Facing up to independence

The cultural transition from big business to independent working can be as challenging as it is rewarding, says Kate Blandford

It’s official. I am now part of the growing band of design professionals who have left big business to embrace independent working. I’m on my own. Scary, right? Maybe not.

Adjusting from a well-structured environment, working to somebody else’s agenda, to one where everything is down to you, can be an exciting, yet daunting process. The amount of practical information available to business start-ups is huge and often mind-blowing, but the emotional transition can be harder to manage.

I have spent all my working life in design, working for others on both the consultancy and client sides. So, the chance to take control of my experience, knowledge and insight was unmissable. This was May 2008 when it was all very different. If I could have foreseen the credit crunch, would I still have done it?

That is immaterial, because here I am, going it alone, in a highly competitive marketplace – self-motivated and self-governing. And major changes are not all bad; how many times have you heard ‘take advantage of the chaos’ recently? Advantages grasped have turned into world-class ventures by notable brands in recession – Apple, Poundland and Taybarns have all successfully ridden a downturn wave. The question for us all is, how do we get there?

Having left the corporate world, keeping my nose to the grindstone I maintained much of the familiar routine – I kept the same hours, the same approach, the same mindset. This is not necessarily a bad thing – the networking I did in those early months was invaluable, the business plan I wrote put me on the right path and the systems I introduced are the foundations of my business. But is it right to simply replicate how you worked in a big company?

Not for me. I realised that things should not be the same. I could now shape my own world. This was as liberating as it was terrifying – I appreciate a bit of structure and form to my day. So I began questioning everything. I looked again at my motivations and how I was operating, and started to understand who I was as an independent. This is a testing time in which the services of great (read ‘challenging’) friends, close family and, ideally, an experienced mentor might serve you well – you will find out whether it is the practical support (which can often be resolved through a little judicious outsourcing) or emotional support that matters most. It quickly became apparent to me that the sense of support, shared experience and challenges that come from being part of a team were key.

After much self-examination came a positive phase of real excitement and renewed enthusiasm – a strength to do things my way, a resolve to find the support I needed and a much clearer sense of what my new business is, who it can benefit, and how.

So, how would I counsel those who have, or are about to, shed their corporate skin?

You are creative – use your skills on yourself. This may be obvious, but I have found many people – even experienced businesses – do not do it. Find creative ways to help others, so that they, in turn, are happy to help you. Back-scratching is an invaluable skill.

Be creative about finding the best working atmosphere for you. Working from home or an office may be fine, or you may find, as I did, you need a bit of buzz and bustle and that your local coffee shop is ideal, particularly if it has free wi-fi.

Behave like a brand. You are your company and your brand, so make sure you know your unique selling point. Define your brand values so that you can be consistent and use them to determine what you do, as well as your target client list. Examine your market positioning to ensure you have a good operating space, and look at your personality as a brand – this can be hard to do yourself, so you may need to consult trusted advisers. Self-awareness is a vital skill to develop. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and make sure that you keep everything on-brand.

Build yourself an ad hoc team. Look carefully at what support you need – practical, technical, professional and personal – and recognise that this may come from unexpected quarters. Then build your ‘team’.

Consider your clients as key members of your team – they need managing, too.

Don’t undersell yourself. You add value for clients, and though hard times may call for creative fee structures, don’t enter the destructive world of permanent discounting – it’s hard to come back from it.

Keep overheads low and be open to non-standard business models, but avoid free-pitching. You bring value to any pitch. Sharing risk is fine, but don’t carry it all on your shoulders.

Finally, be brave enough to take the right decisions for you. Keep assessing how you feel – independent working might be right for you, but if not, have the courage to change direction again and stay true to brand you.

Going Solo:

  • Build an emotional network as well as a business one
  • Don’t forget to use all your creative skills on yourself
  • Behave like a brand
  • Don’t undersell yourself

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