can make there! From my own experience, making connections—no matter where—always proved to be a good way of developing new business. And if you eventually want to dump that moonlighting gig and focus on design, you've got to drum up some work—a lot of work that pays well.

On May.14.2004 at 11:19 AM
Tan’s comment is:

There are a number of people w/ similar experiences here — they graduated, worked a year or more, then opened their own practice.

That was my experience as well.

We've had threads before about starting your own practice. Lots of great advice. But this thread is a little more specific, and needs clarification: Should someone start a business right out of school? Without ever having worked in a studio or agency?

My fault on not drafting a clearer intro, but since the discussion is already full steam...

On May.14.2004 at 11:22 AM
Robynne Raye’s comment is:

Hey Tan

Should someone start a business right out of school? Without ever having worked in a studio or agency?

You know my story. Mike and I did it. It wasn't easy - 3 years of making less than 15k, slapped with big fines from the IRS because we didn't fill out the tax forms correctly (even though they cashed out checks), fucked up printing jobs that we had to pay for, no insurance (car or health) for 7 years, and so on.

It wasn't my intention to start a design business. If someone had offered me a job that summer I would've taken it. But you play the hand your dealt with, and I got lucky. I'm glad I went through it because it makes me realize how fortunate I am. I have a job I love, great clients, cool biz partner and I look forward to coming into the office and collaborating with the great designers who work here (including the interns).

I don't think their is an answer to your question. It really depends on the individual and the risks they are willing to take.

On May.14.2004 at 12:08 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

I guess you're right, Tan, we haven't really answered the question directly. I thought I would share the reasons I didn't want to work at a studio and the fact that freelancing is working for me as a way of saying: "if you're like me you can do it."

But to answer the question straight up:

I don't think someone should start a design business right after school. There is so much to be learned in a studio environment and so many contacts to make that it doesn't make a lot of sense not to put in a couple years.

I also firmly believe that the majority of people do not have the desire or perseverance or skill to make it on their own. You really have to know if you're the right type of person.

On May.14.2004 at 12:15 PM
KM’s comment is:

3. Find your niche. Capatalize on what you do best. Perhaps, offer different services from your competition.

Sounds like a one-way trip to burnout.

On May.14.2004 at 12:19 PM
graham’s comment is:

"Should someone start a business right out of school? Without ever having worked in a studio or agency?"

to quote ps "if you don't have any responsibilities other than yourself -- why not take the risk."-because it isn't much of a risk. the bog standard version is working from home, going to see potential clients every hour under the sun, maybe another person or two to work with etc. not all that dramatic.

so-there's no reason why not-but thinking back (and also thinking about now, and the students i meet), i can't remember anyone who hadn't worked at somewhere or with someone, if only for a summer. so-as with all things-one feeds the other. when you get down to it it's not that dramatic-working away as much as poss and earning what you need. but-also-things like health insurance and lots of stuff are just not as necessary in the u.k.

i was 27 before i earned much more than 3-4 hundred dollars a month from this. no worries. i was probably happier then. i reckon i know less now (forgotten lots). there is some good advice here though among the above responses.

different times, too; in london 85-86 jobs in studios were reasonably common (for school leavers-18 to 20yrs old) and if you went for a few interviews (tens rather than hundreds) you'd end in paste-up or operating a pmt machine. then you could work your way up-3 years experience, 5, 10 etc. even good places (though the idea of good was more 'seven and the ragged tiger' then).in that context, the whole point of going to college was to leave and start your own thing.

there are so many ways. fragile. that's why things can be so beautiful, if only for a moment.

On May.14.2004 at 12:39 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Open your own studio? Hell, I don't even think recent grads should work for a small firm.

Small studios don't have the range of projects, budgets or hierarchical structure that corporate in-house departments or large Pentagram-ish businesses do. My first real job as a designer in the cosmetics industry — packaging designer fragrances — exposed me to:

1. a range of production techniques from gravure to vacuum-forming to 'flocking'

2. a range of projects from designing ads, boxes and bottles to in-store displays

3. having, then knowing how to work within a budget

4. 2-hour meetings

5. covering my ass

...and the money wasn't bad either— better than what I would have made working at a 'cool' studio. Especially for a no-nothing like myself.

