Figuring out whether to turn your side project into your full-time day job is rarely easy. Agency designer turned freelance creative & festival organizer Luke Tonge explains how to tell when it’s time to devote yourself more fully to your side gig. We’ll talk about how you can tell when to move on from your current day job, the importance of reminding yourself of your “why,” and why stepping out of your comfort zone can be so powerful. I’ll also share 5 questions you could ask yourself to clarify if and when the right time is to turn your side hustle into something more.
Key Career Insights
- Once you squeeze as much as you can from your current experience, you owe it to yourself to move onto the next challenge.
- Divorcing work from the meaning behind the work is not easy. You have to consider what legacy you’re leaving.
- How you treat people really matters. They’ll remember how you made them feel. Your potential partners, clients, and advisors will likely be former colleagues or professional contacts.
- Investing in yourself and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can open up opportunities doing those exact activities that you initially shied away from.
Tweetables to Share
- Meet Luke Tonge: the man behind Birmingham Design Festival– Moo feature
- 7 Signs Your Side Hustle Could Turn Into Your Full-Time Job– Forbes
- In deciding whether to leave your full time job to pursue your side hustle, I suggested considering these 5 questions:
- Family– Is this a reasonably good time to do this considering my family situation?
- Viability– Can I see a path to profitability?
- Mitigation– Do I have a concrete, viable backup plan in place if things DON’T work out?
- Opportunity cost– Have I been saying “no” more than “yes” to side opportunities due to my capacity or any other conflicts from my day job?
- Finances– Do I have a reasonably solid financial cushion?
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, my challenge to listeners was to sit down and capture exactly what the conditions in your life need to look like in order for you to feel comfortable taking the career leap you’re considering. Whether you choose to focus on the 5 questions above or not, try to clearly define for yourself what it would take, and what you would need to believe, for you to feel comfortable making your big move.
About Luke Tonge
Luke Tonge began his career as a Creative for various agencies in the UK, but eventually branched off on his own to build his own portfolio career. He now describes himself as a Birmingham-based, shorts-wearing, type-loving, freelance graphic designer at large. He devotes his time toward art-directing magazines, lecturing at the Birmingham City University, and organising events including Glug Birmingham and the Birmingham Design Festival (2nd annual festival held June 6-8, 2019).
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): I was doing very rewarding freelance work for friends and eventually clients. I just realized that that was the work that I probably should be doing, but it wasn’t the work I was being paid to do, because I was staying in this fairly comfortable agency bubble.
Joseph: Good morning, Luke. Welcome to Career Relaunch. It’s great to have you on the show.
Luke: Good morning, Joseph. Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Joseph: First of all, it’s great to meet you in person earlier this month in Birmingham at the Glug Festival there. I don’t always get a chance to meet all the guests on this show, so it’s great to meet you in person.
Luke: It was lovely how that worked out. Thank you for coming.
Joseph: Absolutely. I was hoping you could start off by sharing a little bit about what’s keeping you busy right now in both your professional and your personal life.
Luke: Professionally, I’m very busy, probably busier than I’ve ever been, which is an interesting place to be. I’m learning how to juggle multiple things at once. I’m in the middle of the last few weeks of preparation for the Birmingham Design Festival of which I’m a co-director. That’s taking up a lot of my brain bandwidth at the minute. I’m also trying to juggle successfully some freelance client work, which I have going on which is really enjoyable. I’m sure we’ll talk more about why it is that I’m doing that in a bit.
We’re on Easter break actually, at the minute, but I’m also prepping some teaching bits to go back with after Easter. Outside of that, just trying to keep my wife happy and keep sane and the DIY and just general life stuff. Yeah it’s good, a good balance I think.
Joseph: Yeah, it’s good to keep the wife happy.
Luke: Always. Happy wife, happy life.
Joseph: Exactly. I was told that just before I got married. I always kept that in mind.
You mentioned your freelance client work. What sort of client work do you do right now? What sort of area of design do you work on?
