Monday, July 20th, 2009

No more employees (or employers)

No more employees (or employers)
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You’re probably a fine person; meanwhile, I believe I’m a generally decent human being. If we met over drinks, we’d probably have a fine time and perhaps even become friends. If, however, I hired you to work at smashLAB, you might end up hating me.

Where does it all go wrong?

I’ve experienced this on a few occasions now, and the pattern is typically pretty consistent. Everything starts nicely with all parties happy to be working together. With time though, the excitement diminishes. This happens on both ends. What started as an “opportunity” for the designer starts to feel like a “job”.

Most times this is okay. The feelings of excitement experienced in the first months of a new position are slowly replaced by ones of familiarity and routine. In a creative firm though, I argue that there are additional pressures not present in most other vocations. Perhaps the most notable example is found in creative differences, which prove challenging for everyone at one point or another.

Let’s say that you were working at smashLAB as a designer and we reached an impasse. You were convinced of your direction and articulated it compellingly; yet, I still believed that another direction was best in this instance. It’s almost impossible to say who’d be right in such a case, so it would come down to power. Like it or not, in an employer/employee, relationship, the power always lies with the former.

When you put your heart and soul into a project, it’s very difficult to let go of what you believe to be the right thing. Someone is forced to break the stalemate though, and this can sew the seeds of disenfranchisement. With time, the walk to the studio changes; the skip in one’s step is replaced with slunk shoulders and a general dread of walking in the door. With the excitement gone, the desire and care are soon to follow. (Some may argue that I oversimplify, but I counter with the observation that few employees talk about their workplaces — and employers — without some disdain.)

A two-way street

From the employer’s standpoint, this can be equally difficult. What’s often missed by the designer in such situations is a litany of other significant concerns regarding a given project. Sometimes I’ve appreciated the direction suggested, but also realized that the client would balk at it; other times I’ve noted complexities in a direction that would cause us to run high on hours. (This is a very, very bad thing for small studios.) Meanwhile, at times I’ve believed myself to be more objective, given that my eyes weren’t on that project fully over the past month.

Be that as it may, these are perilous waters for a manager and they’re rarely navigated without incident. In this role, one must ensure that the project goals aren’t compromised and that the studio remains healthy and profitable without morale being diminished. So, you try hard. You work to make everyone happy and perhaps have staff appreciation activities and get-togethers. These may be well intended, but “forced-fun” rarely actually works. Meanwhile, that staff member who has lost their “mojo” tends to pay less attention to the details. Perhaps they fail to save files at regular intervals, losing a day’s worth of work. Maybe they pay less attention to start/end times. Or, maybe they start to spend company time working on more exciting freelance projects.

I’ve seen such things happen a few times now, and sometimes with people I like. This past spring, I committed to never being a part of such a dynamic again. I don’t want to make anyone feel crummy, nor do I want to be seen as some kind of “creative slave-driver”. I just want to do my job and make stuff I like; that’s it. Over the past months though, I’ve wondered why such conflicts seem to transpire, and if there couldn’t be a better way.

“Come on team! Let’s play foosball!”

For some time I vacillated between feeling like a poor manager and lamenting the dismal work-ethic held by a few. With time though I returned to the notion that the issue was bigger than any of us involved. Even those who I found hard to work with are good people; additionally, I remember how much I dreaded asking people to do things they didn’t want to do. I’ve mulled this one over for a while now, and the only answer I have is that employment is flawed–particularly in creative studios.

Sure, there are some great places to work with terrific employee/manager relations; but, workplaces without conflict are arguably in the minority. The ones that are make “50 best companies to work for” lists and have websites featuring photos of happy staff members break-dancing at staff functions. Scratch the surface of any of these places though, and I bet you’ll find some pissed-off folks. “Corporate culture” is a compelling catch-phrase for promotions and recruitment, but largely a fable.

Few are at a job because they want to be. Even if they love the work, they probably like something else more. That’s a reasonable enough thing. I feel strongly about smashLAB, but such feelings don’t come close to the ones I have for my family. Given limitless funds, I’d probably spend less time here and more with them. What’s important to note though, is that this company is an extension of myself and my business partner, Eric Shelkie. As such, we have a lot more to gain by its prosperity than anyone else does.

We can bring others into our studio and work to make it a great place for them, but one core point becomes an impediment to them ever feeling like a “corporate culture” is real. That one thing is the power structure I alluded to earlier. We can say all we like about “corporate culture”, but the fear of a manager firing an employee at a moment’s notice simply strips such gestures bare.

