My top 7 secrets on how I run my (super-successful) design business

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This year marks my eleventh year in business. That’s 11 years of solid practice running a design business and figuring out what works… and what doesn’t.

Just the other day I had a client say to me “Geez Bianca, you don’t muck around… I bet you’re the type of woman who wears her underpants on the outside.“  I was laughing so hard at the image in my head, that it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what he was talking about… A superhero.

I was pretty chuffed with his comment, I must say.  And I don’t mean to brag, but I really do get a lot done.

Don’t believe me?

I have a wholesale and a retail arm to our business, which means twice the amount of planning, social media management, email marketing campaigns, SEO, PPC, copywriting and blogging, etc needs to get done. Then there’s the fact that these businesses are aimed at two completely different audiences, which makes it even more interesting as I have to constantly shift my head space on any given day.

Let’s add to that the fact I have 20 staff spread across two offices which are 2,000 miles apart.

What’s more, we’ve doubled our business year on year for the last four years running now when most in our industry would be doing joyful backflips if they got even a 20% increase.

So how do I do it all?

Firstly, if you’re curious, I don’t work 100-hour weeks (any more). 50 hours or so is about my limit these days. I’ve learnt that a tired mind is far less productive than an energized one.

So what’s my secret? Actually I have seven secrets.

Here’s my top 7 secrets that will help you achieve mind-blowing results in your personal growth, daily productivity, sales growth, marketing and profits.

1.   I assess, adjust and adapt on the fly.

I make decisions fast. I have to. I don’t stress about it (much). I’m lucky I was born wired this way.

On any given day, there might be 50 different things that I have to decide on. I don’t like to put anything off til tomorrow or my ‘To Do’ list becomes monstrous and my brain starts to melt.

Fast decisions can work against me sometimes, but in most cases, making swift decisions on the fly works in my favour. A lot of entrepreneurs possess this trait but luckily it is something you can master if you’re not comfortable with doing it yet.

I really love the fact that in small business we have the luxury of being able to assess and test new products on emerging markets so quickly; far quicker than larger corporations can. That gives us a huge leg up on our competitors so I take full advantage of it.

So make decisions swiftly then act: Plan, create, execute, measure and assess then keep moving as fast as you can onto the next thing. Don’t let analysis paralysis set into your thinking or the opportunity will be missed…. And so will the profits.

2.   I’m organised and plan everything 12 month’s in advance.

In all honesty, the idea of detailed annual planning is quite new to me but in my short time of doing it, I can already see it’s worth its weight in gold. By the way, I learnt this technique from my current business mentor.

I work out the most important things in our business that are going to generate leads and bring in more revenue. They’re the big rocks. They go into our plan first.

Then I list all the things that we need to do in order to deliver on our promise, they’re the small pebbles. They go into the plan next.

Lastly, I plan out and book out all my yearly holidays, hair appointments, massages, family time, catching up with friends, yoga, exercise and everything else that I do on a regular basis. This is the sand, and it goes in last.

Now if you’re unsure why we look at it this way, I want you to picture a glass jar. Imagine what happens if you put the sand in first, then the rocks, then the pebbles on top; you’d struggle to fit it in all, right? There’d be heaps of holes. Now, instead, imagine placing the big rocks into the jar first, then sprinkle in the pebbles, and then trickle in the sand so it fills in all the gaps; that jar would be pretty full. Using this planning method you can fit so much more into your year; seriously, the results will blow your mind.

Now we have a full jar/calendar of tasks, we simply take all the tasks and pop them into our project management software (we use Wrike). We assign each task to the appropriate team member, who receives a notification. Wrike also sends the owner of the task an alert when the due date is coming up to ensure it’s not been missed. This way, everyone’s on the same page and everyone’s happy.

As I said, I can’t take credit for this annual planning idea. My mentor is a pretty smart guy and he credits his explosive growth to his detailed annual planning, and now, I can see why. I’m already feeling mentally de-cluttered, more focused and my team are excited to know exactly what’s going on, waaaaaay ahead of schedule.

