Never Sacrifice Your Passion

Posted in Personal on September 15, 2009

I’ve been struggling to come to terms with my negative feelings towards running my own business and ultimately not succeeding. (Notice: I didn’t call it a failure.) I’ve got few regrets, some hard feelings and I’m financially damaged because of the experience, but what tainted it the most has nothing to do with any of that. No, I think the root of my issues lie in the fact that I lost sight of what I wanted to get out of it, and lost site of what made me happy. In essence I set aside my passions for, what I thought at the time, was in the best interest of keeping the business going.

When we went in I wanted nothing more than to make a decent wage, do some good creative work and have some flexibility with my time. Those goals, in hindsight, were very naive. Had I known what it would be like I would have went the solo freelance route and never taken on employees or partners. I also would have been much more choosy with the clients I took on. When you have things a “real” business has you’ve got to constantly feed the machine. Employees need to get paid, rent and bills are due, etc. You need to deal with all of that as a business owner.

For awhile I was shielded from that. (Although, also in hindsight, I probably should have been more involved, would have saved me some shock and grief down the road.) I was focused on designing and coding and helping clients solve problems, and I was happy. Adding employees complicated things, but for the most part that was rewarding. It was cool to see them grow and eventually move on to greater things. Adding bigger and “better” clients was rewarding at first also. For the most part 90% of our clients were awesome and great to work with, but as the business grew, my involvement in what I was passionate about began to dwindle.

When Brian left it fell to the two remaining partners to take up his workload. (And to Brian’s credit, he realized he wanted to take a different path and took it. It left us in a bad spot, but, knowing what I know now I can’t blame him.) As well, we lost Cyndi, our office manager and needed to fill that void. We’d just hired Tiffani Jones who helped out immensely, even though her own passion what somewhere else. (I’m happy and proud to say I think we helped her along that path while she was with us.) But there was still a whole lot that needed doing and most of the “non-creative” endeavors fell to me. That’s not to say Nick was slacking, not at all, he took some very important pieces and did a TON of billable work and I appreciate him for that. He was, however, able to keep doing the UX stuff he loves, and I think that was in large part because I took on a lot of the “running the business” tasks. I also think they kept him from having the same kind of meltdown I did.

I’m a hard worker, I don’t think anyone would deny me that, so it wasn’t the extra work that wore me down. Not really. Sure there were times when I was definitely overworked. And on more than one occasion I asked myself, “what the fuck are you doing?” For the most part it was a pretty thankless, unrewarding and tedious job, but I cared about Blue Flavor and the people I worked with and felt obligated to do the best I could. No, what really hurt was not being able to do design work any more. Not being able to follow my passions. I was too busy with other things, too stressed with keeping the business afloat. As well, I had designers on the payroll and it wouldn’t have made a good business decision to take work from them. At the time I was really worried about their jobs and making payroll. Again, in hindsight, I should have realized they would be fine no matter what happened, but I didn’t.

I think I managed to do an ok job the last year or so I was there, despite the fact that I was miserable and often stressed to the point of breaking. It might be important to not that all of this was magnified by a breakup with my wife (and best friend for years) and some recession and housing market-induced financial woes. In the past my escape was to work creatively, and when I didn’t have paying work I’d do my own thing. I’d write, design, take photos etc. But I didn’t even have the energy to do that most of the time. I took a few half-hearted attempts, but would always run out of steam. Eventually, after some pretty big blowups, I burnt out. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Burning out showed me that I needed to take action and get out. I did that and it’s helped, but sometimes I think it was too late. That last year has scared me and I’m still dealing with the negative feels surrounding it all. I’ll get beyond it, I’m sure, but it’s hard sometimes. I know now that had I quit when I first began to really hate my job, not only would I have been better off, those around me probably would have been as well. And I’m really sorry I didn’t see it then. And I’m also sorry that I didn’t recognize the true source of my bitterness. I often blamed it on other things; my financial situation, the feeling that people didn’t appreciate me, etc. Those things are there, and valid, but honestly, had I just left when it started not to work for me, all of that would have gone away and I’d have a nice memory of the small business I helped start and grow.

Since I left I’ve been generally happier, but I can’t lie; I regret not holding on to my passions and getting out as soon as they began to slip away from me, which, to be totally honest, would have been pretty early on.

Bottomline: It’s important for entrepreneurs to work on their business, but as soon as that becomes something that doesn’t make you happy and you’re no longer doing what you set out to do, it’s time to get out.

Happy Masochist is a straight forward and light-hearted look at owning, running and living with a small design business.

About Me (D. Keith Robinson)

I’ve owned my small business, Seattle-based design agency Blue Flavor, since the Fall of 2005. In that time I've learned quite a bit about running a business and made more than my share of mistakes. I talk about all of that and more here at Happy Masochist. Grab the RSS feed.

If you've got questions, suggestions or other general feedback, contact me at keith@dkeithrobinson.com.

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