What Entrepreneurship (Re)Taught Me

Times change, and so do people, their relationships, experience, knowledge, and expectations. We all know that, but what about when it happens to you?

My life has changed dramatically since I started this company with Vibor and, later on, Darko. This was actually my first job outside of my five-year freelance design career while I was a student and high school kid.

Antun Debak, Creative Director at UX Passion

I encountered a lot of new experiences, especially at the beginning of the company in 2009, when times were challenging for all of us. I left school and used my savings to open UX Passion, and I never will regret that. It was probably one of the smartest moves I made in my life, since I feel like I discovered so much more through real-life experience while running this company than I ever could have learned in a university. I stepped out of my comfort zone here more times than I can count. Every single one of those steps made my professional career exciting, day in and day out.

All We Love We Leave Behind

Behind the scenes, however, the last few years were really tough for the founding trio at UX Passion. I had a lot of struggles with things that don’t really have anything to do with business, entrepreneurship, design-related projects or clients. I tried my best to solve the issues and disagreements I had with my co-founders, but in the end our personalities took over our business decisions. I felt like we were repeating the same conflicts and decisions over again, without learning from our mistakes or changing anything for the better.

That’s the reason I made probably the biggest decision in my career so far: to leave UX Passion, my own company where I served as Creative Director for last five years. I came to this decision in June of this year, and words cannot describe how I have been feeling for the last two months. I still have one more month to close clients’ projects and a few internal tasks we’re working on, so I’m focused on those at the moment.

In fairness, I must say the other co-founders offered me a chief executive position to lead the company in the direction I think is best, but I didn’t feel like I could do that with our team in the current circumstances. Also, I think I have a lot more to learn before I could lead something as huge as UX Passion on my own. Vibor and the rest of the crew have a somewhat different vision for UX Passion and, since I’m in the minority, I think it’s the right thing to step aside and give them a chance to shine.

UX Passion Founders (Darko, Antun & Vibor)

In the past five years, I dedicated most of my waking hours to UX Passion and its values, brand and growth. In return, I’m happy to say this was definitely one of the best experiences in my career, and I will carry it with me on the next leg of my journey.

It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t leave UX Passion because of another job offer or anything like that. It’s just a personal decision. September 26, 2014 is my last day here at UX Passion, and I’ll think about my next step once I finish all the work I started here. I’ll definitely stay in the design industry, but I would like to try some new, exciting, and challenging things I haven’t gotten the chance to achieve with UX Passion.

However, not to make this post sadder than it should be, I would like to write down a few things this hell of a road trip (re)taught me. Maybe some of the young people who want to start their own company will find it useful for themselves. So, here we go!


1. Do more with less. Have guts.

Especially in the beginning. You don’t need a fancy office, expensive notebook, newest smartphone, best available software in the latest edition, nice haircut, or whatever. You just need the guts. Everything else comes later with hard work and dedication.

However, don’t be afraid to spend money on the right things once when you hit that stage of company development or get outside investment. You need money to keep the business going, but you also need to invest in an environment that can bring your business to a higher level.

One day at the time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple, but it’s not easy: It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.
⎯ Russell Brand

2. Be careful of mixing personal and professional.

Personal and professional relationships can screw up a whole business at any stage. I’m hearing and reading a lot about couples, friends, and families running successful businesses in our industry. For me, that wasn’t the case. I do strongly think there must be some differentiation between personal and business life, especially if you are a founder / executive in your company.

I know a lot people ⎯ especially freelancers ⎯ love to say that they love their job so much it’s not a job anymore; it’s part of their life. Yes, the same goes for all of us who are passionate about what we are doing. But would you wear pajamas to a client’s meeting? Or sleep until 5:00 p.m., when your clients call it a day? Will you bring personal issues to work? What about teamwork, mutual respect, and understanding ⎯ do you have some? There must be some order and a dose of professionalism in what we do and how we do it if we want to be successful.

Some groups with strongly developed relationships can overcome personal and business obstacles to function better at work, but for many this personal and professional overlap can be a huge problem. This kind of conflict can lead to anarchy inside a team; leaving members unsure who’s responsible for what, and unable to distinguish between personal and professional issues.

It’s better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.
⎯ Herman Melville

3. Work hard to be able to play even harder.

Don’t get me wrong in the last bullet. I also think that to work harder you need to play hard as well. Not everything in the office should be about daily tasks and routines; we all should have (a lot of) fun when it’s appropriate.

Have group gatherings and team building activities, invite colleagues to a BBQ or game night, organize whatever makes you and your team happy. Go outside the office space; you are already spending too much of your life at the desk from which you are probably reading this blog post.

However, keep in mind that in the end, we design for love, but work for money. If we don’t have enough money, we cannot play anymore and do what we love.

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.
⎯ Walt Disney

4. Company culture should be a beautiful thing.

Based on some stats, 72% of entrepreneurs are not happy with their own company culture and more than 30% of them are struggling to create and maintain a motivated team.

