Secrets of success from Elmwood’s Jonathan Sands

The Elmwood chairman talks to the DBA’s John Scarrott about building a successful design business.

Jonathan Sands
Jonathan Sands

Has the following happened to you? You’ve been running your design business for a while and its all OK, pottering along. You take a holiday and, while sipping a beer, you discuss with your partner the shape of your lives and the business you’re running – and a revelation emerges. You realise that you’re not happy with pottering along. You describe the vision of your future business, something truly successful, and return to the studio determined to make it happen.

You get back to the UK and it’s Monday morning. What do you do first?

I asked Jonathan Sands OBE, chairman of Elmwood this very question. He had just come back from climbing Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and, when he’d taken off his backpack, he described to me his plan of action to create a long-term successful design business. Here’s what he said:

Put yourself about
“To win new business, you have to be energetic and determined to the point of being bloody-minded. If you want new clients you have to decide you’re going to do whatever it takes within ethical boundaries to win them. I’ve worked bloody hard. If you don’t put the work in, other people will come and take your lunch.”

Seek out learning opportunities and keep learning
“Make it part of your job to learn the tricks of the trade. Success and learning go hand in hand.”

Find peers who inspire you
“I saw work someone else was doing and thought ‘how do they do that?’ I had a desire to be as good as them. I had an ambition to be the best in the country.”

Network with your peers
“Being successful is about challenging yourself. Put yourself in a room with people you admire. And then listen and learn and pick up all you can. Build relationships with your peers. People in London know each other. Outside London, often they don’t – and not between cities either.”

Get involved, it won’t come to you
“Join something. For me, the DBA was vital. Indeed I believe that it has been fundamental to my personal development and Elmwood wouldn’t have developed in the way it has without the opportunities that the DBA opened up for us to learn from our peer group. I would encourage any young design business to join, especially if they are in the regions and especially if they are willing to get involved. The membership fee is only an entry ticket to participate. It’s a bit like joining a gym, if you don’t go you don’t see the benefit… just the cost of membership.

It’s the little things that have a big impact later
“I remember I went to a meeting at Newell and Sorrell and they had a café. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘how cool is that?’ It took me two years to get one at Elmwood. The result was fewer long pub lunches and a team that was more productive. A benefit that worked both ways.”

Get bold
“I remember phoning up John Larkin (a fellow DBA member) and asking him if he could give me any ideas on what an identity manual would look like for a brewery. At first he said- ‘you cheeky git’. And then he sent me a couple. The design industry is maybe competitive, but within it are also the kindest of people who are happy to help where they can.”

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

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