Luke: I say that I specialize in two areas. That’s brand identity and editorial work. As it happens at the minute, I have both a big brand identity job which is rebranding an agency and a big editorial job which is a promotional magazine for a client in London.
Those are two areas that I’ve gravitated towards throughout my career, the things that I feel like I’m any good at and the bit that I enjoy. It’s nice to have one of each of those on the go at the minute. It’s not always like that at all. They’re the kind of things that really get me going within design.
Joseph: You have a true portfolio career then, managing the design festival, which we’re going to come back to at the end of the conversation, because I do want to spend some time talking about that and how you started that, doing some teaching, but also doing some brand ID work and editorial work. Very interesting.
I know that you haven’t always had this sort of portfolio career, if you will, in its current existence, and I know you spend a good chunk of your time working in the agency world as a designer. Can you just give us a sense of what that chapter of your career looked like, and then we will move forward in time from there?
Luke: Like most graduates do, I was encouraged to get an agency job, and I was very fortunate to do that. It didn’t happen straight away. I left university with a very good degree from a very good university, fully expecting to work into a job, which didn’t happen.
I went to Woolworths for a few months, as you do. I was very fortunate, actually, someone there put me in touch with a person in an agency, my CV got passed on, and I landed a very nice junior job in a big design agency in Nottinghamshire where I was for three years. That was my formative, junior years. Then I moved to Birmingham and spent another seven years in another big agency, very similar in the Jewelry Quarter.
Both of them were kind of big marketing advertising design agencies with 50 or 60 people in the studio working on big international clients, brand names, household names, much of it FMCG work, work for supermarkets and promotional items and that kind of thing. It was a very good grounding and very interesting time, and I learned a lot from it, but I definitely felt like, in the 10 years, I squeezed out as much as I needed to and as I could from that kind of line of work.
Joseph: I think when we spoke before, you know that I spent a good chunk of my career in brand management. A number of those years were actually in FMCG or fast-moving consumer goods. I was client side, but I spent a lot of time working with a lot of different design agencies, both in the US and the UK. For those listeners who aren’t familiar with agency life, what’s it like to work in an agency, broadly speaking? I’d love to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Luke: As a young designer, there’s no better place to be. I still say that to designers who I’m teaching and who I’m mentoring in the industry that I think you stand to learn a huge amount because the work is very fast paced. Usually, design briefs will be turned around in any number of hours or maybe a number of days. Very rare that you’ll have weeks. That was a shock to the system, but that’s a good thing. It gets you working in a much faster way. It’s quite fraught at times, especially if there’s pictures on. You might be required to work quite late, up in sociable hours.
Sometimes, the culture is not as brilliant as you would want it to be. I think that there’s still a lot of issues that the industry is kind of wrangling with, regarding sexism and elitism and some of the CDO side of things. Of course, as in most big companies I think, you’re probably exposed to some of those things that, for me, I wasn’t always comfortable with and maybe just ticked a few of the boxes of reasons why I wouldn’t want to work in a certain place or a certain industry anymore. That was the negative side of it.
The positive side was, of course, working with some amazing people. I get to do very diverse work. Often in agencies, you’re doing very different things week to week. The work is quite fresh and exciting. Being a part of a big machine can be quite rewarding. You don’t have to go and find your own work. It just comes to you every day. You turn up to work, and you get a brief, and off you go.
I think most people get to that point though maybe where they start to question whether they’ve plateaued and if they want to take a little bit more control.
Joseph: That’s a good segue into what I was hoping to talk about next, which was your transition.
I first discovered you, because you were recently featured in Moo—for those who are not familiar—the online stationery company based in London, where I actually get my own business cards printed. I thought that was kind of cool.
In that article, you mentioned that you entered the work scene, but you didn’t find it exactly satisfying for the soul. What did you mean by that, and what did you do about that?
Luke: I’m one of those people who can’t divorce the work from the meaning attached behind the work. I take that responsibility very seriously. I think I always have and without trying to seem too worthy about it.
