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Living La Vida Solo

This one’s for all of us who decided one day that we could no longer take working for “the man.” Creativity being squelched? Couldn’t get to the office by 9:30 am? Needed to work side by side with your pet? We’ve all got different reasons why we felt we needed to join the freelance/sole practitioner ranks.

It seemed golden, didn’t it? You could get up at noon, work until you felt like it, watch Dr. Phil, then go out and see a movie, then work until midnight. Nobody bothers you, nobody sets your schedule. You could even take Mondays off.

But that’s the easy part.

Let’s share and learn from the challenges we’re encountering. Start, even, with the decision to work freelance.

Why, especially in this tepid economy, would you ditch a comfortable, benefits-offering, salary-guaranteed gig?

And what about starting a freelance business?

How much freakin’ effort did it take to come up with your logo and stationery? It took me forever and I still have 10 more ideas that could be better.

Once you’re out there, what are you doing to get new business? Did you do a fancy portfolio brochure, or do you truck your black case with you to pitches? Do you send letters and work samples to a database of companies or troll sites like craigslist?

Oh, yeah. What about sales tax? Anyone figured this out yet?

There are a ton more questions. So offer ‘em up as well. I’m no freelance expert. Heck, I’m just figuring it out as I go. If you’re curious about how to do something, just ask. This is your place.

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Dana’s comment is:

My plunge-instigator was getting laid off. I'd been thinking about starting my own business for a while, so I just went for it.

To get new business, I networked my ass off. Joined every networking group I could, reminded my friends ad nauseam about my business, and then networked some more.

Looking back, I can't believe that I didn't even make up a business plan. But honestly, I didn't have the time! The work started rolling in, and now I have a queue for the new few months. I've been very lucky.

I try not to go to my own site that often - my portfolio is shameful, I'm bored with my logo, and I don't even have my new catch phrase up there. Shoemaker's children and whatnot, I guess. I finally had to get someone else to do my brochure. I just don't have the time, and it's good to get a fresh perspective.

Finally, as for taking Mondays off, sometimes I do that. Sometimes I also pull all-nighters. The only thing that's different is that "the man" is me, which I thoroughly enjoy.

On Jul.06.2003 at 12:22 PM
Justin’s comment is:

Here's the money making question of the year:

How do you get new clients or even clients in general?

This has been my biggest task. If I had clients it means that I'd have work which means that I could do this business full-time. So, please, someone clue me in.

Now lets put a twist on it: How do you get clients when you have no money whatsoever for marketing? Thanks.

On Jul.06.2003 at 12:49 PM
Liz’s comment is:

I'm excited to see this kind of post showing up, especially on the heels of some of the discusson in "What's Wrong with Speak Up?".

I've been (primarily) freelance for the past 7 years and ironically, just as people seem to be taking the plunge into it, I'm itching for the security of a full time job.

To have any success as a freelance designer, it is a requirement that you're also a savvy business person and a killer marketer. If you're not, you have to learn quickly. One of the things that I hate is that so much of my time is taken up with selling myself and handling invoices, contracts and business/personal finances.

The marketing end is something I've never been particularly skilled at - but I have learned a lot.


I find that in large part, many of my new clients come in as referals from clients I've had in the past. Often times, this "sticks" me in a particular industry which I might not be thrilled with (once I spent months designing websites, logos and promotional materials for dog walkers within a 100 mile radius). But, work is work, and word of mouth is always golden.

As a freelance designer one of the most powerful things I can offer the client over a studio is personal attention. I draw on that, and make a point of being friendly with all my clients - checking up on them after the project has been completed, sending (non denominational) holiday cards, and always, always reminding them to refer me to their friends.

Here's another question:

How do you get a better class of clients?

Dogwalkers are fine, small businesses are fine, but these types of clients don't allow you to push any design boundries. In a lot of cases, it winds up being drudge work. With a portfolio full of that kind of work, how can you leverage it to get a better (or at least more interesting) set of clients? Or are the cherries always going to go to the ad firms and studios?

On Jul.06.2003 at 01:23 PM
eric’s comment is:

i am still work for "the man" and do freelance work mostly for an agency on the west coast. i'm lucky to have a broad range of projects through them. the downside is i have to be in the office at 930 and i get to pull all nighters.

that said, i'm not making enough via freelance to fulfill my dreams of showing up at the gallery drunk one morning and burning the mother down. not yet.

thanks for the post. i'll be interested to see where it leads.

On Jul.06.2003 at 02:26 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>To have any success as a freelance designer, it is a requirement that you're also a savvy business person and a killer marketer. If you're not, you have to learn quickly. One of the things that I hate is that so much of my time is taken up with selling

>How do you get new clients or even clients in general?

>How do you get clients when you have no money whatsoever for marketing?

Such good questions. I have been selling design for such a long time and there is really only one way to get new clients when you aren't famous, haven't gotten a referral, and have little or no money for marketing. And that is to call them. Yes, I mean actually dial their phone number, hope they answer the phone and then try to get them to see you. If you want to work for someone, call them. This will take enormous amounts of effort, patience and fearlessness, but there is no other way to do it. If you send something in the mail and hope your prospect will call you, please, unless you have gotten Sagmeister to design your promotional piece, do not hold your breath. They will not call, unless you are really, really good or have gotten Sagmeister to design your promotional piece. If you send something and then call said prospect and hope they have your piece in front of them, think again. They won't. They will likely say they have not gotten it, we call this a classic "obstacle." You will then be asked to send it again--so if you have already sent one, you are just wasting your beautiful promotional pieces. The only way I have found to reliably get an opportunity to see someone is to get them on the phone and ask for an appointment to show them your work. Period. You may have to try calling 50 or 60 times to get them once to answer the phone, but that is what it takes. Once you have them on the phone do not ever, ever say anything like, "oh you must be so busy--I have tried so many times to call you"--and DON'T ever apologize--you have nothing to be sorry for--you are calling for business, that is your job. Be simple, be persuasive, be nice and just tell them who you are, what you do and what you want: an appointment to show your work. If someone asks to see examples first, point them to your website. If they ask to see stuff anyway, then send it, but always follow up within 2-3 days to set that appointment. A trick of human nature: people don't really like to say no. So if you are somewhat polite, a bit firm and kind of compelling, you will likely (eventually) get an appointment. But be persistant. Do not give up if someone says "call me in a few months." Put it in your book and then call them. It took me 7 years to get business from Kraft. 10 years to get business from the NBA and Campbell's.

Most people have what the pro's call "call reluctance." They will do anything they can to get out of calling. Invoicing, designing, whatever. You must face the fact if you are a freelancer or starting your own business: you can not get away from having to call people for business. You can be nervous, afraid, terified, petrified, whatever--but you must make the calls! 7 of the top 10 clients at Sterling have come through cold calls. The other three were referrals. So set aside time EVERYDAY to do this, and eventually you will get appointments, and eventually you will get some work.

NOW--when you get the appointment--then you will need a whole slew of other (non-design oriented) skills. (Isn't it amazing how many non-design oriented skills you need to be a successful, gainfully self-employed designer???) You must remember that people will determine their first impression of you less than 30 seconds and it often takes years to change that. And very, very sadly...they will decide what they think of you in the following way:

--55% non-verbal cues (body language, posture, facial expression and eye contact)

--38% voice quality

--7% verbal content--or what you are saying and showing them.

