As of September 1st 2023 I’ve been self-employed for 10 years. Yay!
Because I’ve already written a “tips I’ve learned about business that I wish I knew sooner” article, I thought another kind of anniversary post might be appropriate: a response to a very popular question I get.
People I know often ask me: “Do you plan to hire someone?”
To those used to traditional business models, that seems like the next logical step. If I’m doing well in my career, surely I want my company to grow?
The short answer is that no, I don’t plan on hiring anyone—especially not other creative staff. I don’t want my business to grow beyond me.
The slightly longer answer is that I can imagine hiring an administrative assistant if my workload gets to the point where I feel like I need help, but I’m managing just fine without one, so I don’t know if/when that’s going to happen.
I prefer collaborating with other creatives (web developers, writers, photographers) on a project-by-project basis, where everyone operates and charges their own fees independently. I’m also fine with being brought in as a contractor into an established creative team for the duration of a project, but I don’t envision permanently being a part of any team again.
If you’re wondering why I’ve made this decision—either because you care about my career, or because you’re in the same boat—I’ll explain my reasons in this article.
The main and most important reason I’ve made this decision is:
The way I naturally work best is incompatible with agency work norms.
I’ve worked in agencies. I have friends and clients who run creative agencies and consulting firms. I know what it’s like, and I don’t want this for myself.
Agency life requires a degree of accountability and responsibility for other people’s livelihoods that I just don’t want to deal with. Thankfully, I have a choice. I can still do work that I enjoy for the clients I love, and afford the lifestyle I want by working on my own. I’m aware it’s a tremendous privilege.
There are many ways to progress in a creative career. The typical junior designer → senior designer → art director → agency principal isn’t the one I’m interested in. I’m evolving in different ways: inventing my own methodologies, teaching and mentoring others, perfecting my craft, and experimenting with various forms of self-expression.
How I work
I don’t work typical hours. I usually wake up without an alarm clock. I’m really not a morning person. It takes me an hour or two to fully wake up and be ready to work on solving creative problems.
When I feel like I’ve warmed up my brain enough, I move toward client work and (if needed) administrative work. I work for a couple of hours and then make lunch. Depending on my workload, I may go back to my office and keep working for another couple of hours in the afternoon, or take the afternoon off.
Edited after this post got more attention than I expected
In the interest of transparency: my partner is employed full-time, and we’re mortgage-free. We live in a country with pretty good universal healthcare, and reasonable private healthcare costs. We have no student loans (education is inexpensive here). If our living expenses were much higher, or if we lived on a single income, I’d certainly need to work more. Everyone’s situation is different, so please take this into account if you’re comparing your life to mine, and the math doesn’t check out.
I have very few meetings because I only work with one or two clients at a time. My phone rarely rings. There are days when I don’t get a single work-related email. I spend most of my work days alone in my office, brainstorming and producing design solutions.
My former bosses told me I’m “slow” and “inefficient”. I like to call it “thoughtful” and “meticulous”. I don’t like to rush things. I want to make sure all the details are just right. I need to give myself space and time to think. I prefer working with one or two clients instead of multitasking on half a dozen projects.
Because I have the freedom to work like this, I consistently create designs that I’m proud of. Back when I was churning out logos and websites in the agency machine, I was only proud of maybe 1 out of 5 designs.
For years I’ve felt “weird” and “wrong” for working this way.
I felt like the laziest person in the room. I internalized my bosses’ comments that I spend too much time on details that don’t matter. I questioned myself. I hid how I work from other people because I didn’t want them to think that I’m not working hard enough. That I’m too laid back, too indulgent, too focused on my own comfort.
Trying to change myself has only hurt me. Countless attempts at becoming an early riser broke down every time. Trying to start with client work first thing in the morning resulted in blank staring, frustration, and no results. Multitasking made me unfocused and frazzled. The burnout and stress caused chronic health issues that I still have to deal with, and that might never go away.
