5 Heretical Tips for Entreprenuerial-Minded Designers

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I was asked by my good friend Sandip Patel of BitConfused and CageApp to talk to his Design Entrepreneurship class today and thought I’d share what I, um, shared. The group consisted mainly of graphic design majors and oriented my talk about designers started entrepreneurial ventures.


I’m going to share heresy with you. Here are my five tips for helping designers become entrepreneurs … but more so living life without regrets, while changing the world for the better.

1. Work is your life’s masterpiece. (Or one of them!)

I love work. It’s not a four-letter word to me.

Work should be fun. It should be a blast. People occasionally ask me about my “hobbies” and I always looked stumped. I usually say I don’t have any because I have a job that consumes me and spend my time honing my skills to get better at it or learn more for it.

Work should be the profitable pursuit of passion and purpose. Work should align with passion and purpose in life. It should sync and fit your unique skills, strengths and gifts.

Seek to find that type of work that fits you.

If you are in a job that doesn’t or sucks or drains the life out of you (and your passion), CHANGE IT.

When I hated my job, or maxed it out, I found a new one. Before iThemes I averaged about two years on a job before it lost its flavor (but always left in good standing with my bosses). And even now I’m always constantly seeking to align my own passion and purpose and strengths with my work.

In regards to entrepreneurship, I always ask aspiring entrepreneurs about their life goals and objectives first, before getting into the mechanics of starting a business.

The key question is: What are your life goals and how do you best achieve them? Is it through a job or a business? Which one will help you meet those goals and live your dreams? Whatever the answer is – do that.

Sometimes it might be better to get a job and work for someone else …. but if you like to create your own job and future, check out entrepreneurship.

When I started iThemes in 2008, I set to create work and a work environment that I loved and would thrive working in. That’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur — you create your future.

2. Perfectionism is evil.

I love artists and designers and developers. I enjoy working with them to see their talent released for the world to see.

But most creative types have this disease called perfectionism.

I say it is evil because it can stop you from ever letting the world see your true talent and gift with them. This quote by Albert Schweitzer says it best:

“The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”

As artists and designers, you need to learn how to ship. Or else your gift dies in you. And if you only enjoy your gift, then that’s selfish. The world needs you to share you and your work.

Sometimes you need to ship your “good enough” stuff.

In the early days of our business, if we hadn’t shipped “good enough” stuff, we would have ran out of cash and run away. We ship good stuff, and make it better and better with time.

As a designer-entrepreneur, if you don’t ship, you don’t get paid. Period. That’s called a starving artist and a waste.

This is a hard pill to swallow for artists. But it’s reality. Don’t waste what awesomeness you have to offer the world.

3. You need people, dummy.

Most talented artists I’ve met tend to be extremely independent minded. You like your silos. You like your islands. You don’t play well with other people.

But the fact is … you really need people — and lots of people.

You need people who buy your stuff. You need people who sell your stuff. You need people to help you do your taxes, or help you learn to ship and keep you accountable.

We found this African proverb that we use prolificly in our business:

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

We go together. So will you, despite your irrational thoughts to the contrary, ESPECIALLY if you’re going to create a business around your work.

We’ve probably all been around the supremely talented designer who couldn’t get along with the chair he sat in because his ego was so big.

Don’t be that person.

Value people. And they will value you.

4. Passion + Purpose + Profit

It takes all three to have a business.

Passion is this:

Light yourself on fire and people will come watch you burn.

As a creative type, you hopefully have a burning passion about your work by default. (If not, get one or pivot and find it.)

Follow your passion. Share your passion. And find out how to channel your passion in profitable, world changing ways.

When I started to share the core values and philosophies we held dear in our business, it took off. We built fans, who paid us money to keep doing what we love. It was a true catalytic moment in our business. People want to follow those who believe in something enough to stand up for it.

Be bold. Make waves. But do it all in the right way.

Be uniquely you. Just don’t be an idiot doing it.

Purpose is about offering something of value to the world, or your little part in it. It’s about doing something bigger than yourself. Your work can be bigger than you if it impacts people’s lives in meaningful ways.

Business MUST be about profit. We must earn money to keep the lights on and pay the bills, but business is also about making meaning in the world.

5. Now is the time. Now.

Not tomorrow. Not five weeks from now. Today.

As I talk to young people (or those of any age) I believe NOW, today is the best time to start building the momentum toward starting a business.

The college students I talked to today have a great opportunity and advantage …. coming out of college they have little overhead, low financial burn.

Fact is, if they fail they can always go can live with their parents.

They don’t have mortgages or kids. They are young and if they fail, they have a longer runway to fix it for next time.

I also caution people though … that there are no overnight successes. It’s a myth.

Everybody starts somewhere. Everybody builds on their relationships, experiences and expertise to BE READY to push launch on their business dreams when the opportunity arises and the planets align.

I spent 15 -plus years building momentum to what I’ve started at iThemes. It didn’t magically happen. It was the culimination of my life aimed at that one purpose: to start a business.

So start NOW building the resources, connections, experience and expertise you need to do what you want to do in business and with your life. Get ahead of everybody else. Be focused. Redeem the time and opportunities you have to get the steam you need to start the adventure.

It also means being ready.

Then when the moment arrives to build something bigger than yourself that changes the world … you’re ready for the adventure.


Homework: Yes, I gave them homework and you too …. what is the one small risk you can take today that forces you to step a little outside of your shell, in order to do what you really want to do?

Write it down. Put a date on it to do by.

Then share it with someone who will light a fire under your butt and nag you to get it done.


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2 thoughts on “5 Heretical Tips for Entreprenuerial-Minded Designers”

  1. #3 People

    Getting out and networking with other people is one area I struggle with and working to overcome. Last Thursday I met with a networking group of about 8 people, today is a new group with about 30 people and tomorrow is another group of 76+ people. I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone to reach the goals I set.

    • So great to hear!

      Having peer groups is amazing. I have an entrepreneurship one that I’ve been a part of for a year in June and it has been a Godsend. I can’t imagine how I existed without it.

      To be a part of a group of people working through the same issues, in a similar stage of life, with the same principles and values, is priceless.


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