7%! I am not making this up! So you will need to work on your presentation skills, and how you project yourself (in addition to, of course, having super-spectacular work, so maybe maybe you can win a job from Sagmeister). Remember: even if you are nervous, scared to death, sure someone will realize you are brand new at this or whatever--you must still project a strong, somewhat natural self. Just because you are scared does not mean you have to ACT scared. Just keep that part to yourself.

Okay, okay I am running on. I'll stop. Today I have "gardening reluctance." Big blisters from too much digging so I am avoiding going back outside. I have a presentation on presentation skills that I just taught at FIT, I would be very happy to send it to anyone who wants it. Just email me and I will send it to you when I am back in the office Monday.

On Jul.06.2003 at 03:35 PM
Amanda’s comment is:

wow, this is the best topic ever.

I stopped working for "the man" on Christmas Eve of last year. I had been doing inhouse design for a couple of engineering firms full time, and freelance designing on the side since i graduated. It was scary, it took alot of time for me to get up the nerve & confidence to quit. I did it though, and I have not regretted it for even a minute. I can say with confidence that the quality of my work has grown a whole bunch since I left & that my passion for design and illustration has certainly been revitalized since i am "the man" now. It is so invigorating to be responsible for your own career destiny.

Getting clients is hard, but 99% of the work I get is through referrals. It is soooo important to make positive relationships with anyone you do work for, whether you like the work or not. As far as refining your client list to make it the best and most rewarding work it can be, well I think that it depends on what you want with your career. I have never been the type of designer who dreams about designing ad campaigns for volvo or something silly like that. I definately take pride in a happy and honest relationship with any client, large or small. I am also not a graphic designer because I want to make piles of cash, I am in it because I love being a creative person. I take on theatre projects, non-profits, etc not for the money (no budgets) but for the personal growth and creative rewards. Those are the clients that let you push boundaries and make your work soar, which enables you to strengthen your portfolio, get awards, get exposed and so on.

I think if you give a crap, and I mean really give a crap about all of the work you & be an honest business person - the work will come to you. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think that my passion for what I do is what makes me successful on my own as a freelancer (so far anyway).

As far as doing your logo & promos or whatever, I think doing the design for your own company is ALWAYS the hardest. You are your harshest critic & its even worse for me because my husband is a designer as well. We had a hell of a time making company name/logo choices. It took us a couple years just to agree to use our last name as our business name. How ridiculous is that.

I plan to dump about $800 into a self promo for my illustration work after I get back from travelling in the fall. I am freaked about that. I don't even know where to begin to mail it. Or if I will get laughed out of every magazine/publication place that I drop it off at. I guess I have to just take the chance and do it.

As far as sales tax, in Canada, if you make under $30,000 you don't have to charge tax. But when you go over that, you have to fill out a bunch of crappy forms and pay money to the government. I will have to do that next year and I am not looking forward to it. Paperwork is complicated and boring for me.

Sorry for the long winded and extremely unorganized post. I just have alot I would love to chat about regarding freelancing. It is so reassuring to hear that other freelancers are stumbling through the same crap I am trying to figure out. I am excited to read what others have to contribute.

On Jul.06.2003 at 04:02 PM
Amanda’s comment is:

Debbie, we posted at the same time & now that I read your post - All I can say is holy shit, she knows what she is talking about. As I read it I had a twinge of guilt and I could totally relate with the avoidance to cold call. yeesh.

I would love to get a copy of your presentation on presentation. I will email you.

On Jul.06.2003 at 04:09 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Since I posted the topic, I'll answer some of my own questions.

I went solo last summer, when I realized that my firm was no longer the company I had started with 5 years prior. I also came to the realization that, because of layoffs and people leaving, many design firms were in a similar boat: work was beginning to increase again, but staff sizes weren't. As a result, many resorted to hiring freelancers. Hello, opportunity.

So this was my first goal: freelance for other firms, BUT, on my terms, which meant from home, not in their office. I figured this would enable me to enjoy the freedom of self-employment while allowing me time to figure out how I was going to become a business. By the way, I still haven't figured it out completely.

Debbie speaks the truth about call reluctance. I made myself a list of design firms I wanted work from and began to, slowly, call them. I made myself call 3-4 places a day for about a week. I was optimistic, let's say. Lesson one: never leave a message on someone's voice mail. They're never going to return that call. Lesson two: have a rough script for what you want to say when you do finally get someone on the phone. I made quite a fool of myself on a few phone calls. I made the double mistake of leaving a message for a creative director without knowing what I was going to say. So much for good first impressions.

Like others, I also did some networking through old school friends and former creative directors and ended up with a number of projects that way. Networking is good stuff. I need to do MUCH more of it.

As for my logo, I stressed a lot about whether I should give myself a company name or just use my own name. I made the assumption that design firms would rather freelance work out to a single person than another design firm, even if that firm is only one person. Maybe that's wrong? Still not sure. In the end, I went with using my own name with a tiny "Graphic Design" after it. My logo is not really a logo, but a set of wood letter S's that I print, usually in red. They are on my portfolio book as well as my business cards, and I run them in black/white on my laser-printed invoices and contracts. The wood letters ties to my fascination with letterpress and the art of hand-crafting design, and was a nice contrast to a lot of the corporate work in my book. Again, I've done a new identity for myself every few months, but haven't used any of them. Lots of indecision.

I've tried to design several brochures for myself and haven't yet finished one of them.

I haven't figured out the sales tax issue yet, and I'm trying to ignore it, frankly. My accountant is also looking into it, but I'm not sure he fully understands my business, which suggests that I might need a more design business-informed accountant.

I'm still a LONG way off from feeling like I'm running a sustained business. I'm happy to have the work I do and am making decent money, which is good when you have a mortgage. I now have a couple of clients as well as the design firm work. I can't say there's a real business plan right now either, but I'm playing it by the seat of my pants. I know that at some point, I will have to decide whether to truly go for it, or just let it ride and make do with what comes along.

On Jul.06.2003 at 04:49 PM
maica’s comment is:

I came across SU some weeks ago and like it a lot. SU is a bit like working for a boss with lots of colleagues but with the feature of Logging Out... HELL if it worked like that at my last job I might still be working there! But, like some of you, and for many reasons, I started doing my work solo - complete with a cat that I can blame for the clutter on my desk.

I still call myself 'starting in business' (after over 2 years)-(!) since I still don't feel like it's really taken off. Maybe I'm just crappy in what I do, but I like to believe it is in me somewhere.

One thing I find now & then is that I have no problem praising whatever clients do (I am pickish, one reason I started for myself is that I did not want to work for / with bastards - m/f - anymore), but where it comes to 'selling me' it's a different story.

But ofcourse it should not be.

On Jul.06.2003 at 06:36 PM
damien’s comment is:

I've been freelancing for about 15 years now, since starting out as an illustrator. I had a brief stint as an employee and made that my version of going to 'university'. But for the most part I've worked either in my own design firms or solo.

I agree with Debbie, but have to say I've found some success with promo mailers - but it does very much depend on the area you're in, and what you do. Today I'm more of a consultant, and it is hard to sell consultancy in the same way as simply illustrating your skills as a designer, but I have seen great success with promo mailers for design and illustration.