Company culture is something I especially loved working on here at UX Passion, since I think it’s really important to a company’s success. Break down barriers and boundaries between departments. Create a healthy environment for people to be creative and strive for better things in their professional careers.

It’s great when people can get together and share principles and ideas outside of the job we do. Sooner or later, your employees will recognize how hard you are working to keep the culture positive. All the people you employ should be aware of your values and vision, but even more importantly, you should really work and live by them. Otherwise, your company culture probably is not going in the right direction and it’s a matter of time before it collapses.

What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.
⎯ Jeffrey Zeldman

5. Bigger is not always better.

Do not hire just because of expansion or having some spare cash to spend. In our industry and within startup culture, I think that the design team should come first; salespeople, marketers, and other people later. When I say “design team,” I don’t mean people who have only design skills. The design team should be the guys and girls who can research, envision, design, and prototype / develop ideas and projects on their own.

At the beginning, for a lot of web projects I took care of everything, from design to development and delivering. The same work is now shared by 11 people. Of course, they can bring much more attention to detail, quality, experience, and expertise to the table.

But, if you don’t have a person who will design a project, you don’t need someone who will develop, market, or even sell it. This can be especially problematic with bigger teams where developers and other team members have amazing abilities, but there are not enough design people to guide them towards great UX.

You should hire people who are smarter than you and your team members. Or at least, the people you hire should have some expertise and experience that your team members don’t already have. Otherwise you’ll end up in an endless circle where your team members do not further their education or improve their skills fast enough, and you will not be competent and ready for upcoming jobs that your company could take on in the future.

We hire people for their strengths and then manage them to fix their weaknesses.
⎯ Marcus Buckinghamn

6. Have goals. Have deadlines.

I saw too many product development strategies, both inside the team and even more outside of it. People constantly make the same mistakes when it comes to managing the design and development process. One of the biggest is unclear work / project specifications for all team members, and another is that magic word: “deadline.”

It’s well known that both milestones and deadlines change for various reasons and that’s a normal thing, but if you end up with your fifteenth deadline (not a milestone!) for the same project in a period of a few years, maybe it’s time to rethink your strategy, define what’s gone wrong, and learn from those mistakes.

Keep in mind that other people will follow you. If you don’t complete your task on time, they won’t either. If you don’t have guts, they will not have them for you. Be an example, do things on time and others will (probably) do the same. That’s the point at which you can design, develop, and distribute nice and useful products.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
⎯ Albert Einstein

7. Travel, meet, and learn.

If you keep yourself locked inside your office building, I guess you will need much more time to learn and experience some stuff in your industry. Even then, it’s doable if it’s a good decision.

That’s why one thing I was especially happy about at UX Passion is that once we got “older” and “bigger,” we could give our people the opportunity to attend conferences they found compelling, travel the world, and meet and work with other interesting people in our industry.

I think every one of us respects the jobs and responsibilities we have much more because of that.

And then I realized adventures are the best way to learn.
⎯ Unknown

8. System will always be there, trying to stop you.

And it’s up to you to fight back. It’s as simple as that.

Your government, or whatever system that’s surrounding you, will constantly keep adding new rules and laws by which you need to play. It’s up to you to see how you can fit within those boundaries and if they’re good enough for your business. The world is a small place; you do not need to run your business in your hometown or your country. There are no borders or limitations for the idea you want to develop.

It’s not wise to violate the rules, until you know how to observe them.
⎯ Thomas Stearns Eliot

9. Stay focused.

No matter what happens, ignore the noise and stay on track. They say: “Set goal, make plan, get to work, stick to it, reach goal.” I would add “Repeat” on top of that.

If you are building a product, focus yourself or dedicate a team who will be focused on that project. That’s hard to do in small startup businesses, but if you are handling a lot of projects at the same time, as I personally do, be extremely organized and keep everything under control before things get messy.

Push yourself forward to your limits, but also know when it’s enough and when it is time to stop. You don’t want your name written on the wall in the 27 Club.

Don’t think about your errors or failures; otherwise, you’ll never do a thing.
⎯ Bill Murray

10. Live with passion.

This was and will be a motto of this company for a long time, if nowhere else at least, deep in our hearts. You need to have passion and you need to live with it if you want to fulfill your dreams.

Be yourself, be genuine, stay passionate!

Don’t forget to be awesome :)
⎯ Ivan Karačić

Intentionally, I didn’t write about networking, managing your social life, negotiating, with whom not to do business, failures, sales and so on. You have plenty of those articles around the web. Or, if you prefer real-life experience like I do, start your own company, be careful and dedicated, learn from mistakes, and have fun on the road!


Final Goodbye

In the end, I hope my actions, work, and mentoring will serve as an example to someone, whether it be a good or bad one. On the other hand, I could be a kid who missed the show, since the team is going forward to new adventures. Stay tuned for upcoming plans from them.

Thank you all!

Thanks for all the love, support, and everything you and UX Passion provided me with. See you at some other gig!

P.S. In case you want to contact me, work together, or just say hi, please use antun[@]debak.net from now on, and feel free to follow me on Twitter, LinkedIN, or Instagram.

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