This is the funny part about management. As employees, most of us think that we’ll be great managers, able to sidestep all the blunders our past bosses made. In actuality though, we’re caught in a current stronger than our best intentions. Managers and staff can be friendly, but they can almost never be friends. Power gets in the way of this, and the larger the organization, the worse it is. While you may be that 1-in-10 employee who is amazing, you’ll be restricted by rules made to fence in the turkeys on staff. Every company has them, and they’re the reason for stupid things like punch-cards and policy manuals. Notions of fairness need to be maintained, so you have to live with these things, even if they feel suffocating.

You can’t “sort of” own it

I say the crux of this issue comes down ownership. If you own something you treat it differently. You care about it more and carry it with pride, maintaining it and sheltering it from threats. Renting something though (be it an employee or workplace) is different. It’s not yours and you can always walk away from it. This means diminished responsibility as a result of limited personal cost. An employee can always get another job and an employer can always hire someone else. Your spouse though? That’s a different relationship altogether. You have something big to lose by screwing-up that sort of a situation.

Some will say that things like ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) exist to remedy just this, but I argue that these are ill-conceived notions. The fact is that a minor percentage in a company does little to diminish problems associated with power. Meanwhile, large equally-divided partnerships are similarly problematic as they tend to make organizations slower in making decisions. It’s harder to feel like you own something if it’s shared with twenty others; similarly, if you own a smaller percentage than the others, you hardly feel as though it’s yours. This kind of thing may be financially rewarding, but still a pale shadow of what it means to be one a few equal partners in something.

Unless we’re really equal, we’re not equal. Let’s be frank here: your employer may like you and treat you well; similarly, you might work hard and enjoy the working environment. When push comes to shove though; we’re all looking out for ourselves. Given significant financial pressure, they’ll axe you; similarly, you’d take on another job if offered a 15% pay increase or opportunity to work on better projects. “Corporate culture” is a bullshit notion predicated on the idea that by feigning the gestures of “family”, loyalty and goodwill can be established.

My proposal is that companies have to become smaller and much more plentiful. This allows people to truly own them and bear both the burden of this ownership alongside the potential rewards. I say that almost every creative-worker out there needs to quit today and become a 100% owner in their own company. This shifts our industry from one of large factories filled with frustrated — even if well compensated — designers, to one of a million tiny enterprises.

Start whenever; finish whenever

A fellow named James has been working with us in this capacity. I’m not his boss and he’s not my employee. I’m not sure what he looks like and I don’t know where he lives. I don’t have any idea of when he starts his work-day and I don’t care. Early in the year James made contact and more recently offered to sell the ads on this site and for a fixed percentage. If he does his job, he makes money; if he doesn’t, it’s not my problem. This is lovely for both of us, as he makes a reasonable profit for what I surmise is a relatively small amount of work. I’m happy to contract him to do so, however, as it’s so easy.

It’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts. I have to keep writing a good blog and affording him space to sell, or he’ll stop doing so for us. Meanwhile, if he doesn’t do his job, I’ll find someone else who will. There probably won’t be any hard feelings if this relationship doesn’t work out though. We don’t hang-out together after hours or share friends. It’s simply a matter of two independent bodies working together in a well-defined and commitment-free fashion.

In a world filled with millions of tiny enterprises, we see a few things die in short-order. Corporate nonsense, awkward Christmas parties, and staff handbooks are tossed in favor of diligent, personable and common-sense methods of working. These can be augmented on-the-fly, with little concern as to the behavior of the lowest common denominator in a massive organization. Micro-specialization also becomes possible with great benefit to all parties. For example, you could brand yourself as the definitive expert on writing for tourism websites in British Columbia, and our company would benefit by working with you. Similarly, you’d have an easy vertical to operate within and market your services to.

As with anything though, there are some shortcomings in being a company of one or a few. I’m not sure how it is in America, but in Canada small business owners have fewer privileges than employees. There are no paid sick days, maternity/paternity leaves; additionally, we are not protected by employment insurance. Sometimes there are no holidays; but, the freedom of being in control of one’s destiny quickly outweighs such benefits, no matter how convenient they may be.

Let’s not get married

In my experience, many laborers desire freedom without cost. They want flexible work schedules and added autonomy without needing to take responsibility for errors or shortcomings. While I see such perspectives as flawed, I understand how they come to be. Freedom is compelling, but few of us want to give-up the security that employment affords. Likewise, countless large organizations (i.e. McDonald’s) require human-cogs and therefore forgive occasional ineptitude in order to leverage the energy of a small army. With that said, I see a colossal opportunity for those of us who don’t like being caged. Freedom does come with a cost, but being able to navigate one’s own path is worth such associated costs, for those so geared.