Another tool for marketing yourself can be a newsletter type thing. Draw up a list of potential individuals and companies you'd like to work with and send them a newsletter with updates with what you're doing and stuff you've done. You may end up sending them out for quite some time before they all end up contacting you for work, but they might approach you when they best feel they want to work with you.

Cold-calling can work - but I feel that there has to be some obvious reason as to why the relationship should work. In today's economy it is vital to have relationships with those you work with, rather than being one of your client's vendors. So where cold-calling has worked for me is where the collaboration was unique enough that client couldn't consider anyone else for the job.

I was preparing a full sort of guide to 'boot-strapping' your own business, in which I outlined that there are different types of work to look for. But I'll briefly outline them here:

A. Portfolio Pieces:

In a start-up mode, every new opportunity is often seen as a 'portfolio piece' where it would be excellent to have in your portfolio in order to get more work in the future. However, the catch is that it won't pay very much. This is a trap or can be seen as a very fine line to walk along. You do have to consider that if you want to get a certain type of work, you have to be perceived as capable of doing it. But you also need to consider that there is a balance between being profitable and having a great portfolio.

B: Bill-paying Projects:

Most of the time this work is sub-contracted work where you might not even consider putting it in your portfolio. Or you worked for a larger agency and it really isn't your work. But it pays a decent daily fee and keeps you from closing up shop. This is vital work and in any sort of creative business there is always some sort of percentage of bill-paying work which ideally can be relied upon, and is within the domain of the business expertise. The catch with this can be in doing too much, and not considering what effect it will have on your portfolio down the line in getting the ideal kind of work you want.

C: Ideal profitable projects:

This is usually the day-dream of an ideal project you have when you're spending all your time working on the bill-paying work. This is also the type of project that has all the ingredients to showcase your greatness as well as pay you enough to be profitable on it. Most of the time though, there is little actual though put into this and if you happen to be busy from day one, you will have spent little time to sit down and think about what exactly would be such an ideal project. But it is with these ideal projects, just two or three of them that will get you all the work you really want in the future. And the people that are most successful and happy, are the ones managing this.

So, in my experience, I've often found that while it is necessary to bring in the work immediately, if you're not considering the long-term of your work or ideal projects, then you could be trapped by just working day by day. You look at only growing what you've got but don't consider that if you promoted yourself in a certain way, perhaps did 'this' type of work that you could eventually get to get the work you enjoy the most.

I've also found that getting the ideal work has to be done by offering it for free or at a complete loss. But don't do this for anyone, do it only based on the type of project you get to excel at. Remembering that you're only as good as your last project and you absolutely have to enjoy what it is you do (in principle, not necessarily every minute of it). So if it is important for you to design entire systems, identity, all branding and collateral. Then look for an opportunity where someone can't necessarily afford it but could greatly benefit from your help. New clients don't ask how much you got paid on previous projects in order to determine how much a project with them will cost - they just ask you how much 'it now' will cost.

Writing a business plan isn't always necessary - but I've found that much of my work has come about since small firms didn't write their business plans to begin with. The business plan doesn't have to outline complete financial statements, but what it should do is clearly articulate what your ideal type of project is, what your ideal working environment would be, and then how you plan to go about making that happen. Profitably and successfully. It could be a couple sheets or a one pager - but it truly does help to have this type of awareness, if anything, to help you define what the A, B, and C type of projects are.

My work seems to pick up where a small firm, design or not, has strayed from their original path, they're hurting and want to know what to do about it. Once getting to the root of the problem, it often is the case that their original concept of what to do was neglected and they made choices outside of this. Even as an individual this is necessary, unless it is clear what it is you do and what you want to do and you simply don't care but if you want to grow your business, planning is an important part of doing this. Some of my work is with individuals and it is even easier get led astray than in a group.

To sum up - [but adding that looking professional etc is a given]

Build a Network:

You need one, and you can build this by cold-calling, newsletters, or promo pieces. But chose carefully, start locally and tell everyone you know. But promos can be costly so don't go overboard.

Build Relationships:

Look for where your particular skills and background could build a relationship with potential clients and even come up with projects you might be able to do - even if it is for free or nearly free. Relationships will pay off in the long-term.

Recognize Types of Projects:

Portfolio/high-profile, Bill paying and Ideal. Knowing what it is you have to generate on a daily basis understand how the work your doing today will lead to the work you ideally want to do in the future. Not paying attention to this will bring about a ceiling to what you can earn and you may discover you're not as happy as you thought you'd be.


Day-dream the ideal scenario. Figure out where you are today in regards today and set up three or four goals to achieve in order to get closer to your ideal scenario. Even if it is just getting a studio space and some production help - or a particular type of project with an organization.

Remember to Take Risks and be restless about self-improvement:

After all, you're a freelancer and are taking a risk every day by not working for someone else. So, most of the time you've got nothing to lose by being bold, motivated or incredibly enthusiastic. If you know what it is you want to do and you market that - you should have no problem finding great opportunities to take (educated) risks. However, too often a freelancer will just create the same type of safe work environment that they might have gotten from being employed. It is important to do whatever it takes to recycle, improve and constantly look for a new or better way to do things. As a freelancer, your value is in your ability to have ideas and create them. So don't get complacent or too comfortable and never take care of yourself. Typically, most freelancers are aware of this and in their position take advantage of being able to experiment and take risks.

This is probably way too long for anyone to read - sorry. But I had intended to publish a series of these topics on here, they're taking a little time to prepare.

On Jul.06.2003 at 07:21 PM
arikawa’s comment is:

Quite a few good articles on self-promotion on HOW's website.

On Jul.06.2003 at 09:40 PM
Damien’s comment is:

This is quite an interesting read into Clement Mok's first years starting out on his own. It was first published in 1989 in HOW:

Clement Mok Designs

On Jul.06.2003 at 09:54 PM
Martin Jacobsen’s comment is:

Debbie: I am printing out your post for posterity. Strike that, I am printing out your post and thumbtacking it to my wall beside my workspace so that the next time I wonder why I have so few paying clients, I'll know.



On Jul.07.2003 at 01:37 AM
Patrick’s comment is:

Wow. I take a few days off and find you guys heading into some pretty heady waters, with post counts rising on racism and even speak up itself. But I'm staying out of the adbusters debate.

This is the topic that hits close to home.

See, I left my well-paying salary job on Dec.31 to head out on my own. Being the meticulous person I am, I planned on leaving for over a year. And didn't leave until I knew there would be work. The annual report season is paying for the inevitable slower summer (though I'm still fairly busy). I saw (and still see) the same thing jonsel described: while agencies were laying employees off, they still had work and were hiring freelancers to cover the load. So I've been doing quite a bit of work for a couple agencies while I slowly build up my own client base.

Now, I've had success so far with just getting the word out and letting the jobs come in. How long that will last, I can't say, but I plan on doing a marketing push in early fall. My main problem, as with most it seems, comes in finding the new work. I definitely appreciate Debbie's advice above. I've also been considering a postcard campaign.

I'd like to hear from others specifically what kind of response rates they've gotten for various marketing schemes (other than the golden referrals and warm calls). Postcards? Cold calling? Emails? Ads? Skywriting? What has worked for you?

And what I'd really like to know is where do people get the best contacts? Any luck with services like Hoovers? Or are hand-built contacts the only way to build lists?

