Going solo

Written on January 14, 2014

In December last year I left my full-time position to work for myself. I jumped ship and swam out into the ocean without looking back. I’ve been working for myself for a long time now but I’ve always worked in other agencies full-time and freelanced on the side. It was super-hard work, as anyone doing the same will testify to. Having always had the dream of working for myself, in fact I think it’s always been an absolute at some point – something that I just knew had to happen but it was just a matter of when and how to go about it, I’m always chipping away at some sort of project or learning new skills and it’s the latter that has finally made it possible.

Rewind

I’m traditionally a print designer, fascinated by typography, grids, golden sections (and other types of beautiful ratio), composition and clear communication of the business message. I love working with clients, I love my job and I love my craft. I’m a perfectionist, like most designers. This is all good and well but it wasn’t winning me a lot of new work. The work that I was doing was, in my clients’ words, very good but my services offered were not broad enough to be classed as ‘full service’ nor was I niche enough to be called upon for specific work. That was the problem.

The Niche

So without really knowing it, I guess I just followed my heart. I started looking for more work which was coupled to my other passions in life; rock climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking and general outdoor adventure. I felt that I could offer more value to clients in this area due to me taking part in these activities a lot myself – effectively I was my client’s target market so I could offer great insight on these types of projects. This alone has helped me win new work from long-standing clients and I love working on these projects.

The Full Service

A few years ago I had an operation. It put me on my back, in bed, for some time and I was so bored. So I purchased an iPad, my awesome Dad went and picked it up for me, and I signed up to Code Academy. I knew some basic HTML, CSS and PHP. I could amend other people’s work and find my way around, kind of understand the logic but my knowledge and understanding was very limited. So I spent a lot of time running through the courses and before I knew it I had a moment of insight. I love code! It struck me that even though this is classed as website development, rather than design, to me it is still very much design. As a developer you are creating, you are building a product or service that people can use. You make design decisions, either on your own or with the help of a designer / creative team, about UI and UX. You are very much a designer.

Time went on and as I was able to get up out of bed and sit at my Mac I began to design and build my own side-projects and hand-code. Something that I never thought would be possible for me and there I was, doing it. My code was probably very sloppy but it was coming out of my own head coupled with an understanding of how it all works and I loved it.

Fast Forward

These new skills have enabled me to offer a much more broad service to my clients. They have improved me massively as a designer because now, I can understand how websites are built (I build them!). I understand how design decisions, in terms of graphics, will affect the performance of the site. I understand how adding in little nuances in the UI can drastically bloat the code-base and I can now make design decisions in the browser and on-device as I am building the website.

I’m also a better developer for it. For me, the design stage is never really complete. I used to design layouts using Photoshop or Illustrator and present flat desktop viewport designs to my clients and say “Voila!” but now it’s more fluid than that and it simply has to be. The design stage is present throughout the whole process, even during the development stage. It’s impossible to make every design decisions up front before you get into the browser or onto a device and start using the UI, you can never know how a layout will feel until you start using it. So now that I also build my own websites I can show my clients a taster of what the UI will be like, explain the UX, maybe show some draft layouts and some specific components if need be but my aim is always now to get into the browser as soon as possible. This allows both myself and my clients to start using the UI. We can then make even more design decisions and improve during the build-stage.

The Swim

So through having this broad range of skills, especially development and web performance, I’m now able to win a lot more new work. This has built up slowly over the years – I saved and saved as much as I could to give me a financial buffer. Some friend’s said that I was being over cautious but that’s my nature, I like to do things properly. There have been long nights, long weekends and not much sleep – leaving your full-time job to go and work for yourself is hard work and it’s not for everyone. It is, however, totally worth all of that hard work because when you do it you realise that it’s even harder when you are working for yourself so it sets you up well. I love it. I’m only a few weeks into my venture but I’m not looking back. I’m a part of projects now that I simply would not be able to work on if I was working for somebody else and I can work to my own high standards. Sometimes I spend longer on projects than what I have quoted for but that is my choice – I want my work, the work that my clients are paying me for, to be the best I can do. And that goes for every project and for every client.

My Tips for Going Solo

  • Go niche; choose an area of your work that you particularly enjoy and focus on that. It helps you target your clients and explain what you do, with passion!
  • Broaden your skills; running your own business has a lot of requirements including winning new work, quoting, accounts, admin and out-sourcing (if you do that). Never stop learning and don’t focus too much on dead areas of the market. Don’t try to sell steak to vegetarians.
  • Create contacts and make friends with other people in the industry, do not isolate yourself from others. Partnerships, mutually beneficial ones, are fantastic.
  • Build up a financial buffer; there will be quiet times ahead, months where you don’t win work. Account for these months and save up 3-, 6-, 9-months worth of wages for yourself, whatever it is you need to feel a bit more secure. This will also stop you from getting desperate and lowering your prices too much just to win that next project.
  • Always be selling; never underestimate an opportunity to sell your services. Talk to friends, family, everyone about what you do but do it with a passion. If you enjoy what you do then this will come naturally to you. If you don’t then maybe try another career.
  • Focus on your clients’ needs; your clients are your most important asset. Keep your clients happy, all of the time. Be honest with them – be a human – but their happiness is your primary goal. Your job is to help them improve their business and help them win new customers / clients. You have to add value, which ties in with the above about broadening your skills and offering a full-service.
  • Finally; do it! It will not be easy. It will probably be one of the hardest decisions that you will ever have to make but do it.