Agency or Startup? Where to begin your design career

Airbnb’s San Francisco office

One question that I often hear is whether it best to start a design career at a company like Airbnb or at an agency like Huge. There are pluses and minuses to both. I wouldn’t recommend one over the other but here is a humble attempt to help guide others to find the right path for themselves.

Product Companies

Working at a company like Airbnb has a lot of upsides. The main one for me is being able to come to work every day and really help to build a business. That’s deeply satisfying and even more so if you resonate with the mission of the company on a personal level like I do at Airbnb. To be able to work with a passionate team driving toward a common goal is really motivating and something that I’ve experienced for nearly 2 years now in my current job. I’ve been a part of motivating projects at agencies before but that’s fleeting once that project is complete or I have to roll onto late nights working on a pitch.

Working at a company you tend to have a steady, reliable schedule and can actually have a healthy work/life balance. You can raise a family, like I do, without sacrificing relationships. You get good benefits typically and often free food or other perks. It’s pretty easy to become spoiled in all honesty.

Something to also consider is the potential, through stock options, to make more money than working at an agency. This is possible ofcourse, but from my experience getting rich from startups is a lot like winning the lottery. You have to be an early employee in a company that is lucky enough to find huge market success. For most, the stock that you earn is not going to make you much more, if any more, then a job working at an agency. Your salary will be lower so think of the stock options as, hopefully, a way to make up that difference and perhaps get a little upside. So, I’d remove stock options as a major factor when deciding between agencies and startups.

Of course there are downsides. From a creative standpoint, the main downside is that the product you work on today is likely going to be very similar to the one that you work on a year from now. Features will change or new areas developed but there isn’t going to be a dramatic shift in what the company does unless you move teams at a very large company like Apple or Google. Creatively that can be stifling in comparison to agency work. A lot of companies will allow you the opportunity to move teams to “freshen” things up but don’t expect that to happen often as it’s in the best interest of the company that you develop deep knowledge in a particular area.

From a financial perspective working at a pre-IPO startup is a huge risk. I’ve been through one acquisition while Creative Director at Yammer and been a part of several other small startups and at no time have I made more money then I would have at an agency. In fact, I’ve likely left a bunch of money on the table as my career would have been continuing to grow and with it a higher paycheck. As I said earlier, startups are like the lottery. You can play it safer by working at a public company like Facebook or Adobe but you will then be a part of larger organizations where you have a bit less of a business impact.

The truth is that when I started as a designer there were very few opportunities for product design. It just wasn’t a career path that was available. I believe that product companies are right for those who are really mission-driven and want to impact people’s lives, whether in the dozens or the millions.

Creative Agencies

For a lot of young designers, agencies are a great way to find your long-term career path. Why? Agencies are a fantastic way to really develop your creative experience by being put into a variety of new and challenging problems and projects. For someone who values creativity above all other things, you can’t get much better than a solid, successful agency. I did some of my wildest concepts and produced amazing creative work while working on clients like Bud Light, US Army, AT&T and others. These clients have huge budgets and are open to big ideas. I remember doing photo shoots and pushing technology to its limit to win awards. It’s an amazing shot of creative adrenaline…and one that I miss. And, as a designer, you aren’t just locked to your computer working in Sketch. You are working with others who help push your ideas. Sound engineers, videographers, video game makers. The list goes on and on.

The industry itself is just damn fun. There is, what seemed like, a constant stream of parties from vendors wooing you and, for some people, the ability to travel around the world for shoots or editing sessions. It can be a hell of a ride.

The pay is also quite good once you start becoming more senior. You can start out making less at an agency early in your career but as you gain experience and move up in title the pay increases can jump quickly. Some ECDs are making 7 figures a year. Pretty damn good for a design career.

So what’s the downside? Well, there are a few and they can be large. For one, you work in a service business and are at the mercy of the client. That means your brilliant idea may never make it past your presentation. And, in some cases, can die or change dramatically even after being sold. I had a series of groundbreaking banner ads killed the day before launch due to a dispute with an actor. It’s incredibly frustrating and completely out of your control. Also, clients don’t care about your working hours. Deadlines can push you to 16 hour days or working through weekends often. Totally part of the business and usually expected.

Another huge downside is having to pitch to new clients. It’s a pain in the ass, to be frank, and a necessary evil in the business. You work your ass off with the hopes of getting to do more work. Typically what you did for the pitch doesn’t ever get made but it takes the same amount of time nonetheless.

Also, while the work can be creatively motivating, often times you are doing work that just isn’t personally motivating. Most clients still need banner ads and emails. Rarely do you get juicy, creative projects. As well, you may not care or with the client’s mission.

I loved working in agencies. It’s creatively and often financially rewarding. Just don’t go into it thinking that you are changing the world. The world won’t need what you are making, but it’s sure fun doing it…when you’re not too frustrated.

As an additional note, I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that designers are lucky enough to be able to switch between two career paths like working at an agency and a product company. They both present unique challenges, learning opportunities, and amazing experiences. Design is only going to grow as technology changes and there will continue to be more open doors for designers to explore. I look forward to participating with you.