There are a whole range of industries with in-house departments; easily discovered with a little imagination. Even spending a year in such an environment can 'finish' what they couldn't teach you in school.

On May.14.2004 at 01:00 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>I guess you're right, Tan, we haven't really answered the question directly

And that's ok, everyone. It's fine to talk about which side is greener too — I just didn't want this to be solely about advice on starting a business.

But still talk about whatever you feel is relevant, please :-)


Ok, my experience is similar to Debbie's cycle. I started out working about 5 (7 if you count during school) years working for a number of firms, from small to medium-sized.

Then, another designer friend asked if I wanted to open our own place. I said, "sure, what the hell." We had 2 clients, about 6 months' worth of billing projections, about $5k in the bank, 2 old Mac stations, and a motley collection of hardware and software (not all of it bought and paid for at the time). And best of all, I quit the firm I was working at exactly 2 weeks before my wife gave birth to our first child. Friends thought I was insane...but somehow, I was positive and confident about the whole thing.

Everything after that was a blur. We had some amazing times, and some painful times. Ran it by the seat of our pants, making costly mistakes, lucking out on lots of occasions, and along the way, learning the business and growing in ways that would have been impossible working for someone else. Lots of people told us to enjoy those first years of business, because they would be the best — and they were right.

Eventually, we got an offer to be acquired by another agency — and at the time, my partner and I thought it was a good business decision. I still think it was the right thing to do, but of course, not everything turns out exactly the way you plan it to. But that's life, and you deal with it.

So now, I'm back in an agency. There are things I will always miss about running my own place, but there are things I won't miss. And my attitude about working in an agency has changed completely since the early days of my career. I understand more about the business, and appreciate more the positive things that agency life can offer. And I'm not just talking about job security and benefits — it depends on where you are, but working for an agency has definite rewards if you know what you really want.

While I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who's thinking about going on their own to do it — I don't recommend it to people just right out of school. It's not fear-mongering, it's just advice. Have a little patience and build up some knowledge of the industry first, so that you're more prepared and armed for battle when you're ready to jump. It'll make it more fun as well.

Don't get lured by the romantic stories of those who make it look easy. Starting a business is fucking hard and can be brutal. Having a little experience under your belt can only be a good thing.

On May.14.2004 at 01:06 PM
Richard’s comment is:

Starting a design business out of school is not a good idea.

For those of you who desire to start your own business, wouldn't it seem like a good idea to get a few years under your belt before striking out on your own? To see what works and what doesn't? What way you might handle a particular project compared to how someone else would? It helps improve your chances of surviving in the wacky world of marketing and communications.

I know for some people they did not have a choice. And you learned from the school of "going-out-on-your-own" which according to Robynne, costs a lot.

On May.14.2004 at 01:11 PM
Robynne Raye’s comment is:


I always felt those first three years were just an extention of my design education. (And I could live on $600 a month back in 1987, which is not possible today based off my current desire for material things.)

A great thing about screw ups: once you do them, you don't repeat it.

I'm happy about my choices and the person (designer) I became, as a direct result of doing it on my own.

On May.14.2004 at 01:25 PM
Greg’s comment is:

As a designer a year out of school, my advice to people fresh from school is to wait a while before you make a decision about what kind of career you want. There is so much out there, and you only get tiny glimpses of it from inside the cocoon of the classroom. So look around, see what's there. In the meantime, get a job where you can screw up royally and no one cares but you, such as being the only designer at (name of local business here). But keep your eyes open, and learn what other designers are doing. Once you think you know what you should do (agency vs. in-house vs. your own thing) go for it with every bit of the fire that graham described in the previous discussion.

On May.14.2004 at 02:14 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

I thought I had the groin to do it, but I couldn't do it solo and nobody ever gave their collective support. Never happened.

Looking back now, I'm glad I didn't because:

(1) The internet boom died

(2) I had no production, project management, real-life business etiquette/skills

(3) I'm ten times smarter now

With the economy the way it is. Client relations are huge. You'll need to hold on to them.

Believe me when I say, when working with businesses it's never about the design, so don't think your design is going to carry you. Why? It's all about working with those older frat kids turned dads and their marketing major house wives. They don't have taste, and they ain't got money to waste.