Sometimes I yearn for those days of walking into the office, chatting with staff and hearing how their weekends were. We had a great team for a while there, and I miss those guys. At the same time, I don’t want to check in on how things are going, or worry about who’s ensuring that the printer received clean files. Put simply, I don’t want to tell you what to do, nor do I want to have anyone do that to me. My guess is that many others out there feel exactly the same way. We just like the work.

It’s not that I don’t want to work with you. It’s that I don’t want to have some power-dynamic get in the way of what could otherwise be a fine interaction. There might always be factories and cubicle-farms, unions and management, company policies and team-building exercises. I posit that such things in this day and age are doomed as a result of inequitable power distribution though. Organizations of more than a few start to mimic unhappy marriages; most will begrudgingly soldier on, but few will ever perform to their potential. I wonder if we’d all be better off by living alone and “dating” when it suits us to do so.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Chris Arnold says:

    "Unless we’re really equal, we’re not equal." I certainly grasp this simple (but powerful) notion and it's something I've been thinking about as my company grows. To hire or not to hire? Or maybe, *how* to hire. And what are the boundaries of the relationship, expectations, and so on. Thanks for this post!

  2. Interesting article with points that come up in any creative business. I have spent some time before wondering about how to control and work around this type of interaction that builds up over time with talented creative individuals.

    There was one point in your article which has struck me as the root cause when i've been thinking about this over warm beer on long flights before. When you say: "Like it or not, in an employer/employee, relationship, the power always lies with the former."

    I wonder here if one could think of it as a creative collective where each individual get to reach their own visions and goals, you as an employer are providing them an outlet for their creativity and to grow. Rather than typical employer/employee where the employee is trying to fulfill the employers goals and desires and ultimately sits with little power over his own creative choices.

    It takes guts to let someone run with their vision and trust them to do it, especially if the company is your baby, but in the long run this will empower the team to feel ownership and develop themselves and your company.

    An approach like that requires you to hire the right people that you can respect and trust from day 1, so the skill may not be as much a day2day management skill but the skill to identify and attract the right types of creative people ?

  3. David Ronnie says:

    Eric, this is tangentially connected to some ideas that I've been thinking about over the last several months. I foresee a significant diminishing in office sizes and increase in contract workers over the coming years. I think particularly as the software advances to make "virtual" offices/conferences significantly easier and low-cost, coupled with the understanding of the global (and personal/emotional) impacts of commuting we're going to see a large movement towards contract/remote workers that might come into the office once or twice a week for meetings but are otherwise in charge of their own destiny (and consequently their paycheque).

    I also foresee a big increase coming for independent designers/developers forming "virtual" agencies to leverage the skillset, experience, and numbers of all team members while allowing to "control their own destiny" as you mention and still be at a competitive price-point to larger agencies. I think the main issue here is who would be senior project manager, sales, etc. although that kind of thing would need to be discussed ahead of time.

  4. Josh says:

    Though I can't exactly share your sentiment, there are times when it was completely impractical to have ever asked my former partner to do anything.

    We were just excited to start our adventure and the timing to do it full time was never better, but in retrospect I would never have hired him on, but I would like to work with him independently, as he has talents that need less structure, just as I do.

    What I think is difficult is becoming an "expert". Especially for youngins, that exactly do they do? Perhaps this is an area for mentorships to grow into. Eliminating the practical concerns of paying someone for full time work, when you can mentor them into a shiny ball of their own desire.

    It's quite a complex thought. I'll have to chew on it more.

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  6. Employ me.

  7. Wil Arndt says:

    Hey bud. Good post and, as usual, your "all or nothing" proposition certainly tends to elicit feedback.

    But I have to say isn't completely practical (and sounds a bit defensive). Having gone through the TEAM > ONE-MAN-STUDIO > TEAM cycle myself, I realize there are good reasons why larger creative organizations exist:
    1. Efficiency of Scale
    2. Efficiency of Communication
    3. Reliability
    4. Quality Assurance
    5. Expertise
    6. Pure person-power
    7. Cross-pollination of ideas
    8. ...and, yes, Ownership (but at a different level)

    There are some things that simply can't be done with the "Hollywood model". And arguably there are some projects that work best with this model (in small startups, for instance). Both work for different reasons.

    It's not fair or constructive to claim that one approach is better than the other for "creative people". Why should every creative person be "100% owner in their own company" and as such be responsible for their own "mundanities": invoicing, debt collection, legal contracts, project management, business development, etc? Talk about a cage--and a waste of time for someone that's creative. There's something very liberating about knowing that others (WHO ARE ON YOUR SIDE) are taking care of this for you, so you can just concentrate on being awesome at what you do. That's how a true team is supposed to function.

