My business story

rock group overlaid with a pantone swatch book

“If you are successful at school; you will be successful in life”

I wasn’t a great success at school. Even though I was sent to good schools, in order to get me to work hard, I was told “if you are successful at school; you will be successful in life”.

As hard as I tried my exam results were below average and in the other arena for school success – the sports field – my performance was even worse! The mantra I’d been hearing  “if you are successful at school; you will be successful in life” caused me to come to an uncomfortable conclusion. I consoled myself by thinking that I would be a successful rock star and prove them all wrong.

school desks

I soldiered on into the lower end of higher education establishments and eventually found employment working on picture desks of newspapers and magazines.

My dreams of becoming a rock star eventually faded away as my group split and I was left to ponder my future as a London-based wage slave commuting to work on the train with everybody else. Hardly rock and roll!

Eventually, after a few stints teaching English abroad, I became a freelance artworker and occasional graphic designer as I had a basic understanding of Photoshop and QuarkXpress.

Not only did my professional life seem to be going nowhere but also, as most of my friends were getting married and settling down, I was increasingly at a loose end at evenings and weekends with too much time on my hands to think about my lack of success.

I had been an under-achiever at school and it was looking the prediction “if you are successful at school; you will be successful in life” was coming true in a negative way!

Everything changes

So, I was heading towards a dead end. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I’d carried on in this direction. I don’t think about this too much because, I’m afraid, it wasn’t going to be very pretty.

arm reaching out

I can’t say exactly what happened to turn things around but something did. It started with a passing interest in Neuro-Linguistic Programming but then I began reading books about psychology, meditation, Buddhism and other eastern philosophies.

I stopped seeing myself as an individual who was tossed and turned by the events of life and began feeling at one with the universe and more responsible for my thoughts. Somehow the thought processes within my brain that would turn towards negative thoughts suddenly turned to positive ones.

A number of other changes happened to me around this time – I woke up one morning and gave up smoking “cold turkey” without any side effects. I started to exercise more. I further indulged my creative hobbies of photography and music.

At this point I could earn about $60,000 a year from freelance artworking and designing in London (these were still economically stable times!) But I was frustrated by working in the design agency environment – the client’s wishes were filtered down by the chinese whispers in the line of command and there was a lack of creativity.

I had always wondered what it would be like to run my own design company.

Company director

But did I have the courage and ability to do it? There were a number of questions weighing heavily on my mind:

  • Could I leave the relative security of the in-house freelance design work I was doing? The storm clouds of the current financial crisis were gathering.
  • Did I have the self-discipline to be able to work from home on my own? Would I spend all day watching Oprah?
  • Did I have the ability do run my own business? The phrase “if you are successful at school; you will be successful in life” was chipping away at my confidence.
  • Did I have the talent to design? I had never been to design school and I was totally self-taught.
  • Could I handle clients? I didn’t have much experience of this.

I’d also had a very stupid prejudice, thinking that in order to run my own business I’d have to be selfish and mean. I know now that it is perfectly possible to be a successful business owner whilst keeping my principals of honestly and kindness.

skyscraper in city

But, as you can see, despite a history of negative vibes about my abilities, I have started and run a successful design and marketing business in these trying times!

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re stupid!

Don’t let anyone make you believe you can’t do something! If my experience has taught me anything at all it would be this: don’t believe everything you’re told by the “experts”. By “experts” I mean teachers, careers advisors or traditional authority figures.

Business requires a certain creativity of thinking which can actually be a disadvantage in the classroom but a positive bonus in later life.

The future is bright

Now I am looking to expand my business by modeling my processes, outsourcing and increasing my passive income. I still have to fight negativity from people criticizing my business model for being too simplistic. But I will continue to learn from my experience and pass on as much as I can to others who wish to embark on a similar journey.

So what do you think?

I really interested in hearing from others who have started a business. Did your journey have any similarities or differences to mine? Or, if you are thinking of starting a business, has this helped in any way?

Did this help you? If so, please share!

