In this Design Cuts Live session, we welcomed back our Creative Director, Matt Slightam, who guided us through his journey from graphic designer to business owner. As someone who loves sharing advice and insight with fellow creatives, Matt showed us his step by step process for building a successful business from the ground up.

Business Background

Matt worked as a full-time freelancer and then owned an agency. The progression took him approximately 15 years to do so. He has helped build brands from startups all the way through to brands of companies that have turned over billions. He has also employed a number of full-time staff and freelancers.

Related Opportunities

You can be your own boss once you’re a business owner. Earn well, get job satisfaction and learn new skills. Achieve great satisfaction from growing your business.

Practice Business Skills

If you are working full time, look for opportunities to practice your business skills, because later that will allow you to freelance, run your own business and employ people. For example, take meetings with clients yourself, or build up to it.

If you're working for an agency, tell your manager that you have the aspirations to be a lead designer or a creative director so that you could be involved in that meeting process. Communicate with other people in the organisation. Work on your written and verbal skills. Be professional and come across professionally.

Ease into a Side Hustle

Take a step away from full time work and find a side hustle to bring in additional revenue. Build contacts and find a tipping point. Reach out to your friends in the network and ask them to reach out to theirs, spreading the network wide. Leaflet small businesses such as a cafe or a small restaurant. Pick on any small opportunities and work on them. Build a print relationship.

Behave like a Business Owner

Even when you're running a side hustle, behave like a business. Be professional, get a business card and use templates for quotes and invoices. Get branding and make yourself look professional. This helps you charge for more services initially. Get an online folio on Squarespace or Instagram and share your previous and current work with the audience. Practice your marketing copy to communicate and write emails. Use Grammarly as a marketing copy tool to get help initially.

Build a Folio

Find a niche or a sector to work within. If passionate about working, bring the highest quality and value in your end product or design. Choose sectors with deep pockets that would not be exposed during any recession, such as banking or pharmaceuticals. Build samples for these sectors such as a business card that can help the audience find your niche.

Grasp the Opportunity

Always grasp opportunities with open arms. For example, Matt’s first freelance work was with Daihatsu and a web design agency. In between the project, Daihatsu and the web design agency lost contact and Matt lost his job overnight. He then got in contact with someone at Daihatsu and told them he could finish the pending work if they paid him. They agreed to it and this changed the whole direction.

So look out for your own opportunities. It might be a leap of faith, but it's easier if you've already reduced the risk by getting some of the work as a side hustle.

Transitioning to a Business Owner from a Freelancer

Realise you’re already running a business

The first thing to realize if you're freelance is that you're already running a business.You are a business owner. Research liability and incorporate the business. Look at additional accounting and tax costs to help you. Get an accountant to do your accounting and balance your company.

Behave like a larger business

Polish your branding and act like you're not a one man brand. For example, the website in the image below. It shows that the business has been operating for many years, including the services they provide. So when people visit the website, they get credibility and reassurance that they're not dealing with a one man brand. Go to meetings with a backup and create high level documentation. This will help you charge more for your services.

See reference image below for brand code template. Use this to send it out to the clients, asking for the product benefit, positioning, styling, mission, vision values, etc. to get an idea of their company.

Employ Other Freelancers

Get used to paying out more than just one person’s salary. Make useful connections so you can employ them later. Offer complimentary services to clients and increase their likelihood of calling you rather than someone else for any project. Ultimately, charge more by behaving like a client.

Find Work

Use a website or LinkedIn and go to local business meetings to form a network. Look for small marketing agencies, photographers, copywriters, etc. Anyone who has a synergy with design and running their own small business. Contact them and tell them you’re a local designer and are willing to resell your services.

They can resell your services via word of mouth. Over-delivering massively, being lovely to all of your clients, bending backwards to be great to them and treating them like a friend rather than a client. This will help advertise your services and build your business. It may not be the quickest way to do it, but it will be one of the best ways to do it. Offer an end-to-end service solution to build a larger agency. Build a wide client base rather than depending on one client for profits. Think unconventionally, finding unique angles such using PowerPoint and Word Templates to make presentations. 

