STARTING OFF ON YOUR OWN
A lot of us dream of starting up our own product someday, or working independently. Even though the growth of startups and the increasing awareness of design and its role in creating a successful product has made it a lot easier to strike off on your own, it’s still not the easiest choice to make, compared with the stability and comfort of a full-time job.
As someone who has worked in both environments (I worked in UX roles at large corporations for several years before co-founding a design agency), I’m hoping I can provide some perspective to anyone who’s juggling with this question right now.
So here are some of the things you’ll need to consider and deal with if you’re running your own design consultancy, or if you’re working as a freelancer or independent designer-for-hire. Read on with the disclaimer that this is based purely my experience. Hope it helps!
- When’s the right time?
This is something that a lot of current and recently graduated design students might consider — should I work for some time at a company and get some experience, or should I strike off on my own, right off the bat? Those of us that are already employed in full-time jobs wonder how much experience is enough? When is it the right time to take the plunge?
Of course, there’s no right answer here. It depends completely on your unique interests, circumstances and drive. I personally found it invaluable to work in a company environment because of the learning and perspective it provided — not just in terms of getting better at design, but also in understanding how organisations work, the different roles that are part of creating a product and the dynamics of working relationships, how companies strategize… basically just understanding the bigger picture of how products are born, built and released into the world.
Another approach could be to test the waters — work on a personal project, or take up one on the side (if you’re able/allowed to!) while you’re still employed. This can give you a taste of what it’s like to work on your own, but at some point you’ll have to make a choice either way. Doing both is simply not sustainable, long-term!
Personally, I had been toying with the idea of doing something on my own for quite a while, and ultimately took the step at a point where I did have some years of experience (and perspective) under my belt, but didn’t want to start feeling so entrenched in the security that a salaried job brings that I became afraid of change, afraid of quitting this comfortable environment to start off afresh. There were other factors to consider too — where I was in my career, what I wanted out of life and work, my financial situation at the time (I needed a safety net in case things went south!). Ultimately, there’s always the backup plan — let’s see where this goes, and what it’s like a year from now. If it bombs, you could always apply for a job again, right? If it goes well — well then, there’s nothing more to be said!
2. Will I stay afloat? Will I succeed?
For a design consultant this typically translates to — will I find enough clients?
While there are many ways to find clients, word of mouth is the most powerful. When you decide to start off on your own, spread the word. Talk to people, use social media, go all out. Having some sort of online presence — ideally a portfolio — is vital at this point. Something that says who you are, what work you’ve done, what you bring to the table, and how to get in touch. This is your face to the world, so make sure your personality and work ethic shines through here! This may be seem obvious, but it’s really one of the most important things that you can do. Nearly all the projects we got initially were through personal and professional contacts, friends of friends. Maybe later on, you could use some form of advertising to gain more exposure.
There are also a lot of places online where you can find projects, but be wary of doing ‘spec work’ or working for clients for free or at marginal prices, simply in the hope of getting something going. Look for clients who value the importance of design in the product development process, or at least emphasise this when you find those who don’t.
3. Setting up a process
What’s your working model? Will you charge on a retainer basis (month to month) or on a project (lump sum) basis? How will you be paid — monthly, or at defined milestones (what are those?), will you charge an advance (yes, you should!)?
How are you positioning yourself, what services will you provide — will you focus on interaction design, visual design, or both? Will you do some branding, like designing logos and creating a brand identity as well? What about development?
These are questions that your clients are going to ask, and it’s probably something you’ll figure out and adapt as you go along, but it’s important to have a clear answer at any point of time.
Later on, you’ll probably start grappling with how to grow or carve out a niche for yourself. Will you hire and grow your team? Focus on certain industries or types of platforms? Will you need funding?
It’s also useful to set up some sort of work process. Get some safe, reliable file storage — this is your bread and butter now, and it needs to be secure. For instance, we decided to buy a subscription to Dropbox, to store all our documents (we found it very convenient and reliable to have one spot to go to, to store and share files within our team, and to share with clients).
Figure out some sort of naming convention for your files and folders, so you can quickly find that file when you need it. Multiple projects, each with numerous iterations is going to lead to an unmanageable number of files pretty quickly! We realized this pretty early on, when the iterations started adding up, and projects started increasing, and we had to go back and hunt that particular file where we had done that specific variation!
We’re also always hunting for ways that will make our workflow smoother — what are the latest design and prototyping tools? Which of them make sense for the sort of work we do? Currently, we use a combination of Sketch (great for designing interfaces, and incredibly easy to export specs) and Adobe Illustrator (great control for detailed icon design and illustrations, also much easier to design the ‘states’ of an interaction). We’re still experimenting with various prototyping tools, and have used Invision, Adobe Edge Animate, Flash Pro, and even Keynote, depending on the needs of various projects.
4. Keeping your finances straight
Some of us are better at this than others and some of us keep trying to get better at doing this! Whatever the case, your finances are the lifeblood of your business, the bottomline, the thing that lets you keep doing what you’re doing, so it’s vital to figure out some sort of structure and put it in place right from the beginning.
Apply for any permits and clearances needed — whether that’s registering as a legal entity, getting various tax registrations, etc. Talk to people who have their own practices or firms to figure this out, talk to a CA. Set up a separate current account where payments should be deposited. Get all this set up early on.
Create a clear paper trail — send your clients invoices, keep track of payments received and follow up if they’re late! You’ll thank yourself when it comes time to sit down and assess how your business is doing, or when it’s tax time. This is may not be the most fun or glamorous part of your job, but it’s definitely a very important one.
