The transition from a humble designer to business director

Around a year ago, I received the dreaded news that the app agency who employed me, was sadly going under. This was a very frustrating time — after pouring so much time and effort into the business, only to see it crumble before my very eyes was not the nicest experience to say the least, especially when you see your friends and colleagues all in the same, exceptionally unfortunate situation. This was however, completely out of my control, poor decisions made by senior leadership led to the inevitable demise of one of the most enjoyable and pivotal points in my life and career to date. But from this experience, I learned many lessons, met some fantastic people and found confidence within myself to take risks. Big risks.

And so we fast forward to 2017; and a lot has changed. The period between December and March of this year was incredibly taxing. Myself and my business partner (Will Roberts, the cross-platform development guru and studio legend) had been busy ripening PixelBeard in the background, all whilst working full-time. The idea to join him in his new venture was floated. At this point, I had taken on another full-time role in order to pay the bills, this meant late nights, 16hr working days and a heavy, ever present decision to make. Do I take the plunge and leave a stable position as an in-house Lead UI/UX designer at a flourishing business, to pursue my own business? Of course, the answer had to be yes. An absolute no-brainer. It had always been a dream of mine to build my own agency. Long before, I had set a goal to make owning my own agency happen before the age of 25.

If I never attempted it, I would never have forgiven myself. This wasn’t just a pipe dream.

Building the foundations of a viable business

After acquiring several great clients in our first 3 months (I mean hey, these included, Sony PlayStation, Aircharge, Nestle and Unilever!) Will and I understood that we truly had a viable business. From this point on, we began to build; build our infrastructure, build our team, build relationships and build knowledge. As a newcomer to business, it was a steep learning curve for me — and I still have pangs of self-doubt today, but when in the position we are in, there is no option but to put your best foot forward and learn on the job.

My passion has always lay in design, ever since the days in college sending masses of emails and messages out to business owners looking for opportunities to freelance, to today as the CDO of PixelBeard — all of the opportunities have presented themselves through perseverance in the face of great hardship. Even after 100 rejections and countless ignored emails, I understood pretty quickly that it only takes 1 response to change the tide of your future, and so I never gave up. This gave me the life skill of perseverance, and this I believe is one of the most important skills that anybody can develop. A key pillar of good business, it is also one of the main reasons people fail to achieve their goals.

This gave me the life skill of perseverance, and this I believe is one of the most important skills that anybody can develop.

What working for the man taught me

No one really knows what they are doing. I always had an impression that the people at the top all had their shit together, and that they somehow had figured it all out. Well, the secret is that during my experience I have come to the realisation that nobody actually knows what they are doing — everyone is making the best decisions they can based on the facts and information available. This realisation was one that was quite unexpected to me, as I had always admired and looked up to these people as the leaders of the pack. It was an incredibly empowering realisation that we are all only 1 bad decision away from it all coming crashing down around us. And it did. I had witnessed this first hand, this was one of the key catalysts that inspired me to make the leap.

Designers just make things look nice…

This is something that many people have said to me during my career, this ignorance and lack of understanding towards the practice of design is one that I have had to combat head on multiple times with varying levels of success. Design impacts everything… literally… everything. The ignorance to disregard the importance of design is surely setting yourself up for failure before you have even begun.

Through practicing design for many years, I was able to apply this skill set to my own business. Creating a memorable brand, as well as great products is an obvious answer when talking about how my skill set transitioned through to starting a business — and of course, these were vital areas that I was able to apply myself; however there was a far more potent and exhilarating area that has been aided by my design focused career.

Learn to communicate, as this is the most powerful tool you can posses

Communication is everything when running a business, and a lack of communication can be the nail in the coffin before you have even started. Design is the practice of communicating the needs of the user/audience/viewer in concise and expected mediums to achieve the required outcome. Having the ability to have empathy towards the person you are communicating with is a skill that many designers have, and is one that I have found transitions extremely well through to business. Every day a designer is working on the best method of communication to achieve an outcome, the same principles apply when communicating with clients, pitching to prospective clients and working with team members etc.

The transition into an entirely forward facing role was, for me a particularly poignant learning curve. As a UI/UX designer, I communicated with clients regularly, whether that be to present work, achieve feedback or address any concerns. However, my new role involved me being “front of house” — not only presenting work, but also scouting and pitching for work with prospective new clients. This was a transition that took me a while to feel fully confident with. Let me tell you, traditional “business sales” is a profession in itself! It didn’t take long though, because if you don’t step up and push through your comfort zone, who will? Pixel Beard wasn’t going to run itself!

Designers have an advantage over traditional salespeople in a front facing role

It’s gotta be said, us designers are a passionate bunch and this is the main reason many of us decided to get into the industry in the first place! The love of our craft, for many of us, was enough to make us want to turn up to an office/studio and work for 8+hours a day, 5–7 days a week. The key word there being, “want”. We are incredibly lucky that we have found ourselves in a position that allows us to do something that we love and make a good living from it. This same passion allows us to be genuinely excited about a potential project/idea. As we are tasked with actually crafting the product itself, it is easier for us than most to see through what the client is saying to achieve an outcome. This foresight allows us to communicate effectively with the client exactly what they can expect, along with the creativity to suggest alterations and additions to the original plan, because after all — we are the ones that have the experience taking an idea through to a working product!

Now, I am by no means saying that traditional salespeople hate their jobs, or are not passionate about what they do — but when it comes to digital products, there is no better person (in my opinion) to adopt a front facing role than a designer. This limits over promising and manages expectations from day one. Overpromising and under delivering is something I have experienced several times during my career due to sales team members promising the world and declaring with certainty that the project will be ready in 3 weeks… for £50.

To Summarise

This is just my experience to date during this whirlwind that has been the past year and i’m sure my opinion will change and mature as I do. If you are a designer thinking about going at it alone, my final words are;

Do not underestimate the amount of work required, sales is a full-time job on its own.
There is nothing wrong with “just wanting to design” — this process has taught me that this is not a lifestyle for everyone.
Communication is everything, even if you are starting from scratch. Learning to communicate with the right people will yield results if you persevere.

If you have made this same transition, what were your thoughts?

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