I think design is a vocation for a lot of people. You feel like you enter that industry, because you’re very passionate about communicating with people, and I have a strong moral compass and a grounding in social action and wanting to make a positive mark on the world, rather than just any old thing.
Design is a great opportunity. It’s a great tool, because you’re communicating with people. That comes with a responsibility. A lot of the things that I was communicating on behalf of were not necessarily adding value to anyone’s lives or days. It was part of the marketing advertising churn of products and making people buy or making people want things and not necessarily always things that were good for them.
I’m teetotal. I’ve been straight edge my whole life, and yet I was working on alcohol brands for a number of those years. Not that I was casting value judgments on the product, but I think I reached age 30 and I started—when I was talking in presentations—thinking about legacy even at that youngish age and just how proud I was of what I was putting out there. I didn’t feel enormous satisfaction anymore from promoting that kind of stuff.
In the meantime, the flipside was I was doing very rewarding freelance work for friends and eventually clients that was largely magazine-based or brand-identity work that I was really proud, helping charities or churches or organizations promote themselves. I just realized that that was the work that I probably should be doing, but it wasn’t the work I was being paid to do, because I was staying in this fairly comfortable agency bubble.
Joseph: Speaking of freelance work, Luke, this is a topic that comes up for a lot of people who are working in their full-time jobs and they have a separate passion, so they squeeze it into their evenings and the weekends. I think the other thing you said in the article, which I thought was interesting, was that no number of side projects could compensate for the imbalance that you were feeling. What was the imbalance you were feeling, just trying to, I guess, balance both your day job and also your freelance work?
Luke: Precisely that. I think I identified the work that I was good at, and I identified the work that I cared about, but I haven’t figured out whether I could financially make that pay enough to just cover the bills. At the time, my wife and I had bought our first house, after renting for a number of years, so there was a mortgage consideration. I’d always been told you won’t get a mortgage on a freelance wage. If you’ve just started out, you need several years of books behind you.
It was kind of an issue of timing and just working out where we wanted to be when, so we made a bit of a plan together when we bought this house. I got the mortgage, and then it felt like, ‘Okay, now is the time to take this risk.’ We don’t have children yet, so it was just the right timing.
I think as well, I’d realized that I was becoming more and more unhappy. I think my wife would agree, and she was getting more frustrated that I was frustrated in my work. It was purely a fear-based thing that I just wasn’t sure if I would be able to cut it as a freelancer.
Joseph: This is a really interesting topic, Luke, because there’s a couple of things you’re mentioning here. First of all, I guess, making sure that your wife is onboard with the plans that you have, but also, you mentioned the income and trying to figure out whether or not you’d be able to generate enough income from your freelance work to make up for any sort of full-time income that you’re letting go of, which I know is something that comes up for a lot of people trying to decide when the right time is to make a move.
I know you mentioned the mortgage. Financially, this was a good time to do it. How did you know that this was the right time to make your move?
Luke: A couple of years ago, one of the magazines that I had worked on helped me win an award, which was a freelancer of the year award. That was while I was still in full-time employment. It got very little recognition at work. No one was interested, but to me, it was quite a big step that I was being recognized as a credible freelancer while I was still full-time. I was kind of living this jeweled life. I’m working very long hours.
That’s the other thing I should say. None of this recognition or the moderate success of the projects I’ve had came without enormous hard work. I was working late into the evenings, most nights and weekends. It was just unsustainable. It wasn’t really fair on my wife, and my health was probably deteriorating a little bit. All of these things were indicators that I was just really ready to take that leap.
The financial thing was interesting, because a client which I had, who I’ve worked with for several years, promised me a big piece of work the following year. That was probably maybe a third of the income that I needed from that year.
Having that in my back pocket as a safety net was another part of the puzzle that made me think, ‘This is worth the risk.’ Actually, if it all goes wrong, I can just go and get another agency job. It’s not this or death. It’s just this or maybe a job that you don’t want to be in.
