What I’ve learned since giving up the day job and starting a design agency

Studio LDN founder James Sutton provides some pearls of wisdom for anyone thinking about quitting the day job and opening their own agency.

Maybe I should have named this article ‘what I wish I knew’ or ‘what could have prepared me for this’. Either way, it really doesn’t matter. You’ll never be fully prepared. You learn on the go. You make mistakes. The great thing about mistakes is that you only make them once, learn from them and solve it like a boss next time.

Going alone is hard work, but fun too. It’s very rewarding when it pays off. Nothing beats that feeling of securing your first fully independent job. It’s awesome.

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt so far along the way that are important to make it work, to get to that end goal of signing a client and getting paid. The right attitude can go a long way. Sounds like a no brainer, but seriously, it’s easy to lose sight of why you started this crazy, stupid journey in the first place.

Have fun.

You can’t do this if you’re not prepared to have fun with it. It’s easy to get stressed out while you’re waiting to get paid, hear back from clients about work they want to kick off or spend hours writing up quotes that go nowhere. Yep, you’ll spend a lot of time doing this sort of thing so don’t expect to get paid for your every effort.

I used to get paid no matter what. If I was working on a brand project or pitch, I got paid. If I had lunch, I got paid. Calculating how much you actually earned that day is one of the biggest stresses. Just chill, don’t let it get to you.

It’s taken me months to break the ‘how much did I earn today’ and think more about ‘how I can grow the business and be doing things with the best intentions’. I’ll be in a good place this time next year if I set this up right from the start. This means putting in the extra effort here and there, sometimes working for no financial gain.

The aim for me is to never have to go back to a normal nine till five job again. I’m in it for the long game, so counting pennies isn’t going to help me.

Wake up, make some kick ass coffee and hit your day like nothing else matters. Once you feel you’ve done enough go and enjoy yourself. Don’t just work, work, work. Make some space. This is a marathon not a sprint.

It gets lonely — rent a desk somewhere.

Man, it gets lonely. Seriously. If you’re used to working in buzzing environments with loads of creative people, it can hit you pretty hard. As soon as you leave the nine til five and start working for yourself, you’ll notice the long silences. I started going to cafes, which worked until you had nowhere to charge your laptop or the cafe staff wanted to turn your table around for paying customers. Trust me, you can only drink so much coffee.

The best thing I’ve done is to rent a desk in a creative share space. At first, I was worried that I was going to blow all my money on rent, but it’s so worth it. I’ve met many amazing and talented people in a share space that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It made me feel like I was back at work again, but this time there was no boss over my shoulder, I picked my hours and I was productive as hell. It gave me a kick up the ass and working around other great talents challenged and encouraged me. I realised that I needed to be around other creatives to get creative.

Put yourself (uncomfortably) out there.

I found this bit the hardest. I hate the idea of pitching myself and the company and becoming a sales person. Yuck!

I started with the people I already knew, contacting people I used to work with to tell them the amazing news of my new independent venture. It’s surprising how many people didn’t give a shit. But there were some that really did. I knew this was something I was going to have to get used to and keep taking the plunge, if I liked it or not. And I really don’t like it.

I went to a few small business / start-up meets up around town. Grabbed business cards, presented my skills and met a few new contacts along the way. I got on the phone and emailed anyone I thought may need my services. It’s exhausting!

The thing is, if you’re out of the office (or the bedroom), you will meet people. It’s just the way it works. I ended up meeting someone in the gym who became a client. That was unexpected and not in any business rule books.

Most of my work so far has come from referrals. These grow over time and can take a while to build so do not expect clients to knock on your door. Get the **** out there and work it.

Work with good people, not cheap ones.

This is where you can mess up big time. Cheap people are cheap. Great. That means I get to hang onto more money in case things go pear shaped. Bad idea. In branding, I work with graphic designers, illustrators, artists, copywriters and photographers. I literally can’t do it all myself. I need good people around me. If I go cheap I need to spend more time briefing people, giving feedback, fixing mistakes and worry that the client isn’t gonna like the work.

Treat each job like a huge billboard advertising your company’s skills. If the work sucks and looks cheap, you suck and look cheap. This is a pretty simple one. You get out what you put in. Have some pride in your work.

Make time to work on your brand.

This one is harder. I find it difficult to spend time working on my own brand as it feels like it’s not gonna pay the bills (see rule number one: have fun). Snap out of that shit. It’s the only way you will pay the bills.

Unless you get work through referrals, you need to be unbelievably desirable as a brand. You need to have a voice. You need to be noticed. Don’t just start up another ad agency or another coffee shop. Have a purpose, have something to say and stand out –  brand that sucker.

I spend around four to six hours a week writing, sketching and thinking about my brand. Never let it stagnate. Your brand needs to grow with the company and be constantly on your mind. Even if you take the time to record a few Instagram stories that’s a good start. Show people who you are.

Side hustle

Don’t be afraid to take on a few side jobs if the money’s tight. I know this sucks but play for the long game. Keep in contact with a few old colleagues, recruiters and freelancer friends to keep one foot in the market. Fall back on short term contracts when they come in.

You’ll meet new people – you never know where that could lead. I’d rather suck it up and take on a contract for a couple of months if it will help the business grow. There will come a day where you’ll never have to do that again. Enjoy it while you can.

I take on contracts still. I don’t just sit back and hope for the best. Contact all of your old colleagues and put yourself out there and offer your services even if it’s only a day a week, go for it.

Change your habits.

Forget the way things used to be. Your habits needs to change. Forget the monthly pay, work lunches, social clubs and promotions. Forget the scheduled in day and long meetings about meetings. Do you really like any of that? I miss the social side of work, but that’s something the share desk space can solve pretty well.

The way to survive is to plan. Self-manage your day. That’s cool, right? No one else can tell you how to do it. If you surf in the morning or drop your kids off, go for it. Just start work a little later. I’ve started to find my momentum and have structured a day that suits me. Don’t get me wrong, some days I just don’t bother doing much at all. I regret it the next day but the option is there.

Find a pattern that lets you work on the hardest things when your most productive and find the time to do the easy thing that are less stressful. For me, I’m more productive in the morning so I smash out as much work as I can. That way I can spend some time on my brand, email those clients back or even hit the beach. I sometimes stay up late to work and lay in the next morning. That’s the beauty of the flexibility.

Don’t forget why you’re here.

Going back to work is the easy way out. It’s crossed my mind from time to time. A full time job will pay the bills, the rents covered and I don’t have to worry. So, what’s the catch? Oh yeah, it sucks. On those crazy days where you feel like this is never going to pick up and feels pointless (we all get them) just keep going, have faith.

There will come a day where you’re so far in, giving up would be mad. Going back to work a nine to five job seems like it was another life. You’re in too deep now. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t lose sight and keep reminding yourself why you’re doing this.

What are your top three reasons? Write them down, put them on your fridge and suck it up.

I’ve learnt, in a year’s time I’ll likely look back on this and be happy that I went on this journey to begin with. After all, it’s my journey.

James Sutton is the founder of Studio LDN.


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