Group Interview On Designers and the Pursuit of Personal Projects

by Steven Snell

on April 30, 2009

in Interviews

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Many designers and developers get the itch to work on their own projects in addition to doing client work or a full-time job. For some this is just a creative outlet without the restrictions that come with client work or being an employee, and for others it is a chance to make an additional income. Part-time projects can even turn into a full-time income in some cases.

These personal projects may be blogs, web apps, or some other type of online business. Whatever the case may be, a personal project can potentially provide more rewarding work, learning experiences, and additional income.

Because many designers would like to pursue their own interests, I thought it would be helpful to get some feedback from a small group of designers and developers that have some experience in this area. There is a good bit of variety in this eight person panel. For example, some have completely left client work in favor of managing their own companies, while others intend to stay employed full-time and manage their own projects on the side. Hopefully the insight provided here will help you in your own work.

Introduction to the Participants

Chris Coyier
Chris is a web designer for Chatman Design, but to most readers he is best known for his blog CSS-Tricks. In addition to his full-time work and to running a popular design blog, Chris has also worked on personal projects like Script & Style and Are My Sites Up?

Collis Ta’eed
Collis is a former freelance designer and now the CEO of Envato. He is well known for his tutorials, and the Envato blogs (such as Freelance Switch, PSDTUTS, and NETTUTS) and the marketplaces (such as ThemeForest, FlashDen, and GraphicRiver) have become highly respected in the design community.

Todd Garland
Todd was formerly a designer at HubSpot and has since moved to managing BuySellAds on a full-time basis. If you visit many blogs in the design niche, you certainly see a lot of sites that are using BSA to sell and manage their ads (including this one).

Jon Phillips
Jon is a designer and the founder of Spyre Studios. In addition to doing client work as a designer, Jon is also a musician and a blogger.  A few months ago he launched Design Newz, and prior to that he launched and built Freelance Folder into a popular blog before selling it.

Chris Spooner
Chris is a freelance designer (SpoonGraphics) and he runs a popular design blog. In recent months Chris has also been busy building a loyal following at his new web design blog, Line25. Chris has also done some freelance writing for blogs like VECTORTUTS.

Adii Pienaar
Addi became a well-known WordPress designer and subsequently started WooThemes with a few partners. Within the past year, WooThemes has become a leader in the market of premium WordPress themes.

Jacob Gube
Jacob is a full-time web developer/designer. Aside from that work, he runs Six Revisions, a popular blog that I’m sure many of you visit on a regular basis. Jacob has also done some freelance writing for blogs such as Smashing Magazine.

Adelle Charles
Adelle has experience as an art director and designer for a TV station in Rochester, New York. In addition, she runs the Fuel Brand Network, which includes design blog Fuel Your Creativity.

For this interview each of the participants was asked the same set of questions. Below you will see the questions listed with the corresponding responses from each person. Thanks to all of the participants for taking the time to be involved, as I know you are all very busy.

Do you consider yourself more of an entrepreneur, or a designer/developer?

Chris Coyier: I don’t really think of myself as an entrepreneur. I just design stuff and work on my projects and hum my way through the day. But I suppose since many of those projects are websites and for-profit services, I guess that fits the description of an entrepreneur. Suit-wearing cut-throat business mogul? No.

Collis Ta’eed: I think this year was the first year I decided I’m an entrepreneur.  This has happened largely because I do less and less design and development work these days.  My time seems to be getting shorter and shorter and so I’ve been replacing myself in those capacities. It’s difficult to do because I’m really picky when it comes to other people’s design work.  So we first brought in WordPress and HTML/CSS developers.  Later this year I’m going to try to replace the visual design part of the job too.

I’m quite sad to let go of the work, but on the other hand I sure do love thinking about business!  In the long run it’s harder to find a CEO/Founder than it is to find a web designer to take my place, so it’s best for Envato this way.

Todd Garland: I consider myself more of a designer/front-end developer than an entrepreneur.  It’s my true passion and what I enjoy doing the most at BSA.  Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to do it more with all of the other stuff required to run the business.

Jon Phillips: I definitely consider myself an entrepreneur. I’ve been designing for quite a while now, and even though working on projects for clients can be very satisfying, I’ve always enjoyed working on my own projects and developing ideas and concepts slightly more.

Chris Spooner: I’d say I’m definitely more of a designer. I much prefer producing creative work and articles than doing any of this business malarkey!