We talked about it long and hard for a number of months, and we made sure we’d save up, so there was a financial cushion. Actually, in an amazing turn of circumstance, the day that I think it was the actual, my last day at work, I got a phone call from the university in town where I got some really good connections through mentoring and speaking. They offered me part-time employment, two days a week.
I was very pleased to have that, because that became then the kind of financial safety net that allowed me to be a bit braver and why I took on my freelance, because I knew there was always going to be a moderate income coming in to cover the bills if nothing else.
Joseph: You jumped into the freelance world. You have the teaching setup, which is a nice financial cushion. What else did you spend your time doing that first year of your own business?
Luke: At the start of that year, I’d met with a friend called Dan Alcorn. He’s a really talented digital designer in Birmingham. He had this itch that he desperately wanted to scratch, which was to put on a big design festival for the city. That required a huge amount of both our time and energy that year to get things off the ground.
Although I left the agency world to go freelance and focus on my own work, I spent very little of it on my own work. I kind of split my time three ways between teaching, freelance, and design festival planning and preparation.
Actually, it was a huge relief and blessing at that time because it provided me with a huge deal of emotional support and focus and community that I think if I’d just gone from agency life to freelance cold turkey, if you like, I think I would have really missed, but it gave me a network of friends in the industry who I was meeting with regularly and a real focus, because there was a deadline. It was a huge design project, if you like, and it was all around people. It was ticking a lot of boxes for me.
Teaching plus the design festival ticked that community rewarding teaching aspect, if you like, and then balance with my own freelance work. I was able to be quite selective and very fortunate about the kind of work that I picked up that year. Although it wasn’t a huge financial success, it was okay for our first year. I think it was a fairly good introduction to what freelance could be, because it just was a completely different way of life.
Joseph: I thought this was a really interesting approach that you took, where I can see a lot of people would be really focused on developing their own business. My understanding of the design festival, and we will talk in more detail about that, my understanding of it is that it is very much focused on helping to enable other designers to be effective in their work. It really is you helping other designers get off the ground. Is that right?
Luke: Absolutely. I hope it doesn’t sound too lofty to say that because that really was our intention.
I think the design industry is a strange thing, because it can be very catty and very nasty at times and very competitive, but actually, there’s this whole other side to it, and a huge tradition as well, of people giving back and people opening up their books and their knowledge and their studios to other people to share and to learn and to propel other people forward.
I was very fortunate to be a part of a collective website and a team called FormFiftyFive which has now changed its name and structure. That purely existed to share other people’s work and put other people into the spotlight. When I look at it now, for the guys that set it up, that was quite a brave thing in a way, because you’re immediately promoting other people for work above yourself. It doesn’t serve your own needs in a very kind of commercial way.
Actually, what it does is it grows your network, and it provides you with a voice in the industry, which is really valuable. That credibility as well to be someone who’s aware of what’s going on and has something to say and maybe a small platform to say it on is really valuable.
I think it’s really important as well in this day and age where there’s a lot of mistruths and a lot of negative press, even around the industry that there are still these people who are pioneering away or chipping away, doing their bit to give something back.
Joseph: Absolutely. Speaking of giving back and chipping away and trying to build something, it sounds like such a great idea to bring together a community of people. Maybe there’s somebody listening to this thinking, ‘Oh, I’d love the idea of creating a community of people who are empowered and engaged.’ How do you actually create a festival? Could you walk us through a little about, I guess, how you create it and then also how do you promote the thing?
Luke: The first thing to say is we are by no means experts. This is our second year coming up. We’ve only really got last year as evidence. We feel like it was a success. I think the things that contribute to that were a really important mixture of skillset.
Dan and I, as directors there, we both brought unique things to the table that the other didn’t have and doesn’t have. We’re both very honest about that when we talk about the festival, that it wouldn’t operate as it has without one of us there. That dynamic was really important.
