In 2017, I left the agency nest to fly solo. Since then, the year has covered the spectrum of emotion, tasks, challenges and wins. While thinking of it all, I started to write some thoughts down to potentially help those considering doing the same for themselves. Many folks offered advice to me while I was in this stage and I'd like to pay it forward if possible. Finding someone to talk to about this stuff isn't easy. After all, there is no Startups Anonymous ....though that is a great idea!
#1: Persistence overcame my fear.
Doubt about going solo literally plagued me for years. How can you know when you're ready do do something so risky? I felt unsure of how I would feel on my own because I’m such an extroverted pack animal with a real fear of failure. Then things shifted quickly in the beginning of 2017 and it honestly scared the crap out of me. The Fear, as it's known, is an insanely good motivator if you can avoid taking the easier path... just working for someone else. Survival mode eventually kicked in among some fits of doubt and despair. I had good and bad days but I stuck to my plan and told myself to shut up. It's almost like I had to go through the stages of grief with my own security and previous employee based career in order to let it all go to proceed untethered. When I did this things really started happening. It was a pretty rough but necessary process for me, but it really does look less like a train and more like a light at the end of the tunnel when the plan starts working. I realized the rules are now my own, I just has to stick to the plan and kept refining it as I go. Patience here was key. Patience is not only a requirement for CG production it’s vital for starting your own company. My persistence calmed my fears and built my confidence over time.
#2: Sink or swim.
With your head swimming in to-do items, it's hard to think straight the first few months. I knew I had the experience to make it happen, I just had to figure out what needed to be done on a daily basis since I was essentially jobless and collecting unemployment. So I started by writing down everything i could think of onto small post it notes, categorized them, and hung them on a giant 12 foot by 4 foot "to-do" wall made of cardboard panels in my basement. Then I was able to tackle as many of these items as I could each day. It helped me separate my personal to do items from business ones. The progress was visual and it helped me "put down" things I know I didn't need to worry about from day to day. This small thing was extremely helpful. It took about two months for me to get through my list. Pro Tip: If you're going for it, try to save at least 4 months of bill reserves on top of business expenses you'll need so you can reduce panic mode. I had to do it all with almost no days off and no down time because I wasn't able to save as well as I should have going into this. Business expenses as a start up are hefty and will add yet another level of complication to your whole situation. If you start feeling like you are going to sink, don't let your pride blind you or you'll get yourself into a deeper hole, take any job you can take to survive... there is nothing wrong with any of it. It's all a risk and you need to learn your limits without going broke.
#3: Less is more.
This has always been something I’ve found to be true but has been even more relevant now that I am on my own. Without others to rely on, simplifying process and working optimally literally became necessary for survival. Making things happen on a shoestring budget was not only possible, it opened my eyes to some new possibilities.
- Ironically, I actually communicate with more people now that I am on my own. I find I talk to decision makers directly, which is incredibly helpful to getting things done efficiently. I just don't waste time in meetings or passing a baton, wondering when it'll come back. Having less frequent, more effective meetings directly with those you need to talk to is amazing.
- As a CG guy, trying to figure out the minimalist approach to everything often makes for less expenses and forces me to be lean in clever ways. For example, I've written my own code to remedy problems or complete tasks instead of just buying the plugin, or tool that already does it. It may take longer, but it's my time, and i can make this choice now. It just makes me more capable. Maybe in the future I'll be able to afford the luxury of buying whatever I need to get something done, but I will work with what I have until I get there.
- I have more focus and am better at what I do because there is no other process or structure I am conforming to, just the work. #NoTimeSheets
- Cutting corners without sacrificing quality was a difficult challenge. I no longer had a room of powerful machines at my disposal to help with heavy renders. Instead of buying new latest generation machines at 10k a pop, I found second and third generation 40-core refurbished machines for only $1200. This was something I was unaware even existed price wise. They offered what was essentially cutting edge 2 years ago at a fraction of the cost. Over the coarse of just this year, I was able to create my own 200 core farm, and it's crunching away brilliantly even as I type this.
- I don't travel that much anymore. I think I put maybe 1000 miles on my car last year. There is a lot of savings examples like this that happen when working from home I didn't really even consider.
- Our industry is insane right now. Technology breakthroughs shift things all the time and it benefits the little guy. Software prices are falling while their capability is increasing. Hardware is much faster too, so small outfits can do much of what large ones do... and clients know this.
#4: Willingness & honesty are more important than capability.
There is always someone better, faster, and more capable and those things certainly land work. Just don't concern yourself with this. It's not impossible to land awesome work just because you're small. I've seen multiple times this year that willingness and honesty are more important than capability. Just be transparent with your clients and they'll work with you to make things happen. Most people would rather work with real people than put up with some difficult but capable person or company.
#5: Peak utilization.
I have many friends and colleagues that have started their own business. It seems to be consensus across many states that everyone felt underutilized while working for someone else. Like the smart child in class that wasn't challenged by the work. Perhaps this is the type of mindset it takes to go out on your own. The good news here is this. Somebody was paying someone else more, to utilize you less. So on your own, it's an easy win for everyone.
#6: All the hats, all the juggling, all the satisfaction.
This was seriously my job title this year: IT guy, Concept Artist, Writer, Web Developer, Designer, Debugger, Consultant, Project Manager, Video Editor, Effects Artist, Accountant, and also what I actually do for a living ...3D Artist. I have learned an insane amount of things so that I could be self reliant. Working alone has tested all of them. Every task is now just handled as needed, based on the work I have. It all feels organic and purposeful. It feels incredibly satisfying to have this kind of ownership over tasks. Late nights are not upsetting. It is game changing knowing that the effort is directly for me and my wife now, and we are worth it. I should have done this 10 years ago, but coulda-shoulda-woulda is not productive thinking.
#7: A different kind of learning.
At first, I thought it was hard to find time in this first year to stay on top of new techniques. Then I started thinking about what I did learn just from my work and it seems like a really solid list. Learning because you have down time vs out of necessity are two completely different types of approaches. I feel the latter is more effective for me and I think the rogue structure of working solo has helped. Here is just a handful of the things I've picked up this year:
- Creating Animation Presets In Max
- Max 2018 improvements
- Cloning drives for backing up data
- Creating HDPE with VRay using VRayScatter and SSS
- Vray Hybrid Rendering
- Learned Adobe Illustrator ...finally!
- Max PFlow Scripting
- How to use QuickBooks
- Scripted Tools in MaxScript For CAD Conversion
- How to Model for 3D Printing
- How to Manipulate DWG Layers Before Importing into Max
- Learned some new rig setup techniques in Maya 2018
- Learned How to use Backburner with VRay effectively.
#8: Balance & sacrifice.
I am always processing what needs to be done and what to do next as a means of survival. This was vital for staying afloat the first year and I can now see why many business fail in this stage. Challenging things eat up my energy and I recognize I'm probably too dedicated to my work. I do still see it as a necessary sacrifice for the success of my venture. Unfortunately this comes with a toll on my relationships with my wife, family and friends. It affects everyone, not just me and my company. You have to consider these things before you get started or you'll go broke and possibly hurt the ones you love.
My goal in the coming year is to get a better handle on the balance of work and play. This will require more stability and firmer boundaries in order for me to let my guard down a little. Now that it will be my second time around, I will find a way to kick my brain out of survival mode and hopefully begin rejoin society in a healthier balance this coming year.
I look forward to continuing my journey and kicking ass in 2018.
Happy New Year Folks!