What advice would you give to a designer looking to set up their own business?

What advice would you give to a designer looking to set up their own business?

Heidi Lightfoot

‘My top five bits of advice, in no particular order:
1. Be nosy: visit anyone and everyone you can to seek advice.
2. Surround yourself with great people. Employ and collaborate with the best.
3. Don’t think you have to know it all; there is great professional training out there. Keep learning, always.
4. Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Your early projects will define your direction for the following years. Don’t waste energy on projects that are the wrong fit. Equally you may sometimes need to do work for love, not money, in order to build your portfolio and network.
5. The industry is small. Remember that. Be nice.’

Heidi Lightfoot, creative director and founder, Together Design

Spencer Buck

‘The advice I give is to ask yourself “why” (quickly followed by “what’s your motivation and ambition?”). If it’s because you want more money, more control and more freedom… have a rethink. If it’s because you want to push yourself out of your comfort zone and have more fun (aka motivation), and become one of the top agencies/designers/whatever in the world (aka ambition), go for it, because motivation will ensure you survive the hard times, and ambition will keep you focused on success.’

Spencer Buck, founder, Taxi Studio

Lydia Thornley

‘Be clear about why you’re going into business, what kind of enterprise you want to be, what you want to do that’s different and what sort of life you want. Before you do any marketing, ask yourself all of the awkward questions that you would (or should) ask of a start-up coming to you for branding. And above all, don’t bow to pressure to have a traditional setup or grow conventionally. Says who? We’re in the business of innovation, aren’t we?’

Lydia Thornley, founder, Lydia Thornley Design

Michael Smith

‘You’ll no longer have a boss telling how to do things. If that sounds more like a negative than a positive then you’re not ready. Be enthusiastic about everything. Be principled, honest and reliable. Above all else, be consistent. Grab every opportunity. Be prepared to work really long hours; you won’t be a designer anymore, you’ll be a business-owner who does some design. Ask advice from everyone but make your own decisions. Believe in yourself. Stop prevaricating and get on and do it.’

Michael Smith, director, Cog Design

Simon Manchipp

‘Q: Why have estate agents stopped looking out of the window in the morning? A: Because otherwise they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon. One needs no qualification to become an estate agent. In fact even the National Careers Service advises that you are probably most likely to start your career as an “administrator” and “work your way up”. This genuinely means that ANYONE can do it. Yes, the opportunity for you to spend your working day opening and closing doors for customers, introducing “The Bathroom” and “The Lounge” — the ability to turn up to viewing late and with the wrong keys is within reach of the many not the few. The same “anyone can do it” thinking is thought of the design industry. Everyone has chosen their duvet cover. That’s a design decision. So how hard can it be to run a shop that does that every day? Buy an Apple Mac. Get a quirky haircut. Dress in hipster stalwarts. And get a place in Dalston with wi-fi and sweet coffee. Work for friends. Done. You are a design company owner. No. Sorry. This makes as much sense a fart in a spacesuit. If you want to start a creatively-led business you are about to join one of the most competitive, and significant parts of the UK economy. Yes, it’s a real job, that you have to work at. Really hard. All the time. You will be joining a quarter of a million of other designers working in the UK. There are just over 2000 design companies on our island… and we generate around £15 billion. Out-performing all other commercial sectors last year no less. Nervous yet? Good. Strap in. It’s brilliant here. But easy ride? No. There is LOADS of advice about setting up shop. Most of it better at selling books than offering genuine advantages for entrepreneurs. The bookshops are stacked higher with them than the amount of bills you will need to pay in the first six months just to break even. People are forever asking us, how did you do it? How did you set up shop? There is only ONE thing you really need to know. And you won’t want to know it. It is not fashionable, exciting, interesting or news. You want to hear about office design, collaboration, new-biz tricks and the best way to tie bow-ties for the awards ceremony… this advice? Well, you know it already, but — because you have set your heart on flying solo, you’ve been walking around smiling with fingers in ears humming, “it will be fine it will be fine it will be fine”. Here we go though… The only advice worth listening to when considering opening your own design company is so underwhelmingly simple many ignore it — “HAVE YOU GOT ANYONE WHO WILL PAY FOR YOUR ADVICE?“ Yes, clients, those old enemies of the creative… they are the key. Without them, you are lost. Over. Done. Want to join the best career in town? Come on in, the water is lovely — but… Get yourself some clients first. Seriously, get A LOT of clients. Too many. Overdo it. Clients ROCK. They actually pay creative people to do the job that they would probably do for free. You get paid for Powerpoint templates, not for the fun bit that goes on them. So. Get a client. Get at least one. One that looks like they have quite a lot to do. For quite a while. With quite a bit of a budget. Who loves you. Loves what you do. The hardest part to find in any creative business is The Business. You are not a business man, you are a Business. Man. It’s Pitchageddon. Forget Location, Location, Location. To start a design company you need three things… Client, Client, Client. Ideally three of them. That is ALL that matters — everything else you build around them. After all, a designer without a client is, at best an artist. At worst, they are an unemployed estate agent.’

