Advice — What I’ve learnt about money: Comuzi co-founder Alex Fefegha
Now six years into running an agency, creative technologist Alex Fefegha has learnt a thing or two about building a sustainable business. Having founded design invention studio Comuzi alongside fellow co-founders Akil Benjamin and Richard Fagbolagun in 2013 (from a uni dorm room, no less!), the three have found their own way with no financial backing. From calculating rates to the impact of his upbringing, here Alex talks us through his biggest learnings with money and earning as a creative.
Alex’s Earnings CV
£10k (“During this time, the company earned about £50k.”)
£40k (“This is salary plus predicted dividend payout.”)
Earning for me has been a slow, steady, gradual climb. Last year I made £30k, but that was through a combination of Comuzi, speaking and teaching. It was also the first year that I started tracking my income properly, and I even set up investment funds.
Comuzi was founded in 2013, but being able to pay ourselves properly only started between 2016 and 2017. Then in 2018 and this year, income has been more consistent. We’ve also always had other revenue streams, which just comes with being new to the industry and no-one knowing who you are.
At the beginning, Akil was working at a Japanese restaurant or doing random freelance jobs, Richard would work night shifts, and I would be building websites and teaching design on the side.
“Being able to pay ourselves properly only started between 2016 and 2017.”
The art of charging
Some of the earliest agency jobs would pay about £600 pounds each. But when you’re 18 or 19 and someone gives you a few hundred pounds for a project, you’re like, “fuck yeah!” But later, the conversations are different; between thinking about the prospect of marriage, having a family, mortgages and pensions.
Eventually we began to charge more, and then it was about asking: how much can we afford to pay ourselves? Often, advice to new business founders is to pay yourself a really low salary and then pay yourself a dividend at the end of the year if the company makes a profit.
In terms of what we were charging, we knew that our rates were still quite low – they top-tier freelance rates, rather than agency rates. This was, in a lot of ways, down to fear. When you’re coming up, you’re scared; you’re still getting a foot in the door. But you realise that isn’t very smart.
Alex (right) and Akil (left), by Paolo Rizzi
Getting realistic with rates
Gradually increasing our fees has meant improving our margins and making sure that each project is profitable. Since we’re solely funded by our own revenue, those profit margins help us reinvest in the company, and when you’re trying to grow, that capital is really important.
You have to start making sure you’re attracting clients with enough budget to help you support a team of three or four. When we began hiring freelancers, we wanted to be able to pay them at market rate. On top of that, some of the hardest things to figure out were around paying tax, PAYE and National Insurance contributions.
At some point we thought: Why don’t we try and pay ourselves a salary of £30k, and then do dividends at the end of the year? On top of that, our goal is to always have three-months worth of savings, just in case things go wrong; then we at least know we’d have three months to sort it out.
In terms of costs and outgoings we’re very lean and very frugal – maybe a bit too much so! But having enough money provides breathing space. We’re often challenging ourselves to get into a headspace that isn’t just about survival, and with that breathing space comes the opportunity to take calculated risks. We’re just finding that balance.
“We’re often challenging ourselves to get into a headspace that isn’t just about survival.”
The power of credit
Something I wish I’d understood sooner is the power of credit. If you’re going freelance or are self-employed, this is quite important as it can help you with an overdraft or a loan. I once took out a loan, as a client project was taking too long to pay. I tried to pay it back in chunks, but they wanted it back at once, so I got a default on my credit rating, which can be pretty negative when you get a credit check. It only came off recently, and was on there for about five years.
Another thing that has impacted my attitude to money is my upbringing. I grew up in care, and I moved into my grandparents’ house at 18. At that time I was about to go to uni in London, and their house was where I had the most stability. When you’re coming from a black family, there’s also the idea of black tax – your money’s not only for you: you’ll be sharing it to help other family members, too. This means there can be some anxiety around having to earn for others as well as yourself. It’s an interesting one.
Financial management is an art that definitely requires self-discipline. I feel like I’ve been pretty savvy so far, but I also realise some of the ways I deal with money might be a bit extreme, such as having a strict limit on spending and keeping cashflow documents. In my Notes app, for example, I store information about what I owe and who owes me – I’m very proper about all of that.
Overall, our aim now is to get to a £40k salary from Comuzi. However, from a business perspective, we’ll need to work hard to get there. We’re now at the stage where we’re scaling the company beyond us, and it needs to be able to accommodate for personal growth, both for us and the team.
See Alex’s work at comuzi.xyz. This article is part of a series sharing experiences of earning money as a creative – from successes to failures and everything in between. If you have a story you’d like to share with us, please email us: [email protected]