Big anniversaries often prompt a bit of reflective thinking. Much to my happiness I've just hit a decade of self employment, 10 years since I started The Usual Studio. Here's my honest take on what I've learnt so far... 

Me in 2007, showing off the new leather embossed portfolio I had made

Me in 2007, showing off the new leather embossed portfolio I had made

Let's go from the beginning, with a little background on my circumstances in Year 1, 2007. Also known as 'the financial crisis of 2007'. I began with:

  • zero clients
  • a few contacts
  • enough money for a 6 month buffer
  • friends and families support
  • mini office setup at home - iMac, desk, printer, phone, stationery galore
  • 1st class degree in Graphic Design
  • 2 years industry experience
  • a promising but not huge portfolio

Getting going

Sitting at my new home studio setup on the 19th February 2007, I'm not sure I knew what I was letting myself in for. But quitting my job and going freelance was something I felt compelled to do. From a health/wellbeing perspective, almost as much as a professional one.

The plan was to create my ‘ideal' place to work. Somewhere with the freedom to work across multiple disciplines, experiment and explore ideas. I wanted to work with design-savvy clients who appreciated creativity and the business benefits it can bring. Taking charge of my career, shaping its progress and getting better work-life balance were priorities too. Sounds kind of idealistic now, but I was only 24 which gave me the mindset to 'give it a go'.

A business startup organisation in Coventry helped me in the first 18 months. Providing free business support, mentoring, networking and hot desk space. The mentoring in particular was very helpful. My 2 mentors asked me questions I hadn't yet considered. Every month I reported back on progress and had my decisions and approach questioned intently. Under the scheme I also completed a Diploma in Business, giving me an understanding of the topics my Graphic Design degree didn't cover:

  • Starting and Planning a New Business Venture
  • Financing a New Business Venture
  • Introduction to Small Business Management
  • Introducing New Products and Services to Market
A few highlights from the Warwick Rocks Food and Film Festival, I did the branding and helped to organise the festival. 

A few highlights from the Warwick Rocks Food and Film Festival, I did the branding and helped to organise the festival. 

The biggest learning curve

Once I had done the basics of launching a business - built the website, printed business cards etc - I focused on finding clients. I made many mistakes along the way, pricing, not being persistent enough sometimes. But I had lots of wins too. Finding a few good clients and contacts were key for me, which then snowballed into other work.

Taking on other small roles beyond that of running The Usual Studio helped, my work with The Food and Film Festival elevated the businesses profile. My involvement in the festival was a rewarding experience in itself too.

Specialising in working for a few key industries gave the business real focus. Rather than trying to sell all design services to everyone, I focused on offering branding services to Culture, Arts and Fashion clients. Having greater focus was an important step and helped clients self-select before they approached. It also meant I had some influence over the kind of projects the business would do.

Recognising that I couldn't wear all the hats and needed help sometimes was an important realisation. Sure, it did give me more of a project management role sometimes, as a liaised between freelancers and clients. But it also offered a fuller service to clients and increased profits.

Spreads from Candid Magazine Issue 13

Spreads from Candid Magazine Issue 13

Early ideals v. reality

I romantically thought when I was a student, that if I wanted to be a print designer, that's what I would be. At the time I saw web design work as a take it or leave it option, not something that I would have to do. Over the 10 years the industry has evolved much more than I anticipated. I've gone from being a print and branding focused designer, to one who is just as likely to design websites. And magazines, lots of magazines - I design 7 of those annually.

Each year I’ve seen the quality of the projects and opportunities get better and better. My early intentions are taking shape. Hitting the self-employed decade has been a great moment for me personally and professionally.

If you're thinking about self-employment a word of caution - it's not an easy route to take but it does have its benefits. Especially if you can find your niche and have the right skills. Ideally get some experience, learn as much as you can. Save up a good cash buffer, then start talking to people to help you plan your business idea. Give it a go and see what happens. 


By Charlee Sully, Designer at The Usual Studio. Twitter: @TheUsualStudio
I work across design, ideas, strategy and content, writing about branding, design, innovation and entrepreneurship. I love sushi, tea's my cuppa of choice and BBC6 music's always on. Unlike a former housemate - I do find comedy funny.