Published July 11th, 2017
by Steven Clark

I’m of the opinion that anyone publicly claiming expertise in a subject is open to criticism. I’m also in the rare and fortunate position that no one can fire me for having an opinion. The odd person has commented that they find my approach to blogging to be negative, mean-spirited or confrontational, usually after admitting that they read the blog regularly. Believe me when I say that these qualities also exist in me, and I’ve convinced myself this occasional public critique of individuals or companies whose views or actions I disagree with is an attempt to actually use them for some good. For some, any criticism of their hashtag positive lifestyle or always-be-hustlin’ business practices constitutes trolling, a sin worthy of a sarcastic animated GIF response or a pacifying Twitter/LinkedIn block. I’m the first to admit this mentality is not healthy. If I’m honest, the real reason GradPaths exists is because I saw one particular graduate trip over his own dick so often on the way to his first job role that I felt a pressing need to respond indirectly.

If you are actually a regular reader, and not just humouring me over drinks, you may have caught my blog on Scotland’s business mindset where I claimed the views expressed in the writing of fellow freelancer and self-professed design wünderkind, John Loudon, were ridiculous. In his original blog, he had argued that business owners and founders in Scotland face prejudices their American equivalents don’t because of a population largely afraid of success. I counter-argued that Scotland today is actually quite a good place to start a company and that American industry is an amoral disaster propped up by generations of insane entrepreneurial fantasy. To John’s credit, he didn’t take the bait (unlike others).

William Shatner fish
Who needs bait?

Having never met John in person I’ll admit it’s quite odd to fixate on his output. But as I was in a similar position to him not long ago – leaving an agency job to start up as a freelancer/independent business – it’s been interesting for me to follow how differently he’s approached his situation compared to how I approached my own. One thing in particular that struck me as odd was that John’s now ex-employer, ecommerce specialist agency Indez, had apparently allowed him to showcase the designs he completed for relatively well known brands (Hyundai, Trespass, Toolstop) while employed by them on his Loudon Design website. Despite his fears of business owner persecution, John officially founded his agency and set up shop in an office in Glasgow on July 7th. The following day he removed this portfolio section from his website entirely. In a post entitled “Employee vs. Company. Where did the pages go?”, he explains:

“My website used to be a portfolio and CV of me as an individual and showcased work I had designed (fairly standard stuff) and I was proud of these projects. However, at that point, I was an employee and therefore an individual, not a company. Recently we have received communication that this was causing a lot of confusion.  Two separate instances have arisen in the last month, and that’s two too many. Let me be crystal clear in clarifying this; whilst I was involved in these projects in my past, it was as a full-time employee and not reflective of the new company I have just formed.”

As a small digital business, building a decent portfolio isn’t as easy as you might think. Despite a relatively steady flow of jobs these last two years, I’m still showcasing stuff I did well over a year and a half ago on this site. This is partly because I prefer to talk about larger projects, focussing on something unique to each that presented a design or development challenge I was able to overcome. Mostly though it’s because I often end up working on behalf of others, filling in resource gaps for projects I’m not permitted to take credit for. NDA agreements are common in these situations, as are scenarios in which you’re awkwardly presented as a staff member of the company you’ve agreed to work with to their unsuspecting client. I’d estimate that of all the things I’ve designed and built worth highlighting during these last two years operating as Habanero, I’m only allowed to display around 40% in total. This is not unique to those operating as individuals either – a small agency I’ve worked with was also occasionally forbidden from publicly taking credit for their output. Their reaction was to publish case studies for these projects on their site anyway, taking them down only if the client bothered to complain.

Simpsons nod
Me and my client before I meet theirs

Unfortunately, an individual or small company being paid a premium for labour has very little right to demand the ability to showcase work if a client isn’t interested in allowing you to. Aside from the fact that you’re likely to be contributing a small, perhaps significant, part to a greater whole – so taking credit, even just for that part, may seem disingenuous – being contracted in or paid well for your work means occasionally accepting terms that deny you the ability to talk publicly about the project. Additionally, whole website builds with reasonable budgets come along sparingly and often require a significant time investment pitching, proposing and scoping requirements. This is the faustian trade off: a regularly updated portfolio full of decent, if sporadic, project work against sacrificing your time and ownership for occasional short term guaranteed income. This is why operating as an individual – at least in the short term – always seemed more financially viable to me. Having worked in and with many different agencies, the last thing I wanted to do was establish my own.

