Today’s interview is with Jason Locy, a freelancer who started out by himself and now operates a small design firm.
Jason is the founder and Creative Director of FiveStone, a boutique multi-disciplinary design firm located in metro Atlanta.
Founded in 2001, FiveStone helps corporations and non-profit organizations with brand development, graphic design, web design, and art direction. Their work has been featured in numerous magazines and books and they are the recipients of several National and International awards. To learn more visit www.FiveStone.com.
How did you get started in the world of print design and website creation?
Outside of some art classes in high school and college and a semi-minor in marketing, I have no formal design education. I have always enjoyed using my creativity and imagination, and when the Internet first started becoming popular I remember thinking, “Man, I have to have a webpage.” Why I thought I needed a webpage in 1996, I have no idea, but I went to the office of a local ISP and asked a bunch of questions. Then I went home and made a site. I designed the site using TrueSpace and built it in notepad (TrueSpace took forever to render stuff on my Compaq 486). It was pretty “awesome.” I don’t remember the URL but it did have a ~ in it somewhere. After that, I made a bunch of sites for friends and stuff on the side, and then people started asking for t-shirts and business cards and little stuff like that.
When did you begin thinking that you could make a living out of this?
Well, it is a long (boring) story. The short version is that a good friend of mine had started an agency doing design and consulting for political clients. I was working another job at the time but as his workload grew he started outsourcing some websites and stuff to me to do in my free time. In 2001 I lost my job and needed money so I started doing more freelance stuff for my friend as I looked for work. After a couple of months, I stopped looking for work and just kept doing freelance stuff and tried to get other clients.
I was very fortunate to have the help of a good friend to get me going.
How did you go about learning the ins and outs of running your own business?
Some stuff I learned from my friend and some stuff was good old-fashioned trial and error (mostly error). I read a lot of books and magazines to see how other firms did things. The thing I struggled with the most was pricing. It took a really long time to get comfortable with a good pricing structure. Things would have been a lot easier had I worked at a firm first.
How To Start A Freelance Drafting Firm?
I was by myself for about a year before we hired our first full-time employee. I had contracted some help prior but nothing permanent. Probably the biggest upside to being by myself was the simplicity of it all. It was just me. No employee issues, no real overhead, etc. The biggest con, of course, was it was just me. I can only bill out a certain amount in a given week so my income was limited. Plus, my time was divided across a bunch of different tasks and it made it really hard to focus.
Why did you decide to build a firm instead of sticking it out solo?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted it to be more than just me. I am not the best designer in the world, and it is impossible for me to be good at everything (web, print, brand development, etc.). But I knew if I could hire people to support me and we could work together, then we might be able to create something great. So, I guess the reason I decided to build a firm is that I wanted whatever I did to be some of the best work out there.
What are the primary issues involved in hiring, especially when your operation is so small?
Employees are weird. They want fancy things like “insurance” and “vacation” and crazy stuff like that. All of these things cost a great deal. We have had to think of creative ways, which I think are better, to offer people benefits without having group plans. On top of this, you have added expense of equipment (computer, software, etc.) plus, maybe, office space. Going from 0 to 1 employee can be a pretty big jump. In addition, you pay an insane amount of money to the local and federal governments in employee taxes.
How do you manage your employees to keep the workplace efficient and your business profitable?
We have an awesome work environment and a wonderful group of guys. I couldn’t ask for better people to work with. Because everyone is so great and we all get along so well, everyone just kinda does what they are supposed to do. We haven’t had too many issues with inefficiencies and people not doing their jobs. I attribute that to the work environment and the caliber of people we have on the team.
For us, keeping things profitable is a matter of proper quoting and not taking on bad work (we define bad work as work where either the client or we are not fully satisfied at the end of the process). This is a tough one and something we struggle with and constantly try to improve.
We have started doing a better job of screening clients. There is a common thought that clients hire you. We believe that we hire each other. They ask us questions to see if we can handle their job and we ask them questions to gauge what kind of client they will be. Once you get a job, good time-tracking is crucial and will help greatly with being profitable.
Looking back, is there anything you’d change concerning the formation of your FiveStone?
Yeah, a couple of things. I would hire a “business person” early on. Someone to get new clients, manage relationships, and make sure we were running smoothly (in profit/loss/balance sheet terms). We still don’t have this and really do need it.
The other thing I would do is be a little pickier about some of our early clients. We had bills to pay and payroll to make and as a result, we took on some work we shouldn’t have and produced some stuff that I hope no one ever sees. This is not a good feeling. I am very grateful for all of our clients, but it took me a long time to figure out that the more someone pays you the more they value and respect your work. We had a lot of clients at the beginning who we worked for “on the cheap” and as a result, they controlled every aspect of the design. I wish we would have changed what we were worth, not what someone was willing to pay.
Now that you’ve got a team of four plus contractors, what’s the next step for FiveStone?
Currently, there are 4 full-time FiveStone employees and several contractors that we work with on a full-time basis. One of our big goals this year will be to work on attracting larger clients and projects. An ideal project for us is one where we are brought in at the beginning and work through the strategy, implementation, and deliverables of a given campaign. Not just design a brochure.
In addition, we need to work on a broader client base. Our business is 100% referral-based (which is great) and as a result, we have attracted a lot of the same types of clients. We want to be a bit more proactive about finding clients and branching out. I am not sure how much bigger we need to grow in terms of employee size. Now we need to focus on growing our work and client base.
What are the three best pieces of advice for anyone who wants to build their own firm?
- Hire people better than yourself. Most people hire people to help them complete tasks and take on extra work. My philosophy has always been to hire people that can elevate the company and make it better than it would be if it were just me alone. If you are just looking to duplicate yourself, then your firm will only be as good as you. FiveStone is great because we have an amazing team. We always have. The guys we have there now (Patricio, Andy, Jayme) are all tremendously talented. I trust them all with decisions in the creative process and allow them to do what they do best.
- Unless you are a business-minded person, hire one. It can be very difficult to think creatively and artistically while worrying about getting new clients and making payroll. Even if it means giving up part of the business, I would suggest getting this person on board. We never did that and I think we would be a lot bigger and have a much broader client base had we done this. I have friends that own studios and did this early on and it has paid off greatly for them.
- Everyone judges success in monetary terms; learn to judge success differently and you’ll be much happier. Success is not about how much money you make or what kind of car you drive. Judge your success by how much time you are able to spend with your wife and kids or how much you help your friends when they need you.
Also, only take work you enjoy, regardless of how much money you could otherwise make. This is a difficult concept to grasp, and sometimes I contradict myself (we all have bills to pay).
Oh, and one more thing, take a vacation and rest. You’ll be more productive and won’t be stressed out (wow, I guess I crammed 3 pieces of advice into that last one).