Going it alone sounds great, but it’s easy to crash and burn if you hand-craft everything that you produce yourself. MetaLab’s Andrew Wilkinson explains how he has learned to delegate and how to succeed with your sanity intact
We have to accept that we aren’t superhuman. Too many designers pride themselves in hand-crafting everything that they produce. They write their own code and insist on designing every screen of every project themselves. As a result, they’re only able to take on one job at a time. Designers like this burn themselves out within a matter of years.
When I started MetaLab in 2006, the idea of handing anything off seemed insane. Hiring somebody terrified me. Since then, the company has grown to 19 people, and recruiting them has been the best business decision I’ve ever made. It’s freed me up to build incredible products, it’s let me focus on the stuff I love and it’s allowed me to work on projects that would have been impossible without the help of a great team.
Being a one-man band is great at first, but it’s unsustainable. Perfection is impossible. You can’t wear 10 hats, and you can’t be everything to every client. If you insist on going it alone, your income is tied to your daily output. In theory, this is great – you reap what you sow – but, inevitably, you get burnt out. When you have a team, you share the load. When somebody gets overwhelmed, instead of having a nervous breakdown, someone else can take the reins for a while.
When you’re on your own, you have to do all of the things that you hate. You became a designer because you love designing things, not reconciling your bank statement. Fortunately, there are people out there who reconcile bank statements. Hire one, even just part-time. You get to keep doing what you love, gain back a ton of the billable time that you’d have spent fudging the numbers and help someone else out in the process.
If you’re just one guy, you won’t be able to handle big clients. Nike isn’t going to sit around while you hand-code every screen. American Airlines isn’t going to wait a week for revisions. To land serious projects, you need to focus your energy and let others pick up what you can’t realistically handle.
Running your own company is about doing the things that you want to do on your own time. That’s what’s great about being an entrepreneur. You get to decide what your day looks like, what projects you take on, and where and when you work. So why do so many of us let ourselves get trapped into miserable 10-hour days? I’ve watched so many solo designers burn out, many of them giving up and going to work for somebody else.
I’ve been there, but since I’ve learned to delegate and got over my fear of hiring, things have changed. I usually get to the office at 2pm, take weekends off and work four- to six-hour days. It’s not that I’m lazy, just that I have the freedom to focus on what I want to at any given moment. I still get to put my stamp on all of our projects, but I kick off the first couple of designs, then move on to the next one and let my team handle the rest.
Handing things over is hard when you’re a perfectionist. You have to hire well and, more importantly, let people put out their own fires. When I started hiring contractors, I made a critical mistake: if their first mockup wasn’t great, or a client got unhappy, I’d step in. You need to let things blow up in people’s faces. Let them make mistakes. If you’re the middle-man jumping into the fray whenever anything goes amiss, you’ll be stuck micro-managing everyone. Step back and let your employees clean up their own messes, and they’ll quickly learn and start getting it right.
Hiring has been my saving grace. The company did over a million dollars in revenue this year. We’ve built two great web apps and a series of other businesses. We all work short days, keep our own schedule, and get to work with incredible clients. None of this would have been possible if I was a one-man band rock star.
This article originally appeared in issue 212 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.