Why I don’t want to grow my freelance design studio into an agency

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Business, Personal, Thoughts

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.

Why I don't want to grow my freelance studio into an agency

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.

I often start my workday with a personal creative project, or I write.

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.

Sketchbook, cup of tea, and a tray with art supplies on a patio table
Quiet thinking time on the patio in the morning is the secret behind my best creative ideas.

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.

Chapter outline for my second book that I wrote in 2020

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.

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.

Stay true,


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20 responses to “Why I don’t want to grow my freelance design studio into an agency”

  1. I really loved this! I’m a freelancer as well (programmer), work more or less in the same way as you and I’ve come to believe all the same things. I see a lot of people complaining online that they hate their work and life is awful bla bla bla, I wish they realized a better way is possible. I know it is because I’m living it and there are others like you. Thanks for the article, I’m going to save it to read it again when I need reminding of my own values (which you put much more eloquently than I could).

    • Thank you very much for your kind words!
      I’m glad you’ve found this to be a satisfying and sustainable career model as well. I wish everyone was able to find their own.

  2. This is awesome! Thank you for writing this. I am embarking on my own journey of self-employment after years in high-stress, high-growth startups. A lot of your reflections resonate with me and it helps to see your thoughts laid out clearly as I envision (and try to explain to friends/former colleagues) a similar working rhythm.

    Thanks again and keep it up!

    • Thank you! I wish you all the best in your own journey.
      I hope those years of high-stress work at least got you a savings cushion, so you can jump into self-employment without worrying about income for a while. Beginnings can be rocky, but I’ve found it’s definitely worth it in the long run.

  3. Great article. Shame so many people consider the term “life style business” as a negative. I think that the very naming is descriptive. It is a business that suits your life style choices.
    I do have a question: When you need to work with several other creatives to deliver a project and it is the project that you sourced. Do each of you directly invoice the client, or do you aggregate the billings into one? If it is the latter, then how do you handle the situation when the client is slow to pay or baulks at some aspect? In other words, effectively making you responsible for other people’s work.

    • Thank you!

      When a project requires other skills, I just connect the client to recommended specialists, or suggest a few and they choose. All the legal and financial agreements are between the client and each contractor. It’s up to the contractor to handle their part of the project as they see fit, I’m only responsible for my own work.

      I don’t do subcontracting because:
      1. It’s added admin burden for me.
      2. It would impact my tax status. I’m currently benefiting from a special “micro-business” tax law. If my gross income increased (regardless of profit), I’d pay higher taxes, and the subcontractors would still pay their own taxes on top of that… My business is not set up to work like an agency. If I wanted to subcontract, I’d have to set up an LTD.

  4. This is very refreshing to see. Not everything needs to grow grow grow fast fast fast. I think you have a very sustainable way of operating and living and it makes me very happy and I find it inspiring.
    I hope more people follow suit,I kinda am saying that to myself :)

    Ps. There is a great discussion of this article in Hackernews, currently in the frontpage: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37371084

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Chapati :) I appreciate it.

      A couple of friends tipped me off on Hackernews, and it’s amazing to see the response! I didn’t expect at all that this topic would garner so much attention outside of my little bubble.

  5. Hi Nela,
    I love almost every single line of what you wrote.
    But hey, practicing it in some countries (at least the one I live) is rather troublesome when not close to dreaming.
    You just added that you and your partner fulfill your living expenses that are not so high. To be honest, you say you don’t want to live or run in an agency/company but you already are in one.
    Please don’t be upset at my question, but do you think you could run all this and keep your living expenses acceptable without the support of your partner’s wage? If the answer is “no”, he is your partner in the company. He obviously supports you and that’s great and – I dare to say – even “normal”! But without his help, you maybe would have to turn down some things.
    I tried to work as a freelancer, but here in Italy it is too expensive. It takes too much time to work (the Italian love for bureaucracy) before you can start to get some income from that (but in the meantime you have to pay the bills because the electric company doesn’t accept “I’m going to pay you in three or four months”), and to get that income high enough to keep a lifestyle not below poverty. And in the end, to start it all I needed some help and financial support that my partner then didn’t want to give me, because she doesn’t believe in the “sustainable lifestyle” like you. She thinks work is necessary and is a sort of sentence to death, so simply couldn’t accept I could do the work I loved while she couldn’t. Especially if she had to pay some dues. A rather narcissistic attitude, that in the end brought to the end of the relationship too.
    I just picked up the worst partner from the partners mace. Shame on me! I’m shamed enough there’s a 11 y.o. girl who pays for my mistake too.
    But I don’t say you’re lucky. Your relation is surely something you both work at everyday so you deserve what you get. It’s somehow part of your “job”, and you work at it to keep your “sustainable lifestyle” for you both. And it’s nice you’ve find such a supportive partner who understands and support that!
    To cut a long story short, my twopence worth thoughts are that freedom has a price to pay that not everyone on Earth can afford. And sometimes they’re not the only one to blame for that.
    As Genesis used to sing: “It’s just the way of the world”. A way that sadly no one was capable to turn out throughout the centuries.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Andrea.
      I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, but I do want to clarify some things because you’re asking interesting questions.

