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So You Want to Start Your Own Graphic Design Business: Are You a Good Candidate?

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  1. Traits of an Entrepreneur
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People who stay up late at night completing studies about entrepreneurs have identified some of the basic characteristics that most entrepreneurs have. If you don't have all these characteristics, don't worry: You can develop most of them. Business entrepreneur Yvonne Johnson shows you how to assess your talent, abilities, and knowledge, and then starts filling in the gaps.

Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a 5-part series. Look for links to the other parts on the last page of each article.

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If you are interested in owning your own graphic design business, and I mean really interested, beyond the point of just talking about it, then I have some advice for you. I’m going to share that advice with you in a series of five articles. Since 1969, my husband and I have started, owned, operated, bought, and sold more than 23 successful businesses from small mom-and-pop size to multi-million dollar businesses. We’ve had a heavy manufacturing business, a commercial and residential construction company, a book and magazine publishing company with worldwide distribution, the first computer training school in Kentucky, retail outlets, and a graphic design firm, to name a few.

Before you read any further, I want to pre-qualify you by telling you a little story from my experience. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my husband and I built custom homes, and we used various frame carpenters to frame the houses, which is one of the biggest jobs in building a house. At that time, we paid a framing carpenter about $8,000 to frame a 2,500 square foot house that sold for anywhere from $180,000 to $225,000, depending on the bells and whistles. Almost every frame carpenter in the business, at one time or another, has said to himself, “Hey, I’m doing most of the work, and I’m only getting paid $8,000 while the builder is making a killing. I think I’ll just become a builder and make all the money myself.” If that’s the perspective you’re coming from, then read no further. You don’t qualify. You just don’t get it. You don’t have a good handle on what running your own business is all about, and you are just as likely to fail as 90 percent of the framing carpenters who worked for us did.

On the other hand, you probably are a good candidate to start your own graphic design business if you:

  • Think you could do your current graphic design job much better if everything were totally under your control.
  • Want to be independent, set your own hours, and have more freedom.
  • Are naturally curious, bright, highly flexible in your thinking, and have an eye for spotting new trends.
  • Just have these natural juices that perk up inside of you and make you so “itchy” to do something that you can’t sit still.

And, of course, to open a successful graphic design business, you have to have some graphic design skills! I’m going to assume that because you are reading this article, you have those skills, or you at least have natural artistic ability and figure you are smart enough to learn the rest—the rest being web design using a professional program such as Dreamweaver, graphic design using a program such as Adobe Illustrator, photography and photo editing using a program such as Photoshop, copy writing and editing, and HTML/CSS coding.

Traits of an Entrepreneur

If you think you have it covered on the design skills side, then you just need to be sure you have what it takes to be self-employed and run your own business. As soon as you start entertaining the idea of owning your own business, you jump into the entrepreneur category. Researchers who have conducted studies about entrepreneurs have identified some of the common traits of successful entrepreneurs.

If you don't have all these traits, don't worry; you can either develop them or find ways to compensate for the ones you don’t have. Let’s look at the study’s explanations for each of these traits so you can see if you already have the traits, or if you might be able to find ways to balance out your deficiencies.

Good Health

The study showed that successful entrepreneurs are able to work long hours for extended periods of time, and when they get sick, they recover quickly.

If you aren’t used to working long hours already, you can prepare for it by making sure you are eating foods that supply good nutrition, getting enough exercise, and getting enough sleep. When you are working late and getting up early, you can take a 20-minute power nap during the day when you feel yourself running down.

A Need to Control and Direct

The study findings showed that entrepreneurs were “relentless in pursuit of their goals” as long as they were in control, but quickly lost interest if they lost control. Successful entrepreneurs do not work well in traditionally structured organizations because they need complete creative control of the whole process.

If you own your own business, you definitely need to be in control; however, if you don’t see this as one of your strong traits, you might work well with a partner who has this trait. You could be the “artistic” partner, and the other partner could be the one who controls the business processes, or vice versa. This could work well for you, but my husband and I have one cardinal rule in business: Don’t have a partner—especially a friend or relative.

This is not to say there are no successful partnerships, but there are many more failed partnerships than successful ones. Each case is different, and you have to assess your situation and the person or persons with whom you are thinking of partnering. If you do enter into a partnership, be sure you are well protected in a legal agreement.


According to the study, entrepreneurs believe in their capabilities. When truly invested in an endeavor, they put their best effort into it and, therefore, expect the best results from it.

Self-confidence is definitely a trait that can be developed. If you don’t believe me, just Google the phrase “developing self-confidence.” I got 19 billion results. If you have some self-confidence already, just realize that the more experience you get, the more confidence you will develop.