Some key elements in this economy and survival would probably be: marketing skills, a midbrow mentality so you can sell, an aptitude for project management and of course a profitable environment.

I'd say wait, try to find a job now, and see what happens after the election. A job will give you insight on your strengths and weaknesses, how your time compatmentalizes, your interaction with nondesigners, rejection, and how you'll never ever want to work in a cube again.

On May.14.2004 at 06:40 PM
Christopher Risdon’s comment is:

I'm about to be a recent graduate and would love to do my own thing. But as I mentioned in a previous (related) post, I'm a 31yo graduate student, so my situation is different.

I would recommend recent graduates to put in at least a couple years in a firm prior to striking out on their own. Consider it the opportunity to learn many of the nuances that school couldn't teach (project management, client relations, budgets, resources, timelines, etc.).

Unlike a previous thread - and as Tan has made clear - this isn't about whether, long term, being on your own is better than working a 9-5, or vice verse. It's about whether it's wise to strike it out on your own straight away after college.

Some students find part time work, or get client work early while still in school and they may mature a little faster, or learn some of the ins and outs to where they may be ready to do their own thing.

But I think the average student should look at a couple years at a firm as a great opportunity to prepare for striking out on your own (if that's the direction you want to go).

Plus, if you have experience at a firm on your resume, it will make a nice fall back if you aren't able to make your own thing work that first time out. If you try to do your own thing when you first graduate, and it doesn't work out after 18 months or two years and you didn't get any good work done because you didn't have luck drumming up business or getting the clients to provide you the opportunity to do any decent work, then you will be no better off than when you had just left school if/when you look for a 9-5 job.

In fact, if your school work is your best stuff two years after college, then you will be worse off because you will be far removed from your best work and may not have much that is 'fresh' to show to firms.

On May.14.2004 at 08:08 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Ok, so far — most here agree that it's probably wise to get a little experience before starting a business.

Let's look at the other side.

Is there anything detrimental about working in an agency right out of school? Will it change your perception and approach to design, harming any facet of creativity that was in students when they began? In other words, is agency experience harmful to the potential/integrity of design? And if so, how?

On May.15.2004 at 10:37 AM
Kevin Steele’s comment is:

I graduated with a diploma in 'Photo/Electric Arts' (eventually the program became 'New Media') in 1986 and although I had been doing design I did not go near the Design department; I had pretensions to being a capital A Artist. I ended up with a day job at a place where lots of mostly unemployable art schools grads ended up, at a place that colorized black and white movies. I ended up working there for three years developing some organizational and management skills.

Eventually, a co-worker and I decided that the lowering cost of entry into the graphic design business was an attractive opportunity for the creatively frustrated.

So, we took a few years of experience working at a growing company, some time collaborating on a student newspaper, and art school experience that was hardly related and set up shop as Designers.

Now, it was a unique time; design firms making the transition to digital needed advice. We ended up doing a lot of mechanical work for larger firms that needed smart nimble help. This exposed used to the business through the eyes of many different firms.

Eventually we grew our business to about 30 people and in our eighth year we merged with another company. (That business deal was a mistake, but that's another story. And today I remain highly employable.)

Now, I don't know what kind of crap kids are being fed in the average design program right now. I have had relationships with a number of local schools and have seen how much trouble they have delivering a rounded education. I can't imagine that the average grad has enough information to start a business, but those that have been business minded all along might have some insights.

There is a lot to be said for becoming what you want by saying that's what you are and having others keep you to your word. I would still recommend a few years of information/insight/experience gathering after school. Freelance/temp work is actually a great way to gain some wider experiences, probably better for some people than going and getting a full-time job at a single studio.

On May.15.2004 at 10:45 AM
Christopher Risdon’s comment is:

Yes, definitely, going to a firm right out of school can be harmful (looking at the other side of the coin). Also, it can create a myopic view - I've seen 20 something's that come out of a place after 3 or 4 years and have a 'well, this is how we did it at *design firm*', and assume that is the one and only way it should be done.

I think the key is for the young designer to be aware. Easier said than done, but that's the ideal. They should do research on what type of work their potential employers do, and get any sense of the corporate structure and culture there is. Ideally, they can then steer away from places that would be less optimal for their growth. But even if they don't have that choice, the can go in with open eyes and try to pull the good out and not become too affected by the bad.

