After a year of professional activity it is time for me to run a little evaluation, especially considering how the current times lend themselves to such exercises. Just like a company, a non-profit, or public officials who have to publish their financial activity and report on their work, it seemed important to me that an entrepreneur like myself would do the same. Through this process, I mostly hope to offer students or "young" professional designers, a different way of thinking about their financial activity and especially to integrate an economic lens within their ethical and political stances.
It seems to me that the design industry tends to train professionals with low financial education even when so many of them increasingly aspire to champion collective good and transition efforts (in the social, economic, or energy sectors). Few know how to assess their "economic value" or know economic models that differ from neoclassical markets. It is however necessary to know how to integrate more relevant economic models into one's activity: steady-state economics, degrowth, economic planning, care economy... It is important to remember that there have existed and will continue to exist thousands of other economic models, formal or informal, in which the creation and allocation of value is not necessarily corelated to a model of supply and demand. For instance, in the economic model between villages in the Gulf of Huon in New-Guinea, supply and demand does not impact the value of the traded goods.
Once one completes their studies, the first thing they must do is ensure their financial stability: living costs, paying back loans, having enough saved to handle bumps in the road (health, debts, etc.). Not everyone starts at the same level, some may benefit from social or cultural capital, and financial support from their families, others start with "debts", and systemic hurdles (racism, sexism, supporting their family). The creation of any economic model must therefore first begin with a description of one's own situation: what do we inherit? Where are we starting from? What are my privileges? What hurddles will I face?
I have a social and cultural capital favorable to the French territory: French-sounding first name and surname, bourgeois education, higher education and international experience. My parents supported me economically, so I was able to go to higher education and have the privilege of choosing my path and of making financial mistakes. A social, cultural and financial capital has thus allowed and accelerated my activities until now, the question remains whether I want to reproduce this capital, increase it, give it, transform it and/or reduce it. In this situation of privilege I have personally decided to reduce my economic attachments. Less for myself and a little more for others. Before going any further it is therefore important to remember that the activities presented below are relevant only to my own situation described above, it is not a model, an example or any kind of solution.
The central component of my economic model was the definition of a maximum cap to my yearly gross income of €30,000. This number was derived form a projection and calculation of all my spendings for the coming year and of my expected taxes. My forecast was structured around lifestyle expenses amounting to €19,530 a year, to which were added €7,281 of taxes (for €30,000 worth of gross income), €1,500 worth of work expenditures and €1,000€ of miscellaneous spendings (in part related to a potential PhD), all of which amounted to a little under €30,000. In the end, my model assumes that I will be earning a net income of €22,000 or €1,833 per month. This salary does not reflect my experience, industry and market "standards," or Paris' average salaries because I've derived the amount of money I needed to earn from my self-assessment, from a specific "ethic" and of my work objectives which all have as a common denominator a place of privilege.
The model is also based on a rejection of hourly billing, because a close reading of neoclassical economic ideas generally makes us understand the absurdity of this in the service professions. You can learn more about this point via an intervention I organized last year (FR). Among those who share this analysis, some have modified their model to increase their revenue. What interests me personally is to think about my own model and to work the right amount of time on each project in order to be present only when needed. I never work full time, rather I make my skills available in a range of time and work at the level I deem necessary in this range. My invoicing is therefore based on a simple calculation: I have to earn €30,000 gross/year or €2,500 gross/month. The provision of my capacities therefore costs less than 2 500€ gross per month. I can't fully bill 2 500€ to a single client because I will never work full time. I therefore charge a maximum of 65% of €2,500 to a client who wishes to work with me for one month.
This system is based on two essential elements: I need to have a constant flow of activities to ensure that I earn €2,500 per month through several projects, which implies a certain amount of visibility. Secondly, I only collaborate with people with whom I have built a trusting social relationship before building an economic relationship. It's the robustness of the social relationship that ensures the smooth running of the economic relationship. This type of relationship requires the construction of a relevant network for a few years, a good social sensitivity and having made a few mistakes to gain experience. The subordination of the economic relationship to the social relationship has been the majority in most known economic models, it is only from the 19th century that this relationship will start to be reversed. Defining the social relationship before the economic relationship is therefore nothing new.
My activities are generally structured in four poles: projects, pedagogy, public speaking and writing. My objective is to link as many of my activities as possible to energy/ecological transition themes. It is a moderate success from this point of view because even the most constraining pole, the "projects" pole, has been reoriented. For this reason, I refused missions that were quite lucrative but which did not correspond to my objectives (an enormous privilege obtained after 8 years of experience). I wished to work voluntarily on a certain number of projects because I knew early enough that I was going to reach the maximum threshold of €30,000/year. However many projects are still in progress and will slide into next year. The end of the year was of course characterized by the cancellation of conferences and classes due to the coronavirus crisis. Finally, in 2019-2020, I would have participated in or initiated 9 projects, given 7 different classes and 17 lectures in France and Europe, written 2 research articles and various reports.
Without great surprise, my main source of personal spending went into paying rent, food, transport, and daily expenditures. Part of my transit costs are tied to travel for pro bono projects which blurs the calculations a bit. I'll be more mindful of my accounting setup for the next project. Similarly, my spendings in public transit should have by now motivated the purchase of a bicycle or a public transit membership card.
