Emerging designers Matt & Rosie talk about starting their own business.

ROSIE CASS: I’ve always relished the thought of being my own boss. The freedom that comes with being able to work when you want, where you want and how you want is a creative’s dream. As a child, I used to dream of owning a clothing store where I would run everything, I would cut costs by making the clothes myself, stocking them and then working the till. It was a one-woman show.

MATT HARRIS: Similarly for me – I knew from a very, very young age that I wanted to make things, and be a designer. I remember quite fondly my dad giving me and my brother little art briefs before heading off to work for the day. If we made a nice artwork for him when he got home there was always a little chocolate in it for me! Of course, after a while, my brother worked out that he would get the reward without the work, but I truly enjoyed taking a concept and giving it life. To this day that holiday we took as a family to Sani-Pass Hotel is memorialised by the horrid paint strokes of an eight-year-old.

RC: Of course as a child, I never knew the extent of work that went into the building and running your own business. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. It really only started to become apparent to me just how time-consuming it would be when a room-mate got me a job as an underwater photographer, a freelance job that required you to have your own ABN. No big deal, right? In exchange for getting to work a super fun job, I just need to make my own payslips and take out my own tax. Easy enough. Until your car breaks down and you use your tax money to fix it. (oops)

MH: I bounced around a bit, not being able to decide in what manner I would be designing. During the classic 13-year-old’s car phase I wanted to be an automotive design engineer, and then with the HSC and High School, I quickly turned my attention to civil engineering. That lasted about a year into uni where I decided that Industrial Design was for me. Of course, this still wasn’t it and I finally found my way to Billy Blue, where I finally had that “Hey, I think I want to do THIS for the rest of my life” moment. Finally…

RC: This ‘super cool’ job went on for about a year for both my roommate and me. I got used to creating my own invoices and eventually got into a routine of taking money out of each pay for tax. Then came a paid internship at Reno Design. (A paid internship is this crazy thing where you get to learn8 about the industry, you’re in and your employer actually pays you for the work you do. If you find one, you might as well have found a damn unicorn.) This paid internship was also paid through my ABN on a sort of freelance basis. That’s when I realised that I TECHNICALLY had my own business, and if someone wants me to do some design work for them I can legally send them an invoice, that they legally have to pay.

MH: I find that designers tend to have a fierce independence about them, that attitude of “I will do this, I will be good at this, I MUST”. I certainly do, and my drive to be the captain of my own ship saw me doing two very difficult, but ultimately rewarding and (if you ask me) essential things while I was studying. Moving out of home, and working to support that move. I have never lived tougher than those two years in a garage, with a household that half got along and half didn’t, but that wasn’t why I was there. I initially paid the bills with the underwater photography gig, a great job in many ways, a little less in some others but eventually, I got offered an internship. It was initially an unpaid role but I made sure to turn up every day (save one day off for MY business but we will get back to that!) and eventually I managed to secure a small weekly income to cover my rent… Just my rent.

RC: Hello world of freelancing, I’m going to take my laptop into a cafe and let everyone know I’m a cool freelancer by drinking coffee (lol actually a mocha) and taking up a whole table with my MacBook to scroll through Facebook. Because who can actually get work done in a café? Seriously though.

MH: It was about this time that me and my roommate (the half that got along, of course, you’ve guessed it’s Rosie by now, right?) / friend/classmate and now business partner said to me “Hey! We have ABN’s! We should start our own Freelance Company!” Wow, what an idea, people come to ME for work? I don’t have to chase employer after employer trying to find someone who will take the time to invest (and that’s the key word, INVEST) in me? No unpaid internships, I get to decide my hours… Almost too good to be true! Well as much as I hate clichés, unfortunately, it IS too good to be true.

RC: All this responsibility of having to manage my own time and get work done alone in a quiet space because literally, everything distracts me, was becoming a burden. I had no one to bounce ideas off, I was uninspired and, to be honest, I was bored.

MH: Not that I think it’s impossible to start a business straight out of uni and be successful. Actually, I would say more people need to do it because the things I learned from doing it ultimately decided for me what kind of designer… no, that’s not right… what kind of person I want to be, professionally anyway.

RC: Cue Matt. We lived together, went to uni together, worked together. All at the same time, I’m still not really sure how we never got sick of each other. We always worked well together and our skills complemented each others. That’s when I thought, “HEY, MATT WHY DON’T WE SHARE OUR FREELANCE WORK AND CALL OURSELVES SOMETHING AWESOME!”

MH: Yay me!