Adii: I’m definitely much more of an entrepreneur than I’d ever be a designer or developer. I’m intrigued by the roles of both a designer and a developer, as they enable me to explore my creative and logical, problem-solving sides. But in the end I’m most stimulated by business models, strategy and the challenges of creating a new business.

Jacob Gube: I’ve never considered myself to be an entrepreneur. In fact, I sign my emails with:

Jacob Gube
Web Developer/Designer
Founder and Editor of Six Revisions

putting my job title first.

Adelle Charles: Entrepreneur & designer, I can’t give up the design part but I am enjoying the entrepreneurial aspect of working on FUEL.

What was your motivation for starting your own projects outside of client work or full-time employment?

Chris Coyier: Part of it, a huge part, is that it’s just more fun to work on your own projects. Nobody breathing down your neck, commitment only to yourself, exceptions only you set. You can do anything you want. How awesome is that? If you find yourself thinking “if this was my website, I would do it like this.” very often, you should work on more personal projects! Another big part is building things that you have a stake in. I like helping clients build their business, there is certainly merit in that, but it makes me a little jealous. I want the very thing I am giving them, a long-term viable business.

Collis Ta’eed: I think a huge motivation for me was to really be free to work how I wished. When I made the switch from working at an agency to freelancing that went a long way to achieving freedom.  But even then I still found myself having to do things the way someone else wanted, when they wanted it done.

Starting Envato with my three co-founders brought me a lot more freedom in how I approach sites and products. I no longer have a boss and I no longer have clients.  I do however have lots of users to please, and when redesigning sites especially I do still get pretty nervous.  It’s hard to please huge groups of people, especially if they are passionate about a site.  Fortunately so far I’ve had a lot of good luck and our sites have been generally well received.

Todd Garland: Well, for me it was about being able to see my own ideas come to life.  Too often when working on client work or working for another company I became annoyed at the overall process and time it would take to bring an idea to life.  When you’re doing your own thing you can hone in on your vision and just keep pushing until you get exactly what you want – maybe it’s a control issue that I have ;)

Jon Phillips: My main motivations are that I want to have something to work on when client work is a bit slow (which rarely happens these days) and also to get my name out there and connect with people. There is no way I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for my personal projects. FreelanceFolder and Design-Newz are two very good examples. My network and contact list grew exponentially because of these 2 sites.

Chris Spooner: Personal projects for me are a great way of putting new ideas into practice without the limitations often associated with client work. Free reign on design choices and decisions makes personal projects lots of fun. I also find personal work, whether it’s blogging or creating design material helps develop my skills and makes for a more polished designer.

Adii: I think initially it was all about exploring some fun side-projects, which could give me a break from doing client work. But when WooThemes started to show signs of being profitable and sustainable in the long term, the decision to pursue it full-time was obviously much easier. And then obviously – beyond the diversity of the side-project work – I think there’s always the dream of building a business where a significant portion of the income is from passive sources.

Jacob Gube: This is going to sound cheesy, but I always strive to be better at whatever I do. When I started Six Revisions, it was because I needed a place to keep track of the things I’ve learned. It grew organically to the point where I’m hiring guest writers to write for SR. Unlike many people who start a project – I didn’t have a game plan. My approach in life is to work as hard as you can, the best way you know how, and the rest will fall into place.

Many people would label that as being “easy-go-lucky”, but I think the more time you spend worrying about the details, the more intimidating the project gets, and the easier it is to lose motivation.

Adelle Charles: My motivation was to create ideas & tools to help fuel creative development in the community.

Ideally, would you rather spend your time and earn an income from managing your own projects, freelancing for clients, a full-time job, or a combination?

Chris Coyier: I’m a combination kind of guy. Freelance isn’t my favorite because I find having direct one-on-one clients stressful. Throwing a job in the mix is nice for the obvious benefits of a steady paycheck and little things like health care. Being unmarried, having no kids, and very few other commits luckily allows me to have the time to do the variety of things I do on the web.

Collis Ta’eed: My ideal situation is working on my own projects.  I think sometimes it can be harder to create an income that way, especially in the beginning, but in the long run it can be a lot steadier.  When I was a freelancer income used to go up and down.  There was a period when we had a great deal of difficulty getting invoices paid, during which our bank balance went really, really low.  It was quite stressful and I discovered that I’m really bad at chasing invoices!

