Are you in a professional rut? Whether you’re an employee or a freelancer, it’s easy to reach a point in your career where you feel stagnant, both financially and in personal fulfillment. So how do you break free of that? How do these people that you hear about really manage to leave everything behind, venture out on their own and actually become a successful entrepreneur earning more than any agency would pay them?
Today we’re out to answer that question. We sat down with Ken Peters, founder of Nocturnal Design to hear his story about leaving a senior design position with an impressive salary to start his own company. You’ll get some real answers about how he managed to make this transition a huge success rather than falling on his face.
A Little History
A little while back we posted an article titled, “How Much Money Do Designers Make?” In the comments we received several different opinions on the numbers that we presented. Some designers made considerably less and desperately wanted to know how they could reach the kind of figures we were suggesting. Others seemed to blow our numbers out of the water.
I spotted an opportunity for a truly helpful level of information sharing between these two disparate commenters. If we have some readers that have been successful, and some that are still searching for success, why not bring in some knowledge from the former group?
Ken Peters was the commenter that caught my eye. He lived and worked in the market that I had done my salary research, but seemed to be doing far better than average. Ken claimed to have left a high level position making $65,000/year and actually managed to double his salary in a year on his own!
So I tracked Ken down to see if he was being honest and, once I discovered that he was, I asked him to share some experience and advice with out readers. I wanted to know how he got up the courage to leave a high paying position and strike out on his own, how he managed to find clients so fast and how in the world he doubled an already impressive salary in a year. Fortunately, Ken was more than will to share and you’ll find all his answers to these questions and more below.
Our Interview with Ken Peters, Founder: Nocturnal Design
Below you’ll find the questions we asked Ken along with his insightful answers, which will hopefully help you immensely in your own professional journey. Along the way we’ll see some samples of his recent work.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
- Name: Ken Peters
- Born: August 25th, 1970, Detroit, MI
- Current Residence: Phoenix, AZ
- Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Arizona State University
- Title: Co-founding Partner, Creative Director
- Company: Nocturnal Design
- Website: www.nocturnaldesign.com
Nocturnal is a brand amplification consultancy. We help established and emerging consumer brands define, design, and declare their unique voice to engage people, nurture relationships, shape perception, influence behavior, and create value.
How did you get started in graphic/web design?
I think I’ve always been a “design thinker”, even when I was too young to know what that meant. I’ve always used design as a way to engage every aspect of life from architecture to politics to literature to science to history to music, and so on. Everything is design. All human activity is designed, either by action or by default, so being design-driven, or design-oriented seems to be the natural state of being.
As this pertains to my career; take all of that and add a lifelong interest in drawing, painting and the visual arts, as well as a fascination with storytelling and language, and the career path sort of seems obvious, in retrospect.
Below is a quote from your comment on a previous article, can you elaborate on this a bit? Why did you feel the need to quit this seemingly great job?
“I was a senior designer at the number one design studio in Phoenix (as ranked by the Phoenix Business Journal) and making $65k, plus bonuses. It was unrewarding, unchallenging, and unfulfilling, so I quit and started my own studio.”
Everything at that agency looked shiny and polished on the outside. On the inside, poor management, and one of two partners with a substance abuse problem, created an erratic environment with low morale. As I said, it was unrewarding, unchallenging, and unfulfilling. I didn’t work “with” the partners, I worked “for” them. That was tough, because I felt I had more to contribute than I was being allowed.
So, there I was, with a seemingly enviable job and a generous salary, but dour and disenchanted. When you find yourself hoping to get into a fender-bender on the way to work, just so you can be late, it’s time for a new job.
Did you immediately start an actual company or were you simply a freelancer for a while?
To get the ball rolling I did some minimal freelance work early on, but only for select people/agencies with whom I had longstanding relationships. I never positioned myself as a freelancer, I always positioned Nocturnal Design as a full-fledged agency. My departure from my previous position was very abrupt. I didn’t plan on it when I went in that morning, so after walking out I found myself sort of professionally naked, as it were. But, I knew that I was going to pursue my own path as an entrepreneur.
I immediately designed a visual identity for Nocturnal, and applied it to business cards, stationery, and a website where I could display my portfolio. Branding lent instant credibility, and commanded respect.