The next thing to say was we had tremendous help. We’ve got a fantastic team of very talented designers from the city who we were friends with previously. There was already a good trust network there that we basically just pulled together a bit of a dream team of who we would want to work on this thing with us. That team of about ten people really pushed it forward and kept each other going.
It was a huge undertaking really, because we were very ambitious. A lot of people would start much smaller and do maybe an introductory year or something, but we kind of jumped in with both feet and just thought, ‘If we’re going to do this thing, let’s just go for it.’
Another aspect was that we had fantastic support from the industry itself. There are companies who would get involved with things. People like Moo this year who’ve come aboard, but last year GF Smith and Foilco and Awesome Merch. There are too many to mention, but people within the industry who were tremendously supportive, understood what we were trying to do, and would step up and back us in that.
That combination of years of industry networking I guess, for want of a better word, or community building and connections and then a good team on the ground. Those two things and then the support of extra partners made it possible. They were kind of the big things.
I think it snowballed, so that’s the other thing to say. We didn’t realize how big it might be when we started. If we probably knew all of the things that would come our way, we maybe would have had a bit more trepidation.
I think our enthusiasm and our desire to see it work was what carried it through, just trying things strategically about the mixture of gifts and characteristics and skills on your team. Don’t just build a team that looks like you. Build a team of people that can do things you can’t. Hopefully then, you’ve got enough breadth within that team to face the challenges that you will definitely face.
That idea of kind of shared endeavor and everyone just pitching in and just doing what they can to make it a success was how we achieved what we did last year.
Joseph: The last thing I was hoping to talk about before we wrap up with more details about this year’s festival are some of the things you’ve learned along the way of your interesting career journey. The first thing I was hoping to hear about is something that you wish you had known that you now know about creating something of your own.
Luke: I still feel like I’m at such an early stage in my own freelance career. I think the lessons that I learned were mostly learned in industry while I was in those agency roles. It may sound twee or cliché, but how you treat people really matters. That’s one thing that I’ve learned.
People talk about this all the time: the design world is a very small industry and everyone knows everyone, and degrees of separation. That is so true. Nearly all of my paid work in my first year came from people that I used to work with in industry, either as colleagues or as clients that had then moved on.
How you treat people matters, because people remember, and people don’t necessarily care so much about whether you did a fantastic job. They tend to remember how you made them feel and how you treated them. Was there respect there?
Obviously, the work has to be good. That’s a given, but that was made very clear to me, this thing that people say about that really mattering. It was evidenced for me in my first year, because I think that was what made the difference about whether I could work with people or not. It was because I had a fairly good pre-existing relationship and a good reputation with them.
Joseph: What about one of the things that you’ve learned about yourself, having moved on from the agency world to build your own portfolio career?
Luke: Maybe two things.
One is that ambition is okay. I used to think that ambition was a bit of a dirty word, and it meant you were someone who is always hustling and trying to get ahead of someone else. Actually, ambition for the right purpose and with a good motivation behind it can be a really powerful thing, because it can drive you to achieve things that maybe you didn’t think you could achieve. I think having ambition is okay as long as it’s with the right reasons.
The second thing, I think, is that I’ve always considered myself an introvert. I was quite shy growing up. I was never the front person of anything. I don’t like being on stage, but what I’ve discovered is that if you train yourself and you take those steps when they’re offered—like I was fortunate to do some training at work in public speaking. I was invited to speak at things, and I said yes—all of those small steps have taken me from someone who would never want to be on a stage to now someone who is moderately comfortable on the stage. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the limelight because I don’t, but I’m prepared to do it now. That’s because of that journey I’ve been on of pushing myself out of my comfort zone a little bit.
I’d say just start small, build up to it, and you’ll never know that, actually, you may end up on that stage in a few years’ time, feeling okay about it, even if you don’t feel like you’re naturally that kind of charismatic, out-going person.
Joseph: That’s interesting, because I just saw you on stage a couple of weeks ago, hosting the Glug events there in Birmingham, and I would’ve never guessed that you would be nervous or something like that. You just seem so at home emceeing that event when you’re up on stage. That’s interesting.
