Insights Into the Running of a Design Business

Advertisement

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

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:

1. Participate

Open yourself up to others in the industry by sharing your experience and personal insights. Through understanding the value of constructive discussion, 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 others, 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.

Marketing and Self-Promotion

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

Blogging is great for a number of reasons. It allows you to express yourself and to share your knowledge with others in the industry.

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

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 designs, which includes a video and summary on a fantastic presentation done by Paul Boag at the 2008 Future of Web Design Conference.

Day-to-Day Management

Day-to-Day Management

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.

Freshbooks

Freshbooks

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.

Dropbox

Dropbox

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.

Evernote

Evernote

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:

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?

↑ Back to top

Duane is the owner of Logobird Designs, an Australian-based design company that specializes in logo design and brand identity. Besides design, his other passions include mixed martial arts, basketball and traveling. To keep up to date with the latest Logobird design news you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and subscribe to his blog.

  1. 1

    I’m now running a WordPress/Web Dev business and this was a good read. Thanks to Duane and Jad for this post!

    0
  2. 4

    Thanks for the helpful post!

    As designers, our role is to educate the client to help them understand our processes, reasoning and inspiration behind our designs

    Very well written. Cheers!
    .-= Theo´s Latest Entry – Muss eine Webseite in jedem Browser genau gleich aussehen? =-.

    0
  3. 6

    I appreciate sharing some tools used in the design process at the end.

    I do not consider myself a designer, but I work with great designers all the time, and yes, stereotypical but true, designers can be very unorganized! Providing means and methods to produce great work is very helpful!

    Great work as always dI

    0
    • 7

      Thanks Bryan. Duane did a great job sharing his experiences with his design business.

      I know what you mean about designers being disorganized. I think part of it is that some designers get so caught up with the “design” aspect that they don’t balance it with the “business” aspect of things.

      0
  4. 8

    Just starting off my own business at the moment, and although I have a support group behind me already in place, this is great reading for me.

    0
  5. 11

    I have to say that this was a very insightful read. I am currently a graphic design student and my ultimate goal is to have my own business further down the road. Anytime I come across an article like this, my ears ALWAYS perk up!

    Thank you for sharing what’s in your toolbox as well. All around great read – thank you for your time and knowledge share.

    0
  6. 13

    Seriously considering starting to blog, I’m just not confident in my writing skills at all. I tend to ramble far too much as well.

    As for day to day management, I sue Free Agent. Excellent for UK businesses and it has been free for the past few months as well!

    0
  7. 15

    Amen, good read. Exactly what I need. Thanks for sharing. :)

    0
  8. 17

    A great article! I recently started my design company and agree that you need to be prepared wear multiple ‘hats’. You won’t be designing all the time. One day you’re the accountant and the next you’re in sales.

    Make sure you follow through with anything you tell a client. I get a lot of comments from clients surprised that I did what I had promised and met the deadline. This will build trust and a lasting relationship.

    Thanks for the great read!

    0
    • 18

      Under promise and over deliver. If you can pull it off, clients will love you for it.

      Cheers Dave.

      0
      • 19

        Great advice guys! To be honest with you, I had a hard time with this when I started out freelancing. A lot of times, I would set deadlines that were too tight and I was always stressed. So that is definitely some excellent advice!

        Under promise
        and over deliver.

        0
  9. 20

    Good read, for sure. I run a small design biz with my wife, as well as a [modestly popular] design blog. I can definitely attest to the 70/30 business/design split.

    I’ve found subcontracting to be a huge relief for us. We can’t do everything, so focusing on what we love to do [and subsequently getting better by focusing on it] benefits both us and our clients. The parts we don’t love to do, or parts we aren’t naturally good at, we subcontract.

    My 2 cents anyway. Keep up the great blog.

    0
    • 21

      Yes. I hired an accountant and it was the best thing I ever did. Well worth the cost!

      0
    • 22

      Really good point Jeff. Concentrate on what your strengths are or what you love doing and subcontract the rest.
      .-= Duane Kinsey´s Latest Entry – Are All Graphic Designers Logo Designers? =-.

      0
    • 23

      Subcontracting has always been of interest for me. Sometimes, the only problem that I have is I have a hard time finding someone who is the right fit.

      0
      • 24

        You are right Jad. The biggest problem is finding someone who it the right fit. I have been lucky that I have some close friends who are also very talented that can help me out from time to time.

