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Brett Williams

Brett Williams is a designer and entrepreneur who runs DesignJoy, a design subscription service. He is essentially a one-man design agency that operates at scale and earns upwards of $1 million in annual revenue.

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Productize design

Brett Williams is a designer and entrepreneur who runs DesignJoy, a design subscription service. He is essentially a one-man design agency that operates at scale and earns upwards of $1 million in annual revenue.

In this podcast episode, Brett gives us a peek into how his business operates, the tools he uses, and what he’s learned after running a design subscription service for six years. It’s not for everyone, but to make something like this work you need two things: to be good and to be fast.

Productize design

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May 3

Productize design

Want better clients? Start charging more.

Brett Williams is a designer and entrepreneur who runs DesignJoy, a design subscription service. He is essentially a one-man design agency that operates at scale and earns upwards of $1 million in annual revenue.

In this podcast episode, Brett gives us a peek into how his business operates, the tools he uses, and what he’s learned after running a design subscription service for six years. It’s not for everyone, but to make something like this work you need two things: to be good and to be fast.

About
Chris Do

Chris Do is an Emmy award winning director, designer, strategist and educator. He’s the Chief Strategist and CEO of Blind, executive producer of The Skool, and the Founder and CEO of The Futur— an online education platform that teaches the business of design to creative thinkers.

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Episode Transcript

Brett:

Your natural tendency as a designer, as a business owner, your fear is to price yourself out of markets, not knowing and understanding that that actually propels you into a better market that is huge and exists out there. That was an instantaneous turning point in every aspect of my business. And lo and behold, the business, the demand did not slow down. It increased.

Chris:

We have many mutual friends who sometimes egg us on to do things. They might say, "Go eat that food or go to this country." And sometimes, we do it. Most of the times, we don't. But Brett, you're one of those people where our mutual friends on the internet said that you guys should have a conversation. And I saw your profile. I'm like, "Let's talk." But beyond that, I have not prepped for this call. So I'm going to be discovering things as our audience and listeners are going to find out about them. So first of all, Brett, please introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Brett:

Fair enough. Yeah. So my name's Brett Williams. I really am a designer by trade. I've been designing since '09, so a little bit. And I run a not so fairly known agency called Designjoy, which is a design subscription service. So sort of a nuanced take on the agency model just spun up in a little bit different of a way. So I've been running it for six years. And the catch is, I do everything myself. So it's a one man agency at scale of a big agency. So yeah, I've been sharing my journey as I've built it and all the struggles and all the successes. And yeah, I've gotten a lot of people interested in minds open to what's possible if you productize design.

Chris:

This is perfect. When did you make this transition from doing it the way you used to do it to doing a subscription-based service?

Brett:

Yeah, I did it the summer of 2017, coming off of a inevitable layoff at a boring corporation, boring UX/UI job working for someone else. I always had the entrepreneurial spirit, if you want to call it that. And at the time, there was another agency called Design Pickle that was doing it for subscription-based plans for graphic design, but there had nobody before done it for the more premium end of things like branding and product design and landing page design. So I filled the gap and launched Designjoy.

Chris:

I see. It's quite interesting. So you saw a different way of running a business and you thought, "Hey, that's pretty cool, but what if we just did this for a higher end clientele?" Instead of it being an army of designers, it's an army of one, right? So far, so good?

Brett:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah, man, you got it right? Yeah. Yeah. Design Pickle has thousands of employees. I have one. I just targeted the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of clientele and the type of work, but applied basically the same business model.

Chris:

Okay. Now, subscription is a fairly new concept, especially in bespoke service space. And so let's make sure we're all talking about the same thing. Most people will know of several different ways. The pricing subscription will be probably the newest one. And if you're listening to Ronald J. Baker, he says, "This is the future. This is value-based pricing 2.0." And he gave me some examples of it. But I didn't know anyone in the design service space that was doing it and doing it effectively and doing it well.

So I think we're going to do a deep dive on this on today's conversation, and I hope to learn and unpack as much of this as possible with a person who actually is doing it. You seem pretty happy, pretty well-balanced. So he's not ready to kill himself. He's not jumping off the ledge here, everybody. So it must be working.

Brett:

Wasn't always that way.

Chris:

Right. So we'll learn together with you, okay? Through your trials and tribulations. Most people who work call themselves a business owner or an entrepreneur when in fact they're mostly outsource contractors for other design firms. And you typically would charge hourly and you turn in time sheets and whatever. You just bill based on hours that you work.

Brett:

Yep.

Chris:

Then some people migrate towards project-based fees where you guesstimate how long it'll take you to do. And you assume a certain amount of risk, therefore you can charge a little bit more. If you do this really well, you'll make a lot more money. If you do it really poorly, you go out of business because you'll be basically subsidizing the project with essentially low or free work.

Brett:

Precisely.

Chris:

Then some of you might get some clients, right, and work, like it's a beautiful relationship. They might put you on what is known as a retainer. So a retainer is then basically buying in bulk and committing to you a certain amount of money in advance of doing that work because they love working with you so much. And so it gives you some stability. It gives them some cost savings. What is the difference between a retainer and a subscription? Or are they different, Brett?

Brett:

No. In some ways, they're the same. It's a reoccurring fixed price. A subscription is, I guess, a more familiar term to those that haven't previously partaken in retainers with agencies. And the whole point of this thing is, it's productized. So it's selling design like it were a physical product. It's a recurring fee. It's a fixed fee I charge $5,000 a month. That's the only option that you have other than quarterly and yearly plans. And the outcome is fixed as well. So there's fixed parameters around what you get for that price. And then you can pause or cancel that subscription anytime you want. So it's just a more leisurely way of selling it. But in theory, it has a lot of similarities between a retainer and a subscription.

Chris:

How do you have fixed outcomes?

Brett:

So when I say fixed outcomes, maybe that's not the right word. So if you go to sign up for a piece of software, there's going to be a pricing page with some pricing cards and some features associated with that plan. That's how I sell design. So if you go to my site, which is Designjoy, you'll see that plan, you'll see that you get what I call unlimited request, unlimited revisions, two to three day turnaround on requests. You get all of these inclusions within your package. And then that's the fixed outcome part.

