A quick search on Google reveals that a lot has changed in ten years. Things we consider ubiquitous in our lives now weren’t even things. A world without iPads, Alexa or Instagram. Netflix is still operating with DVDs. Welcome to 2010.
And just as these things are commonplace in 2020 life, so, for me, is the world of being ‘employer-less’. I could barely imagine being my own boss when I started; now the idea of ‘having a job’ seems alien.
Since I began this journey there have no doubt been subtle adaptations and shifts in my attitude and life circumstances that have made the transition feel smooth. But there have been significant choices, important meetings, unexpected coincidences and tough disciplines too, and it’s these milestones I wanted to explore in this reflection.
So how many shall I draw out?
Ten? Ok – makes sense…
1. Taking the plunge
Surely the most significant change was the initial decision to take voluntary redundancy, turn down a job offer elsewhere and pursue freelance life in the first place. The sense of peace I felt at the time surprised me but it has always stayed with me and gives me confidence that I made the right decision, even though it felt like the riskier, less safe option. No monthly pay cheque. No work landing in my lap every morning to get on with. No guarantees. No problem. Apparently.
Friends and family, word of mouth and referrals account for pretty much 100% of Upshot’s work…
2. Agency life
My first port of call as I left my last job was to contact hordes of design agencies in the South West to declare my availability for short term cover work (freelance). Working alongside top creatives for well-known clients, understanding team/studio operations and dynamics better, as well as providing financial income all went a long way in building my confidence, experience and ability to do it for myself down the line.
3. Networking – not ‘notworking’
For most of us, the thought of meeting a group of 20 other businesses leaders for a bulk-cooked English breakfast in a hotel at 7am every week sounds like some kind of nightmare. But as a discipline, and within friendly and forgiving groups, I found opportunities to learn about how small businesses work, develop my presentation skills and hone a sales pitch (of sorts).
With time, I was able to develop relationships to the point of building a portfolio of projects for these people – some are even clients to this day, although I left the groups years ago. Not every group works for everyone, I guess I was lucky – but if you are going to make it work you’re going to need to persevere.
4. Key contacts
Friends and family, word of mouth and referrals account for pretty much 100% of Upshot’s work. Have we been lucky or is that normal? My initial call to work with Macmillan Cancer Support came through a childhood friend working in their London creative team. I thought very little of his invitation to join their supplier list – perhaps sceptical of the effectiveness of rosters – but I was soon working on a high-profile brand project and, through word of mouth my name was quickly circulated around the organisation.
Referrals from clients at Macmillan have opened doors to working with other major charities and the sheer volume of work has given us the bread and butter we’ve needed to survive at times. I’m not suggesting nagging friends and family for work, but being sure they know what you are able to do and being professional and reliable with them when the chance arises has been invaluable for me.
5. Education links
I once followed up on a talented young designer I’d met at a D&AD New Blood festival. Long story short, he was soon popping into my then home office for some experience, inviting me to be a guest lecturer in the university and introducing me to the course that has since provided me with my junior designer. Continuous inspiration, great networking and opportunities to contribute to the future of these students, my close relationship with our two local design degrees has been a thoroughly worthwhile commitment.
Following on from this, speaking about my subject in public has been great for my own development and confidence, as well as my general profile. As well as a few occasions at Plymouth University and Plymouth College of Art, I was invited to speak at one of the popular Digital Plymouth meetups, delivering a short lecture about something I am passionate about (increasing awareness of the value of design) – something I couldn’t have imagined doing while I was in any of my previous jobs.
With the events of 2020 forcing widespread working from home, there has been a lot of talk of how remote working is the future and offices being obsolete. I’m sorry but I can’t agree. It’s worked ok – we’ve all had to make it work ok – but for me, the sooner we can safely all get back to the office the better! The physical hub of a small business provides focus, a chance to work more closely together and develop a studio culture. I can’t imagine being a graduate moving into my first junior role at a design agency but having to work from the same bedroom I’d been slaving away on my final major project at just months before. Where’s the camaraderie and close communication? The chance to learn from others’ process and experience? The demanding ‘hot drinks’ round?!
My business certainly felt a lot more ‘real’ in 2015 as I ditched the home setup for my own dedicated external workspace I could invite people along to and hide away in when I needed to get my head down. Even more so when we trekked up another couple of flights of stairs to the new, larger space we currently call home. Yes, a home office can work, but moving out of mine was momentous.
I never intended to take anyone on and become an employer myself. It had never really even registered with me as an option until a particular need (and opportunity) came along in 2017. As well as solving some capacity issues, it enforced a change from ‘I’ to ‘We’ – eliminating a slightly awkward dilemma when writing proposals and social media content. Whilst the lure of using freelancers or outsourcing to sub-contractors without the increase in overheads could be tempting, I prefer having a small team of dedicated employees who contribute to the business culture and output, rather than being faceless white-label restricted outsiders.
I think I’d always been a bit fearful or suspicious of my ‘competitors’, a little territorial, even (although not in an aggressive or competitive way). It seems silly now. In December 2018 myself and five or six other Plymouth-based designers met for a pint in a pub on the Barbican. The following month we met again, just with a few more. It snowballed and PDF (Plymouth Design Forum) was born. Energetic, ambitious, inclusive and passionate, it’s a fabulous community that provides us all with peer encouragement, practical support and, even more importantly, shows our city the value of our services as we represent our industry together.
It took months and months of hard slog amongst client projects, and the reduced income in that time almost cost me a mortgage, but taking the time to consider, define and rebrand my business as Upshot was one of the most significant decisions yet. We’re better equipped to communicate our value and make strategic decisions going forward, and we have a much more recognisable and credible persona to help win more challenging and exciting work. A year and a half since the rebrand we’re used to the new name (not easy) and can’t wait to see how the next ten years unfold.
60% of British small businesses fail within five years, apparently, and here I am at ‘ten not out’. There are so many factors involved that it would be foolish to think this was in any way a guarantee of future success, but it’s important to take stock and be encouraged by the positives. Here’s to working hard, rolling with the punches, taking opportunities, making good decisions and hopefully celebrating another anniversary next year. One step at a time.