Army of Me

My First Year Running An Independent Design Studio, Part One

Gypsy studio — one of the many desks I found myself working at in 2015.

A year ago, after just over 3 years of working as an art director and graphic designer for advertising agencies, I walked into my managing director’s office and gently handed in my resignation. We talked for a good hour about my decision and he asked a few questions that I continue to ask myself a year later.

His biggest question was obvious: why? Why would I walk away from steady pay checks, a dental plan, Thirsty Thursdays, good people, and most of all: job security?

It wasn’t all good — like any job it was far from perfect, but generally speaking I really liked it. So why wasn’t it enough? Did I think I could do it better? Was I good enough to do it all on my own? The short answer was yes.

The long answer is, well, a bit longer:

Like a good number of industries, advertising is a bit of grind.

It’s made up of hard work and long hours. You continually put your ass on the line and you continually get rejected. It takes a lot of creative fuel and can be incredibly thankless. And to be any good at it, you have to hustle. About 2 ½ years into my career and after asking for and being denied a handful of pay rises, the thought occurred to me that I might be spinning my wheels. I realized that I was hustling to a) often give someone else most of the glory, and b) to make someone else rich. Neither of those discoveries made me very happy.

I’ve been a malcontent for as long as I can remember, so the seed of rebelliousness fertilized at a swift pace.

As time passed I grew more and more disillusioned with agency life. I disliked the clunky structure of large companies, the time and money wasted on internal power struggles was disturbing, and selling low-rent blue jeans for a nationwide, faceless corporation left me feeling hollow and a little bit dirty — I could imagine my 13 year old self kicking me right in the balls if time travel were a thing of the present. The moment came to take the plunge and go out on my own.

It was a risk, but he who dares wins.

The biggest thing people ask me about when they find out I run my own design studio is one of the same questions my boss brought up in our meeting “doesn’t it stress you out to have no job security?”. And my answer is always, resoundingly, no.

Here’s why:

There’s no such thing as job security. Seriously. There isn’t.

Three months after I left the agency I worked for, they lost their biggest client and announced they would be closing their Calgary office. Some of the people I had worked with got assimilated into the new agency that took over the client, and some didn’t. The big, secure agency shut their doors just after a year of being in town. And that was the second time in 2 years I watched this situation happen.

If there are few guarantees in life, there are even less in advertising. Odds are you will lose every client you ever have, and the stakes are much higher for larger agencies with larger clients and whole teams of mouths to feed. But still, the perception exists that if you work for someone else, you’re in a safer position. You’re not.

Whether you work for yourself or for a multinational agency, you have the same amount of job assurance: absolutely none.

Actually, being a small, nimble operation usually allows you to bounce back from failures with less devastation than a large company. If you’re a person who learns from your mistakes (I’d rate myself a B- in this category), you can move from one adventure to the next with increasing chances of success. I can guarantee that you will mess things up, piss people off and forget to do important things, but all of these follies are recoverable. Work hard, be nice, own up to your mistakes and life will go on.

People often feel a sense of loyalty to the company they work for.

In my opinion, this allegiance is mostly misguided. The merit you might have gained with your loyalty can evaporate the instant a hard decision needs to be made. When the large client dumps your agency or the economy tanks (more), your fidelity becomes a moot point if the executives can’t support your salary or justify your position any longer. It happened to me at one point in my career and I was blindsided. I was naive to think that my company would reciprocate my loyalty. Of course they didn’t. It’s business after all.

I’m not saying it’s unwise to emotionally invest in your job. What I am saying is that I wouldn’t let loyalty be a barrier to striking it out on your own. In fact, there’s a good chance (like 100%) that the owner of your agency did exactly that at some point in their career. I’m also not saying that going freelance or starting your own studio is risk free, or easy, or for everyone. But if you’d prefer to take a greater role in the unfolding of your destiny, it might be a risk worth taking.

Every day I wake up to a cocktail of nervousness, excitement, uncertainty and bullishness.

I have no idea where the next job will come from and yes that can be stressful, but it’s also super motivating. My fate is more in my hands than it ever was before, and being responsible for my failure is a cost I’ll happily pay to be the architect of my future.

Oh. And I work less. And I make more money than I ever did at an agency.

So if you’ve been toying with idea of breaking off and going on your own, I’d urge you to keep considering it, and maybe even to take the leap (save up some money first if you can, you’ll need it). I would also urge you to take the decision seriously, but whatever you do, don’t believe the erroneous idea that working for someone else makes your work more secure. It doesn’t, I promise.

And keep in mind that most bridges are better left unburned. Here’s a good article by Mike Monteiro about quitting like a professional. That boss I resigned to a year ago? He’s still very much a mentor of mine, someone who takes my phone calls, goes for lunch with me, and like a little GPS nudge, helps direct me along my path from time to time. That initial conversation with him about the reasons for me venturing out on my own a year ago is one that I come back to over and over again, and is something I’m stoked to start sharing with other people.

Also, for the record, agencies and I are still friends. They make up about a third of my business. We just have a much healthier relationship now (kind of like how you start getting along with your parents better once you move out). We create terms that are mutually beneficial for each new job, we set clear boundaries and I get to work on a variety of projects with a ton of talented people. It’s much nicer, and it’s better for both of us.

Talk soon,


Stay tuned for more posts about my adventures running a small design studio, and as I grow from a one man shop to a two-human partnership.

Shoot me an email or get in touch on Twitter if you have any questions, want to chat, or have your own stories you’d like to share.