    In this case, who cares about notions of hierarchical "equality" as long as there is mutual respect and fairness? With that comes the freedom to "do your thing" unfettered by tangential issues. Like anything in life, you give up one thing to gain another.

    (I would need to write a long blog post of my own to expand completely, but I need to stop there so I can get back to flogging employees...)

    Unfortunately it seems I'm only commenting on your blog when I disagree with you. So rest assured that I think the rest of your posts are all pretty damn spiffy (including this one)!

  8. Paul says:

    What a ROCKSTAR!!


  9. Vic Stapel says:

    This is the "best ever" article I read about the rivalry of powers at the workplace. It made my day, and revived many flashback at moments in my international career.
    If I may say I would add, the same exist with clients power. Often clients will attempt and succeed to alter the creativity of a studio to satisfy their own creative ego.
    Some excel in the use of a studio staff to ensure the become an extension of their own ways of seeing and imagining things. Only to implement it into the required final media due to the fact they fit the bills and can't do the creative work their project required in the first place.
    Lets be frank. I even make my clients read and sign that in the course of a proposal/project the studio/I/ or any creative entity involved will, may or feel obliged to contradict them the client for their own benefit. Too often they tent to forget that they are paying a Design Studio to provide them with creativity galore.
    Yes our tasks are to find what the client and their markets may wants/needs and what the brief has laid out.
    But sometimes the eagerness of the power towards the studio's creative output comes at a price. The client want green, you tell him yellow is advisable to stand out and market research shows that green is over used. Well the power of money often will make the studio implement green to satisfy the clients ego.
    What is sad, when green isn't working, the blame is likely to be directed at the studios.
    Marketeers will never admit their strategy was not the right one. It's always the market who was not as planned, the product not as good as planned and the sales did not perform as forcasted but the client still has to pay all the bills.
    That is another power side I feel real compassion towards clients who often use expensive marketing strategy which never fails than after failure is linked back to anything but the marketing strategist.
    Although in the current environment it is not easy for any entity of any size, I embrace your views on going solo, forming , duos, trios, quartets or bigger team without being married by a contract. I think I would find working with your very rewarding.

  10. Mark says:

    This is very, very timely for me. I've always looked forward to being a leader, and not a manager. Recent experience has convinced me that doing the latter comprises my ability to do the former, and to continue cranking out good work and meeting client expectations. In looking at costs for an employee, and ramping up the framework to support the position, I found myself needing to put effort into a system that would cost me much more in overhead than just salary and benefits.

    Well put, as usual.

  11. Ken Reynolds says:

    I've been reading your blog for a while and have always been impressed by the conviction you have in your opinions. I'm glad you've tackled this subject because it gives me a good insight into the other side of the fence from myself.
    I currently work in a studio, as well as freelancing, so I guess I fall into that group of individuals that find themselves becoming less and less excited about the work I do for someone else compared to the work I do for myself.
    However I make it an ethical law that these two jobs do not overlap.
    I realise the importance of the position I hold within the studio environment and I also respect the employer that has given me the opportunity to do something that I love, even with the drawbacks that you describe.

    At some point in the future I will break away completely, and might even have employee problems of my own some day.
    I can't admit to liking my job or employer most days but I do respect them, and that's the most important thing. If it ever gets to a point where that respect is lost for any reason then I will have to leave because it is at that point that you become damaging to the studio and yourself.

  12. Sunir Shah says:

    I caught myself nodding my head as I read this article. You address many of the suppressed truths of employment that I continuously question. People are more motivated by freedom of self expression than Christmas parties.

    One doubt though that remains with me is that I wonder when your employee wanted to do something you as a manager disagreed with, did you attempt to explain your reasons and get them to buy in? It sounded like you were implying managers keep the reasoning to themselves.

    It's hard but necessarily to continuously reinforce the overall goal of the organization and explain why you think a decision lines up or does not line up with the goal. Eventually (passionate) people will internalize this necessity and push it further than you ever could.

    Mind you, part of that process requires you to truly understand what they are saying so your explanations of alignment are believable. Hard but necessary.

  13. You make a good point--one that I agree with. A design director needs to clearly articulate the reason a choice have been made. Doing so, however, doesn't necessarily make it any easier for the other party to hear. ;-)

    The practice of design involves a great deal of persuasion (be it of clients, staff, or managers). In my mind the less of this one has to do, the more pleasant the work is.

  14. Chris says:


    There's a lot of food for thought here, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. We often discuss "company culture" here at Newfangled, something which I am convinced is not a myth for some of our employees. While it's true that there may be some people among our ranks that are "pissed off" in general, or at points, there are certainly others who continue to work here because they care about the company and its people, even though they may be able to get more money and more influence elsewhere. Again, I'm definitely not under any delusion that this is everyone, but it was true for me long before I stepped in to a management role, and I know it's true for some. As a result, we have had very little turnover and remarkable consistency of key employees since the company's start in 1995. For people of our generation, spending a decade at the same company is rare.

