Interview with Michael Janda

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

I was always into art and creativity. Doodling, comic books, imagination…even a stint with Dungeons and Dragons during my middle school years. When I was in high school I thought “commercial art” (now called graphic design) could be a career option, but when I went to college at Indiana University, the thought of being a “starving artist” didn’t appeal so I planned to go into their business program. One year later I was on the brink of flunking out of college and decided to pursue my love of art rather than chase the almighty dollar. Little did I know that I would out earn nearly every business grad in my class over the next couple decades. “Do what you love, the money will follow,” they say. I’m glad I followed my real passion. 

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

When I graduated from college I couldn’t get a job. My student portfolio wasn’t getting me any interest. (To be fair, it sucked.) Finally, after  two months of job hunting trauma, I got my first real job at Alphagraphics. Haha. Not much of a first job out of school. I was the “pre-press coordinator.” Occasionally designing a business card for someone, burins plates, stripping film, it was the good old days of press work. 

This slow start really sparked a fire in me and drove me to self-educate like a mad man. I knew I had more potential than where I started and I spent my evening hours learning everything I could to level up my career. It worked, because four years later I was a creative director at Fox Studios working in LA. 

I’ve jumped a lot of hurdles, bu I would say my biggest hurdle was the start of my career. I had to figure out that my university degree was just the start of my education. It qualified me for starter jobs. But if I, or anyone, wants to find big success, well that requires a long life of self-education. Read. Study. Ponder. Identify what you don’t know and get out of your comfort zone and learn it.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

My business was built on relationships. My time at Fox helped me build relationships with people who ended up working at Disney, Sony, Warner Bros. and a few other Hollywood studios. These friends became my first few clients. Over time, I became good at building relationships with their coworkers and then as my agency started to gain a reputation, referrals started to happen and growth really spurred. 

Selling creativity is a complex thing. Clients have to trust that you can solve their problems. Trust is build through relationships and relationships are built over time.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Exceeding expectations has been a constant thread in my career. When the client expects it by 2PM, I send it at 10AM. If they expect three, I give five. I always tried to anticipate needs, define expectations, and then exceed them. This mantra has led me to promotions, client growth, and agency growth. 

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Oh man. This article is too short to share all the stories I have. I’ve had a ton of clients pay late and some not pay altogether. Because of this I refined my processes over time. There are a few critical things that can help…

First, it all starts with the contract. The scope, price, estimated timeline, and payment terms all need to be clearly defined right at the start. Then both the agency and the client need to adhere to the contract. 

Second, and very important, try to keep the level of work completed in harmony with the amount of money paid. When this gets out of balance, then client (or agency) frustrations occur. 

For example, if you are working on a $30,000 project, and you invoice 50% at the start and 50% upon completion, you are completely out of balance right out of the gate. The client has paid half and you have done zero work. Now the client expectations and demand are high. 

However, if you do half fo the work and the client hasn’t paid anything yet, then you are completely out of balance. You start to have frustrations and worry creep that you may became financially damaged from the project. “What if they don’t pay.”

Instead, break payments into smaller increments and try to keep it somewhat balanced between work completed and work paid for. I’ve found that this is the best way to keep the relationship healthy.

6. What does your typical work day look like?

I’m up early and at the gym. My joints hurt more now than they did 20 years ago, but I power through. Starting my day at the gym helps me manage stress.

I sold my agency in 2015, so my work day is a bit different than a lot of designers. I don’t do design work for money anymore. 

A typical day for me consists of getting an Instagram post launched. Then I usually have two or three business coaching sessions. Then I spend my afternoon working on writing new books and prepping some new courses I have planned. Sometimes I have an upcoming workshop or lecture that I may be preparing too. I guess we could call all of this “content development.” My evening seems to be filled with replying to Instagram comments answering direct message questions from my community. 

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

I’m giving away every morsel of knowledge I have. Mostly on Instagram. If you are a creative professional (in almost any field) you will benefit from my content feed. I’m dropping frequently tons of information on there. And here is a somewhat generic sounding morsel, but I didn’t really get this figured out until 20 years into my career…

Like everyone else, your career will be filled with ups and downs, fearful moments and joyous ones. Try to enjoy the journey. 

Michael Janda is an an executive level creative leader with more than 20 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies working with some of the greatest brands in the world.

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Interview published on: Sep 19, 2019

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