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If only I knew these things before starting my design business.
You know that saying, hindsight is 20/20? It means that it’s always easier to see things when you’re looking back than when you’re looking forward.
Before I decided to leave the print shop where I worked as a graphic designer to start my graphic and web design business in 2006, I had a preconceived notion of what to expect. Some of what I imagined turned out to be accurate and some of what I believed was way off.
For example, I imagined how much I would love running my own business, spending my days designing beautiful things for great clients. It turns out I love it even more than I anticipated. However, I do spend a lot less time designing than I thought I would.
I didn’t know many designers in 2006 who were running their own business. There were a few who used the print shop I worked at for their client’s print work. But they were more of what I call freelance designers. Meaning, they had other sources of income and did design as a side-gig. So there was nobody for me to emulate.
I did have one friend, Jason, with a successful design business in Toronto. I talked to him quite a bit before deciding to go it on my own. But even with those conversations, there was still a lot I didn’t know or wasn’t expecting when I did eventually jump ship.
So here are ten things I wish someone had told me before I started my design business.
1) You don’t need a lot of clients to run a successful design business.
Before starting my design business, I thought I would need 50 to 100 clients for my new business to be sustainable. Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that a solo designer could make a good living with only a handful of clients. In fact, during the first two years of my business, I only had 11 or 12 clients. Clients come and go, but on any given basis, a dozen clients is a good number to aim for. More than that and you risk overloading yourself with work.
2) You’ll spend a lot of time on things other than design.
Running your own business is a lot of work. And a lot of it is considered non-billable time. Things like invoicing and bookkeeping, keeping track of expenses and taxes, writing pitches, contracts and proposals. And so much more.
I thought I would be spending my days in creative bliss, designing beautiful things for grateful clients. But there have been days when I’m too busy running my business to design anything.
3) You need to become a time management expert.
When you work for someone else, they tell you when to take breaks, go for lunch, and call it quits at the end of the day. When you’re running your own design business, there’s nobody prodding you along but yourself.
Learn to take breaks and find time to eat—set boundaries between your work and non-work life. Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out by working days, evenings and weekends, and you’ll start to resent what you do.
Running your own business means a flexible schedule, but you need to learn how to manage your time effectively. When you make your own schedule, you have the freedom to go to the grocery store on a Wednesday morning or to cut your day off early so you can bring your kids to their karate class or their soccer game. That’s the benefit of working for yourself. But you also need to be able to juggle multiple design projects with overlapping deadlines and clients who are not always on time delivering the content they promised you.
Conquering time management is the only way to stay sane in this business.
4) The rejections and criticisms will never stop.
Just because your the boss doesn’t mean clients won’t find fault with your work. But don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It doesn’t matter how long you do this work or how good you become. There will always be room for improvement. Clients will reject your proofs or decide not to work with you at all.
I’ve been a designer for over 30 years, running my own business for half that time, and I still have clients turn me down or tell me they don’t like certain things I design.
Learn to embrace failure, because there’s a lot of it when you’re on your own. The trick is to learn from them and grow as a designer and as a business person.
When the rejections stop is when you need to worry, because that means you’re either the best designer in the world and you’re way undercharging for your services. Or you’ve stopped putting yourself out there, and there are no more clients to complain.
5) Fake it until you make it.
You can’t succeed in this design business if you’re timid or hesitant or if you come off as self-conscious about the way you handle yourself.
You need to present yourself as a solution to the client’s problem. Their best option at success, even if you’re not sure of yourself.
Confidence comes with experience, but it also comes in the form of self-motivation. If you tell yourself you can do the job, then nobody else will doubt you.
The way to make it in this business is to continually go after more prominent clients. Ask for more money than your previous design jobs, pursue larger projects than you’re used to. If you keep aiming high enough, soon you’ll believe it’s where you ought to be.
6) Find a mentor.
If you try to run your design business all by yourself without any help, chances are you’ll fail. Not because you’re a bad designer, nor because you’re a bad business person. But because you don’t have the support you need to succeed.
You’re lucky that it’s 2020. You have a cornucopia of resources at your disposal to help you start and run your design business. Take the Resourceful Designer Community, for example. The community is home to a great group of designers who love helping fellow community members. In a way, we’re all mentors to each other.