    One question in response to a thought at the end of your piece: You wrote,

    "Sometimes I yearn for those days of walking into the office, chatting with staff and hearing how their weekends were. We had a great team for a while there, and I miss those guys. At the same time, I don’t want to check in on how things are going, or worry about who’s ensuring that the printer received clean files. Put simply, I don’t want to tell you what to do, nor do I want to have anyone do that to me."

    I was confused by this. Do you no longer have employees on site? It sounds like you're saying you don't want to have a company (in terms of people) anymore. Is this right? If so, (and bearing in mind that your partner is still in the picture) I don't see what having a "company" in name is really for. Let me know if I just didn't read you correctly here.

    Finally, aside from any differences I may have with you in theory here, I do really appreciate the forthrightness with which you address these and other issues publicly; it's what has always caused me to be interested in your blog and what you do.

    Chris Butler
    Vice President, Newfangled

  15. Thanks--glad you enjoyed the post Chris!

    You read correctly, there are no longer any employees here, aside from the two founders. Still, we function just like most other companies; it's just that when clients call, they speak directly with us, not account representatives.

    A lot of people see a company as something measured by the number of bodies. I think the output is in fact more important. We do anything a company several times our size would (and I might argue, more). We just have to be more selective about the jobs we take on, as we don't really operate on volume.

  16. Chris says:


    Now I understand. No wonder you're so busy! Ultimately, though, if that is the structure that is best suited to you both, then that is how your company should be. As @Kim Daniel Arthur pointed out, some other companies with a management structure which empowers employees do benefit from their insights and talents.

    In any case, it's not exactly an "either/or" but your strong point of view enables a great discussion.



  17. It is hectic around here, but it's also an awful lot of fun. :-)

  18. Clayton Misura says:

    Really good post. Hits close to home.

  19. Lea says:

    Thanks for writing this Eric, as it outlines most of the reasons why I haven't expanded my own little firm of one to any employees, despite flirting with the idea seriously.

    I've found having a few trusted contractors helps give me the flexibility and manpower I need without the angst and overhead you mention above. I get to do what I like and do best, and they do the same, and everyone has a sense of ownership.

    Also, I think what also needs to be discussed is the idea of more profitability as a larger firm vs. a small/individual. Yes, larger firms may mean larger clientele and budgets, but it also means overhead and having to pay for more employees, and potential for budget overruns and mistakes could be higher simply because there are more factors and people to consider.

  20. Brent Rinne says:

    The concept of "respect" is bandied about religiously in a few comments, but it's closer to the core of the "power" theme than expressed in the post.

    It's not so much a person's ability (or lack of) to comprehend, display and/or manipulate respect; more so, it is the feeling of entitlement individuals possess that cause otherwise benign attitudes to mutate into toxic behaviors.

    And because of that, large organizations and smaller creative collectives are reduced to equal footing.

    It is an "either/or" argument. Aspiring to live in the middle cobbling together elements of any extreme is a clear journey to mediocrity, disappointment and dejectedness.

    When you take into consideration humankind's greatest discoveries and accomplishments, many were the result of individuals working simultaneously disconnected from, or loosely connected to, each other.

    But, as with many things human, the capacity to advance (availability) is mightily suppressed by the desire to stay put (stability).

    Thank you for sharing your perspective and insights, Eric. Great topic.

  21. Mark says:


    I previously commented on the value I found in this, and how aligned it is with my current thinking. However, there's one thing I don't think has been addressed that I'm curious about your take on:

    Do we have a responsibility to help mentor and train a new generation of designers/developers/talent? While we certainly shouldn't need to waste time and resources babysitting people and telling them what's important, don't they need to cut their teeth somewhere? Need some molding professionally? Need to pick up time management skills from someone?

    I can apply this model to my business and do so already. But it only works with people as skilled as myself, or more skilled in some regards (while my skills include running my business and working with the clients). This isn't applicable to junior talent.

  22. That’s a valid point, and one that we’re still wrestling with. In the past, we’ve been pretty responsive to students and those needing information or suggestions, early in their careers. In fact, at times it has been a pretty consuming thing to add, but I like doing so. It feels like “good karma” and a few nice people did the same for us when we started out.

    Personally, I’m a little at odds with how we’ll keep doing so given our size. As much as I want to lend a hand where I can, I have two small kids at home who probably need their dad more than any designer needs to hear what I have to say. So, I have to balance what’s most important.

