Making your start-up work

Going it alone isn’t easy, but it can be highly rewarding. Gavin Thompson shares his experience of setting up a product design consultancy

If my experience is anything to go by, setting up your own industrial product design consultancy is likely to present you with a very different set of challenges and realities than working as a partner of a consultancy.

The sheer depth and breadth of the things you will face may appear overwhelming, but it will be worth all the effort in the end. Everyone who has done it has their own list of challenges and tips – this is based on mine:

Be confident, always aim high and believe in yourself, but be honest with yourself as well. If you don’t have the necessary skills or can’t pick them up then don’t go it alone. Find a partner who will complement you.

Be sure to identify and understand your competitors, then try to define your message. What makes you unique? Playing to your strengths will help you to create the right image. It will be worth investing money in your own corporate identity and website too.

Create the right environment for working and for attracting clients. Imagine yourself as a client – what is the best look and feel you can afford?

Create the best team with the right skills to deliver the best service efficiently – and weigh up the odds between freelances and full-time staff.

Set strong foundations from the start in terms of good office practices, book-keeping and accounting, contracts and terms and conditions, working methods and presentation techniques.

Plan your finances carefully and manage your cash flow – no one wants to fall at the last hurdle. Also make sure that you invest wisely. Buy the things you need; the things you want can wait. It is also worth keeping your overheads low.

Be strategic and creative about new business – remember how you react to cold calling.

Be prepared to accept that your timescales aren’t the same as others’ – be patient, be positive and work at maintaining a running dialogue with your clients.

Keep designing, and remember that’s what you do best. Look to the long term. You have to speculate to accumulate, and you have to be willing to take risks.

Expect the unexpected – the things you consider to be a ‘dead cert’ may disappoint, while the things you consider to be dead may revive in the future.

Set realistic targets. It is better to plan for the worst-case scenario than to build a future on false hopes.

Don’t be afraid to diversify. Try to follow your entrepreneurial instincts, while monitoring industry trends and maintaining an opinion.

Be sure to protect your intellectual property rights. This costs you nothing but time if you are prepared to write your own patents and design registrations. Also, make sure you are aware of any grant schemes that are available.

Be fair and flexible in your fee structure – it’s a good idea to balance hunger with greed, but never sell yourself short. It’s crucial to maintain good ethics, as what goes around comes around.Don’t burn out. Take care to balance work with play, but never take your foot off the pedal. And keep fit, because you can’t afford to be ill.

Network as much as you can; a little is better than none at all. One good way of doing this is to be actively involved in industry bodies or societies.

Finally, always over-deliver – and remember, if it was that easy then everyone would be doing it. Success will always feel much sweeter when you have earned it.

I would be lying if I said that it’s been an easy year, but I am starting 2007 with some very exciting realities.

I have an inspiring studio on Richmond Green in London with a superb team in place. I have great clients, big and small, for which I am doing some exciting and innovative work.

I have set up another company to launch my own range of electronic products later this year, for which I have negotiated major high street retailing and global distribution.

I am in the middle of my second London Development Agency grant to develop an innovative product concept, and I have a patent pending for it and a serious route to market.

In addition, I have many other designs and initiatives that I am pursuing with an array of manufacturers, and, perhaps most importantly, ‘I’m loving it’ – I wouldn’t change a thing. So watch this space.

Gavin Thompson is the founder of Gavin Thompson Design and a former director of Factory Design


• Get your own image right by deciding what makes you different
• Invest in your own identity and website
• Create the right environment and team for the projects you have
• Plan your finances and cash flow carefully
• Expect the unexpected

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