Now, the actual volume of output is variable depending upon the client, depending upon several factors, like how fast they are to provide feedback, how frequently they actually have a design request. So you end up paying the same amount, whether you use Designjoy a lot or whether you don't use it at all.

Chris:

That's the whole point of it, right?

Brett:

Yeah. I mean, a little bit. Yeah. A lot of people say, is this kind of like the gym model where you sign up for a gym? I have one. I have a gym subscription, never go, right? Is it kind of like that and you rely on that? Not really. I mean, no one's going to pay 5K a month, not use it at all. So it's not quite that drastic. But there's certainly 20, 25% of the clientele who continue to pay that rate per month and very much under-utilize it. But they're okay with that because it's something that is there if they need it, and they're okay with eating the cost if they don't want to use it. So the benefits outweigh the cost of it, just letting it run and paying forward, even if they don't have a need.

Chris:

Naturally. Otherwise, they'll pause or cancel it. So as a one person's studio, how many clients can you sell subscriptions to in a given month?

Brett:

Yeah, it's funny because if you're not familiar with me, which you're not, this will probably blow your mind a little bit and you'll have probably a lot of questions and a lot of-

Chris:

I'm ready to be blown away. Go ahead.

Brett:

So it's not as crazy as it used to be. So at the height, if you were to talk to me a year ago, I was about 30 to 40 clients a month that I was managing. And most of them were in the technology space. Most of it's B2B SaaS companies. That's the sphere of which I'm most well known in. So I don't do a lot of the other stuff like e-com and all that. Today, it's about 20 to 25.

Chris:

Okay. So I'm going to do the math here, everybody. All I can say is it's a lot.

Brett:

It is a lot. Yeah. That's like...

Chris:

This is crazy. This is fantastic. Okay, we're going to have a good conversation today. If you on the low end are servicing 20 clients who are paying you $5,000 a month, you are bringing in a $100,000 gross revenue.

Brett:

Yeah. Give or take.

Chris:

Yeah. My math, give or take, because they might do a quarterly or annual plan, it might get a little cheaper. Right? Is that the idea or no?

Brett:

Yeah. And I have a few clients who are on retro pricing, so they're not paying the full amount. So I don't actually track my MRR anymore, so I couldn't even tell you what it is. But I know my clientele.

Chris:

Okay.

Brett:

Because I look at it every day.

Chris:

So you are doing north of a million dollars in revenue a year doing a subscription model. You don't have bags under your eyes?

Brett:

I probably do, but I have lighting on them. I probably do, for sure.

Chris:

Let's talk about that then. How many hours a week are you working?

Brett:

Yeah. So today. So it's worth noting that this thing took off like a rocket ship about the same time COVID happened. And so-

Chris:

Okay.

Brett:

... there was about a two to two and a half year period where I was working constantly. I have three kids, I have a wife. I was pretty much MIA. It was awful. It was the worst and probably best time of my life. And I was working around 12 to 13 hours a day. There might be a 10 hour a day here and there, but I was working pretty much around the clock. And today, I work about six hours a day. So I work less than a full-time gig and make really good money doing it.

Chris:

You sound a little guilty. There's no reason to feel guilty. You make a ridiculous amount of money. This is freaking awesome. So happy for you.

Brett:

Yeah, man.

Chris:

What was the big change that you were able to cut your workload down by half and yet still service 20 clients?

Brett:

Yeah.

Chris:

This is kind of unfathomable for a lot of people. So you probably wrecked right now everybody. So pull yourself together and we'll get into this and we'll learn how you did it and what we can learn from it. Okay? So how did you cut your workload in half?

Brett:

It's worth mentioning that I never intended for this to be anything. It was literally a weekend project for me. I had a full-time job until just a couple of years ago. I've been doing this for six. So it was never intended to be what it is today. And there's certain things that along the way that just took it to the next level overnight. And then about six or seven months ago is when it really took off. It was a tweet on Twitter by a guy named Dan Rowden on Twitter.

And it took my revenue from 80K a month to one 160 a month in a matter of a single month. And I was still doing all the work. And to be honest with you, I hit the worst point in my life where I hit max burnout. I was never burnt out before. I was a literal machine at design. I felt like I was a robot. I would never get burnt out. I loved doing this stuff. I crave it. It's such a passion for me. And I burned out. And that was the first time in my life I had ever experienced anything like that before. I didn't want to get up, I didn't want to work, I hated everything I did, and I just overnight canceled all my calls that I had for prospects signing up, doubled my rate and didn't even allow people to book a call.

So it's like, yeah, you're not probably going to spend 5K a month without talking to me. So I reduced the number. I reduced the number of signups and cut some clients who were pretty draining and who utilized it a lot and were pretty difficult to work with. So I refined my client list. And ultimately, was left with a client list that was really easy to work with. I love doing their work. Their work was fairly easy. So it's really a reshaping on my client list is how I'm able to now work way less, even though I still have a lot of clients that I work with.

It's also worth mentioning too, let's say for the sake of a conversation, I have 20 clients. When I wake up every day, there's probably 10 of them that actually have needs on that particular day. And half of those might just be in the revision cycle. They might just have small needs, like revisions of stuff I've already done. And then five of them might have new requests. So at first, you hear 20 clients and it's not really fathomable. But once you actually look at the specifics of it, you can start to see how, if you're fast at what you do, you can make it work.

But a part of that is also due to the business model, which we'll get into as well, which I would love to hear your take on it, because I think there's going to be a lot of things that we perhaps may disagree with there, and it speaks volumes to how I'm actually able to do it. So it's important.

Chris:

To summarize the way that you are able to do what you do and cut your workload in a half is you, very intentionally and very purposefully, sought higher quality clients.

Brett:

Yeah.

Chris:

So you went the opposite direction which is what most people do, which is, they take on more clients for less money. So they have to sell more units of time in order to be able to make that. But if they were to double their rates, they could work with the same amount of clients and make twice as much money. Or the preferred thing is to cut your workload in half and service the ones that you have better. So more time working with the ones. And this is a concept that I think a lot of creative people still can't get over.

