“Don’t get distracted by exciting, new clients”: designers’ advice on starting a business

This month, we wrote about a new book that looks to teach designers about starting off as business-owners. Now, we ask studio founders to offer their wisdom to other budding entrepreneurs.

Jamie Ellul, founder, Supple Studio (previously founder at Magpie)

“The best new business is old business. It took me at least three or four years of co-running my first studio to realise this. When you start out as a new creative business there’s a lot of buzz and excitement around winning a client. But it’s easy to get distracted by an exciting prospective client and take your attention away from the clients you already have in the bag, jeopardising relationships.

I’ve found the secret is to really look after the clients you’ve already got. Make them feel like they’re the only client you work with (which is probably true when you first open your doors as a new studio), be open and honest, do everything on time and on budget, and they’ll keep giving you work. They will also recommend you to other potential clients. And if they move jobs, which happens a fair amount in marketing and brand roles, they will probably take you with them. Suddenly, you have two clients. Step and repeat and before you know it, you’ll have new business coming out of your ears…”

Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and co-founder, Bow & Arrow

“I wish I had known earlier to look for what I eventually found; a business partner who was like me in work ethic but utterly unlike me in skillset and background. Most designers team up with other designers, and I was lucky that I didn’t do that, and later have to undo it. Find someone that is good at the things you’re not, or has a load of skills you want to learn – from new business to client management to networking – and team up with them. Everything else is a comfort blanket, or at best, duplication.”

Jack Renwick, creative director and founder, Jack Renwick Studio

“No one cares if you fail! We are all victims of ‘the fear’. Fear of failure, and of what people will think or say about us. The truth is, no one really cares. I learnt this after attending a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course to try to help myself calm down and worry less.

What I learnt was: one, people are too busy worrying about their own shit to be paying attention to yours, and two, people don’t talk about you half as much as you might flatter yourself to think.

Don’t let fear of failure be the reason not to do something. At the end of the day, no one that matters to you will care whether you fail, they will mostly admire you for having had the balls to try.”

Sebastian Conran, founder, Sebastian Conran Associates

“When I set up my own business in 1986, Rodney Fitch advised me to specialise, which I did to good effect.

Rodney Kinsman told me to borrow money and buy a freehold premises. How very right he was, even at the 7% interest rates of the time, as it gave us the security of not being at the mercy of a landlord. My advice would be to never cut corners and always buy the best equipment you can afford.

However, the most important advice I can share is the importance of building a team of smashing people that you really like, and likewise with the clients you choose. Design is the easy bit compared to the frustration of managing difficult people.”

Matt Baxter, Baxter and Bailey
Matt Baxter, co-founder and creative director, Baxter and Bailey

“Boring but highly valuable answer alert: always bill upfront. No matter the size of the project, from the heftiest brand identity behemoth to the tiddliest quickie, always begin the project by agreeing your payment schedule and sending an invoice for part of the scope of work once you’ve been appointed. For example, it might be an invoice for the first stage of the project only, or for a percentage of the full scope of the project. This simple act helps to formalise the commercial relationship between you and your client and sharpen the collective will to do a great job. I wish I’d had the good sense to do this years ago. Luckily, our brilliant financial guru Gary Baxter (no relation) suggested that we should work in this way when we set up Baxter and Bailey five years ago, and now I’m suggesting it to you. You’re welcome.”

Bill Gaughan, founder, 999 Design

“999 has been around since the early 1980s – an era totally different to today’s design landscape. We built our reputation in the UK by developing the ‘big idea’ for our clients and thrived on the varied and unusual challenges that were thrown our way. We grew the business by flexing our key team to add new skillsets to core disciplines. We actually still operate along similar lines today. It’s been extremely rewarding creatively, but we would all have been substantially richer if we’d been given the advice to ‘specialise’ on projects that were more within our immediate comfort zone. Damn you, creativity!”

Keith Forbes, partner, Good

“Stand out and stand for something. Design is a seriously crowded marketplace and you simply can’t be all things to all clients. Treat yourself like you’re your best client. As marketer Simon Sineck outlines in his leadership and management book Start with Why, you need to position, differentiate and communicate your ‘why’, because being a good designer isn’t enough to ensure success. Without thought leadership and clarity of purpose, you’ll be a price-driven commodity on a race to an early breakdown.”

What’s your advice for those looking to start a design business? Let us know in the comments section below.


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  • Andy Penaluna June 30, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Back in 2007 I was lucky enough to have my courses in marketing and self promotion recognised as one of the top 5 in the UK by our Higher Education Academy. At the time many students of design resisted the ‘money making’ aspects right up until a few weeks before graduation – we hit it head on at the beginning of year 2 (of 3 yr study prog.). It was all based on input from alumni stretching back to 1987 and my own professional practice.

    One thing these alumni would add to these very helpful comments above is – understand ‘Intellectual Property’. Copyright usage? Design rights? How about simple ‘Non Disclosure Agreements’ when working on something sensitive? Creative people develop IP, so why not understand when to give it away and when to protect it?

    Make it a choice, not luck and chance?

  • erik bacho July 2, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    Keith Forbes’ quote looks suspiciously like a direct quote from the Management/Leadership/Motivational book “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek.
    Does Keith take credit for the quote? Or does he give credit to Simon?
    Might possibly be plagiarism…

    • Sarah Dawood July 3, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Hi Erik,

      Thanks for the comment. Keith hasn’t plagiarised by copying an existing quote for his answer, but just makes reference to a concept Simon Sinek speaks about in his book. We’ve added a credit attributing the concept to Simon.


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