When I left my job almost 2 years ago to start my own graphic design business, there were a few, let’s say, surprises. The biggest of which was that the majority of my time was being spent running the business, and not actually designing. It is quite difficult to put a number to it, but as a rough guess, I spend around 30% of my time designing. The remaining 70% is spent on other activities such as; advertising, sending emails, tracking expenses, invoicing clients, having phone conversations, writing articles, solving problems, etc.
Being a self-employed graphic designer can be quite a juggling act. If you are unprepared for the task of actually running a business, your dreams of success can quickly fall by the wayside. To be a successful self-employed designer, you need to be much more than a great designer. You also need to be a savvy business person. In this article, I will discuss some of the non-design related tasks that a self-employed designer faces. I will also offer you a few tips to help you run a more efficient and effective design business.
Marketing and Self-Promotion
Unless you are one of the lucky ones who can solely rely on word of mouth referrals, to run a successful design business, you are going to need to do a substantial amount of marketing to attract clients. While traditional means of advertising can still work (flyers, newspaper advertisements, etc), I have found that online promotion offers a far greater return on investment.
Here are some tips for promoting yourself and your design business online:
Open yourself up to others in the industry by sharing your experience and personal insights. Through understanding the value of constructive discussion1, you can make a unique and meaningful contribution to the design community. In the relatively short time during which I have been engaging with my peers online (through blog commenting and Twitter), I have almost lost track of the number of opportunities that have opened up as a result. From chances to collaborate with others2, to being invited to write guest posts – all these opportunities are within reach if you just participate.
One word of caution however – nobody wants to deal with someone who only has their own interests in mind. If you give to the community and are genuine, most people will reciprocate by giving back to you.
2. Use social media…wisely.
Social media can be a great promotional tool for any business. Used incorrectly however, social media can quickly damage your reputation. Carrying over the theme from the previous section, the most important thing when using social media is to engage with your community and make meaningful contributions. No matter how much you think they might – nobody actually cares about what you ate for breakfast, or that you just accidentally stubbed your toe.
Ensure that you keep social media updates meaningful, and add real value to your audience. One of the best ways to engage your audience is by sharing useful links and asking thought provoking questions to initiate discussion.
3. Start Blogging
The other great thing about blogging is that it is a useful tool for boosting your site’s search engine rankings in a relatively short period of time. Google looks very favourably on blogs due to their dynamic content. Blogging is also great for generating tons of inbound links into your site, which is a sure-fire way to increase its exposure.
If you want to start a blog, set realistic goals from the outset and stick to them. Unless you keep blogging under control, it can quickly consume a lot of your time. If you want to be the next big design blog, go knock yourself out. However, even a small scale blog can be of huge benefit to your business.
Education and Communication
Being an effective communicator not only helps to attract clients, but it also increases the likelihood of them signing-off on a project. When dealing with a client or prospective client, the most important piece of advice I can offer is for you to take the lead early on.
It is important that clients perceive you as the expert, otherwise you risk being walked all over – not very much fun, and bad news for your professional image.
When speaking to clients have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and ensure that you clearly articulate your thoughts. As designers, our role is to educate the client to help them understand our processes, reasoning and inspiration behind our designs. In my experience, the vast majority of clients are appreciative when you take the time to guide them through the creative process, and as a consequence, are happier with the outcome of their project. A great read on this topic is How to get clients to say yes to your designs4, which includes a video and summary on a fantastic presentation done by Paul Boag at the 2008 Future of Web Design Conference.
Managing your business includes tasks such as keeping track of projects, invoicing clients and maintaining financial records. While most of us find these tasks boring, they really are the nuts and bolts of what keeps your business running – and cannot be neglected. The good news is that there are now a plethora of tools available which can take a lot of the pain out of running a design business.
Below are three of my favorite tools for managing day-to-day business tasks.
Maintaining financial records, invoicing, and time-tracking
Before discovering Freshbooks, I used to track revenue and expenses via a simple Excel spreadsheet. When you are just starting off there is nothing wrong with that, however, as you progressively build up a client base it will become increasingly inefficient.
Freshbooks is a web application that enables you to do time-tracking, invoice clients, and manage incoming and outgoing expenses. There is a free version that you can use to manage up to 5 clients. The monthly fees are a little expensive, however given its convenience and time-saving, I believe it is worth every penny. There is also a handy iPhone application you can download that helps you to manage your finances on the go.
File storage and sharing
Dropbox allows you to backup and sync your files online. I actually work directly out of my Dropbox-synced folder which is great for piece of mind.
Dropbox is free for a 2GB account and you simply buy more space as your storage requirements increase. You can also share files with clients or other designers you are collaborating with, which is handy if a file is too large to email.
Note taking and to-do lists
I primarily use Evernote for making notes, creating to-do lists and taking screenshots.
The beautiful thing about Evernote is that it is another web application, so notes can be accessed from any computer. This is really handy when I don’t have my computer with me.
There are many more applications out there that can help you run a successful design business. Here are five terrific resources that may help you find the application you need:
- 20 Indispensable Browser Based Apps11
- Five Favorite Web Applications of Designers12
- 30 Best Adobe Air Applications for Designers13
- 20 Invoicing Tools for Web Designers14
- How to Effectively Organize, Manage and Maintain your Freelance Design Business15
Summing It Up
Life as a self-employed designer is indeed challenging. Being a talented designer along with business skills are essential for success. If you invest as much time in managing your business as you do nurturing your creativity, then you’re sure to succeed.
If you are a self-employed/freelance designer please share what your biggest challenges have been. How did you deal with them, and what skills do you think are essential to succeed in the industry?
- 1 http://designinformer.com/understanding-value-constructive-discussion-design-community/
- 2 http://designinformer.com/forming-professional-alliances-others/
- 3 http://designinformer.com/why-i-cant-stop-blogging-about-design/
- 4 http://justcreativedesign.com/2008/12/18/how-to-get-clients-to-say-yes-to-your-designs/
- 5 http://www.freshbooks.com/
- 6 http://www.freshbooks.com/
- 7 https://www.dropbox.com/
- 8 https://www.dropbox.com/
- 9 http://www.evernote.com/
- 10 http://www.evernote.com/
- 11 http://designinformer.com/20-indispensable-browser-based-apps/
- 12 http://sixrevisions.com/web-applications/five-favorite-web-applications-of-designers/
- 13 http://graphicalerts.com/best-adobe-air-applications-for-web-designers-developers-2010-list/
- 14 http://sixrevisions.com/tools/20-invoicing-tools-web-designers/
- 15 http://www.thedesigncubicle.com/2010/01/how-to-effectively-organize-manage-and-maintain-your-freelance-design-business/