As for sales tax, my accountant advised to make it general policy to not deliver disks / final mechanicals to clients. If there is no tangible deliverable (from you - the printer will charge sales tax on the pieces themselves), it's much easier to be considered a consultant. How it works with online, I'm not sure. (BTW, this is obvious to most, but accountants are your friend. You will get your money back. I was lucky enough to find one who specialized in small business and has a number of designers and architects as clients. I've been happy with him so far. I'll be glad to refer anyone in NYC area if you email me.) AIGA also has a reference document [PDF download] worth checking out.

On Jul.07.2003 at 08:21 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I have little to add to this discussion, since I have never worked solo. I intend to do so in the upcoming years (2, 3, 4, 6, who knows) and to be honest, I'm scared shitless of it. I'm really excited about it though.

I don't see it much different than getting Speak Up running, it involved a lot of cold-e-mailing (could that replace cold calling?) and a lot of shots in the dark. Except a business involves money and that makes it a tad harder.

On Jul.07.2003 at 09:44 AM
kyle’s comment is:

I'm just starting out in freelance, so I still have to answer to the man....for now.

Most of my business has come from networking, being in the right place at the right time and not hesitating to say, "Hey! I can design that!" whenever I get a chance.

I'm almost done with putting together a self-promo book. My distribution plan is to call people that I'm interested in doing work/working for, sending my book if they're at all interested, then calling them until I get some work.

I have a website that I can send people to, but there's nothing quite like holding a nice printed piece in your hands...is that just a designer thing or are business people as swayed by that sort of thing?

On Jul.07.2003 at 10:22 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

For those of you who left your job and started freelancing because you had developed a strong enough client base: how did you manage that period before leaving your job and after getting all the clients? Were you working like 24 hours a day? Did you develop a Ritalin dependency?

I do a fair amount of freelance business in addition to my precious regular job, and live in mortal fear of acquiring more clients. One idea I've always liked is getting a loose co-op together with other designers in the same boat: when one of us is handling too many projects to take on more, we could refer the client to another designer in the co-op, knowing that 1) they do good work, and 2) they'll do the same for you. I suppose this happens informally all the time.

On Jul.07.2003 at 10:41 AM
Rick G’s comment is:


I was in that exact situation a couple of years ago. I was working like crazy for a dot commie company and I had a constant stream of freelance work after hours.

It was nice to have the extra money, and I loved being able to work on projects that were different from the things I was doing at the job, but to say my home life suffered would be putting it mildly. Can't clean the house, gotta work on the freelance stuff. Can't buy groceries, gotta work on the freelance stuff. Can't speak to the girlfriend, sleep, catch a movie... well, you get the idea. The cash was great. The quality of life sucked.

On the upside, when my dot com was "dot gone", I had a pretty big client base and never had much downtime.

Now I'm back to working for the man (an in-house design team for a 10000+ person organization!), and having flipped between the two over the last couple years, I'm pretty sure I'd rather have an office and a (smaller) paycheck than a home office in my house and bigger paydays.

Of course, I'm in the *totally* wrong place right now... in-house is pretty lame. But that's a different topic.


On Jul.07.2003 at 11:24 AM
michael’s comment is:

Rebecca, I've been waiting for someone to do that for quite some time. I'm surprised that there isn't more of that; i.e. that designers would pass their extra work on instead of just turning it down. Let's help each other out - not because it will come back to us many fold later (it will), but simply for its own sake.

On Jul.07.2003 at 11:36 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Great topic.

I started my own firm almost five years ago with a business partner. Most fearless thing I've ever done. Even more scary was the timing -- I quit my agency job only two weeks before my wife gave birth to our first child. People thought I was insane. Maybe I was.

Debbie and Damien have done a tremendous job of covering the marketing aspect of finding clients and growing the business.

And there lies the most important thing: you are running a business. And that's my biggest advice to those who want to leap off the cliff.

Most designers who venture out on their own do it because they want more creative freedom, or better hours, or more recognition, or just better money. Reasons may be a crappy job, a restrictive asshole boss, lousy pay, stupid clients, etc. Or maybe you've always dreamt of your own firm -- and consider it as a sign of success and achievement.

But few designers understand or are prepared to tackle the effort as a business venture. Nevermind the logo, or the portfolio case, or the look of your website -- the biggest question you have to face is whether or not you can develop and financially manage a business. Optimal billing goals, yearly hour projections (% against a max 2,100 hrs. yearly), overhead projections (cell phone, broadband, rent, furniture, gas, parking, client lunches, etc.), equipment and software inventory and depreciation (fonts, software, black boards, xacto blades, spray mount), outsource costs (accountant, bookkeeper, health insurance agent, business insurance agent), and so on.

Of course the financial side is not the only thing that matters, but it's a HUGE factor in your survival.

I know it sounds daunting. It is. And don't kid yourself that these business details won't matter if you just keep bringing in work. Because that's just not going to keep you going. Eight our of ten firms do not last beyond three years, and nine out of ten don't make it beyond five. And if you ask any of them that failed, their chief reason was never because of lost clients or bad sales tactics -- most will say that it failed because the business was not sound.

So how should you start?

Start by talking honestly to a few owners in your area. Get some good advice in the market. You'd be surprised how much people are willing to share -- especially among design firm owners.

Secondly, I believe in having a good business plan at the outset. It's not the plan itself that's so important, but the act of going through the considerations to write the plan is a sobering, realistic preview of the business path you're about to take. If you understand the business venture and have both eyes open -- you'll have a great shot at making it.

Some places to get more info:

> your chamber of commerce

> the better business bureau regularly has classes and seminars on starting a small business, especially good if you're a minority or a woman. There are tax implications as well as government financial help if you need it

> the public library / bookstore -- there are good books available to can help you form a business plan

> the APDF (Association of Professional Design Firms) -- a great org made up of only owners and principals. This is more for young firms (2+ years) that want to grow and sustain.

> perhaps seek legal counsel. Find out what it means to be an LLC, an S-corp, a C-corp, etc. Find out the liabilities of doing work in your state that's beyond the knowledge base of your accountant.

That's all the time I have for now. Just remember, don't get all glassy-eyed with the glamour of it -- plan to tackle it as a business first and foremost. I can't emphasize that enough.

On Jul.07.2003 at 12:03 PM
Patrick Bennett’s comment is:

I feel almost like I'm in an AA meeting, but my name is Patrick Bennett and I've been free of "the man" for 7 months.

I did it not by lining up work for when I left, but by creating lasting relationships with possible clients before I left. That worked wonders. I was able to leave a company which no longer filled my needs without having one single actual project, but rather a long list of people who were familiar with my work. (Incidentally, none of them were stolen from my prior position. That was an important thing for me because I still do some work for my former boss.)

Besides the network of people who knew of me and my work, the single most important thing I did was begin working closely with someone else whose work I respected. This led to a large number of revelations. By working with him I saw what business relationships should be like (full of respect, contracts, etc). I also began offering his services (which are mostly DVD and music related) in my proposals and he has done the same. This allowed us to leverage each other's strengths to get projects we could never get alone. It was huge. The list of positives that are attached to aligning yourself with someone from a different industry are numerous and shouldn't be ignored.

On the subject of marketing materials, like most of you I haven't gotten around to that yet. Of course, I've got a site but as far as the printed mailer goes, I keep putting it off. Some day, I guess. I would love to hear what success rates other people have had with this.

