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Oct 29, 2012

Design Pro Roundtable: Business Partnerships

Do you start your design business solo or with one or more partners? The answer to that question has consequences that will shape the future of your studio and your work. Which answer is best? More to the point, which answer is best for you? By Andy Rutledge


I put the matter to a few seasoned and accomplished design professionals. What follows are the pithy responses from David Airey, Stephen Boudreau, Mark Boulton, Andy Budd, Dan Mall, and Vin Thomas to the following questions:

Do you have a partner in your business? Why or why not? If you do, how did that partnership come about?

David Airey

I've remained in my company of one since taking up self employment in 2005, preferring not to expand by hiring employees or teaming up with other designers. Why? Because I'm happy with how I work. Because I know there'll be more stress involved if I hire and take responsibility for paying salaries; because my business has grown year on year without teaming up with others in the design profession.

That's not to say my situation won't change in future and that my choice is the right one for others. I have a great deal of respect for those who successfully run larger studios and agencies.

That's also not to say I don't have business partners. I do, including my publisher who deposits book sales commission in my bank account each quarter, my website advertising provider who sends a monthly payment to my PayPal account, Amazon who delivers a monthly affiliate cheque in the post, and each of my clients who work with me to make a success of the brand identity projects I complete. I also owe a great deal of gratitude to those who read and share thoughts on my blog posts every day—the often under-appreciated “partners.”

So while these people aren't partners in the traditional sense, without them, I'd not be in business.

David Airey
Author, Logo Design Love
Brand Identity Designer

From Mark Boulton

Yes, my wife Emma is a partner in the two businesses we run: Mark Boulton Design and Five Simple Steps. Initially it started out as being a logistical thing: you need two directors to form a limited liability company in the UK, and many companies start on this basis. But then, when Emma went to return to work at the BBC following her maternity leave with our first child, she decided to leave the BBC and join Mark Boulton Design full time in a Director capacity.

Emma is a researcher by profession. So in addition to those valuable skills to the business, she also helps spread the load of just all that company stuff that needs doing: tax, invoicing, HR, planning and strategy…the list is seemingly endless.

Working with my wife is great. Our skills are broadly different which means we don't cross over a lot on project work. She also pretty much runs Five Simple Steps—our little publishing company—which takes a lot of her time.

Mark Boulton
Creative Director, Mark Boulton Design
Co-Founder, Five Simple Steps

From Stephen Boudreau

Every business owner wears several hats. There is no exception. Therefore, choosing a partner isn't about design or code. A partner must be both willing and able to invest in a collection of hats to wear.

My business partner and I met in university. We had a complimentary skill set, shared contracts and delivered work together. But while this blossomed into full-time partnership, the road there wasn't paved because one of us programmed and the other designed. It happened because of a well-defined division of labor, unflinching trust and a genuine love and respect for one another.

I can't overstate the importance of mutual trust. Trust eases stress, keeps you focused and improves your chances of overcoming the inevitable challenges that face a business owner.

Trust gives you space to have fun doing un-fun things.

Stephen Boudreau
Co-Founder, Ascendio

Andy Budd

Knowing several design agencies run by a single individual, it's a real benefit having partners to share the burden and turn to for support and advice. The founders of Clearleft met through the local design community and realized that as well as having overlapping interests they shared the same set of values and belief in the web. As such it made for the perfect partnership.

However, having too many partners can be as bad as having none at all, especially when they are all pulling in different directions. So a shared vision and belief structure really is key to a happy partnership.

Andy Budd
Founding Partner, Clearleft

From Dan Mall

Yes and no. From a legal perspective, I don't have a partner. I'm the sole owner of SuperFriendly. However, I do have people that I consult regularly on a good number of business-related decisions. The first person is my wife, Emily. I opened my business to do great work for brave clients, but also as a means to spend more time with my family and be accountable as a husband and a dad. She helps to keep me balanced in that regard (as well as many others).

The other partner I have is Matt Cook, SuperFriendly's project manager. Matt is involved day to day with all of our clients, and that fact combined with his background in finance makes him a great ally to bounce ideas off for how to maintain a successful business from all perspectives. I was introduced to Matt by a mutual friend; we've worked together since day eight of SuperFriendly's grand opening and haven't looked back since.

Dan Mall
Owner, SuperFriendly

From Vin Thomas

Fixel is not a partnership. However there is definitely a partnership mentality amongst the team. We all have our strengths and areas of expertise that we “own”. The reason we're not a legal partnership is primarily to simplify the business (taxes, banking, expenses, etc). I'd rather pay my guys well for the work they do than to deal with the complications that come along with a partnership.

What happens when someone gets sick? Do they still get paid? What about if a team member decides to leave the business? How do you part ways gracefully? Who does the taxes? Who signs the checks? There are a ton of complications that I didn't want to worry about. Being such a small team it's easy to have the partnership mentality and avoid the potential headaches that come with a partnership.

Vin Thomas
Owner & Designer, Fixel

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