How do you start a creative business? What does it take to run a business? And how do you find clients?
A word to the wise—when you start a business, you put several things into motion that are difficult to later undo.
Before you start digging, do your homework. Learn from others and be prepared for the arduous journey ahead of you. If you can, find a mentor or hire a business coach to teach you all the things you don’t know. If you can’t afford professional help, then join a forum, or another group, where the membership fee is more affordable. You can learn a lot from your peers.
The term entrepreneur sounds exciting. You work for yourself. You call the shots. But success does not come easy. Most people will rush out to open a business, but fail to have their portfolio ready or have clients to serve.
Be smart. Take the time to learn what you need to and set yourself up for success.
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
The most practical approach to start a business would be to hold down a steady job, save up money, and then give yourself about four months of runway. That means you’d survive, without any work, for about four months. This financial cushion provides you leverage.
While you’re building your runway, you should set up your personal website, social media accounts, and share your work (that you are allowed to share) wherever you can. Your objective at this stage is to lay the groundwork for your new venture, while also creating a bit of inbound marketing to help people learn more about who you are.
Post images of your work on Instagram, Behance and Dribbble. These popular sites are where recruiters, managers, and creative directors look for people who produce creative work.
This is really important: When you get an inquiry for work, you can set your price at what you think you’re worth, without having to act out of desperation. And you can do this, because you’ve got that full-time job as a safety net.
You always want to have less capacity than opportunity. Lay the financial foundation; build and grow your social network, and put your calling card out into the universe to know if people are interested in hiring you.
Then, when they do reach out to hire you—and you are able to generate enough consistent work—it may be time for you to quit your day job.
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when starting a business is to assume that you have all the answers. When you do that, you tend to listen less and ask fewer questions.
What you want to do is the exact opposite, ask more question and listen. Author Dan Lok says, “Whoever asks more questions in a conversation, is in control of the conversation.” Here’s the irony; when you ask a question, it gives the other person a sense of control. It’s imperative that your clients to feel like they are in control of the engagement and that you are hanging on their every word.
These types of questions general start with “what” or “how.” Help your clients think through a problem and make a decision less scary. By doing this, you will build rapport with them and gain their trust. They’ll feel like any proposal you offer comes from a place of understanding their wants and their needs. This is known as Socratic Selling.
There is a big difference between freelancing and running your own business. If you’re a freelancer, you are a temporary employee without the benefits of being an employee. You’re paid either by the hour or for the day, and don’t have all of the same concerns as full-timers.
The company that hires you assumes a lot of liability, so you are responsible for your own insurance and saving for the future. In certain industries, freelancing is about as common as breathing oxygen.
Conversely, if you are operating as a legitimate business, you have tax issues, liabilities, insurance and so on. You have a lot more to be concerned about, but the important areas you need to learn are marketing, sales, how to work with clients, and managing a team.
There are some fundamental concepts you need to embrace if you want to start your own business.
First, you’re going to do more managing and less hands-on work. That is vital for the success of your company. Second, you need to master sales, marketing, and budgeting, because nobody can sell or bid the projects better than you. This skill is key. Third, you will work more than anybody else, and you will make less money.
If you still haven’t checked out, welcome to entrepreneurship.
This is just the natural order of things. Understand that failure is the result of you trying new things. You will grow by learning from each failure and preparing for any potential setbacks.
It might not seem like it, but obstacles are a good thing. They test the weak from those who are fully resolved in achieving their goals. So focus on your process, not the results. When you’re bidding on a new project and it doesn’t go your way, don’t blame yourself and find fault. Have an objective and a fair conversation with yourself. Ask, “What can I do better? What can I learn?” Both questions can lead to profound growth, versus, “Why did I screw this up? What is wrong with me?”
Not everyone wants to work on the weekends, we get that. But if it’s a Saturday or a Sunday, and you refer to it as your “lazy day” while you’re trying to grow your business, then there’s nothing compelling you to get out of bed. You need to have a goal that some people might describe as a big, great, audacious goal--something that excites you, gets you jumping out of bed, stirs your emotions and insights, and has you thrilled to be pursuing this goal.
A S.M.A.R.T. goal is one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relative, and time-bound. This is critical to your success. Having goals like this will ensure you have no shortage of motivation to get up and work hard.
Some say they have a clear goal, but don’t know what the next step is. Know this: you can’t find what you’re not looking for. Try implementing the law of attraction. You will quickly find out what you want to do. All of a sudden a mentor appears, that book you needed is right there, and the video that you didn’t know you needed materializes. That’s how it works.
Designers are trained to do design work, not manage and run a business. Crafting pitches and charming clients is not a naturally-born gift. When you have little exposure to the fundamentals of business, it’s tough to separate yourself from the title of designer to become a true business owner.
If you’re fortunate enough to work with—or have the opportunity to work with—big companies, they will smell your inexperience through the phone. That’s a red flag to them, because big companies don’t enjoy taking risks.
Big companies tend to hire bigger, more well-known and established companies because there’s a smaller chance of being embarrassed, losing money, or getting a really bad result.
It goes without saying, but you’ll need to make some tough decisions as a business owner, some of the biggest being centered around staffing, delegation, and the management of other people.
