New perspectives as an independent creative

Stefan Poulos
Creative Independence
6 min readMar 30, 2015


How quitting my full-time job and starting a new company literally led me to the top of a mountain.

In the corporate world, you are trained to be rewarded with recognition, monetary things and sometimes verbal approval. Prior to this, my career in advertising was a typical one filled with all the familiar elements — great work, commutes, office spaces, never-ending brainstorms, photo shoots, fire drills, 401(k)s, ping pong tables and last-minute changes. It truly is a love-hate relationship. And I couldn’t believe I got paid to do what I love. Advertising is an industry that I am lucky to work in and that I owe much to.

I decided to leave it all behind in a search for something more rewarding. I made the leap into creative independence. And it was as exciting as it was terrifying.

Here’s 6 things I’ve observed so far:

1. Money isn’t everything.

I was looking into taking a trip with Sacred Rides, a mountain bike adventure company. I had been emailing with them about the details of the trips they offer. And then one day, I did something crazy. For some reason I felt compelled to totally redesign their site. Without them knowing. Without being paid. I pimped their website.

What the hell was I thinking, right? This could have gone unrecognized, with countless hours of time wasted. But instead, it turned into a lot of fun work and one of the most rewarding clients I’ve ever worked with. I worked out a deal where I would basically be paid in ride credits (and then a portion at my normal rates). That meant I was able to take mountain bike trips anywhere in the world. My first trip was riding the mountains of British Columbia. I then rode the trails of Moab, Utah, where we descended over 5,000 vertical feet down the infamous trail called “The Whole Enchilada.”

I never thought my professional career would cross paths with my passion for mountain biking in such a profound way. I met some great riding buddies and Mike Brcic, Founder and CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) of Sacred Rides, became a friend and personal mentor. My perspective changed on top of those mountains.

Takeaway: Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity on a silver platter. [tweet this]

2. I hate selling myself.

Presenting yourself well as a business is a no-brainer. I mean, I do this for a living for multi-billion dollar companies. I was naive in thinking that my work would speak for itself and that if people want to work with you, they will find you. But my personality is a modest one, actually. I’m an introvert. So I’ve had to find creative outlets that I was comfortable with. I’ve had to become my own content producer.

“Work hard in silence. Let your success be the noise.” ~ Frank Ocean [tweet this]

I reluctantly did a write-up on Behance on the branding of my new company, Poulos Collective. This was difficult for me to do, but it was a necessary medium to explain my thinking. Especially for an unknown company that prefers to remain nameless and be expressed only with a logo mark that looks like an octopus. And then something funny happened. Some of the attention it received turned the piece into a sort of hidden personality test, with new clients and partners who shared the same mindset as me reaching out. The write-up had generated genuine interest in working together. More importantly, it attracted exactly the type of people I want to work with.

Takeaway: No one is going to sell you better than you.

3. Being selective is the ultimate autonomy.

You hear it all the time: “Do the work that you want.” Early on, I was faced with the difficult decision of whether to take on a particular assignment. I found myself asking new questions beyond the stereotypical pickiness of a creative turning his nose up. Why am I doing this? Will I be challenged? Is this a smart and respectful person who I want to work with? Do they value creative thinking? Do I think I can provide value beyond what I’m being paid for? This was a high-profile project that, on the surface, would appeal to a lot of people and pay really well. But it just didn’t pass the sniff test for me. I did one of the hardest things I’ve had to do when growing a new business. I turned the project down. It allowed me to focus.

Takeaway: Be relentless in choosing the kinds of people you want to work with, not just the type of work you want. [tweet this]

4. I feel healthier.

After changing my work arrangement to freelance, I noticed a lot of little things. I lost weight dramatically. My sleep patterns were more consistent. I was eating healthier. I was eating at regular times. I was eating in general! (Hey advertising folks, when was the last time you had a nice dinner at 7pm on a weekday?) I know all this because I like to track activities on my phone, and the data gets fed into Apple Health.

Here’s the biggest thing: I feel like I am 150% more productive. I am moving at lightning speed. Granted, I still have days where I need to work 12+ hours. But it’s 12 hours of being engaged, refreshed and uninterrupted.

I also really like working weird hours. Sometimes I wake up way before the sun comes up to jump right into things. Or I stay up really late at night (my power hours). I think it must be the equivalent of REM sleep where you’re able to work in a deep zone without interruption. The rhythm of my day is dictated by my focus on tasks, not set work times.

Takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. [tweet this]

5. Finances suck.

Someone needs to re-imagine the financial process for small businesses. I think I could write an entire post on this topic alone and how to navigate all the options. I have become a Google Docs ninja. I did a tremendous amount of work to gain a better understanding of my personal finances and goals. I lined up a financial advisor group to help me set up an LLC S Corp and a basic accounting schedule and payroll. As for health benefits, I found that it was easiest to go straight to our preferred healthcare provider and tailor the benefits exactly to my family’s needs. This is the most daunting part by far, but once you’re set up you can focus on being creative.

Takeaway: Do your homework. The more you know about your finances, the easier your decisions will be.

6. I feel like I’m a part of something bigger.

It’s ironic, I know. I thought as a freelancer that I would feel more isolated. In fact, I feel more connected than ever. I was like Truman Burbank dreaming of life on Fiji. Except Fiji is a place where 53 million Americans are freelancing. That’s 34 percent of the entire workforce. It’s what Sara Horowitz of Freelancer’s Union calls “Meaningful Independence.” I am able to tap into my network and work with smart people from all over the world who are the best fit for the project. Most of the time I am working from my home office. But then, other days, I am sitting with my client partners working alongside them. I am only as big as I need to be, no bigger.

Takeaway: Don’t let anyone or anything deter you from finding your own “Fiji.”

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.



Stefan Poulos
Creative Independence

Founder and Designer at Poulos Collective, a creative company and partner network specializing in digital product design and experiences.