Anyway, the long and short of it is, being as professional as humanly possible is what's working for me. (My clients appreciate every minute element of their project and the terms governing working with me being in writing.)

BTW, great topic!

On Jul.07.2003 at 12:18 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Thanks everyone for all the excellent advice and insights---it's been really reall helpful. I hope I can contribute a bit of what I've learned. I freelanced while either working or going to school for 5 years before starting my own business about a year ago.

I've been lucky to have had a number of referrals that have kept me going. I hope this is in part because I bust my ass to do a good job (not only good quality, but on time and accurate) and be a good person to work with. Business is indeed all about relationships, and relationships breed reputation. It can only help to have a good one, even if it means swallowing your pride (it usually does) and reigning in your ego. A good reputation gets around, even in big cities.

It's struck me this past year by how little I've learned about business from 8 years of working for a variety of companies in different fields. You learn zero about taxes, payroll, accounting (unless you're woking for an accounting firm, duh), and entrepreneurship in general. When I started I read a lot of the Small Business Administration site (a helpful page on business plans here) and the U.S. Business Advisor.

Finally, I find it helps my perspective to try to be patient. Not every project is a dream, but everything builds and there are lots of unexpected connections and by-products to be had from otherwise useless jobs. As they say in the Lottery, you never know. It helps to remain open and optimistic, even though it's often a struggle.

On Jul.07.2003 at 01:25 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Oh, and an anecdote. I have no idea if this is true or not, and I can't for the life of me remember where I heard it, but it's a good metaphor for how I feel about having a steady job working for someone else:

Back on the 50s or so, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was touring the Midwest in the winter. Their bus broke down in the middle of nowehere and they had to load up their instruments and luggage and trudge a few miles through the snow across a field to a farmhouse. As they approached the house, they could see a family inside having dinner. Mom, Dad, sister, brother, baby all enjoying pot roast and potatoes with a fire roaring in the fireplace. The musicians stopped and just peered through the window at the scene inside. One guy turned to another and said, "Man, how can people live like that?"

On Jul.07.2003 at 01:25 PM
Sam’s comment is:

I'd love to get people's experienceand advice on the following:

Health Care

I've lost weeks off my life trying to figure out the Blue Cross and Oxford sites. How do I set up a healthcare plan for my company? (I'm an S corporation.) Who should help me--a lawyer, an accountant, or someone else?

Office Space

I am dying to rent office space. No, literally, dying. But I just can't swing upwards of $2000/month. This may mean renting like a room in a shared space (I won't settle for just a cubicle), but I'd like to do it right. How to swing it? Should I try to get a loan? Should I wait for one big job to get me started? Should I expect to work at home for at least another 6 months or a year until my billing grows? How, on other words, do you know you can take on a lease and not go broke in 6 months?

(Related question: How many pieces of flare should I make an intern wear?)


This may be heresy, but I'm currently abstaining from design competitions. Suicide or Time-saver? Let's leave aside the ego element of entering competitions--is there any business advatange? My rationale is, clients have generally never heard of any of these awards, and so the time invested in putting a submission together is not time invested in developing new leads. Are awards more or less important the larger your business is?


On Jul.07.2003 at 01:26 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Sam -- some answers.


Look for an agent. There are plans available that only an insurance sourcing agent can offer you. There are size considerations also. It shouldn't cost you a cent, the insurance co. pays for the agent's services.

Office Space:

No easy answers. But the market's down, so rental should be dirt cheap these days. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Ask for everything, and then some -- even if you think it's not necessary. And a good guage for knowing when you're ready: you should have at least 4 months worth of rent in the bank, and another 3 months in the billing pipeline. If you don't, suck it up and keep working at home. And don't sign anything less than a year's lease, or more than 3 years.


Don't underestimate the power of awards recognition. It could be your best source of PR. I know some agencies here in town that budget up to $4-5K per month on awards submissions. Sounds crazy, but all it takes is one or two big clients from it, and it all makes good business sense.

On Jul.07.2003 at 01:46 PM
Rick G’s comment is:


Maybe I'm an utter num-num, but I've not entered any competitions for a while, either. My thinking was the same as yours - what client was going to see it and care? If a $50 entry fee falls in the woods and nobody hears it, did it really happen?

I've been reconsidering that tactic lately. Even if it's just a one-liner you toss at a client, you can still use a phrase like "award-winning"...


On Jul.07.2003 at 01:49 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Oh, and that's where having a business plan can really come in handy -- when finding office space.

Some buildings will insist that you have either had at least 3 years of history, or a sound, professional business plan, before taking a tenant.

Also a good idea to use your business plan to establish a good relationship with your bank. Whether or not you need it, it's always a good idea to establish a business line of credit.

Then you hire your first employee and it all becomes a blur from there.

Are you sure you want to do this, Sam? :)

On Jul.07.2003 at 01:56 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> My thinking was the same as yours - what client was going to see it and care? If a $50 entry fee falls in the woods and nobody hears it, did it really happen?

Rick -- in this business, a client's route to you is never a direct path. Your reputation in the design community is as important as outside of the community. And yes, entering awards shows is not enough -- you have to leverage and capitalize on the recognition you're received, whether its a press release or a little blurb on your website.

If you're lucky enough to have clients with strong brand recognition, then awards matter less -- you can ride the coattails of your clients. But if you aren't that fortunate, awards are one of the only tangible ways of getting your name out.

People do look through CA, How, and Print. We've gotten out of town clients that way, and we've even seen spikes on our website days after a design annual comes out with our work in it.

On Jul.07.2003 at 02:07 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Thanks for the advice, Tan. I thought Blue Cross or Oxford were insurance agents. Should be looking for someone like AllState or State Farm or something like that?

I'm dubious that awards will pay off, though. But I do have a business plan, even though it seemed silly because I had no one to show it to.

Are you sure you want to do this, Sam?

I play alto saxophone in the Glenn Miller Orchestra, put i that way.

But regarding being ready, and I don't know if this will help anyone else, but I had a realization early on in my time at Portfolio Center. Dave Mason came to speak and he was like the third designer in a row we'd had who just started on his own, was lucky, worked hard, and stuck at it. It doesn't take being a super genius and you don't even necessarily need the charisma of Oprah Winfrey (but boy would that help). If some of these other designers can do it, why not me? Why not you?

On Jul.07.2003 at 02:20 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> Should be looking for someone like AllState or State Farm or something like that?

No, they are carriers. By agents I mean an independent insurance broker, who may or may not be affiliated with a specific carrier like BC/BS and AllState. Like a real estate agent, but for insurance. There are lot of carriers out there you may not be aware of -- MetLife, Pacific Annuity, SafeCo, and other financial institutions that also offer small business health insurance. Look for an insurance broker that specifically deals with small businesses and self-proprietors, who can offer those types of plans. Washington and New York might have eligibility differences and carrier participation, but it should be the same system.

On Jul.07.2003 at 03:07 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Thanks for the healthcare info, Tan. While I'm living it up as a dependent on my wife's plan, I've been going crazy inside worrying what would happen if her company goes under or she gets laid off.

On Jul.07.2003 at 03:55 PM
Sam’s comment is:

I gotcha; thanks, Tan.

On Jul.07.2003 at 04:50 PM
Damien’s comment is:

This is an excellent piece on looking for office space - its long but packed with good info:

Finding an Office in NY

On Jul.07.2003 at 04:52 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Great article Damien.