As with anything, this will involve some experimentation before you settle into what works for you. There are a lot of tools out there that can help you with this. We settled on good old InDesign and Excel to generate and keep track of our invoices, but there are tools that will automate a lot of this for you — PayPal, for instance, apart from receiving payments, can also help you with invoicing.
5. Interacting with clients
Working on your own, and interacting with clients can be quite different in some ways, than working with stakeholders during a full-time job. In the case of the latter, you have the first-time effort of establishing yourself and getting familiar with your company, product and working environment and once that’s done, you will typically have clear working relationships set up.
Working on your own, especially in the beginning, often means having to constantly form new working relationships with new clients, explain what you bring to the table, prove yourself, repeatedly.
On the flip side, this means you have a lot more variety in terms of the types of organisations and products that you get to work on, and potentially a lot more creative freedom and control, where you can clearly see the impact of your work. Either way, interacting with clients forms a major chunk of your work.
It starts right from the first meeting — understanding what they’re looking for and then seeing for yourself if it’s a good fit both ways. Walking them through some of your past work to give them an idea of your experience and skills. Explaining what your role will be, how you will bring value to their product, and seeing if that’s in line with what they are looking for. The evaluation goes both ways here! It’s important to make a good impression on your potential client, but it’s equally important that you evaluate the work on offer here. Does it excite you? Will it help you learn something new? Will it be a stepping stone to something bigger?
Whenever it’s possible, go for a face-to-face meeting. Sure, it’s really easy to conduct business through Skype or Hangouts, but there’s nothing like an in-person meeting, particularly early on, to lay the foundation for a good working relationship, to understand your client and for them to understand you.
Once you get the project, one of the first things to do is to set expectations clearly. What’s the scope of the project, what specifically is to be achieved and in how much time. Make sure to account for time spent on discussions and iterations — this falls on you to mention early on. Sign a contract if needed. Set up a project deliverable timeline.
During the project make sure you check in with the client regularly — design is a collaborative, iterative process, and you want to make sure you’re both on the same page at all times, to avoid costly rework at a later stage!
Design your presentations well — a strong presentation is a key part of communicating your design decisions and rationale.
6. Forming connections
Remember the part about word of mouth being a key part of growing your business? Well, your profession and personal connections will play a very visible role when you’re working on your own, much more than at a salaried job.
The fellow designers whom you can bounce ideas off of, who may pass on projects to you (and vice versa!), the developers you could collaborate with, or discuss the technical aspects of a project with, the startup founder who shares his insights on business strategy, the photographer, content writer, marketing or social media expert who could plug into a project you’re working on — it’s all about forming and maintaining connections!
While the more tangible aspect here is the collaborative one, simply having conversations with fellow professionals in the same (and complementary) roles will increase your world view, your awareness of what’s happening out there, and that’s very important, especially when you’re working on your own!
7. Staying sane
When you’re on your own, there’s no-one to tell you how much to work, or when. What amount of work you take on, what types of projects you choose to do — this is all up to you. It may take time to figure out an equilibrium. There may be times when you are overwhelmed with the amount of work you’ve taken on, and there may be situations when you’re worrying where the next project is going to come from.
Unfortunately there’s no sure-shot formula here, and you need to be prepared to deal with some level of unpredictability. The more you do it, the better idea you have of how long it’ll take to finish a project, and so whether you should take up that next project or whether you would be over-committing yourself. The key here is to make sure you stick to your standards and make sure the work you’re putting out is of the highest quality, irrespective of how many projects you’ve taken on. If that means an insane amount of work for a few weeks, well then so be it. You’ll learn and be able to plan better next time.
But you need to constantly establish a high quality in your work that will set you apart and will make sure your clients come back to you the next time they need something designed, or when someone asks them if they know a designer.
On the other hand, maybe you have some down time? Spend it on that idea you had and thought you wanted to work on, when you get some ‘free time.’ Or update your portfolio with all the great work you’ve done recently! Unfortunately, it’s very easy to get caught up in ‘actual’ (read paid) work, and very easy to neglect your own side-projects, like updating your portfolio. I confess that I am definitely guilty of that!
8. Work-life balance
Now that you’re your own boss, this is completely in your hands! The blurring between the two can be even more when you work from home. It’s fun to be able to start work at noon, or take a call in your pyjamas, but how about when your friends are back from office and calling you out for dinner, but you can’t because you spent the entire day slacking off? If that’s becoming a problem, do what you can to separate the two. Maybe it means setting a schedule (if you can stick to it!). Or setting apart a specific space in your house that functions as your studio.
Sometimes, working on your own can also mean you’re interacting with fewer people than you used to. A job at an organisation means you’re seeing and interacting with team members and others on a daily basis. This may not always be the case when you’re on your own, with a few sporadic conference calls and periodic meetings. Maybe you would like to work at a co-working space, at a cafe or rent some office space with a few others, if it gets too distracting or boring at home.
Ultimately, it’s about doing work that excites you, and having fun in the process! There’s nothing like being able to see the direct impact your work has on the success of a product, and the delight it provides to end users. When you’re ready, take the plunge, and have an incredible journey!
Pratibha Bhaskaran is a designer and researcher, focused on interaction design. After several years in the industry, working in UX roles at Samsung, Oracle and Intel, Pratibha co-founded And/Or Design, a UX consultancy based in Bangalore, where she now designs for web and mobile. She has a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.