Designer to Designer / Money Matters with Aaron James Draplin

Mr. Draplin is a force to be reckoned with in the design world. If you’re not yet acquainted with Aaron and the DDC (Draplin Design Co.), it’s about time you’re introduced. There are many reasons to admire Aaron; not only does he run his own design studio, sell studio merchandise, shamelessly hawk Field Notes left to right and scamper around the country speaking, but he knows how to manage all the ‘loot’ that comes of it, as he would say. Let’s face it: money matters. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you can’t crunch numbers and keep your books straight. Aaron is a down-to-earth example of just such principle. Aaron, thank you so much for sharing your frank thoughts on what can be a delicate topic – cursing and all.

Q / How do you feel about money in general?

A / It’s something that I fear, of course. I grew up in a family that seemingly had everything, yet at an older age, mom and dad told me of some pretty lean times. I never knew any of that. And for that perception, I thank them. I mean, I knew we didn’t have what some of the families up the food chain had, but it didn’t matter. I was kept busy with a million activities, Legos, drawing, baseball, swimming and general trouble making.

And still, money is something I fear. Or, the idea of not having enough is a thumping gorilla that drives me to work as hard as I do. I don’t want to be compromised, ever. I lived a couple of those years, and know what it was like to have to go without. It stung. It made me bitter and small and unnecessarily guarded. All bad stuff. I knew I had it in me, but didn’t know I’d be able to pull it all off. I will never forget the fear I felt with each credit card statement showing up. Such a fuckin’ racket, and I fell into it face first.

Q / How much money did you have on hand when you decided to go out on your own? How did you determine if it was enough?

A / I had enough to get into my house, and then shortly, afterwards, had saved enough to “pay rent for three years.” Like, say the work dried up? I had my ass covered for three years. That was first taste of security.  A state of mind I earned with my own two hands. And that’s where shit took off for me. Once I had the big shit locked down, it opened the world up. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I could risk loot on personal projects. I could invest in better equipment. And most importantly, I could take off for a couple months, cruise America and live on the cheap, all the while, working at night and keeping the clients happy.

But that number, when I head out on my own? It was about $20,000. I finally paid off my goddamn credit card in 2003, and it was amazing how the money started to actually add up. No one told me that. I was just used to feeling beat down. Once I got myself out of that hole, I haven’t looked back.

Q / Where does most of your work (ahem, money) come from at this point in your career?

A / Client retainers make up the bulk of it. Then one on one gigs. Then DDC merch. Then Field Notes. And holy shit, writing those out, I get slapped in the face with: All shit that I love. So proud of that.

Q / What’s the most risky financial decision you’ve made in your business? In retrospect, was it a good or bad decision?

A / It’s nothing too wild, really. I’ve made small steps since I got out of the hole. That’s something mom and dad taught me.

Buying a house was scary. Paying the fucker off was a triumph over the sharktoothed bankers that’ll gladly pillage you for years. I’m still high from that one. No more throwin’ money away at some bank, while they simply hold the note. No one told me I’d be able to do this. I had to ask the banker if it was okay? And she sorta laughed, and passed me up the food chain. And of course, some turd in blue shirt and tie tried to talk me into investing it. But man, I walk a little taller these days with that mess off my back. Plain and simple.

Q / How do you handle the inconsistencies of being self-employed? How does your budget work?

A / I don’t pay for things I can’t afford. Just as simple as that. And, I often pay the shit up front, just to get it out of the way. Bills are paid the moment I get them. Same goes for credit card statements. I don’t like that shit weighing on my so I nip it in the bud the moment they come on my radar.

Q / Have you gone into debt for your business?

A / Not one goddamn bit!

Q / If you had more money, what would you do (personally or professionally)?

A / I’d pay off all the worries of those close to me. And in all frankness, have been doing it here and there. I just want everyone to be comfortable. It doesn’t take much. So I’m working my ass off now while the phone is ringing, and one by one, taking care of those I love. Very proud of this shit, and feel a little weird writing it out for all to read.

Q / What would you tell yourself 10 years ago regarding finances?

A / It’d be something like this: “Relax, you dick. The work is gonna come. And with that, loot. Believe in yerself, work hard and the rest’ll fall into place. Pay off those school loans as fast as possible. Then start chipping away at the house. Then the car.”

And the thing is, that’s exactly what I’ve done!

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Read more about Aaron at Creative Mornings from way back when. Or even further back, at AIGA DesignSpeaks.

The “Designer to Designer” series is comprised of guest posts highlighting entrepreneurial designers and the advice they have on a variety of topics.


10.5.12 // Topics: Designer to Designer

Comments (4)

  • October 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm |

    Megan, I LOVE this post. I’ve always loved Aaron’s attitude, and love how frank he is about all of this.
    Thanks for posting!!
    -CPG

    • megan
      October 6, 2012 at 8:09 am |

      Oh, I’m so glad! And you’re so welcome.

  • October 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm |

    I’m also debt free and chunking away at the home mortgage. It’s vital to work in this business without debt. That poison will kill your business before it even has a chance to grow. Great post Meg ;)

    • megan
      October 6, 2012 at 8:10 am |

      Clint, way to go! We’re getting darn close ourselves. School loans are the worst! I agree 100%.

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