As the son of a CFO and the brother of a financial advisor, money was always an open topic for me growing up, and I think I’m better for it. The tech industry is notorious for massive pay disparities by gender, race, and other seemingly unrelated factors, and yet they exist. I think good way to start changing this for the better is to make it less taboo by talking about it. In order to talk about money, we have to talk about money. (I wrote a book about pricing services for this very reason.)
I’ve had wildly varied experiences with money working in tech. I’ve been blessed to experience several times in my life where I’ve earned more money than I ever thought possible. I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine I’ve probably earned more than the average designer over my career so far. That doesn’t mean I don’t have financial hardship at times. I’ve also had times where I wasn’t making as much as I wanted or as much as I needed. Earning is one part of the equation; spending, saving, investing, and other factors are involved in turning high-earning into true wealth, something I’m still learning—and often failing—to do.
What I can share, though, is what I’ve earned at different points in my career, along with some context around it. (Talking about money is often difficult because it’s so contextual, so we can’t leave that part out.) I’m nervous to share any of this, for all the reasons you might expect:
While I do think and feel those kinds of things, I’m choosing to share anyway. I’ve long admired the way that Matthew Smith has shared a look at his salaries over the years. It’s not just that he’s sharing numbers openly—something that most are reticent to do—but he shares context around the numbers: his level of experience, what factors in and outside of his control led to a change, and much more. It’s a model standard for how conversations about money can happen. Thanks for the inspiration and example, Matthew.
Here’s my version.
Well, technically, they paid for my 20-minute train ride from Center City Philadelphia to Conshohocken and back 3 days each week while I was in college.
I was attending Drexel’s Digital Media program at the time. All Drexel students have to do a co-op, a 6-month period of work around junior year that also earns college credit. (That’s part of the reason I chose to go to school there.)
Electronic Ink offered to create a new website for Drexel’s College of Media Arts & Design (CoMAD), and one of the stipulations of that arrangement was that 2 CoMAD students be brought in as interns to work on the project. I was one of those students.
After my co-op, Electronic Ink offered to keep me on part-time while I was still in college.
Electronic Ink started a new division of the company that specialized in building websites using a new technique called “web standards.” They asked one of the lead designers to head this division, and he asked me join with him.
I had a blast working at Pixelworthy. I stopped going to class—why go to school to get a good industry job if I already had a good industry job?—and transitioned to full-time hours with the same hourly rate.
To this day 17 years later, I’m still 9 credits shy of a Bachelors degree in Digital Media.
This was my first full-time job, effectively making the same amount of money as before but now I had benefits.
I wanted a higher title so I could win arguments with my peers in the office more easily, so I leveraged a few other offers from places I was interviewing at to get a promotion and a raise.
I moved from Philadelphia to New York for another dream job. I didn’t like the “demotion” in title, but I didn’t put up too much of a fight because the money was more than I needed.
At this point in my career, I wanted nothing more than to become an art director. I feel like I had been doing that job for a few years already, and I wanted it badly. I proposed a growth plan to my manager and pitched a no-raise promotion to get the title I wanted sooner than later.
A promotion on paper, but realistically this was the company phasing out the “art director” title in favor of “design director.” They also said they were leveling out design director salaries too, so I got a little bump here.
So far, my career experience and salary had come from working at other companies. My first daughter was born in New York, and my wife and I decided to move back to Philly to be closer to family. This seemed like the right time to try full-time freelancing, so I started my own studio.
Because of the structure of SuperFriendly, it’s a little difficult to describe my total compensation. I mean that in a few ways:
All to say, even though these numbers seem pretty exact, assume that they’re actually a little bit lower than my total compensation that year.
I’ll also add the total annual revenue SuperFriendly made that year next to my annual salary for additional context.
|My Annual Salary||SuperFriendly Annual Revenue|
* January – July
I shut down SuperFriendly in 2022. The way I earn money now is… complicated.
I own a few separate businesses that each contribute a little to my income. I sell design system courses and a monthly community membership through Design System University. I do consulting, corporate education, and sponsorships and have other products through Dan Mall Teaches. Both companies are LLCs “owned” by a corporation I own called Malleable Corp, which is probably the only time you’ll ever hear that name. It’s kinda what Alphabet is to Google and Waymo or Meta is to Facebook and Instagram. I have a few other business ideas that I think will all go through Malleable Corp over the next few years. I’m looking into turning Malleable Corp into a trust, but I’m probably getting too tangential here.
I started all of them this year, and none of them makes enough individually yet to make up the salaries I was previously making. But together, they’re getting closer.
From January 2023 to July 2023, I’ve made $128,011 so far.
Money is abstract. That’s partly what makes it difficult to talk about. One way that we as humans deal with that is we make it relative. That is: we compare it to things that we better understand the value of. What does $6 mean? That’s your morning Starbucks. What does $22,000 look like? A Toyota Corolla. Or 2 pay cycles.
I hope the information I shared here helps make money less abstract and more relative by giving you some actual numbers to compare to.
Go get that bag.