    We’ll still do what we can to lend a hand. Perhaps we’ll start offering some kind of internships here and there, but only when we believe that we can offer a good experience for those taking part. I don’t want to bring in someone just to pass crummy tasks along to them. (At present, that’s all that I’d likely be sharing given what’s on our plate given all of the things we just need to “get done”.)

    In part, I think the solution for us will have to be a mix of personal interaction, and sharing information in ways that are more “scalable”. That’s part of the reason for this blog, as well as my upcoming book. In both I speak as candidly as possible, and hope that in doing so we’re making good information available to a larger number of people than we might be able to help individually.

    To answer your question: Yes, I think it’s a good thing to help people starting out. The only trick is to find manageable ways to do so. :-)

  23. Mark says:

    "As much as I want to lend a hand where I can, I have two small kids at home who probably need their dad more than any designer needs to hear what I have to say."

    Sounds familiar :)

  24. Kevin Cannon says:

    Interesting article, and a good discussion to have. I think your conclusion however is mistaken. The answer isn't for people to ditch the employer/employee setup. That makes sense in so many ways.

    I think the real issue here is how do you manage design?

    Good design is often about getting the details right. However, if you're a strong designer who really sweats those details, it's going to be very hard to you to relinquish that control to another. If you start focusing on the details, then you're going to micro-manage your staff and ruin the office environment. If you don't then maybe the standards your company is built on might slide.

    This predicament doesn't apply in all areas. If a junior programmer isn't as efficient as a senior one it's easy to get by, since their result isn't as 'customer facing'.

    I was reading something about David Kelly from IDEO yesterday. He said that being a Jack of all trades, master of none, is a good way to become a good leader. That way you can work with other experts in their niche, and guide them, but ultimately they're better than you in their area. He all about creating environments with very little hierarchy though, so it's interesting to read about him & IDEO in relationship to what you're saying here.

  25. Alastair says:


    I enjoyed your thoughts also but have really mixed reactions. I have constantly wondered how to transfer the feeling of ownership and responsibility you get when you own a business to an employee. I can't think of how to make the sales position model work for our profession (lower salary, most pay based on business sold). Or do you say, "employee, are you willing for me to take 3k out of your paycheck for the time you spent on that design if a client doesn't like it?"

    But doesn't it also depend on the worker? Maybe it just comes from an athletic background, but when I was an employee at a company I wanted to do everything possible to make the company succeed. I was on a team and I wanted our team to win. Only problem was, people around me thought they were all on OTHER teams and could care less who won. So then I went to work for a guy thinking that my employment was more within the context of an apprentice position. My job was to learn from a master a series of skills that were underdeveloped - but again I was ALWAYS concerned about making sure he got a return on the investment he made in my salary. He tells me he did. Perhaps that was because I was thinking of costs for starting my own business, the numbers were important to me.

    But now that I am a business owner I am really seeking to find that type of personality in others. I expect them to throw their heart into it for the the sake of their pride of craftsmanship and desire to impress - but even in freelancers it seems to fall short. In a practical sense, nothing has changed that much, my clients are my boss - I do everything possible to convince them that our expertise is the right way to go, most times they listen, sometimes they don't.

    Does personality of the person you hire resolve this issue - or was/am I just a freak? Surely we are talking about the character of employee's aren't we?

  26. Mark says:


    "This predicament doesn't apply in all areas. If a junior programmer isn't as efficient as a senior one it's easy to get by, since their result isn't as 'customer facing'. "

    This is the approach I experimented with this summer. I would scale down the effective billing rate of a junior contractor who I was considering for a salary position and keep him internal. He wasn't client-facing, he wasn't impacting budgets negatively once the effective rate was adjusted to compensate, but the cost to my business, which is just ME, would be much greater than just his salary. He needed code reviews, he needed frequent check-ins, and he needed to learn about time management and deadlines. (Not to mention the overhead to ramp up my accounting system and add payroll. I'm not lax about accounting, but I haven't had to learn a piece of software yet.)

    If I had a mid-to-senior level developer on staff first, someone who didn't have to be the jack-of-all-trades that I am on a daily basis, responding to clients and addressing strategic initiatives, that person could give the junior developer guidance. The challenge I saw is that I can't be a good jack-of-all-trades leader if I need to focus daily on being a good technical manager to someone who hasn't learned the ropes yet.

    I've got great mid-to-senior level developers who are freelancers who work for me already. Where I'm at, and where I think Eric has found himself, is that it's much more efficient, practical and rewarding for all parties to just stick to a system of value exchange with those independent, self-sufficient mid-to-senior level experts who can just get something done while you manage the jack-of-all-trades chores.