I have a funny story (of course) about finding office space.

Our first year of business was done out of my business partner's basement. It was a big basement, but it was still a basement. So after a year, we had saved us enough cash and went hunting for an office. We were referred an agent from Colliers commercial, and he seemed nice enough. We told him we wanted a downtown building, about 1,500 sq.ft, and told him our budget. He paused, then sighed, then told us he'd find some listings in the next week.

After 2 weeks, he called with a space that sounded too good to be true. The building was a landmark at the heart of downtown, yet was right in our impossible budget. Wow. So we said yes to a tour immediately.

He told us to meet him on the 20th floor, but wouldn't give us the suite number. Hmmm. When he arrived, he told us how hard it was to find, it had a view, what a good deal it was, and blah, blah, blah. He proceeded to lead us down the main hallway, but then out the stairway emergency exit door. The door to the "office" was behind the exit door out in the stairway corridor.

It was like Quasimodo's lair. You first walked into a long 14x4' hallway, then into a small room with a giant fridge. The room was curbed by 2 enormous bathrooms with multiple stalls and shared a prison-style shower bank. Sure there were lots of windows, but right outside the windows were the building's enormous air conditioning exhaust fans and a tar roof. Some view.

He finally admitted that the "office" used to be the building's maintenance workers' lounge. With a straight face, he said that we'd never have to wait for the bathroom, and as a bonus, he'd leave the fridge for us to use. But we'd better hurry cause there was another party touring later in the day. Uh-huh.

We ran like hell from there and never returned his calls again.

We ended up subletting a great little space from an ad agency for less than what we were expecting. The moral of the story is that good office spaces are out there -- you just need to have patience and a sense of humor.

On Jul.07.2003 at 08:08 PM
Ben’s comment is:

I've been freelancing for about two years now, since I got out of school (long story, and not too interesting). Since Tan, Debbie, Damien have already said more then I know, I'll just throw one piece of advice out. Especially for designers just out of school, being humble and learning from everyone you talk to is one of the most important things you can do. Printers, venders, clients, fellow designers all have years of experience that they often are more then happy to share. Buy your favorite a printer a beer and ask him about how your work could be better put together for him and you'll get more then your 3 bucks worth.

On Jul.07.2003 at 11:46 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

So what's up with freelance business names? How exciting does "Fred's Design" really sound? I don't love that I use "Jonathan Selikoff Graphic Design" but I'm afraid of what else to do. What's the value in choosing a name versus just using your own name + "Design"? Is there a point where you need to make that leap to a coined name?

On Jul.07.2003 at 11:47 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Thanks, Damien--that article is great! Everyone can benefit, not just New Yorkers. So helpful.

As for naming, Jon, I was tempted to use something "colorful." But that's in quotes because it's not long before colorful becomes dated. And even my best friends call me "Sampotts" so it just sounded right. For my money "Selikoff Design" sounds great. "Jonathan Selikoff Design" has maybe a few too many syllables. For what it's worth.

On Jul.08.2003 at 12:51 AM
eric’s comment is:


in my case "Larsen Design" is already a known entity. As it is, i can't use Eric Larsen Design because A LOT of people know of the comic book artist, that drew Spiderman, of the same name. I would almost overlook the coincidence but i used to get calls for him when i lived in San Francisco.

it's like that Michael Bolton moment from Office Space.

So i am seriously considering a goofy name. At present i'm just the guy at the other end of a 917 number.

On Jul.08.2003 at 07:30 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Jon -- here's my take on the naming game.

If you're well known in the community -- meaning that you have a well-established network with clients, vendors, and other designers -- then you'd want to bank on your name for your business. But some things to consider.

Are you planning to grow? Are you planning to take on bigger jobs and bigger clients? If you name your company after yourself, there will be clients that will always see you as a individual contractor and nothing more. That might create a glass ceiling for you down the line. Not that you need to fake anything -- but it's all about perception, know what I mean?

When we formed our firm, the Seattle design community was made up of entrenched old-boy firms, all named after the owners. They all sounded like accounting firms or law firms to us. I think as a backlash to that, there was a new generation of firms born whose names were more anonymous, empty shells. Grip, Motive Design, Creature, Guage Design, Platform Creative, and a bunch of others. Not sure if it's been better, but you tell me which of these firms are large and which are 3-person or less.

One other difference. A name can also sort you into the type of business you want to create. Personal names are more intimate and approachable -- and suggest that you are more a consultant rather than a design entity. "Colorful" name firms indicate that there's a defined service for hire, along with expert professionals to serve them. Eventhough that professional may be just you.

On Jul.08.2003 at 10:15 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

To Jon & everyone, just wanted to say great topic!

On Jul.08.2003 at 10:29 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Yes yes, and I don't want to double-post in Show of Hands but that thread is just awesome. I hope it breaks 100. So glad to hear from everyone.

On Jul.08.2003 at 10:44 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I know! It's cool how many people visit this thing everyday. Why don't they chime in more??!! And the little factoids are just awesome -- I mean, pnk has a glass eye! Bet he does a great Columbo.

Armin - you should be psyched at what's happened w/i the last week. SU has definitely kicked it up a notch.

Make me almost want to watch what I say more...


On Jul.08.2003 at 11:36 AM
Armin’s comment is:

>Armin - you should be psyched at what's happened w/i the last week. SU has definitely kicked it up a notch.

I, like, totally am! It's quite awesome. The only drawback though is that I will probably exceed my bandwidth this month. Meaning, there is a hell of a lot more traffic goin' on.

>Make me almost want to watch what I say more...

You are like the Bearded lady of Speak Up. Everybody comes here to see what the freak is going to say next. And I mean that in a purely positive way and as a compliment.

On Jul.08.2003 at 11:56 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

If you name your company after yourself, there will be clients that will always see you as a individual contractor and nothing more.

This is something I'm concerned about. Right now, most of my business is for other agencies, so I think I benefit from being an individual. I think another agency will be more reluctant to give me business if they see me as a competing business versus an independent contractor. I guess, to Sam's point, that's why "Selikoff Design" works right now, because it enables me to work for the agencies and also start to troll for clients who will see me as a business entity.

I did have the notion of using "Jon�" as my company name, but I though the � might be hard to explain. The idea came as a reaction to reading about so many other firms' trademarked design and branding processes. It made them seem like scientific machines (not unlike the Nametron3000�) with little sense of creativity. I want clients to know that my brain is my trademarked process. ;-)

On Jul.08.2003 at 11:59 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I prefer to be more like the dog boy� (for you, Jon�)

Tan� -- hey, I like that. Good idea Jon�





On Jul.08.2003 at 12:18 PM
Armin’s comment is:

There is a weird italian typographer who goes by something like Giamba�, and that's how his spells his name.

Then there is this joker — creative director of Archrival, a design firm — who goes by Clint!, I mean, what the fuck? And that's how they list him in the design annual credits — Clint!

Look it up in the latest HOW issue, in the interactive winners.


On Jul.08.2003 at 12:34 PM
Paul’s comment is:

Actually, Tan, my Columbo is lousy.

My Sammy Davis, Jr., however, kicks ASS!

On Jul.08.2003 at 12:40 PM
Tan!’s comment is:

> Loser!


> Sammy Davis, Jr.

That's awesome Paul. Sammy is even cooler.

