Designers: 14 Things You Need To Know About Career Transitions

Let’s be honest for a minute; launching and maintaining a career is challenging. We might get settled somewhere and then realize an abrupt career transition is in order. Or, we might agonize over a career change for years before making it happen.

Often times, these major changes are the most challenging aspect of our professional lives. It is possible though to successfully move from one opportunity to another; for proof, we can look to industry experts who have gone before us.

I interviewed some truly inspiring graphic designers, web designers, marketing specialists, and other creative folks to get tips on navigating career transitions. What they have to say will really help anyone who is contemplating a career change.

1. There is a lesson to be learned in every failed opportunity.

Chris Bank, Growth Lead at Lever, provided a wealth of information. One of the first golden nuggets of information I took from his personal reflection was this: not all jobs are “the one” and that’s ok. But each job, client, or project provides valuable lessons. Appreciate each situation for what it is.

For instance, his first startup, Epostmark, was technically a failure. “Beyond the look and feel, well-designed products should have sufficient market demand to get market adoption. We weren’t able to do that.”

Chris saw that failure as an opportunity to analyze where he wanted to go next.

“I had to really think about my career and the skills I wanted to build, teams I wanted to work with, industries in which I wanted to gain expertise, and products I wanted to help build.

“Early stage companies are usually really flexible with hiring since finding really smart people who fit the culture is difficult – especially now with the talent competition globally.”

However, Chris points out it’s a double-edge sword.

“On one hand, it can be great to transition your career, gain more experience. On the other, you’re likely gaining breadth at the expense of depth of experience. You’ll likely be doing things to help the team that aren’t part of your core responsibilities. You’re under-staffed and under-resourced so you may develop your skills more slowly.”

The journey might be filled with some pretty big potholes, but arriving at the final destination is totally worth it.

“It’s pretty addictive when you find the right company and want to work all the time because it doesn’t feel like work. It’s an open field on what you can take ownership of, what projects you can be involved in, and how fast you can learn.”

2. Be the small fish in a big pond.

Chris made one of his first big career transitions right after graduating from college. In hindsight, he thinks it would have been better to get some more experience under his belt first.

“I think there’s a ton of value in soaking up all the knowledge you can from established companies, as well as leveraging their resources, professional networks, and brand to springboard into your next job or venture.

“For every successful entrepreneur I know, I know dozens more who aren’t. But most of my friends who took more ‘corporate’ routes are in well-respected leadership roles at this point. They always have the option of going into startups because they have specialized skills and a wealth of knowledge that startups need to execute.

“I think the ‘small fish, big pond’ is a good strategy. You have insights into where you can move next and how to get there. ‘Big fish, small pond’ can be blinding.”

3. Take the job that allows you to get your foot in the door.

Even though it wasn’t his official role or primary interest, Chris Bank did a lot of sales and business development in his first startup. After that, a lot of other companies wanted him to utilize those skills again on their behalf. But, because those tasks weren’t necessarily his passion, he passed.

In hindsight, he could have worked in those roles for a while as a way to get his foot in the door with very successful companies. Later, he could have showcased his design skills once he was established with the company.

Chris referenced Sheryl Sandberg’s famous quote: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”

Chris said, “This really resonates. While I think it may be hard to switch from a less-related role into one that you’re passionate about, it’s easier to make that switch when you have a captive audience and resources inside a company.”

4. If you can, build a strong client base before going full-time.

Paul Boag of boagworld made several career transitions early on. One turned out to be very fortuitous.

Shortly after Paul joined a dot-com company, it went out of business. The timing was great though; Paul aligned the company’s closure with the launch of his own agency. The dot-com company had taken on a lot of client work towards the end and Paul was able to transition those clients over to his new business venture.

This fortunate beginning gave him a huge advantage; it meant he was profitable from day one. Paul remarked, “It is so important to have a staple of existing clients before launching any new company. It takes the pressure off to find new work and immediately gives you an avenue for word-of-mouth recommendation.”

Paul went on to share some suggestions. “My advice for anybody considering setting up their own agency or going freelance is to build up the business in your spare time. Work evenings and weekends until you simply run out of hours. Only then consider going full-time. It will mean several months of long hours, but is preferable to starting a new company and immediately going into debt.”

5. Don’t be afraid to try any and all methods to find new clients.

Not everyone is as blessed as Paul. In fact, few of us have ready-made clients fall in our laps.

Jarrod Wright is a graphic artist and online marketing consultant. While his business, Subtle Network, is now flourishing, it got off to a rocky start.

Every day, Jarrod would wake up and spend the entire morning going door to door, handing out his business card. Then, in the afternoon and evening, he’d work on any projects he could find.

Jarrod admits, “Handshaking has never been my forte, but without a budget or client base, it was all I had. It took me several years working hard for nothing to establish any degree of success. But eventually, things leveled out.”

6. Anyone can be a valuable networking contact.

While Jarrod’s method worked for him, it isn’t always the best tactic for everyone. Before you go knocking on doors or joining networking organizations, take a look at your own personal connections.

These days, Cory Simmons regularly shares tutorials on TutsPlus. Back in the day, though, he had to scrounge around for clients just like the rest of us.

Cory’s first design job was at a local community college. “A teacher I had been having lunch with mentioned he knew someone who was interested in a website. He didn’t have the time or interest to do it, so he offered me the gig.

“I tried to offer the teacher a kickback for connecting me with the client. I thought that’s how the world worked. He laughed and said I didn’t need to do that, and gave me another client. With these two very happy clients under my belt, I was able to keep making connections and getting more and more work to sustain myself.

