We started up with nothing

Three university graduates realised their dream despite the recession and no financial help. The result was Smile Creative Consultants

When we were in our second year at university, coffees in hand, we would talk about our desire to have our own graphic design consultancy, to have full creative control and to be recognised within the design industry as a successful studio.

Nine months down the line as the end of university life loomed, three friends had a list of commercial clients, a solid brand and three signatures on the lease of a canal-side studio in Birmingham. We had created a business: a design consultancy called Smile.

The main objective was to ‘hit the ground running’. We wanted to be in our studio trading commercially the day after graduation and we certainly had to work hard to achieve this.

Setting up Smile became our university project and we were being marked for everything we did, which added a little extra pressure.

The shadow that was cast by the economic recession followed us, but did not deter us; its presence served only to cement our decision to start from scratch.
External funding may seem imperative to a start-up business, but it is something that we had very little contact with. It seemed as though there was a lack of funding within the West Midlands. So we set up Smile on a very tight budget that was funded predominantly by ourselves.

We worked our asses off and after a few projects we had scraped together enough money to put a deposit on a studio. We didn’t need external funding, which is fortunate as the banks wouldn’t even consider us for a loan and start-up grants were no longer an option. The majority of available funding is focused on short-term community projects rather than a long-term business proposition.

If approached with the right attitude, we’ve found that the recession can be particularly accommodating towards new businesses. With persistence, patience and an open mind we hunted out all available studio lettings and haggled our way into a wonderful canal-side space, complete with balcony.

The deposit required to sign the lease on a studio, no matter how large or small, may deter some. However, the first year of Smile saw all three of us living an hour away from each other and collaborating on projects virtually.

We started using online services such as Google Apps for your Domain to stay in sync when we were away from each other.

Although the presence of a studio with somewhere to base yourself is almost certainly crucial in the long run, the benefits of setting up an online collaboration space are incredibly helpful for both a short- and long-term solution.

Smile was literally built from nothing but sheer passion and determination. As students, we mastered the art of getting the most out of the very little money we each had. We had created a great website to refer potential clients to, as well as handmade business cards that were given out personally in and around Birmingham to increase brand awareness.

Was it worth it? It may be cliche, but this is our dream. It is what we all set out to do. We all agree that it is harder than we perhaps thought it would be, but we do what we love and we enjoy doing it. Whether that is enough to beat the recession only time will tell, but we’re three months in and we have a large client database, a studio to be proud of and great business partners.

We wouldn’t change the way Smile has grown into a business. We are thrilled with the fact that we created a career for ourselves while still in the midst of university projects. We have learned from our mistakes, no matter how large or small. We are all too aware that potential clients are reluctant to trust young designers, which has proved an exciting challenge for us.

The advice we would give to others who are perhaps considering setting up on their own, whether it be freelance or a partnership, is to be persistent. Know your limitations and cover your back when it comes to clients – get everything in writing.

Going it alone
‘Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it’ (Baz Luhrmann)

Why we set up as we did

  • We wanted full creative control over projects
  • It seemed the natural progressive option to us


  • Full control over projects
  • Freedom to design how you wish
  • Sense of achievement and ownership
  • Working for something you really care about
  • Not as expensive as you might expect


  • Hard work
  • Uncertain salary
  • Quite difficult to gain clients as a new business
Hide Comments (5)Show Comments (5)
  • Timothy Fry November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wonder how many other start up agencies there would be if everyone had rich parents?

    Nevertheless it does take guts to set up your own company. And to have a client list whilst still at university? Either these guys have some sort of client magnet – or they had very good tutors that directed them to the right connections and projects.

  • Youssef Sarhan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    very strange strange photo/manipulation.

    I should probably read this.

  • Lecho November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I would like to know more about such initiatives in UK, taking under consideration current market situation and reluctant, restrained clients, most of such enterprises will finish after few months of business activity. There are few basic rules… Fees must reflect costs of running agency, otherwise I would do my work for almost free.


  • Mitchell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wish the 3 every success with their venture. I can appreciate the emotions and struggles associated with their endeavours, both as a design graduate looking to enter the industry (many, many years ago!) and as someone who has started a business in a recession (not so many months ago!)…

    As a criticism of the article though; I feel that other than referencing creating a “great web site” and giving out “handmade business cards”, there was no real mention of what they did to achieve their success.

    I feel the article could have been a so much more encouraging one to others facing similar prospects, had it contained details of just how they went about building a client list from scratch, other obstacles they faced and practical advice on how to solve them.

  • Sparkes Orr November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Three months in eh!, boy do you have a way to go!, but kicking it off in the first place is a major achievement, after that it’s just uphill.
    We started out in a recession, 1973, you were only allowed to work for three days a week! the politicians were at war with the unions (no change there then) we were on a three day week, because the Isrealis had upset the Arabs (no change there then), and luckily our new office was in a basement in Kensington (so nobody knew we were there then).
    Good luck, you’ll need it, but you’ll love it, don’t give up!

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