This consists of the literal creation of the deliverables, and making sure you deliver a high-quality product or service to your client.
In order for you to make something, you have to have the opportunity to meet people so they can consider you for the job. How to get known, how to get liked, and how to build trust are all very difficult things to achieve.
Now that you have the work and the opportunity, how do you manage the work with other creatives? The great thing about designers is we’re very intuitive, we’re emotional, and we’re abstract thinkers. What’s the problem with working with designers? We’re very emotional, we’re intuitive, and we’re abstract thinkers. We’re two sides of the same coin.
When you think you have commitment on creative direction, your team might be thinking the opposite. What you used to say about your clients--why did they have such bad taste, why are they getting in my way, why don’t they know what they want--is going to be the very thing that your team is going to be saying about you when you’re not around.
Does generalizing come at a cost? Creative people tend to have an unhealthy addiction to the new, the novel, and the different. We like to do unusual things and we are lateral, divergent thinkers. The thought of doing something over and over again, in repetition, bores and scares us. It works against us to develop our expertise.
To succeed and master, we must give up our addiction for the new and unusual. We have to be able to work on a similar type of project enough to identify patterns and glean insight. The beauty of find your niche (or specializing) is that it narrows the area of focus.
A thousand watt light-bulb will light up a room. A thousand-watt laser will cut a hole in steel.
Let’s look at this a different way. If you’d like to market to 1,000 people and your budget is $1,000, your actual budget is $1 per person. But, if you reduce your marketing effort to 100 people, your budget is now $10 per person. That’s a big improvement.
Now, if you market to 10 people, your budget becomes $100 per person and this is where a lot of possibilities open up. You have the resources to think of the best possible solution for them. Also, it is significantly easier to know who 10 people are; a little more difficult to know 100, and painful to know 1,000. The power of focus is an impressive weapon to wield.
With enough practice and tenacity, athletes that train for a singular, athletic endeavor become world champions. You need to adopt the same model.
Disclaimer: We’re going to address some of the business and legal issues first and by no means do we claim to be lawyers. Please consult a legal professional about your business as well as the rules and regulations for you where you live.
To make it official—and protect your personal assets—you have to create a business entity. In the United States, the most common options are Limited Liability Company (LLC), S-Corp or C-Corp.
If something bad were to happen—say, someone wanted to sue you (knock on wood)—they would sue you personally and go after everything you’ve ever owned. But in this case, the entity (LLC, S-Corp, or C-Corp) provides some legal and financial protection. So if that does happen, the only thing they’d take is your company and not your life’s savings.
Think of a Tax ID number like your business’ social security number. As far as the government is concerned, your entity is a person. You’ll have your own bank account where you can file a DBA (doing business as). You will also need to come up with a company name. Do not rush trying to come up with it; it’s a title you’re going to live as for a long time.
Once you have that all set up, you’ll need to get a business permit and set up a Franchise Tax Board account. If you are doing everything we mentioned before (giving yourself some runway), then you should have money saved up to kick off your business securely.
It’s important to set up your ledger correctly from day one, so consider hiring an accountant to do that for you. There are a slew of applications to help you manage your books. FreshBooks and Quickbooks are the most popular. And you will want to use an accrual-based accounting method.
If you plan to do the money managing, we suggest taking a financial IQ class. We offer a great introduction course called Managing Money taught by a certified, public accountant.
Finally, you need your own website with a domain name that matches your company name. It makes you, and your business, appear legitimate.
Let’s say you call your business ACME Design. You’d want to register acmedesign.com or something along those lines. You’ll also want to have your own business phone number for potential clients to contact you.
Businesses want to work with other businesses; they don’t necessarily want to work with individuals. If you don’t have a business phone number or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) then you’ll start send out signals to the world that you’re not professional.
When you’re just starting out, the most straightforward way is to use the good ol’ word-of-mouth advertising. You can start building a network by reaching out to people you already know, like former teachers, coworkers, and managers.
The next group to reach out to is the friends and family network. It’s almost guaranteed that somebody knows somebody who needs a design service. You need to let people know that you’re available and willing to be flexible in terms of price or opportunity. You just want to get your feet wet in the professional design world.
You can also try a more targeted marketing approach. Look at a handful of companies you’d like to work with as a business, and send them some form of direct-mail campaign. While you wait for a response or two, work on your Instagram, Behance, and LinkedIn presence. Let people know you’re available, what you do, and what you care about.
There’s a very simple formula that you apply for positioning: Service for Industry. If you wanted to, could you buy a list of people who are in your target market?
In his book, The Business of Expertise, David C. Baker says how important it is to find a vertical where there are enough people doing something that warrants a newsletter, a magazine, or a trade association. Find a vertical that holds conferences and gets together in growth-type sessions.
If you can’t identify a vertical like that, then your service offering is too broad. You could say, “We serve people,” but nobody can buy that list. Now change that to “We serve culinary instructors in Las Vegas,” and plenty of people can buy that list.
You can apply a test to see how well you’re positioned in the marketplace: the 50-mile test. Which businesses are willing to travel more than 50 miles to come and work with you? Or pay you to come and work with them?
If your positioning is not strong enough and your expertise is not established, companies will not work with you. You will be stuck working with small, local businesses.