My professional expenditures were very low, I don't rent an office, I rarely outsource work, and I don't buy materials unless I have to (I instead prefer repairing my tools on my own). My doctoral fees are related to preliminary meetings in Barcelona but I am not officially a PhD student. My greatest surprise had to do with social charges. It turns out everyone who registered themselves as self-employed in 2019 were directly affiliated with the ACRE program, this meant my levies went from 24.6% (discharge payment) to 5.5%; in other words, from €7,200 to €1,909. My yearly spendings therefore went from €30,150 to €24,824. Thus enabling me to set aside €5,200 this year.
As soon as I arrived in Paris in April 2019, I was offered a one-year assignment to coordinate a design exhibition. This mission provided the economic basis on which to support all my other activities and allow me to be serene all year round. The creation of my business model was partly conditioned by this mission. I also had a variety of other engagements, courses, conferences, for which I was unable to leverage my model as the educational institutions hosting me had their own fee structures. I asked to be paid for conferences in which I proposed an original presentation (like Blendwebmix). For smaller structures and non-profits I did no request payment. Out of an ethical concern, I only requested a limited fee from larger corporations when conducting workshops there. The logic according to which it would be necessary to profit from their large financial manna does not suit me (the famous "they are rich it is necessary to profit from it" or the "if you are not expensive enough they will be wary") because I do not wish to enter in a relation of financial power with them and I do not want to develop conflicts of interests. For example, in November 2019 I spoke at an internal conference at Orange for €200, I did not want to ask for more. I won't elaborate here on the somewhat complex logic behind my relationship with large corporations, which perhaps deserves a separate article.
Classifying my income by type of activity, it is obvious that the "Projects" part, carried by the exhibition coordination mission, was the most important this year. However, one must be careful with this graph: conferences could have represented a larger part but I did not ask for a fee for a good number of events because I was assured of my income from the "Projects" pole. The "Writing" pole is minimal because my written production is more oriented towards research or towards my website.
Thanks to my surprise affiliation to ACRE, my budget, which was aiming to be balanced, suddenly became €5,200. This sum will be partly used to support me in April and May because I estimate that I will have a big drop in activity with the Coronavirus crisis. The rest will be put aside.
I do not bill based on time spent for theoretical reasons and because I do not agree with the commodification of time (as productive time). In theory, it should be up to me to assess the time each project will require while adapting myself to external scheduling constraints (meetings, group work, etc.). After putting this system in place a year ago I can now reflect on how it faired while I worked on my biggest project to date between 2019 and 2020: making my services available for 12 months which represented 69% of my gross annual income. To gauge how relevant the approach was, I kept track of the number of hours I spent on the project throughout the year. It was a perfect project to try this out on considering that my client gave me full control over the management of my time and effort while the project itself had clear temporal milestones (as one might expect from event planning projects).
This project started on April 15th and will end between the end of April and the start of May 2020 depending on possible project extensions due to the lockdown. As of the 8th of April 2020, I've worked 632 hours, over the course of 51 weeks, or 255 working days. This would technically mean that I worked 2.48 hours/working day. However, in practice, I adapted in real-time to the project's needs, balancing activity peaks and troughs (with other projects or travels).
I received no pressure from the client, but other project stakeholders sometimes imposed a pace and stress on me that I did not want. In spite of this I managed to maintain my other activities and projects but I don't think I'll accept any more missions related to international event planning, I don't like the rhythm or the working conditions of this sector. If we want to compare my economic value in a market logic we can estimate that I cost about 33€ gross per hour (20836/632 = 32.98), it seems to me that I am well below the standards of the Parisian market. In the end, even if it is impossible to leave the market logic and its capitalist counterpart, I try to move towards the margin of this system and to recompose my attachments from this position, a situation that Anna Tsing describes very well in "The Mushroom at the End of the World".
Beyond the purely economic aspect, this reorganization of my time and my activities corresponds better to my personal balance and mental comfort. I don't like subordination and hierarchical pressure because it generally makes me inefficient and leads to poor decision making. This mental comfort is also linked to the choices I make to put a maximum threshold on my income, I don't race and I take less to leave room for others. This approach therefore allows me to compose a model that more accurately responds to my situation and my values. It is this alignment that is soothing and reinforces the credibility of my public speaking (especially on the theme of energy/ecological transitions). Finally, it must also be emphasized that a change in economic model necessarily implies a change in organizational, legal and moral model a priori and/or a posteriori. The change in my economic model is linked to a change in time management, to the writing of new types of contracts to protect these new organizational modalities, but upstream this change was initiated by an ethical positioning that is specific to me.
See you next year
The model that organizes my activities is built on a situation of privilege, so it should be observed with extreme caution. I am not sure that the model is relevant for people who suffer discrimination and structural obstacles to their activities, I leave them free to judge what is useful to them. A new cycle of activities is beginning and new projects are opening up for me, including the possible transition to another legal status (cooperative, etc.), the exploration of other economic models and, of course, new projects.
My approach may seem strange, even frightening, on many levels yet it must be understood for what it is: it is a look through the lock of a closed door to try to discern what is on the other side. It seems to me that one of the ways to open this door is to understand the internal mechanism of the lock in order to pick it (you can also break the door down if it is not 100 meters high and does not weigh 30 tons). My approach is part of a logic of picking economic knowledge (reappropriation). It is therefore as an apprentice crocher that I use economic management tools (graphs, balance sheets, spreadsheets) to blow up these locks. More adventures in a year to find out if I have succeeded in picking new doors.
Thank you to all the people and structures who trusted me to collaborate in new terms. Thanks also to all the people with whom I share common adventures, to those with whom I exchange and cooperate regularly.
Many thanks for Hugo Pilate who did the translation, he's doing great research, check it out