5 Things I’ve Learned From Running a Creative Business for 10 Years

Matthew Magain Chief Doodler
Read Time: 7 mins

On Thursday we celebrated 10 years of Sketch Group operating as a business.

Given the high percentage of businesses that fail, we’re quite proud of this achievement. It also gave me pause to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned since starting out. Here’s what I came up with:

1. No (hu)man is an island.

Sure, it’s possible for smart people to do great things in isolation. But sustainable, scaleable success is impossible without having a team behind you. Nobody who has achieved greatness has done so on their own.

For me, I’m lucky enough to have a range of supports in place, both personal and professional:

  • a super supportive family and partner
  • an amazing core team in KerstinShelley and Sarah
  • diverse and talented team of illustrators, designers, videographers, financial advisors, referral partners, and more.
  • a handful of mentors, both formal and informal. Engaging a business coach has been crucial for me to developer as a leader, and helped me make smarter decisions. I’m lucky to have received formal guidance from smart people like John Di Natale and Mark Dobson as well as the generous ear of friends like Luke CuthbertsonLuke Chambers and the late Deb Ganderton. I’m grateful to all of these people for their wise words over the years. Moving forward, this year I’ve joined EO Melbourne and am excited about learning and connecting with other business owners in that community.

If you don’t have a posse supporting you on your journey, be deliberate in seeking one out. It’s a lonely road without people to share the successes with.

2. Nothing is certain, so plan for the worst.

I’m sure other business owners will agree with me: running your own business, especially a creative services business, is an absolute rollercoaster.

The highs can be dizzying, and the lows are very, very challenging. When you’re kicking goals, it’s the best! In these euphoric moments it’s easy to get complacent and forget about the the hard times. But then when it’s worryingly quiet, you start questioning whether you’ve made a grave mistake and wonder whether you should pack it all in.

The truth is, that’s just the nature of self employment, and the uneasiness about uncertainty becomes less stressful over time. If I’m honest, it’s also part of the allure—if I’d wanted a safe job that pays well and was void of the kinds of risk that self-employment carries, I’d be working for a government department or a large corporate.

Working for yourself is a buzz, and there’s no other thrill quite like it. You just have to get comfortable with the idea that it could all go belly up, and mitigate those risks. You can do so in a number of ways:

  • diversify: this is true of both your services and your client base—be prepared to provide services slightly outside of your wheelhouse, at least in the early days. If a client wants it and you can deliver it, offer it up! Over time you can be less picky and begin to specialise, but in the beginning, you don’t have that luxury.
  • build up a buffer: have a runway so that you can weather the quiet months or downturns in the economy. If this means that you need to stay in that salaried role for an additional six or twelve months before you branch out on your own, so be it. You should increase the resilience of your business at every opportunity, and having a buffer from the beginning goes a long way to doing that.
  • trust in yourself: find ways to increase your self confidence and your ability to deliver. This might be as simple as keeping a gratitude journal, or perhaps daily power poses and self affirmations are your thing. Whatever it is, find what drives your self esteem, and lean into it. It’s important because confidence is infectious—if you are filled with optimism and a decisive, can-do attitude, others will pick up on that and get excited as well.

Writing a list of risk mitigations is probably a whole other article, but this is a small collection to start things off. With these risk mitigations in place, the uncertainty becomes an intellectual problem to be solved, rather than something that will genuinely threaten your livelihood or ability to literally pay the rent or put food on the table.

3. Business is personal; be kind.

I said that self-employment is a rollercoaster, but this is true of life in general. Everyone has stuff going on. And if they don’t, there will be something around the corner. Life throws up the darnedest curve balls: divorce, death, physical health scares, mental health challenges … you name it, you or someone close to you will be faced with personal hurdles at some stage. There’s just no avoiding it.

I mention this because it’s easy to forget that your staff, your clients, your customers may have something happening in their world that you’re not aware of. And it may be something significant; their priorities may have changed radically. Be patient, be compassionate, and don’t just assume that they’re being less responsive or distracted without good reason.

4. There’s never one correct solution to a problem.

In business, there are definitely wrong answers. But there’s often no obvious right answer—this is a lesson that took me a while to learn. Perhaps it’s my engineering education: if there’s a mathematical problem to solve, there really is only one answer! If you research and study enough, you’ll learn how to solve that type of problem, and that skill will then be repeatable.

In business, it’s not quite so black and white. Questions like:

  • “What’s the best way to grow my business?”
  • “Which industry should we focus on?”
  • “How much should we spend on marketing?”

These are questions for which there really is no one right answer. You might have a few options, and you just have to try things and see what works. That means being prepared to fail. In fact, it means expecting to fail, and factoring that failure into the process.

This is something I’m still learning. It’s not that my ego can’t handle it, but being OK with taking a financial hit as a result of a failed decision is tough for me to get my head around. I’m working at it!

5. Use your platform wisely.

As your business succeeds and you gain a public profile, you build influence. Like it or not, this gives you a platform. Your social media account may start to gather followers, and you do, I suppose, inherit a degree of influence and power. All of a sudden there are resources available to you: time, money, and people can be directed and utilised in a number of ways.

How you use that platform is entirely up to you. I’ve chosen to get heavily involved with Graphic Recorders Australia, the professional membership body that I co-founded a few years ago to support the Australian and New Zealand graphic recording industry. The team and I also donate our time and skills to causes that are aligned to our values—usually this takes the form of one or two pro bono videos or graphic recording projects each year.

We also make regular financial donations to a handful of local and international causes that we, as a team, have collectively identified as being worthy of our support. Most recently, I’m very proud that we were able to donate $4,000 to help Save The Preston Market.

I hope this list is helpful for someone. I have huge respect and admiration for anyone who chooses to follow a creative pursuit as their career, as I know how hard it can be. If you have any thoughts to share or have other learnings from your own experiences, I’d love to hear them!

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