I'd love to get your insight on this, because one of the arguments is, when I tell people being efficient and charging hourly punishes you for being good. And they can't get that because it's like, "No, dummy." They actually use that kind of language on the internet. They'll say, "No, dummy. You do the work quicker, you could just take on more projects." So their answer is volume. So for the people who think the answer to growing a business is higher volume and then therefore lower price and just keep to just work more and more until you can't work anymore, how can you help them understand a different perspective?

Brett:

Yeah. I played the volume game for a good four years, severely played the volume game, at a limit that I don't think really much people can comprehend as a designer. And I wouldn't say it was all bad. It gained me, I felt like I packed in 20 years of design experience in just a four-year period just based on the volume that I was cranking out. So it did contribute greatly to what I'm able to do today. But I realized, I think part of it's an insecurity. I think as a designer, I don't think I'm the best designer out there. I wouldn't say I'm anywhere close to being one of the best.

But I was insecure on what people would actually pay for good design work. I thought charging 2K a month was a lot to charge. And I looked at the demand that I was receiving and thought, "Well, there's more demand than I could manage here. There's more than I could ever take on myself." And so I just kept incrementally increasing. And every time I increased my prices, I thought I was doing it to curb the demand a little bit and to distance myself from it and to take on less work.

And it's funny enough, it always had the opposite effect for me. I would get more work, but better clients. And the clientele I have today compared to what I had previously is night and day difference on all accounts. That's why I am able to work as little as I do because they're willing to pay. They have the budget. So they're not nickling and dimming you for everything. They're not trying to squeeze every little bit of juice out of you every single day because they don't have enough budget for another month. They're okay with it just continuing to roll over and they stick around longer, churn is less. And it's just a game changer all around.

I mean, it's really cliche, but I think most designers would be surprised by how much people are actually willing to pay for good work. Because good work, good designers, are so hard to find. Which is part of the reason why I even created Designjoy in the first place. The rarity of talent is... There's designers everywhere. But the rarity of talent is actually quite a lot. Because I think there's a lot of average people who are just in it for the money. They're not really obsessed with it. So they do okay. But then you take the guy that's quick and can provide quality, which is a combination to be reckoned with. Those type of designers are rare.

So people will seek them out and pay whatever it takes to get them. I mean, it's not everybody. I did close a lot of clients off when I did my price increases, but it opened the door to a new host of clients that I never thought I could actually ever attain.

Chris:

There's a couple of things, and I can't reinforce this enough, so I'm going to say this so that people don't get up all on me in the DMs later, which is, our conversation today is predicated on two principles that Brett has mentioned already. So I'm going to say it again so that you know I'm hearing him and I'm saying it back to you so it's reinforced in you. You must be good. Period. Full stop. You must be good. And if you're good and fast, because not all people that are good are fast, a model like this could really be incredible for you.

So if you're a person who's really good, but you sit there and you grind on something for three weeks, the subscription model's not going to work because you're going to have a backlog of requests that you can't handle. So you have to be good and you have to be quick. Now, here's the thing. When you're focused and you know what you're doing, by doing what you do over and over again, guess what? You get quick. You develop systems. I'm sure you have all kinds of systems built, assets, ways of working workflow in order to allow you to be quick.

Brett:

You hit the nail in the head.

Chris:

Now you all have heard me say this before, right? So I need to say what you've already said so that people can hear this. So there it is.

Brett:

Yeah. No, that's the perfect disclaimer.

Chris:

Right? People have heard me say this before. If you want higher quality clients, charge more. Again, Brett has said this. There's something weird, and this is a psychological thing, a hurdle that a lot of creative people can't get over. They're like, "What? What do you mean charge more to get higher quality clients?" Something is different about the buyer when you change your prices up into a certain point. Now, I want to ask you this question. I want to dive deeper into this. When you migrated from 2K to where you're at now, which is 5K a month, was there a clear turning point in which when you pass a certain dollar amount, all of a sudden the clients got easier and better?

Brett:

Yeah. I mean, that was the jump. So with 2K, I mean, 2K a month to spend on good senior level design work is quite honestly a steal. I felt like I was selling myself out at that rate at 2K a month. So the jump at 5K was, again, it sounds really cliche, but it was an instantaneous turning point in every aspect of my business. And lo and behold, the clients did not slow down, the business, the demand did not slow down. It increased. So for whatever reason, again, your natural tendency as a designer, as a business owner, your fear is to price yourself out of markets, not knowing and understanding that that actually propels you into a better market that is huge and exists out there. It's okay to leave those behind.

Now, I always tell people too, if you want to service those lower markets, if you don't have the skill level or the quickness, do what you can do in your own status where you're at today and do the best that you can do at it. But I felt like I was underutilizing my skills and talents and charging too less for them and providing way more value at too low of a cost. And I saw that in demand. It was crazy how many people wanted to sign up for Designjoy.

And at 5k, it's still that. There's still a lot of demand. But day-to-day business, just day-to-day life in general, communication with clients, the projects that I'm working on, they have an understanding of how the process is supposed to work, and they're bought into that process. And they value design, which is wonderful. It's not just a part of their business, it's a core part of their business. And when you work with clients like that, it's a game changer.

Chris:

When you were going from 2K, to 3K, to 4K, to 5K, it was, just like every time you would raise the rate, you found that they're better clients? And if that's the logic and the answer is yes, would go into 7, 8, 9, 10K, be even better?

Brett:

Yeah. I mean, I started out charging $450 a month. So I've seen the full scale of what clients look like at that rate and what clients look at 5K. And I still think 5K is low. For a senior level designer, I mean, you're paying what? 100, 120 in a normal market nowadays. So 5K, 70K a year, whatever, is still fairly low. Honestly, I could charge way more than that, but my stress level would increase. So I don't want to go there, but I feel pretty comfortable working six hours a day and making what I'm making.

But yeah, every single jump. And the intention of me raising my prices wasn't to make more money or to get more customers. It was actually to slow things down because of the floodgates. I felt like I was drinking out of a fire hose. So every time I did it, it had the opposite effect of what I might intended to do. Yeah. It is funny how it works and I feel like you can hear it over and over again. I know you've taught this, I've got this from you for many years. But until you actually live it, I think it's hard for people to wrap their brain around.

