Alex Haigh from Sheffield has just set up his graphic design business and he's emailed me to ask for some advice. He's very kindly agreed for me to put his questions and my responses on this blog. His new company has been going 3 weeks and it's called thinkdust.
I think this could be a fascinating insight into what it's like to start up a design company from scratch, a test of what I've learnt of the last decade or so, an interesting series of conversations and decent publicity for a new start up.
Without wanting to sound arrogant I think this is quite a risky, innovative thing to do. Let's see how it goes.
Let me also make something clear from the start. This advice is aimed at Alex, in Sheffield starting a graphic design company. It's not advice for starting your business, necessarily. I feel qualified to talk about this because I've done it.
OK. First question: What is the best way to generate new work without sending tons of emails, and spending endless amounts of money on google adwords, and useless flyers?
When we started out I asked this question all the time and almost all the answers I received were unsatisfactory. I didn't have the staff, the budget, the profile or the clients to do any of the things suggested. In fact, like Alex, we had no staff, no profile and no clients. (Hence the question, idiot.)
Also, lots of this sort of advice can be very wooly and not practical at all. So I'll try and list practical things Alex (in Sheffield, with no employees and no budget) can do, right now.
1. Think small
Pick 4 companies you can easily get to (so Sheffield, Nottingham etc) that you really, really want to work with. A big push of any kind won't work. You don't have the resource. A small, bespoke, innovative, careful, nimble approach will work.
2. Get their correct details
Contact those 4 companies and get the correct details of the people who buy design. That might be a marketing manager, brand manager, or comms person. It might be the sales director, in smaller companies it often is. Get the right details. The correct name. Spelt right. The correct job title. The right address. Basic stuff but very important. How to get these details? DO NOT rely on the internet. Get off your arse and make some calls (say you're updating the Christmas card list or say you just want to check a spelling, all these old tricks still work). Ask the receptionist which person deals with design companies, they will probably tell you. Remember to be nice to the receptionists, that's very important.
OK, we've got four companies, we may have eight names. That's more than enough to be getting on with. Research them. Google the names. Go visit their offices or their shops. Find out what they're about. Try and take a stab at how you might be useful to them. The more you know about them, the more genuine you will seem and the easier it will be to speak to them.
3. Send them something
This DOES NOT necessarily mean sending them a mailer. It might just be some samples, it might be a box of chocolates, it might be a sock with a video in it. But it will be researched, it will be interesting and it will be targeted at that particular person. You're not overly selling anything, you're just saying , 'Hello I'm interesting and good'.
4. Follow this up with a phone call
Again, get off your arse and make some calls. Calling is hard, but you've got to do it. You'll say, 'Hello John, remember I sent you a sock with a video I'd made about your branding' - John will say 'No',
Don't get disheartened. John gets loads of stuff like this everyday. Be nice, be polite and offer to send your sock in again, he will probably say yes. Ring him next week and ask the same question. If you're lucky, he'll say 'Yeah, that was interesting, let's meet up'. Out of the eight people you contact probably only two of these people will agree to see you.
5. The big meeting
John has agreed to see you. Don't blow it. Be on time, wear clean clothes (as someone once said to me, if you're going to wear your scruffy old jeans, wear your best scruffy old jeans) be polite, speak up, be confident. Be at the right address.
6. Selling not telling
Every single creative person I've ever met makes this mistake. Here's the difference:
'I was looking at the lovely patterns electronics things make and I wondered if I could design something as beautiful as that. I've used my three favourite colours and added in some more complimentary ones. I think the best bit is this bit here, where the five lines cross over.'
'This design makes navigating a really complex system of underground trains really quick and easy for the passengers. It will improve the experience of your customers.'
See what I mean? Sell the benefits of your design.
Don't take shit loads of work, John will get bored. Take 3 or 4 things that are relevant to his company.
7. Follow this up with a phone call (again)
John will probably say he likes your stuff but he doesn't have any projects at the moment. That's OK, that's the truth. He will ask you to call back in 6 months. PUT THIS IN YOUR DIARY and call back in six months.
That little lot should probably take you a month. When that month is over, start again with another 4 companies. Do things carefully, don't piss people off, don't try and do too much. Getting work will take a long time. Maybe even six months. Sorry, but it will.
You are (trying) to build a relationship, or at least a rapport. That takes time and consideration.
There is some other obvious stuff you can do.
1. Ask all your friends and family if they know anyone who needs any design work doing. Don't be afraid to sell. You have rent to pay. You've already asked? Ask again.
2. Get as much free press as you can, where you can. Press works. People like young and new, so play on that. Contact your old college magazine, they love stuff like this.
3. Meet as many people as you can. Go to Business Link events, go to conferences, go to networking events. All this sounds hideous but it's how the world of commerce works I'm afraid.
4. Get onto as many online design directories as you can. Don't pay more than about £30 for a listing. It's not worth it.
5. DO NOT pay for any ridiculous advertorials, adverts or directory enquiry type nonsense. It won't work. In fact, as above don't pay more than about £30 for anything, yet.
6. Don't listen to anyone who tells you they can get you new business. They can't.
7. Get proper, well designed, well printed business cards made. Hand them out liberally. Ask people you meet for a business card in return (again, almost every single creative person I know forgets this bit).
8. Don't go for massive bits of work from massive companies. You won't get it. Ask them to try you out on a small brief and make yourself invaluable. You'll get asked back.
9. Never sell yourself too cheaply. No one ever says, 'Ooh I've got more money than last time, can you put your fees up?'.
10. AdWords works, but it has to be really targeted and you have to be really strict with what you spend. Don't just advertise design, advertise expertise in toothpaste packaging for example. But don't use AdWords just yet.
Phew. That was longer than I expected. I guess there's a lot to say.
So, has anyone else got any advice for Alex? Alex, was that helpful? Anyone in Sheffield got any design work that needs doing?
Does anyone think this could make an interesting series of posts?
As ever, all comments welcome.