April 11, 2011 By Chris

When deciding how I wanted  the second half of my career to go, first I needed to sit down and address the most glaring and obnoxious mistakes I’d been making. If I couldn’t identify what I was doing wrong, there was no point in trying to change. Since five is a nice, easy-to-manage number (because, seriously, I could have kept making a list for about a week…) I sat down and came up with this list of the most egregious mistakes I have been making as a business owner. Here they are, in no particular order:

Working without a contract

This is the cardinal mistake of freelance designers. I don’t know about you, but I hate confrontation. Going into a business arrangement expecting to need something that details how you’ll deal with things if they go wrong is never fun. You know what’s even less fun? Doing 18 hours of unpaid work because you never spelled out what the project actually is. Or doing “Just one more tiny change – it will only take 5 minutes” 52 times. Or doing 9/10’s of the work to have the client tell you they’ve brought another designer on. Or “picking your brain” and then taking your ideas to someone who underbid you to execute. A contract spells out the expectations both parties involved should have – protecting both parties. If, like me, this is something you just can’t seem to do, find and partner up with someone who will do it for you. A contract spells out exactly what services you are exchanging for the price. If you haven’t watched it yet, check out Mike Monteiro’s “F**k you. Pay me” presentation at Creative Mornings for even more insights about why you should never start work without a signed contract negotiated by both parties. Every single time I haven’t insisted on this, I have regeretted it (immensely, and often, immediately).

Thinking I could do everything

I have worn many hats in my 15 year career. Logo designer, information architect, copywriter, site builder, PHP coder, flash developer, project manager, IT, marketing, billing…unfortunately, I haven’t been good at them all. I’ve been downright terrible at some of them. And, when you’re juggling that many balls, it’s not surprising that you start dropping some. There have been times in my career where I’ve overestimated how much I can handle. This is bad for everyone involved – you don’t have time to be creative, clients are overpromised and underdelivered – you just can’t keep up. Either keep your business small enough to manage (which means taking on probably half of what you think you can mange creatively, so you can spend the other half billing and marketing and doing strategy) or get someone to help you out.

Undervaluing my expertise

I charged basically the same rates one year ago that I did when I started freelancing five years prior to that. I don’t know if I was scared of losing out on projects in a bad economy, or alienating existing customers, if I just didn’t believe in my skills, or I was afraid clients wouldn’t think I was worth my fee. Then, one day, my wife asked me “Are you the same designer you were five years ago?” When I answered “No, I’ve gotten better.” she shot back with “Then why are you charging clients the same price for a better designer?” She was right. Every year I put in untold hours learning new skills, keeping up with best practices, adding PHP or WordPress or jQuery or CSS3 to my toolbox… yet I kept charging like I didn’t know those things. I’ve also started to discover that if you don’t value your time and expertise, nobody else will. That also means saying no to spec work, not participating in crowdsourcing , and not charging prices that devalue your work.

Failing to plan

In 15 years of business, I had never had a plan. Not for where I wanted to go with my career, or how I was going to get to the nonexistent location. Most of the time I just kind of bounced around from one thing to another, looking for the magic job that would make me happy and fulfill all of my creative dreams (excuse my while I roll around laughing on the floor at this ridiculous goal). I tried this, got bored, tried that, tried this other thing. Is it any wonder that I haven’t gotten anywhere? I never even decided where I wanted to go! Another saying I’ve been thinking about lately is “Those that fail to plan plan to fail”. With no plan, how could I ever hope to succeed? My partner and I have sat down and figured out both short term and long term goals. Right now, I have a list of 5 concrete goals (both business and life) on my white board. Every day I look at them and ask myself what I’m doing to get closer to those goals. And you know what? For the first time in five years I actually feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing to get to where I want to be. Imagine that!

Forgetting why I do this

Probably the biggest mistake I’ve ever made is forgetting why I do all of this. Sometimes, in the day-to-day grind of being a creative professional, you forget that it’s not just about the professional. When I was a young, eager, starry-eyed designer, I would stay up for days lost in code, brain as furiously smoking, reading every book I could on Stefan Sagmeister, Neville Brody and David Carson. I would go to conferences and stalk Amy Franceschini and Josh Davis and Jeffrey Zeldman. I would consume and live and breathe that moment when you had solved a problem simply, elegantly and beautifully. I let the daily grind of contracts and getting paid and giving in to client demands and generally just becoming a “HEY YOU KIDS! GET OFF MY LAWN!” cranky old fart designers who used to bitch about having to use a computer instead of press-on type and a waxer and sketch with a pencil and a gee-dee notebook the way Paul Rand intended that I used to roll my eyes at and think “Move out of the way, dinosaur” while I was in school that I lost sight of the reason I started in this business, anyway. The whole reason I got into this was love – that and I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t do this. It’s all about the love. When it isn’t, it just isn’t worth it any more.

I’m still faaaaaar from perfect (ask anyone!)

Regardless of all of my observations and Life 2.0 navel-gazing, I still have a long way to go to get over these mistakes I’ve made. I’m sure I’ll not only keep making some of the above errors, but will come up with some brand new ones! The key, though, is to be aware that you’re always going to be making mistakes (if you’re not, you’ve stopped trying to learn and grow)…just learn from them, and continue striving to be better.

I’d love to hear what your biggest challenges are as a designer. What are some of your biggest business mistakes as a designer, and what have (or are) you doing to correct them?

April 3, 2011 By The Blog Designer Network

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April 3, 2011 By The Blog Designer Network

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