        Networking through Twitter is also a great way to meet up with talented people. I recommend to test sub-contractors with small projects first before having them work on big ones…for obvious reasons. ;)

        0
  10. 25

    This is a really good post… Me and my friend have started freelancing together and this post is very useful for us…

    0
  11. 27

    This is perfect for starting designers. Really wish I had something like this when I first started up. It puts you in the right direction. Don’t have to ask why, just do it, then you will learn why later one.

    Thanks!

    0
    • 28

      Definitely! When I started freelancing, I was so naive. It was only after a year or two that I started reading design blogs and learning about the business side of things.

      0
  12. 29

    Yeah there are a lot of things to be done besides just designing, but I welcome those things. I actually enjoy doing those things although I don’t market very much. I get a lot of referrals. Well, for what little I do being part time only anyway.

    Freshbooks and Dropbox are two of the apps the completely changed what I was doing and are very helpful. Keeping an organized inbox with Apple mail is also very helpful and that’s something I’ve always done.

    Another thing that helps me is Things for Mac and the iPod app. I use that for task and project management and I use Evernote to keep track of blog post ideas only.
    .-= David Silva´s Latest Entry – If you register your site for free at =-.

    0
  13. 30

    Very good read Duane. Thank you for all the tools and insight into what you did and continue to do. Well done, thank you.

    0
  14. 31

    Great insight. Thanks for sharing what it’s been like for the first two years. It really helps out others who are considering starting their own design business.

    The multiple hats angle cannot be overstated enough. You don’t always get to do what you want to do. And if you aren’t doing it all, no one else is and the business will fail.

    May I also suggest taking a look at Intervals for day-to-day management? It’s ideal for designers who want to combine time, task and project management into one online app.

    0
  15. 33

    Great Article. I think the reality of business is a big shock to most designers when they first go freelance. I know it was for me. I had a “trial by fire” kind of experience when learning the business end of things, and I by no means have it mastered.

    I think the biggest struggle/wake-up call was the marketing aspect of it. The need to really get a marketing system up and running so that you’re not scrambling when things slow down is key.

    I’m glad you talked about communication as well. This is HUGE. I learned the hard way how to effectively communicate to my clients. At first, if a client had an issue with part of the design I would instantly be frustrated and, begrudgingly, just do whatever they wanted. This, many times, lead to a poor solution, and a sour relationship. I decided that thoughtfully explaining my reasoning for a certain approach faired much better. There are so many times that a kind explanation of why I did something helped a client understand and get onboard.

    One last thing. Have a pile of cash for the slow times, because they will come. It can be easy to get over-confident and comfortable when things are really rolling. Being smart financially will pay off in the long term. You can wait to get that iPad for a few months!
    .-= Joseph Malleck´s Latest Entry – 15 Incredibly useful jQuery navigation tutorials =-.

    0
    • 34

      I had a “trial by fire experience” as well. While a bit risky, it is definitely the fastest way to learn.

      Putting aside some cash is very sound advice, because there will be ups and downs. One day you can feel like the king of the world, then suddenly you feel like it is all crashing down. Being self employed can be a roller-coaster ride.

      Thanks for the brilliant comment Joseph! :)

      0
    • 35

      Joe, you are spot on! Make sure you have reserve cash in the coffers for when business is slow. In our case, we have monthly expenses (accountant, attorney, utilities, etc.) that must be paid to keep the engine running regardless of cash inflow. As tempting as it may be, impulsive purchases will hurt you in the long run.
      .-= Erik Ford´s Latest Entry – Behind the Design & Development of the Six11Ink Website =-.

      0
  16. 36

    I’ve just started using GetSignOff and TeamBox for managing my projects. It makes the process much more streamlined and enhances communication.

    0
  17. 37

    WOW! This is an awesome post, love all the resources you listed, very useful. :)
    .-= loswl´s Latest Entry – Inspiring Motion Graphics by Rodolfo Roth =-.

    0
  18. 38

    It’s always good to hear from others who have actually started running a business as what they relate are something that are usually from their experiences rather than fabrication/hear & say.

    Thanks for sharing!

    0
  19. 39

    Great read & thank you for sharing this.

    I have a contracting business turned Pty Ltd Company. I rarely share information on operations but felt compelled to share after reading that so many people have the same issues.

