The last time I was an employee was July 30, 41 years ago**.

I left employment when the owner of the studio I managed declined new business I’d been offered. Problem was, it was exactly the type of work I liked and wanted to pursue. After a quick discussion with Greg, I handed in my resignation, jumped into my MG and drove across town.

Truth be told, the MG probably didn’t start. It often didn’t start. Something to do with the ignition being dodgy. Realistically I probably headed out the door and jumped into the MG only to return a few moments later (it was pre-mobiles) to call Mick the RACV man (with whom I was on first name basis).

But I digress.

I know you are not meant to have regrets, but it’s hard knowing what I know now (the known knowns) and not look back and wished you’d done things differently. .

What I’ve learnt working in our creative industry…

First and foremost, plan to change.
Be adaptable.
Change is constant.

I started the business doing paste up. Thanks to a colleague of Greg’s who returned from seeing his NY family with an Apple Macintosh under his arm, we were early adopters of computers. But learning how to use a mouse right-handed when I’m a natural left hander was just the start of a learning curve.

Change happened quickly. We went from couriering marked-up typesetting; to faxing the specs; to setting the typesetting as part of the design, within a couple of years. I transferred my paste-up skills to a variety of programs: Ready, Set, Go; Pagemaker; Quark; and finally Indesign.

We worked through a variety of business models that culminated in closing the doors of one business and opening another.

We ‘do’ change well.
We continually invested in ourselves and our employees which leads me to…

Put your own oxygen mask on first.
Treat yourself as well as you treat your employees.

At the beginning there was just me, and then there was Greg and I and within 6 months we’d doubled our staff to four. To meet overheads and pay our employees well, we cut our wages and offered them a profit share. It was a great deal for them. Problem was, we took all the risks; it was our house up as collateral, it was our reputation on the line and when a deadline loomed it was our holidays cancelled, and our weekends filled with paperwork.

That said, with only a few exemptions, I loved working alongside every one of the creatives we employed. I am indebted to them all.

Each one introduced new ways of thinking and fresh ideas into our team. I was usually devastated when they left, but grew to understand staff turnover in a small team is not only necessary, it’s valuable. It stops ideas and processes becoming stagnant. Which leads me to…

Take holidays.
Always and often.

It took 15 years of business and a history of booking holidays only to cancel them at the last moment to finally make our first trip overseas to New York.

They say the mother of invention is necessity, and it was for us. After many cancellations we decided the only way we could both take holidays is to keep working while on holidays. And so started our ‘working breaks’. To acknowledge we may lose a couple of days working, we take longer breaks — usually 4-5 weeks. We lease an apartment equipped with a table that becomes our temporary office. We work for a few hours of a morning and few more late afternoon because that’s when north and south hemisphere timelines usually intersect. Middle of the day, after 7pm and during the weekend, we holiday.

Since that first, cold January in New York, we’ve had a ‘working break’ in London (twice), Rome, Paris, Florence, San Francisco, Lisbon, Porto and back to New York. It’s become progressively easier to pack a laptop and access work via the cloud. And clients didn’t mind, infact they applauded the move, in some cases, copied our MO. And our employees stepped up and filled any gaps we left easily and competently.

The experiences we had, the places we saw and the designers we met changed the way we did business. Infact it formed the basis of Design Business Council. We benefited, our team benefited, and our clients benefited. It’s with regret – especially now – we didn’t start travelling earlier. Which leads me to…

Make the business work for you and not you for the business.

It wasn’t until we really understood our niche – how we differed from other designers – where we excelled and others didn’t, I lost the absolute fear of running an business and being responsible for the livelihood of others.

Running a business didn’t get easy but it did get easier.

I wish I’d done a personal journey map early. It was only after much trial and error I realised the type of design I exceled was luckily not the client sector of interest to many others. Understanding my niche meant I could hire more wisely and meet expectations better. And it meant I could sit back and enjoy the journey which leads me to…

Be an active part of the design community.

One of our upward trajectories was after we joined AGDA. After a few years playing around the edges Greg sat on the Victorian Council and moved in (and out but that’s a different story) of Presidency. Suddenly the design studio owners we’d viewed as competitors became colleagues. At monthly meets wins and challenges were swapped and solved. Our confidence grew knowing others faced similar challenges; we grew as business owners and a direct result was our bottom line grew.

The Design Business Council is built on a community of knowledge. We have a crew of designers we’ve met for breakfast every month for over 5 years. We regularly network and are planning a series of UNseminars to hit the streets once the worst of COVID is over.

It’s easier than ever to become part of the design community. Here’s my community:

  • AGDA
  • the Creative Women’s Circle — a network for creatives with many different pursuits.
  • Bravely Managing – a community of managers working in the creative industries: live producers and studio/ops/design managers who regularly share the best intel ever.
  • Never Not Creative – a community of creatives helping each other never not be creative. The founder Andy Wright is particularly interested in  mental health  – I’m there to encourage internships, and specifically, the abolishment of unpaid internships.
  • and of course, the Design Business Council. I love being surrounded by a community of knowledge … it’s at our monthly breakfast, in the chatter online in FB and particularly on LinkedIn. There’s more being planned, just make sure you’ve subscribed to our email database to keep up to date.

Take away

The creative industry I joined straight from uni is not the creative industry I’m part of now, and that’s OK.  🙂

*Yep, celebrating 41 is odd, it would make far more sense to have celebrated last year but Eh! 2020 we were head down, bum up working with little time to acknowledge or understand the passing of time.

**And yep, strictly speaking I am still technically an employee of my own company, it just didn’t read as well.

What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at mbdesign.com.au.
My current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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