When I started my design business in 2005, there were no Facebook groups or online communities. What got me through the beginning of my solopreneurial journey were the mentors I followed. People like Jason, who I mentioned earlier. Or Shari, a fellow local designer who helped me get my first clients.
Without people to model myself upon or to ask questions of when I needed help, I don’t know how my journey would have turned out. Find yourself a group of peers that can help and guide you. It will make your journey so much easier.
7) The respect given to you is a reflection of how much you charge.
Clients will never stop trying to take advantage of you. But the level of pushback you receive is closely associated with how much you charge. The higher your rates, the more you’ll be viewed as an expert. The more clients see you as an expert, the more they’ll appreciate your opinion and the less pushback you’ll hear.
When I used to charge $100 or $200 for a logo design, clients would try dictating what they wanted me to do. “Move that there,” “make that bigger,” “use a different colour,” “try another font.”
But as I raised my prices, the less “dictation” I received, and the more freedom I had to design the way I saw fit. Trust me, when you’re charging thousands of dollars for a brand identity, clients are much less likely to micromanage you.
The more you charge, the more your clients will respect you.
8) Don’t put all your design eggs in one basket.
You should never rely on one or two clients to sustain your design business. If there’s anything I learned over the years, it’s that clients can vanish in a heartbeat.
Just like investments, you need to diversify where your design work comes from. It’s great to have big clients with big budgets, but make sure you have enough smaller clients to diversify your income.
I’ve had several big clients over the years, from huge festivals to big shopping malls, to government agencies that have all gone away. The festival shut down. An investment firm with an internal design team bought the shopping mall. And the government agency amalgamated with another division who did work with another designer.
I survived the loss of these clients because I had other smaller clients to sustain me following their departure.
9) You can make a lot more money doing a lot less work.
Before leaving the print shop, I was working 40 hours per week at $21 per hour. That works out to $840 gross per week and roughly $550 net once the government took their deductions.
Since there are no deductions for the self-employed, for me to make the same weekly income from my old salary, I needed to work 11 billable hours every week. That was it.
I mentioned earlier how one of the things I didn’t expect when starting my business was how much time I would spend not designing. There are plenty of non-billable hours in the workweek, but it’s ok because designers can make an excellent income designing just a few hours each week even while billing by the hour.
10) The riches are in the niches.
When I started my design business, I didn’t know what a design niche was. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I met a designer specializing in the dental industry that I leaned about niching. And to be honest, I didn’t give it much thought because she told me how much he hated it.
This designer was making good money in her niche, but she had no passion for the dental industry. It was merely a lucrative niche she had stumbled upon. In fact, when I met her, she was planning on getting out of it to do what she called “normal design work” that had nothing to do with dentists.
It wasn’t until much later that I started hearing about niching again and started to appreciate this specialized approach to design.
I recently branched out my design business to focus on the podcast niche. And let me tell you, it’s pretty good. The trick is finding a niche your passionate about. That was the problem with that designer I mentioned. She had no passion for the dental industry and grew bored with the work she was doing.
So there you have it. Ten things I wish someone had told me before I started my design business. I hope you find these things helpful–especially if you’re at the start of your business journey. And if you already have an established design business, maybe I’ve shared something that will inspire you to look at what you do differently.
What do you wish you had known before starting your design business?
Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.
Tip of the week Strong Passwords
Have you ever heard of Password Entropy? It’s the measurement of unpredictability in a password.
A password like LMNOPQR is much more predictable and easier to crack than something like L8?X49[. That’s why randomized passwords are considered the strongest. Passwords should be composed of upper case letters, lower case letters, numbers and common ASCII characters. When combined, each digit in a password has 92 possible options.
Here are the estimated times it takes to crack a password using a four-core i5 processor computer. You can see that the number of characters in your password matters!
7 characters will take .29 milliseconds to crack.
8 characters will take 5 hours to crack.
9 characters will take 4 months to crack.
10 characters will take one decade to crack
12 characters will take two centuries to crack.
How secure are your passwords?
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Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org