On Jul.08.2003 at 12:56 PM
Patrick Bennett’s comment is:

Not to be some sort of sourpuss or something, but I was really interested in this topic because it began with really interesting and informative posts. The recent posts have... uhh... not been so. Is there any way we could discuss one of the questions that popped up a bunch early on but no one ever really discussed in depth: What kind of success rates have people gotten with different forms of mailed marketing materials?

On Jul.08.2003 at 01:16 PM
Paul’s comment is:

The sourpuss is right.

mea culpa.

As obvious and straightforward as it sounds, when I began freelancing I sent out a simple postcard to all the folks I'd worked with previously with whom I was still friendly. Just announced my availability, then followed up with a phonecall. It was really just print-based networking, but it got me the first two jobs I needed to get things off the ground. There were only about 15 of these sent out, and the cost on a per-unit basis was ridiculous, but the ROI was very good.

Also, on the networking front, never underestimate the power of Dog Parks. I used to get a lot of business from folks whose dog liked my dog.

On Jul.08.2003 at 01:31 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Earlier this year I donated some design for a food/wine scholarship auction and as part of the exchange, I got to include a promo piece in a gift bag that all the attendees received. I made 200 little matchbook-style business card holders wrapped with elastic and a wooden match.

Total construction time: a lot. No, really a lot.

Total responses: 0

(But the project led to a major connection and a (pending) major project, so it turns out that working for free can turn into paying stuff.)

On Jul.08.2003 at 01:40 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

What kind of success rates have people gotten with different forms of mailed marketing materials

I have mixed feelings about mailings. To wit: I find that the smaller and more specifically targeted mailings are better. Mass mailings run the risk of trying to be too much to too many people, and tend to cater to a lowest common denominator mentality as a result. In other words, if you are trying to get work from a specific industry, do a mailing of work or send a message about that specific industry. Think whether or not the mailing you are sending is really going to appeal to each and everyone you are sending it. A big exercise, but well worth it, especially if your mailing is expensive.

I'll get to $ in a minute. Before I do, let me say that I am responding to these questions from the perspective of the proprietor of a design business. Photographers and illustrators have a very different rate of return on mailers, and frankly, I find that a lot of their business is from mailers and referrals. Design is a bit different. I find that you can not expect more than a 4% respond rate to any type of mass mailing (a couple of hundred or more). The smaller your list, the better your return, as long as the list is, as I mentioned before, specifically targeted. But again, if you read my first post on this issue, I would call everyone you are planning on sending a mailing to FIRST, so that you avoid the classic obstacle of having them tell you (when you call after the mailing) that they never received the mailing you just sent. Once you reach them on the phone and (hopefully) establish a rapport on the tele, they will then be more apt to remember a mailer from you. This will then set the stage for the formal "woo-ing" of your prospect. By woo-ing, I mean nothing smarmy (of course,) but only the long-term tactics you are going to need to apply to getting the prospect to become a client. The calls, the mailers, the meetings, etc. should all be viewed as one comprehensive effort. Your mailing will be one tactic in a long line of tactics you will need to apply to securing new business. So this mailer should be used to build your effort, do not necessarily expect that one mailer will do that much for you quickly (unless of course, you are Sagmeister). Please realize that this is all a long-term committment and requires a lot of patience, resilience and a thick skin. You will be rejected. It is part of the process. Sales is, in large part (sadly) about odds. The more you do it, the more likely you will be to succeed. And of course, the more you do it, the more comfortable you will be doing it!

Okay...now about $. I have a hard time spending a lot of $ on big, fancy mailers, as I think that they are only as good as your design project. What happens when you have finished that groovy new poster for Burton Snowboards and your brochure is done? The best promotion pieces are either modular or can be viewed consecutively. Why spend all your $ on one piece that will likely be outdated in a year? Which is another reason I like the smaller-batch mailers. If you can make each one on its own via your own printer, (and it doesn't look shoddy, or home grown!) do that, so you can save money and still get the word out.

Oh, this is such a rich issue, I feel that I am just scratching the surface. Patrick, I hope this is helpful to you. Sales is an art, a science, a craft and a talent. The most famous designers are also supreme salesmen. I've heard as many stories about Tibor's amazing sales ability as I have about his design skills! So you have to work to cultivate both if you really want to make a decent living AND do decent work.

On Jul.08.2003 at 02:08 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Okay, one more thought I had that may be helpful when thinking about sales.

As I said, alot of sales is about numbers. Think of the great athletes: MIchael Jordan, Babe Ruth, etc. They were both geniuses in their fields, but struck out or missed the basket many more times than they actually scored. In design, I have found a .350 is a great average for success. That level puts you in the Jordan category. .350 is 35% percent success. This is what I tell the people I teach:

If you have Jordan stats and can expect a 35% success rate from whatever you do, let's look at what it will take to get work:

100 cold-calls (to different people, assuming you get through) will lead to 35 meetings.

35 meetings will lead to 12.25 requests for proposals (rfp's) for work (as not everyone will have work for you that you meet, and not everyone will like your stuff...)

12.25 rfp's will lead to 4.28 jobs (as you never get all the jobs you bid on, unless you are Sagmeister and then you don't even have to bid!)

SO....100 calls, if you are really, really good can lead you to about 4 jobs. Not terrible, sure it is a bit disheartening, but if you see it as a process, you will not take it so personally and will actually get out there and do it. As I said in my previous post, 7 out of 10 of my largest design clients came through a cold call (and eight+ years of effort).

Okay, I am sure you are all sick of me by now. I'll go make some calls...

On Jul.08.2003 at 02:21 PM
Sam’s comment is:

If you name your company after yourself, there will be clients that will always see you as a individual contractor and nothing more.

I don't disagree, but to me this is the whole point--to be seen as an individual designer, and not try to sound a large company. It all comes back to that business plan--what kind of business do you want to have in 5 years, 10 years? Do you eventually want to have entirely your own clients, rather than contracting? Why not start now? Are you temperamentally suited to having a large staff, large projects, large overhead? If so, a non-personal name could be an appropriate choice (or if you want the company to last after you're gone). But the personal feel is not, I think, a liability. McKinsey, Merrill Lynch, Futurebrand...oh wait, not Futurebrand. And in fact it can be a strength because once people identify you personally with a good reputation, that reputation is part of you, and that's value added.

And the bottom line is, they're gonna know what kind of company you are as soon as they meet you anyway.

On Jul.08.2003 at 02:24 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Anyone ever take a course in marketing your business? I saw a notice for this seminar that looked interesting. I get the feeling it is more suited to small businesses than the sole proprietor types, though. It's not exactly cheap, either. But marketing is definitely my weakness — mostly because of that dreaded fear of failure — so I am considering it.


On Jul.08.2003 at 02:54 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

Thanks, Debbie, for taking the time to give us some more insight. Very useful. Approaching self-promotion as a comprehensive push, with various components makes perfect sense. Guess it comes from your branding background, eh? I think sometimes when we're promoting ourselves we all forget some of the very marketing principles we preach to our clients. I think as personal a touch as one can put on it, the more of a connection can be made (and as much as we all hate cold-calling it's more personal than a piece of mail arriving in your box out of the blue).