Casey Ark, CEO of Plato Web Design, had a similar experience. His career grew out of a networking snowball effect too.

“At 13, a local gym owner foolishly asked me to design his website. I barely knew what I was doing: I think the full realm of my knowledge consisted of two HTML tapes I’d gotten from the library, and I was terrified. Somehow I completed the site, and he ended up mentioning my services to other local businesses.

“Things started spreading from there.”

7. Social media can impact your career more than you think.

Clients will thoroughly research their freelancer options. Your social media accounts better be an honest reflection of your character, abilities, and work ethic. Want proof?

Jacob Cass of Just Creative uprooted his Australian life and moved to New York City to accept a job he was offered…via Twitter.

Jacob commented, “At first, I didn’t take it as a serious job offer. Seriously, who offers a job via Twitter? However, I thought I should follow it up.”

Technically, using Twitter to offer the job made sense. The company specialized in social media marketing. Naturally, they were interested in someone who had a savvy online personality.

What do your social media account say about you? Would a client offer you a job based on what’s publically available?

8. You absolutely have to market yourself.

When Casey Ark first launched Plato Web Design, the business grew very slowly. He was relying solely on word of mouth advertising. Once Casey made the realization that he’d have to actively promote his business, things quickly started improving.

“I stopped relying on word of mouth and started pushing hard to market my business. I learned how to leverage online ad placements, I ran Google Adwords, I started viral marketing, content marketing, and email outreach – just about anything you can think of, I tried.

“The result was a massive influx of clients and huge growth. Now, a few years later, Plato is stronger than ever.”

Paul Boag echoed what Casey had to say. “I am far from the best web designer in the world. What success I’ve had largely comes from my realization that marketing is an essential ingredient in running your own business. Too often freelancers think that their work will speak for itself. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.

“It was only when I started to blog and podcast regularly that my reputation began to build. By participating in the web design community and sharing my experiences, I was able to become known. From there, people started recommending me.”

9. Acknowledge the competition.

Casey Ark pointed out: “Most people don’t fully understand it, but the web design industry might just be the most competitive market on the planet. Not only are there incredibly low barriers to entry, regardless of where you live, you’re automatically in direct competition with millions of hungry designers from across the globe.”

(To put this into perspective, there are currently more than 200,000 design and multimedia freelancers looking for work on Elance, on top of around 180,000 freelance web developers searching for jobs. The numbers at oDesk are even higher – more than 490,000 freelancers are looking for opportunities in similar categories – and although some freelancers might be job searching in more than one place, that’s still a lot of competition to face.)

“I knew I had to work harder and drastically differentiate my business to beat them.”

10. Look for creative ways to expand your business.

Most of us are constantly in “client acquisition” mode. We are always looking for ways to earn more money and make this creative venture a success. One way to do that is to offer creative solutions for unknown problems.

When he first started Subtle Network, Jarrod Wright was essentially a print broker and freelance graphic artist. “At the time, most full color printing was still very expensive. Gang-run printing had just started becoming popular but was marketed primarily to nightclubs because they had a constant need for affordable flyers.”

Jarrod saw this as a unique opportunity to reel in more clients. Why should he limit himself to nightclubs and flyers? “I sold the same gang-run printing as postcards, business cards, and brochures.”

11. Don’t be afraid to supplement your skillset.

Again, Jarrod Wright teaches us about enhancing profitability by reaching a new group of potential clients. Just like his idea to market gang-run printing to all industries, he quickly realized there were other ways to bring in more clients.

“I taught myself web design and online marketing along the way. Eventually, I transitioned my focus away from just reselling printing.”

Why did he feel the need to branch out? “The thing is that once you do a good job designing something for someone, they want you to do all kinds of things. To them, designing a business card is the same as designing a website. And if you can design a website you should be able to help them promote it… right?”

12. Use down time to learn new things.

When clients are hard to come by and the workload is light, your wallet will definitely feel the effects. However, down time isn’t necessary a terrible thing. Use it to learn new things.

Cory Simmons‘s first design job had many perks. He was working with a really nice group of people who treated him well. However, the pay was pretty bad and there was never a lot to work on.

“I was free to spend my time learning whatever I wanted. I ended up focusing on design and CSS. I spent a lot of time on TutsPlus and blogs like Hongkiat.”

Later in his career, Cory was having trouble making ends meet with his design salary. Again, this turned into a great learning opportunity. “I ended up supplementing my income with a job where I took care of mentally challenged people at night. They’d go to sleep, and I’d whip out my laptop and work on web design.”

13. When all else fails, take it back to the basics.

When contemplating a career transition, remember this: all new ventures have the same basic requirements. Think about why you chose this lifestyle.

Listen to how Chris Bank describes the tasks associated with a freelance career: “Having a clear product or skill people wanted; doing anything to build my network; leveraging the network; picking up markedly different skills to get my company, product or personal name out there; and managing my time wisely.”

That’s all there really is to it. Don’t let the technicalities of a new opportunity stress you out. Focus on the basics of what it takes to be successful.

14. You’re more talented than you realize.

Author A. A. Milne once said, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

I’d like to add, “You’re more talented than you realize.”

Many of us covet other freelancers’ clients, reputation, awards and recognition. We assume those people are on a different level, one we aren’t talented enough to achieve. That isn’t true at all!

Cory Simmons is living proof. “TutsPlus asked me if I’d be interested in writing a course on Jeet. Here was a site I’d been using and watching grow since its inception, and they wanted me to do work for them! I was beside myself with joy.”

You are braver, stronger, smarter, and more talented than you know.

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