Today's Obsession: Establishing Control

When you move on from your last job to your first business, chaos will reign for a little while. Let it! You’ll need to become acclimated to being in charge.

You’re going to be moving from a reality in which your actions are externally determined—by your manager, your company’s owner, your department head—to one where you are the last word.

There is a nasty flipside to being independent: everything is your fault.

You decide what your world has in it, and that’s a huge change in mindset. It’s not often discussed about starting one’s own design business, or quitting a studio job, but taking control of your own world and then continuing to be responsible for your decisions is a complete change in consciousness. Before, you always had money coming in at regularly scheduled intervals, and the means to pay your bills. No questions. Now, you have to be ready to go broke for a while. It’s easy to say, when something goes wrong, “I couldn’t have controlled that.” That you couldn’t control it may have been true, but as an independent person, it’s your responsibility to have tried.

I hear often that it’s absolutely necessary to have a well-thought business plan as an independent designer. I don’t think that’s entirely true—I think you need to leave a lot of room for variables in your planning if your goal is to create custom work on a per-client basis, because your situation will be changing frequently as clients move in and out of your office.

I have a basic set of creteria I work within which has served me well.

First, I keep one or two clients in house for long-term work for years at a time, sometimes on a retainer basis. (I prefer to stay away from retainers if possible, because it leads to constant friction between what your client needs and what you are willing to deliver within the price range—but sometimes, they’re necessary.) I treat these people like El Presidente, with the understanding that we’re not always going to agree, and that’s part of my job.

(Related to that: be aware that everything is negotiable, to everyone, all the time. Be ready and willing to say no, and be ready to be the bad guy about it if you need to.)

I usually work on a project-based price for a set amount of deliverables and a clear understanding that if anything at all is added or deleted, we go into negotiation.

I have a minimum level of pay I’ll work for, and that’s based upon my experience with basic types of projects and the timelines they take up. There’s a minimum dollar level, below which I won’t get out of bed, but it’s negotiable if I smell a doorway into a new pool of potential business. In my core business, however, those rules stand firm.

For example: I’m good at making content management systems for magazines, but I’ve not had many opportunities to create identities. I’d probably be willing to negotiate for the experience of doing something new in exchange for the understanding that if my price goes down, my independence goes up. It’s difficult for a client to trust someone they’ve never worked with, so be ready to talk and assuage fears. A lot.

I don’t use full-time employees. Period. I believe that artists, designers, and illustrators are at their strongest when they are hunting out the work they like, because that puts them into a conscious reflection of what they want to do, and wanting to do it is an important part of doing it well. I do, however, have a few folks I love to work with, and with whom I’ll collaborate without any discussion. That’s built up over time.

I’m sure others have other ideas of how to create your boundaries and be in control of them. If anyone has anything to add, do it in the comments. I’m sure some of our newly-independent friends will appreciate.

Miss yesterday’s initial installment in the “Quit Your Job” series? Here it is.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. hi michael — not an easy question. the retainer can be charged as long as your client needs your full attention. as for the price, judge the number of hours you plan to spend for their work, agree upon that with the client, then set your price on what both of you feel is fair.

    sorry so vague. a lot of this has to do with what your client’s knowledge of market pricing, their budget, and your immediate economic environment versus theirs.

    if you’re in the same community, then you’re on equal economic footing. but if (for instance) you’re in new york and your client is in murfreesboro tn, then you’re going to need more than they can afford, almost certainly.

  2. This is a very good series, now I wanna make the jump to self employment. One question I have is: What would be a fair retainer fee, and for how long would I charge that? Any insight is helpful

  3. Pingback: Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | Today’s Obsession: Billing

  4. Pingback: Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | Today’s Obsession: Planning