NI Graphic Designer James’ first alarm goes off at around 6:30 am most weekday mornings.
And just as quickly as it beeps, it’s knocked off.
The second alarm ten minutes later is just as unwelcome.
James knocks it off too and rolls around and drifts back to sleep.
About twenty minutes later, we’re entering dangerous alarm territory.
It’s either a case of getting up now or risk falling back asleep – there’s no next alarm after the third.
Reluctantly, James knows his time has arrived to get up and attack the day.
He and his wife Carolyn both get up and first on the priority list is to get their young kids – Ava and Reuben – ready.
After that, he powers up his computer, and James checks his emails while cradling a cup of strong coffee.
James launched his business during the first NI lockdown in March 2020.
The decision came after he was furloughed from his full-time sales manager role.
Initially, he took to the golf course, driving and putting balls like a young Rory McIlroy.
He says he’d have loved to make it on tour.
But he thinks his handicap of 19.2 might hold him back a little.
He realised he was more Happy Gilmore than Tiger Woods.
And in the blink of an eye, his dreams of a professional golf career were all but over.
Instead, James set his sights on launching a new business.
And so, Down Design Lab was born.
Down Design Lab offers businesses a range of services, including Graphic Design, Company Branding and Web Design.
To date, he has worked closely with clients in a diverse range of industries.
Clients include SMEs in Transportation, Foodservice, Hairdressing and Vaping.
James says he could be working on new logo designs for a company or website and social media graphics on a typical day working from home.
“No two days are the same,” he explains.
“I tend to dedicate time in the afternoon to promoting Down Design Lab and answering customer emails and returning calls.”
He says he aims to finish work around 4 pm most days.
But he admits that having his iPad Pro beside the sofa means he usually ends up working another hour or two from his comfy seat.
James has a strong sales background.
He spent the last decade and a half in the telecoms and marketing sector.
So it’s no surprise that he places a strong emphasis on branding and logo concepts.
Despite working in the sales field for fifteen years, James always knew the entrepreneurial blood flowing through his veins would inevitably lead him down this path, albeit forced by a global pandemic.
“From my early days, I always knew that I was destined to work for myself,” he insists.
“However, it’s taken a little longer than I first thought.
“My sales background started in telecoms which helped me develop my love of technology.
“After seven years or so in telecoms, I decided to move into the marketing arena.
“That’s where my love of brand image and graphic design started to grow,” he adds.
And James counts that experience as pivotal in leading him down this path towards running his own business.
“Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with some fantastic companies, from local small businesses to large corporate drinks companies.
“This has helped me develop a keen eye for detail,” he maintains.
James is optimistic by nature.
And although he says the pandemic has affected him personally and professionally, he chooses to focus on the positives.
“It has allowed me to focus on starting my business and also to spend more time with my young family.
“It has given me the time to pick up on old hobbies and to plan for the future.
James says the pandemic turned his entrepreneurial dreams into reality.
“I would say that although the lockdown has been a negative thing with a lot of people’s lives being turned upside down – mine included – you always have to look at the positives in a bad situation.”
And what advice would James give to readers of this blog who are taking their first tentative steps into the Northern Ireland start-up scene?
“Go for it,” he encourages.
“Be consistent, be patient, and be prepared to make mistakes.
“You only live once.
“There is a really special feeling in saying ‘I am my own boss’.
“No job in my life has given me the same buzz,” he smiles.
And the buzz he gets from running a business isn’t necessarily pigeon-holed into profits and workload.
“I enjoy the freedom it gives me.
“And I enjoy the feeling you get from all those little wins.”
Elaborating on the little wins, James continues, “From winning your first order to setting up your business bank account and receiving your first payment.
“It’s knowing that you made that happen.”
But it’s not all sunshine and roses when you’re running a busy design consultancy during the most disruptive pandemic in a century.
James alludes to the notorious ‘imposter syndrome’ that more business people mention nowadays in the media.
Harvard Business Review defines Imposter Syndrome as:
“Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalise their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field.”
“Self-belief,” James says when explicitly asked about how it affects him.
“As an artistic person, it’s one of those traits that is almost impossible to shake.
“Lockdown has taught me that I can do more than I give myself credit for.
“I have always been very self-critical and never seemed to like anything that I produced, resulting in a lack of confidence.
“Over the last year, I have realised that whilst being self-critical can be a bad trait; it also gives me the drive to try to improve continually,” he adds.
Over the last twelve months, James says he has tried to manage an appropriate work-life balance.
“As a new business owner with ideas coming in all directions, I sometimes find it hard to switch off,” he contends.
Sometimes, his wife has to persuade James to park his work and relax.
“Generally, if Carolyn tells me that it’s late, then I stop working,” he adds.
And James says a special thank you has to go to The Body Coach, Joe Wicks, for ensuring he sticks to a disciplined daily exercise routine.
Despite the challenges of working from home, James says he enjoys those little home comforts.
“The tea and coffee facilities are better in the house,” he laughs.
With the Northern Ireland Covid-19 vaccination programme continuing at pace, James says he’s excited about being able to meet customers face-to-face again.
“I love to meet new people and get a real buzz in that face to face interaction.
“I am a firm handshake kind of guy which I am looking forward to getting back to at some stage,” he adds.
Reflecting on his first 365 days running a business, Northern Ireland lockdown life has taught James to appreciate things much more.
“There is a great feeling knowing that I don’t have to commute two hours or so every day.
“Another positive impact from the pandemic was finding the time to pick up on an old hobby that had been overlooked.
“I’m grateful for the time that I can spend on the golf course again.
“Don’t get me wrong; the extra time with the family is excellent.
“However, the time on the golf course can be such a relaxing and enjoyable time.
“It gives me that much-needed rest from the noise that bored children can only generate when stuck indoors.”
Looking ahead to the next twelve months, James has a clear ambition.
“Twelve months from now, I’d love to see myself in the office with a few staff members and client meetings back on the cards.
“I see the business developing and growing to the point where we can offer more digital services,” he adds.
But until Covid-19 passes and some normality returns to life in Northern Ireland, expect James to knock off his alarm at least three times, Monday – Friday.
To find out more about James’ entrepreneurial journey, click here.