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I want to start a company right out of school!

Q:I’m in my final year of studying graphic design at university. I’ve saved up money and am thinking of opening a design studio straight after I graduate. My question is how did you start off when you first opened your studio?

Did you have many clients? How did your potential clients find you? And last of all, how long did it take you to build a good client base?

A: First of all let me just say how much I admire the gumption and the confidence of wanting to start your own studio right out of the gate. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

Now here comes the hammer: this is a terrible idea. There’s only one idea that would be worse, by the way. And that would be going to work at a startup right out of school.

Let me tell you a story about my mom. My mom grew up in a small town in Portugal. When she was a teenager, my grandmother took her to the town seamstress, who was nice enough to take her on as an apprentice. She spent years learning the basic tricks of the craft. She learned to measure. She learned to cut. She learned to sew. But she also learned what kind of compliment each of the town’s grand ladies needed to hear to approve an invoice. She learned how to talk the larger ladies out of horizontal stripes and the busty ladies out of the shiny red fabric. In short, she learned her trade.

As her skills grew so did her responsibilities. In a few years, she was the seamstress’ most trusted employee. And here’s where something great happened. The seamstress pulled her aside and said, “Judite, it’s time to start your own shop.” And she handed my mother a small stack of index cards with the names, phone numbers, and measurements of good clients my mother had been working with. She said, “Take care of these clients and they will bring you their friends and you will never want for work.” And she was right.

If you are serious about a career in design, the absolute best thing you can do right now is to get yourself a job at a studio working for experienced designers who are willing to teach you the parts of the trade you didn’t get in school. A good designer understands that part of their role is to teach the next generation.

You’ll be getting lessons on finding clients, handling invoices, salesmanship, what to do when a client won’t pay, etc. This stuff is invaluable. Not to mention that you’ll be exposed to lots of different types of problems and clients at the same time. (Which, by the way, is why you don’t go to work at a startup right out of school.) And the fact that you’re asking me about how to find clients means that school hasn’t taught you those things. Design schools rarely do, and when they do, design students aren’t too keen on taking “the business class”.

Go watch how someone else handles it. Listen to their stories. You will not be in charge, but you are also not ready to be. Slowly, but surely, they will hand you the reins, along with a safety net of being there should you stumble.

As far as your questions about getting clients, it’s all connected. Your clients come from the relationships you build up over the years. Relationships with other designers, other shops, and former clients. Most of all former clients! You spend your career building those up.

If it were up to me, and someday it will be, no designer would be able to practice without a two-year residency at a design shop working under someone with twenty years’ experience.

I love that you want to start your own company, but don’t be in a hurry to do it. There’s a lot to learn and you have the time to do it right.

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14 thoughts on “I want to start a company right out of school!

  1. Kevin says:

    I have to blame my own profession (software engineering) for at least part of the “graduate and form a company” craze.
    I agree with Mike that the energy and idealism of wanting to take on the world at 22 is great, but it has led to a lot of shit software being shipped.

    Learn, young Padawan, then go forth.

  2. I started my own shop straight out, and it was an incredible lesson about failure and debt accumulation. I just lacked the experience and confidence that i needed to do it right. Years later after working at several agencies and working my way up, I am freelancing again and it’s almost laughable how different it is. It almost borders on easy when you know what you are doing.

  3. chris says:

    “There’s only one idea that would be worse, by the way. And that would be going to work at a startup right out of school.”

    Wow, quite the blanket statement. Adios credibility.

  4. So well said. I didn’t do this out of college 12 years ago, but always felt like I should have been doing so. If I had heard this then, I would’ve paid more attention to things that weren’t directly my job in those early years.

  5. I think most industries need young, foolhardy people just as much as they need veterans. That tension moves us forward.

  6. Are says:

    I wonder if chris went to work for a startup straight out of school. Bitter are we?

    Kudos, an excellent article Mike

  7. In my experience, everyone has their own path and therefore will have their own experience. Although my experience interning and working at creative agencies was valuable, I did go to work for a startup right out of school and I certainly don’t feel like I made a mistake. Here I work next to our Head of Product and get to be a crucial part of a team dedicated to the user experience and crafting a brand. The lessons that I’ve learned here are invaluable, just as those who went to work at an agency after school and as those who decided to go full-time freelance.

    It was quite a blanket statement and I would perhaps be careful making that kind of generalization right out of the gate. I appreciate your opinion, but I think there are many ways to walk this path—as with anything.