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  1. says

    Inspiring story Rob. I’m still at the stage where I don’t feel confident enough to turn down the in-house freelance just yet, although I guess it’s a good way to ease yourself into your own company. And one more big snowfall and I might have a rethink on the commuting!

    I’m hoping 2011 I can flip the ratio so I am doing the majority of my work directly through my company and maybe a bit of freelancing in London to supplement. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.

    Enjoyed reading your site this year, have a great Christmas.

    • steve marshall says

      keep up the simplicity .it’s all there is .people with fancy titles to there jobs ,are just hiding behind a made up job title that ,really makes them feel important . god you should here my story it’s a cacking laugh.

  2. says

    Very good to read such a honest and open article from a fellow designer! I am at the beginning of my journey and took till I was 28 to find what I really wanted to do with my life.
    I am a lone parent so much of my time is at home anyway so what better way to feel positivity than to learn a trade rather than be suckered into the world of day time T.V and feel better about our lives cause some toe-rag on Jezza has got it bad!

    I hear what you are saying about the psychology & Buddhism thing it keeps things in perspective and opens our minds that little more :)

    Happy you have a good married life :) they say behind every good man is a great women :p

    Have a great Christmas Rob and hope 2011 will be even better :)

  3. John Orian says

    Thanks for a great post Rob … very encouraging.

    Have a Merry Christmas and wonderful 2011.

    I’ll be in touch.

  4. says

    Hello Rob, I think you’re exactly right. Freelancing is an excellent way to ease yourself into starting a business. It took me about a year and a half to freelance less and less until the company took over. There were days when I’d come home only to start work again but I honestly don’t remember that happening very often. Also, I was very naughty and used to work on my own projects whilst doing freelance gigs – no one seemed to notice.

    Hello Derek, have a great Christmas and I’m sure 2011 will be better for all of us. I’m completely with you that it took until you were 28 before you found a path – I was a lot older! It looks like you have an excellent design business set up already.

    Hello John, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you. I look forward to interacting with you soon, as I do with all my visitors that wish to get in touch! All the best.

  5. says


    I was looking for you because I’m interested in WP. Loved the personal story! I can relate but it also made me think of my son who I push to succeed in school! Guilty! Let’s connect.

  6. says

    Hello Janet, I think every parent likes to see their children do well at school! Yes, loads here on WordPress and other related stuff. Thank you for your comment. Come back soon!

  7. says


    This story was both disturbing and inspiring. I use the word disturbing for one reason; You have written my story to a tee with the exception of making a living doing what I love. That is where the inspiration comes in.

    I am 44 years old and have been unemployed for twenty months; the longest I have ever been out of work.

    I am pushing forward, however, some days, like today for example, I feel battered and beat with no desire to push my mouse let alone my yet to be established business.

    It is no accident that I received my LinkedIn group update today and read your story.

    I needed it.

    Bryan J Zimmerman

  8. says

    I read this article a few days back but had to rush off before commenting! Anyway Rob, it’s great to hear your back story.

    I can remember the last time I was on the Tube, I’d never seen a bunch of more depressed people in all my life. No wonder you wanted the daily commute out of your life!

  9. says

    Hello Bryan, I’m glad you found the article inspiring. I wondered if anybody would identify with it. The link you gave points to a WordPress website with a great web address. You also seem to be able to write well. I would say with these two things you are obviously well on your way to create an interesting future for yourself. There is plenty of information here on how to market yourself online. I know the feeling that motivation is hard sometimes but feel free to ask me for any advice if you get stuck.

    Hello Andrew, it’s amazing that most people spend about 2 hours a day travelling to and from work down here! I’m glad you made it to London with your family the other day. It’s not such a bad place but, you’re right, the tube is a nightmare when you’ve got to get on it everyday!

  10. says

    Great story. You really have a great knack for blogging. I have had my own design business for 5 years now and love it (Mona Lisa Graphic Design). I have to admit that I do break a few days a week to watch Oprah, lol. I love the freedom!

  11. says

    Great story Rob! A friend once told me that faith is like a ship. You can’t change direction unless your sails are up and you are moving. So trying new thing.

