The early years of starting up

Reverse of the first Harrison & Co business card

Reverse of the first Harrison & Co business card

Here are a few more Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.

The next set of questions that Bill asked are mainly related to the early years of starting a studio. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication.

Were there any key moments or strategies to your survival in the early years?
I had a few, not all of them I’d recommend trying though. With the benefit of experience, I wouldn’t repeat some of them.
– From the outset, provide a trustworthy and personal approach.
– Keeping the client up-to-date on the progress of a project, so that they never have to actually request an update. There’s nothing worse than a client feeling in the dark of a projects progress.
– I pitched a lot in the early days, some paid, some free. I would put heart and soul into every pitch, sometimes spending weeks on a pitch. I wouldn’t recommend this any longer, especially free pitching, but it enabled me to win some clients that we still work with over ten years later.
– I kept a very keen eye on cash flow. Probably the hardest and scariest thing for a designer to do, but I got some good advice early on – “cash is king” – meaning that you need to keep a healthy reserve in the bank, and don’t spend more than you earn. Simple as that.
– I pretty much said yes to everything. Again, I wouldn’t recommend that as a strategy now, but it kept me going when my first child was born and my wife was on maternity leave.

Do you have any advice on how to best start a design firm?
Start out with a clear idea of who you are, what you offer and try to firm up on some core values. I didn’t do this at all. Although I had a vague idea, I just jumped straight in without having anything written down and no anchor points. I have those now though.
– Be mindful about what type of work you say yes to, it’s likely you’ll get more of the same.
– Keep an eye on cash flow, it’s the lifeblood of your business.
– Get a good accountant and farm out admin as soon as you can (but remember to keep a hawk eye on the financial performance yourself). Farm it out but don’t abdicate responsibility.
– Work your networks. For me, over 75% of new business is from a referral source, the people you already know are likely to be the connection between you and your next new client.
– Keep your costs really low at first, work from home, make your kit last as long as possible, think twice before you splash out on fixed overheads – rent, wages, etc.
– I set up a studio on my own, but had huge support from my wife. I don’t regret setting up without the support of a business partner, but I do sometimes think it may have been wise to have one. There are benefits to being the sole owner, but I also believe there are many benefits to having an equal partner. Is there anyone you know whose skills complement yours?
– Take some creative risks. It’s why you set up on your own, isn’t it? You don’t have that Creative Director looking over your shoulder now, so give those ideas you always wanted to try a run for their money. You might be surprised at how willing some clients are to go with adventurous ideas that your old Creative Director wouldn’t have had the courage to present.
– Use your independence to explore new working processes – it’s your gig now. Take clients on a journey with you, they love that.
– Remember the people who helped you to get started, and the people who helped you along the way when you were fresh from college. Try to make time to say thanks to them every now and then, and let them know what you’re up to – spread the love.

Have you grown your business organically, or inorganically? Do you use loans much to push growth?
I have never borrowed money to fund growth – I’ve never borrowed money for anything related to my business. The business growth has been mainly organic, I’ve calculated that over 75% of our new business is from referral, 15% google search, 10% is from advertising, mailshots, email news etc. We had a very good year once, where profits were much higher than average. I decided to invest in attracting new business, so I engaged a new business agency to try some direct sales for us. It was another learning curve. This is a very expensive route to go down, with little to no guarantee that you’ll see any new business. Fortunately for me the new business we won covered the new business agency fees. I tried that for a year, but it was a year of having lots of pointless meetings with companies that had no real intention of hiring, lots of time away from my studio, and lots of frustrating dead ends. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you have deep pockets and a dedicated person or team in the agency who can follow up on leads. I found my time was too divided to do the following up properly.

Were there any particular moments, lessons or decisions that had a profound impact on the growth of your business?
I’ve never really experienced ‘a profound impact on growth’ – it’s been very gradual over the years. I’d say that employing a team and moving from being a one-man-band obviously increases the capacity of work you can handle, but be careful not to say yes to everything just because you’ve increased your resources.

How do you handle projects that go over budget?
It depends… Sometimes I’m very aware that we’re going to overshoot, and if that’s because we’ve spent longer on some parts of the project than we estimated, and I have a good reason for doing so, then I’m ok with that. If a project has the opportunity for us to really exercise our creativity, I’m ok for the team to spend longer on, say, the ideas stage. I encourage that, because I think it’s good for the team (they want to be creative), it’s good for the client (they’re getting a good return) and we’re left with a very nice piece for our portfolio. And I can balance that at the end of the day with the feeling that work should, for me, be more than rigidly sticking to rules and process – it needs to be fun and rewarding. Time sheets are a useful way to keep an eye on how much time/money has been spent, and that’s useful for estimating future projects when you need to know the REAL costs. But I don’t believe they should become a set of handcuffs that can stifle creativity. However, you have to ask yourself about the creative potential of the project, the tasks involved, the benefit to the client, the project deadline etc. Only a small percentage of projects each year should be set free from the shackles of a timesheet – the rest are how you make profits and keep the lights on. If a regular project starts to shoot over budget, then it’s likely that the client has added work to the agreed project spec, changed the brief, given some misleading information or hasn’t stuck to the project schedule. All of which leave you with a very good case for reviewing and amending the project fee.

When you started were you charging less than you are today? If so, how did you know when to raise your rates?
I didn’t really set any rates until a few years had passed. In the early days I’d estimate a project based on a vague figure that I thought was ‘about right’. I didn’t keep timesheets, so I had no way of knowing if that was right or not. I then started to keep timesheets and began working from a day rate, which is based on the position of the person. This has been a good way to be more accurate. Although timesheets and daily rates can be a good start-point for estimating on projects, I think it’s important to estimate on the value you can add rather than the length of time a project will take. That’s the difference between positioning yourself as someone who can be hired on a time basis, and someone who can be hired because of the value and return they will provide.


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