3.   I make my team accountable.

This literally took me years of practice but I’m glad I persevered. Accountability is the key to success. When I delegate a task to one of my staff I say:

“I’m handing this over to you and I want it completed by <date>. I won’t be reminding you, I won’t be checking in, I’m stepping back and it’s your full responsibility, okay?”

When I delegate, I completely hand over the task to free up my time and headspace.

Also, as a general rule, if we’re working on a project, I won’t assign a task to more than one person so there can be no passing the buck if the job doesn’t get done.

It’s such a simple practice but it ensures each individual is accountable for his or her own tasks. It also empowers them, which they feel good about.

Do they make mistakes? Sure, that’s part of letting go, but it’s how we grow at the rate we do so I’m willing to go with the flow.

4.   I shut down distractions.

I used to be a sucker for having 23 tabs open in Chrome and 11 different software programs open on any given day. I’d constantly distract myself by checking email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever really just because.

Nowadays, I shut everything down when I’m working on important tasks. I’ve come to realise that multi-tasking is BAD. That’s right, I said BAD! I get so much more done when I work on one thing at a time. Who woulda thunk it, especially for us chicks!

I don’t just have my email notifications turned off; I shut it down completely and only check it twice a day.  And I only look at Facebook and Twitter a couple of times a day now too, for about 10-20 minutes at a time.

5.   I put high value tasks first.

I used to structure my To Do List in order of A, B & C priorities which worked well for years but now I just do High Value, Medium Value and Admin. Anything that’s a Low Value Task goes onto my list of stuff to delegate to someone else.

I give myself eight blocks time to work with each day.

Each block is 50 minutes long with a 10-minute break in between and I get 30 minutes for lunch. The first two blocks are always on my highest value tasks BEFORE I even open my email. This is the best time to get your most important work done.

My third block is email. Then two blocks of writing, usually blogs, another block after that for email/admin/low-medium value tasks then the two final blocks of the day are for strategy, planning and again, medium-high value tasks.

I work from 8:30am til 5:00pm then I have the evening to hit the gym, go for a ride or get creative in the kitchen and on most evenings, bury my head into my books and online courses. I don’t class my learning time as ‘work’; it’s more like a hobby for me. Instead of watching TV I study for at least an hour or more each night.

Putting high value tasks first means I’m working to my optimum income earning potential. It’s a bonus that those tasks just so happen to be the things I love doing the most!

6.   I practice the ‘miracle morning’.

If you haven’t read the book ‘Miracle Morning’ by Hal Elrod yet then I suggest you check it out.  His book promises to create the most extraordinary life you’ve ever imagined and I can vouch for that.

Hal talks about getting up an hour earlier and having a morning ritual that consists of meditation, affirmations, visualisation, reading, exercise and journaling.

I’ve adjusted it to suit my ideal morning but I now wake up feeling like every morning is Christmas.

It’s not always easy to get up so early, but I’m working on it. Hal’s got tons of great tips in his book to help you through that shift so I highly recommend grabbing a copy for yourself if you want to see big changes in your overall performance.

7.   I’m clear on our vision.

Do you know exactly where you want your business to be in two years? How about five and even 10 years from now? I do.

Of course your vision is going to change over time, you can’t plan for everything, especially in our industry, but the big picture stuff always remains the same.

I’m very clear on our vision and I share it with our team. They know exactly where we’re headed and what our goals are for each year of the next five; this brings them a sense of greater understanding to why they do what they do.

So if you’re not clear, get clear. If you need help, ask yourself what your purpose is. The answer to your vision is usually hidden somewhere in there. ;)

What do you think? I’ve bared my all, flaws and all, now it’s your turn. What great habits do you have that you can attribute your success to? I’d love to know, share them in the comments on this post!

About Bianca Board

Co-founder of Web123, Australia’s small business website specialists, author of ‘How To Destroy Your Design Business in 12 Easy Steps’, and creator of the Web123 ProPartner Program a complete ‘web business in a box’ solution for graphic designers, Bianca is Australia’s design-business doctor. Her mission is to help designers, just like you, create a profitable business you love.

