Here, Dominic talks to us about punching through walls if certain doors aren’t open to you, why sometimes it’s better to forge your own path in business, plus tips for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps in the creative industry.

Hi Dominic. Can you describe your business for us in your own words?

Essentially, I’m a product designer and creative director. So I help big agencies and big brands improve the way they design digital products, tools or services for their customers. So that could be figuring out what the vision is, what the concept could be that we could bring to fruition, all the way to testing it with customers and providing the final, finished and polished design.

When did you start your business?

I started out very young. I began my career as a sole trader when I was 19 and starting out I really had no experience in the creative world. I didn’t have any understanding of setting up a business.

Before going down the design and creative route I was just studying. I was a student. There was no previous career or anything. I studied business and media in college and was working part-time but I was able to find my career and my passion quite quickly.

Was there one moment that made you realise you wanted to get into design?

Yeah. I was working on a particular project with a bunch of friends of mine and I remember we kept talking about this concept and this design idea, and I realised that when I was doing that kind of work I wasn’t really thinking of anything else. I just had this sort of joy. I felt hungry to do more and improve more. And when I started to see my ideas comes to life I realised I really love doing this. I love being able to help people execute their ideas in a creative way.

What made you decide to start your own business as opposed to getting a job in an agency or a company? Was it always your ambition?

At first it wasn’t. I did consider the full-time job route and I did have two interviews with big ad agencies in the space of one week, but I didn’t really get anywhere in those interviews. So I took it upon myself to go self-employed because I felt that no one was going to give me the opportunity. I had to create it for myself.

It was scary to do that because I had family and friends telling me to do the sensible thing. Go get a job, figure it out slowly. But for me I just felt that the door wasn’t open to me, so I wasn’t going to wait. I was going to punch my way through the wall.

Do you think there’s a lot of pressure on young people to ‘play it safe’ in their careers? Rather than take the leap into self-employment?

Yeah for sure. And I do think when people say that, it stems from their own fear and their own concern for you and wanting you to succeed. Your parents and relatives care about your future, but they should also have a bit of faith. There are a lot of ways people are making money and starting businesses and building careers that were never possible in their day. It’s much more possible and more visible. People can see examples of what they want to become, and you can be that examples for others of chasing your dream and showing you can do it. You just have to sometimes… politely ignore your loved ones I guess!

You mentioned that you didn’t know how to start a business at first, so how did you overcome that? Where did you go for help?

It was really challenging. There wasn’t really much guidance for someone who’s an individual or a small group of people who want to start a business. It was really tough. So the first two people I sought out for advice was firstly my barber, who was a sole trader and had owned his business for over 20 years, so I sat down with him to learn how he did it and how he was set up. And then he introduced me to the second person who was an accountant, who could then ask me about how I was going to engage with my clients and tell me how best to set up. But it was just all from people I knew.

What would you say are the best bits about working for yourself?

For me it’s being able to choose to work on projects I care about and to deal with people I enjoy working with and getting to know. At first when I started out, I just wanted to work on projects that had big company names attached to them. But the more and more I got exposed to those projects the more I realised that’s not enough of a purpose to really do it. Think about who you do it for and why you do it as your main driving force. That’s been the main benefit for me. And also having a flexible lifestyle. Being able to take time off around projects when I’d like to, or when I need a breather. Because a lot of the projects I take on do require a lot of heavy deep diving into information and speaking to hundreds of people in massive organisations. So it can take a mental toll. And being able to step back, take some time off and have a refresher is important.

The work sounds really varied. How do you manage all those different skills and all the different services your business offers?

Having a diverse skillset enables me to broaden the horizon of projects that I can take on or that I’ve always wanted to do. Managing that has never really been a problem – I’ve actually enjoyed the variety. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me sharp in terms of learning new things and constantly putting those skills into practice. But it does take a lot of work in terms of staying on top of trends and how fast technology moves. My varied skillset means I can provide more value for my clients.

As a result of the pandemic, do you think there will be more and more people starting their own businesses and going it alone?

I would say so, yes. There are many people I’ve spoken to over the course of the pandemic who said that, as tragic as these events have been, it really propelled them to do the things they should have done a long time ago. I have a friend who said they wanted to start a photography business for so long and they put it off because they didn’t know how to start a photography business, or thought it wasn’t possible to support their kids and family from it. And now he’s taking a chance on that. And more people will take that path too. Many people will have lost their jobs or their businesses to the pandemic, so I do think people will use this as an opportunity to start something new. To go down a new path.

What’s the most challenging aspect of starting your own business?

The work moves very fast. With the information that’s coming in and client requests and trying to stay ahead of the industry, you’re working at the highest level and you’re competing with massive companies, and that does take a toll on you. But I think on a more individual level the most challenging aspect is knowing that what you’re doing and how you’re doing it is right for you. So I’m constantly having to question myself if I’m making the most suitable decisions. Is this the right project to take on? Is this the right financial decision to make? And especially being a one-person business, I don’t really have other minds to bounce ideas off or wisdom from other people. But I think constantly reviewing where you are and where you want to head is one of the most challenges experiences.

When starting your own design business, is it important to have connections or a network to help you get a route in?

Yeah absolutely. That’s one thing I wish I knew at the very beginning because when I started out I didn’t know anyone. And there were pros and cons to that. The pros were that it pushed me to meet new people, but the con was that building the relationship takes time. It takes time for people to trust you, for them to see what you’re capable of.

Having those relationships now has made me really understand business in a more broad scope. The power of relationships. Some of the projects I’ve gotten in recent years are from people who I met three, four years ago, and the fact that my name has popped up in their head and they’ve put me forward for stuff makes me beyond grateful to this day. I never knew that was such an important aspect, but it’s massively impactful and massively beneficial.

Do you have any other tips for people just starting out in running their own business?

I think having the financial literacy of running a business, knowing how you pay yourself, how you pay taxes and how to do all the accounting. I’ve worked with an accountant to help me deal with that stuff, but I still want to be able to understand it myself in case questions come up. To anyone who wants to start their own business, I would say spend time understanding your finances and seek the support and expertise of people who know their stuff when it comes to finance too.

If you were to do it all again, would you do anything differently?

A lot of things probably! The first thing I would do would be to plan a lot more. Sit down and think about what I want to do. Plan it out and test it. Figure out if it’s viable or not. A lot of the stuff I was doing early on was just making it up as I went along because I didn’t have any structure. So plan a lot more, and be a lot more confident. Even if I might not be absolutely right, just know that I will find the right answers and the right way of doing things.

What’s next for you? Where do you want your business to be in 10 years’ time?

My passion is still in design and creative work. It allows me to work across different industries and sectors. The next chapter for my business is to continue to do the work that I do, but do it in a way where I can help build companies too. I’d like to invest in companies, help them improve the way they’re designed from the inside out, so they can improve the way they deliver their products. I want to not only have a portfolio of design work, but a portfolio of businesses that I can say I was involved in building too. That would be an amazing thing to accomplish.

Find out more about Dominic Livingston and his business here.


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