RC: It seemed ingenious, it would be like working on a group assignment with someone you know will actually do their fair share of work, AND you get along with them, AND you like their style. It will be so easy and quick to set up!
Wrong. –ish

There’s a certain level of fear that comes with dealing with the Australian Tax Office. Especially when you’ve heard about people getting busted for not paying themselves super in their own company, or accidentally messing up your tax form and somehow owing the government your life savings. I was hell-bent on conferring with someone with legal status that would confirm that the business structure we would eventually settle on was legal, and we wouldn’t get slammed with any weird fees or legal costs. Who else better to call about the workings and legalities of the ATO than the ATO?

Here’s how that conversation went down.

“Hey, I was wondering if I could speak to someone about the various business8 structures? I’m setting up a business and wanted to check that we’re doing the right thing.”

“Ok. What’s your question?”

“Uh, ok well there’s two of us and we both have an ABN, do we need a new one for the business or do we work off one of our own? Also if we work off one of our own, does the ABN holder for the business also pay tax on the work that the other person is invoicing for? How does that work?”

“Um. I don’t know. That doesn’t sound right.”

“Can you ask someone who might know?”

“Yeah I’ll put you onto one of our legal guys, please hold.”

20 Minutes later

“Sorry no one is there at the moment, you should talk to a lawyer.”

Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.

Obviously, this inspired no trust in me. I can’t afford a lawyer. I can’t even afford to fix my car. So, I emailed my brilliant accountant who arranged a meeting. My accountant sat us down in his trendy co-working space and answered every dumb question we threw at him with zero judgments. We decided on a simple arrangement that requires little to no change in the way we currently charge clients and allows us to work under the business name.

MH: Meanwhile for me, the idea of having my own business was GREAT! But now I found myself in an awkward situation. No money to spend, no real investment from anyone into making me a better designer, and a drive to be better than always. I couldn’t be happier with the person I was in this situation with, and honestly if it wasn’t for my business partner, Rosie, and her slightly annoying but outrageously useful talent of stressing about every aspect of a situation until there is a clear and decisive solution, we wouldn’t have gotten past even setting up our business structure, let alone have a website and cards ready to go. For a while, she was the one who invested in me, and I in her, however as we were both Junior Designer, most of this was just inspiration and skill specialisation, without any NEW skills or knowledge being introduced into the mix.

RC: Obstacle 1 out of the way. Now to actually manage to fit in time each week to work on a brand. I will tell you now that there is nothing more difficult than branding yourself. As designers, you get to work on so many different projects, and when it comes to a project that you aren’t happy with, you take your money and pretend you didn’t have anything to do with it. Deciding on your own brand means committing to a brand that you’re going to have to see every day. Honestly, I think we’re both just commitment-phobes. It took us a solid couple of months and we ended up just settling on a name just so we could get to work.

MH: So now we have a business! We almost have a website, and business cards are on the way. But this is where we were proved so, so wrong in our initial judgment of freelancing. Nevertheless;

Welcome to So & So Collective.

We work as individuals, taking inspiration and feedback from each other. We have someone to share the workload with if our schedule gets too crazy, and we have someone to bounce ideas off when designers block rears its ugly head. It’s nice to be able to get feedback from someone who understands what you’re trying to achieve before anything gets sent to a client.

One of the most important aspects of our model is the fact that we will be continually improving ourselves. Having a teammate is the best, to put it simply, and I don’t want to bring it all crashing down by not pushing myself. Which leads to the problem with freelancing.

RC: The harsh reality of starting a business is that a lot of the time you’ll be putting into that business will be unpaid. Add on the cost of rent in Sydney and eventually, something’s got to give. Unless you have the option to live at home with your parents and not pay rent, in which case, ride that wave as long as you can and please never complain to me about money.

MH: Most people assume (and I did too, how foolish!) that once you start a business that’s it, you just sit back and wait for the money to come in. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and when you have rent to pay you can’t afford to just sink all your time into something that won’t generate money for a while. So, I went into the “real world” and got a job as a graphics and production assistant for an amazing boutique studio.

RC: Currently, we’re both working full-time hours, and freelancing in the little spare time we have. We’re still able to meet up every now and then for bigger projects and will send each other work if need be, but it’s still going slow. Starting a business is so rewarding, and with a little bit of research and a good accountant, not that difficult. But if you’re starting from scratch, it’s a lot of late nights, a lot of wine and a lot of missed opportunities.

MH: So, the reality of starting a business isn’t quite what I had in mind. I am not raking in the money from all the freelance opportunities I find online, or that get referred to me. But I can’t help but feel like the late nights and lost weekends are worth it. I have made some great networks, I am noted as being hardworking, and I have two fantastic mentors who pay me to learn and, to be perfectly honest, one of my favourite things in the world is being able to meet up with my mate and work on something that’s completely up to us. It is genuinely thrilling.