Chris:

Yes, that is such the human condition that we cannot hear a concept and understand it until we put ourselves through it. We don't understand the fire will burn your hand until you put your hand in a fire and you're like, "Woo, that burned my hand. I'm not going to do that again." Help me understand this, because this is fresh for you, relatively speaking. When you're working with a client that's paying you $450 a month for doing what you do, because you're not really fundamentally a different person, you're the same person, versus the client that pays you $5,000 a month to do the same kind of work.

What are the psychological differences between these two buyers of services? Let's go down column A. Let's call them the $450 a month client. What are they like psychological? If we're going to build a profile them, what is their makeup? And this will be very clear if we can contrast the two.

Brett:

I don't know if this is necessary psychological, but the profile that I would describe those companies as... Or they really most of the time weren't companies. They were actually technical founders, and people just had an idea and they saw Designjoy as a cheap and quick way to execute a website, a brand or a whole suite of assets. And they didn't have a big budget. So they were the most needy clients ever. They were constantly on top of things. As soon as I would send them something, they'd be like, two seconds in, hey, here's the feedback in order so we can just keep moving on it. And then a month goes by, budget's up, all right, we're gone. Right? Bye. So they took everything that I had poured my passion into, and then just took it and ran with it, which was fine because that's unfair because that's what I offered. I offered them the ability to do that.

They weren't bad. I mean, they were fun to work with. It actually was some of the most fun projects because they were so random, but they were just so needy. I couldn't say really much more than that. Like attitude wise and how they treated me as their designer was largely the same because I was still in an industry that I felt like respected design. Now, if I were to work with local shops, I mean, that tends to be a lot different. They usually don't understand how this works. But yeah, I mean, they were just far more needy of my services.

Chris:

Okay. Let's contrast that now with a client that's going to pay you $5,000 a month. What is the difference there?

Brett:

Well, I mean, first off, I have several clients who pay me 5K a month who may request one thing a month. And they continue to pay the 5K. But again, they value design really a lot and they understand its importance and they have a level, I think, of trust in me, which every designer wants and yearns for, is that level of trust that like, yeah, you can push back but respect me as a designer, respect my experience. They do that really, really well. And they're very constructive in their feedback, which makes your work much more actionable.

You actually know what you're trying to achieve, versus when you work with a lot of clients, you're shooting in the dark hoping something sticks. So clients are able to communicate their needs much better. Again, they're the opposite of needy. They have requests every once in a while. But other than that, they're good to go. They don't stress it. And they have the budget to be able to work and operate like that. And so they stick around way longer. They have longer contracts. And I don't have to fish for new clients as often now.

Chris:

Great. I'm writing this all down. Okay. Here's a summary of what I got from you, and feel free to correct me if I don't understand this. But I've been talking about similar things, maybe not in the subscription model, but let's go over that everybody. So when you're working with a lower budget client, this is one... What is it? 1/10th the budget. So we're talking about a very different kind of person. You said these tend to be founders. They're not real companies yet. They're still looking to validate a business model, product market fit.

So the psychological profile is they're looking to do things quickly to explore ideas. And as soon as they get what they need, they need to leave because it's about preservation of cash. So oftentimes, they're looking for cheap, down, dirty, and quick. They just need that. And because they don't have a whole lot going on, they tend to have a lot of focus and attention on the things that you're doing. So they tend to express themselves in a very demanding and needy way. They're very budget, and therefore time conscious. So it's like, "Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? Isn't this we did?" They're just right on you and they're writing you probably the entire time.

And then they run when done. They literally finished a project and they run. The whole way that subscription and retainers work is that there are the ebbs and flow, like the peaks in the valleys. You lose money when you're doing the work all the time, and you make money when they get into the valley where you're kind of chill. So these people will come in and pay you, but as soon as they don't need you, they cut and run. Then it doesn't leave a lot of room for you to make profit. And I mentioned this, they're usually not established businesses.

Let's contrast that with someone who's going to pay 10 times as much. Well, first of all, they're probably established businesses because who can afford to commit to $60,000 a year or more unless they have a business. They're educated buyers of creative services. And they have less needs. And it's not that they have less needs, they got a lot more that they're dealing with. Because they're running a whole company, an enterprise, they have different departments. And so they're not sitting there looking at you every single minute.

And they understand because they have a business model that when you give them high quality design and it works the way it's supposed to work, they make tons of money. So they're not so concerned about the volume or the hours in which you put into something, they care about the quality of the product that you give them. And everything that you deliver, they're going to feel the benefit of. And so by spending $60,000, they've already made the decision beforehand, because it's a lot of money, they need to pick someone and trust them. You've heard that expression in business management, "Find someone smart, let them do their job, and get out of their effing way."

Because I said they're an educated buyer. They've been here before. This is not their first rodeo. They know how to work with you, they know what the expectations are, they know what's reasonable to ask of you and what's not. They have a shared language. And so when you talked about constructive feedback, because they've done this before, whereas a first time buyer of creative services, they give you all kinds of crazy feedback. A lot of it's not actionable. Okay. Anything I missed?

Brett:

No. You said it much more eloquently than I did. I think one thing that I want to add on to that that helps illustrate the possibility of someone else doing this, and I'm not saying anyone has to do exactly the way I've done it, is, one are the luxuries of productizing something is that the clients who do sign up for your services are already bought into the way that you do things. So again, if you go to Designjoy, the way that I run my ship is clearly outlined there. You're not going to sign up unless you're bought into those philosophies.

And some of them are kind of wild. One of the notable things about Designjoy is I do zero calls with clients ever for any reason whatsoever. Even if they want to cancel their subscription and they just want to chat beforehand, I have a zero tolerance policy for meetings. Communication is very minimal. And oftentimes, clients will request something and receive zero communication until it's done. So there's caveats and there's weird nuances about the way that I run my business that are very contrary to way normal agencies run things.

But because I define those things up front on my landing page, they're already bought into it. So I don't have to experience clients signing up and then dealing with breaking the news that, "Hey, I can't hop on a call with you." They already know those things. So it's advantageous and it helps, I guess, refine your client base naturally and protect yourself from letting bad clients get in. Even though it does happen occasionally, but you minimize that by defining things upfront.

