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5 years, 5 posts, part 1

2011 March 28

Modern Alchemy LLC, established 2006. 5 Years!

I’ve posted various notes and brief references to Modern Alchemy’s upcoming 5th anniversary, but until now I guess I haven’t really written any significant remarks on the occasion. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, though, you knew that wasn’t going to last. In fact, upon starting to look around and take stock of things, I concluded that one post really isn’t enough. So, I’ll mark five years with five posts. It’s a good, handy number after all.

Part One: Secret Origins: Modern Alchemy LLC

There’s something to be said for the logic of “begin at the beginning,” and as I’ve never written anywhere in detail about how or why I created Modern Alchemy, now seems like the perfect time for that.

It’s tricky to say, exactly, where it really began, though. Obviously I didn’t just randomly wake up one day and decide to establish a limited liability corporation. Or maybe I did? To really explain how I got here, I suppose, it’s probably necessary to go back a dozen years to that place of origin for so many things, dear auld ISU.

As a student, I had zero interest in a business of my own. I just wanted a job, and a good steady paycheck, thanks, and for all America’s celebration of its culture of entrepreneurship I don’t think that I was particularly unusual in this regard. In the modern world, most people approach the problem of earning a living by looking for a structured, ongoing full-time job, and I was no different.

Even though my own father ran a business throughout most of my childhood, going the same route was not part of my plans, even as long-term thinking. The College of Design required graphic design students to complete a course on the business of design, and I suppose I got an “A” in that as in everything else, but it did nothing to get me excited about entrepreneurship.

Nope. If I gave the subject any thought at all, it was to think “man, I don’t want to deal with that hassle.” That’s all it seemed like to me, a lot of hassle. I didn’t want to run an office, I wanted to be a designer! Let someone else worry about that and I’ll just design.

The folly of youth, eh? I took the same approach to classes, actually; I thought “let’s get all this ‘gen ed’ filler ‘out of the way’ my first year or two so I can focus on my major.” Completely failing to appreciate the point of attending a university, rather than a vocational school, of course. By my last year I had actually begun to see the flaws in this attitude, and savored the few horizon-broadening non-major courses I could find time for. But my similar attitude, that “I just want to get a job and do design,” remained unquestioned.

Eventually, as with most dubious ideas, reality imposed its presence; I got that sought-after job and found that it did not enable me to “just focus on design.” I found myself dealing with folding, stapling and distributing documents; preparing presentations; filling out forms. I found myself pulled into the bane of the office worker’s existence, the meeting. So much for the “hassle” I was going to avoid by working for someone else!

Still, no interest in self-employment. What did I know about that? Better to just deal with the annoyances of a job by looking for another one. had assured me, after all, that “there’s a better job out there.”

All this changed in May of 2006, though, when I got F. I. R. E. D. Yep, I got booted, canned, shown the door, thrown overboard, terminated. And most definitely “with extreme prejudice.”

I think I can be explicit about this fact, now, though I’ll leave out the gory details. Nearly five years later, after all, I’m loved and successful; nothing answers more eloquently than success.

As I learned back in 2006, though, nothing is more awkward than rejection. Again, I’ll skip the details, but let me just offer this piece of advice. (Do pardon my language.) If you ever want to screw someone? I mean really, really screw someone? If that someone happens to work for you, then you can’t do much better (i.e., much worse) than unexpectedly firing them and then explaining this action with a laundry list of arbitrary, illogical and downright bizarre complaints.

Long story short, if you do this, then you place someone into a trap from which there is no easy or fast escape. Basically, job interviews go like this: “Why did you leave your last job?” I was fired. “Why were you fired?” Um. “Yeeees well thanks for coming by.”

There are alternatives to this version but, trust me, none of them work much better. And so ultimately, the reason why I came to embrace self-employment and why there is an active Modern Alchemy, today, is because I had no alternative.

