After graduating from design school five years ago, I worked for one design firm for two years as an assistant; I’ve now been employed as a designer at a small firm for three years. I’ve learned so much, but am hoping to stretch my wings a bit. I’m wondering how long the “right” time to stay is before launching my own firm—and how do I leave without burning any bridges?
Ready to Launch
Dear Ready to Launch,
If you (1) own the integrity of wanting to “spread your wings,” (2) are grateful for the education you have received in your work for others (and say as much to your employer), and (3) do not take what is not yours (i.e., clients or trade secrets) when you go, you will not burn a bridge—at least not from your side of the river. You can’t control what others are going to feel, but you should set yourself up to be able to look into the mirror and be proud of what you see.
The much more difficult conversation? Knowing when to go. For the purposes of this column, I will assume that you have learned enough in your tenure at other firms and feel confident enough in your own skill and experience as a designer to go out on your own, so let us focus on the nitty-gritty.
Up until this point, if you presented a design to a client and they hated it, you got your paycheck. If you messed up an order for a project that cost the firm money or were late to an installation, you got your paycheck. In good times or bad, you got your paycheck. Working for someone else inherently means that you’ve been in the passenger seat, taking in the road in all of its twists and turns, but never in control of the destination or speed of the journey. Starting your own firm will change all of that.
Running a business is hard—really, really hard. It will test every bit of mettle you have. For instance, it is very easy to say that you will only work with a particular kind of client ... until you are confronted with not being able to pay your bills, make payroll, or even eat. How will you react then?
To quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And make no doubt about it, you will be punched in the mouth as you navigate launching your own business. There is no guarantee of a safe landing, let alone a safe trip. So, to answer your question: You will know you are ready to go when you are confident enough to know you are a little bit nuts for wanting to leave. You have to be a little nuts in order to have the delusion that you can do this on your own! The risks are overwhelming, so your obsession and thirst to make your own mark has to be more powerful than the chasm you will confront. Jeff Bezos left a multimillion-dollar bonus on the table when he quit his job to start Amazon. He believed in the idea (and himself) so much that he just could not wait. To launch your own firm, you need to be that kind of crazy.
If you are in this headspace and are truly ready to go, then I would also suggest the following: Make sure you have enough money to live for 18 months without earning a cent. Make as few capital investments as you can—live with the mantra that if you cannot pay for it in two months, you do not need it. Lean and leaner should be your motto. If you need to move back into your parents’ basement to get going, do it. There is no place for ego.
There is a reason for this level of frugality: If you are going to stay true to yourself and your vision for your company, you are going to have to wait for those who care to support you. Taking on the wrong clients are a cancer no matter when you work with them, and being in the position of having to work with these wrong clients because they pay the bills is the surest way to pain and, ultimately, failure.
Last, create a formal advisory board with mentors you believe in. Make an investment in providing them with an incentive to support you—perhaps the option to buy into part of your company if you make it, or even just a nice dinner when you meet. It should be something more than just a thank-you for their time. Of course, these mentors do not need your money, but this is about you, not them. Online communities and mastermind groups are wonderful and helpful, but they are not there to hold you accountable, nor you them. You need people to turn to for advice when you do get punched in the proverbial mouth—and besides, you will make enough mistakes that there’s no reason to make the avoidable ones. Find people who are invested enough in you and your success to say, “That really is awful. It was terrible when it happened to me, too. Here is what we can do about it.”
Chance favors the prepared mind. So be fully confident in your vision, build your nest egg, get really lean, and find the group that will carry you through as you learn to drive. Get them all in with you—then leap.
Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we'll keep your details anonymous.