design entrepreneurship... products or services?

My exploration into a possible career change into ID now has me looking into entrepreneurship rather than employeehood as the goal (considering my age). So the question is, what kind of businesses do designers open when they start working for themselves? I assume most open studios and consultancies, selling design as a service. But do some with a particular product specialty (such as musical instruments or furniture) work out the manufacturing details (with the Chinese, for example) and sell their designs as products under their own name?

Pros/cons on either path?

Thanks for your comments!

Luthier, you’ll find several past business discussions if you look around in this section. Ageism is present in many fields, how old are you though to entirely disconsider regular design employment?

Circumstances and my own will helped me bail out of designing for employers pretty close to the age cutoff limit, given both management and teaching were not my thing. In my own experience, selling design as a service (freelancing) is nowhere near as lucrative as selling your own products, but you will find entrepreneurial designers swearing the opposite is true. There are simply too many (unqualified) individuals out there begging firms for contracts 24/7, with sad consequences for your chances of success. And I don’t define business success as waiting anxiously for the phone to ring or getting the runaround for weeks on a payment. If clients don’t chase YOU, it’s called running a charity organization since there’s no shortage of traps for free design work.

I did both camps, starting out years ago with the obvious - consulting - only to realize what was quick and inexpensive for me to set up was the same for legions of others. Then the soul-searching began. I’m not saying successfully marketing your own products is for everyone (thank goodness it’s not), but in my view this option presents infinite opportunities for tangibly standing out from the guy or gal next door, which is just not the case with selling a virtual service. Your imagination can really fly when designing both the product AND the business model. The other major obvious attraction, of course, is that your potential market is essentially anyone walking the street - versus the relative handful of well-heeled and design-savvy corporations everyone pursues.

Unfortunately there’s very little useful literature available for designers contemplating bringing their own ideas to market. What hopelessly formulaic how-to guides are out there are almost all copies of one another and worth squat when everyone has access to the “secrets” that never were. The reality of getting people to part with their hard-earned money is altogether different and certainly much more complex. Not only are these Hollywood scenarios unduly upbeat, they consistently fail to identify many excellent business opportunities, which is a real shame.

If there is no single magic recipe for success, what tend to work well today are conceptual and execution extremes and definitely going counter-current, to the point of absurdity almost. Specialize or don’t specialize at all. The muddy middle ground is where most new product ventures drown. Persistence and good health are also prerequisites.

Any rolling business is the planned result of your beliefs, efforts and many strong societal currents you do not control - but these are the ones you need to become an expert in before taking the plunge. Take the time to understand your particular environment and how your activities will fit in it, no business school gurus teach this.


interesting reply. it sounds like you’ve had a fair share of experience in both worlds – consulting and developing your own products. i am very interested in hearing more of your story from the developing side. have you had any successes? are you able to live on the income from the products you develop? i have read several of “those books” and i agree – they are quite similar. it made me feel that it was much easier to write about bringing your own idea to market (and sell a book) than it is to actually do it. i’d love for you to elaborate on your experiences…


Guest 1, sorry for the delay. Always disappointing to see so few young designers interested in striking out on their own, must be the effect of years of school programming to obey someone else’s rules and see creative work as necessarily imparted from the outside - if you’re lucky enough that is.

Core is hardly the place to elaborate at length on the topic, but I will briefly answer your questions and repeat some past pointers for those willing to step out of their comfort zone.

I have what one can consider “above average” business success in product design, but only since I started selling the physical form of my ideas. Consulting was, for me at least, an exercise in frustration. Way too many hours for the little money and the many crooks in exchange. And your “competition” (the way your clients see it) comes from any kid with pirated software working out of his parents’ basement for a song and peddling out ink-jet printed “designer” business cards. I met some too. Impossible to educate so many design illiterate business owners about the value of your design education and field experience when all they see is contract cost. I needed to make money, not to turn up like Jesus.

I make a comfortable living today off my products, if variable from month to month. Say, enough for a mortgage on a new house and two “vintage” Japanese cars, if that’s an indication. Sure, there’s always place for improvement but I’m happy with where I am and with what I do.