Let’s not humour John by accepting his article’s assertion that he made the decision to remove the work himself, as it was “causing a lot of confusion”, one day after launching his new business with some fanfare. Let’s also ignore the fact that he felt the need to write a relatively long LinkedIn-only post about removing some pages from his website nobody but me (and presumably Indez) cares about (unless, of course, he was asked to make a public clarification). John is understandably displeased that he can no longer publicly display these projects as they constitute “half a decade of [his] life” but as he is now in direct competition with his old employer, it’s more than likely that they have asked him to remove them. Considering he probably had a reasonably long notice period due to his seniority, it does seem odd that they left it this late. Particularly when you consider he spent over half a year blogging about developing his own design business via the same website.

Overlap in an industry as competitive and insular as web design, particularly in Scotland, is likely to cause problems. If Loudon Design and Indez found themselves pitching for the same ecommerce work, both companies presenting the same portfolio isn’t going to impress any prospective clients. Many agencies bank almost entirely on the brand recognisability of their existing clients to win new jobs. One of my old employers had a dedicated team of people responsible for retaining one particularly difficult client, utterly convinced that their association was in some way profitable. This continued even as the client rep gleefully abused their position, debasing staff in emails and wasting entire days on pointless meetings. To protect my sanity, I have to assume that this approach is somewhat viable, rather than consider the possibility that it was a massive wasted effort on our part.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that all of these people have now left

It would be cynical of me to suggest that perhaps John hoped his namesake brand “Loudon Design” would present enough of a grey area between personal website and digital agency for his portfolio to pass by unnoticed. Either way, from what’s written in his post it sounds very much like he was hoping to continue associating his new company with these well known brand names a little while longer but has been forbidden from doing so. Despite his protestations that he was too busy doing client work to remove an entire section of his website, which for months was arguably infringing on someone else’s copyright, he still doesn’t miss the opportunity to add some clients associated with his new staff member’s work experience at Front Page into the mix:

“…my staff have built huge apps for Disney and Royal Caribbean but this is not relevant save that this experience is within my team. […] I don’t have the rights to this work or the desire to ever claim these as personal or my company’s projects. It’s a legacy issue in the sense that I have left a job role and the website has sat as it was until I could find time to change it. Many agencies, freelancers and consultants websites are not up to date for the same reason – clients come first.”

John got lucky. If my old employers assumptions were correct and associating your business with brands people recognise can improve your credibility and result in enquiries, then John has had a head start many of us would have been grateful for. Doing so lended legitimacy to his operation, most likely helped him win some early work opportunities and probably made the prospect of offering him shared office space a far more attractive deal. Maybe in a perfect world or if he had gone about it differently, Indez would have allowed John to share some credit for his contribution to the work he helped design as part of their larger team of professionals. But he should have understood that presenting these projects in a way that could allow them to be seen as the sole work of himself or the company he owns – even accidentally or inadvertently as he now claims it was – could be seen as irresponsible, dishonest and would most likely result in the confusion he now falsely accepts responsibility for.

Even if you think I’m being harsh, I think most would agree that starting your new business off the back of a portfolio of work almost entirely mirroring that of your previous employer – even with the justification of your own sizeable contribution to that effort – on a company website that bears your name may not have been the cleanest or most ethical of starts to his newfound independence. I may be wrong though, apparently his actions are what one commenter considers “integrity”.

Business call
Hello, integrity hotline? 

It can’t be easy losing an entire portfolio of work overnight. Our digital careers are the sum of our experience solving problems for clients but – until you run your own business – acquiring, managing and retaining those clients is rarely your direct responsibility. John may now discover that working on large name brand clients as a small company usually means collaboration with the individual or larger company who made the original sale or have an existing client relationship, something that usually guarantees ownership over any contribution you or your staff might make. This is not a system I endorse or find particularly fair but it is one I’ve come to accept in order to continue working.

Good luck to him – the success of a creative business has never been directly tied to the strength of its client roster or portfolio – but it’s going take an unprecedented amount of hustle if he wants create one to one relationships with similar recognisable brands in the near future.

Until then he can just continue to illegally film himself driving.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

Business Clients Digital Agencies Freelance

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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