And hopefully, both with the good and the bad, they don't think that is the one and only way to go about doing things.

It seems that many schools don't take an honest look at the variety of design firms, the pros and cons of different specialties, different sizes, etc., and how they inform their graduating students about them. It seems to many faculty any design firm is a good design firm because they are happy to have a student employed. A school can never really prepare students for all the nuances of what it will be like to actually work day-to-day at a firm, but they should have an honest dialog of the good and the bad to look out for.

On May.15.2004 at 11:10 AM
Christopher Risdon’s comment is:

To add to my last post - and in reference to a couple others - if employment is scarce, but you are able to string to gether a variety of freelance gigs, it may not be the ideal, but - as Kevin Steele commented on - it will ensure you have a wide experience and see how things are done in a number of different ways. If you aspire to do your own thing, it will be great exposure to see what some firms do right, and what some do wrong.

On May.15.2004 at 11:13 AM
Gahlord Dewald’s comment is:

As this thread has progressed I've started thinking/understanding a few things...

Some summary

  1. The actual methods/processes/practices used by different studios/agencies/firms/solo-practitioners varies a great deal. This is, of course, no big Eureka-moment. But ...
  2. How the hell can schools ever even hope to train students for acceptable business practices when each firm is different? This question isn't raised by virtue of seeking a unified model of design practice, just my own recognition that schools are in a tough spot as far as transmitting useful business knowledge is concerned, given the diversity of business styles—surviving at JDK is going to require different skills than surviving at Bruce Mau Design.
  3. The generally-recognized inability of schools to train students for the business of graphic design (probably relating to the points above) inevitable puts the burden of responsibility on business owners to provide business education. The business owners either bear this graciously or not. The students either learn or wash out of the profession.

There are also some interesting stereo-types about recent grads that continue to show up without any/much challenging:

  • Recent graduates are more creative.
  • Recent graduates lack business skills.

My feeling is that both of these are right or wrong to a degree based on the individual. These ideas are also rarely supported by any quantitative data (hey, we ain't all researchers right? or...). At best they're supported by a lengthy trial and error or the gut-feeling of long-time owners/hirers. So maybe we can't get very far thinking in terms of the practical skills at this point.

Forget skillz, what about insight?

But what if we were to rotate the thinking to insight (I use the word "insight" to toggle a combination of experiential knowledge and an intelligence capable of assembling seemingly disparate information into a cohesive whole; some thoughts here).

Does the recent graduate possess more creative insight than, say, a senior designer at a respected shop? Does the graduate possess less business insight than the senior designer?

Does the school environment (Chinese-menu courses, letter-grades based on the judgement of a single individual, limited intellectual continuity and little formal instillation of process/procedure) encourage or discourage business or creative insight more or less than working in the "real" world?

What sort of day-job increases creative or business insight?

If neither the school nor a job increases creative and business insight, then should a dedicated student of design (regardless of academic background, age, affiliation, favorite pet etc) start their own shop?

Does the "default-mode" of getting a job after college discourage students from thinking about why they are working (and maybe I mean why with a cap W... obviously they're working to pay off the student debt, buy an iPod, and drink fashionable drinks)?

I guess it's just more questions from me. Sorry to ramble on so much.

As far as "answering" the question:

If you learn fast, work smart, and have your ears open more often than your mouth starting a business can happen regardless of most circumstances. Whether it makes you happy or not depends.

Of course, the above would equally apply to getting a day-job.


[And, since I do think the autobiographical thing is important (in a sort of put-up-or-shut-up kind of way... lest we all start spouting "to thine own self be true" without reading the rest of that particular monologue and putting it all in context):

I certainly didn't start my business right out of school. I took that year at a firm specifically to watch how the business worked, how the money flowed, how the projects flowed. I took a non-design position so that I wouldn't be distracted by creative-pressure in the same way. I was seeking a refinement of my business insight (something I'd been developing since I was about 11 but which I'd never applied to the business of graphic design).

I started my practice with no funding, one short-job client and a months rent, no family backing or other safety nets; definitely motivated my sales skills.]

[And if you got this far maybe, like me, you're bemused by AIGA not knowing the difference between a question-mark and a quotation mark and/or not caring enough about their typography to fix it while peddling information to young designers.]

