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.
What are the costs associated with opening a studio?
The extent of your initial outlay depends very much on where you’re based, what you want from your office space in terms of size and location. The big question here is does a design studio require a physical space, or can it exist in the virtual environment? Working solo, you could easily work from a coffee shop or home. But you’ll need to consider meeting spaces when more local clients request a face to face meeting in person rather than over the screen. If, like Khula Design Studio, you have clients all over the world, you could save a lot of money by operating from home. It also means you’re not immediately responsible for bigger overheads like rent.
The time when you’ll need to consider moving to dedicated office space is when you start onboarding staff. In an office space, you can collaborate a lot more easily, and it’s much better for building relationships in person rather than jumping on and off video calls. And as your business grows, it’s important to have a dedicated meeting room, a collaborative workspace, areas for workshops, and space to welcome clients. Obviously, renting premises is going to add to your costs.
How does a design studio find new clients?
So you’ve got all the right equipment and software, and you’ve got some savings in the bank. Your business plan, branding and website are good-to-go, there’s just one thing missing. Clients. It’s time to get out there and find some, right? But how?
One of the key channels for driving new business, and this is how Khula Design Studio got started, is word of mouth. You might have someone in your family or social network who needs help with things like branding or a new website. Just through word of mouth, you can quickly ramp up your client base — so long as you’re or surpassing meeting your clients’ expectations.
That extends to online platforms like LinkedIn, which offers great opportunities for business to business (B2B) networking. Using platforms like behance and dribbble are a great way to showcase your work, but they’re not best suited for lead generation. However, a good website will serve you well. Once it becomes established with long-form content like blogs and case studies, you’ll start to generate business through people finding you through ‘organic’ search terms. For example, try typing “branding for solopreneurs” into Google, and you’ll find Khula Design Studio pops up.
Of course, there’s a huge range of marketing strategies you can use to get noticed, from placing paid Ads to auditing a company’s website by creating and sending a video analysing their existing site and discussing how you would improve it. It’s an audacious move, but it enables you to introduce yourself, showcase your expertise, and provide value by giving them free advice on improving their website. They might even approach you for a website revamp.
One of the strongest tools for winning new clients is through advocacy from existing ones. If you can showcase testimonials and case studies of work that you’ve done. This helps to build authority and credibility, which in turn generates trust in your business. Think about the last time you purchased a product or service. Did you read the reviews first? Would you have gone ahead with a purchase without seeing some testimony from other people?
Why do small businesses need to use design studios?
When you’re starting a design studio, it makes sense to work with businesses who are at a similar stage of their development. And for many of them, especially those who are based offline, getting a professionally designed website and brand identity may not be top of their expenditure list. After all, why would they pay for something they can build for free using any number of apps or software packages?
In the beginning, most small businesses might start with a do-it-yourself (DIY) brand and website, and that might be good enough. However, as their business grows, they’re going to need a more professional-looking brand image as they start to compete with existing businesses. The danger of not doing this is that over time, as they try to attract business from larger, more established clients, they run the risk of actually diminishing their brand.
Without a clean, professional-looking, high resolution brand image, small businesses can have trouble attracting new business.
So what they require is something unique, something bold, and something that helps their offering stand out in the market. Your start-up design studio can help small businesses with mood-boarding, research and professional design services which puts them on the same footing as their competitors. They also need a consistent identity across all touchpoints with customers, so their brand is cohesive across all platforms and mediums, from the website to social media channels.
What are some challenges and opportunities of working with small businesses?
Working with smaller businesses, who aren’t necessarily familiar with digital design and websites, means it can be a hard sell to communicate the potential return on investment (ROI) of employing professional design services. Start-ups typically don’t have as much budget to spend on branding and web design.
So once your design studio is more established, it makes sense to work with equally more established organizations who have larger budgets to spend on their branding and website, and they also have more experience of digital design. However, if the client is too large, you may not have the resources to match their needs, and they may be better aligned with a full-stack agency with a complete team, rather than one or two person start—up design studio.
That’s not to say that high-quality design studios can’t come straight out of the blocks and work with bigger clients, but operationally, there may be a steep learning curve. A more viable approach might be to work with a series of start-ups to really hone your craft and streamline your workflows, going through a process of iteration to continuously improve. With improvement and refinement, you can start to attract medium-sized businesses because the way you’re working is better aligned with their expectations.
Advice for new design studio owners
One of the most important things to remember as a studio owner is to celebrate those small wins. Finished your latest website? Celebrate. Got great feedback from a client? Celebrate. All those small wins compounded over time — that’s what’s going to keep you on your journey.
Learn to iterate. Not everything is going to work out perfectly first time. There’s always scope for improvement and potential to make change. Launch early and launch frequently — even if you just have a landing page — you can always build incrementally on what you’re creating.
To ensure your business is able to thrive, you’ll need to look after your finances. It’s the heartbeat of your company. You need to know how to create a proposal, how to cost out a job, how to calculate profit margins, and how to manage your cash flow. Finance should be at your core. It’s the heart of your business, and your business won’t function without it. Pipeline Management is key. You need to ensure you have sales coming in. Getting those leads and converting them is crucial to maintaining a steady flow of work through your business.
Acquiring the right talent is also key. Resumes or CVs are one thing, but there’s real value in attitude. People can learn and develop skills. But it’s often much more difficult to change their attitude. When you hire, whether subcontractors or employees, make sure their attitude fits with your business. As we say, attitude over aptitude.
Finding coaches or mentors is also a great way to ramp up your learning and experience. Having great people around you can help you tackle challenges, setbacks and improvements.
When you’re a solopreneur or a two-person start-up, you need to be able to bounce your ideas off other people. A coach can help you on a personal and a professional level, and a mentor can help you with advice, give you ideas and help you to think outside the box. You don’t have to act on all the advice, but it can give you inspiration for how you can approach a challenge slightly differently.
On that note, Nate O’Hara from NOKO Solutions is our go-to coach for ideas, challenges and goals. Having him in Khula’s corner really helps our business to pivot and grow.
Final thoughts on what it takes to run a design studio
If you’ve got grand ambitions for your design studio, that’s great, but it can be tempting to rush through and try to be everything to everyone. And definitely don’t try to do everything all at once. Your business can slowly evolve overtime. Have patience. As you start working with your ideal clients, you’ll start to adapt your positioning to better suit their needs and solve their problems.
As it is today, Khula Design Studio is a progression of everything we’ve done over the last 12 months. It’s like building a wall: lay one brick at a time. Don’t focus on building the wall, focus on adding one brick every day until the wall is built.
Khula Design Studio is an award-winning, global strategic design studio dedicated to helping businesses transform and thrive.
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