On growing a business
What are the things I wish people would have told me when I was first starting out? Here are a few diddies.
1: There are no right ways to do things.
This is a disclaimer: I’ll tell you how WE did things, or how I wish we would have. This is not your handbook. Everyone from business coaches to parents will tell you how to ‘grow a business’. I have blatantly disregarded business advice innumerable times. Here’s the bottom line: if you LOVE the way someone is doing something, take their advice. If you don’t value how they do business, then it’s not advice worth taking.
2: Hire slow + try before you buy.
The best part about a creative industry is that it is brimming with freelancers. With my first hire, we were so eager to get them on board that we gave them a full time contract right out of the gate. We get smarter with every hire. We created a massive network of badass designers that we would pull from on a project-by-project basis. By sampling how you work with people before bringing them on full time, you’ll avoid weirdness down the road.
There is an appeal to bringing someone into a full time secure position, so once you know you love them, bring them on with haste. Great gems are hard to find. (PS — By full-time, I mean as full time subcontractors. Making the leap from hiring subcontractors to employees is HUGE, and I would recommend waiting a few years with steady income to start paying for employee benefits, etc).
3: Interns are great. Pay them.
Internships are a great idea. Especially for sampling designers to find one that jives. Little 2–3 month contracts will give you an exceptional pulse on how you work together before you bring them on. By putting a date at the end, it gives you an ‘easy out’ (hate to say it…) if it’s not going well. But if you do bring on an intern, make sure to pay them. This industry is certainly full of sleazy people that don’t value other creatives time. Let’s change that.
4: Hire your weaknesses first.
Literally the best thing I have done in my business journey was not hiring a designer as my first hire, which at the time was a bold move. If you’re anything like me, there are these things in business called emails, spreadsheets, invoices, taxes, accounting, etc and they suck. And all of that still has to get done. And if you want clients to be happy, you need to be a communication maverick so that means you need to be really awesome at all of that stuff. I knew that if I wanted to design full-time, I’d need to get someone to do everything else that I was purely terrible at.
5: Partnerships versus equity versus pay versus bonuses versus incentives.
Let’s talk partnerships. I have a great business partner. Our strengths are total opposite which is the best thing we could ask for. Guys, she legitimately loves going to networking events?! The feeling of having a partner in crime is fantastic in your first few years of business because there will be moments of WTF that you’ll need to coach each other through. And, partnerships are not for everybody. Here are a few other ideas when you can’t exactly ‘pay people’ a lot:
- If you are incorporated, you could pay in equity (you should probably make sure you love them first, though) to have a small stake in the business.
- You could give out one-time bonuses to subcontractors that bring in clients / business.
- You could tie an incentive to your monthly income goals (ie if we make _____/mo we all get _____).
I decided to pivot my freelancing career to a ‘business’ because of one moment in time: I was living in Vancouver, BC at the time in the dead of winter (read: RAINCITY). All the blinds were drawn shut. My husband came home from work that day, and the light that poured through the door almost shrivelled me like the witch in Wizard of Oz. I went to say hello and my voice cracked and I realized that was the FIRST. TIME. I. SAID. A. WORD. THAT. DAY. So I promptly joined a co-working space. That’s where I met my business partner, it’s where I returned to a feeling of legitimacy, and as a side bonus, it’s where we got countless clients from.
7: Geography knows no bounds.
Our team is spread across the country. We have designers, copywriters and photographers in Vancouver, our business coordinator and my business partner is in Calgary, and the design team is here in Toronto. And we’re all working out of separate co-working spaces (see: co-work love section above). There was a time that we were all in one office in Calgary, which is fun for the Friday cocktail meetings, but it is totally not necessary. We’re still running our business all the same without being in the same room. The sexy idea of ‘The Agency’ is quickly dying. With tools like slack, zoom, skype, etc it’s easier than ever to run a team across multiple timezones. The the idea of having a huge warehouse-y type office all to ourselves with dogs and coffee and plants and boardrooms was cool. We have all of those in our respective offices with much, much, less overhead $.
8: It takes time.
This was the only piece of business advice that I took from my father-in-law: it will take 3 years. At first I snarked, thinking I could do it way faster, but guys trust me: we are in this for the marathon, not the sprint. There’ll still be little bumps in the road, but I promise you; stick with it. Commit to 3 months. Then you’ll see at 3 months that you could make it 6 months. Then at 6 months you’ll start getting traction and then at 9 months you’ll start to get excited and then at 12 months you’ll be in your groove and then at 18 months you’ll hit a huge block and at 22 months you’ll be back in the groove…. it’s all part of what we signed up for. I’m telling you, it’s worth it.
9: Set up a little team like you would set up a big team.
When it was a team of 2 (yes, just me and my business partner Ais), we set everything up like we were a thriving company of 50. We set guidelines for our weekly meetings, we made business plans, we got on board with project management software and used instant messaging apps even when we were sitting side by side. I am so thankful we did that because bringing on people to a team that is organized makes you A) look less like a clusterfuck and B) doesn’t slow you down by having to set these things up later.
10: Evaluate and innovate quickly.
Get used to failing a lot. If a day goes by that we haven’t made a little mistake, I’d think something was seriously wrong. On Fridays, we have a mandatory meeting for our team called Wine + Wisdom. We have wine (obviously) and share wisdom (obviously). Every week, we pick our business apart to find what we could have done better. Then we don’t make that mistake again. By evaluating our business often, we can stay on top of the little problems before we have big problems. The big problems we innovate right away.
11: Get your shit together (taxes, contracts, etc).
Hire an accountant. Get a business bank account. Change your phone plan to a business account. Hire a lawyer and get them to review and read all of your client contracts and your subcontractor contracts. Don’t forget this step.
12: Have fun.
Oh one more thing. We’ve truly over glorified the hustle. I’ve had 3 significant burn-outs in starting my business. 3! I worked every moment possible thinking that my business would crash and burn without me there. It’s critical that you set guidelines for yourself; don’t work on the weekends, don’t work on your honeymoon (#guilty), and don’t forget to take breaks. This is fun!