Starting your own design business, finding your niche, and overcoming the title of ‘freelancer.’
Buddy and I officially opened our ‘business’ in October of 2012, though we technically started actively working on it in March of that year. In the beginning it wasn’t exactly a flourishing studio. We were bored, had some free time, and were less than 100% fulfilled by our day jobs, (a trend I think is very common for the average fresh baked designer out of college) so we started forming self initiated design projects and seeking freelance side work we could be a bit more exploratory with. For several years that is all our company was, a random name, a basic website, and an email — just enough to give us a face when someone at a party asked ‘so… can you make an invitation for my son’s birthday?’
Over the course of those years we continuously spoke about taking the thing full time. But with limited clients, a tall stack of bills, and little knowledge of how to actually run a business it seemed a bit far fetched. Eventually though, we came to realize that all that’s really required is the bravado to make the leap. For various reasons each of us were reaching the point in our lives where more control over our schedules would be great, so we made it official.
We decided. We were quitting our day jobs. We were jumping off the cliff into the swirling tumultuous waters of the freelance designer — or in our case, in a twist of the narrative that would soon become helpful to us ‘the small business owner.’
The difference between being a freelancer and being a small business owner is a critical one, and one that we soon realized set us apart in certain ways. One thing that helped us starting out was that fact that there were two of us. We were able to juggle agency contracts (a space where we had more experience) along with our client work to keep cash flow from being a problem with our then short client list. We also started to realize we looked different to potential clients compared to other freelancers. Since there were two of us, we gave more of an aura of stability, that we were still going to be around next year when the campaign turned over again. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with being a freelancer but as partners in our work Buddy and I were able to land larger projects requiring more skill sets to complete effectively.
With that knowledge we also decided to diversify our skill sets. We were a two man design shop — a fact that was quite attractive to other small businesses as they knew we would be working directly on their materials. There was no revolving door of talent as there is in the agency setting. Our niche was quickly developing on its own and it was very clear what kind of product the client would get working with us. But our clients wanted a lot of different kinds of products. Buddy and I both came from digital design backgrounds, so the web was strong in our portfolio. But our clients who were excited by quality design work also wanted branding, print materials, copywriting assistance, video editing, animation, illustration, on and on. We were each used to wearing many hats in our old jobs, but we decided early on that for our studio to effectively service our clients we were going to have to divide and conquer on the technical side. We also realized we might actually need some help.
So Buddy and I split off from each other, while we both still wore the mantle of ‘designer’ we delved deeper into other core skills that would help us generate more products for our clients. On Buddy’s side of things he delved deeper into front end web development while I took a road down animation and illustration.
But even still we didn’t feel that we had all the skills needed to really give our clients everything their businesses could use. So we were again at a crossroads — we could hire someone, pull some resumes out of linkedin and turn our little studio into a little agency. But having both come from the agency life, we were very opposed to that idea. We liked our small little format, and we knew our clients appreciated it too. So we took another road and focused on developing our network of freelancers.
The great thing about being an active creative is that you wind up meeting a lot of other creatives. Buddy and I already had a pretty sizable list tracking. Hell, even each of our SOs were tap-able creative types. So were started forming little tribes every time we had a new project show up on our doorstep. Someone came in with a web project, we called a few devs who could assist Buddy on the back-end. Someone called for printed collateral, we pulled in a photographer and copywriter to generate content. With a few trusted independently successful contacts we were able to flesh out our service list and be ready for just about anything. It was pretty great.
It wasn’t all rosy though. Business development, as I think for most freelancers, small studios, whoevers, was still a challenge. Keeping new projects coming in when other clients went quiet could be challenging. Especially for us when we were trying to coordinate not only the work, but the people who would do the work. Checking availability of our freelancers and aligning it with clients deadlines made writing proposals tricky and time-consuming business. I think this is a hurdle we are still getting over. Templatizing our materials has certainly helped. But I think there’s going to be a real market for web apps in the next few years that streamline some of this. I can just picture it, a place for freelance creatives to form ‘tribes’ and post their availability — making each other aware, “Hey you need some help with a project? I’m light this month, lets rock out.”
Someone wanna go ahead and build that for me? Maybe someone already has. Or maybe I just had another idea for a self-initiated project.