Chris:

How do people submit a work ticket to you?

Brett:

So I do everything through Trello.

Chris:

I knew you were going to say it. I knew it.

Brett:

Yeah. I mean, it's a streamline. It has no distractions. I mean, people are already familiar with the way it works. So it's a really simple process in Trello. And it's dead simple. And you can sign up for Designjoy in 30 seconds, which just makes it even more attractive because you don't have to hop on a call with me, you don't have to have a meeting, you're not on a wait list. It's instantaneous access. So it's very attractive to companies.

Greg Gunn:

Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back.

Speaker 4:

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Greg Gunn:

Welcome back to our conversation.

Chris:

So you're giving us TEDx now. So if you are curious about setting up a retainer or a subscription based model and you can productize what it is that you do and that you're good in, that you're fast, you've set up a lot of ifs there.

Brett:

Yeah.

Chris:

Then the way that you do this is you set up a lot of conditions or terms in which to work with you. They're called Ts and Cs, terms and conditions. And you outline the work process so that it acts as a natural filter to remove anybody who doesn't feel like this is the way they want to work. The way that you're able to do this is, if you buy into your program, the way it works, and the only way that you can do it for 5K a month is you have to work with me in this capacity. If you're not, I'm not ready nor willing to change the way that I work to accommodate one new client. It's not worth it to me and it'll wreck your process. Right?

So there's an expression that Blair Enns says, which is, "Low variability in process equals low variability in outcomes." So if you don't deviate from the process, you'll get what other people have gotten and they're happy with it. And I can stand by that. Everybody needs to understand that. So you need to document and understand under what terms and conditions you will work. And you get to dictate that because you get to accept them or not accept them based on those things. What's cool is, when they try to deviate, you can point back to that, not always, but you can point back and you can say, "Yeah, so that's what we don't do. If this doesn't work, feel free to cancel." And they know.

Brett:

Yeah. I feel like you're a professional in productive services. Yeah. I mean, that's exactly it. And it gives you a grounding to stand on. And I'll be the first to admit, when I started out, I was freaking desperate for clients. I mean, I was willing to bend the process in any way I see fit in order to land a client, whether that meant I was working in their own tools or emails. Sometimes they didn't want to use Trello, they wanted to use a Asana. I'd be like, "All right. Whatever." And that led to so many downfalls and I'd have to keep that in the back of my mind and then make so many mistakes.

And it made the process of, how could I manage 30 clients when each of them had their own unique ways of doing things? So in order to actually scale it and then manage it properly, I have a zero tolerance policy for anything that falls outside of my scope of work, the type of request I do, how I communicate, meetings or no meetings. It is one of those things where it's a take it or leave it type of service. So I don't bend over backwards or mend my services in any way, shape or form to land any clients whatsoever anymore.

Chris:

Yes. All right. Let's just quickly dip into Trello. For people who don't know what Trello is, it's spelled T-R-E-L-L-O. And if you've ever watched an episode of HBO series Silicon Valley, you'll know what I'm talking about. Okay? Now, people who work in software, UX and UI are very familiar with this. Traditional graphic designers are like, "What?" Okay. So visualize this in your mind, or a graphic will appear here. Imagine three or four columns. You don't want to get too many columns. And the first column is usually to-do. This is usually where clients submit tickets for things that they need you to do.

And then the next one is doing. So you, the creative, would move to-do to doing. So they know that it's something that's happening. They can see some progress. And just imagine little sticky notes that are moving from one column to the next. And when you're done, you move it to a column called to review or for review. So it's okay, I'm doing it, and now it's ready for you. And if it is approved, then they can just move it to approved and then you can get rid of that ticket. Or they have some notes and then they would put it back into to-do.

And so you're constantly just moving cards around. And you can't learn five different systems or 10 different systems. You need it to be one system because there's a premium placed on your time. Anything that you're doing that's non-billable, hurts you. Meetings are usually non-billable, it hurts you. Client interactions, project management, not always billable, it hurts you. So the way that you can work six hours a day and make over a million dollars or something close to it means you have to streamline all of this. Is that how you use Trello?

Brett:

Exactly. Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's spot on. I think one of the key things that I wanted to avoid... And it's all in order to do this at the scale that I'm doing. Every decision that I make may seem in some regard as lazy or you don't care enough, but it's all purposeful. So Trello is a tool for me that I feel like, again, a lot of people already have experience with and there's not a lot of bells and whistles to distract you. So when clients get in, they know exactly what to do. I have onboarding cards there. I don't even onboard clients. They just sign up. I send them an invite to Trello. Everything's there for them to understand how this process works.

And then, like you said, the way that mine is set up, I have a column that is the backlog. So clients, by terms and conditions, are allowed to submit as many requests into that backlog column as they want. Think of that as your planning ahead column. And then to the right of that, I have what I call a current request column. So you can drag one of those over there and drop it. And that's the request that you want me to work on. You can only have one of those. In fact, if you drag two of them over there, the column lights up in yellow indicating that.

And then there's an approved column. You can move requests through those three columns in any which way you want at any given notice. And that's in a nutshell how it works. So it's precisely exactly as you explained.

Chris:

Okay. Before we continue on, you said something that almost you just threw out there and you just walked away from. But you said, within a month, you went from, I think $60,000 to $120,000 worth of work because somebody did something on Twitter. I mean that's a gold nugget right there. So let's unpack that. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? And how did that result in you doubling your revenue in a single month?

Brett:

Yeah. It's crazy. I actually went to 160. So we literally doubled.

Chris:

Okay, 160. Sorry.

Brett:

So yeah, I had been running Designjoy, I would say fairly quietly for the entirety of its lifespan. So since from 2017 on to last year. I think it was February of last year it happened. Yeah, February. I was doing moderately well. Making 80K a month. And then a gentleman that I've become friends with since named Dan Rowden, who is just a goat, he's done many, many products, and great developer, great entrepreneur. He actually tweeted what I was doing and what the amount of money I was making doing it. It was just a quick, "Hey, this guy's making this much. Here's his service." I didn't have a Twitter at the time. Well, I did, but it was vacant. I had never tweeted before, never really logged in.

