11 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way Managing a Design Firm

Mark Busse – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published in December 2012 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.


The purpose of this column is to challenge some of the assumptions that many young designers and future firm owners may have entering this profession. If I can help a few of you avoid learning even one or two of these lessons the hard way like I did, I’ll have met my goal. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned after 15 years of managing a design firm, in no particular order.

Pretty isn’t always the best choice.
It took years of running a design business to realize that making the right choices to solve business problems doesn’t always result in the prettiest aesthetics. I now derive more reward from creating solutions that help my clients succeed, than from creating exquisite graphic masterpieces that I’ve tweaked endlessly in ways the client or audience would never notice or even care about.

Ideas are a dime a dozen.
I’ve heard the phrase “a high tide floats all boats” my whole life, but it took a long time before I really understood how it applied to myself and to the industry. Don’t cling to ideas, methods, resources, or anything else you think might give a competitive advantage over the other guy. I learned that sharing my experience and knowledge with peers—I call this ‘coopetition’, a hybrid of cooperation and competition—only makes the whole industry better, and giving ideas to potential clients as gifts of insight into their situation only makes them want to work with me more. Ideas are a dime a dozen—it’s execution that sets me apart as a designer.

Project management is as important as design skill.
For years, we thought we could oversee production management in our studio ourselves. But even with years of production management experience prior to launching my firm, it just wasn’t realistic, and asking the designers to manage their own production led to chaos and disappointed clients. Never again will I underestimate the need for a carefully crafted production system, managed by experts equipped with the proper tools.

Full-service is foolish.
After chasing any work we could get and using rhetoric like “full-service design studio” to describe our offering, we realized the benefits of specialization. This doesn’t mean because we specialize in branding and corporate identity for professional services companies that we won’t take on a packaging project if the opportunity is interesting, but it makes marketing ourselves easier and allows us to avoid competing against a multitude of other firms where price becomes a driving factor.

Consensus is king.
After years of wasting time redoing work the client “didn’t get,” it became clear that consensus is crucial—especially with multiple stakeholders, each with its own opinions and agendas. By showing moodboards, styleboards, and sketches early and often, and having the primary contact sign-off to establish agreement at every stage, we save everyone time and money and also learn what each party really means by the language being used. Also, by including them early in the idea process, clients feel as though they contributed to it, thus owning the idea and supporting it later during production and launch.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.
Who you’ll partner with, how you’ll grow, who your clients will be—the decisions required to run a successful firm are innumerable, and everything is constantly changing. As romantic as owning my own business may have seemed, I soon realized that the buck really did stop with me, regardless of how uncomfortable or tedious the task—from firing someone, to managing the books, to even buying toilet paper for the office.

Shut up, listen, and get on with it.
When I was a young designer I developed a bad habit of filling in silence with rambling diatribes about stuff I thought was important, interesting, or clever about my design solution. But like how a good joke shouldn’t need an explanation, a good design presentation should be succinct and the work should mostly speak for itself. While they may work for Don Draper, theatrics typically don’t work. Most of our clients respond better if we just ask smart questions and then shut up and let them do the talking. Being prepared to explain in detail is good, but succinct presentations not only demonstrate confidence, they allow time for discussion—where you’ll get another chance to listen.

Who you work for can be more important than the work you do.
Starting out, we felt we had little choice but to take any opportunity that came along until we built up our credibility and portfolio. In hindsight, I wish we were as picky about clients as they were about us. “Remember, you are defined by your clients,” said advertising legend Dick Lord. That warning never rang more true than after taking on clients who not only were not enjoyable to work with, but who also proved to be shady businesses or producers of products we didn’t believe in. We now use a carefully considered set of criteria that we review every year to help guide us in taking on clients.

“Follow your passion” is terrible career advice.
Like many, I was encouraged to “follow my passion” and hence left a terrific job to start my own design firm, only to realize years later how much work was required to survive, let alone succeed as a business owner. If you’re as lucky as I was, you may eventually find your passion in the work itself, but it’s called “work” for a reason and you shouldn’t feel entitled to enjoy it all.

Profit can be defined many ways.
I’m not getting rich quickly and I don’t think I’d recommend my career path for anyone motivated by money. We are experts and deserve to be paid for our services, but money is only one method of payment. Be cautious of offers of ownership or deferred profit sharing (they’ve never worked out for us), but remain open-minded to creative payment alternatives that could be beneficial. We’ve agreed to a trade of services, products, discounts, in-store credit (great with restaurant clients), and even use of a client’s vacation home as payment for our services.

Word of mouth is a terrible marketing strategy.
Many designers I know have viewed ‘marketing’ as a dirty word, instead relying on referrals to bring in new clients. And many more have aimed outbound communications efforts at their own industry instead of the communities in which their clients reside. I don’t even want to tell you how those firms have suffered during the last few years of economic turmoil. Brand building, marketing, and communications are crucial to running any sustainable business.

I started in this business a bit late, and the end of my career is already in sight, and frankly, I wasted a lot of time, energy, and money doing things the hard way. The above are just a handful of the lessons I learned through trial and error. I’m sure there are many other lessons worth discussing; if I’ve left out any major points, please let me know in the comments below.