Given that the economy is so tough, I’m surprised more people aren’t going it alone and hanging out a shingle. However, starting a business has a multitude of risks and rewards that aren’t for everyone, particularly those who appreciate stability, a regular paycheck, benefits and free office pens. But when the interviews and offers dry up, perhaps it’s time for you to hire you!
For around four years I was a venture capitalist who helped startups get their footing and funding. And although the sums of money at the time were measured in 6-9 figures, there isn’t a whole lot of ‘different’ for an individual setting up shop in their living room. And quite frankly, the success rate for your living room business is perhaps better than your typical high-tech startup. Over the past several years, I’ve also been helping fellow designers with business advice. And thus, I thought why not create a post so that even more might benefit. Although the list is not exhaustive, it should give you focus no matter what business you decide to pursue:
BRANDING – Define your core competency and offer it as your first service or product. And by define, I mean write it on paper and refine it down to a sentence or two. You can’t be good at everything and clients won’t expect you to be. Being focused on what you do best will not only help define who your clients are, but they’ll have more specific expectations that you can directly fulfill. In the case of design, are you better at the organization and details that make a good business? Or are you better at the artistic and creative end? Or perhaps you specify and buy things well? For example, if you’re great at specifying and purchasing (figuring out what, where to get and how to get a great deal) then market yourself on helping people get great design deals. If you’re a better artist and can find creative solutions, then market that aspect and let people make their own purchases. As you refine your skills continue to add new ones to grow your business.
MARKETING – Once you figure out what you’re good at, obtain and create marketing materials to support it: 1.Business and resale licenses make you legitimate, 2. A website with your own URL and your own email address (no Yahoo or Gmail please), 3. Create a logo and choose a color theme, 4. Print business cards that contain your logo, color and branding as well as your contact info, 5. Create templates for quotes, invoices, contracts and stationery that all have your logo/look and are ready to be used for your first paying job. 6. Establish your rates (always have an hourly rate and a per room/job rate ready to quote, 7. Keep good records from day one, particularly on your startup expenditures and your timecards (what you spend your time doing). Both will help you find area to improve and save on as you grow.
ADVERTISING – Get your name out there by giving out your business cards, postcards or flyers at local stores, and post on bulletin boards and Craigslist. Use USPS mailings to neighbors and businesses. You can promote new client or referral discounts as well as bonuses like a free color consult with every room makeover. Talk with managers of local furniture, paint, hardware, and carpet stores to see if you can leave your cards with them for referrals. In fact, target all places people go for home improvement products. Local architects, builders/contractors, residential stagers and even real estate agents can make interesting partners if you can help them grow their business. You have to make a convincing business case whenever you talk with another business owner. They’ll only consider helping you if there is something in it for them.
WEBSITE REFINEMENT – You are your own brand and as you establish yourself, have a look and methodology that people will want to be associated with and pay for. All of your marketing materials, particularly your website, should reflect your brand. As you construct your website, get several eyes to help edit it, but make sure the graphics reflect you and how you want yourself to be seen. Have colleagues and other professionals review it. If you use friends and family, you’ll get great encouragement but perhaps not as much constructive criticism. If you don’t have a large portfolio of work to show, start with just a few pages; Home, Bio, Services and Contact. As you get more established, you can add to your portfolio. When people get your card or name, they usually visit your website first before making contact, so try to make your website give the best first impression you can. And please, no music or long loading flash slideshows.
APPRECIATE YOUR CLIENTS – Once you get a client and successfully finish the work, leverage them to get more referrals. When a substantial job is finished and paid for, always send a thank you note and perhaps even a small gift. It’s always useful to take images before, during and after a project. A small, but well appreciated gift is a photo book that contains some of these images given as a memento of the work/job/design. Always follow up 1-2 times per year for each past client to remind them that you’re still around and what you’re working on currently. A holiday card at the end of the year is always a nice touch.
PROJECT CONFIDENCE – Don’t worry about not having experience, not being established, or not having a large portfolio. You’re just starting out and if you simply state that and say you’ll do the best job you can, people will appreciate your honesty. But – ALWAYS pay attention to details. More attention to details means fewer mistakes. If you make a mistake admit it immediately and tell them how you’ll resolve it. The main issue I’ve found for starting designers is simply a lack of confidence. People hesitate to work with those who are unsure of themselves and that do not project a feeling of confidence. Likewise, too much confidence is just as bad since once you under deliver, you’ll probably not be hired again. So be humble, be energetic, be confident and market yourself well. If you look and act professional – people will trust you.
Now that you have the basics down, here are a few more considerations:
1. Branding yourself is harder than you think. Just choosing a logo/color/look feel of your cards, website, and imagery isn’t quick or simple. This is particularly true for those who haven’t yet defined their own sense of style. Take your time, explore options but once you define it, stick to it. You can refine, but don’t always go reinventing yourself. Your clients will appreciate stability and consistency.
2. Always file and pay your taxes. Always keep great paperwork. Always keep in touch with clients with progress reports. All of these are just good business practices and setting your processes up from the start will help you work more efficiently.
3. Walk away from work that doesn’t feel right or isn’t a good fit. Even as a starting designer, you need to pick your clients well. I’ve had colleagues tell me horror stories of their bad clients. In all cases the feeling of impending doom was there from the start. Learn from your gut even if it means giving up a job or two.
4. Branch out from design and incorporate other interests to differentiate yourself. For example, I have my photography and teaching. Find ways to make yourself more unique and interesting to your clients.
5. Write a blog. A blog takes time and commitment but for some designers, it can also help communicate with your clients and prospects. It can also be a forum for you to establish and promote your viewpoint. But make sure that you’re consistently adding to it and the content reflects you and your business. Also, if you repost someone’s product or design, always give proper credit.
6. Do design related volunteer work. Plenty of organizations or businesses could use help but have little or no budget. They’re great experiences to add to your resume and portfolio and you do some good at the same time. You can also do some free work for prospective clients, but make sure you have a path to paying work.
7. Define your ideal client. If you’re starting out, you’re probably not going to land a million dollar contract. Particularly since you don’t have the experience or staff to handle such a job. Rather, you might focus on singles or small family professionals who need help with smaller projects (a few rooms) that don’t require substantial construction. You don’t need extensive computer tools or other resources for smaller projects. You also won’t need much cash up-front to purchase furniture or materials.
8. Speaking of cash flow… define, understand and stick to your billing practices. Do you want to work on a retainer or no retainer? Will you require partial or full deposits for furniture and goods? Knowing how you will handle your billing and cash flow and clarifying this to your client with a contract, could save you from embarrassing financial problems.
9. Lastly, enjoy the process. On some jobs only 5-10% of your time will be spent on actual design with the remainder dedicated to managing bills, orders, contractors and the client. If you don’t enjoy 95% of your work, find a partner or someone who likes those details. But then again, the benefit of starting your own business is the reward that comes from doing that 95% of the work.
Overall, be organized, establishing good practices up front, brand yourself well and then market the heck out of yourself until the jobs start flowing. Any questions? Email me!