It isn’t quite that simple, of course, nor did things happen all at once. For one thing, I eventually had at least one opportunity to turn freelance employment into a full-time job, which probably would have effectively “erased my record” and gotten me “reinstated” as an employable person. By then I had changed my mind, though…

There’s also the fact that Modern Alchemy LLC was established in April, while my last full-time job didn’t end until the following month (and, so far as I knew or intended at the time, was actually going to continue for some good long while). Which gets to the issue of actually creating Modern Alchemy LLC and my reasons for doing so versus various alternatives.

Most designers, so far as I know, do some occasional freelance work, right. I probably did my first paid freelance design projects even before I went to college; in 2004 I started doing ongoing, occasional freelance work for Blackwell Publishing which of course continues to this day.

When I left the world of “in-house” marketing departments for an independent design studio, I was aware of the issue of at least a hypothetical conflict of interest, and established before accepting the job that I had an ongoing client in publishing, and got specific approval to continue this work.

I had no intention of seeking other clients, let alone of leaving to set up a competing studio and trying to take clients of my employer with me. I didn’t want to run my own business and, for that matter, felt generally disenchanted with design as a profession anyway, at the time. So why, then, did I register Modern Alchemy LLC?

To be honest, at this point, it’s difficult to remember. I think I recall various reasons and yet, in a way, looking back it does seem a bit as though the movie of my life was somehow cut up and spliced back together with a scene out of place.

In reality, I suppose it was mainly driven by a preference for thoroughness and organization. I was doing paid design work, after all; this was an established fact. And yet the whole thing seemed very informal and imprecise. I had, by that point, learned enough about business and forms of organization to get the impression that operating as an unofficial, “sole proprietorship” as I had been was basically a kind of default, lowest-common-denominator status. That, I suspect, actually bothered me as much as the specific lack of any kind of legal shield, however flimsy, between my business and personal assets.

In any event, I often feel that if I’m doing something, I ought to do it right, and I think that was the case here. Of course, there’s probably also the fact that I was a bit bored and it was something to do, and it was also fun. Which gets to the issue of why I created “Modern Alchemy LLC,” as opposed to just filing papers for “Matthew Kuhns Design LLC” or something like that.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or of sounding like I give no serious thought to anything), I suppose that at the time this, too, was a matter of instinct. I think I weighed the two options, but was probably drawn to creating a separate identity mostly because it just seemed more fun. Only in the years since have I really had the perspective to better appreciate the pros and cons of either choice, and I’m still unsure what I would choose if I had things to do over again.

The big downside to Modern Alchemy LLC is that I have created a sort of dual identity, which feels like it gets in the way of freelance design work I want to pursue from time to time (see “Project J”), arguably to no real purpose or benefit.

The upside, I think, is that it’s fun. Yes, over the course of five years, Modern Alchemy LLC has essentially just been me, working from home, sometimes as a side project from other work. But even if that is the mundane reality, why limit myself to it? Why not create something which at least feels bigger and more fabulous, even if it’s mostly an idea? Ideas are real things, after all.

I recall reading some commentary on the baffling 2004 film Primer, at one point, mentioning how the main characters, though only moonlighting out of a garage, had all of the trappings of a “real company.” Their own name, logo, business cards, etc. And the suggestion was that in a way these guys were just like kids playing “grown-up” with their parents’ clothes. But, y’know, what’s wrong with play, what’s wrong with having fun? I mean, why would you become your own boss and then prevent yourself from having any fun, really?

Perhaps creative professionals are especially lured by this option, with our practiced habit of inventing and dreaming up new identities and images and all. I’m not sure. I know plenty of self-employed designers who just work under their own name, and I also know plenty like myself, and writer Nikki Evans and my friends Wendi or Sandy, who have to some extent or other created a virtual company “just like a real business.”

Maybe I would have chosen differently if I had a more catchy name, like “Max Power” or “Steele Jantz.”


Who knows, really. To a great extent, I think that most clients just don’t even care, and “Modern Alchemy LLC” makes me happy, at least. Plus, after five years, I suppose it has at least proven to be more than a passing whim.

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