Posted 11 July 2018
Written by Craig Oldham

Words of Wisdom: Craig Oldham’s advice on going it alone and starting a studio

As many students begin to wrap up shows and find their way into the working world, we’ve pinpointed some of the questions we’re most commonly asked, regarding those crucial next steps. For the past few weeks, We’ve been handing over to multitalented designer, studio founder and writer Craig Oldham to respond to some of these queries, as he draws on personal experiences, and new-starter gold in his book Oh Sh*t What Now?. In our fourth and final edition, we ask Craig: What’s the best way to go it alone, and start your own studio?

Hello team. Well it’s the fourth and final week of my agony uncle residency at Lecture In Progress, so I’ll make it a good one for you this week! You’ve had my reflections on rejection, my musings on motivation, and my money’s worth on, well, money. Now it’s time for my slant on going solo. Which is a biggie.

For years I would put up walls in front of myself to halt my going it alone. There was a long time where I thought – and believed – that owning my own company (and destiny) was something I’d never be able to do, because of my ability, my know-how, and money (or rather, lack of all three). The truth is that even though now I run my own biz, and have done for five or so years, my feelings about those three things are still there. Sat on my shoulders: doubting me, baffling me, worrying me.

Going solo is fraught with all kinds of things, some of which you will never truly get your head around until you actually do it. But one thing I wish that people had told me when I set out was this: There’s no right or wrong way to do it, or time for that matter.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do it, or time for that matter.”

Sorry if that’s not the ever-elusive cheat-sheet you were hoping for. I know it’s not a sexy insight, but it is at least a human one, and I also believe it to be a true one. However, I do have some ideas on the most important things to consider if you are thinking about setting up on your own terms...

1. Have conviction
In truth, setting up is a pretty big and brave step. Conviction is needed to make it work from the off – I’ve never known it work without it.) You do it or you don’t, you’re cut out for it or you aren’t, in my opinion. And for that, there are lots of things that you need to think about deeply and thoughtfully in order to make this choice, as it can be a risk.

2. Think about the legalities
You have to be confident in knowing that you need to be able to afford to eat, live and provide for others (if that’s part of your life). You need to have work to do and somewhere to do it. And that’s the easy stuff.

There are so many legal and practical things to take care of when setting up. When I did it, I was foolish in that I tried to do it with nothing: no money, savings, clients or studio. I didn’t think about tax, accountants, business rates, company formation, environmental policies, insurance, liabilities and all of that. To be honest it just felt like there was a queue of people lining up to kick me in. But I managed, just.

And I don’t say that to encourage you to do the same – because it was just stupid. I was lucky that I could share rent with an understanding flatmate, who didn’t mind me working all day and night in the front room (mainly in my pyjamas), masquerading to potential clients as ‘a small, exciting and ambitious agency’ with shitloads of stuff on. Lies, lies, lies. Fibs, fibs fibs.

But it is possible; you just have to know what you want to do, why you want to do it, and have a pretty sturdy plan of how to do it. Plus, an even more robust plan of what to do if it goes wrong.

“It just felt like there was a queue of people lining up to kick me in. But I managed, just.”

3. Play the field and ask for advice
My safe advice would be to try as many different places of work as possible in your first eight to ten years in the industry, before striking out on your own. This way, you can decide how you might not want to do it, while noticing the things you did like and thought valuable for a good business.

I’ve known people who have gone it alone it straight after graduating or without any ‘formal training’ and are still doing it now, and others who did it at various points in their career. By now, I’m sure that by now you too know many who have taken this step, so I would greatly advise talking to them. Even if you don’t know people, find them.

Talk to as many people as possible who have made the transition, because it will help you. You’ll not only learn from others, sure, but also improve at articulating what it is you’re doing, and start to solidify it in your mind. And that’s the hardest bit really: knowing what you’re doing, not just why.

“Just remember, it’s yours. Your life, your work, and your own journey through them both.”

In truth, going out on your own is something that every designer or creative – or even ambitious person – will entertain at some point in their working lives. There are a myriad of reasons for wanting to take this step, but ultimately the core reason will be the desire to take your destiny into your own hands. And ultimately, because of that, you’re on your own. Which, as lonely as it can be, is kind of the point.

But just remember, it’s yours. Your life, your work, and your own journey through them both. That can be anything you want it to be; whenever you want to make it, and however... Told you it was a biggie!

For more Craig wisdom, his book ‘Oh Sh*t What Now?’ is available via Laurence King.

Written by Craig Oldham