We get a lot of e-mails from people wondering if we have any tricks, tips or advice for people starting a new business. This is probably because, well, staring a business is totally scary and completely overwhelming. We know, we’ve been there.
So, in the hopes of helping the brave, we’ve compiled some small things we’ve learned along the way. If you have questions you’re not seeing answered, please leave a comment here and I’ll try to post a Part 2.
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Before starting a larger business, consider freelancing solo for a while. Both Nate and I did this, and I think it’s a great way to dip your toe in the waters of starting a studio. It teaches you to deal with a lot of the same issues and problems of running a studio, just in a much smaller dose.
Really like the people you’re going into business with.
Seriously. You may wind up spending more time with your partners than your significant other, so you better like them and be able to communicate with them honestly, even when times are tough—not unlike a marriage. And if you are married (or dating), it’s just as important.
Your business will most certainly spill over into your life outside work. Be ready for this, and make sure your priorities are always in check. I’ve known a lot of husband-wife teams whose relationships have been strained by business. As a romantic, I say always keep one eye on love.
Have a contract and always get it signed.
This is just good practice, but it also helps weed out potentially unserious clients. If you can afford to go to a lawyer, do it. If not, there are plenty of available resources. Every AIGA membership comes with a copy of their Design Business and Ethics booklet, which includes contract templates. Another amazing resource is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook. This book is updated regularly and includes contract templates, pricing and ethical standards. It’s a must for any designer’s library.
Make estimating easy.
Hopefully, you’ll have tons of job inquiries—thus you will spend a lot of time estimating. Make sure to develop a template that’s easy to update. Be willing to adjust it as needed. This will not only save you time in the future, it will also help you organize and better understand the job and deliverables.
Estimating in detail.
Although you want to make estimating easy, you also want to make it as specific as possible. It should clearly communicate all the deliverables of the project. This includes the number of concepts, the number of revisions, specific project elements, usage and rights. This estimate is your only line of defense when it comes to scope creep. Make sure that your client is aware of this as well. Communicate to them that if they don’t see it on this list, it is not currently included in the project.
Client communication takes time and saves time.
Take the time to communicate as best you can to the client how you work. Remember, a lot of clients may be new to “the design process,” and everyone works differently. Be sure to clearly communicate the process, payment schedule, deliverables, additional fees, and everything else you can think of. This will take extra time up front, but will save you headaches later.
Put away at least 30 percent of every check for taxes. Seriously. We have been nipped by the IRS before, and they bite hard.
Get yourself some good people.
Bookkeepers, accountants, print vendors and others can be your best friends or worst enemies. You might not find the perfect person right away (we had a horrible accountant for a couple years), so keep looking. Look for someone who’s professional, but also makes you feel comfortable. Someone who can explain and communicate things in ways you can understand. This is important, because you will have many, many, many questions.
Work with people that respect you.
This goes for vendors AND clients.
Learn to do it better next time.
After every job, think about what you would have done differently. It could be any number of things: client communication, direction, process, vendor communication. Even the very best projects could always be better.
Don’t work for free.
Free doesn’t necessarily have to relate to money. Just make sure you have a carrot at the end of every project. Whether it’s money, supporting an organization you believe in or creative freedom, make sure it’s a big enough reward to keep you happy through the entire length of the project. Steer clear of those with low budgets who promise future work or high visibility. Jessica Hische did an amazing flow chart based on just this idea.
Don’t be afraid to say no to work.
Not every client or project is right for you. It’s OK. Say it with me: “It’s OK to say no.”
Trust your instincts.
This comes with time, but try to tune in to these feelings. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times we went forward with jobs that we had doubts about, only to regret it later. If it starts out rocky, it isn’t going to get any better. Trust me, it’s gonna get worse.
Promote yourself and others.
Get out there and make it easy for people to find you and promote you. This means print competitions, online competitions, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, flickr, you name it. Obviously, there’s a balance between just enough and too much, because it can start to interfere with actual work. So just figure out what works for you. Also, promotion isn’t a one-way street. Make sure to get out there and promote the people who inspire you. These connections can become a truly great network of colleagues and friends.
We often get emails from students asking various questions concerning our business and design. Here’s a compiled list of previous Q-and-As for those future “projects for class” and anyone else who is just plain curious. There are also some articles and posts by other people right here.
