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Here are nine steps I would follow if I were starting a design business from scratch today.Since launching Resourceful Designer in 2015, one of the biggest struggles I’ve seen from my audience is starting a design business and finding clients. I realise that I’ve never actually said what I would do if I had to start a design business from scratch. Until now.
Over the past 148 podcast episodes and via countless conversations on Facebook, I’ve shared plenty of advice on growing and starting a design business. This is advice I’ve garnered through my own experiences and what I’ve learned from other’s who have gone through a similar journey. Every week I receive messages from listeners thanking me for that advice. They tell me how I’ve helped them start their own design business. Some even credit me with giving them the courage to leave their full-time job to pursue their dream.
I’m glad that they find my advice helpful, but I also know that I’m far removed from where these listeners are in their careers. I have a successful design business. I don’t need to go looking for clients; they come to me. I’m at a point where I can turn down projects and clients that don’t interest me.
I don’t even have a website for my business. And yet, I’m prospering. That’s because I’m 14 years into this. Plus I have another 15 years before that working at a print shop. All these years have helped me build my brand, my reputation, and the client loyalty that I talk about so often on the podcast.
I know what I did to get to where I am today, and I share a lot of that with you. But I also know that I started at a time when “social media” wasn’t a common phrase. When most people hadn’t heard of Facebook. When YouTube was just getting off the ground and wouldn’t become mainstream for several years. And talking about podcasts would be met with blank stares. Things were different then.
When I decided to start a graphic design business I never dreamed that I would have clients all over Canada, the USA, some in Scottland, Australia, Hong Kong and more. Back then, I was just hoping to get a handful of good local clients to keep me busy. I built my business on that principle.
But what about today?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently. What would I do if I had to start a design business from scratch today, without the benefit of 30 years experience? Here are the steps I would follow if I were starting a design business today.
Please keep in mind that I’m talking about starting a design business, not becoming a designer. In this scenario that I already know how to design.
Step 1: Build a website
The very first thing I would do while starting a design business is launch a website. I know it’s ironic considering I don’t have one for my current business. But a site is crucial to growing any business today. It’s the hub where people can find out about you and your business.
I’d Start small with just the basics and a small portfolio, and build upon it over time. But I would launch a website ASAP.
Step 2: Tell family and friends about your design business
The next thing I would do is start spreading the word that I’ve started a design business. I would tell my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. I would reach out to cousins I haven’t seen since so and so’s wedding a decade ago and tell them that I’ve started a design business.
The purpose isn’t to get business from them, although if I did it would be nice. I would reach out hoping they will spread the news. You never know when one of your relatives may know of or hear about someone who needs a designer.
I would then go through my email contact lists, my Facebook friends etc. and send them a message, even if I hadn’t spoken to them since high school. Again, I just want to spread the word. The more people who know I’m running a design business, the better the chances of me picking up clients.
I would say something like this.
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I hope life is treating you well.
The reason I’m reaching out is to let you know that I’ve started a graphic and web design business. Here’s my website (URL).
If you or anyone you knows needs a graphic designer I would be grateful if you would pass on my name.
Thanks and take care,
Step 3: Join the Chamber of Commerce
After contacting family and friends, I would join my Chamber of Commerce. Not only would I join the Chamber, but I would set up a meeting with whoever the director is and get to know them. I would inquire if they have any events or projects coming up that may require my services.
Then I would go through the Chamber’s membership directory and reach out to every person on the list, introducing myself to them, and once again. Asking them to pass on my name if they know anyone that needs a designer.
Step 4: Contact suppliers who may need design work done.
Once my business was set up, I would visit every printer, screen printer, design agency, sign company, trophy shop, promotional marketing supplier, embroidery shop, etc. and let them know who I am and what I do. These types businesses sometimes need a designer but not enough to have one on staff. I would try to get my name on their contact list for when they do.
Step 5: Contact the tourism bureau.
Next, I would reach out to my local tourism bureau. The purpose of a tourism bureau is to attract visitors to your area, specifically to the events and attractions of the tourism bureau’s members.
I would ask the tourism bureau if they need any help in promoting the area. I would also ask them to pass on my name should any of their members need a designer.
