What It Takes To Run Your Own Design Studio
Khula Design Studio founder and ADPList mentor, Jamie Windell, shares his first-hand experience, top tips, and best advice for running your own design studio.
So you want to run your own design studio? Maybe you recently finished college, or you’ve been working in the industry a while. Perhaps you’ve been honing your skills at an established agency or freelancing, and now you’re ready to start your own company?
Whatever your circumstances, running your own design studio requires an additional set of skills to the ones you already have. From managing multiple deadlines to hiring and managing a team of designers and other creatives, the challenges are endless.
But as Khula Design Studio founder and ADPList mentor Jamie Windell explains, when you get it right, the rewards can also be great. But where do you get started? And what exactly does it take to run your own design studio? Jamie shares his first-hand insight.
What exactly is a design studio?
One definition of a design studio is a group of talented designers creating designs, both offline and online, for smaller businesses. You’ll find many definitions online, but essentially a design studio is different to an agency in terms of size, the number of employees, and the type of services offered.
A design studio is smaller than an agency, and clients get a more boutique service. For example, at Khula, we offer a set of core design services to startups and small businesses-like branding and web design. We’re not a one-stop shop like a full stack creative agency.
Why start your own design studio?
If you’re a solo freelancer who’s looking to make the transition to studio owner, or you’re a graduate designer who dreams of starting your own business, the benefits to opening your own studio are three-fold:
- Firstly, setting up a design studio as a separate entity allows you to build a brand and create equity in a business, rather than simply staking your own name and reputation as a freelancer.
- The second benefit is that it allows you to contract other designers and freelancers into your business — to help you execute on projects and services that you might not be able to fulfil on your own.
- Thirdly, as your studio becomes more established, you’ll get to know the types of clients and businesses you like to work with and carve out your own particular niche within certain markets.
What are the day—to—day challenges of running a studio?
If you’re a one or two-person start-up, from day one you’ll need to be prepared to wear different hats from Finance Manager and HR Manager (managing people and contractors) to Creative Director and Account Strategist. It’s all on you, and you can expect a steep learning curve in the early-stages. It’s a challenge because you have to carefully juggle each area of the business with care and dedication.
When you’re running the show, you need to nurture two things: the quality of the work produced, and the growth of your business. Whether you’re a small team or a solopreneur, time is limited, so be prepared to fail fast and iterate by taking an Agile approach to your workflows. Based on your client’s priorities, be realistic about the work that can get done to the quality you expect, in the time you have, and be clear about what won’t get done within a given timeframe. Don’t get caught out by only focussing on the work and not nurturing the business itself.
On that note, scope creep (or unregulated growth in a project’s scope after the project has begun) is a real thing. So make sure you set expectations with your clients upfront. Agree exactly what you’re delivering and the timeframe for delivery, ensuring you have clear outlines and scope defined. That way all parties involved, from designers to the clients, know exactly what to expect. This enables you to manage the feedback and revision loop with confidence and integrity, and within budget.
Lastly, accelerated by the global pandemic and technological advancements in the way work gets done, it’s increasingly likely that you’ll be dealing with clients and contractors working in different timezones. This will inevitably add to the complexity of your day-to-day operations, and you will need to manage your time and communicate effectively to keep the projects and tasks moving.
What do you need to start a design studio?
Every early-stage business needs a clear business plan, and ideally a brand strategy in place. And you could think about hiring a brand strategist to help you. Whilst this is undeniably another initial expense, it’s also an investment in the long-term success of your business. Making this investment will help you to:
- Unpack who you are.
- Decide what you have to offer.
- Know how you will offer it.
- Understand who your ideal clients will be.
- Identify what makes you different from your competitors.
Khula Design Studio went through this process when launching, and it helped set the tone for how we showed up, marketed ourselves, and created messaging that spoke to the exact type of target persona we wanted to attract to our business. We now have other design studios and marketing agencies come to us to help them with brand strategy, creating differentiators, and launching their business!
Alongside the prerequisite design skills and an understanding of how a business works, the main thing you’ll need to get started is capital. Your initial outlay is going to be spent on decent equipment. Don’t be tempted to cut corners here. Design software, together all the software you’ll be using to run your business, requires a high performance computer.
Something like a MacBook Pro is an expensive upfront cost, but for professional daily use, you need something fast and reliable. It’s better to invest in something higher spec than face painful delays as your machine struggles to cope. The other two key pieces of tech for a design studio owner are a high-quality headset for professional-sounding calls, and a desktop monitor with a large screen.
Whatever business you’re thinking of starting, it’s always advisable to get six months of savings in your bank account. Launching as a design studio owner, your savings will give you the peace of mind you need to sleep at night when there are no sales coming in. And it also buys you time to focus on building your brand, networking with potential clients and building a network. This can sometimes take a few months, but once the ball is rolling, it rolls fast!
What should a design studio have?
Your design studio and brand are the people who work for it. And those people need to buy — in to your vision in order for your vision to succeed. You need the right people. You also need to build a team who can support you in areas where you require the most support. If you’re not good at sales or business development, hire someone or bring — in a partner who is. Play to your strengths and outsource the rest if you can. It’s advisable to hire an accountant to help with bookkeeping and taxes.