On May.15.2004 at 01:58 PM
Chris from Scottsdale’s comment is:

I decided to post one more comment after reading a comment from above.

Thought: most people who go to design school must think they have good design skills. So how about somebody start a business school for the advertising / design / internet new media industry?

Oh, one more thought... I think that everybody, even those fresh out of school, should have a business - even if it is just freelance. It helps because you can write-off your computers and you learn to get organized.


On May.15.2004 at 10:52 PM
Maaike’s comment is:

I graduated 2 years ago (graphic design) and at the time it seemed impossible to find a job without a couple of years of experience. Finding clients, however, proved easier. So I became a freelancer.

And yes, it's hard to start your own business right out of school, but it's also a lot of fun. And you don't always need colleagues to teach you: for example, I found a cheap studio space in a building with a couple of other (young) freelance designers, and we help eachother.

Also, when you're a student you're usually used to not having a lot of money, and therefore the transition isn't so big. I guess, after having had a good salary for years, it's harder to get used to the uncertainties that come with having your own business.

Now, after 2 years, I have no debts, my clients are happy, I'm free and I'm enjoying myself. I've also gained two years of experience. It's been hard at times, but it's by no means impossible, and it might be a good solution for some.

On May.16.2004 at 07:01 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

To Debbie and Graham.

Many thanks and Heartfelt.


My expenses are generally related to living -- mortgage, internet, electricity, etc. After looking into the small business loan angle, I decided to choose a business line of credit instead.

Great Option. Nothing I wrote was etched in stone in reference to financing your business.

However, nos 1,2,4,5,6,10 and comments after 10, are Geniune and IRREFUTABLE.

I wrote them because, I don't think anyone contributing to Speak Up Forum is named, Rothchild, Kennedy, Kellog, Rockefeller or BIERUT.

Born with a silver spoon and connections.

Thus, I don't think any of Speak Up Community is

competing with the Desk Top Publisher in Kinkos.

Nor the corner store Print Shop or Quik Print Printers with Desk Top Publishers.

Noticed I referenced them as Desk Top Publishers and not Designers. Desk Top Publisher is a word and term I LOATH.


3. Find your niche. Capatalize on what you do best. Perhaps, offer different services from your competition.

Sounds like a one-way trip to burnout.


HOW DARE YOU !!!!! Not to acknowledge all Designers BURNT OUT.

If you can shoot holes through only one of my comments. That leaves me 90% correct. When I was in school. 90% was considered an "A"


In spite of my advice earlier.

Graduates just out of School have as much business starting a Business Venture. As Rappers transcending into ACTING. And the Kid out of High School going into the NBA.

There has to be a maturation process.

Few Exceptions excist. Will Smith, LeBron James,

and David Carson emerge once

or twice in a LIFETIME.

Everyone cannot be Will Smith, LeBron James and

David Carson. Even if you aspire to be...

Most Important. Learn the Craft and Have a Respect for the Craft.

Graduates, if you follow that advice coupled with the other ten (10) suggestions I gave you. Success will follow.


There has not been a Mortal Baby Born on EARTH. That has hit the Ground Running!!!!!

Tan,Correction If I may.

You do not work at an Agency. You work for the LARGEST IDENTITY CONSULTANCY IN THE WORLD!!!!!!

Owned by an Agency, Young & Rubicam!!!!!!!!!


Within the broader text Yes. Within the Professional text no.

Imagine me correcting Tan.


Hope I'm not Breaching Security.

Guys and Dolls MAJOR, MAJOR FOOD FIGHT on Thursday.

That's All Folks!!!!!!

I know, I know , Armin, I'm a 50 year old LOONEY TOON.

On May.16.2004 at 01:28 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Graduates just out of School have as much business starting a Business Venture. As Rappers transcending into ACTING. And the Kid out of High School going into the NBA.

Bravo! Each can be successful, and all of them carry a risk.

On May.16.2004 at 03:16 PM
graham’s comment is:

a few examples:

peter saville

jon barnbrook

rebecca and mike


hammer and tongs



aboud sodano


why not associates


phil baines


malcolm garrett

hopefully something inspiring in these if you're thinking about starting your own thing.

On May.17.2004 at 07:19 AM