What are your names?
Katie Kirk and Nathan Strandberg
What’s the name of your company?
Eight Hour Day
How many years have you been in business?
We started in February of 2005, so five years.
How many employees do you have?
None. It’s just the two of us. Our chocolate lab, Eli, acts as office mascot and provides emotional support.
Where did you go to school?
We both attended the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, School of Design. It’s where we met.
Do you specialize in a specific type or area of design?
We like to do all kinds of design, but a lot of our work centers around interactive design, illustration and branding.
What drives your creative culture?
As a husband and wife design team, our culture is really wrapped up in our life as a whole. Our business is our lifestyle, and we have engineered it to fit our needs and wants. We work hard and put our all into every project. As a result, we limit the quantity of our ongoing projects and are selective in choosing those projects as well. Despite our name, our workday spans beyond eight hours— though it’s very organic in terms of when and where we work. We have a dedicated studio space but often work from home, coffee shops and sometimes other cities.
Can you tell me a little bit about your design process?
We both concept individually at the start of a project, talking back and forth during the process, making sure we’re hitting what we want to hit, both visually and conceptually. Then, whoever “wins” the project (i.e., whatever concept we choose) usually becomes the lead for that job. It sounds kinda separated, but in reality it involves a lot of back and forth, checking in and refining ideas.
A sneak peek into an average day for you…
Coffee. Get into the studio around 9 a.m. Most of our mornings are filled with admin-type stuff, like estimates, emails and posting new work . Most of our design work usually happens in the afternoon. We typically leave the studio around 5 p.m., but often end up working on personal projects, including illustration, blog posts and redesigns, at night.
What first made you interested in graphic design?
Katie: Well, I was always into art when I was growing up, and I think it was my dad who suggested I try graphic design as a major in college. From the very first class I fell in love (and still am!).
Nate: I used to do a skate zine with a couple of friends. I had no idea that graphic design was a career option until my mom suggested I talk to a designer friend of my brother’s. I was like, what? That’s what I’m already doing with the zine.
What are some of your cultural influences?
Katie: The Midwest, Charles and Ray Eames, Andy Warhol, Toulouse-Lautrec, FFFFOUND!, Print & Pattern, Design*Sponge, The Beatles, Michel Gondry, Björk, Disney, Matthew Barney, the Minneapolis design scene, ’60s Counterculture, Diane Arbus, Charley Harper, Alexander Girard, Wayne Thiebaud, Thomas Paul and Apple.
Nate: Snowboarding, skateboarding, American subcultures, truck stops, urban signage, Walker Art Center, architectural photography, winter, the Midwest, Minneapolis, the West Coast, the Internet, Intransient.com, Spike Jonze, bicycles, Volcom, Ben Sherman and Dancehall/Reggae.
Are there any blogs or websites you follow regularly?
Design*Sponge, FFFFound!, JJJJound, Oh Joy, The Design Files, Design Work Life, Grain Edit, The Dieline
Do you work more individually, or as part of a creative team and what benefits does this bring to your work?
Mostly together. I think working together helps shine new light and ideas on the project—two heads are always better than one.
Any design/illustration books you could recommend?
From a usable book side, I’m addicted to the Dover clipart books, or any clipart or historical reference books for that matter. Also, “The Graphic Artist Guild Pricing and Ethical Guidelines” is a must for anyone in the industry. Most of the other books in our collection are used for specific projects.
What else influences your design? (music, films, places etc…)
Katie: I love movies—even bad ones, haha. I also love checking the interior design blogs. Travel.
Nate: Definitely American subcultures. I love people and seeing how things evolve when there’s a passion behind a movement.
What typefaces you could you not live without?
Katie: I love a good script, they’re hard to find. Lately I’ve been using Adage and Radio.
Nate: Something like Gotham is hard to resist, but I’m always looking out for a great logo/branding typeface like Utopia.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a graphic designer?
Not thinking about it All. The. Time. It’s constantly around you—it can be hard to put it away.
How would you say your design strategy and process have changed since entering the work force?
I think you get better at seeing the larger picture, as well as the details. I think you get to be more objective about your own work.
What do you like most about your working environment? Least?
Most: That it can be flexible. Right now, we’re traveling across the U.S.
Least: With just the two of us and a dog, it can feel isolating sometimes.