Lessons learnt from running a creative company
I have always been a glass half full kind of guy. And I think you need to be to run a creative company with any success — whether that be a small design studio or a large digital agency. You need to see beyond the current obstacles and always find the possibilities that exist around the corner.
It was four years ago, that I embarked on a journey with fellow designer, Daniel Elliott to start a design agency that we could call our own. Since than we’ve experienced life as a small design studio (Organ Studio) and started a larger agency (LivingBrand) with lessons small and large learnt along the way.
We’ve made countless mistakes, produced some award winning work, had some great fun and shed a few tears. These are some of the lessons I’ve learnt from this journey:
When it rains, it pours
When times are good, they are great. All parts of the business are thriving, you’re winning new accounts, delivering results and building a bigger and bigger team. The future seems brighter than ever.
But in an industry that is notoriously fickle and where differentiation is muddy, conditions can rapidly change. What seemed to be working like a well oiled machine, now seems to be creaking like an oil-starved door. The importance of investing in innovation to keep up with a constantly changing industry cannot be overstated – in both the good times and the bad times. This can be improving processes within the business to improve efficiency, training staff in skills/areas that interest them outside of their role or developing internal passion projects.
To win work, we have at times made the mistake of making promises we can’t keep – agreeing to deliver within an unrealistic timeframe, working towards unrealistic expectations and results. With reputation being so crucial to business success in creative industries, making promises you can’t keep is a sure fire way to gain a poor reputation.
When competing to win work, it can be difficult to do, but it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. If you think it will take four weeks to complete, tell the client it’ll take five. If there are hiccups, you’ve got a one week buffer. If everything goes to plan, your client will be pleasantly surprised when you deliver one week earlier.
Buying value not time
As strategists, designers and consultants, we are hired to solve problems which are judged by their results. So why are our fee structures so often based around the principle of time and not value? Should it not be a question of the value of the work rather than the value our time?
Clients don’t buy a share of your time, they buy your years of experience, gut instinct and honed craft. It’s a fine art and a skill to be able to redirect and reframe a pricing discussion with a client to the value you’re bringing to their organisation rather than how many hours and at what cost.
Trust your gut
We were young, naive and inexperienced business owners. After a the initial meet and greet with a new client at the corner coffee shop, we both agreed it felt off. We couldn’t put our finger on what exactly it was — whether it was the way he talked or the hyperbolic promises. It seemed too good to be true — high profile, big budget, cross-promotional opportunities, creative freedom. It turned out it was too good to be true.
Six months of heartache and legal letters later, we learnt the hard way to trust our gut instincts. Sometimes you can convince yourself to say ‘yes’ with logic and numbers but more often than not, saying ‘no’ brings a more positive outcome. Respect the principles and vision your business was founded on – let them guide your decision making.