    I got started designing ads for a local paper back in 92. I had used Quark at Kinko’s, but at (then) $35 per hour to fiddle with the machine, and being broke, I knew I was never going to get pro time in front of a Mac in order to get the skill I needed to get a job. So I went out and bought “Visual Quickstart” for Quark (the book series with the Rabbit) and memorized it. I then applied for the ad job, and they asked me to on-the-spot recreate an ad. Bam. I knew exactly what to do. Eighteen years later I now make and sell my own design books using the descendants of that early version of Quark!

    So yeah, stretch and try something new and don’t listen to any naysayers.

  12. says

    Hello Douglas, I remember reading a book on Quark (can’t remember what it was called) and in those days it was easy to get freelance jobs and even though I wasn’t particularly good at it I managed to get by. Yes, don’t listen to any naysayers and, in my case, don’t listen to the naysayers in my own mind! I thought Quark was difficult and it’s nothing compare to CSS.

    Hello Bryan, I will write you an email.

  13. Kathryn Alexander says

    Very inspired by this story. I’m doing a report for a college class on photo montage, and stumbled across Rob Cubbon for the first time. I am a struggling freelance artist myself, single mother of two, and full-time college student completing my BFA. It’s great to learn the personal journey and mind behind commercial images. I am a Buddhist and particularly relate to the idea of creation of positive thoughts, which manifest positive outcome!

  14. says

    Hello Kathryn, glad you found something of interest here and you found this inspiring. Best of luck with your BFA and your family – you certainly have a lot on your plate. I agree, I can’t speak too highly on the power of positive thinking!

  15. says

    On the school subject…

    To make a long story short, I left school in year 9 and it was the best thing I could have done. At the time, staying for another 3 years would have been a total waste of time.

    3 years later when my classmates finished school they had a piece of paper and I had 3 years work experience ( and income ). We all know which of those 2 an employer would prefer.

    • says

      Hello Andrew, you’re quite right. People are far too obsessed with college education and qualifications when some of the most successful people never had them. All the skills I use to make money weren’t even invented when I was at school so fat load of good it did me!

  16. says

    Great post and truly inspiring. I couldn’t agree more with you. I think children aren’t taught how to goal set properly, or how to have a positive and can do attitude. The comment you give about “if you are successful at school you’ll be successful in life” is just so wide of the mark. Some kids are non-academic but have a huge sparkle in their eyes, and become far more successful than the really bright ones. It all comes down to your desire and motivation to make something of your life.

    • says

      Hey, Sue, yes, I would love to communicate to every de-motivated child or person, look, you can do amazing things, it’s not beyond you!

  17. Costanza says

    Rob, thanks for the inspiration. I hope you’re right about “you can do amazing things, it’s not beyond you!” :-)

  18. says

    This is very inspirational Rob, we’ve trod a similar path. I was put in bottom set for maths at school and told to forget it, they would even let me sit the standard exam, and now I’m mastering Javascript and PHP, who would have thought it!

    I intend to contribute more to your blog, but at the moment I’ve got so much to learn!! Making my way through your back catalogue of blogs!

    • says

      Good for you, Martin, I have always thought that if you are told you’re not very good at school give you a tremendous advantage over other people – perseverance! I look forward to more of your comments. But only if you have time! :)

  19. Marilyn says

    Hi Rob
    I ‘m here at my nine to five job reading your story as I munch into my sandwich and wishing to run out of the building screaming – FREEDOM! The creative within me is hoading me to make the leap, to cast off restraints and self- imposed limits and persue fufilment! Thanks Rob for being honest and transparent.

    • says

      It’s not often I get told one of my blog posts makes someone want to run away screaming! :) Thanks for the comment, Marilyn. I was in a 9 to 5 not so long ago. Start blogging! That’s what worked for me! You can work on your own business in your own time before casting off the monthly pay packet.

  20. Musa says

    Its a real inspiration to hear other people’s stories!