And he did that. I remember getting a message on Intercom, which is the chat tool that I use or used on my website that said, "Hey, I found you from Dan Rowden. I like your service." And I was like, "Who the heck is Dan Rowden?" And then I logged onto Twitter, saw what it was, and then that tweet ended up going massively viral and led to not only an additional 80K in MRR, but a 100 plus bookings. The only calls I do for Designjoy are those that are looking to chat for 15 minutes before they sign up. I had a 100 of those booked. And those were the ones I end up canceling when I hit the wall that I described earlier.

Chris:

I see.

Brett:

So it could have done potentially way more than that had I either scaled, hire a team, whatever, but I stopped it. But yeah, it literally revenue doubled within just a blink of an eye, because Twitter had finally found out about productized services, and there wasn't a community there beforehand.

Chris:

If you're not active on Twitter, how does Dan even know about you? Was he a client or were you featured somewhere for him to find out about you and then want to share that? Tell me about that.

Brett:

Yeah. So I'm a big build in public guy. I know there's a lot of debate around that. I've built Designjoy in public since day one. I got inspired to build Designjoy by those building in public on a platform called Indie Hackers, which if you're not familiar with it, I mean, Indie Hacker to me is just some guy or girl just bootstrapping their business, doing all the work themselves, hacking it together to make it work. I took affinity with that community on indiehackers.com, started publishing updates around Designjoy.

Anytime I'd published an update it, to be honest with you, it sounds super vain, but it was usually around revenue that I achieved. Because I kept achieving more and more and more. And so I'd publish it. And I think it was a pretty notable thing for our one man agency to be making this kind of money. So anytime I did publish something, it gained some notoriety. And he found a post on there when I hit 80K, I think it was, and he saw that and then tweeted it.

Chris:

Very good. So this is an argument for many of you who refuse to share transparently and not to participate in any kind of PR outreach, marketing, social media, content. Because the unintended benefit is, Dan saw the progress or potentially one thing that you shared, and he was blown away by the unique combination of you being a one person studio doing subscription based pricing and being able to do the kind of revenue that you've been able to generate. And he shared it with the public.

And he must have a pretty decent size following because this is such a radical concept for many creatives to even see or understand that he shared it. And then now, it grew beyond service professionals. It was clients seeing this and saying, "Hey, this sounds like a great idea. We can afford this. Let's go do it." And then you're just overwhelmed with the amount of requests for you to talk to them, right?

Brett:

Yeah. And that was just the immediate effect of it. But since then, because of that tweet, I've been able to grow a following on Twitter. I would say it's not as big as yours, but I would say a mildly decent following on Twitter. And that's all I do now. I've never really had to work for lead, to gain leads and stuff through Designjoy. I've usually did Indie Hacker stuff, and that would bring in some leads and word of mouth spread from there. But Twitter is the only thing I do nowadays. I tweet once every few days, usually about Designjoy, or the idea of productized services and gain the following there. So most of my clients in one way, shape or form come from there.

Chris:

I have to get into this part where most people are going to be scared, where you say, okay, we're going to do a retainer subscription model. The first fear, and it's a well founded fear, which is, "I'm going to get reamed." Don't use the word reamed. "I'm going to get so much work I'm going to get abused. And how do I manage selling it for ultimately minimum wage because I'm doing so much work?" How do you control that? I think your insight on this is going to be critical.

Brett:

Yeah. I think a lot of people do get scared. They see the word unlimited, and they think, "How on earth do you do that for one client, let alone 10, 20, 30, 40?" I mean, there is a certain level of clients that is too much, but the way that you control that is by that one request at a time rule. So again, I spoke about early on, you take a subset of a subset of a subset if your clients actually have big things going on at any given time. It's somewhat manageable at that time. But again, it's one request at a time.

And I teach people too. So I do a lot of... I'm about to launch a course. I do a lot of coaching calls with people wanting to do this sort of thing. The thing is, I don't teach people, I've never taught people how to make a million dollars a year running a productized service. That's the wrong expectation. I don't want to wish that upon anybody to go what I've gone through in the last five, six years. I teach people to take on five clients, charge them $5,000 a month and make 25 grand a month, which is life changing money for anybody. And if you can just drill it down to that and make it that simple and concrete, it's not easy, because I don't conflate being simple with being easy, but it makes it seem much more attainable.

Because under this model, I mean, if I took on five clients, I'd be working an hour a day. It'd be very, very easy to work with five clients under this particular model. And you're able to treat them really well, you're able to over-deliver. I mean, you're able to do daily work for clients at that rate with that few clients. So that's what I advocate for. I don't want people to get the wrong idea that they should try to emulate what I've emulated and get 20, 30, 40 clients. I think that's the wrong idea. And I don't think that leads to anything that's remotely sustainable unless you to build out a team.

But yeah, once you simplify it down to that concept, it starts to not seem so scary. And then you can always adjust. I mean, the process of Designjoy has been a process of adjusting and evolving and figuring things out. And I'm still figuring things out. I don't quite have it all together whatsoever at this point. But yeah, I think the idea is lower your expectations and just target five clients. There's eight billion people in the world. You can find five of them willing to pay what you want to charge and go from there.

Chris:

Yeah. I think targeting certain sectors make a lot of sense. You had mentioned earlier that it was B2B SaaS, and they understand the value of design in the way that you deliver it. If you're working in, say, logo design, somebody might not think that it's worth $5,000 ever, let alone a month.

Brett:

Sure.

Chris:

That becomes problematic. So you got to target the right kinds of buyers, educated buyers who, when receiving delivery of set services and products, that they feel a greater value from receiving that then they paid, and they'll stay with you forever if you keep doing that. The critical part that we'll underscore here is that they can put in as many items as they want in the backlog, but they can only put one into a request for you to work on at a time. Right?

Brett:

That's the bread and butter of it all.

Chris:

That's the critical part.

Brett:

That's the only way it works.

Chris:

Right. And then they are forced then to prioritize. And how quickly you can move through this is entirely up to you because there are, what did you say, 48 hours or was there a time?

