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How to Start Your Own Design Firm

Written by Val Sopi on Friday, February 27, 2015


Big-Giant, Portland, OR

Big-Giant in Portland, OR

Starting a design firm is probably the craziest thing you can possibly do, but it’s a noble endeavor that I can relate to, envy, and cherish.

Go for it and never look back.

I’ve started 2 small design-firms in my career and worked for many others. I can share few pain points from my experience that could possibly help you make less mistakes along the way and enjoy the benefits of being your own boss while running a creative joint.

Clients

There are many different ways to getting new clients. If you’re an experienced designer (meaning, you have worked for other design firms) you will have the benefit of having made lots of contacts along the way.

By letting everyone know that you are starting a stellar new design firm, the ripple effect will get you some notice.

In order to keep that ripple effect going, you have to keep doing good work. And you can only do good work if you’re working with good clients.

What is a good client? A good client (company) is a few things:

  • You like what they do
  • They have a great product or service
  • They mean well
  • They believe in your work
  • They pay on time and respects your decisions

To get back to “how to get noticed”.

When Sagmeister started his own studio in 1994, he sent out a card featuring himself naked.
Sagmeister invitation card

I’m not so sure this would work for the rest of us. Sagmeister was already famous at this point. (More about Sagmeister in Wikipedia)

SEO

To get noticed in the good ‘ol interwebs is a matter of being focused in your content marketing efforts.

Never underestimate the power of good solid SEO. When I say “good” I mean sticking to the rules and not trying any shenanigans that could blacklist you in Google search results.

By sticking to the basic rules set by Google, you’ll grow steadily.

Few things you can do:

  • Write blogs that your potential clients can find helpful
  • Make sure all your pages in your website have the correct structure
  • Try to get your website mentioned in other major websites and mediums

To stay on the good side of Google check out SEO Starter Guide

For tips on good SEO practices, check out MOZ. They’re full of great tips on content marketing.

People

Having a successful design firm, doesn’t mean having tons of employees and people running around.

Naturally, it’s always a benefit to have awesome people helping you run your design empire, however great people come only after you’ve done great work.

Work with the very best, to be the best.

Some of the best design firms have always ran a lean operation while churning beautiful work.

Here is one of the decisions you have to make early on in your career (and it has to do with the amount of people you decide to hire from the get-go).

Having high revenues from the start

This could mean that you have to take any work that comes through the door and sometimes deal with clients that you wouldn’t want to work naturally.

This type of operation requires more people, which could undermine the culture of your company, which is super important from the beginning.

Doing beautiful work

Sometimes being picky is a great thing. It allows you to be known for a certain style and attitude. Other times it could mean not having as much income as you’d like.

Though money is not always the main issue why you start your own company, money does help you run a better operation, be calmer in your decisions, and enjoy the freedom of running your own company which means taking off anytime you’d like and not looking back for months at a time.

One thing you don’t want is starting a company and than be a slave of your own creation. This is not a good place to find yourself in. Being employed at another company, leaving at 5, and getting paid on time is much better than slaving away and managing tons of people you’ve rushed into hiring.

Technically speaking, here are few things you can do initially:

Freelancers
Working with other freelancers is great. By doing this, you avoid having someone on a steady payroll, without knowing for sure how everything will pan out from the beginning.

Though freelancers will take a bigger chunk out of your earnings, they do get paid for what they deliver. Also, you can have the benefit of working with various freelancers (based on their style/expertise).

Part-time employees
Working with part-time employees will help you better managing your company’s finances. You know exactly what you’re expenses are and you can plan your workflow accordingly.

Remember, you are starting a design firm that offers better creative solutions than anyone in your vicinity. You have to view hiring as an added value to that vision. Your newly hired employee has to be someone who believes in your design sensibilities and is in sync with what you’re trying to achieve.

Partners/Co-founders
Partnering is something that I recommend to anyone going solo. There are many benefits to having a partner (co-founder), however you have to make sure that you’re comfortable inviting your business partner to breakfast with your family on a Sunday morning. That’s the test they have to pass.

A great partnership is a supportive relationship, which helps both parties achieve a similar vision.

In a perfect relationship, all visions, plans, and goals, have to align. These have to be re-iterated and discussed frequently.

Not everything will turn out as you had planned. You both have to be flexible with one-another and always have a clear decision in what direction the ship is sailing.

Having two captains with two different maps in their hands is a plot for a disaster.

Finances
Bookkeeping and accounting positions must not be forgotten at any cost.

They don’t have to be part of your team on daily basis. They can be temp consultants or companies that do this type of work for you.

Paying the price of having a good bookkeeper and accountant initially, will pay dividends in the long run

Cleaners
Always have a cleaning staff on board that will clean up after your mess on daily basis. You may get used to your environment, but the real judge will be your clients and employees who view your work environment from a completely different perspective.

Working in a clean environment will benefit your mental-health, good attitude, and productivity.

To specialize or not to specialize

There are few levels and specializations. You have to choose wisely by basing your decision in the long-term success of your company, your own interests, and your true potential as a creative.

Specializing in one environment/medium

Although, the digital realm of design has the potential to cross boundaries in various verticals, there are designers who choose the classical way and focus on the print aspect of design.

Whichever way you choose, it’s always best to monopolize on your strengths by being known for one type of work. Depending on the success of your initial attempt, you can always grow and venture in any other areas of design.

Starting small has the benefits of operating lean and making solid decisions based on your limitations as a creative.

Always remember what they taught us in school: Limits are great. Make use of them! (Work with what you have and then grow from there).

Specializing in one style

“Style = Fart” is another quote by Sagmeister, who I cannot avoid but mention again. Stefan is one of those creative professionals every aspiring new designer looks up to. He has done so much along the years through running a small design operation.

Style = Fart
Photo via Sagmeister + Walsh.

Although specializing in a specific style will get you the type of repeat work you love to do, it could be limiting in terms of who can hire you.

Also, “styles” go in-and-out of style (pun intended).

There is nothing wrong with having a certain style that you like to follow, although you have to be willing to grow into different styles and evolve your inner creative self.

Picasso never stopped inventing and experimenting with new things. You have to be willing to evolve away from your base and cross boundaries.

Workspace

One of my favorite aspects of running a design firm is the work environment.

The area you work in, must closely resemble home, but yet have a professional feel to it.

Never work from home, no matter how small you are starting.

There will be times when you’ll be spending more waking hours at your office than at home.

There’s a good amount of inspiration you can receive from This Ain’t No Disco.

Conclusion

Clients and Marketing
New clients and proper marketing that truly radiates what you’re about, will get you the clients you want to work with. Always be honest with your self about the type of work you want to do and more of it will come through the door.

People you work with
Working with the right people will directly affect the outcome of your journey.

Regardless if the people you are working with are part of your daily routine or outside consultants, they will impact your company culture, and mission.

Work with the very best, to be the best.

Type of work you do
Specialize or not, always be willing to evolve creatively and technologically. Looking back few years from now you want to surprise yourself with the types of work you were able to do.

Environment
Never work from home, no matter how small you are starting. Working and living in the same space will have its cost benefits, but could drag you down to boredom and apathy.

If you’re not financially ready for an office, you can pick a co-working space, a big enough and distraction-free coffee house, a shared space within an existing office, or anything in between.

Go for the win!

If you’ve been thinking long enough about striking out on your own, there’s no better time to actually do it. Thinking about something repeatedly is a good enough positive sign.

Go for it and never look back.

Read next: Vince Vaughn breaks the Internet


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