    As a child I had always been creative and had two loves; drawing and sport. I just wanted a career that would allow me to draw, and if that failed; play football! My parents, being academically minded, discouraged this and always forced me excel at school. It didn’t help that my dad taught at my school, so he always kept an extra eye on how I was doing. A kind of “Do well, or I going to know about it…” approach.

    I did extremely well in high school, but in order to please my parents, I ended up studying Sports Science at university. I loved the course I was on, but to be fair, I was more interested drawing the anatomy of the human body and diagrams of organs for revision purposes than measuring the strenght of o muscle. Eventually, I summed up the courage to change course and study for a foundation degree in Illustration; much to the horror of my parents :)

    In my final year, we have a Business Practice module where we learnt about running a creative business; planning, self promotion, finances and all. I was so inspired by it that all I wanted to do was ditch school and start working. I’m only a few months from finishing my degree and to be honest I cant wait to start my own design practice! Its not going to be easy, but being a pennyless student has taught me a great deal. Since doing this module, I can’t imagine that I could work for someone else knowing that I could be my own boss.

    Don’t pay any notice to all those who say YOU CANT. At the end of your day, its your hapiness and state of well being that you have to live with !

    • says

      Hello Musa, great to hear your story and thanks for sharing it with us.

      It’s really interesting to see how other people find their calling. And I really wish you the best in all your endeavors. I certainly agree that happiness counts when you are deciding on a career or business path. I also wish I’d started my own business earlier but I’m older than you and the opportunity wasn’t there for me at your age! I’ll stop now because I’m sounding like an old man!

      Plenty more here about starting a design business and plenty more to come on this subject!

  21. Mark Hilsden says

    Hello Rob,
    Thank you for such an inspirational article, it certainly struck a chord with me.
    I hope you don’t mind me sharing a similar story with you.
    I have a similar story to you having a dream of being a successful rock musician, etc. and although we got a few gigs it didn’t really happen and my Dads answer was get a proper trade so I became a bus driver which paid a living but not much else. Then I became unemployed and had the opportunity to rethink my life.
    I decided that I was going to be a house artist but I didn’t tell my parents because I thought I knew what they were going to say. Eventually I got my first client and then managed to get another commission followed by another.
    After a couple of years I told my parents and was most surprised to discover that they were supportive. But the thing I found most amazing was that this bloke that was just a bus driver was now invited to do commissioned drawings of peoples houses for company directors, company chairmen, people that commuted to work in helicopters and lords and ladies of the realm. At night I would sleep in the car as I couldn’t afford to drive all the way home, would complete a commission often in a MacDonald’s until they shut their doors and then the following evening would deliver the completed commission to them.
    It really was quite a surreal time I would drive up to these massive houses along drives a half mile long past horse paddocks and outside the front door would be all sorts of amazing vehicles that I could only dream of.
    Eventually I built a business where I actually employed artists and then I made a stupid mistake and lost it all.
    Now I’m back to being a bus driver struggling to support a wife who can’t get work at the moment.
    With the help of a friend who has commissioned me to create marketing materials and a website for his new business, this is the start of a new life and we will succeed, although we certainly have a steep learning curve.
    Thank you once again for sharing your story and would just like to know that I found “how to market yourself on line” a very useful book.
    I know from past experiences there is more than enough work for both of us and more.
    I look forward to hearing more of your successes.
    Mark Hilsden

    • says

      Hello Mark, thanks for your story as well. It does seem that this article did strike a chord with a lot of people. What interests me about your story is that you were amazed that the experience of running a successful business had happened to “someone like you”. Well, it seems that we are all “someone like you’s” – there’s not much difference between the successful ones and the ones that aren’t so successful. This has inspired me to add an extra bit into another article I’m writing that I’ll publish tomorrow, hopefully. So, thank you.

      Another interesting point is that you “know” you’re going to succeed with this new venture. I’ve been trying to raise my passive income for over a year now without much success but I know I’m going to succeed at it – so we will see.

      Yes, there’s definitely more than enough work for the both of us and more.

      Let me know if you need any help.