What doesn’t kill you makes you Founder?

Mighty Mighties March
6 min readDec 20, 2023

My journey from a freelancer to a founder

Written by Kritika Trehan
(Thoroughly) Edited by: Analina Sanyal

Apart from ‘What exactly do you do?,’ the most consistent question I’ve been asked in the last 2 years has been ‘Should I continue freelancing or start my own studio?’.

Having switched gears from freelance to running my own studio, I have gathered tiny learnings through this (still short) journey. Some fun, some serious, and some that pushed me into deep downward spirals to the end of the earth.

Here are some of them.

An accurate representation of me decision making

I quit

“Earlier this year, our first colleague quit Ping Pong to pursue higher studies. As the first team member and a dear friend, I didn’t see this coming and didn’t know how to tackle my emotions or the loss of a great asset.”

I reached out to fellow founders who patiently explained that quitting is (usually) not personal. After whining and wallowing, I decided to use this as an opportunity to restructure the way we work. To hopefully prevent ever being blindsided by a colleague moving on.

Monthly check-ins, team building trips, often sharing (deeply) personal stories, flexible leave policies and a life outside of work are some things we’ve been working hard to build at the studio. Hard being the key word.

Apart from internal rejigging, quitting also means a (dire) need to hire. After not finding the right skillset, pay match, wavelength, we got tired of sifting through emails all day long. We did what we know best — total transparency. We put up a post baring it all — what we could offer, what we were expecting, with as much clarity as we could. This led us to finding the right fit for the team and (hopefully) urged other studios to be a lot more transparent.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CoWaKUEy_Oh/?img_index=1

A reading tip: The book The Culture Code is a great resource for anyone trying to understand what makes groups tick. It helped me to observe better and deeper and start thinking of my team as a group of people I have to nurture and not just delegate tasks to.

Let’s not talk about April 2023

“Ask any Indian entrepreneur what their least favourite month is and the answer will always be March. This time around, it was April for us. Things were sloooow. To put it mildly, we were barely working on 3 tiny projects. We’d never relied on pitching or had difficulty in finding work, but this time around, things refused to move. Blame it on the economy or Covid, we couldn’t let this go on. With a new hire and 2 projects indefinitely delayed, we had to find a solution and a fast one at that.”

We resorted to cold emails. No free pitches, but elaborate emails stating what we could offer. Armed with a mega list of brands/organisations, intermediate stalking skills and no inside connect, we created a folio that would showcase our abilities and wrote to over 100 people. As a freelancer, I had always avoided doing this, call it ego or just plain laziness. Left with fixed expenses and no choice, though, we had to chug along.

We heard back from less than 10%, but soon started getting new work from some sort of domino effect at play.

Apart from cold mails, we also used this time to document old work and work on studio projects, in an attempt to keep ourselves sharp and entertained.

Turn off all notifications

“Can you do logo design? Ting. Did you check the email I sent you on Friday? Ting. Did you get a chance to give me feedback? Ting Ting Ting. The water guy is not here. Ting. The deadline is this week. Ting. We have a new project and we want you to do it, but we have tight budgets. Ting. Could we hop on a quick call? Ting. The iMAC is not working. Ting. Welcome to my Monday morning.”

I don’t remember one Sunday evening in the past year where I haven’t opened Slack/Gmail. This might be chalked up to my Type A nature, but sometimes it’s simply unavoidable. Over time, I implemented some solid changes that helped make the work week feel less like a 100m sprint (mini panic attacks are still incoming):

  • Switch off Gmail notifications on your phone.
  • It’s okay to be unavailable outside of work hours. Ask clients/ team to email over whatsapp.
  • Schedule everything. Slack messages, emails, calls. If you don’t want your client/team to bother you at weird times, do the same.
  • Timeslot your days. Set aside 30 minutes in the morning just for yourself. And plenty of slots for your team and creative brainstorming.
  • Don’t schedule any client calls on Monday, have calls on dedicated days unless urgent.
  • Hire an efficient studio manager. Analina is the sole reason I have a normal work day.
  • Automate proposals, presentations, pitches. More time doing the work, less time thinking about getting the work.
  • Strictly no work with team/client on weekends.
  • Have an in time and most importantly, an out time. Even if you work outside of those hours, expecting others to do the same seems hypocritical.
  • Breaks are underrated. Read a book, solve a crossword puzzle, take a long lunch break or a walk around the block. They sometimes help more than coffee.

Fixed expenses

“As freelancers, our main fixed expenses are our brains and our computers. Switch to a studio setup: Salaries, Rent, Subscriptions (Adobe + Google + Slack are the most basic), Computers & Maintenance + Offsites/Team Outings/Benefits all come into play. Financially and mentally this can be a toll, month after month.”

I am probably the worst person to talk minimising fixed expenses. My limited willpower in the face of instagram advertising and resentment for accounts is a terrible match.

Tiny interventions help — from sharing a studio with fellow creatives, going for individual Adobe subscriptions, sticking to one platform for internal communication (Slack) are some examples.

Another thing that keeps us afloat is determining an hourly rate for the studio (Fixed expenses divided by number of hours). This helps us put a base value to our projects and provide consistent quotes rather than relying on whim and desperation.

While our lessons have been big and small we are still struggling with a few things. Consider this an invitation to a open conversation (or a cry for help):

  • Salary expectation + skill gap of freshers. While we’d like to pay freshers a lot more, the skill gap + attrition rates don’t always justify it. Is the onus on design colleges?
  • Accessing a wider network. Apart from features and social media, what are some meaningful ways to get your work out there?
  • Clients ghosting. You send a quotation, They don’t reply if they’re not interested. You keep waiting until you die?
  • Extended timelines. While most clients want everything done yesterday, this urgency seems to vanish once the project starts and deadlines keep getting indefinitely stretched.

Being a solo founder can be extremely lonely on most days and this essay is an attempt to push forward more transparency in the design landscape of India. While there are innumerable rewards and benefits of running your own thing, there are also the harsh realities that come with it.

This is my way to open up a discussion and reach other founders or founders in waiting to help learn from each other’s mistakes and make change outside of WhatsApp chats.

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Mighty Mighties March

A curious design studio that listens well, works hard and takes play very seriously.