The HeART of Design Business is a five part series that addresses the tensions artists feel when they face the creativity sapping realities of running a business. Part one dealt with matters of money and finances, part two with measuring time, part three with marketing. In part four we’ll talk about managing growth and the tensions that come from hiring and firing employees.
Many of the pains we feel in running a design practice can be traced back to the lack of profitability. The first three parts of this series dealt with the problems and pressures that result from unprofitability.
But what happens when you turn things around and start to grow? Business growth can lead to a whole new set of problems and anxieties. And if the tensions of money, time, and marketing were not enough, adding more employees into the mix might just stomp out whatever creative life you had left.
The decision to hire is a crossroads every successful design practice will face. But if you’re not prepared for the changes that inevitably follow such a decision, you’ll be in for some serious heartache.
How Did You Get Here?
Starting out as a freelancer, you have to wear a lot of hats. You have to find the work, do the work, bill the work, and maintain the business as a whole. It’s a careful balancing act between all your roles and responsibilities. As things start to take off, the non-design aspects of your job will start to eat into the time you have for design itself. You’ll may find yourself on the phone more often, sending more emails, and going to more meetings. The creative work tends to get pushed off to nights and weekends. That’s not a sustainable life. Burning the candle at both ends will quickly sap your creative energy.
It’s normal then to contemplate hiring help—so you can recapture your focus on design. Maybe your first thought is to form a partnership with a friend or colleague. Safety alert: think twice, or three times, or as many times as necessary until you conclude that you should not enter into a 50-50 LLC or partnership. They never work!
Alternatively you may decide to just hire more designers. That’s much safer than the partnership path, but it also has serious ramifications. If you’re not careful, you may end up adding even more business related work—and have far less time for design. But once you’ve hired, and then find that your goal to get back to design continues to elude you, you’ll have an even bigger problem because changing directions after hiring affects the livelihoods of your employees. Talk about stress!
What’s the alternative?
Ideally you should address your motives and goals before you start down the road to hiring. There are ways to approach hiring that can allow you as the design firm owner to keep your hand in the creative part of your business. But if you don’t approach hiring with that goal firmly in mind, the default path will lead to you becoming more and more a business person, and it will push design further and further away.
Protecting the HeART of Your Design Practice in the Face of Growth
If you’re already in a difficult growth position—if you’ve already hired without a plan—fixing things is beyond the scope of this article. (You should call me so I can help you fix it.) But if you’re just now in the process of making growth and hiring decisions, here are some heart questions you should consider before you act on your plan.
1. Do you want to keep designing long term? This really is the crucial question. You have to decide if you want to be a designer who happens to own a firm, or a business person whose business happens to be a design firm. How you hire, and who you hire, will look completely different depending on how you answer this question. You need to ask yourself if you are hiring so that you can focus on visual design, or if you are going to redirect your creativity into a new channel—the channel of creating a business. If you are not clear on this goal you will almost certainly end up in a place you did not intend.
Depending on your answer to this question, you will need to either structure your firm as a boutique or a growing firm. By boutique I mean a firm where the principal is still active in the design and leading the creative vision of the firm. By a growing firm, I mean one where the owner focuses on running the business and the design work is done primarily, if not exclusively, by others. A boutique firm has to grow differently. There is an upper limit on the number of staff a boutique can sustain before the business gets too complicated for the owner to keep focused on design. A growing firm, on the other hand, can add many more employees, since the owner can focus on the business itself, and hire others to produce its product.
Not only do you need to ask yourself about your intended role in a growing firm—you should really also ask yourself why you want to grow at all.
2. Why do you want to grow? If you’re like many designers, you aren’t in business exclusively, or even primarily, to make tons of cash. Not that more money wouldn’t be nice, it’s just not your prime motivator (though lack of cash may indeed motivate you!). So why do you want to grow? Is it raw ambition? Is it notoriety? Is it for camaraderie? (Many artists do thrive in community.) Do you think that if you could grow, you’d be able to hire people to take care of all the unpleasant business tasks so you can get back to designing? Do you feel like a larger firm would be more stable? Do you want bigger opportunities that you think only larger firms can acquire?
Often our true motives are murky. It can take a bit of soul searching to ferret them out. But your ultimate goals are important if you’re going to hire with realistic expectations, and in a way that matches your goals.
3. If your profits were strong right now would you still want to grow? One way to parse out your motives is to run a thought experiment and evaluate your goals with different assumptions. What if you could freelance, or remain a two or three person group, and be highly profitable at that small size? If profitability was not tied to the size of your staff, would you still want to grow?
4. Are you ready to manage others? One thing you must embrace in this decision is the reality that adding people will add mess. As a wise man once said, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” Adding resources can lead to more profit, but people also bring baggage. Managers tend to get a bad rap as being obtrusive middle-men. But skilled managers, who can bring together groups of people with opposing interests, are worth their weight in gold! As a business owner you can hire good managers—but you will still need to manage them . So are you up for being a manager, or a manager of managers? Can you live with a less than neat work environment? Are you willing to clean up after conflicts and miscommunications? Does the fear of confronting interpersonal tensions keep you up at night?
TIP: If you want an objective gauge of your readiness and suitability for the managerial aspects of running a small business—take a DiSC profile. I prefer the DiSC classic 2.0.
5. If you hire and make a mistake, is it in you to fire someone? This is a real gut check question (and also a good reason to avoid hiring your friends). You will almost certainly make mistakes in hiring. And if you can’t bring yourself to fire someone who is incompetent, or perhaps just ill-suited for their role—even if the reason is that you messed up by hiring them in the first place—you should not hire employees. If the thought of firing an employee makes you feel sick, you should probably not hire. Failure to fix employee problems and hiring mistakes, in a professional and timely manner, will run any company into the ground.
Answering these questions can help you create a hiring plan that matches your goals. And if you’ve already hired, and realize you’ve made a mistake, answering these questions will help you chart a course back toward the kind of business where your creative goals can get back on track.
In the final installment of the HeART of Design Business we’ll look at the heart of your motivation for business. This is the heart of hearts, your deepest goals, hopes, and dreams. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What are you really looking to gain?
There are many challenges in-house designers face in a corporate environment. Discover how to face and conquer these challenges with Managing Corporate Design by Peter L. Phillips. Find out how to not only improve your performance as an in-house designer, but also learn how to communicate the importance of your role among others within your company.