For as long as I care to remember, I’ve wanted to be my own boss, and last year this dream became a reality.

Along the way, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to come across a lot of individuals who encouraged me and taught me valuable lessons about business. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without these people and their advice. As a result, I feel as if it’s my duty to pay it forward. So I’m passing along as much of this information as I can to anyone who also aspires to own a business.

This is the first installment in a new recurring blog feature called Small Talk with Small Hat Studio. I’ll be interviewing people who inspire me (and hopefully you). The questions and answers should help shed some light on what these talented individuals have learned about business.

For my first interview, I was absolutely thrilled that one of my favorite designers/illustrators agreed to sit down and talk shop. Who is this person? It’s none other than Jon Flaming!

Last year I finally got to work with Jon, after admiring his work for more than 15 years. In the course of working together, we had some great conversations about business and life.

If you don’t know Jon Flaming Design, here’s a little background. Jon graduated with a BFA from Texas State University in 1985, moved back to Dallas, and started working at the legendary studio Sullivan Perkins. Eight years later he left Sullivan Perkins to start his own one-man design studio — Jon Flaming Design.

In addition to being a talented visual communication professional, Jon is an exceptionally fine artist with many gallery exhibitions to his credit. He is a designer. He is an illustrator. He is a man of faith. He is Jon Flaming, and he is my first business interview for the Small Hat Studio blog. Enjoy!


Eric Venegas: What do you wish you had known about business when you first started?

WHEN YOU HAVE A REALLY GOOD SEASON, PUT IT [THE MONEY] AWAY, BECAUSE IT IS GOING TO MAKE UP FOR THE REALLY SORRY SEASONS THAT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE. THEY ARE GOING TO COME.
— Jon Flaming

Jon Flaming: I didn’t realize what a roller coaster ride this was going to be. And so, I think had someone said, “Hey, here’s what you need to do. You need to realize that in this business, there are going to be really good seasons and there are going to be really tough seasons.”

I think that probably would have been one of the most helpful things, if someone had said, “When you have a really good season, put it [the money] away, because it is going to make up for the really sorry seasons that you’re going to have. They are going to come.”

EV: As a small business owner, what should keep me up late at night? What should I be worried about?

JF: My faith is the foundation of everything I do. So God’s word says, “Be anxious for nothing. But in all things, through prayer, supplication and thanksgiving, give all that to me. And the peace that I have, which transcends everything, will guard your hearts and minds.”

I’m a natural worrier. If things are slow, my mind starts going through the natural scenarios of “What did I do wrong? Why aren’t people calling me?” I’m much better about it now, but it can still kick my butt sometimes. But I would worry about that very thing — the money. We had kids that were in private school, and a house payment, a car payment, and all that kind of stuff. So I would worry about just the “what ifs”: “What if I can’t make the house payment this month?” all the way to “What if I cause our family to end up in a shelter?” Just worst-case scenario type of things. Those were the things I would worry about.

I think the thing that concerns me the most is “Am I creating the best possible product for my client?” That would be secondary to the money thing. “Am I spending the amount of time that I should spend with each client’s project and conceptually coming up with the best product for them, that solves the problem they are trying to solve? Am I doing my best work for that client?”

I THINK THE THING THAT CONCERNS ME THE MOST IS ‘AM I CREATING THE BEST POSSIBLE PRODUCT FOR MY CLIENT?’
— Jon Flaming

EV: Is work/life balance important to you? What do you do to live a balanced life?

JF: It’s critical, especially if you have a family. With a wife and kids, I know and have known way too many men who have sacrificed children, family, at the altar of success. At the end of the day, it is not worth it. Nobody was ever on his deathbed saying, “I wish I could have come up with one more logo, one more concept, one more ad campaign.” It’s like, ”No, man, I wish I had a better relationship with my son. I wish I had a better relationship with my daughters. I wish all these things.”

Everybody makes mistakes, so this has nothing to do with perfectionism. It has to do with “Am I being intentional about balancing, about spending time with my family? About investing in their lives?” Now, our kids are grown. One is married. One’s getting married next week. One’s in New York. She’s an actress. And Eric, I tell you, to have them come back now and say, “Dad, I just have to tell you, man. The time that you invested with us, growing up, dude, thank you so much for spending time with us.”

EV: As it relates to business, what strategies do you use to work smarter and make the most of your day?

JF: I do a list, and that’s how I manage my day. Here’s the time frame, here’s the window. I’m giving myself from 7:00 to 8:30 to do this thing. Then, number two. All the way to the end of my day, whenever that ends. It typically ends late.

I have to do that, otherwise the distractions [take over] — something from the news might catch my eye, and all of a sudden, I’m reading news for a half hour. And I go, “Man, I just wasted a half hour reading about nothing.” So that’s how I stay focused.

