As a web or graphic designer there are a number of different paths you can take in your career. Freelancing is a great option for many designers, however, some have an interest in taking their business a bit further and adding a team around them.
Matthew Jurmann is the CEO and Director of Operations for CHROMATIC. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Matthew over the past year and I thought that he had some valuable insight since he transitioned from freelancing to running a small company. Fortunately, Matthew agreed to share his thoughts in this interview. I hope it sheds some light on the subject and helps you to learn more if this is something that you have been considering for your career.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and experience as a designer?
I attended and graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, IL in 2006 with a Bachelor’s degree in Multimedia. After graduation, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the degree. I was always fascinated by the WWW and thought that it had the most potential. I created shoddy websites using website building services like Angelfire when I was younger, so web design has resonated with me for quite some time. Also, there was (and thankfully, still is!) a great demand for custom-built websites.
Like most good designers, I learned how to design through trial and error, tutorials, and experimentation. Most of what I learned, I learned on my own.
What was your motivation for starting Chromatic rather than just freelancing?
The number one reason why I started Chromatic was because people seem to be more comfortable working with staffed companies rather than a freelancer who is essentially a one-man show. Incorporating makes you look more professional, legitimate, and it also gives clients the peace of mind that you’ll likely to be around for some time. A lot of people need that extra comfort when investing their money into a project.
Oh, did I mention that there are a number of tax benefits to incorporating? Reason number two.
How many people are currently on your team at Chromatic?
Currently, there are 3 people working at Chromatic: one person in charge of overseeing development, one person in charge of overseeing design, and one person in charge of marketing and day-to-day operations. We also have a few part-time designers and developers.
How did you progress from being an independent designer to bringing others designers and developers on board, and what challenges did you face?
Transition Process: First, I made the decision that I wanted to be a part of a team. Second, I did my homework on starting a business (process, costs, involvement). Third, I incorporated. Finally, through some word of mouth, I was able to obtain my current team. The transition itself was fairly simplistic – just make sure you do your homework.
Challenges: The biggest challenge that I faced was balance. Starting your own business really requires a great deal of time. There is no such thing as 9-5. Some days I found myself working 18 hours straight. The good news is, I enjoyed what I was doing so much that it didn’t bother me. However, if you’re investing that much time into something, then you’re obviously subtracting time from other things. Some of my interpersonal relationships took a hit, and a girlfriend was out of the question. Looking back, there wasn’t much I could have done differently. Starting your own business, it’s almost a guarantee that your life will temporarily be out of balance. If you want to succeed (especially with this toilet of an economy), then you must be prepared to invest the time. Try your best to get out of the office at least once a week, though. Fresh air is certainly your friend.
Another challenge was finding a good team. The key is to search for people who have similar aspirations and goals. In addition, it is absolutely essential that you look for people who are motivated, intelligent, talented, mature, punctual, and honest – quite a lot to ask for, however, if you’re looking to build a successful and safe house, then you need a solid and strong foundation.
What advantages does Chromatic have as compared to what you could offer clients when you were freelancing?
A few things in particular:
1) Peace of mind that, since Chromatic has been around for 3 years, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Also, most people, companies, and organizations seem much more comfortable working with a team of people (even if it’s just a few people) than working with a single person.
2) Having a team of individuals, each with their own particular strengths, results in better quality work.
What are some of the challenges that you face on a daily basis running a small team of designers and developers?
Most of the major challenges have been eliminated at this point, however, I struggled with micromanaging a few previous employees of the company. The key word here is micromanage. The owner of a small company has the responsibility to manage their team; however, micromanaging will hurt you and your business. Hire people who do not need to be micromanaged.
Many of the issues that I experienced during the early stages of the company (project management, time tracking, invoicing, etc) were eliminated by searching for and utilizing some of the best web-based tools available on the web. I highly recommend that anyone looking to start their own web design business read our article, “11 Absolutely Necessary Web-Based Tools for A Freelance Web Designer.” This article applies to freelancers and small businesses
In your role with Chromatic, how does your daily life and responsibilities differ from when you were freelancing?
As a freelancer, I was more involved with the process (I was responsible for designing and developing websites). Now, my primary responsibility is to manage my team and provide them assistance and feedback when they need it. That’s not to say that a web design company owner can’t be involved in the process, though. In addition, I’m responsible for finding work for my team and making sure that our clients are happy.
What advice would you give to freelancers who are thinking about expanding?
Take it slow. Try to minimize your overhead expenses, especially in the beginning. You don’t need to rent an office space – most people, businesses, and organizations will do business with you (assuming you have some good work and solid testimonials) even if you don’t have a physical office. What matters are the quality of the product and the service that you produce – not where you produce it. If you don’t have the money to subscribe to some of the fantastic web-based tools in our article linked above, then research some free alternatives.
Be as organized as you possibly can. When you’re managing a small business, you can never have too much organization. Think to yourself “Will taking a few minutes to setup a labeling system for projects save me and my company tons of time down the road?”. The answer is probably yes, so do it!
Believe in yourself, be patient, and be persistent. Rome was not built in a day. Building a successful company will take a lot of time and energy.
Treat your clients like royalty (after all, they are paying your bills). However, that shouldn’t be your primary motivator for solid customer service. Ask yourself “Am I giving the level of quality, service, and support to my clients that I would want to have?”. The answer better be yes, every time. Make communication and customer satisfaction your number one priority.
Treat your team with great respect. Give them more compliments than criticism, and make sure that the criticism is constructive. Don’t give your team solutions, offer them suggestions and let them make use of their problem solving skills. Good team members will be more than capable of doing this. Also, don’t be a control freak (that’s counterproductive). Be a leader.
Finally, don’t cut corners – ever. Make sure that every aspect of your company is the best that it can be. That’s what separates the successful from the unsuccessful.
If you have any questions about starting your own small web design business, feel free to drop me an e-mail at matt [at] chromaticsites.com. You can also check me out on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MattJurmann.