To wit, one of my last projects before leaving my old job was to do a direct mail piece for the agency. They wanted a nice high-end mailer. So I did a small modular slipcase type thing to hold little insert cards of client case studies. They were targeting a very specific industry, so we included related work, and the thought was the client inserts could be rearranged/customized for future industry mailings. Sent out about 500. Last I heard, they only got one RFP from it. It reminded me why I hate doing direct mail. But then I remembered I never respond either, and I felt better.

On Jul.08.2003 at 04:19 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

Am I the only one getting all itals?

Did someone forget to close their em tag?

On Jul.08.2003 at 04:21 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>Am I the only one getting all itals?

Yeah, that was Tan!'s fault. It's fixed now.

On Jul.08.2003 at 04:36 PM
Tan’s comment is:

What? Huh? Oh sorry...did I do that?

I was busy working. Wow, didn't know that an open operator would go across separate postings.

I should remember that in case I ever want to wreak havoc on you nerds later.

And Sam -- I agree w/ what you're saying. If you plan on personally handling and creating every job that goes through your business -- then having your name on the front door is perfectly acceptable. But if you want to eventually have employees, including maybe another account director or senior designer, then having clients expect you at every meeting could be a little difficult.

And from personal experience, I've found that there is a ceiling of budget that clients will consider giving to a small studio versus a larger firm. Not all of us can start out as a Sagmeister or a Clement Mok. So for me, i did whatever I could do to separate the perception of what my company was capable of handling versus our size.

But for every Pentagram, there are a dozen Duffy's. Neither options are going to suit everyone. Do what feels right.

On Jul.08.2003 at 05:06 PM
Jeff’s comment is:

Tan said: Eight our of ten firms do not last beyond three years, and nine out of ten don't make it beyond five. And if you ask any of them that failed, their chief reason was never because of lost clients or bad sales tactics -- most will say that it failed because the business was not sound.

I agree. I have been working freelance for two years. For the past 8 months I have been working constantly for mostly good clients, but I'm getting killed by the fact that I am a better designer than I am businessman. Fortunately, the UK is fairly socialist, so I can learn the business side without starving my family.

Debbie Millman wrote: I have been selling design for such a long time and there is really only one way to get new clients when you aren't famous, haven't gotten a referral, and have little or no money for marketing. And that is to call them. Yes, I mean actually dial their phone number, hope they answer the phone and then try to get them to see you.

I take it one step further than Debbie. I don't have her experience or wisdom, and I'm sure not getting rich yet, but I don't struggle to get clients. Here is my sure-fire way to get small- to medium-sized clients: Show Up. Almost always unannounced, sometimes having sent a letter before my visit. Usually I have designed a piece with their name and logo on it.

This gets me appointments much faster than phone calls do. And my conversion rate is about 90%. Here's why I think it works:

1. It's way harder to blow off someone who is standing right in front of you asking for an appointment.

2. People like to see their business looking good. I back up my ready-made piece with lots of talk about making them more successful, etc. The people I visit see a person who is interested in them not me. And let's face it on the first meeting they care a lot about them & not a hoot about me.

Now if I can only become a good businessman�

On Jul.09.2003 at 05:08 AM
Clark’s comment is:

I am a student right now working on my AA. Through connections and whatnot, I have been able to design things (logos, bus. cards, etc.) for companies. All of the training with programs and design theory i have learned by myself. Without formal training and schooling it seems a little risky for me to produce my work. The work that i have done is actually really well done, but i have hit some road bumps a few times during production (image coverting/exporting and the like). Has anyone experienced what im dealing with or could offer any helpful advice? I m deciding whether or not to just wait for full training to burry myself deeper into establishing myself professionally (if that makes sense). Thanks

On Jul.14.2003 at 03:56 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Clark -- you have no idea what you're getting yourself into. Believe me, stop before you make a press mistake that will cost you more than you can handle or afford.

Finish school. Work with more experienced designers and learn from them. There are many things that can't be learned from books or design magazines. Have a little patience.

We talk about a lot of issues here on Speak Up, and it may sound easy at times. But trust me, it's taken most of us years to master and you are more inexperienced than you realize.

That's the best advice you can expect from a design forum.

On Jul.15.2003 at 12:24 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

One word: internship.

Find a place with a production department and learn from those guys. Odds are they've been doing their thing for 5-10-20 years and know printing and file preparation like the bottoms of their toes.

I wouldn't hesitate to ask a printer you trust, as well. They can often assist you in preparing the file the way they need it.

Oh, and one simple piece of advice (from someone who learned this before he was in art school): Pantone colors do not look the same when reproduced in CMYK!

On Jul.15.2003 at 08:42 AM
chris chapman’s comment is:

Four words: Get A Good Accountant. Do this and you will do well, assuming you have that whole talent and client list thing nailed down.

On Jul.15.2003 at 10:32 AM
Clark’s comment is:

Thanks Tan for the advice, i didnt mean to give the impression that i was going to jump into it full time. I just have a few design jobs from time to time and i get hit sometimes by technical factors that would be taught in classes. I just was wondering if i should stop designing stuff so i dont accidently get caught up in doing something i dont know about? Thanks my people.

On Jul.15.2003 at 03:38 PM
Tan’s comment is:

No problem Clark. You have a good attitude -- and I'm guessing that you're more capable than many of your classmates.

I know it's difficult to not want to grab everything offered to you. Just be careful of biting off more than you can chew. And aside from costly press mistakes, there will be people out there who will take advantage of your inexperience. The best way to avoid the pitfalls is to be aware of their existence.

If you want to learn more about prepress and offset lithography, make friends with a local printer and ask them for a tour. Many of them would love the chance to show off their wares to a budding designer like you. Then you can ask them all the questions you want.

On Jul.15.2003 at 03:58 PM
James’s comment is:

One thing to remember is that there is a reason why people work full-time at certain jobs.

There is a reason why the big firms have people who look after money, or why there is people who answer phones and such.... So people can concentrate on what they do more.

And I know that businesses start off small, but I have to realise that when I run my own business that there is heaps to organise - cash in/cash out, taxes, GST (australia).

So effectivly when I go out on my own, I am doing the job that companies have several people doing....


On Jul.16.2003 at 10:00 PM
damien’s comment is:

another good thing to remember is that all big businesses were at one time ambitious small ones.

On Jul.17.2003 at 12:42 AM
john’s comment is:

And that is to call them. Yes, I mean actually dial their phone number, hope they answer the phone and then try to get them to see you. If you want to work for someone, call them. This will take enormous amounts of effort, patience and fearlessness, but there is no other way to do it.

When dealing with a small to midsize company, who is it that you should call? VP, Marketing Director, CEO?

On Jul.28.2003 at 05:05 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

If there's someone with the title "marketing director" at a small to midsize company, that's probably who to call.

By the way, here's some advice about mailings that I heard from Bill Drenttel long ago. It was something like this. If you design something you like, get 20 extra copies. Mail 5 to peers (other designers you admire), 5 to press (writers or magazines), 5 to current clients, and 5 to clients you would like to work for.

I promise you, this works better than any preprinted "marketing brochure." If you force yourself to do it every time, you'll eventually start seeing results. And, it's basically free.

On Jul.28.2003 at 07:51 PM
Sean’s comment is:

I'm diving head first into the solo world in a couple weeks from now.

I have been working fulltime, getting a regular paycheck and benefits for about seven years, so this will be a bit of an adjustment, I feel both stress and excitement...

On Aug.31.2005 at 07:04 PM