When we started Envato I must admit there was a very long period with little or no income.  I think I got my first Envato paycheck about 1 and a half years in, and even then it was pretty tiny.  These days the company has grown a lot and stablized so even though we push pretty much every dollar we make back into the company, both Cyan and I get paid like regular employees with the security of a regular paycheck, and at the same time I get the freedom of working on lots of different projects as my own boss.

Todd Garland: Ideally it would be 100% my own projects.  For me there is greater satisfaction in seeing something I have built for myself become successful vs. seeing work I have done for a client become successful.  I also find that I have greater drive and motivation for perfection with my own projects vs. client work.

Jon Phillips: Well, for me, full-time employment is not really an option. I’m not interested in working for a company and not being in control of how things work and how it’s run. Ideally, I would prefer spending my time working on my own projects in combination with freelancing for clients. Which is what I’m doing now. I would eventually like to take on less client work, and focus a bit more on my own projects and things that can earn me some passive income (I’m working on it).

Chris Spooner: I’m currently well into my first year of working from home as a freelance designer, and I much prefer the lifestyle and the choice of projects I’m open to. More recently I have been moving my concentrations further onto blogging and article writing, which generate more of a passive income. My dream setup would be to have a primary income through blogging, with a mix of freelance projects associated with the design community and fellow designers/developers.

Adii: 6 months ago I would’ve said that it’d be a combination of my own projects and client work, but my decision to invest most of my time into WooThemes speaks volumes about my mindset in this regard. I think going forward that I’ll be spending all of my time on personal businesses and side-projects, in the hope of never having to go back to full-time employment again. :)

Jacob Gube: I can’t write about web design and web development without experiencing it. It’s important for me to keep a job where I do actual development work so that I can stay in touch with things occurring in the industry and feel what it’s like to deal with the real-world issues like client relation,  meeting crazy deadlines, and working with other developers.

I never want to be a sports analyst to the design and development industry – talking about the sport but never playing it. You see a lot of that happening where, clearly, the writer hasn’t done any real development or design work.

In an ideal situation I can keep a job and have the right to call myself a web developer but still be able to put in enough time into Six Revisions and other projects.

Adelle Charles: Managing my own projects is much more fulfilling.

When you were in the early stages of starting your own project, did you choose a direction because of its potential as a successful business, or was it chosen more for pursuing things that you enjoy?

Chris Coyier: I think every project is started because it’s creator thinks it’s going to be successful. I can’t imagine working on a project and thinking “everyone is going to hate this.” But success can mean anything: money, freedom, notoriety, etc. Success is the important part, in whatever form it takes. If something is successful, it can be turned into a business (typically).

Collis Ta’eed: The first product that Envato created was our Flash marketplace FlashDen and it was built largely for its potential as a business. At the time FlashDen was our entire plan and it took a lot of time and resources to build, so it had to succeed.  Once FlashDen was running we’ve had the luxury of starting a number of projects just based on them being neat ideas.  Sites like FreelanceSwitch and Psdtuts+ were started as passion projects which have since made financial sense too.

Todd Garland: A little bit of both.  The idea for BuySellAds.com was out of pure passion.  I built it because I was frustrated that it didn’t exist.  I needed something like BSA to solve problems I had with my own websites.  Luckily, there was business merit there too and is something I researched a bit before actually starting in on the project.

Jon Phillips: I’d have to say both. I really enjoy the business side of things, so for me it’s simply a matter of starting something I know I will enjoy working on and find ways to monetize it or at least get something out of it like freelance gigs and contacts. So to answer your question, I didn’t chose a direction because of its business potential, instead I chose a direction because I knew I would enjoy it, and then I found ways to make it profitable.

Chris Spooner: My most recently personal project is my second blog, Line25.com. This was established more so as a pursuit of something I enjoy, but the potential revenue was also a decent part of the decision. With blogging the investment can only usually be seen a considerable amount of time in the future, so I feel the love for a topic is crucial to ensure the time is spent developing the site in the early days when the return is pretty low.

Adii: It was a little of both… We (Magnus, Mark & I) knew that there was a demand for something like WooThemes, but at the time I didn’t know how big that demand would be and I was essentially just exploring my passion for WordPress.