      Where we live has a huge impact on our ability to flourish. There are some things about my country (Croatia) that are great, and others that aren’t that great. (Salaries are lower than in “more developed” countries, client budgets as well. Food is more expensive than in Italy or Germany, possibly other things too.)
      Judging by some comments and emails about this article, people seemed to get the impression that it was always easy for me. It certainly wasn’t. I’ve been documenting my journey on this blog for over 10 years, and shared a lot of challenges: my professional mistakes, my depression… It’s still here for anyone who wants to look for it.

      Also some people seem to think I’m claiming that being a freelancer is better than being employed, and that everyone should become a freelancer. I never said that. In fact, in my ultimate list of freelancing tips I explicitly say freelancing is not for everyone. Or it may not be the right choice in given circumstances.
      In this article I’m comparing freelancing to owning an agency, not freelancing to employment, or even freelancing to semi-permanent contracting (which is different). So it’s quite a different subject altogether, really.

      I didn’t always live with a partner – I supported myself when I was living alone as well. I’ve always contributed 50% to our joint expenses, even during lean times when I was paying back a business loan and I had no savings left over.
      Legally and ethically, he’s not a partner in my business, but we are partners in life. He benefits greatly from my career flexibility as well. When things were tough in my business, our relationship felt that strain, which is normal. We were able to sort it out, we’ve both grown a lot as people over the years, and I got myself lots of professional mental health support. Relationships need work from both sides.

      I’m sorry that your family broke apart. You shouldn’t feel any shame about it. You didn’t know your partner wouldn’t have your back, lots of people make that mistake.
      I hope you have lots of time with your daughter so you can teach her the values you believe in, especially as she grows older and starts forming her own ideas about the world.

  6. Glad I discovered your article & website through the discussions on HN. Honestly thank you, you rock. — R.

  7. Hi Nela, I don’t even know how I got here but thanks for your thoughts :)
    It does remind me of my 7 years of freelancing and what I loved (and in parts still miss) about it. It’s really important to ask oneself “what is it that I want from life – right now”, and do that periodically.
    What I do miss most is the actual freedom of choice. Other things I don’t miss.
    Keep on rocking :)

  8. Great article Nela! I did the same thing for 10 years for the same reasons.

    One thing that always bothered me about potentially jumping to agency with employees was the amount of nonsense work you’d have to pick up just to cover salaries and overhead.

    When you’re alone, you can accept or reject based on your own requirements which allows you to take on better work or keep clients you like because it’s not as directly about the money.

    Great write up!

    • Thank you, Matt!
      True, we did a lot of “nonsense work” that paid the bills in my agency days, and after a while I completely lost my passion and drive. It took me several years of freelancing to re-awaken my passion for design again, and once I got it back, I vowed to protect it as best as I can.

  9. Wow, just a great article which helped me a lot! My problem are not the people around me, but it’s just me. I think I want to get more sales volume so that I can pay me a higher salary. I can live with the one I have at the moment, but I can’t put anything aside. Furthermore, I have enough aside and don’t have any plans for buying things or something to spend the money for. But I love it when I have a lot to do, time just flies, and I have such a lot to do at work that I don’t even know where to begin. So I think I have to find ways how I can find more work for me to do. I’m not a fan of classical advertisement, so I’m a bit lost at the moment. Thank you very much for the little light in the sky.

    • Hi Feerena, I’m glad to hear it was helpful!
      From candid conversations I’ve had with colleagues who pursued the agency path, higher sales volume doesn’t always result in higher salary for the owner when you’ve got a team to pay. And unless they hire a dedicated sales person, guess who has to find all the work for the team? Yep, the owner.
      I’ve seen a comment on HackerNews by a developer who pays a freelance sales person that finds high-paying clients for him, so that may be an option for some people…

      If you’d like to fill up your schedule some more, definitely ramp up your sales and marketing!
      When I was in a similar situation, I didn’t want to work any more hours, so I increased my fees instead.

  10. Hi Neela!

    You mentioned that you saw a comment on HackerNews about a developer paying a freelance salesperson for high-paying clients.

    Any chance you have the link to that comment or even HackerNews post?

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