I wouldn’t stop there; I would look at the tourism bureau’s calendar of upcoming events and contact those people directly to see how I could help them.
Step 6: Contact local theatre companies.
Almost every community has at least one theatre company who needs to attract spectators to their productions. I would contact whoever was in charge of my local theatre companies and offer them my services.
Step 7: Promote my services at networking events
This is a trick I actually did use when I started my business 14 years ago. I attended as many networking events, trade shows, get-togethers, or anywhere with a crowd of people and walked around with a T-Shirt that read “Hi, I’m a graphic designer, Let’s Talk”.
It worked in 2006 and I know it still works because DaJaniere, one of my listeners sent me a photo of herself in her own “I’m a graphic designer, let’s talk” Tee and told me how she wore it to a women’s empowerment conference in Detroit, and people were going up to her and inquiring about her services.
It works and I would do it again.
Step 8: Go door to door.
It’s not the most glamorous option but it is tested. I would pick an area in my community, do a bit of research on the businesses there and then approach them asking if they need help improving their marketing material or website.
I would especially target any business with an unsecured website, those with an http:// instead of an https://. It’s a great conversation starter. I would explain to them how Google is penalizing unsecured website and what it does to their search engine ranking. I would also make sure to offer my services as a solution.
Once I exhausted one area of my community, I would move on to another until I’ve gone door to door everywhere I wanted to.
Step 9: Leverage Linkedin.
A lot of designers swear by Instagram, and of course, there are the popular Twitter and Facebook. The problem with these social media platforms is most people visit them to get out of a business mindset. They’re there for the social connections and camaraderie.
Except for Linkedin that is. Linkedin is a very business-oriented social platform. Most people use it with business purposes in mind, and it’s a great place to pick up new clients.
I would start off by writing a few short articles about how design affects business decisions. Perhaps topics such as: How to use colour as a marketing strategy. How a rebrand can boost a businesses exposure. How most businesses fail when it comes to their brand.
Once I published these articles on LinkedIn I would start reaching out to people, probably people in my local area and once again, ask if they need design services. Those articles will act as social proof that I know what I’m talking about when they view my profile.
It’s all about the Ask,
Do you see the pattern here? Ask family and friends to refer you. Ask the Chamber and Chamber members if they need your services. Ask printers, agencies, supply shops if they need any help. Ask the tourism bureau. Ask theatre companies. Attend networking events wearing a T-shirt asking if people need a designer. Go door to door asking businesses if you can help them. Finally, reach out to people on LinkedIn asking if you can help. It all comes down to the ask.
When you are starting a design business, you can’t simply sit back and wait for clients to come. That may happen later but not in the early stages. No, you have to persistently ask people if they, or if they know anyone who could use your services. It may seem daunting, but that’s how you grow.
Keep in mind that all these steps are geared toward landing your first clients. You don’t need many clients when you are starting a design business. In 2006 when I quit my job at the print shop and went full-time on my own, I had less than 10 regular clients. Those few clients were enough to help me get started and grow to where I am today.
So there you have it. What I would do if I were starting a design business from scratch in today’s market. I hope if you are still new to running a design business that this episode gave you some motivation and some ideas that you could try right now in order to grow your business. If you stick with it, I’m sure you’ll do fine.
What strategies would you use if you were starting a design business from scratch today?
Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.
Questions of the Week
Submit your question to be featured in a future episode of the podcast by visiting the feedback page. This week’s question comes from Steve
Hi Mark, you often refer to your “Virtual Assistant” who helps manage your websites on a monthly basis. Can you tell us more about using a “virtual Assistant” and where we should look to hire one?
To find out what I told Steve you’ll have to listen to the podcast.
Resource of the week Trim View in Adobe Illustrator
A feature in Adobe Illustrator that many have been asking for for years, is finally available. Trim View (View>Trim View) hides the part of any item or element that hangs off the artboard in Illustrator. Anything that touches the grey area around the artboard is hidden from view when Trim View is turned on. This allows you to view only the “active” part of your design. No more making masks or special layers to hide those items.
Thank you Adobe for finally implementing this long sought after feature.
I would love to hear from you. You can send me questions and feedback using my feedback form.
I want to help you.
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 email@example.com