You cannot advocate entrepreneurship for all, that’s totally unrealistic. Most people - designers included - are happy enough being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it, for a fixed wage. And that is fine, while it works out. What I do suggest many employed designers start doing as an aside is develop business and planned risk skills in order to have something to fall on in leaner times. And the lean times are coming fast for all the reasons we know. The vast majority are completely unprepared - mentally, economically and skill-wise - for the employment tsunami yet to hit, still convinced talent alone is a passport to lifelong employment. It’s not. It takes years to set up anything ressembling a durable business foundation and especially making a name for yourself.

You don’t need a fortune to start, you don’t need to invest hundreds of thousands in molds or dies, and you most definitely don’t need to be on WalMart’s shelves to make a living - unless you believe in standardizing objects for hundreds of thousands of people at a time. Whether you start off alone or in a small group you adjust your business model to your own capabilities and don’t try to stretch yourself to play on fields where you don’t belong. Call this succeeding on your own terms by first determining your own needs and personal definition of “success”. For me, a big part was simply to avoid being jerked around by bad employers only to be retired one day when it suited them. Don’t make frustration your main motivator, but some of it helps.

The younger you start planning ahead the better, as you have time to make your own mistakes, learn and perfect. Keep in mind that while employed for someone else, very few designers have the chance to make a personal name for themselves, which is essentially your personal brand name - it can be worth money all in itself. Legally or not, your employer is the sole owner of all your years of creative work, enhancing their business through far more than the work you ever got paid for. I’ve befriended designers on the verge of nervous breakdowns because their NDAs prevented them from showing work to successive employers or potential private clients. Essentially, the great work they did for a firm remained buried there for good. Also, you can work in a specific field of absolutely no interest to the next company you are applying for - another example of how sequential design jobs can leave you with the feeling you’re always starting from scratch. In fact, from a long-term creative career perspective, you are. You aren’t building ME Inc. with every problem solved but THEM Inc. Congratulations for a job well done, and come again.

After some years and a string of successful designs done for others on a fixed salary, “anonymous” work owned by the company, you’re stuck on this portfolio-selling merry-go-round and it’s too risky to jump off even if you wanted to. Your well padded folio, made up of disparate projects for chanced-upon employers (market rules) is pretty useless to finally sell your own (or company’s) brand name outside the 9-5 design employment picture and the minuscule design club. The more time you invest in this mechanism, the more comfortable you become and the harder the landing when you exit on your own or the system spits you out for whatever reason.

As a successful service or product provider you must be recognized as a value giver by the community at large, way beyond any design or manufacturing firms. This takes time, lots of it, but the payback is there in the form of not remaining a slave to the whims and limitations of a very small component of such a diversified economy.

By seeking only captive employment for others many designers are practically commiting slow professional suicide, not to mention passing by many opportunities for truly frameless creativity. That sort of mind frame gets more difficult to recover with age and the numbing experience typical design employment provides. In the end, it comes down to simply taking more control and responsibility for the shores you really want to explore and not leaving strangers steer your ship.

Life is the only chance you have, it’s said, not a rehearsal.

do you have any examples of successful products that have been built up by individuals, ideally ex-9 to fiver product designers? maybe yours, maybe people you’ve run across in your past

I would really like to see what people have been able to acomplish when they stepped off the beaten path of the product designer career.

Egg-- Your posts are insightful amazing and inspiring. Wow.

Thanks, Egg. That was pretty much what I needed to hear.

For the record, I’m just shy of 36, so, if I choose to pursue a degree (bachelor’s or master’s) I’ll be nearly 40 by the time my resumes start filling the wastebaskets of prospective employers. I’m pretty clear on the effects of general age discrimination, as well as the youth obsession of the greater design field. (You know you’re getting older when what’s new and hip starts feeling alienating rather than cool.)

Ageism is only part of it; your posts have further convinced me that entrepreneurship presents a far better quality of opportunity than does employeehood, for persons of any age. The product end, in particular, appears to be the best opportunity of all, as it offers greater ownership of intellectual property. I’ve been working in a largely creative field (music and to a lesser extent computers) and am very familiar with the heartbreaking issues of being a creative with no control or ownership of one’s work. (Can anyone say “surrogate mother”?)

You’re right, Egg, that there’s precious little useful literature on bringing new product designs to market. (I recently shelled out $11 for a book on that subject from Amazon that turned out to be little more than a hard copy of a bad PowerPoint presentation! Grr!) Would you know of any boards online that might be a good place for such discussions?