I learned at 16 that I was a hustler.
My family bought our first computer in the early 2000s and within a few years I discovered my passion for graphic design. I took to the internet and started selling those services.
But my rise as a seller of creativity has been less than meteoric. There are a lot of possible reasons for that. It’s possible that my “natural talent” has always been insufficient, or that my independent practice wasn’t intense enough to compensate for the tremors that hindered my drawing abilities. It’s possible that my design education at community college didn’t give me a satisfactory foundation to build upon. It’s possible that I got in my own way by wasting time resenting a world that expected me to get a job at the local manufacturing plant and to be happy I had anything.
In reality, it’s most likely that I had no idea that I needed brand strategy.
While stuck in the limbo of working day jobs and doing freelance gigs on the side, I spent what little free time I had struggling with the dramas of playing in punk bands. In high school, I worked tirelessly to bring people out to my band’s shows. When we started getting booked, the promoter would tell us that people didn’t show up for openers as to temper our expectations.
Instead, I raised mine.
I made some money as a teenager by spamming ads for my design work to Myspace band pages. You probably remember; those online profiles for musicians whose soon-to-be chart topper started blaring the second it finished taking 3 minutes to load. Promoting shows, I took a similar approach to informing every person in the tri-county area that my band was going on first and to get there early. The promoter couldn’t believe the turnout – an opener that actually packed the venue. He continued to book my band and our relationship was long and successful. It was from that moment that I realized I was onto something. I could build attract customers.
As my musical muscles grew, I fell in love with math rock, a niche blend of punk’s raw energy mixed with the high brow compositions with odd time signatures of jazz. I approached it with virtually no musical theory background, counting on my fingers to decode the off-kilter riffs of my drunken virtuoso bandmates so that our drummer could recognize when the next bar began or how to properly transition from one movement to the next. Unfortunately, the tedium of this decryption usually made me seem more like a hindrance to creativity than a facilitator. The people I was playing with just wanted to have fun.
I wanted to be a success.
The punk rock scene, which prided itself on community and tolerance, transformed into a drunken hellscape of pretenders before my very eyes. Here I was, writing, performing, and releasing music in an attempt to support myself while most of my peers believed that the end goal was to play and not to grow. Fun or not, there was no way to stay chill living off of less than a thousand bucks a month. I needed something more.
I lashed out. I screamed at the top of my lungs, but not into a microphone. This time I was yelling at the people I loved. It was confusing why it was so hard for them to meet deadlines or show up on time for practice. I forgot that they had problems and motivations all their own. And after a series of terrible, hurtful decisions, I was exiled and lost everything. No more band, no more friends, and no more math rock.
In a lot of ways, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I realized that unless I was the perfect drinking buddy, I would never succeed in that world. I was ostracized but I was finally able to see things clearly. The melancholy and intricate tunes died down and the rap jams started bumping. Instead of crooning along to weepy tales of unrequited love, I started screaming, “We gon’ be alright!,” with Kendrick Lamar. It was an admittedly bitter beginning to my eventual shift in mindset, but at least it was a start.
It didn’t help that my family wasn’t supportive, either. Up until this point, my mother could only point out that she hated hearing me yell, as I had “such a pretty voice.” My father, who may or may not have liked my music, was abusive to the entire family and passed by the time I was 20 from a brain tumor he battled for 7 years. My sister, unbeknownst to us, was struggling with addiction and resented my decision to move from Podunk to Pittsburgh in order to establish some sort of creative career. Little did she know I dreamt of creating a living where I could become our broken family’s financial savior. I wanted success and had to move on to a better playing field, but when I got there, I found that I was essentially damaged goods. My temperament more or less prevented me from sustaining any sort of gainful employment in a traditional workplace. Someone from an older generation might put it more simply by calling me “a fucking millennial.” In my experience, though, most millennials are great at disguising their motives in both the workplace and in their relationships. Doing well at a job isn’t just about doing a good job. In reality, employees are beholden to the whims and infrastructure set in place by the employer, regardless of how inane they may be. Punk rock and emotional trauma had lead me to express myself whether it benefited me financially or not.
Since my music career was essentially over, I decided to double down on my design work. I had been working at a t-shirt shop through during college, and I wanted to help it thrive instead of stagnate. The owner resisted any change, though. He had been in financial trouble for a long time, with multiple bouts against the IRS to his record. He was not in a position to fix what he didn’t see as broken. Like the band members I had played with, this guy couldn’t take himself seriously enough to be better than just okay and I was getting to a point where I couldn’t work with people like that.
After 5 years, I walked out.
For a moment shortly after, I thought I had found my stride with freelancing. With some luck, I landed a magazine gig that paid me two grand – a fortune at the time. A lot of lottery winners later realize that the money ultimately ruined their life and that there was some unknown curse attached to it. Such was the case here. The company was unclear about their wants, their needs, and their expectations. After working through Christmas and New Years, it became too much to bear and I was mentally worse off after the gig ended. Cut and paste this experience with the next gig. And the next. And the next.
After a year of stops and starts, I found myself once more needing a day job. My past experience as a telefundraiser lead me to a position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. As a musician, it seemed like a great fit and they agreed. Unfortunately, on my second day of training, the PSO went on strike. I was laid off in a position where I couldn’t market my creative services, nor could I land the kind of job it seemed that society expected of me.
It was during this time that I discovered an educational YouTube channel that preached something that I had known all along but had never acted on: designers are problem solvers. We are the ones who craft solutions to problems that clients don’t even realize they have. All we had to do was connect that no one ever just needs a graphic – they need customers. I knew I could attract customers, and here I was being presented with the perfect framework to sell it.
The YouTube channel’s Black Friday sale approached and they announced they would be giving away fifteen-hundred dollars worth of educational materials that could jumpstart a career selling design and strategy. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Symphony ended their strike. They asked me to come back on the same day as the giveaway. Steady work. Steady hours. Security.
I had a decision to make.
The YouTube channel was smallish, with less than a hundred thousand subscribers. As a gambling man, I knew I had decent odds of winning. With what some might call reckless abandon, I called the Symphony and informed them I wouldn’t be returning.
And so, with a fateful retweet, I heard my company’s name, “Aetoric Design,” read aloud on stream. I won.
Fuck a job. I dove headlong into my winnings and started learning from the pros on how to market myself as someone who fixed problems.
I told all of my regular design clients that I would no longer be taking on the odd freelance jobs, instead offering this newfound consultative approach. I would no longer just design logos, build websites, or rewrite their copy. I said “If you want to work with me, it’s not for a quick buck. We’re going to figure out what your business is and we’re going to build it. Together.” And so working with the clients who have trusted my approach, we have tripled social media engagement and added thousands of dollars to yearly revenue. These brands have finally come to realize who their customers are, what they stand for, and how they can turn their mountains into molehills. No company has to fail if they understand what they’re doing.
I took a chance. I stopped fucking around with bands that didn’t work, family that wasn’t supportive, and friends who didn’t get why working a day job just wasn’t for me.
And wouldn’t you know it?I’ve been self-sufficient ever since.
This has changed the lives of my clients, too. Working in these partnerships, I’ve tripled engagement and added thousands of dollars to yearly revenue of the brands who have entrusted their identity to me. The sense of satisfaction in both my clients and my work has increased exponentially.
I believe that every designer who recognizes that their ability to problem-solve is the most powerful weapon in their creative arsenal is capable of the same kind of change if they also recognize that their prowess is being dulled by allowing those who haven’t to facilitate their income or, more importantly, their happiness. Once you take that leap, the opportunities you require to move forward will present themselves to you. You’ll only need recognize them when the time comes.