Risky by design: How I applied entrepreneurial thinking to my not-so-entrepreneurial design business

My name is Nathaniel Peters. I am an independent designer with five years of experience in the field.

Freelance and independent designers are a weird hybrid of consultants, makers, and merchants. They alone offer advice on what to purchase, create the product, and ultimately sell it. Conversely, entrepreneurship is about creating a sustained system of product and profit — a system which could continue to exist after the founder is removed. Almost by definition, my business plan does not work without me squarely in the center. However, that hasn’t stopped me from applying entrepreneurial lessons to grow and enhance my design business.

In the fall of 2014, I was unemployed, clientless, and living in the house I grew up in just outside of State College. It was a bad time. At that point, I had been doing design work for about three years. However, most of the projects I had undertaken were small and safe. I wouldn’t take on a project unless it was something I had already done. That led to four years of stagnancy during school.

While I was interning at the New Leaf Initiative — a community hub and coworking office in State College — I found out how important it is to be fearless in the face of failure. I’ll never forget New Leaf’s membership director at the time, Serena Fulton, lecturing the interns about how you don’t have entrepreneurial street cred until you’ve had your first big failure.
With Serena’s words in my head, I offered my services for a project I wasn’t sure I could handle. Ultimately, that risk became the catalyst for the largest period of growth I’ve ever experienced. I completed the project and was immediately given another by the same company. The work from that project gave me the confidence to start selling myself, and I soon signed a long-term agreement with a different organization. The progression of new work turning into new portfolio pieces turning into newfound confidence always cycled back to new work.

I became fascinated by entrepreneurship not only as a self-improvement tool, but also an ecosystem within which I could thrive. I taught myself about branding and marketing, and about where designers fit into a company’s pipeline. I learned about data analyzation and visualization to offer my clients a more complete experience. Most importantly, I started teaching myself new design skills.

Entrepreneurial thinking led me to realize that, while the print design market was flooded, there weren’t many independent motion graphics artists. The majority of my portfolio is now geared towards motion and animation, with instructional videos and animated logos prominently displayed over my older print design work. The work for one organization or company has, consistently, been cascading into work with others once they realize my services are for sale. None of my growth would have been possible if I hadn’t identified a market opportunity.

It’s been a little over a year since I took my first risk and started a journey which ultimately redefined my professional identity. Since that point, I’ve succeeded, failed, and evolved my way forward into more exciting opportunities. I moved to Pittsburgh this past September in search of more clients and new risks. Contracts are sparse when juxtaposed with the rent I must pay, and I often find myself pondering about whether or not I should pursue a 9–5 design gig at American Eagle. However, in those moments, I take a breath, make a cup of tea, and put my bet on me.
Besides, if this were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Nathaniel Peters graduated from Penn State in May of 2014 after studying Interdisciplinary Digital Studios and Sociology. Other risks he’s taken include peanut butter cups paired with wine and seven pounds of binary explosive paired with a thermal printer. You can see some of his work at nathanielpeters.com.

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