  27. Kevin--Yours isn't an invalid argument. Many make the employee/employer thing work quite well. At the same time, I believe it's an overly predominant model. Most people still see "getting a job" as the thing to do. I simply argue that there are other alternatives with compelling benefits.

    On your other point--guiding people is a noble thing to do. It should, however, be left to those who enjoy doing so. Many of us are less-compelled to do that kind of work. For those of us who like our "fingers in the dirt", I believe we have to do whatever we can to keep ourselves doing just that.

    Alastair--You can't "transfer the feeling of ownership" to an employee, unless they actually own it. Think of it this way: I want to transfer the feeling of my car's ownership to you... but, I don't really want you to own it. I just want you to *feel* like you do. (Is it working?)

    There are lots of nice, hard-working and responsible people to work with, and you can do a lot to make the work environment a healthy one. Transferring ownership, however, only works if you're willing to actually do just that.

  28. It's interesting the way that you portrait the point of view of the boss, great post ;-)

  29. Burl says:

    As someone who has one full time job with bosses yet some autonomy and people who report to me, one part time job with a boss and still a good bit of autonomy and again people who report to me and one entrepreneurial venture that gives me complete autonomy but no assured paycheck and no employees. I wanted to say, Great post! I am one of those fortunate enough to absolutely love both my jobs. The part time one...I get paid for 10 hours a week, even though many weeks I may put in 25, 30 or more. They don't balk when the primary job gets tough and I only put in 8 or 9 that week though. (That rarely happens, but it does happen.) Being a good manager is one thing, but being a GREAT LEADER is another. Good luck with becoming the latter. You seem to care, so I am sure you will keep working at it until you do.

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  31. tomasu says:

    can i suggest a book -

    Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In -

  32. Alastair says:

    Eric, thanks for the new car. It's awesome. But you're still paying for gas and insurance right?

  33. No, I'm "transferring ownership" of that part to you. :-)

  34. Glenn Hilton says:

    Hi Eric, I've been reading your blog for 6 months or so and really enjoy your storytelling ability, keen wit, and how well you articulate yourself. I find the comment threads to be just as interesting to the posts themselves and I think that attests to the depth that people engage with your posts. It's a time commitment to write a comment and I've consistently noticed that many of your readers comments are like mini blog posts themselves.

    I think you've made some good points in this post and it sounds like you've come to realization that it's best for you to not have any more employees. I too run a creative firm and know that I often frustrate my employees in many ways, but where you and I are different is that I've never come to the place where I've felt like it just can't work. Usually when a designer and I disagree on a direction, I have him mock up two versions. One the way I want it and one with his take and we present both to the client. At times this can cost a bit more in terms of our time, but really helps our designers not feel quashed by my strong opinions. I'm sure if you sat down with each of our employees and probed deeper on their "real" experience, you'd probably hear about some areas of dissatisfaction and what they felt they're lacking in their job. However, should they move out on their own, I'm sure they'd admit, that they'd probably encounter all sorts of things that could bring equal or more dissatisfaction. Thus many of them have chosen employment because the benefits outweigh the downsides. I feel my role as an employer is to work on diminishing the downsides by listening to them and then doing my best to provide what they need to flourish in their roles. I'm not writing this to try and change your mind on how you run your company, but do want you to consider that there are others out there similar to yourself who are utilizing the employer/employee model and are finding it to work quite well. :)

  35. I agree--the comments people make here are amazing. I'm very happy that so many take the time to add such insightful and substantial remarks. :-)

    I think your approach to working with designers is a reasonable one, and not all that different from how we worked when we had others on staff. It's important for people to have room to grow and explore ideas. Actually, I always encouraged designers to create work that was unique to them--the only caveats were that they had to be able to rationalize their decisions, and it had to meet the needs outlined in the brief.

    My position isn't that it's impossible to have a productive and happy studio with a number of people on staff. It can certainly happen, and it sounds like yours is an example of that. Meanwhile, I argue that the employer/employee model is ever-present not because it's superior, but rather because it's what we're used to.

    The freedom of working without the barriers of an employer (or employee) is incredibly liberating. Not that many people are doing so yet, but those who do tend to be much happier than their salaried-counterparts; and that's often in spite of the fact that many make less money than they would if employed. (Incidentally, this observation is purely anecdotal, informed by my discussions with others. I don't have any actual data to support this argument.)

  36. I think that the problem resides in personality traits common with designers.

    Designers typically are independent by nature. Our industry has so many freelancers and consultants that it's clear many simply don't fit in a typical, structured environment with standard hierarchy.

    We have all seen it work. Likewise, we have all seen it not work. And I think it comes down to employee personality/character and the skills and character of the leadership.