Jacob Gube: I started Six Revisions to write about what I know and love: web development and design. If I had approached it with the way most people do when starting a website (to profit), I don’t think I would’ve ever succeeded. The readership would quickly realize that it’s not about the topic, it’s about profits. The first article I wrote and published on Six Revisions is very relevant here: it’s about starting up a web project. In it, I said:

“Don’t make money your sole goal. You have to be passionate (borderline obsessive) about your idea. You can’t be in it just to make a boatload of cash. Look at profit as just one of the benefits of accomplishing your project.”

Adelle Charles: Both. I see huge opportunities that are already in development and will prove to be successful and I believe in and stand behind everything I am doing.

What obstacles did you have to overcome, or still working to overcome, to get your project off the ground and moving forward?

Chris Coyier: If I take the example of my project Are My Sites Up, it is littered with challenges and obstacles. Just building it was no easy task. Thankfully I have the talented Richard Felix Jr. doing all the heavy-lifting development stuff. We had scaling issues almost immediately, so that was an obstacle. The costs of running it was an obstacle. Promoting it as a newcomer in an already existing market is an ongoing struggle. And of course customer service, support and keeping everyone happy is an ongoing challenge. It’s like any business though I suppose, a series of hills to climb.

Collis Ta’eed: I think our biggest hurdle has been a lack of business experience.  In our team of four co-founders we don’t have an ounce of prior business expertise, so we’ve had to learn a lot of things along the way.  When we were very small it wasn’t such a big deal, but as you get bigger there are all sorts of things that crop up – accounting issues, legal issues, dealing with companies looking for partnerships or acquisitions, management and team growth, and lots of others.

Todd Garland: I mentioned this in an interview I did on TheNetsetter a few weeks ago – the biggest challenge for me was a mental challenge.  And, to be perfectly honest, I faced the same exact mental challenge when launching a new version of the site recently.  It was very difficult for me to pull the trigger.  “Are people going to hate it?  Is it good enough?  Am I meeting my users expectations?” are all questions that went through my head in the weeks leading up to launch.  I’m not going to lie, I was scared to launch the new version.

Jon Phillips: It’s very different from project to project, but I would say that actually finding time to work on those personal projects has always been somewhat difficult. At least in the very early stages when it’s harder to justify the time spent on a project that doesn’t generate any revenues yet. I rarely start something with the end in mind, I usually just go with the flow, but sometimes personal projects can grow bigger and a lot faster than you were expecting, so hello time-management apps :)

Chris Spooner: Continuing with my experiences of blogging, producing high quality content on a regular basis can be a difficult task. However I feel the most difficult hurdle is to achieve a good response to the article from social media. In many cases the article is of good quality for people to leave their comments of praise, but unfortunately many don’t provide a social media vote unless prompted. Asking for votes does feel a little cheeky, but overall it does help the site move forward and allows more people to discover the content.

Adii: I think every business will have to face quite a bit of obstacles during its journey and in that regard we’re no different. I also believe that we were lucky when we started WooThemes, because we did not require any capital investment, whilst we were able to use our own skills to create the business (i.e. we didn’t need any outside skills or finance). One of our main challenges during this time however was creating a brand and establishing a favourable reputation.

Jacob Gube: The biggest obstacle I have is time. I simply don’t have enough of it. I work 8 hours a day, come home, and work another 8 hours. I also work on the weekends, sometimes for another 20 hours.

Even with that schedule, I still don’t have enough time. It takes a certain commitment to be able to work that much and not get tired of it right away – but this is what I love to do and I can’t dream of doing anything else. I just wish there were more hours in a day.

Adelle Charles: Time. Trying to balance a Full-time job, freelance projects, blog writing, Fuel Brand Group & Fuel Labs is quite hectic. Luckily there are a few really great people involved to help share the work.

What advantages or disadvantages do you feel that designers and developers have over others in terms of building a business of their own?

Chris Coyier: Both designers and developers have the ultimate advantage. We are the gatekeepers. We have the skills to build what needs to be built. We are the people in the best position to make things happen. Unfortunately just because are good at building stuff doesn’t automatically make us good at business. In fact, that is definitely a problem for me. I don’t feel like I excel at the business side of things. A real business person could handle things a lot better than I can. We are still better off though. I can’t imagine being a business guy, having an idea, and having to pay to outsource every aspect of creation. That’s a real barrier.