It took some therapy, as well as reading books and blogs that deconstruct productivity literature, for me to realize that I’m not the source of the problem. I just have a low tolerance for capitalist pressure and workaholism, because I was born with a brain that can’t thrive in that environment. There are many, many people out there who are experiencing the same issues and are made to feel like a problem, because the silent majority doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Realizing that I don’t have to work 8 hours every day was pretty groundbreaking. I still get work done, and have lots of personal time. I do occasionally take on an ambitious project and work overtime for a few weeks, but then I try to balance it with more rest so I don’t burn out.
I’m fine with this and accept myself as I am. But I’m also profoundly unemployable, and would not make a good boss. I’m glad I learned this before I’ve made the mistake of hiring anyone.
My non-commercial creative self-expression is equally important to me as my career.
When I’m only focused on work and don’t dedicate enough time to personal projects, I become unwell. Creative self-expression is not “just a hobby” for me, it’s a necessity. One of the main reasons I decided to be a freelancer is to tailor my own schedule that would accommodate personal projects. Sure, I was able to paint and write when I was employed, but I prefer writing in the morning, so now I do.
I don’t think I could’ve written “The Human Centered Brand” (or even gotten the idea to write a book) if I had to fill 8-10 hours of my day with other stuff. I took 4 months off from client projects in order to write, edit, design, and self-publish it, and then rest and recover. I was able to take those 4 months off because I had no one else in my business depending on me.
In the summer of 2020 I had several slow months during the economic downturn. While many companies struggled to find work and pay their teams’ salaries, instead of scrambling for clients, I wrote another book. I considered this free time a gift.
I prefer being a designer than a director.
Managing myself and my clients is enough of a challenge for me. Managing team members frustrates me. I’ve done it before, and I’d rather avoid it.
I got into this career because I enjoyed design. I like doodling, sketching, coloring, transforming photos, arranging stuff… I do it even when no one is paying me. I’m thrilled that people want to pay me.
Unfortunately, the more you progress on the corporate ladder as a designer, the less time you spend designing.
- Junior and senior designers are doing most of the production work.
- Art directors instruct, oversee, and evaluate what others have done, but don’t produce as much finished work as their reports.
- Agency principals/CEOs do the least hands-on work of all, and take care of managerial and strategic duties. The more people they hire, the more managerial and strategic duties they have.
My managerial, strategic, and admin work amounts to a few hours a week.
Marketing adds another 5–10 hours, depending on the season.
I spend my remaining work time designing, writing, and teaching.
It’s a perfect balance: I have just enough variety in my work that I don’t get bored and I’m constantly learning new things—yet I get to spend the majority of time doing the very thing that I love the most about my career.
Why would I want to change this?
I can’t say that I will never do it, because I’m sure Nela in 10 years’ time will be much wiser than I am, and she might have reasons to make a different decision than Nela of today would. I just find it really, really hard to imagine.
I can accept projects or turn them down as I please.
I have limited hours available for client work, so my calendar fills up very quickly. I often turn projects down for a variety of reasons.
- Because I don’t have the time for it.
- Because it doesn’t pay well.
- Because I have ethical concerns about the project.
- Because I don’t like the client’s personality.
- Because I don’t feel excited about the project.
That’s another luxury that many agencies don’t have. Designer Terry Irwin described a situation when her team realized that their client hired them for a rebrand in order to cover up a shocking news story that was about to break. They faced a dilemma with very practical implications:
“Should we resign? What should we do? But the reality was, we couldn’t afford to resign it. We had built a machine that needed so much revenue coming through it, it would not accommodate ethics, to put it really bluntly, and that was a real wake up call for me because we just unquestionably kept growing, kept accepting more projects.”
Growth can spring up traps that we weren’t prepared for.
Is growth really necessary?
A couple of years ago I read the book “Brutally Honest” by Emily Ruth Cohen, and overall it was a really good book that I wish existed when I was starting out. However, as I wrote in my GoodReads review, the author is biased against freelancers. (Despite being a freelancer herself at the time of writing and promoting her book.) I found it ironic that she considers a solo consultant business model she’s been using “unsustainable” for design studios.
