Simple actions to getting started with a design business

by Tiina Wilen

Starting a company is daunting, but getting started with a design business doesn’t have to be hard. The problem many faces is the amount of information available online, which is of course amazing, but also leads to a lot of analysis paralysis and split focus. In this post, I’m sharing the steps to focus on to get your design business off the ground.

Believe it’s possible

The absolute first thing you need to do is to actually believe that it is possible to build and grow a business in your industry and that you have what it takes. Of course, if this is your first business, you can’t possibly know what it really takes, even if you have years of experience in the industry or a long and successful career behind you.

The good news: you will learn what it takes!

You need to believe your idea is possible. If you don’t believe it, who is going to do it?

Get evidence

Believing in your own capacity and skills is important, but you also need evidence. The evidence you need is an understanding of your total market size and the potential buyer market. If you live in a tiny village (like I do), maybe your audience and potential buyers are too small, so you might need to make a decision to locate your business somewhere else, or design a business model that is not location-based.

Find resources

You are going to need resources to build a business, and those resources are time and money. Many online gurus try to tell you that growing a business can be passive and you can start one without any money or barely any time investment. I have yet not seen that kind of business.

Create time

Your new venture needs your attention. Most often people start their companies while they still work full-time, or stay at home with their kids (like I did). In both cases, your time is highly limited, and time being finite, it’s impossible to make more of it.

So, to make the best out of your time, you need to be relentless in how you use it. Here are some things you can practice to make more time to get started with a design business:

  • make an inventory of your time. What do you actually do in a week? Where does all your time go? Pick a normal week and add each activity to an excel sheet, from sleeping to work, to playing with kids, to Netflix, to grocery shopping, exercise… all of it.
  • set rules for what you need to achieve each week. For example, each week you will set aside 5 hours in total to work on your business. Where can you find those hours? Look into your excel and identify the hours that can be replaced with business.
  • set goals for what you need to achieve within those hours. For example, you need to send 5 invitations to work with you. Find some great lead generation methods below!
  • declare family martial law. You’re building a business, and your family and friends need to support you in doing that. Make your priorities clear and tell them that over a period of time, you will need to focus on getting your business off the ground. That means, for example, that you won’t be available for kids’ hockey practice every Sunday morning. If you explain how much your new business means to you and to their future, they should be supportive. But, be aware of not replacing all your family and social activities with business! You will need downtime and your family deserves you to be present too. Prioritize wisely!

Create money

I’ll cover the best way to make money in a minute, but right now, I’d like to propose you get some money to get started with your business. Put away some money while you still have a job! Also, small business loans are a great way to fund your start, and a few good things happen when you apply and get a loan: you need to create a plan that you present to your bank, and when you have a loan that you pay off, you are building your credit score for the future. When you’re expanding your business in the future and need a bigger loan, it’s great to be able to show that your business has been successful in paying off your small business loan. A third way to fund your star is a line of credit that you can apply at your bank.

What about the interest? Well, in most cases they are so low that if you know how to make money by selling your services and products, you shouldn’t worry about them. Have a talk with your bank to see what they recommend!

Focus on the right things to get your design business off the ground.

Focus on lead generation

Now, let’s get to business! We talked about prioritizing, so here’s the only priority you should have at this stage of your business: getting clients! This means that the time that you have cleared in your calendar needs to go to the activities that will bring customers and clients to you.

Your first goal: get your first 3 clients.

Three clients is a great goal because it means you are serious about your business. If your goal is to only get your one client to get started with, once that happens, your goal is achieved and you might unintentionally stop looking for more. So focus on getting 3 clients, one by one. Once you have got your first, you get started with them and also do the same things to get another, and then another.

Also…

  • you are proving you can deliver a project
  • you are proving there is a need for your expertise
  • you build confidence
  • you build momentum, which is needed for growth. You will always need to focus on both servicing your current clients and getting new ones, so practicing it from the start is a great idea!

Marketing is not (necessarily) the same as lead generation

Many people confuse posting images and inspiration online for effective marketing. At this moment, you’re not building your brand, you need to focus on client-getting activities. The brand building comes later. So, identify the activities that actually lead to conversations with people, which in turn leads to conversations with relevant people, i.e. your first three clients.

Many ways to build your lead database

Speaking – you can speak at your local organizations and events.

Cooperating – you can approach local firms who already have your clients and offer cooperation.

Advertising – you can run digital ads or print ads in your local newspaper. If your business is local, digital advertising is very affordable.

Flyers – all things being digital nowadays; if you invest in sending flyers to your local homeowners and businesses, you can really make yourself stand out.

Direct outreach – if you sell services/products to companies, you can reach out to your potential clients directly. This is the best way to get your product business off the ground.

Events – partner with a local store to host an event where you share about your business.

The goal at this stage is to book as many conversations as possible, that will either lead to a project or a recommendation. Also, start building your database with potential clients and remember to communicate regularly with them. Our favorite tool for this is MailerLite, a great asset that allows you to grow your business systematically!

“So, you’re saying social media is not important at this stage?”

No. That’s not what I’m saying. Social media is a powerful tool to make your business visible, but it’s also such a time suck. At this point, you need to be relentlessly focused on what actually makes you clients, instead of building a fanbase but no sales.

So yes, use social media strategically to build awareness and make sales, but also explore other avenues for getting customers and clients.

Many ways to waste your time

It’s also important to know what other ways you might be wasting your time. Things such as designing your logo, getting your website perfect, and endlessly scrolling through Instagram for “inspiration” will take your time and focus away from getting clients. As your time is limited, make sure you spend it wisely.

Of course, you can spend your time on getting inspiration too, but do that only after you have reached your weekly goal of client-getting activities.

Build your future black book

When you work on getting your business started, and once you have reached your goal of three clients, and then more, you should always be working on your black book of things. The black book is your secret list of tools, people, ideas, processes, vendors, skills, and anything you will find handy when you grow.

At some point, you will need to start designing your signature client experience, and you want to get your work published. You will need to have contact details of the best vendors, and buyers at your dream client organizations. All this should go into your black book for the future.

My recommendation for the black book is Notion. It’s a great tool for keeping all your data, ideas, projects, and other assets in one place, accessible from any device!

Keys to getting started with a design business

You have no time or money to waste, so use your resources wisely. Focus on client-generating activities above everything else, and don’t allow yourself to procrastinate your decisions. You can always change the direction of your business, and there will be a time when focusing on brand building, processes, service design, systems, and tools make sense, but when starting out, the only thing you need to worry about is getting your three first clients, and keep doing that.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. we might get a commission if you purchase through the links, at no cost to you. read more about our affiliate policy.

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