Brett:

On average, the typical size request is 48 hours. Yep.

Chris:

Okay. So then that means that whatever is sent to you, you have to be good enough and fast enough, and the task has to be really laser focused so that you can get this thing done. Because some things, as we all know, will take longer than 48 hours. And that cannot be something that's part of your services, otherwise the whole system breaks down again, right?

Brett:

No. It actually can. So in theory, clients could request a design that is large in scope, let's say an entire website redesign that's 50, 60 plus pages. In that case, I split it up into two day spread. So I'll deliver a chunk here every couple days, and I'll deliver another chunk in... That request could sit in the current request column for months in theory. So yeah, I don't actually define it that specific.

Chris:

Oh, I see. Okay. So if they put on a thing that might be a two month long project for you, it just sits there, and I'm working on it. And do they get any kind of feedback that progress is being made?

Brett:

Yeah. Like I said, touch bases are every two days on average. Sometimes, they're daily. So it's a constant feed of updates that keeps them interested and keeps them happy. I don't ever go many days or weeks without any updates. And all of them are tangible updates. They're actual design and not, "Hey, I'm working on this." It's, "Here, this is finished. Go develop it while I finish this other stuff over here."

Chris:

Okay. So if you're building a complex multi-page website, would the first thing be like, here's the wire-frame, or here's the content architecture, and then they get to sit on that and prove that?

Brett:

This is with any designer. So the one thing that makes my approach so different, and I know that you could name many... And I could personally, this is not how I typically work. But through Designjoy, this is the way it's worked for me. There is zero process in the design of anything, whether it be a brand, whether it be a website. So when I get a request in, let's say it's a landing page for a SaaS company, I will crank that out probably in about an hour and go straight to high fidelity. There is no wire-framing, there's no ideation, there are no mood boards, there is nothing.

I let the design speak. I send it to them. Oftentimes, they're good with it. Maybe they have minor revisions. So I've just skipped a bunch of steps that I could have taken that could have taken a lot more time to ultimately arrive at the same conclusion I would've if I had just jumped straight into it. So I call it assumption based design. So I make a lot of assumptions because I do a lot of product design too, which is really risky to do assumption based design. But my whole philosophy is, put something out there, see what the client thinks, see what the users think.

We can always come back and adjust. I mean, design is meant to be evolutionary. You're constantly improving it, constantly refining it. And we can skip a lot of the steps. And like I said, ultimately, most of the time, arrive at the same conclusion as we would've otherwise.

Chris:

Very interesting. So you skip a lot of steps to get straight into high fidelity prototypes because you find that to be the most useful tool in communication. "Here you go, here's the design." Instead of going through 17 different layers, "Here's the design. Let's talk about it. And not talk about, react to it. And then I'll go back and I'll revise it as needed." Right?

Brett:

Yeah. But I think it's all predicated on what you said earlier on. One of the requirements of this is you actually have to be good at what you do.

Chris:

Yes.

Brett:

I mean, you have to have a high level of experience, which I feel like I've had so much experience with hundreds of companies through Designjoy alone, that I pretty much can take a request at this point, know exactly the way... I already have a vision for it in my head. It's just a matter of moving pixels around on the screen and getting it on paper. And so those assumptions, like I said, most of the time they're close, and then we just refine it. But yeah, you actually have to be good and you actually have to have experience to approach design in this way.

And it's not the right way. In other circumstances outside of a productized service where speed isn't such a factor, certainly there's benefits in taking those steps to arrive going from low fidelity, wire-framing, post-it noting. All those steps do provide value. But I've learned that through my experience, utilizing it, I'm able to arrive there much quicker if I just skip all of those steps altogether.

Chris:

Right. How many years post-graduation do you think you need to spend in the field working as a professional before you can get to the point in which you can say, with relative confidence, "I can make certain assumptions about what it is that you need."

Brett:

Yeah. I don't think it's a matter of years. I think it's a matter of two things. I mean, first off, I have an obsessive personality disorder. I obsess over things that I'm passionate about, and design has been one of those things since college that I've just surrounded myself with. I've just constantly intaking design patterns and aesthetics and branding and basically created a repository in my head so that when I have a request come across the table, I already have a million different directions I feel like I could go with it, and I just pick one and run with it instead of wrestling around with, whoa, what's your direction do I go?

Through Designjoy, it's funny because the thing that's allowed me to build Designjoy to what it is, is by building Designjoy and going through it. I've gone through, with Designjoy, the scalability that I've gone through and the number of clients that I've worked with. Again, most people can't comprehend. I can't even hardly comprehend it until I've gone through it and gotten that experience. So it's less about years and more just about how much design experience you have, because I don't have a lot of years of design. But that's not to say that a designer with twice as many years could do what I do. So it's really just about how obsessed you are with it, how much you surround yourself with it, how much you digest of it, and how much you do of it, and less about how long you've been designing.

Chris:

Is there any objective benchmark that you could share so that people are like, "I think I'm ready for this, or I'm not ready at all."

Brett:

Objective? No. I mean, it's a really subjective question. And I don't even know if I'm at the point where I should be doing that. I just keep doing it because it's working for me, right? So if all of a sudden, it stopped working for me and I'd start delivering designs to clients and 90% of would come back and say, "Hey, this is nowhere close," I would probably have to change the way I approach design. But as long as I keep getting the answers and the results that I want, I'm going to keep doing it that way. And the more experience I get, the better, more refined I get at that, and the less revisions I have to come back in at the end of the day and do.

Chris:

Yeah.

Brett:

So I wouldn't say that approaching design this way should be the norm for your typical designer out there because no designer has really done and gone through what I've done with Designjoy. I always tell people, take what you want from what I've done and throw away what you don't. Think for yourself. If this is not the way you want to approach design work, so be it. I'm not going to tell you it's the right way or the wrong way. It's just what's worked for me based on my own experience, but there's no objective benchmark I can think of.

Chris:

You mentioned something that you said you wanted to run the business model and we could debate or talk about it. Have we already talked about it or is there something that you wanted to specifically bring up?

Brett:

No. Really, I mean, it was just what we talked about, the whole process piece.