Like many business experts, Cohen subscribes to the capitalist imperative of growth. I don’t equate growth and sustainability. Sustainability is just that—having the means of sustaining a stable business. Being able to meet your needs.
Growth on the other hand requires expansion, fulfilling needs that grow bigger as your business grows.
I hold a lot of anti-capitalist beliefs. I don’t believe in continuous growth in terms of company size, number of clients, revenue, and other numeric markers (beyond what is needed to keep up with inflation). I believe unchecked growth is harmful for individuals, our society, and our ecosystem. We’re making the planet Earth less habitable for many species (including humans) with too much growth. We’re exploiting people in developing nations for our first-world comfort.
There’s rarely a day that I don’t feel complicit in the devastation that happens so I could have my electronic gadgets, affordable clothes, and exotic foods. This internal conflict informs what kind of business owner I want to be. I don’t buy into the “conscious capitalism” movement because it’s just window-dressing that doesn’t solve capitalism’s core issues.
I’m a worker: I trade my intellectual, physical, and emotional labor for money.
And I love it! I’m fulfilled by creating, and I can’t imagine a life without that. I own my means of production, and have total freedom over how I use them.
When I work with other independent contractors, I don’t mark up their fees or take any commission. They earn 100% of what the client paid for their part of the work. I get paid only for my own work.
If I change my mind and decide to build an agency, it’s going to be a cooperative. Every partner will own a proportional share of the business and their own equipment, and contribute to the business expenses. But since that requires a great deal more trust in people than simply hiring workers you can fire if it doesn’t work out, you can see why I’d be so reluctant.
There are other ways to grow
- I believe in personal growth.
- I believe in evolving your business to keep up with the times.
- I believe in becoming more intentional when selecting clients and projects.
- I believe in continuously improving your services.
Those who want to grow their number of clients and their revenue need to hire more people. I’m satisfied with the number of clients and revenue I have, so I don’t need to hire anyone.
I earn leveraged income through my books, workshops, and digital products, and will continue to build this library. There’s really no need for me to grow the agency side of my business.
We call it “lifestyle business”
The kind of business that works around your life, instead of molding your life around work. It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to work this way, but it’s also risky. My first 3 years of freelancing were tough, and I didn’t know if it would all work out. I’m glad I persisted through the hard times.
And yet, I feel incredibly lucky that I’m able to work and live this way. I’m lucky that the conditions in my life were orchestrated in such a way that I could learn the skills that enable me to do this work at a young age, and find a supportive community. I don’t take it for granted.
My friend Višnja and I talk about this stuff often. After years of running an agency, she and her partner decided to simplify and have a lifestyle business instead. No employees, no fancy office, less overhead, less stress. She told me she’s much happier now.
Scaling down may look like stepping back on the success ladder to someone on the outside, as if gross revenue and the number of employees are the most important markers of career success. It’s a short-sighted view, because the quality of human life depends on so many other factors. True “winners” are those that recognize this, weigh all the factors that matter to them, and have the courage to make the right decision for them in the moment. Even if that decision means scaling back. Even if it means closing a business and starting over. Even if it means caring for family members full-time.
Our parents don’t get it. Our friends with jobs may not get it.
That’s fine, we don’t need their blessing.
We don’t need to explain ourselves to them.
We don’t need to prove our success through conventional means.
We don’t need to measure against a scale that others have invented.
We don’t need to feel guilty for refusing to take on unnecessary responsibilities.
They can judge all they want. Whether it’s envy or sincere worry, it doesn’t matter. Those of us who have the privilege and luxury to tailor our own career should take that opportunity.
If you can help others do the same, do it. Teach people. Advise people. Introduce people. Form communities. Give back. But don’t dull your own shine for others’ sake, and don’t hide how well you have it.
Show other people that a different way of life is possible. You may save someone from making a big, expensive mistake.
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