For example, Matt offered brand guidelines, stationary, corporates, finance documents, brochures and website work. He also did presentations, packaging and photography.

Align your Brand to Find Work

Find a partner or friend to resell your services through where there’s synergy and benefits for both. For example, Matt had an opportunity because of a friend who ran a big IT company called Krome. They had big clients like Booper and Network Rail. When they both started working together, there was a synergy where Krome was offering Matt design services and he was offering them IT services. Matt also rebranded his business to be part of their business and that instantly gave him access to much larger clients. 

Create more work by getting access to larger clients and build a great springboard for building a larger business for yourself.

Become an Authority Figure

It's important to become an authority figure. Don't just sell your services, share your knowledge to help your clients. Educate them so that they are less likely to quibble for paying you for the service knowing the amount of work that goes into it. It also makes marketing departments look good. If you educate the people that you work with and make them look good in the eyes of their bosses, directors, etc. they will want to continue maintaining the relationship with you.

Pro tip: It's not just about making pretty design work. It's about targeting around an audience and winning in the future. Know who your competitors are. 

Quotes and Billing

Charge as much as you can for your services and do not feel bad about it. Don't let anyone guilt trip you. Justify it with your process. Tell them how you would go an extra mile to give you a really professional service because they have seen your process. By setting higher charges, you give a perception of higher quality. 

Increase your charges annually. Provide services and overview documentation to sell your business and show ball park charges to get rid of those who are not interested in your service because of its price point. Tier services one by one.

While documenting, demystify and break down the costs. Go into details about what each of your services entails. It helps you give a justification for the cost. Always ask for a purchase order, so that when you finish the work and get a sign off, the accounts department don’t reach out to get justification or approval for paying you.

Billing Strategies

Make a payment schedule. This allows marketing departments to work on their budgets and give a green light to larger projects under the radar. Sign off and draw invoices at the end of each phase. This reassures the client as well as the company that the project is moving in the correct direction. There’s no surprise at the end of the project. Include initial payments to help with the commitment and get the project started. This also helps you get paid on time and de-risks any bad situation.

Project Management

Put project management in place to track your project process for each vendor and share that with your clients to help it run smoothly. For example, Matt uses the Trello Project Management Tool. It introduces a workflow in the system.

Think about Costs 

Discuss tax and accounts with your accountant. Look at all the revenue and outgoings. Check your profits from time to time. Project for the best and worst case scenarios. Always plan an exit strategy and loss account, keeping in mind that things could go downwards. Prepare yourself with a plan of action in such cases.

Hire Carefully

Remember that your business is your staff, so make sure they are kind and hardworking. Everybody in your business has got to be better at their individual skillset than you are. For example, if you're hiring a web designer, hire someone who is better than you at web designing.

While hiring, get them excited and invested in your brand. Be open and honest about how well your business is doing, about your clients and about where you are. They will appreciate you for it. If you get them invested in your brand, they are more likely to work hard for you. Nurture and care for them like a family. It's not just about running a business, they're your family. Reach out and appreciate them. Always go with your gut in interviews and hire someone you immediately connect with. Study the employment law and strategize.

Optimise your Operations

Look at every part of the business to make it run smoothly. Get on top of everything, be organized and efficient, from invoicing, to billing and how things work around the office. Optimise as much as you can.

Polish your Brand and Literature

Polish your brand and literature. Coming across as a big brand helps you target larger brands. Creating a highly polished brand, literature and web presence helps sell you to senior management of large businesses.

Social Proof and Language

Reassure your clients with social proof. Borrow brand credibility and equity but don’t steal others' work. Talk about revenue increase and ROI with your clients. Share other client feedback and wins. Speak their language in terms of strategy and targets.

Perception is Reality

Create a concept design work for the clients. Tell them how you’ve paid out of your folio and sell as many ideas to them. Get creative with a team photoshoot and show them who the people are working behind with you. This buys people into your brand and creates confidence in your company.

Get Help

Reach out to others for help and advise. Research and listen to people who have experience. For example, follow @mattslightam, @designcuts, @morejanda on Instagram and listen to the Biz Buds Podcast for business tips.