The Rockstar Myth

We have to accept that we aren’t super-human. Too many designers pride themselves on hand-crafting everything they produce. They write their own code and insist on designing every screen of a project themselves. Designers like this burn themselves out within a matter of years. When your business grows, your time invariably gets split between doing the work you love and keeping up with email, sending invoices and estimates, banking, updating the books, and all the other minutiae that goes along with running a business.

When I started MetaLab in 2006, the idea of handing anything off seemed insane. Hiring somebody terrified me. It seemed like a risky expense to take on. Since then, the company has grown to 20 people. Hiring them has been the best business decision I’ve ever made. It’s freed me up to build incredible products, let me focus on the stuff that I love, and given me the opportunity to work on projects that would have been impossible without the help of a great team. Being a one-man-band is great at first, but it’s unsustainable. Perfection is impossible. If you focus on design, your coding will slip. If you focus on coding, you’ll get behind on email. You can’t wear ten hats, and you can’t be everything to every client — you need to focus on what you love most and let others pick up the slack.

When you’re a one-man-band, your income is tied to your daily output. In concept, this is great — you reap what you sow. In reality, you get burnt out and hit speed bumps. You break up with your girlfriend. You go on vacation. Shit happens, and when it does, your financial stability invariably takes a hit. When you have a team, you share the load. When you get overwhelmed or need to refocus, you can have someone else take the reigns for a while instead of having a nervous breakdown.

When you’re a one-man-band, you have to do things you hate. You became a designer because you love designing things, not reconciling bank statements. Fortunately, there are people out there who love reconciling bank statements. Hire one, even just part-time. You get to keep doing what you love, gain back a ton of the billable time that you would have spent fudging the numbers, and help someone else out in the process.

When you’re a one-man-band, you can’t handle big clients. Nike isn’t going to sit around while you personally hand-code every screen. American Airlines isn’t going to wait a week for revisions. To land serious projects, you need to focus your energy where it’s most valuable and let others pick up what you can’t handle.

Running your own company is supposed to be about doing what you love on your own time. That’s what’s so great about being an entrepreneur: you get to decide what your day looks like, what projects you take on, and when and where you work. So why do so many of us get trapped into miserable 10-hour days? I’ve watched tons of designers burn out one after another, many of them giving up on running their own business altogether and going to work for someone else.

I’ve been there, but since I learned to delegate and got over my fear of hiring, things have changed. I usually get to the office at 2pm, take weekends off, and work 4–6 hour days. It’s not that I’m lazy — I love what I do — just that I have the freedom to focus on exactly what I want to work on at any given moment. If I feel like taking on some coding, that’s what I do. If I want to write copy, I write some. I still get to put my stamp on all of our projects, it’s just that I kick off the first couple designs, then move on and let my team handle the follow through.

Of course, handing things off is hard when you’re a perfectionist. You have to hire well, and more importantly, let people put out their own fires. When I started hiring contractors to help with my workload, I made a critical mistake: If their first mockup wasn’t great, or a client got unhappy, I’d immediately step in and put out the fire. You need to let things blow up in people’s faces. Let them make mistakes. If one of your employees misses a deadline, force them to talk to the client directly. If you’re the middle-man jumping into the fray whenever anything goes amiss, you’ll be stuck micro-managing everyone. Step back and let people clean up their own messes and they’ll make the necessary course corrections on their own. Your team will respect you for it, and you’ll save yourself tons of headaches.

Hiring has been my saving grace. The company did over a million dollars in revenue this year. We’ve built two great web-apps and launched all sorts of great side projects. We all work short days, manage our own schedules, and get to work with incredible clients. None of this would have been possible if I was a one-man-band “rock star.”

(This post was originally shared on our website in 2010)