    CHALLENGES:
    • Keeping employees happy
    • Retaining employees (see above)
    • Once you have employees, you can’t slow down – you find yourself pitching for work because you have to pay everyone again next month – taxes – super, etc.
    • Create pitches after the work was finished – just to sell it back in again (anyone ever done that? It’s not fun.)
    • Clients thinking they are the Mac of their industry but to them a solution that level is really only worth a 1/4 it should be.
    • Clients go dark (ie. stop contact mid-way through projects for some reason)
    • Clients booking meetings and not turning up – at all
    • Tire kickers – ie. potential clients coming in for first meetings that turn into 2-3 hour meetings because they’re excited (and we are too of course) – but the work never eventuates (watch out for this one)
    • Getting stuck with a clients legacy 3rd Party Solution that integrates into our solution – the people from the 3rd Party have left/moved on = project stalls indefinitely

    These issues above can destroy a business in a matter of weeks/months. And all that hard work you did setting up could all be wasted – and no one cares. So you ‘have to’ protect yourself.

    SUGGESTIONS ON FIXES:
    • Set parameters before meetings begin – EG. this will be a 1 hour meeting so what’s the agenda? What will be the key takeaways from this?
    • Set parameters after meetings – EG. What are the next steps?
    • Set parameters before projects begin – EG. Project Plan, Milestone payments.
    • Engagement Fee’s – 25% or 50% – If a client doesn’t want to pay this – then they’re not serious and never were
    • Create an ‘Operations Terms & Conditions’ doc to take clients through at the first meeting – and get them to sign they understand it – warms them up to the bigger contracts – can include items like: Business Name, Working Hours, Rates, Billing, Payment plans, Deliverables, Mutual Confidentiality Agreements, Disaster Recovery, Action Plans. These things might be boring but the client will feel like every things been thought about.
    • Reward clients for consistent work – offer them a retainer for block hours of work booked in – it’s a business, and a business needs cash flow
    •There’s 1 thing that has been invaluable to me running a Web Design Company – invite the client into the challenges of ‘the running of the business’ in everyday scenarios. They’re still people and will relate to problems they have in their lives too and they’ll more often than not, want to help you out.

    One last thing, collaboration is great in theory, we all want to do it and think we do it, but egos get in the way so you have to approach it with 1 clear ideology ’50% of something is better than 100% of nothing’.

    0
  20. 41

    Good article! Thanks!

    0
  21. 42

    Amazing advice! I’m always looking for great new ways to expand my little design & marketing business. I took the plunge a little over a month ago after working FT and freelancing for nearly 10 years. I’m a self-taught designer (mainly focusing on web) and still learning everyday. One of my biggest challenges is getting clients to understand the importance of updating their websites; it seems that once it’s launched, they think, “OK, well, now we’ll see how it does,” even though I impress upon them from the start that changing content is what makes most sites succeed.

    I fully agree about taking the lead. Many of my clients are exploring branding and developing an online presence for the first time, so I find that they really count on me for security that these are an integral part of the success of their business. And that I’m going to make the whole process as painless as possible, of course!

    Also, I use Quickbooks Simple Start for my accounting, which I absolutely love: http://quickbooks.intuit.com/product/accounting-software/free-accounting-software.jsp. It’s free for up to 20 clients.

    0
    • 43

      Thanks for sharing your experience Sarah. Freelancing for 10 years is a huge achievement!

      I have only had a bit of experience with the “normal” Quickbooks…which was a nightmare. I will give Quickbooks Simple Start a look sometime. Cheers! :)

      0
  22. 44

    Wonderful article here! So many designers forget or don’t understand the intricacies of actually managing a design business. These are some priceless tips. A definite read for anyone trying to manage a design business.

    Best Regards.

    0
  23. 46

    Great article! I agree with a lot that you had to say and it may be good information for me in the future. I did want to point that that from a standpoint of an observer I do like to see a little personality when it comes to sharing things on social media. Of course it is important to be a useful contributor but I also feel more connected to those who share a tidbit about their lives every now and then. I think its important to find a balance between sharing what you ate for breakfast all the time and just spitting out links and resources.

    Also I thought it was interesting that you point out a note taking application online. While I get this from a standpoint of accessibility, do you actually find that it saves time over grabbing a pencil and paper that could be right next to you? Often times when I find myself wanting to write something down it seems easier to leave the computer medium and use a pencil/paper to jot an idea or thought down quickly without disrupting my work flow by logging into some online system or firing up an application.

    0
    • 47

      Hey Jason, I think sometimes it is better to just jot something down on paper. Sometimes those bits of paper get lost however. Evernote is especially handy when you are already online and want to grab a quick screen capture or something.

