Earning More By Going Solo

In 2000, Les Kollegian resigned from his chief creative officer post at an advertising agency to start his own shop in San Diego with a goal of increasing his earnings. The 36-year-old says the experience was challenging and stressful, but his take-home pay is now approximately $300,000 before taxes — triple his previous annual income. His firm, Jacob Tyler Creative Group, named for his young son, employs three full-time advertising professionals and several long-term contractors.

CareerJournal: What were you earning before you went solo?

Mr. Kollegian: I was earning about $125,000 a year as the chief creative officer for a West Coast-based interactive advertising agency for three years. Before that, I lived in Arlington, Va., and worked for an East Coast agency for seven years. I started as a graphic designer and worked my up the ladder to creative director. I have a master’s degree in graphic design.

CJ: What prompted to go out on your own?

Mr. Kollegian: I wanted to make more money so my son could have the opportunities in life that I didn’t have. I had very little money growing up. I started working at age 12 and continued throughout high school and college. I missed a lot of my childhood by working and didn’t want my son to have to experience that.

Another reason is that clients were being billed at approximately $250 an hour for my work, but I was getting paid a quarter of that. I figured I could go out on my own and bill clients at half that rate, provide just as good service, and make more money. I was getting calls from headhunters about job opportunities, so I saw that there was a need for people with my level of experience. Many of them wanted to see samples of my work, so I built a Web site to showcase my talent. When I did that, I found that not only were headhunters trying to recruit me, but so were potential clients. That gave me the confidence I needed to leave a paying job.

CJ: How did you get started?

Mr. Kollegian: I didn’t take any clients from my job with me. It wouldn’t have been appropriate. I knew I could go out on my own and get clients based on the merit of my work. However, I certainly used my former clients as a reference for attracting new clients to work with my firm.  Before I resigned, I began telling friends about what I wanted to do and they referred me to potential jobs within their companies. I was able to sign contracts with two clients right away.

I registered with the state of California as a sole proprietor and set up a home office with about $5,000 of my savings. I offered to meet clients for lunch or at their office because I didn’t want them to know I was working out of my house. I’d meet one to two a week and I significantly reduced my prices to get started. I was charging between $65 and $75 an hour for work that I now charge $150 for so I could convince clients that it would be worth the risk to give me a chance. As business grew, I started charging new clients higher rates and told my older clients that I would increase their rates annually.

I was extremely relieved when my first few clients were happy. I delivered what I’d promised on time and within budget. That gave me confidence that this was the right direction for me and that I could handle my own agency.

CJ: How long did it take to equal your earlier income? What do you earn now?

Mr. Kollegian: Probably a year and a half. I now take home about $300,000 annually in gross pay.

CJ: Do you consider yourself happier now that your earn more in salary?

Mr. Kollegian: I’ve always been a pretty happy person, but I’m able to do things now that I couldn’t have done with less money. I can travel, enjoy new restaurants and spend time with my son. Two years ago I took my family on a two-week cruise in Tahiti and we experienced some of the greatest scuba diving and island culture — that’s something I could never have done before.

Another great thing about having more money is that I’m able to donate to charitable causes. My mom was diagnosed last year with breast cancer and my firm is donating $1,000 to a charity in her honor. I was diagnosed in 2001 with bilateral testicular cancer and it forced me to reflect on my life a little bit. I was on my wife’s health-care plan through her company at the time. I couldn’t work for a couple of weeks and I didn’t have disability insurance, so it took a toll on my firm’s cash flow. I had to work twice as hard to catch up, but I managed to recover. Having cancer gave me the feeling that I’m not immortal and I need to enjoy every minute of life that is put in front of me. I knew I needed to make more than what I was previously earning, and that I could by continuing to be on my own.

Last year I purchased a 1,500-square-foot office in downtown San Diego. I love it. Because we own it, we get to decorate it and tailor it to our needs. It’s got 20-foot ceilings, large windows and a full kitchen, so it’s a home away from home.

I own a house in Maryland that I stay at when I visit family about once a month. I own another piece of property that I rent out. It’s the first home that I bought. When I wanted to upgrade to a bigger house — went from a 1,500-square-foot home to a 3,600-square-foot home — I was able to rent it out rather than sell it.

I can set my own time schedule. My typical work day is from 8 to 6, but I have the ability to modify as needed. On a whim, I could take a day off. I could leave the office for two hours to run errands and make up the work in the evening.

CJ: How has the business evolved since it launched and what are your future goals?

Mr. Kollegian: I now have three people and several long-term contractors. When I first started out I had between one to two clients a month and now we’re juggling 14 right now. Most have come via word of mouth.

For now I’d like to keep the business small because I like to give each client my personal attention. However, I do anticipate in the next two years hiring two to four people so we can expand our client base. We haven’t hit the million-dollar billing mark, and that’s what we’re shooting for by 2007. We’re about $100,000 away from that goal.

I’ve reached my income goal, but all that really matters is having a good quality of life. I’d like to spend less time on day-to-day tasks and more on creative direction and graphic design, which is what I love to do most. I’d also like to be able to spend more time with my family and to travel more.

CJ: You make it sound easy.

Mr. Kollegian: No. It was scary. When you have the backing of large firm, you have more confidence, because of the resources the company brings to the table. But when you’re on your own, you’re essentially saying I can deliver all of that, too. At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to have enough business to pay the bills. But that in turn forced me to work harder. I developed new skills in business development and sales.

Before I went solo, potential clients would come to the firm, and I’d sell our creative ability. After, I had to approach potential clients not as large firm, but as a consultant who could deliver the same results. I also have to handle all of the administrative work, such as answering the phones and filing invoices. All of that had been handed to me on a silver platter before. Now if a client doesn’t pay on time, I have to follow up and attempt to collect.

Starting a business isn’t for everybody. Some people are managers and some are workers. You need to be entrepreneurial and really think outside the box as to how you can grow your business and make money. You have to be tenacious and constantly push to get the job. Then you have to get it done right, because if you want repeat business, you have to deliver.


By Sarah E. Needleman

Business, Career, interview