Most freelance designers seem to struggle with finding clients. How did you find clients when you first started out on your own?
Having been active within the business and creative communities for years I had a strong network. The day after leaving my old job I began contacting everyone I knew to spread the word that the senior art director from the number one firm in town was now operating his own studio. Word spread quickly, and the phone started ringing.
Within days I was meeting prospective clients and securing billable projects. After two months, work was steady. By four months, I was downright busy. In 12 months I doubled my old salary, and there’s been no looking back since.
You mentioned that you doubled your old agency salary in your first year and have been growing that number ever since. Care to share some of your secrets to success?
I discovered early in my career that you get the kind of work you become known for doing, so you need to find and do the kind of work you want be known for. It’s amazing what can happen when you make, and keep, your clients happy. Word of mouth from pleased customers has been our primary new business catalyst. We have done very little marketing, and no advertising. In the past few years, our social media activity, and blogging, has proven to be a powerful income generator.
A quick story: One day, a couple weeks after launching the business, I was driving by the retail location of a former client of my former employer. I had worked on their account, but had not been to their new location. Long before I left my old job, I finished that project, and they broke ties with my employer. So, given my history with them, and the fact they were not associated with my previous employer any longer, I figured it was worthwhile to drop in and say hi. But, I wasn’t dressed for business that day, was in a hurry, and had a bunch of other excuses not to drop in. But, I did anyway, because I was there, and it seemed to be a good way to network.
I never ended up doing any work for them, but they passed my name on to somebody who became one of the most lucrative clients I’ve ever had. The work I did for that client directly lead to tens of thousands of dollars in additional work with other clients. I can track a great deal of revenue back to my decision to simply stop in and say “hi” to an old professional acquaintance.
Perhaps the moral of the story is not to make excuses.
How big has your company grown in terms of number of employees and clients?
My business is comprised of my wife and myself full time. We have resisted hiring any full time employees because we simply haven’t had the need. Most projects are able to be handled in house, but if the scope of something goes beyond our capabilities or availability, we have a potent network of associates, and that allows us to assemble teams tailored to our clients’ needs, when necessary.
We have wrestled with the idea of expanding and hiring. We almost did so prior to the recession hitting in September of 2008, but we were feeling as early as that January that something was “off” in the economy. Work was harder to come by, so we decided not to make the capital investment of expansion. I believe we made the right move, but who knows what the future will hold.
How can traditional agencies like the one you worked for before improve their companies and create a satisfying work environment?
Traditional agencies are dinosaurs on their way to extinction. Traditional methods of doing business no longer work, and the agencies that are surviving are adapting.
If you’re asking how employers can create better situations for their employees, you have to start by understanding that they are your greatest investment. Always hire people who are better than you, or your business will never grow beyond your own skills. Empower employees to make decisions on their own, and give them the latitude to actually do so. Remember that your people are just that, people. They may love their job, but they don’t want to come in on weekends or stay late to do it, and just because they may be salaried doesn’t mean you can ask them to. Long hours are part of the game, but don’t treat your people like they belong to you.
Do you encourage all unhappy designers to blaze off on their own or does it take a special, business-oriented type of person obsessed with profit?
Working for yourself, whether it’s owning your own business or freelancing, is not for everyone. Yes, it takes a very specific kind of person, and no, it has absolutely nothing to do with being “obsessed with profit”. There are no guarantees of success.
Launching my own business renewed my creative vigor. Work was fun again. It continues to be gratifying. The journey was long, but every step was necessary. It’s not always easy, and there are challenges, but I’m in control of my own destiny, and my successes and failures are my own. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As a designer, you need to be able to put on other hats to run your own business. You need to have a high level of business acumen and communication skills. You also need a thick skin, because you’re the one who is going to take the flack when it comes down, and it will come down.
I hope Ken’s experiences and advice are enough to encourage you to reevaluate your own career goals to see if you’re maximizing your potential. Some view success in dollars, others in happiness and the amount of freedom they enjoy. No matter what your metric is, try to be sure that the only thing holding you back isn’t you.
Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of the advice above. Does it match with what you’ve learned in your own professional experiences as a freelancer or small business owner?