Eric Karjaluoto

So, You’re Starting a Design Studio?

The other day, the owner of a new design studio asked me for some advice, on Officehours. During our session, I shared some thoughts on what has worked—and hasn’t—over the past 17 years, at smashLAB. I later realized that others might also find this information useful. So, I’ve summarized the guts of our talk, in this blog post.

Here are my tips for what to consider when starting your new design company. Admittedly, others will hold different perspectives, but these are the best recommendations I can muster:

Figure out what you want to be

Agencies and studios seem alike, but are in fact vastly different. Before you start either, ask yourself how you’d like to spend your day. An agency will require you to focus on sales and management. If you’d rather do hands-on design, a studio might be a better fit for you. Alternately, you might want to develop your own products. Each of of these is a fine pursuit. However, it’s important to pick the one that suits your personality—or you might regret your choice.

Drum up some cash flow

Start by finding some steady work. One of the easiest ways to do this, is to offer to be someone’s off-site designer—I explain how to do so here. This is a low-pressure approach that’s easy to sell. In fact, if you’re leaving a regular job, you can offer this working arrangement to them, as a way to ease the transition. Once you have a little money coming in, you’ll breathe easier and your studio will feel more stable.

Keep your overhead low

The easiest way to reduce economic pressure isn’t to earn more—it’s to spend less. Don’t rent an office; it’s costly and unnecessary. Work from home to save yourself the lease payments, commuting, furnishings, and other expenses. Even more important: Avoid hiring people until absolutely necessary. Payroll will bankrupt you faster than you realize. Instead, find good people to partner with, and work together. This is more fun, easier to administer, and affords you a lot of flexibility.

Buy good tools (once)

You don’t need many objects when you start a design business. That said, you’ll require a few essentials (i.e., a chair, computer, and desk). Some things, like the desk, you can do on the cheap. I recommend spending a little more on the other items, though. A basic Aeron chair is nice on long work days, and holds its value surprisingly well. Similarly, a good laptop allows you to work from anywhere. You don’t need the top of the line for these sorts of items, but I doubt you’ll regret buying sturdy tools.

Work in your business—not on it

A design studio isn’t an assembly line business. As such, the approaches used in building one or the other aren’t necessarily transferable. Early on in our business, someone told me to, “work on our business—not in it.” This amounted to creating systems, so we could hand work off to others. Following that advice led us to do a lot of things prematurely. Systems are great. As a small design shop, though, you should mostly concentrate on securing even cash flow and doing good work—not imagining how to turn your studio into a franchise.

Worry not about your website

Designers tend to overvalue their websites—and obsess over their shortcomings. Most clients, though, don’t know the difference—or even care. A single page website with a bit of information about your studio, and some (preferably notable) client logos will often suffice.

Bypass all the self-promotion

The act of promotion might seem useful, but can easily overtake your efforts. This is a common trap that pits your ego against you. Write if you like to write, and speak at conferences if you want to meet some nice people—but don’t confuse either as a means of keeping your studio healthy. Awards afford an even lower yield—and are costly in both prep time and entry fees. I suggest avoiding these altogether. There’s a better way to find new work.

Go for lunch

This is the single best piece of business advice I can share with you: meet with people. Lunch is a great way to keep in touch, strengthen friendships, and sometimes be in the right place at the right time. At our studio, we stumbled into more (and often substantial) new work, just by sitting down with past/prospective clients over a burger and fries.

Obsess over results for your clients—not your portfolio

Every time you split your focus, you make your job harder. Early on at smashLAB I wanted us to: Produce good design; Make our clients happy; Be financially sound; Push the medium in innovative ways; And, win design awards. While all of those can happen, these desires can overlap and create conflicts. For that reason, I urge you to focus on making your clients happy. If you do that one thing, you’ll be OK—and some of those other things might happen as well.

Have a side project

Making clients happy sometimes means making design changes that will leave you dissatisfied with what you produced. In worst case scenarios, you can’t even show this work, because it’s so clumsy. Such discomfort is lessened by having something of your own to work on—that affords you complete autonomy. Whether it’s an app, resource, or whatever, pick a side project that you alone own. Then set aside time during which you can work on this.

Be easy to hire

I have a friend who’s smart and well qualified, but he can’t find steady work. My hunch is that no one hires him because he makes the process unnecessarily difficult. He complains about their HR software. He questions whether their interest is legitimate. He gets frustrated when the process carries on. Don’t fall into this trap. Make it easy for clients to try you out, see how you work, and get comfortable. If you’re not sure how to do this, I urge you to read this article.

Enjoy the ride

I rush a lot. In turn, I miss out on some good times. Lately, I’m finding ways to take my time—and have a bit more fun. Running a design studio is involving, but it needn’t be stressful or approached like a race. Instead, structure your business so it helps you live the life you want.

Admittedly, this is an incomplete list. As such, I might return to it and add other notes as they come to mind. In the meanwhile, if you have questions, I’m happy to answer them. Book me on Officehours, and I’ll lend a hand.

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