Collis Ta’eed: I think the big advantage a designer/developer has in building an online business is the intimate knowledge of the product they have.  As a designer/developer you have a great understanding of what is possible and what isn’t, of how to build an awesome product and what makes them suck.  Add in the fact that designers and developers naturally save a huge cost of development and you can see why there are so many online startups founded by people in our industry!

Todd Garland: Assuming you already have a great idea and that you are building a web app or web based business I think you have a great advantage over others.  Your startup costs are much lower and your able to put your own elbow grease into the project and just get things done.  My counter argument to this, however, would be maybe it isn’t a distinct advantage since you might be better doing other stuff than spending your time in the design/code.

Jon Phillips: I don’t see any real disadvantages but I do see a lot of advantages! First of all, every business needs a website. Being designers, we know it costs money to create, build and manage a site. And since we don’t necessarily have to hire anyone to do it for us (provided we can design and code), we can cut the startup costs significantly and probably launch sooner. Also, designers and developers who deal with clients surely have a good idea of what running a business is like (accounting, invoicing, etc…).

Chris Spooner: The low overheads of a freelance designer or developer are definitely a large advantage when compared to other businesses. However the most beneficial aspect is the advanced knowledge of the modern web and social media. Knowing how to use tools such as Blogs, Twitter and social networking to their advantage is a huge help. I personally have put this into effect with both my own business and that of my fiancee’s, both of which receive almost all leads through the Internet, primarily through blogging.

Adii: I think most designers / developers are simply either a designer or a developer and thus do not have the business skills to either create or build a business. That being said, I think that most exceptional designers / developers choose that route, because it allows them to become truly great at what they are.

Jacob Gube: The community and camaraderie in our field is what makes it easier for us to succeed. We’re not a bunch of sharks who step on each other to get to the top – instead, we offer each other assistance.

I get invited into a lot of collaborative opportunities. I frequently send out invitations for collaboration. We give away freebies and we share and pool our resources. That, to me, is what’s so unique about our industry and it’s something that’s made starting a project – as a developer or designer – easier.

Adelle Charles: Disadvantages straight away would be the business side of building a business. If I didn’t have a Business Development & Marketing Partner I wouldn’t have half the projects and ideas coordinated. Not to mention the legal aspects of it. But I’m learning a lot!

What advice would you give to freelancers and full-time employees who want to pursue their own interests?

Chris Coyier: Of course you should fully go for it! Side-projects have very little risk. The best thing that can happen is that it becomes successful. The worst thing that can happen is that you learn a bunch.

Collis Ta’eed: I think it’s important to be sensible about your finances and make sure you’ve got a solid income stream or savings to support you as you pursue your own projects. Financial stress is pretty awful, so you want to avoid that at all costs.  If you can work part-time while you build your own business you may have less time for yourself, but at least you won’t be freaking out about impending financial ruin!

Other than that I think follow your dreams and go for it!  You may have to work harder, but when working on something you love, it often doesn’t feel like work!

Todd Garland: Get it done.  If you really want it you need to make time for your side project.  Launch, get it out there and keep tweaking your great idea until people find it useful.

Jon Phillips: I would say there’s no right time to do it, you just have to come up with an idea and do it. Once you have an idea and concept, write everything down, do some research and then come up with a basic plan that outlines how you’re going to grow that business or website and how you plan to make money with it. Be sure to ask for suggestions from friends and people in your field. Try to find people who’ve done it before you and ask for help. Sure it may mean long hours and working at night, but if you’re not ready to put in the efforts no one will do it for you. :)

Chris Spooner: If you have a love for a particular topic, spend you spare time developing your knowledge and pursuing your desired goals. After a while this time will pay off, either through the satisfaction of learning something new or financially in developing a website or application that has its break in the community.

Adii: In terms of pursuing a side-project or an idea, it is of the utmost importance that there’s passion in that pursuit. And then stay as far away from financing and / or unneeded partners / staff members in the beginning, as both of these things tend to overload a business when it is at its least stable / sustainable. As long as you can “wing it”, simply “wing it”!

Jacob Gube: My only advice is to commit to your idea and pursue it with blinders on. There isn’t really anything to it – either you want to do it and you’ll make the time for it, or you don’t. Don’t get stuck in the details and just adapt as the project grows.

Adelle Charles: Just do it. It took me a while to jump in, but now that I’m here, I wish I had done it earlier!

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design. Connect with Stephen on google+