Securing your financial future and unlocking support – a design business survival guide

Rufus Leonard chief executive Laurence Parkes on where to find investment money, how to secure it and how to grow your design consultancy.

These are unpredictable and challenging times for the creative industry. Yet it’s important to appreciate that as a creative and technology SME – which is most agencies – you’re regarded as a powerhouse of the UK economy.

After all, SMEs by volume are the biggest part of the UK economy – in fact they make up 99% of all business in the country. Plus the creative and technology sector is commonly regarded as an area of national strength on the global stage. It’s also worth knowing that the most urgent economic issue in the UK is our low productivity, caused by a combination of bad management and lack of what’s known as “patient capital investment” in said SMEs. Consultancies are, therefore, both the poster child of the UK economy and the most deserving of help to improve their productivity.

As the creative industry becomes increasingly project-based, agencies are operating on a more day-to-day, hand-to-mouth basis. Add to this the uncertainty of Brexit, changes in customer expectations, new technological innovations and it’s not hard to see why design consultancies are often bad at mapping out their own roadmaps for development. Not only does this take time to plot, it also requires money to implement. So, when the going gets tough, it’s common for design businesses to batten down the hatches and scale back.

However, it’s just at these moments that businesses should be opening their doors to partnerships and support. After all, we’re stronger as an industry when we’re working together. But in order to do this effectively, agency leaders must be clear on not only what they need from a partnership, but also what their own business offers. At Rufus Leonard, this is something we’ve put a lot of thinking into; by clarifying our offer around digital innovation, we’ve massively opened up opportunities for financial support, investment and partnerships.

Finding the right partners

There’s a wealth of support available for design studios which take the time and energy to look and engage. It spans from standard networking to help you find meaningful partners, through to discounting the recruitment of PHD students as a route to fund your innovations. So how do you get started? There are five simple steps your business can take to set you up for fruitful partnerships.

Rufus Leonard CEO Laurence Parkes

Step 1 – Understand the Government’s agenda

Government investment schemes can breathe new life into your business, so a good understanding of their agenda can help you identify areas of your offering that have the most potential for growth. You can check out the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy and digital strategy online for some great starting points – top priorities include immersive technologies, digital infrastructure, digital upskilling and of course, cybersecurity and data. It hasn’t changed since it was written two years ago, but most of it is non-partisan so it’s unlikely to change (even if our government does).

Step 2 – Identify opportunities in your own strategy

Of course, you don’t have to revise and align your entire agency positioning with the Government’s strategy. However, understanding where their focus lies will help you identify growth opportunities in your own offering that you can capitalise on. For example, here at Rufus, we’ve made machine learning more central to our innovation pipeline after the government identified AI and data as one of four Grand Challenges in which the UK can lead the world. Revisiting your consultancy vision is always a valuable exercise and a great opportunity to map out future innovations to find your quick wins and long-term ambitions.

Step 3 – Get networking

Once you know how your agency vision and innovation pipeline align to the Government’s strategy, you can start identifying and exploring potential partnerships by going to events and networking. It’s all about being a social butterfly, showing interest, talking to the right people, connecting on LinkedIn and starting to build relationships. There are some great initiatives to get started with such as Innovate UK, Knowledge Transfer partnerships, Smart Grants and Tax credits.

Step 4 – Team up

Once you’ve put your feelers out, you can create a long list of potential partners. Align these to your development roadmap, prioritise the ones that seem most promising and build a brief business case around each one. This will make sure that follow-up conversations are meaningful and help you to create shared ambitions. Reach out to people who can give you the information you need to get the ball rolling and be successful, such as Government representatives at events  such as Office for Artificial Intelligence, consultants like Grant Tree and even people who have been through it (like us). One of the most exciting benefits for your business will be the network of support and advice you gather along the way – and of course, getting your name in the heads of people who might open the doors to new opportunities later.

Step 5 – Don’t get distracted

It’s very easy to go deep into this world to spend a lot of time understanding it. But all too often endeavours like these can be neglected in favour of day-to-day operations and client needs. This means that you don’t complete the thought and therefore never end up benefiting. That’s why it’s essential to make an innovation pipeline – and the method you have identified to support it – part of your annual business plan. Have a dedicated person or team to take ownership of the project and treat it with same importance you would your PR and marketing strategy.

Eye on the future

With the industry ever-changing and the growing demands of running a business, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the day-to-day. But for your business to thrive and grow you have to make the most of the opportunities out there, especially in an industry that’s increasingly changing. It’s a lesson we’ve learnt here at Rufus over the last few years of industry shape-shifting. More than ever we’re thinking in terms of 3-5 years, rather than just the next four quarters which means every action is more focused, more purposeful and more informed. And we’re leaning on external support, both consultancy and financial, to enable innovation and help us develop industry-leading products. It takes time, effort and investment, but it may be the difference between surviving the next two years or the next twenty.

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