I did want to pick up on one thing you just mentioned, Luke. You mentioned that ambition is okay. I’m reading between the lines here, but it sounds like there’s like a negative connotation associated with ambition. I was curious what was behind that.
Luke: I think what it is for me is that, in the design industry, there’s been this glamorization about this word ‘hustle’ and about doing whatever it takes to get where you want to be.
I think that hard work is really important. I believe that you wouldn’t achieve anything great without putting the graft in, but I think this glamorization of people who have hustled pool and all, this thing about always working and never switching off, that’s really damaging, and it’s really dangerous. People’s mental health suffers because of it. People’s families suffer. I’ve seen people that have been so driven and so ambitious that it’s been a huge cost to them personally. Maybe relationships are broken down, or their health has suffered.
I feel like ambition can be the driver of that sometimes. It can be this desire to achieve success and to get more material wealth or these things that we want. If we don’t have some kind of checks and balances in place that temper that ambition or just make sure that it’s not damaging the person or the people, I think that’s where my hesitancy comes with it. It’s a very positive thing, but it can be turned into a fairly negative or disruptive thing.
I think we’re very fortunate in this industry to be doing design for a living. To be paid to be creative is a marvelous thing, but if we aren’t cautious with it and careful, we can burn ourselves out and burn other people out with this kind of desire for more. That’s where I think maybe sometimes the corporate world, certainly within design, can allow people to go or can foster that mentality of these all-nighters and whatever it takes attitude.
I’m just coming out of the other side of that and having experienced a little bit of that in my own desire to achieve some kind of degree of success. I’m now a little bit more balanced, a little bit more realistic maybe about not overloading myself.
Joseph: I’d like to wrap up, Luke, with how we started this conversation and one of the things I know you’re focused on right now, which is this year’s Birmingham Design Festival. Can you just tell me a little bit more about the upcoming Birmingham Design Festival that’s at the beginning of June? What’s this year’s festival all about, and can you give us a sense of the scale of it, the venues, the speakers, the number of expected attendees?
Luke: We are still planning a lot of the things, but we’ve announced our speaker lineup already. There’s 60+ fantastic speakers, some of which I’m sure your audience will have heard. I’d encourage everyone to go and have a look on BirminghamDesignFestival.org.uk or just Google Birmingham Design Festival. You’ll find us there and on all the social channels.
We’ll be putting out more information in the coming weeks about some of our big headline events, but we have three big evening events that are big celebrations of different aspects of design. We have one that’s all about community this year and then another that’s about design through the screen. The last one is people from big industry, agencies, companies, tech brands that you maybe haven’t heard of, heard these stories before from these household names.
It’s a very diverse festival. We have three districts as we call them: geographic, product, and digital. There’s a whole schedule of free events, which take place over three days. Within those, you can come and have 60 hours of free talks over three days, which is fairly unprecedented within design festival circuits. There’s workshops that you can pay for to learn from some of the best people in the industry and these evening events where we all get together and hear from experts within these different sectors. Then there’s other exciting social things that are happening around there, so people actually getting together in the real world.
We’ve got a really interesting ladies’ wine and design program, and we’re looking at issues around the pay gap. This year, the festival theme is truth. We’ve really taken that to heart, so we’re being very brave. That’s our brief to speakers: just come and give us their truth about their industry, their experiences and issues they’ve got and things that they think we’re facing so that we can just be part of this conversation.
If anyone’s up for it and just wants to come and immerse themselves in design and push their own practice a bit further and meet likeminded people, get themselves to Birmingham in the UK for a few days in June the 6th, 7th, and 8th.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Luke, for telling us all about your former life as a designer and also how you created this Birmingham Design Festival alongside Dan Alcorn and the things that you’ve learned along the way. Best of luck with the upcoming design festival in June, and I look forward to hopefully crossing paths with you again.
Luke: Thank you so much for having me, Joseph. It’s been a