  8. Ash says:

    As someone struggling over a year on to get entry-level position I don’t really see the problem starting up straight after school. There are few graduate/entry-level positions and the unpaid internship cycle can seemingly go on forever and your still not deemed to have had enough experience (I’ve actually started to see jobs for “junior” positions which state they want 1-2 years experience excluding internships). Add in the latent nepotism (lets face it, as much as designers like to think they’re all fair and democratic – its a rose tinted delusion) and I think it is now viable option. I think Mike is right though, ideally it would be good to get those connections and learn your craft, but the environment created by most agencies way of recruiting is not constructive and harmful – and in my view by and large immoral. if you can’t stick it out getting prolonged unpaid experience which many from poorer background cannot, you are basically out of the running. Unless that changes then I can’t see how you can implore everyone to get that experience. For many like me it is what we love doing, and if start-up on on own gives us an alternative way at doing what we love as our career, then why not?

  9. oo says:

    A thoughtful post. Thank you!

    It is worth noting that this same subject was covered last week up here in Canada on Design Edge, in a piece by Mark Busse called “Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare.”


    “Of course there are legendary success stories about young designers making it big, but those are exceptions—and by that I mean exceptionally talented and lucky designers. I’ll spare you the customary lecture about the need to possess a deep understanding and knowledge of business fundamentals like finances, accounting, management, and marketing required to succeed as a business owner. You can just Google that stuff, right? I’ll even spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I’d hoped for after 15 years—and I have a business degree—and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let’s talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.”

  10. Aaron Rowell says:

    Amen to not working for startups right out of school! Going into this profession right out of school put a lot of questions in my mind. I went to work for a startup (unintentionally) and it ended up being quite stressful and confusing. Startups hire inexperienced people who don’t know what they are doing yet. Not so good for a beginning designer to learn.

    Love this post.

  11. First off, I should provide some context. I’m a creative director at a start up, but spent 4 years working in reputable agencies before that. I credit that time I spent there to affording me the opportunities I have now. I don’t regret a minute of it. Okay — got that out of the way.

    This is generally a disappointing post. It’s worth remembering that the profession of graphic design — that one where we screw around with shapes and colors and make “experiences” — would have been thought of as a ridiculous and irrelevant waste of brainpower only a few hundred years ago. It took some brave/naive/enterprising individuals to venture out into unknown territory to set up a reputable profession and establish the economics that would allow us to lazily come along and follow happily in their foot steps. The best thing in the world for the design industry is more of those young/naive/ambitious types to stretch what it means to be a designer, to find new ways to spend their time messing around with communication and experiences, and to bring the necessary economics to those new disciplines that will make it easier for more to follow in suit.

    What irks me more than anything is any degree of buzz-killing on young designers’ enthusiasm to create more, make more, and share more. That kind of relentless creative energy is now what I look for in peers and potential hirees. This is the kind of harmfull advice that needs undoing, so I am providing a voice for another approach to an early design career:

    The economics of making a living are changing rapidly and dramatically. And not just in the design or creative industry. Practically every job is on the table for obsolescence in the coming decades. Your ability to stay comfortable and happy will have more do do with how scrappy you are at approaching a career path than your ability to master any specific domain. The distance between what you create and the value it creates for the end user/customer is shortening. You will succeed not just by being a good business man. Now you got to be a great person too. And the options for great people are endless.

    There are no tricks of any trade. There is volume and consistency. There is kindness. That’s it. There might be a few people out there that aren’t good and maybe were never meant to get good, no matter how much work they put in (and I’m not sure that’s true). But you’re not one of those people. You found something that you are pretty good at, and that you care a ton about. That gives you options to create any kind of career you want. Really. Honestly.

    Start now by chasing opportunities. Be relentless. Write. Read. Make. Mimic (but credit your sources or course). Just don’t by into any advice that tells you to be loyal, pay dues, bide your time. Those are truthy sounding old-time wisdom that has no real substance. Think about it. “Pay dues”!?!? Like the price of entry into a creative economy is boring, soul-sucking, back-breaking, passionless labor? There will be pain, but you’ll learn to deal with it as you go because you love the end result.

    The steady, well trodden path to a successful design career is good and fine. You got a nice little roadmap for you right there. But I suspect that most of us will find our tastes and interests and opportunities changing often. Professional residencies, design accreditations, five year plans — those programs can hardly keep up with you. Unless you know exactly what you want out of the rest of your career, I recommend you don’t slow down, don’t follow the wisdom. Learn to learn fast. Learn to l ove something and do the crap out of it.

  12. Thanks for answering my question, this is some great advice. I’m currently in an internship at a design agency and have learnt more there than at university. I guess I have to take on more internships and gain more experience before starting a design studio.

    I look forward to receiving the book,

    thanks once again.

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