Nine Tips to Make It In The Design (or any) Business

This month Garrison Everest celebrates nine years in business.

Like most entrepreneurs I started in a basement back in early 2003. Prior to getting my start, I was doing UX design for a start-up right out of college that went under after it blew through $39 million in venture capital in 12 months.

I began working on little projects referred to me by friends and family, but when 9-11 hit and the country went into a brief recession I was forced to put my fledging dreams and business aspirations on hold and find a “real job.”

I found work with an agency downtown Denver that was located on the top floor of the Qwest building, (now Century Link). After being with the agency for 9 months, commuting 2 hours a day and experiencing the stress of what it takes to be an agency caliber designer, I knew that without a doubt, that if these people could do it – so could I.

Seven out of 10 new employer firms survive at least 2 years, half at least 5 years, a third at least 10 years, and a quarter stay in business 15 years or more. Source http://www.sba.gov/advocacy/

Feeling anxious about getting back to what I started, an opportunity came along to be acting creative director with a virtual digital advertising agency on a contract basis working out of my apartment. I was essentially promised a steady workflow and was free to work on building my business. After a lot of thought and prayer, I felt God pushing me to make the jump. The job would be contract only, no benefits, no office — and no guarantees. So I quit the downtown agency and made the leap.

Now working incredibly late nights in my $450/mo Capital Hill apartment downtown Denver – it was fast and furious designing online ads, landing pages, print and website design — and I was loving it. After 6 short months the company I was contracting with went under from poor management because its owner took the cash and bugged out to Mexico (I’m not making this up), but left me with all their clients including NASCAR. This was the opportunity and springboard that really took my business — which was just a sole-proprietor at the time — to the agency level.

Slowly over a 10 month period, income began to increase and more clients and projects came in. I remember when I got my first check for $13K. I almost went through the roof – but I knew that I was on to something and I was developing something special that I could call my own. I guess the rest you can say is history (or history still in the making).

So here are a few things I learned in the process, below are nine tips that you can apply to your business that I have always tried to focus on that have brought nine successful years of business and counting. Being election day, you could call it my 9, 9, 9 plan.

  1. Work hard – This goes without saying. If you are a self-starter and got the talent — the sky really is the limit in this country. Hard work always came naturally to me from my years as a competitive swimmer to chopping and stacking wood when I was a boy. A strong work ethic was instilled in me at an early age. Try to develop strong work habits and don’t quite till the job is done.
  2. Persistence – There were times when things got really grim. We’ve gone through some really tough months that have tested our resolve. Like other agencies that went under in the great  recession, we almost lost it all as well – but we were able to hold on. Never give up – you never know when the next big project is around the corner.
  3. Diversify – One of the things that makes our group unique is that we can do a lot of things for our clients very efficiently. Brand development, website design, logo design, packaging, SEO and now business development, marketing and sales. I think people who work in the agency business naturally become experts in business and become the “go-to” guys. We have since focused more on brand development and have partnered with other companies who are really good at SEO and programming, but continue to retain the ability to do these types of projects in house. This has allowed us to diversify our skill set and to stay afloat during tough times.
  4. Never stop learning – Read the current marketing books, sign up for webinars, keep up on the latest software releases, know how to speak and present yourself and your ideas and always try to position yourself as a resource.
  5. Be Proactive – Be the first to let the client know where you are on a project. Never allow them to email you asking were things are. Try to think ahead. I will spend the first hour of my morning going through my task list and determining how I can best serve a client and what needs to get done by close of business. This  keeps clients happy  which leads me to my next point…
  6. Get Organized – Know when things are due, keep your schedule tight, know when to say “no”, always keep your time commitments and always be on time. I trained for an Ironman early this year while balancing my 3 and 5 year old, a wife studying for medical school and a full work load – it’s possible.
  7. Differentiate – Find out how to really stand out in a crowd and how to separate yourself from your competitors.
  8. Confidence – Confidence only comes through experience – failures and successes. I have crashed a few designs, botched a few presentations and have had clients drop us. However we’re lucky to say we’ve had more successes than failures. Be willing to take a risk and go after bigger accounts that you think are out of you reach. I was once told by an old friend of mine. “when people are scared, they go farther and reach higher.”
  9. Networking – I am blessed to have made a lot of important friends and contacts when I first started out. I owe a lot to these people who referred leads and believed in me. Without their referrals I don’t think Garrison Everest would be where it is today.

In the design business most of it is about dealing with people. The better you are with people, being sensitive to their expectations and personalities the better and farther you will go. One thing that is also important to mention is being ready for opportunities when they come your way. We make sure to have our sales presentations and website updated with our latest and greatest work as well as talking points at the ready when potential leads call in. Always be prepared to talk about what you’ve done and how you’ve helped clients in the past. Ok, so it ended up being 11 tips.

I hope this has encouraged you to start your own business or to keep striving in yours.

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