Your fate as a business owner is in your own hands.
Striking a Familiar Chord
An article penned by Oliver Emberton of SilkTide entitled "Why we gave up web design after 10 successful years" has caught the attention and admiration of the greater design community. I found it exceptionally easy to relate to the conclusions Mr. Emberton draws from his experience simply because I do exactly the same thing for a living. I've had the same thoughts and have struggled with the same questions. There is simply no way I would not relate to his experiences. The difference, however, is that my rationalizations aren't so transparently one-sided.
What he has described isn't a revelation in so much as he's seen the proverbial light as a business owner because he finally opened both of his eyes and saw the big picture; rather, he has simply opened one eye while shutting the other. His conclusions merely rehash the same tired complaints and rationalizations most designers bitch about every single day: Clients. Work. Money. Effort. Service. Product. Value. Happiness. Balance. Blah.
It's the same, never-ending litany of complaints directed almost entirely at our clients or the idea that "service" is somehow lower on the totem than product.
I will argue that no matter what you do, you are always working for someone else.
Client or Customer: What's the difference?
My intention isn't to frisk Mr. Emberton, nor is it to suggest that his opinions and solutions aren't perfectly valid. My intention is to point out a blatantly obvious fact that seems to escape so many people: Client is simply another word for "customer".
Unhappy clients don't pay their bills. Unhappy customers don't buy your product. See how this works? Either way, if you aren't getting paid, it means that you are doing something wrong.
Whether you create a web site for a client or develop an application for a customer, the reality is that you are still beholden to your customers. Put another way, as long as another human being is giving you money with the expectation of getting something in return, you are working for someone else.
It's all the same. I'm baffled why so many experienced professionals try to make a distinction between the two terms when describing web services versus application development.
If you need further convincing, think about it this way:
- Web design is primarily a service business.
- Application development BECOMES a service business the moment you accept recurring payments or feature requests. Hence the acronym, SaaS.
Fate is Not Sealed
Why does working for a client necessarily mean your "fate is sealed"? There is a peculiar negativity inherent in this statement that threw me for a loop because, at its core, is the implied belief that "clients" are problems. It also assumes that "customers" are somehow preferable because they want to use your product and incessantly praise its functionality.
Obviously I'm paraphrasing Emberton’s lengthy rationalization, but his reasoning prompts me to ask a simple question … "Who's in control of your fate? You or your customer?"
If you answered "my customer", you need to sit down and rethink your approach.
Grow A Pair
Lastly, I cannot disagree more with the following statement: "Bit by bit, you sacrifice your ideals for expediency." Bullshit. I carved my ideals in granite the moment I took my first job, and I've never wavered in my ideals in sixteen years. I've made mistakes. We all have. But I've always maintained a steadfast foundation of moral and ethical business principles.
While I do agree there is some truth to the arguments Emberton outlines in the sections entitled "Not a great business", "The limits of size and location", and "Sacrifice your own destiny", these arguments are nothing more than rationalizations proffered to justify offering one service over another. And there is nothing wrong with that.
When you open your other eye and take full advantage of your binocular vision, you will see that the result is exactly the same. Rationalizations aside, you either work to improve your services, or you work to improve the features of your product in anticipation that someone will hand over cash money because they see value in what you have to offer.
I truly believe that as long as you have the conviction to protect your integrity, you will carve out a business that allows you to work with people who are able to recognize your unique brand of professionalism.
A Worthy Perspective
Another article making rounds is "You Should Probably Quit Your Job" by Scott Gilmore, the premise of which can be summarized with the single statement, "I'm going to get out and do something worthwhile, make a difference."
There are plenty of people in the creative world who will tell you that they got into design to "make a difference" and became disillusioned along the way. Clients are difficult, advertising is a [fill in the blank], running a business is tough … and any number of other rationalizations meant to comfort a bored and disenchanted creative soul.
It is human nature to want more than your current life situation allows. It is also human nature to feel as though helping the needy or spreading the gospel is somehow more "worthwhile" than building websites for paying clients.
While I'd prefer to see more people quit their jobs to do something to help endangered species rather than the species who is systematically destroying our planet, I will argue that no matter what you do to "help”, there is an innate selfishness to a human being's philanthropic posturing.
More to the point: Why do so many people think web design is pointless?
As a designer or a developer, you are helping an individual establish or improve his/her company. You have the opportunity to touch every aspect of their venture from branding to marketing to how their users interact with their service or product. Your position in the business relationship carries with it an enormous responsibility.
Building a successful web site means that you are helping build a business that will feed someone's family or help put someone's child through college. You may be helping a non-profit reach more people. Or giving an entrepreneur the expertise he needs to find a market for his great idea.
By my reckoning, that makes web design a fairly good candidate for "most worthwhile" career choice.
It's all a matter of perspective.
I shouldn't be surprised, given human nature's proclivity for dissatisfaction, that there seem to be a great many creative people who want to believe that there is a magic potion that will open the door to everlasting satisfaction with their work.
The articles I've referenced above lend credence to the age old trope that "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." … or, more aptly, I could summarize both articles with two words: "I'm bored."
The simple explanation is that people are generally upset or conflicted over the fact that existence requires them to work, and they would prefer to live their lives completely untethered from societal pressures. I admit I'd like nothing more than to have the resources to ski six months out of every year and spend the remaining six months supporting any number of wildlife preservation initiatives.
Life being what we have created, we have to work. And web design is great work.
I don't want to quit my job because I love my job. I also understand implicitly that I am in complete control over the direction I take my business and how I interact with my clients.
In the end, no matter what I do, whether I'm accepting payment for a job, authorizing a recurring charge for my service-as-a-software application, building a home for Habitat For Humanity, or helping save Green Sea Turtles, I will be working for someone else … on my own terms.