Entrepreneur Matt Mills on Combining Programming Skills with Art

Matt Mills, co-founder of Cogsy (a user-friendly website builder), is a web designer, software engineer, and digital artist. In addition to working as a freelancer and starting a new company, he has worked with many small businesses throughout Texas as well as larger businesses such as Dell, Disney, and the Home Depot.

Below, Matt shares more about his experience working on a startup, combining code with art, and building up a valuable client base, along with tips for those who are interested in following in his professional footsteps.

What takes up more of your time- work with Cogsy or freelance gigs?

Matt MillsCurrently, 100% of my time is dedicated to Cogsy. In the early stages of a startup, it's a bit crazy. And being the only designer on a team means that my days are usually spent tackling a wide variety of tasks. In a typical day, I could be creating UI mockups, designing marketing materials in Photoshop, working on our website, building out HTML markup and styling it with CSS, and supporting clients who are building their own websites on our platform. Needless to say, there's not much time for freelance work at the moment.

What are the benefits of co-founding a company (e.g. a design firm) with another person as opposed to working exclusively as a freelancer or establishing a one-man company?

Let me preface this by saying that no matter how many people you start your business with, it is going to be difficult at times. But nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?

Back to your question. One benefit to having a partner or co-founder is that it will allow you to split up the workload. If you're building websites for instance, and you're a good designer, it would probably be worthwhile to have someone who is a better developer or programmer at your side. As a freelancer, you'd have to do it all yourself. Also, having someone to collaborate with, and tell you when your work is not good enough, is actually very helpful.

Another benefit may be that your network of potential clients or customers grows with each additional person on the team. When you're just starting out, you'll probably need to utilize everyone in your personal and professional networks to look for potential clients. Finally, just having someone to share the process of starting a company with you can be good. Like I said, it can be difficult. Especially dealing with the business (finance, legal, etc.) side of things. Having someone to discuss problems with, or to help make important decisions, can relieve some of the stress of having to do it on your own.

Of all the services you provide (illustration, database and systems admin, branding and advertising, 3D modeling, front-end development), which are most frequently requested?

As a freelancer, I probably have done more 3D modeling work and website design/development than anything else. Most of the full-time jobs I've had have been in the programming, IT, and software fields. And because I was freelancing on the side (nights and weekends), I really only advertised my 3D modeling skills because that is what I enjoyed doing most at the time. I think it also has to do with the fact that I live in Austin, and there are a ton of video game development companies. And people always need help building, updating, or maintaining website (that's why we started Cogsy), so I'm always getting requests for assistance.

Which came first- your work as a software engineer or your work as an artist?

Matt MillsAfter taking a BASIC class in high school, I kind of fell in love with programming. Being able to write some code and make the computer do something really intrigued me. I went through high school and college thinking that I wanted to be a software engineer of some sort. So, after college, that's what I did. And...it was alright.

Sometimes, your first few jobs out of college are not great, and you take what you can get to build up your experience. It was during this time that I started playing around with Flash. The combination of programming and graphics really knocked something loose in my head. Around that time, a co-worker turned me on to DeviantART and I was sucked into the world of art pretty quickly. The community was still pretty new, but the inspiration it gave me at the time was incredible. It really helped to boost my creativity- both with art and coding.

In recent years, I've even become an advocate for starting to teach children to code at an early age. The problem solving skills that it gives you are an incredibly important skill to have as you go through not only your career, but life in general.

How different do you think your income would be if you worked exclusively as an artist/designer and had no coding skills?

It has been my experience that people with coding skills are usually more highly sought after on most projects. For me, luckily, I enjoy both code and design and am fairly proficient when asked to work on either. I'd say this increases my value and allows me to hold a higher rate in most situations where all of my skills can be utilized. Having multiple skill sets also expands the number of potential jobs that I can work on. If there aren't many design projects open at the moment, I am able to look for coding gigs as well.

How feasible is it for an artist to learn some practical programming skills that can be used to leverage his or her art career? Are there any starting points (online resources, programming skills/languages) that you would recommend to an ambitious beginner?

I think it is absolutely feasible (and advised) for anyone to learn programming skills that they can leverage. I have used and have recommended Codeacademy. Its step-by-step tutorials are geared towards beginners and there is a points system that helps you track your progress. There are many other resources out there though. My advice would be to find something that you're interested in and start learning. JavaScript is great place to start and is becoming a more and more powerful tool every day.

Matt Mills Art

Can you tell us a little about your experience creating video game mods? Can someone make a career doing that alone?

Well, I grew up playing PC games. And Nintendo. So, I've always been drawn to them. And at some point while I was playing Unreal Tournament, I discovered that you could actually make your own characters and environments to use in the game. My mind was blown. I'm not sure why I hadn't realized it before then, but I discovered that a video game was nothing more than a piece of software. I started digging around and figuring out how to make 3D models and import them into the game engine.

That initial experience taught me a lot about 3D modeling and how game engines work. At the time, I was really just doing it for fun and out of curiosity so I wasn't concerned with making it a career. Most of the game mods I've come across are of the open-source mindset. Meaning, no pay, you work on it because you enjoy it. I think though, if you learn any of the skills needed (3D, programming, design) to make a game, you may be able to find enough contract work in the game industry to be successful.

How do most of your clients find you? Is the majority of your time spent doing work for new clients or ongoing/repeat customers?

The vast majority of work I do comes from repeat clients or referrals from those clients. In my experience, making the clients you do have very happy will help you grow your client base fairly easily. They'll come to you first when they need help, and they'll tell people in their networks that you are awesome. I think it is important to build relationships with your clients so that they know you're in it for the long haul, rather than just trying to complete a one-time job for them.