Going it alone

4 years ago by

Written by Sarah Ritchie 

In your graphic design career, have you ever thought of “Going it alone”? Right now you may have a permanent design job or be freelancing. You’ll be working on clients that you are not personally invested in, and helping to generate profit destined for someone else’s bank account. Have you ever wanted your own design business – the type where you source your own client-base and become master or mistress of your own destiny?

Fire, Ready, Aim

In 1998 I was working as an in-house graphic designer for Fisher & Paykel. Our department was growing and F&P was one of the most innovative brands of its time. I was busy, and generally happy in my job, but there was nowhere for me to develop in my career. I did not relish the thought of moving agency-side, so I made the call to go it alone and start my own design business.

I have always been the type of person who will get a life-changing idea in my head and then run with it, without always thinking through the consequences. Some people would call that “foolish”, some would call it “entrepreneurial”. Had I taken the time to assess the magnitude of this particular idea, it’s unlikely that I would have taken the leap – but I’m glad I did.



Starting any new business takes courage – a lot of it. I had many people tell me that the design agency market was saturated, that I was unlikely to make it and that I would fail within the first year (as many start-ups do). However, I knew that there were many “cowboys” in the design business, that I was young and invincible, and that I was – frankly – a darned good designer. I decided to push past the nay-sayers and prove them wrong.


Love What You Do

Running your own business often comes at great personal and financial cost. You will ride an emotional rollercoaster of great highs, countered by days when you will want to chuck it all in. You absolutely, 100%, have to love what you do to see you through the rough times that are guaranteed to appear along the way.

A downside of making a business out of doing what you love is that one day you may not love it so much. This usually happens after endless hours of invoicing, GST, debt collection, sales calls, and compromising your design aesthetic take their toll. If you think you’d like to keep your design pure and beautiful, then making a business out of design may not be for you.


Building a strong “external” team

If you go out on your own you are going to have to wear multiple “hats”. You’ll be the designer, yes, and the accounts-person, salesperson and client service person. Just because you are a good designer, doesn’t automatically mean you are going to cope with all the demands of being self-employed.

When I started my business I bought some accounting software and then proceeded to waste a full day trying to figure out how to set up my financial details. Out of frustration I contacted an accounting firm and within two hours they had my software up and running. Thus began a long-term and invaluable supplier relationship that lasted many years. My accountant was able to fill a huge gap in my business knowledge and abilities, and he financially saved my bacon more than once.

It’s a good idea to bring in outside suppliers (e.g. accountant, lawyer, mentor, business consultant) to plug gaps in your business knowledge, or free up your time to concentrate on your design work.


Finding Clients

If the thought of being a salesperson makes your blood run cold, then self-employment probably isn’t the right move for you. Someone is going to have to go out and find clients, and – until you can afford to pay someone else to do it – that someone will be you.

The easiest clients to find are those through your own, personal connections. One of my first clients was Hockey New Zealand. My aunt had played in the NZ women’s hockey team back in the 1950s, she was also a former NZ team manager and stalwart of the sport. I used this vague connection to make a warm (rather than cold) call, which started an amazing 8 year working relationship.

Another trick is to build your client base out of large companies and corporates. Most of these companies will already be tied in with an advertising agency, but they will have a ton of small design projects that their advertising agencies will not want to touch. If you approach your sales call by saying you’d be happy to work alongside their existing agencies on anything – however small – may just give you the “in” you need. This was my tactic with the Manukau City Council and I remained a valued supplier for 10 years.


Making Money

Graphic design is a service. It is very difficult to make money offering a service that is based on an hourly rate, given that you only have one pair of hands and a limited number of hours you can work each day.

The best way to get around this common business trap is to ensure you are charging your clients based on “value” rather than hours worked. Hourly rates only serve to penalise fast workers, underpay slow workers, and create a basis for argument each time your client sees your invoice.

Another way to enhance your service-based business is to also sell a product – preferably a digital product that can sell itself in the background while you concentrate on offering design as a service.

Be prepared for your revenue to be low in the first couple of years while your business grows. Unless you are guaranteed one or two large clients, giving you regular work, it will pay to have an alternative source of financial support behind you in the early days.


Boots ‘n’ All?

How do you know if you should start your business as a “side gig” (following the “don’t give up your day job” adage)? For me, I was a jump-in-boots-‘n’-all type of gal. I think if I had tried to work two jobs I would have spread myself too thin – never giving my full attention to either job. I also felt that I could only serve my clients properly if I was available to work during the day time hours.

Only you can answer the “side gig” vs “full time” question. A lot will depend on whether or not you have financial support in the background, or who is relying on you to put food on the table.


Be Great

The best way to be successful in your design business is to be really good at what you do.

In my 10 years of self-employment I never had to advertise once. All of my jobs came from repeat business and word-of-mouth, and that was a direct result of delivering great work every time and forging solid client relationships.

Providing you can keep enough income flowing, the positives of being your own boss and having a flexible, autonomous lifestyle FAR outweigh the negatives. If going it alone is what you truly want to do, then go for it!


Sarah Ritchie has been in the design and agency world for 25 years. Originally a graphic designer, Sarah has also worked as a design teacher, agency account manager, and now enjoys a wonderful life in recruitment for agencies. Sarah is also the Founder of AM-Insider — a website full of tips, tricks and resources to build account management superstars!




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