3 Reasons Why Starting Your Own Business Is Difficult For Designers

This is DJ Haddad’s second column on graphic design and entrepreneurship. The first column detailed why he started his own agency Haddad & Partners. Currently he is on year two of his second company 321 Ignition, a software start-up in the automotive industry.

Designers Like To Design

In general, I don’t really consider myself an entrepreneur. If someone asks me what I do for a living, I always say I’m a graphic designer. Well, sometimes I say graphic designer/male model, but no one ever believes me, so then I need to convince them that I really am a graphic designer. This is no surprise to anyone, but being a graphic designer is way cooler than being an entrepreneur. First, anyone can be an entrepreneur, the same cannot be said for a designer. There’s a minimum level of skill and/or talent required to make a career out of designing — the same can’t be said for starting a small business.

Look, starting your own business isn’t easy for anyone, but I’ve outlined three reasons why it’s extra-challenging for designers like myself:

1. First and foremost, designers like to design.

And starting your own business means spending a lot of time not designing. I’ve gone through some tough (albeit, necessary) phases throughout my business where I wasn’t happy because of the lack of creativity it entailed. All my time was spent managing people, dealing with insurance, chasing down invoices, focusing on process, all sorts of right-brained tasks that I found little pleasure in at all.

2. Even when I did get the chance to design, it tended to be pretty mundane.

Designers like variety, they want to stretch their creative muscles on different styles—and starting a company sometimes means long stretches of repetitious design. When I started my ad agency in 2007, the first few years were spent on just one client: the same colors, the same fonts, the same illustration style, day in and day out. (Their primary hex numbers are still burned into my brain: #ff6600 and #000066. First person to guess the now-defunct company gets a bag of coffee on me.)  Currently, I’m on year two of my second company (a software start-up in the automotive industry), and I’m barely designing at all; unfortunately, my energy here is best served in an operations capacity. Ouch. Sure, the thrill of building a business mostly makes up for the lack of creativity, but these days I’d kill for a good design project; I have four kids now and when one of them asks me to draw a shark or something, I jump on it like the CMO of Microsoft just personally handed me a wax-sealed creative brief. “Now when you say ‘shark’, do you have a specific breed in mind? What’s the tone you are looking for here? Did you have a timeframe in mind?”

3. And finally, it’s risky.

Sure, launching a business is a gamble for anyone, but look at it this way: imagine that you’ve finally convinced your parents that four years of art school were worth it, and now you tell them you’re quitting your job to start a small business, 50% of which fail within the first five years. It took me years just to articulate to them what a graphic designer even did, so needless to say, it was curve ball that necessitated quite a bit of explanation and reassurance.

Is owning and operating a small business challenging? Of course. Do I miss the good old days of just being a designer for hire? Parts of it, sure. Would I ever change my career path? Not for a second. Will I draw a shark for you with crayons? If you eat your dinner and ask nicely, then sure.

DJ Haddad 
Graphic Designer/Male Model/Entrepreneur (In that order)