Turning your business around in the face of recession

Some great things have come out of Stoke-On-Trent. For foodies there’s the oatcake. Or for pop fans Robbie Williams. I recently discovered another success story to add to the list; design business Exesios and how they turned their business around in the face of tough economic conditions.

John Scarrott

I talked to Exesios’s Director Paul Brammer to see what other design business-owners could draw from his dramatic turn-around.

‘Our problems started in 2007’, Paul recollects. ‘We suffered quite badly when the recession hit. We had a lot of Government projects that were pulled overnight. Overall we lost £100k in three years. Making a £65k loss in 2007 was the wake up call for us. Up until that point we’d been running like most agencies, doing work and hoping there was money in the bank. Losing the Government work meant we were very quickly overstaffed. We knew we had to change things or we’d be out of business.’

What did Exesios change?

• ‘We became more strategic about the work we wanted to win.’
‘We wanted to win more business from bigger clients. In my experience they tend to value design more and trust you to deliver. The smaller guys don’t always give you the freedom to design. They are more fearful so the work can be more restrictive. Saying that, smaller clients investing in design do grow – and we have quite a few of those now.’

• ‘We changed the way we won business.’
‘We’ve got tougher on pitching. Rather than go for everything and anything, we now check the work would be good business for us. When we were going for the whole shebang it seemed to us we weren’t sure what we were about. Now we’re confident – we’re sure of what we will and won’t do.’

• ‘We moved to our own building.’
‘At the end of 2008 – although it would seem the worst time possible to invest even further – we moved premises from rented studio space into our own place; a modern, empty shell. This was a great opportunity for us to design our own space. I think this has an effect on how easily clients get what we do. We’re no longer sharing with other businesses. It’s a fantastic space internally with our own sign outside. A knock-on effect has also been offers of re-designing commercial interiors for our clients.’

• ‘We appointed a local accountant.’
‘We felt that if we wanted to get into bigger companies then we’d need to act like one. We had our terms and conditions properly drawn up to suit our business. We’re clear on who owns what in terms of IP and copyright. This was always a bit of a grey area before. We’ve changed our ethos and service to match the client work we want and bigger clients take us seriously as a result.’

Where there any surprises along the way?

‘During our rebrand we thought we’d never agree on anything, but it was a great shock to find we did. What helped was deciding on clear roles within the business before we started the process of changing. I stepped back from the design to managing the business, Eleni lead the creative work, with Tom as senior designer and Phil our digital programmer/developer did his stuff. We accepted each other’s skill-sets, having trust and confidence in each other. We found confidence in our company we didn’t know was there before.’

What results are you seeing from your new approach?

‘We’ve gained more clients in the size bracket, £2m-£15m turnover. Prior to this process we had one and now we have six. We’re back in profit as a result. Our target is to get 12-15 of them. People invite us to do work now because of our reputation, which has increased our confidence. Our client relationships are much more partnerships now. We meet with clients even if we’re not working with them. Getting the value of design understood is not always achieved in one hit. We develop partnerships through the dialogue we’re prepared to have with clients. Our motivation for this has been a desire not to be bullied into working for nothing. Some agencies are working for nothing just to get in there, to try and establish a relationship. We’re in via a different route.’

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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