Chris:

Okay.

Brett:

I don't get a lot of pushback from business owners on that because they ultimately just want a design piece done. They don't really care about... A lot of times, at least the people I work, they don't care about how you get there. They're just more interested in the actual output. But I've known just from talking to other designers that it's not that way because it goes against everything I think you're taught as a designer. I didn't go through school. I'm self-taught. But I'm sure that they teach you not to do this in design school. And I'm sure that you even teach not to do this as well. But that's why I have the caveat that's like, under this specific model with this specific designer, it works. It may not work for you though.

Chris:

I mean, your whole ethos is really, "I've done something. It's worked. If it helps you, great. If it doesn't, don't worry about it. Do what works for you." So it's hard to get upset at somebody because you're not being super prescriptive and saying this is the answer to all of your problems, this is just my answer to my problem. And I think, by you sharing this, I think a lot of light bulbs have gone off in terms of other creatives like, I wonder if I could apply this to what it is that I'm doing or I need to start thinking about that. So I have one more question for you, unless something else comes up, which is this. Does your business model work best for you if it's just you, or have you thought about scaling and adding people to your team of one so that you can do this at greater volume or to work even fewer hours?

Brett:

That's the million dollar question that I get asked all the time, and it's a fair question, and it's something that I've evolved with and struggled with since day one really. There's many different angles I could take at this. At the end of the day, I'm a designer. I actually like designing. I don't really have any aspirations to lead a team, manage a team, grow a team. Certainly being a part of a team, super fun. I've done that in the past that I would love that in some aspects. But as far as managing people, it's not really something I'm interested in.

I don't need any more money. I make enough money as it is, as a one man band. So it's not a money thing. And even from a time efficiency thing, it's not really that either, because I only work six hours a day and I like what I do. So outside of those, time, money or preference, there's really no other reason for me to hire a team and go down that road. I'm comfortable waking up in the morning and taking care of myself and my family and that being it.

Chris:

There are some clear differences between you and I, but I appreciate and recognize and admire what it is that you do. And I think you can be a great resource for many people. So you mentioned this, you teach and you do some coaching and there's a forthcoming course. If people want to find out more about you, Brett, and find out about how they can possibly switch over to this subscription based model, which has many benefits, where can they go? What do they need to look at or read or watch?

Brett:

Yeah, sure. I mean, I've been on several podcasts, so you can just look up Designjoy on Google and probably find those services up. There's some YouTube videos. Designjoy.co is my site. That's the service I sell. And then I'm on Twitter. BrettFromDJ is my handle. And basically share the ins and outs of running Designjoy, and try to teach people that there are alternative ways to doing this, the whole design thing. And then I'm launching a course, I think next week, running through the blueprint of what I've done to build Designjoy, the good and the bad, and what I'm still trying to learn. So it's kind of a tell-all, so to speak.

Chris:

How much is the course?

Brett:

It's 150 bucks, and I've had 1600 people sign up for it in the last month. So it's grown quite a bit larger than I thought. So now I'm about to have about a thousand competitors in the space, which is great.

Chris:

But like you said, there's 8 billion people. There's really not that much competition if you think about it.

Brett:

Yeah. I'm joking. I'm not worried.

Chris:

I know. Okay. So 1600 people have signed up for this $150 course. I think that's a bargain. So if this conversation turns you on, I'm going to suggest you do a couple of things. One, go look up Brett on Designjoy.co. Go search for his name and see what he's written about, talked about, and you can probably see a bunch of things. If I go to Designjoy.co, will I be able to find where this course sales page is?

Brett:

No. The course is called ProductizeYourself.co. That's the course URL.

Chris:

Okay. Wonderful. Well, congratulations. That's a crazy successful launch there. Well done.

Brett:

Way bigger than I thought. Yeah, I don't know how I did it. It just happened. Thanks to Twitter. The algorithms favor me right now, so I'm going to eat it up.

Chris:

Yes. Well, I think I know how it happened. You are one of a very few people that I think can say that this is what you do, and you feel that you figured out a system. You're first in, you're early, and you're doing it well when you have a lot of attention around this. So that's what first movers get to get the benefit of that. And what was interesting to me was where this all began. So say what you will about these companies who have thousands of designers working for them, like Design Pickle. You just looked at the business model and you said, "You know what? It's not all bad. The parts that I don't like, I'll change and I'll try it."

And you started out pretty humbly at a very low rate of like $450 a month, and now you're up to $5,000 a month. So you didn't just jump way past where you think you could deliver. And that's a mistake a lot of people make too. They're like, okay. And you said this too, if you charge a lot more, it would bring different kinds of clients, different expectations, and would bring a certain level of stress that you may want to get to one day. But oftentimes, I see people fail because they have zero proof, they don't know what they're doing, and they're going after things that are way too big. Their eyes clearly are bigger than their mouth and their stomach. And so there's a lot to unpack from this episode.

I believe your name has come up several times, and then I think I lost track of it. So I'm just super thrilled that we are able to finally have this conversation because I do need to talk to more people that are in the creative service space like you, who are doing well, productizing and doing subscription. Whenever I hear of a successful entrepreneur who's a creative doing really well in life, I could not be more happier. My soul is filled with joy. I'm smiling on inside and on the outside because I just like it when people crush it. And you seem to be a good guy doing the right thing at the right time and the right place.

So I wish you continued success. Thank you very much, Brett, for coming on the show today.

Brett:

Thank you, man. It's been a dream. Appreciate it. My name is Brett Williams and you are listening to The Futur.

Greg Gunn:

Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already, subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week. The Futur podcast is hosted by Christ Do and produced by me, Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barrow for editing and mixing this episode. And thank you to Adam Sanborne for our intro music.

If you enjoyed this episode, then do us a favor by rating and reviewing our show on Apple Podcasts. It'll help us grow the show and make future episodes that much better. Have a question for Chris or me, head over to thefutur.com/heychris, and ask away. We read every submission and we just might answer yours in a later episode. If you'd like to support the show and invest in yourself while you're at it, visit thefutur.com. You'll find video courses, digital products, and a bunch of helpful resources about design and creative business. Thanks again for listening, and we'll see you next time.

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