Dear Abby, should I cut back or kill myself for the work?

September 4, 2013—As of 9am yesterday, my mental/physical bandwidth was pretty much maxed out. I’m working a day job, teaching 2 nights and 1 day a week and basically running a design department for the Soap Factory. I am also basically breaking even financially though its possible that I'm operating at a loss and its happening so slowly that I'm not noticing (breaking even meaning I am able to pay my bills but not save any money or move or go on vacation or have another kid).

So what to do next? The reasonable response is to cut back in some way. If I do less Soap Factory work I’ll gain some bandwidth (less time spent designing, emailing and screen-printing) and some money (less cash spent paying my designers). Those gains aren’t very enticing and they won’t change one fundamental issue—I don’t have enough money to begin with. So if I save a hundred bucks a month on paying for design (because we get some money from the Soap and then I continue to pay out of pocket when we’ve used that money up) that doesn’t fundamentally improve my life. Saving a grand over the course of a year doesn’t matter when its being spent on something that I wish I could spend more on. Its not like I’m saving $1200 on something that sucks like my credit card bill. I’m not interested in conserving money right now, I want to make more of it.

If I stop doing all the Soap Factory work, what do I lose? Well, one, I want the MVA and The Soap Factory to be completely intertwined in people’s minds so that the assumption is that they see something awesome and they know we did it (this can’t be completely true since curators have the option to work with anyone they please). If we only do 40–50% of the work then it gets cloudy. Someone asks “Hey, who does all the Soap Factory stuff? I’ve been really digging it.” and then answer is wishy-washy “Well, the MVA does a bunch of it, and then so do some other people so I don’t really know.” I don’t like that answer. Two, I really want to help the Soap Factory move the dial on its efforts—get more people in the door, sell more products, increase donations, build a robust membership program, increase their profile—and when that dial is moved, I want to be able to talk about how we did it. If we’re not deeply invested in their business then I think it will be very hard to prove anything other than “We make nice graphic design”. I don’t care about graphic design anymore. I care about it only in as much as it is a means to an end for communications and an expression of their brand. For me that means deep involvement. Right now we have some stuff that’s late because it took us awhile to get a design approved and another thing that got straight-up rejected. I’m afraid that we will get fired in the way that most people would be afraid to lose a major client so I am grinding to try and pull everything together and repair any damage to our reputation.

In the short-term cutting back would help me personally—more time, more money, less stress. But, I lose something bigger—a platform that allows me to grow as a creative director and marketer whilst working with excellent passionate people who are also giving up a lot to do this work.

So instead of cutting back I got on the phone at 9:30PM last night to talk to a friend whose running a start-up skateboard distribution for his company and some amazing brands from Australia and Japan and made the same offer that I made to The Soap Factory—whatever you need I will do it. Somehow. In the short-term I’m looking at more stress, even less time, even less money. 

Is this crazy? Probably. It’s not kind to myself at the very least. But I’m not trying to be a graphic designer. Designing one cool flyer means nothing to me. I’m trying to build an agency. To do that, I need to engage with clients in an agency way—strategically and long-term—and prove that we can do the work. And that’s why I won’t cut back on The Soap Factory and why I will continue to add clients even if they can’t pay.

My business plan is probably naive—get 30 clients for whom we do 6–10 projects for a year and not worry about how much money we make. Just worry about what we can do to grow and improve their business. Just give until it hurts and keep giving.

How will I manage more work? I don’t know and I don’t care. A year ago I couldn’t fathom doing what I’m doing right now. I figure you find a way to do the things you believe need to get done. This shit needs to get done so I’ll find a way.

Note: The next day I found a way to do more work—no more day job. Smart? Probably not but something had to give and it wasn’t going to be a retreat from building The MVA. I suspect I’ll discuss this more later.