The Paradox of Knowledge for design businesses

How do you learn to run a design business? One way would be by doing it. Is that what you did? Perhaps you worked at one, maybe two other agencies and then thought, ‘I want to do things differently’. You observed what you could in your current place and then you decided to take the plunge and set up your own business. For many this is quite an exciting process. You’re building something from scratch and it’s yours.


John Scarrott

You win some work and you start to grow. Along the way, you fall into some holes, and get up again. You have your rough edges knocked off. This is what builds the identity of you and your business.

Time passes.

Then, something interesting happens. Something prompts you to look up, and ask ‘How did I get here?’

You’ve built a business without noticing what it was you were building. You look around and ask ‘Is this what we wanted to create?’  You may also ask, ‘Is it all that it could be?’ and  ‘What’s next?’

These are exciting questions, with exciting answers. How you find the answers are how you learn to run ‘your’ design business rather than ‘a’ design business. And this is the real issue. Once you’ve learnt to run a design business you need to learn how to run your design business.

The paradox here is contained in the opposition between being part of the business (‘in the business’) and the act of learning how to run it, which demands that you are able to get outside of the business to work ‘on it’. And that’s tough because it’s yours, you built it and you’re part of it.

What adds to this difficulty is that the information to help you get an external perspective is hard to find. Design business owners don’t share information with each other and finding specific information tailored and relevant to creative agencies can be tricky.

What can you do to make answering these questions easier?

Start by getting a fix on where you are now. Get hold of information to compare some of your business fundamentals in the following areas:


How does what you charge your clients and pay your team compare with the wider industry? What does your level of utilisation look like against your peers? How profitable are you?


What does your client contract look like? How does it compare with that of other creative businesses? Does it protect your ideas as intellectual property? Get hold of a template and compare it with what you currently use.


How would you describe your clients and the work and relationships you have with them?

Your team and expertise

How does your team work together? Have you got the right people in place? Are they motivated and delivering for you and for themselves?

Your values and beliefs

What is the culture of your agency? How is it being created and maintained by your team? Is it what you want it to be?

Next, look ahead.

What do you want to change in regards to the above?This can be the difficult part. The answers are in there but it’s a question of finding them. Here are some ideas on what to do.

Get stimulated

When was the last time you sat in a room with 50 other design business owners to listen to and discuss shared challenges? Look for opportunities to do this. They exist online and offline. There are healthy discussion groups within shared networks such as LinkedIn. Join the groups where your peers are.

Feel good about what you do

Decide what you believe about your expertise and the industry you work in. Discover places where businesses with similar beliefs gather.  Find ways to feel good about the industry you’re part of, about your business and your values.

Talk to the clients you have the best relationships with

Make time to speak with them – what is it they like about working with you? This can help point you in the right direction. Think about the difficult client relationships you have – why are these relationships difficult?

Involve your team

Get their take on the business, both the now and the future. Turn it into a day with workshops. This can be a very constructive way to get their views and get them on board with creating the future direction of the business.

Perhaps, learning how to run ‘your’ business is different to running ‘a’ business because of the importance of being able to draw on multiple external perspectives to get outside of the business. Finding the right counsel and listening to their views can be a useful way to tease out what is valuable to you.

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

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