      Since I wrote the article about 6 weeks ago I have softened my stance a bit on personal tweets. You are right, balance is what is important, and a few personal tweets can help your followers feel more connected. I guess it is just important to not overdo it.

      Thanks for the comment!
      .-= Duane Kinsey´s Latest Entry – Are All Graphic Designers Logo Designers? =-.

      0
  24. 48

    If you like DropBox, you may want to check out Humyo.com. I’ve been using this for 2 months and it is not bad. And 5GB space for free!

    0
  25. 49

    Very insightful. I’m trying to start my own design business and this helps a lot!

    0
  26. 50

    Great article Duane! Very insightful :) Thanks for sharing!

    0
  27. 51

    I think you hit the target with this post. Lots of designers, programmers and overall freelancers that decide to run their own business for the first time tend to forget that actually running a business is very time consuming, even if they decide to outsource some services, their duties will never go back to what brought them into the business to begin with.

    0
  28. 52

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, and that syncs with Evernote, you can use this web-application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    http://www.Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar. It comes with a mobile version too, and with an Android app.

    0
  29. 53

    I second FreshBooks. Greatest invoicing tool on the planet.

    Some great points were brought up here. Nice article.
    .-= Lucas Cobb Design´s Latest Entry – The Principles of Design =-.

    0
  30. 54

    Great post!

    @ Adam

    Its so informative… thanks.

    0
  31. 55

    Today I have seen many posts written on running your own design business that has been posted in the last week. This by far is a great one, but I have to ask, why is everyone suddenly writing about ways to run your own design business!?

    0
  32. 56

    Fantastic tips. I’ve freelanced for years, but have never worked full-time and dedicated myself 100% to it. However, I’d like to go from part-time just-getting-by to actually making a stable income from a web design business alone.

    The hardest part I come by is marketing. I do my best, but much of the time I just don’t get the number of clients I need to pay the bills. Other months — I make more than enough. Because of this I’ve learned to save up and keep my bills steady, but it’d be nice to be like some designers that seem to always have a consistent source of leads.

    0
    • 57

      I agree, Crystal, wholeheartedly. I was forced into my full-time freelance life – not that I’m complaining! Finding leads seems to be a constant struggle, but it’s so worth it, and at least now I have some time to designate solely to looking. During the day at that!

      0
  33. 58

    Came across this post, only now. But I have to say, it is always nice to read how other freelancers are doing and what they have learnt. (As well as the tools of their choosen trades :) )

    That juggling act between building solid leads and paying work is always tricky! (But I like the challenge of building something from nothing.)

    My challenge, one of the many, is getting payed on time. I do a lot of corporate and gov. work. So, these guys always like to hold on to their cash as long as possable. Often only paying on the 3rd or 4th of the month.
    I read a good quote somewhere, where the guys said that ‘As a full time freelancer, you learn very quickly about high-level personnel financing !”

    Again, kewl post mate.

    0
  34. 59

    There are so many articles on the interwebs on how to run a design business. Hundreds, in fact. But the award to the nicest looking article certainly goes to this one. Well done.

    Oh, only blog if you have something to say. Only abuse social media if it is relevant. You are marketing and promoting yourself ALL THE TIME (so be on your best behaviour)! Spellcheck EVERYTHING. Get an accountant–you want to design, not count.

    And remember, being nice goes a long way. TTFN.

    0
  35. 60

    Lots of helpful stuff here. I’m excited to check out Freshbooks. For those that are not yet in place to pay for bookkeeping apps, another free one worth checking out is GnuCash.org. It’s a lot more robust than just using Excel spreadsheets, and 100% free. (I don’t work for them or anything, just somebody who uses them.)

    0
  36. 61

    A really helpful post from yourself and the other readers along the way, one of the most best things I found was to make use of a good invoice scanning service it was well worth it and saved me so much time and effort

    0
  37. 62

    Great tips for any freelancers out there. And the tools you’ve share is really helpful. I would try to check out the Evernote!

    0
  38. 63

    Thanks for sharing those tips.

    In-order to manage the business you should have a proper pre-plan on your project.

    Actually, I’m managing my projects with the help of this free project planning software ( http://www.planningforce-express.com/free-planning-software.php )

    I have shared it here in the hope that it will be helpful for the visitors :)

    0

Leave a Comment

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic! Please keep in mind that comments are moderated and rel="nofollow" is in use. So, please do not use a spammy keyword or a domain as your name, or else it will be deleted. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation instead. Thanks for dropping by!

↑ Back to top