If you are wondering how best to run a design consultancy, I suggest you reread the tale of the magic goose. If you really look after it, your goose will reward you with hundreds of lovely golden eggs. But neglect it and your goose will die, and your eggs will disappear.
Unlike most design consultancies, we have always run our company as a business first and a design consultancy second. By looking after the business side of things first, we have been able to produce thousands of successful designs, and on the odd occasion that we have produced a poor one, it hasn’t had too much of an effect on the business because we have a healthy goose.
The typical design consultancy is developed and run either by designers, or individuals who have worked in key roles within the design industry. This can be extremely successful and obviously has some advantages, not least their understanding of the industry.
However, to be successful these individuals also need to have a good understanding of business – a passion for design alone will not carry you through. Unfortunately, these individuals are rare indeed and our industry has seen many casualties over the years – consultancies that have produced fantastic designs but have ultimately failed because they couldn’t run a successful business.
As designers, it took us many years to realise that the best way to build a successful consultancy is to concentrate on the business side first and the design side second. Our passion for design sometimes made us lose sight of our business and the core reason for its existence: to make money. After all, this is what your clients are in business for. Yes, of course it is essential to be passionate about what you do in business, whatever that may be, but passion alone does not pay the bills or make people millionaires.
We decided to relaunch our company in 2002 with a proper business structure. This involved me, our most experienced designer, taking on the role of managing director. To do this properly also meant that the amount of design I was able to contribute to the business became minimal and we had to nurture other talent to fill the gap. By implementing a sound business model, the design talent has been able to concentrate wholly on the design function, and this has led to the past five years being our most successful ever.
Our appreciation of the importance of having, first and foremost, a successful business has recently led to us to appoint a ‘non-designer’ as our managing director. Joe Bakowski has a wealth of business experience, having studied for an MBA in Rotterdam and, most recently, worked as head of service recovery and call analysis at banking giant HBOS – not exactly your typical design consultancy head. The advantage of a consultancy led by a non-designer, with exceptional business skills, is that that person is able to concentrate wholly on the business, with no ‘design’ baggage. The consultancy then either makes money or it doesn’t.
The potential downside to this is obvious: Bakowski’s lack of design knowledge. We have countered this by installing a strong design director on the board, who has worked with us for many years, and also by recruiting a very experienced client director from Fitch. By strengthening the board in this way we believe we have an excellent model for succession that works without the founders.
Putting business priorities ahead of design considerations still seems slightly uncomfortable, even now. I became a designer 28 years ago with ambitions to change the world through design, innocently believing that the money would follow. I am sure that thousands of other designers set out with the same ambitions, as did many businesses. Unfortunately, although the designers are still out there most of their businesses are not. It is a harsh lesson to learn, but I would recommend it to anybody trying to make it in our industry.
A sound business model that generates good profits, with a sound business mind in charge, will give you the strong foundation to concentrate on the design side of things, safe in the knowledge that the business is both successful and in the right hands.
Glenn Taylor is co-founder of Stocks Taylor Benson
BUSINESS FIRST, DESIGN SECOND?
• Don’t be ashamed to put business before design – your clients do
• Don’t be afraid of non-designers running your business for you – they haven’t got your baggage
• Do continue to produce great design – it’s what your business does best
• Do try to change the world through design – just make sure you have a sound business model first