 More about Bianca’s Business: Bianca is co-founder of the Web123 Partner Program. Design, build and deliver client projects in the space of a day. Design it your way, totally HTML and developer free.

Comments

  1. Hi Bianca,

    This is a great article! It is great advice that you make one person accountable for one task.

    My question to you is that what if that person runs into problems, what is the support system? How does the team help each other out?

    Thanks!

    • Good question Navina! I’m always available to my staff, they can ask me questions whenever they need; they know I have an open door policy (or open phone policy since I’m often in a different office).

      My staff are all very capable since I hire for the ability to creatively solve problems as much as for their professional skills. Honestly my Web123 retail business pretty much runs like clockwork (years of practice and years of creating simple processes that work) so rarely do I need to step in.

      However, my ProPartner Program is different because the buck stops with me. My name and face is all over it, and the whole program is basically everything I’ve learnt in the last 10 years, so if I delegate a task to one of my team then I take extra care to review everything to make sure it’s accurate and in line with what I want to present.

      That being said though, we use Wrike to project manage tasks and have lots of conversations and version control going on plus regular meetings on Skype and in person so there’s plenty of support for everyone if they need it. :)

  2. Love this post Bianca.

    Really an inspiring and candid look into the daily life of a successful business owner.

    A lot of great information in here. I appreciate that you take the time to share the practices that have gotten you where you are.

    • You’re very welcome Ben. I love being able to share what works for me… after all it isn’t rocket science and I don’t hold a patent on web business success… unfortunately, lol! ☺

  3. Great article Bianca. I haven’t heard of the Miracle Morning, I will definitely check this out now. Organization and keeping a consistent schedule is what I’m focusing on improving right now and this post was yet another inspiration to get consistent. Thank you!

    • Ahh you’ve used a word I love ‘consistent’. That really is the key to success far more than smarts or skill. Great success is achieved by doing little things over and over and keeping good daily habits. Let me know how you go!

  4. This is a great article. I have a lot to learn and improve on and this is a great outline for that.

  5. Thanks a million for the post – all really practical tips and written in a really concise way. I will be definitely focussing more on planning, vision and using the morning time for meditation and visualisation.

  6. How do you combine business and family life?
    Regards
    Sam

    • Hi Sam,

      It’s all about priorities and setting your non-negotiables. All my personal stuff is ‘the sand’ I was talking about in point 2. I don’t have to juggle conflicting priorities with kids yet (I have two ragdoll cats which are pretty easy to take care of), but my mentor does and this system totally works for him. He told me that he felt guilty that his parents didn’t get to see his kids enough so he scheduled every second Friday to be the day that his parents could come to his house and hang out with the kids.

      I guess he kind of makes other people, even family, work around his busy schedule and they respect that his time is limited.

      School holidays and family time becomes one of the big rocks that you need to plan around; for example attending your child’s graduation would clearly be right up there in importance… so in it goes to your calendar before anything else.

      Hope that helps!

  7. I loved this post! You offered so many profound tips and words of advice. The only suggestion I have is to always add at least one image in your blog posts. This makes it easier for people to “pin” it to their Pinterest boards. Further, it makes a lot of long text more enticing. It would be really cool to have an image for each of your 7 main points. But of course, that is something you may consider “low value.” So go ahead and delegate it. But I consider it “high value” because you now the old adage… a picture if worth a thousand words!

    • Oops, I just noticed you did have one image at the top of the post. I did not see it because it does not show up in the emailed version of the blog post. So most readers will never see the image, if they read it from their email inbox. It was not until I clicked to make a comment that I noticed the formatting and image. It does not show up in the email post. Yet the comments box and other goodies are there. Hmm… I think you can have the image show up too.

      Thanks!

  8. Bianca, thanks so much for sharing! I really enjoyed reading your honest article. You’ve been incredibly successful and grown a large business, but there are great takeaways here even for the little guy. Thanks again!

    • Glad you got something out of it Carey. I’m not sure I’d call myself ‘incredibly successful’ yet (thanks to Preston who added the super-successful part in my blog title, lol), but clearly with 20 staff I’m getting somewhere.