And it’s not rigid in the sense that, if I get to the end of the day and every single box is not checked, I’m kicking myself. But it does help me to manage my time.

EV: What used to be your biggest weakness?

JF: Design and illustration have always been my strong suits, and fine art is a totally separate thing. As an amateur photographer, I love taking photographs, but when it comes to taking a great photo, I need help. “Hey, Adam Fish, or whoever it is, I need your help. I need you to help me with this.”

Copywriting — I wish, I wish, I wish I were a great writer. I admire people who craft words and write books and write blogs. That’s like writing music to me. I just love well-crafted paragraphs. You kind of go, “How do you do that? That’s awesome.”

EV: As it relates to your career, what are you most proud of?

FOR ME, MY ART, WHETHER IT IS DESIGN OR ILLUSTRATION OR FINE ART, IT’S REALLY A MEANS TO AN END FOR ME. BECAUSE IF IT’S THE END IN ITSELF, AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S NOTHING.
— Jon Flaming

JF: I think it would be taking that leap of faith just to say, “I’m going to do this.” But also, looking back at 22 years, statistically, most new businesses fail within the first two years. Those are the facts. So I’m looking at 22 years and thinking, “Thank God.” By the grace of God, 22 years. I don’t know if proud is the right word, but I’m just so thankful that I’ve had a business for 22 years, and I’m thankful that I had the courage to step out, to do that.

It’s interesting because my Dad always wanted to have his own business. When he saw me step out in ’93 and have my own business, it was like, “That’s awesome.” And then, ten years later, when he was close to 50, he said, “Why not?” and then he did it.

So I think that [leap of faith], coupled with being able to encourage others, young designers who are thinking about doing that, and encouraging them cautiously, “If you’re going to do it, do it. And if you fail, so what?”

EV: Why do you do what you do?

JF: It’s just in me, man. I think it’s just the way God created me. So, that being the case, … and it’s probably the same for you… there is a need every morning to get up and create. Creating could be anything from going into the garage and finding some old wood and just putting something together, or regardless of where I am, if I’m walking through the woods and I find some sticks — it’s always just creating, making something. It’s just in me.

For me, my art, whether it is design or illustration or fine art, it’s really a means to an end for me. Because if it’s the end in itself, at the end of the day, it’s nothing.

Too many designers — too many people, period — in business make that business the end itself. That was my God, too, for a while. I thought, hey, I’ve got to be in CA, I’ve got to be in Print, I’ve got to win these awards. That’s just all of us patting each other on the back and going, “Good job.” There’s nothing wrong with that. I actually encourage young designers to enter the shows. But, for me, especially when our kids were young, I just said, “You know what? I’m not going to do that.”

EV: Where do you find inspiration?

JF: I really try to stay encouraged and inspired, and to continue to learn by looking at the ways different people create. So it might be, to stay fresh, focused and inspired, I might spend half a day at the museum. Go be encouraged and inspired that way.

It might be music. Music is so influential. Growing up in a musical family, music is very important to me. So, it might be listening to some kind of new music that I’ve never listened to. There might be something that comes from that.

I REALLY TRY TO STAY ENCOURAGED AND INSPIRED, AND TO CONTINUE TO LEARN BY LOOKING AT THE WAYS DIFFERENT PEOPLE CREATE.
— Jon Flaming

EV: What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

JF: Getting to the point where the “Aha” moment comes. Where you go, “That’s a good one.” Typically on those, I have learned to give it the 24-hour test, the “Sleep on it” test. I’ll wake up the next morning and go, “That sucked. That was terrible.” Or I might wake up and go, “Hey, that was pretty good. That is good.” But it’s that moment where, after hours of research, and hours of noodling, and hours of concepting, you kind of go, “That’s it.”

And then the most gratifying thing is when a client sees the same thing, and the client goes, “That answers our question. Typographically, graphically, conceptually, that’s it. That’s the one…”

There’s just this synergistic thing where the client appreciates it, I love it… at the end of the day, professionally, that is a very satisfying thing.

EV: Is this where you thought you would end up?

JF: Yes, absolutely. I knew, probably like you, from the time I was five years old. I remember, in my little Sunday School class, having pencil and paper and just drawing.

So you know early on, “I can’t picture exactly what I’m going to be, but I think it’s going to have something to do with art.” I knew early on that I wanted to create.

They say that “where there is no vision, people perish.” So, if I don’t have some type of vision of what the future looks like… and keep in mind, as a believer, that God can alter my vision any day he wants… I hold that vision loosely. But God’s very specific about saying, “Hey, you need a plan. Hold your plan loosely, but you need a plan.”