I’m going solo

Today is my last day of full-time employment. I have resigned from my role of Design Communicator at Liquidnet, and as of tomorrow will officially be an independent user experience design consultant.

The notion of working for myself has always been there, lurking in the dark recesses of my mind. My parents are entrepreneurs and have been running their successful public relations firm, HWH PR, for more than 30 years. That’s what I grew up knowing. The ins and outs of a major corporation, its red tape and bureaucracy, interdepartmental tensions, “work/life balance,” professional development, 360 feedback, bonus structures, endless hierarchies, the relationships between managers and direct reports — up until four years ago, all of these things were totally foreign to me, and often still are to my parents.

Instead I learned other skills: how to build a network and market myself, how to pitch a proposal to win business, how to hire and fire the necessary resources, how to manage a client who calls at 4 in the morning with a genius idea, how to tighten up in a bearish market, how to chase down a client who won’t pay. These are the things I heard discussed at the dinner table. My parents have been working their tails off for as long as I’ve known them. Even while on vacation my mom calls the office to get her messages, make deals, mentor her staff, review deliverables, and find out what checks have come in. They never rest.

Only a business owner with his/her name on the line would have that determination and passion. They can’t rest on their laurels because they know they’re only as good as their last deal. A coworker isn’t going to pick up the slack and a manager can’t reassign the work. When something goes wrong, they have no one to blame but themselves, and when something goes right, they deserve all the credit. They are responsible for their own success, and they’ve taken that responsibility more seriously than any other two people I’ve ever known.

I have been successful as a cog in the wheel. At Digitas, my first job out of college, I was assigned to some of the highest profile projects. I helped to research, design and test an innovative card search for American Express and was given the opportunity to present a prototype to the CEO, Ken Chenault; later I was named as a co-inventor on a patent for the system. I was sent to the Chicago office with Dom Vial, an art director at the time, for what was supposed to be two days to support a team in the 11th hour before a pitch to Allstate; we ended up scrapping the previous designs and stayed six days to build a functional prototype from scratch. They won the pitch, and three months later convinced our bosses in New York to send us back to Chicago for 10 weeks to work on the project. I was 23 and had been with the company for six months when I was first sent there.

I don’t want to use my blog as a platform to brag about my accomplishments. And anyway, it sounds better when someone else says it. I just wanted to illustrate that I learned how to play the game, and well.

But quite frankly, I’m tired of it.

I thought maybe it was agency life that got me down. The timesheets. The juggling. The scope creep. The bipolar clients. The creatives’ thirst for awards. The negativity and backstabbing. The all-nighters. I did it for two years at Digitas and then Tribal DDB, and though I produced a ton of work I’m still very proud of, I was burned out.

When Liquidnet came calling, I decided it might be a good idea to go client-side. Regular hours. Flexible deadlines. One, maybe two projects. Development of my designs in-house. Access to the CEO. A new, complex domain and deep-seeded culture. Access to our users! A thorough and complete design process! Collaboration! So many promises brought me there, and for the first year I was on cloud nine. It was such a pleasure to be supported by a design team who worked together on the same suite of products for the same company; to share knowledge about the same set of users; to plan long-term design goals and to be assigned to the project long enough to see them through; to work directly with developers who have a stake in the success of the product and who understand and respect the design process.

Even learning about the stock market, a domain I knew absolutely nothing about before I started, was an incredibly exciting challenge and I rose to the occasion. I remember after six months my boss noted how surprised he was that I had learned so much in such a short period of time. And I really had — my passion for what I do as well as for the company had turned me into a sponge.

But then one day I wondered: is my heart really in it?

Since January, my most rewarding experiences have been outside of work. Rather it’s been what I’ve learned from blogging, the connections I’ve made through Twitter and tweetups, the inspiration I’ve drawn from my peers at conferences and events and reading their books and blogs and listening to their podcasts. I have been moved and invigorated by my community of practice, and I feel a stronger-than-ever urge to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

I want to affect a much larger group of people than I could ever have access to at Liquidnet. Or at an agency. I don’t want one or two clients. I want 50! I want to be involved in as many domains and as many product types as possible. I want to design for the web, for the desktop, for mobile devices, for household gadgets, for kiosks and touchscreens and interactive billboards. And I want to have ownership over my designs, involvement in the strategic process, collaboration with the most influential stakeholders and the guys on the production line.

Being a consultant is the only way I can do all of that, the only way to cut through the red tape and work with the organization as a whole and be engaged for my specific skills and insights. And being independent means that I can take the jobs that interest me, that challenge me and allow me to flex my muscles, learn new things about business, learn new things about myself. I am ready to be my own boss and to have control over my own destiny (as much as is possible in this world).

I know it’s going to be amazingly difficult. I know I’m going to have periods of self-doubt and insecurity. I know that some months it might even be a struggle to pay the rent. But in the end, I’ll have no one to blame but myself, and no one to thank but myself. Independence will bring strength, greater influence, greater competency, and most of all, pride.

I’m young and I have a lot to learn, about the world and about myself. But failure simply doesn’t exist. Every mistake I make along the way will be a lesson. And every disappointment will be an exercise in humility and courage. Failure is doing nothing when your heart is telling you exactly what you want.

So I’m doing it. I’m cutting the cord, and I’m ecstatic for what’s to come. More of the same will get you nowhere. So here’s my message to the universe: shock and amaze me. Make every day different. Create hurdles and boundaries. I’ll never give up on myself, and you’ll help me prove it.

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  1. says

    I picture Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air with the music blaring, “You’re going to make it after all!”

    I have no doubt you’ll do well. Congratulations and welcome to the world of Freelance. It’s quite nice here. ;)

  2. Liz says

    I really admire your courage but that compliment is coming from someone whose family always stressed the security of a 9-5 job. It does seem terrifying!

    But it also sounds like between your parents, your education, and your job experience, that you are well-prepared & ready for this. I think your intelligence, drive & self-confidence will tip the balance towards your longterm success.

  3. Maxine Appleby says

    Hi Whitney – be true to your values, never loose your passion, and always follow your heart.

    And don’t be afraid to ask those friends with steady day jobs to buy lunch for a few months.

    You’ll do great and we can all say we knew Whitney Hess in 2008 when she made the move to go out on her own.

    Best of luck!

  4. says

    Whitney – you are going to do awesome things. In the short time I have known you, I have been amazed by your tenacity and curiosity and generosity. You have a great future and many people who believe you will be super successful in your pursuit of owning your own future. Having just taken the leap myself I can so totally relate to the excitement of the future and the potential of what is yet to come. I hope we can work together at some point.
    best –

  5. says

    Thank you so much to all of you for the amazing words of encouragement. I’ll always have this to look back on when I get scared, doubt my abilities and feel lost. I am so fortunate to have such an incredible support system. Thank you thank you thank you!


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