Attraction to Challenges

The research by Cox revealed that successful entrepreneurs are attracted to challenges but not risks. It may look like they are taking high risks or even acting impulsively, but in actuality they have assessed the risks thoroughly and are simply moving swiftly to take advantage of the current conditions.

Those I label as “serial entrepreneurs,” such as my husband, tend to lose interest in a project once they have met the challenge, and they are eager to start something new. Being a serial entrepreneur isn’t necessarily a good thing if you want to start a graphic design business and stick with it. I also don’t think you have to be particularly attracted to challenges, as long as you seek out new ideas, investigate the risks, and can move forward quickly once the risk is shown to be worth it.

Sense of Urgency

These people have a never-ending sense of urgency to do something, according to the study. This corresponds with a high energy level and goes beyond just trying to assuage boredom. Inactivity makes them impatient.

From my own experience of living with an entrepreneur for more than 40 years, I know that inactivity is anathema to an entrepreneur. This is not a trait you can develop. If you don’t have it, then you will probably not become a “serial entrepreneur,” but as long as you are at least a self-starter and you don’t research an issue so long that it goes out of style before you reach a conclusion, you should still be able to run a successful business.

Comprehensive Awareness

The Cox study showed that successful entrepreneurs are able to comprehend a total situation and are aware of all the ramifications involved in a decision.

If you don’t have this trait, you may make more mistakes in your business than you would like to, but there is a learning curve for owning and operating your own business. The more experience you get, the more you will be able to comprehend a situation and the ramifications of decisions. To compensate for a deficiency in this trait, you could seek out a mentor in the field or join a professional networking group.

Realistic Outlook

The findings also showed that these types of people have a constant need to know the status of things; they may or may not be idealistic, but they are honest, straightforward (some may even say blunt), and honorable in their business dealings; and they expect others to be the same.

Are you the type who would “rather not know”? Do you have the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand syndrome? If so, I think this is a deal-breaker. You need to keep your day job. You can’t run a successful business if you don’t keep up with what’s going on in the business.

If you are not honest, straightforward, and honorable, you can certainly repent and learn to practice these virtues, and you should! Clients want to work with someone who has integrity, and most clients have an intuitive sense of whether or not they want to work with you. In business, as in life, you can’t go wrong if you treat people the way you would want to be treated.

Conceptual Ability

The Cox research found that successful entrepreneurs have superior conceptual abilities, which allow them to identify relationships in complex situations and quickly identify and solve problems. Chaos does not bother them because they can conceptualize order. This trait can sometimes be the opposite of diplomacy and can cause interpersonal problems—another reason that entrepreneurs are not happy and may not function well in a corporate structure.

If you don’t have this trait and you just can’t function in the midst of chaos, you definitely need a partner or administrative assistant who can.

Low Need for Status

Successful entrepreneurs are validated by their achievements and do not need status symbols and material possessions to feel successful, according to the study.

Personally, I don’t think this trait will make or break you. Just put a checkmark in the Potential Successful Entrepreneur column if you have this trait.

Objective Approach

Cox found that this type of person takes an objective approach to personal relationships and is more concerned with the performance and accomplishment of others than with feelings. They keep their distance psychologically and concentrate on the effectiveness of operations.

This is a trait that keeps you focused on the bottom line and allows you to make decisions that are best for your company. Ask yourself this question, “If I need to cut expenses to stay in business, can I terminate an employee who has six children and really needs this job?” If the answer is no, then you need someone who can. I know this seems very cold, but think about the other people (such as you and your family) who are depending on your business to be profitable.

Emotional Stability

The study showed they have the stability to handle stress from business and personal areas in their lives. Setbacks are seen as challenges and do not deter them from their goals.

This is a very important trait to have, and I’m not sure you can develop it. When someone tells you that something can’t be done, you can’t accept the pronouncement as final. You have to look for a ways around the obstacle. If you don’t have this trait, owning your own business is no place for you! I’ve personally seen people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars to open a new business and close it within a month because of unexpected obstacles in their way that they perceived were too large to overcome.

Describing with Numbers

The study said successful entrepreneurs understand their financial position and can tell at any time how much they have in receivables and how much they owe. They tend to think about and describe situations with numbers.

Let me give you an example. When an entrepreneur goes out to lunch at a restaurant that’s packed, he or she doesn’t obsess about the wait time or notice the decor. The entrepreneur is thinking, “This place has about 150 seats, an average meal is probably around $15, and a customer probably takes about 45 minutes to eat, pay the bill, and leave. In an average three-hour lunch period, this place is grossing about $9,000.”

This is another one of those traits that allows you to put a checkmark in the Potential Successful Entrepreneur column. If you don’t have this trait, I believe you can still have a successful graphic design business, but you probably won’t come up with the money-making ideas that could grow your business as easily as the person who has this trait. You’ll have to make a concerted effort to find money-making projects you can add to your services.

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