Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic and Nick Ames explore how designers and architects made the transition from working for a large firm to setting up on their own.
Achieving the right level of work-life balance and creating the opportunity for greater creativity and a closer relationship with clients was the goal of five Dubai-based professionals who swapped roles in large firms to found their own studios.
Viktor Udzenija, George Kahler, James Bassos, Maja Kozel and Bruno Guelaff (pictured left to right) all made the decision to set up by themselves with those aims in mind.
All are now established and successful – they agree they made the right move.
But first it was a question of how best to set up and obtain a licence to trade with a number of free zones to choose from in Dubai alone, such as DMCC, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, Jumeirah Lake Towers or Dubai Design District (d3). Registering in the Fujairah Free Zone is another option, which is popular among designers due to its ease of use, with Kahler and Bassos both taking that option.
But how easy was it to negotiate the legislation which surrounds establishing a company in the UAE?
Udzenija explains: “The set up with d3 was really easy, it took only a couple of weeks. I got a 140m2 office which was the second one to open its doors.
“But it was just a shell so we had to do all the fit out work, get approvals from Tecom authority [which licences d3], as well as deal with issues such as fire safety.
“We are also an architectural company so it starts getting a bit complicated because we have to find a local architect [as a partner] who is reliable and who can deliver quality. We have also started looking into getting an engineering licence.”
Guelaff also carefully chose his location, taking into account its accessibility, but also the views from his office.
He says: “Jumeriah Lake Towers is a free zone. I live quite close by and it has good public transport.” Choosing the right location was an important factor for Udzenija. He says: “Dubai Design District was a great advantage from the marketing perspective, the whole idea is amazing and the location is as well.
“A lot of designers there are my friends and we have coffee and lunches together, give each other advice, I love that. Also d3 is doing a great job in supporting people from a marketing perspective with all the events, such as Design Week and Downtown Design happening, we get a lot of exposure.”
The pros and cons
But they all acknowledged they had taken a risk. Kahler said: “I have a wife and two kids, a mortgage in the UK and a rented place in Dubai. But I left [my job] because I knew it was now or never and if I didn’t push myself out there I’d probably never do it, But before I even finished my first two months, I’d been given a contract for a long-term six-months project. That kicked me off.
After they established their studios the designers quickly realised the benefits that come with working for yourself.”
Kahler says: “There is a real opportunity for boutique design firms and individuals like us. You can achieve a proper work–life balance.
“If you are good at what you do and you have a good personality, you can stand out and if you are reliable people will come to you.”
Kozel agrees. She says: “There’s the freedom, you can manage your own time, the direct relationship with a client, they like that and they recommend you to other people as well. There’s also working to your own timescale as I like to work in the evenings.”
Bassos adds: “One of the advantages is being able to do things in your own way and in your own time. You can make the final decision when you’re dealing with clients on how you want the project and process to go.”
For Guelaff working for himself represented “a more honest process”. He says: “There is less filtering between you and the client. There is a direct approach, it is a fulfilling, one-to-one situation. You also get to pick and choose the projects.”
But working alone can be hard sometimes, according to Kozel. She says: “It can sometimes be lonely, you have to be responsible for everything, you have to manage everything, keep track of things, get yourself out there and keep going. But when I get worried, I always seem to get a phone call.”
Bassos agrees: “Something always comes in. But you need discipline when you work for yourself. It’s very easily to keep putting things off each day, I didn’t realise the amount of administration I have to do to deal with. There’s staff issues, resourcing, fees and payments. When you work for a large design company you have specialised people, such as the financial controller.
“But when you are someone who works on a much smaller team, you put the cap on and deal with these issues with every day.”
Udzenja says: “For me the negatives are time management. I’ve spent most of my time in the car driving around Dubai, talking to suppliers and going from one site to another. Then there is business management, also dealing with HR issues, finances and accounting issues.”
Guelaff says that multi-tasking is his major issue: “You have to wear so many hats while still being creative and on site, then there is keeping your website and being active on social media.”
Making the pitch
While large firms can dedicate time and resources to pitching for projects, smaller firms have to be more selective, the designers all agree. They also feel such submissions should be part of an overall business deal – and not come free-of-charge.
“A large firm has dedicated teams for pitching” Guelaff says. “When it comes to sketches. I’m not giving you [the client] anything, why would I give it to you for free? Do you go down to gas station to get a few drops of fuel and say ‘I promise I’ll come back to get some more?’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Basson agrees: “I don’t believe in free pitching for work, I think it undervalues us as a profession. I would put some concept images together, however I would deduct the cost of doing that if I were successful with [getting] the job. But if I wasn’t successful I would expect to get paid for that work.”
Keep it small
The panel also has advice for any designer who feels they would like to start up on their own. Kozel says: “Make sure that you have enough funds for a half a year to a year. Just enough so you don’t have to stress too much about it. Have a good network around you, don’t worry too much, or be insecure about your work. Listen to your own intuition.”
For the designers office space is not an overriding factor in most cases. But all agree the environment has to be one which stimulates thought and innovation. Keeping a sense of scale and not over reaching yourself is important says Guelaff: “There’s a saying ‘build it and they will come’. But it’s the opposite, once they [clients] are here then start building. A couple of projects will act as stepping stones, it is not all about price tags for small firms and studios it is about how to be creative.
“When it comes to the size of our practice we have our fourth member starting with us shortly and have a studio designed with a maximum capacity of five. I don’t want us to get any bigger. But the environment is crucial if you are going to be successful and I want to sit with designers and be creative.”
Bassos is renting a serviced office, which he says he usually visits every second week so the work-place is not a priority for him.
He says: “We actually go to see clients more often than they came to see us. If I do need to see a client I would meet for a coffee. It would be nice to have a good boutique design office, but I’d rather put my money elsewhere. But I do believe that you need the right environment once you get bigger to keep people happy.”
Kahler says: “My only business strategy is to keep it simple and keep the overheads down, so I’ve got a serviced office which is paid off from day one.
What is critical about that is that it allows me to not be stressed about getting anything in the front door to pay the bills.
“I don’t need to make a 100,000 dirhams a month, but as soon as you put yourself in that situation, then you take projects that you don’t want and then it becomes completely different. We love to think we are designers, but with the large companies it’s all about running a studio, getting money in the front door and being an efficient as possible. But that comprises your main role which is as a designer.”
Udzenija feels starting from a strong position is vital. He says: “I made decision once I had two projects confirmed, as without a project in sight there is no point in starting on your own. Good network projects should be confirmed as a starting point and if you are working somewhere you should try and get as much knowledge as you possible can before you actually do venture on your own, as experience is extremely valuable if you are to be successful.”