Simon Manchipp. Founder. SomeOne

Andy Paul

‘Love and believe in what you do. Create a strong brand attitude for your business that reflects your personality. Accept that its going to be challenging in areas where you least expect it to be challenging. Do what is right for you and always look to be different from the crowd. If you do great work, and you’re great people to work with it will lead to more great work. Always refrigerate your chocolate eclairs and kept the drinks cabinet full!’

Andy Paul, managing director, The Cabinet

Matt Miller

‘You’re going to spend more time in your studio than out so make an environment that you want to be in. Focus on doing what you love – don’t do it for the money. Do it for the love and money will come; passion is the heartbeat of success. Do it with a partner you adore and want to spend all your working life with, the more opposite you are the better. Think leadership over management. Inspire. It goes a long way. Build community, build friendships. Create a family – create a place where  it’s OK to be yourself. No arseholes, No egos, just human – that’s our hiring policy. Understand that it’s always ok to fail: true failing is not failing. When you make mistakes openly acknowledge them to the studio. Never hide behind silence. Understand that you and your partner are the role models for the community behaviour – never underestimate the value of this. Embrace conflicts, conflicts get you to a better place in the end. Culture is not about table football or free beer, it’s about truly caring. Understand that it is about investing your entire life in it – personally I struggle to understand the concept of selling what you have built. Be prepared and willing to constantly change and evolve in order to stay the same but relevant, the industry always changes and you need to go with it. Always take note to enjoy the journey, even though there will be many times you will feel like stopping. If you are not enjoying change things. Listen to advice but always go with your gut feeling. it’s always right.’ 

Matt Miller, co-founder, Ustwo

Margaret Manning

‘Setting up your own business is not like changing jobs, it’s a fundamental step-change in life. It’s also something that many hanker after and if you have an opportunity to set up your own business then my advice is to go for it. Design is a highly competitive industry and don’t underestimate how tough this step change can be. To do well it is important to sell yourself on talent and portfolio rather than price. And make it fun. Enjoy all the parts of running a business: hard work, client contact, sales and finance, particularly finance. Balance hard work and fun and take pride in what you create. Good luck!’

Margaret Manning, chief executive, Reading Room

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  • Christian Jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Wise words from all – I find that creating the space and time to be creative is the hardest thing – especially if you work from home.

    So, close the door on your daily distractions, put on some decent* music and place your mind into gear.

    *anything goes except for country and western

  • Lucia Rusinakova November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great bits of advice. Relevant, to the point, yet inspiring and motivating at the same time. Matt Miller’s especially struck a chord with me. Doing something that one loves and being passionate about it should be at the bottom of it all, not forgetting all the other things obviously. Being in my second year of freelancing in London, there are still times when the uncertainty hits. But then again such is life in general. One must stay focused and work, learn, search, build relationships, share, and work some more. And the cycle continues. I’d say persistence and not giving up is the key. For some things evolve faster, for others things take a while. And yes, good music is quite important, too…

  • Kelly Vallance November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great Vox Pops this week! Brilliant insights. (and funny with it!)

  • Ben Hall November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Sound advice, I think Michael Smith sums it up perfectly, ‘Buy an Apple Mac. Get a quirky haircut. Dress in hipster stalwarts. And get a place in Dalston .’

    Don’t be naive and think its easy, it takes a lot of hard work and determination. Always be thinking about more advertising and promotion.

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