      P.S. Don’t forget I was a struggling solo freelancer once too. Then I made my first hire about 8 years ago and discovered the joys of awesomely profitable staff who followed my dummy-proof business processes…. The rest is history! ☺

  9. I couldn’t agree more about the 23 tabs and miracle mornings! Such an inspiring and relevant post, Thank you Bianca.

  10. Thanks Bianca for giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be a business owner. I really enjoy your tip on viewing your day in blocks of time. I’ve never tried anything like that before, so I’ll give it a shot this week! I think that applies not only for your work day but even personal time as well (hobbies/chores to do at home etc.).

    • I’d love to hear how you go with it Samantha. If you’re not a morning person (I never used to be!) you might struggle initially… so I’d recommend you try it for a month. There’s a real sense of peace in the wee hours of the morning, and it sets your mind up for great things in the day.

  11. This is another self-assistance copy that will definitely help both young and old individuals aspiring to be great managers. Thank you for sharing! Keep it up!

  12. Lyn Urquhart says:

    Hi Bianca
    Thank you for sharing.
    My desk now has a jar with rocks, pebbles and sand.
    Although our worlds are very different, and the business I manage is not my own, your approach has given me the ‘jab’ to reassess and restructure my management plan.
    Cheers
    Lyn

  13. I like this, “I make decisions fast.” … and glad you said it as a reminder.

    I’ve also got this block of time thing going – about a 2-hour block in the morning with 1-2 “frogs” to swallow right away. Most energy is available then, and getting those top priorities out of the way is energizing and motivating … feels good.

    Thanks for writing this Bianca.

  14. Good points on working freelance and planning out your business. I’ve been freelance for past 7 years (only had 3 clients but they kept me very busy). Now I want to develop my business and bring in more clients ( and hopefully in the future start employing people).

  15. Great post -super helpful and very timely.

    My wife and I run a design company in San Jose – it’s just us as a team and we’ve struggled figuring out the ‘business’ side of business…been designers for a long time but doing it on our own has been a huge challenge.

    Stuff like this helps immensely.

  16. I liked the ”Miracle Morning” idea! Will sure check it out. I am a very spiritual person : ) and so I am doing something similar maybe not everyday but most of the times. 15 min. meditation (just sitting still while listening this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD3rHbqG3sw) and 15 min Mandy Inger’s yogalosophy. It really changes my mood for the day and so my creativity just explodes : ) .its very important to listen our body and mood before we start doing any action plans.
    Thank you Bianca!

    Ezgi

  17. Great article! Love the see more about how exactly you do the decisions on the fly – what do you combine (female intuition, facts, money, priority, needs) to endorse the right decision.

    Web123 is excellent example for us. We want to launch something similar but just for Germany. Our motivation? The same reasons you mention in Web123 – tons of expensive low to average results of web designs in Germany with very expensive updates/support service and no direction into how actually this website can help the current business. And I love the examples of customizing the templates into the client’s case!!!

    Your article will help a lot our small business as we want to grow and this year is our first big jump – we will launch not 1 but 2 new services (1 B2B and 1 B2C)! Thanks!

  18. Nice! Thanks for sharing :)

  19. All superb tips for us. Thanks for sharing! Personally I can vouch for daily affirmations, reading and exercise. These have played such a big role in my life this new year. I have lost 28 pounds, feel better about myself when I read my affirmations, say a morning prayer, read a little and get in some exercise. I also noticed doing a little house work when I wake ( dishes, laundry, etc ) seems to get me into work mode and tackle the day.

  20. Thanks for sharing your secrets with us. I know a designer who works in the same field in Penrose Creative projects and think that you secrets will help them also. I just wanted to ask how anyone can plan all the things 12 months in advance. There are several things which come suddenly and most importantly they have to be done immediately then what will you do??

  21. Hi Bianca, this article has sparked some things! I am on year 2.5 of running my own f/t creative biz and this gave me some great new insights! Thank you so much for being transparent with us. You rock! ~ Julie

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