    Going from designer to leader is VERY difficult. Designers are detail people and their vision is comprised of various small things that come together to create perfect harmony. Giving someone else control of the orchestra is downright gut wrenching for some, myself included.

    But if you can find the right person. Someone who cares about the goals of the company and wants to be inline with them. Someone who respects all the team members and wants to make a difference. Someone who appreciates that the 'boring' aspects of business are taken care of for them so they can do what they love.

    If you find the right person, direct them properly and have the guts to let go of some control, it can be a good thing and work very well. I have seen it work.

  37. Erika Rathje says:

    Thanks for this great post, Eric.

    This is well-timd for me as I reflect on what I liked and didn't like at past studio jobs, what I love about my current job and what I'm looking for later. Job satisfaction may be influenced by how well we've figured ourselves out in terms of wants and needs and understanding/shaping our behaviours.

    I don't work in a studio anymore; I'm on a small creative team within a large NGO and it's the best job I've ever had. My "boss" admitted he doesn't feel like a boss, he feels like another team member and I feel like the playing field is level. I feel respected and am given a lot of creative freedom, neither of which seemed to exist at my studio jobs. My work is appreciated and praised. I don't feel like I have to work toward impressing anybody (like a studio owner), and because it isn't the lifeblood of one or two people, nobody's going to panic if I screw up (just, sometimes, me). I'm enjoying the not-for-profit world even though it doesn't pay as well because I know I'm doing fantastic work I'm proud of. Studio life sucked the life out of me and yeah, after a few months at one f them, it wasn't great anymore. You nailed that one, Eric.

    I think if the team is good to start with, team-building activities are positive, fun things that operate more organically. We do them regularly, often scheduled, during and outside the workday. Someone outside the organization at a party with some of our staff remarked how wonderful it is that we're friends, not just colleagues. I'd like to think our situation is not unique.

    Personally I prefer to have an office to come to, people to work with closely, and somebody to have lunch with. I don't want to manage my own business. So as much as I like what I earn doing freelance, it's lonely. We might harp on the virtual thing a lot but ultimately human interaction carries a lot of weight. I haven't met half my clients but I love having likeminded colleagues to banter with every day. In the end I'm convinced I get more done and with more passion, and that we work together better.

  38. You write about an interesting and on-going trend in design business.

    As you know, the "graphic design" business is mostly comprised of small firms of 3- 4 people. (By the way, the 50 largest US firms, comprise less than 20 percent of the total market fee revenue.)

    So it's an industry comprised of mostly little enterprises. Primarily an owner and his/her minions... in larger firms, the "work" gets more compartmentalized and people are mere cogs in the big wheel of design process.

    For nearly twenty years, my own firm ran with a dozen or so people... that business owned me, I didn't own it. Now I am a solo consulting professional. I work with other solo professionals in various dicsiplines scaling up or down as the client requires. It works, yet it is not always perfect.

    I choose my current structure 10 years ago, because I believe it allows me to provide a deeper level of relationship with only a few clients whose business I find interesting. I don't have to schlep to bring in work that feeds the machine. I only work on what matters to me and serves the business objectives of my clients.

    The issue you discuss in your post did not focus on what's really important in running a design business (of any size) and that is how your business structure brings value to your client's business.

    Designers are such nerds these days... always tweaking on stuff that matters little to clients. Plus the fact remains that graphic designers are in abundant supply and the "service" most preform has been so marginalized that it really matters very little if you run a virtual firm, or one with lots of bodies and infrastructure. Clients have abundant choice and POWER in the relationship!

    Regardless of size or business model, there are two types of firms in our profession:

    1) order-takers
    2) knowledge and insight providers

    My suggestion is to become the latter of the two. It is the only method by which you can elevate your value in the hearts and minds of your clients.

    This has very little to do with decorating content... from my experience most graphic designers just want to be cool, design stuff they think is cool, and have their work win "awards"...

    As designers, we need to be putting our energy into designing ways to be remarkably useful in helping our clients solve their business problems with design thinking... not grinding away on photoshop files, or stealing shapes out of CA magazine.

    Regardless of how you structure the form and process of delivery, the truly remarkable firms, teams or individual professionals elevate their perceived value in the eyes of their clients through knowledge and insight on the issues client's deem important to their growth and success.

    Think deeper!

    Thomson Dawson
    Managing Partner
    PULL Inc.

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  40. At one point, we have had as many as 5 employees. Through the downturn in the economy, we have streamlined our processes and gotten rid of 4 employees. We are happier as owners/employers as we get exactly what we want without giving up the decision making process. It is hard to say if this is right or wrong, but our success or failure rests with us.

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