10 Tips for Starting Your Own Design Business

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Starting your own design business appears to be easy until it’s time to find clients. Networking groups can be a source of clients, but the quality of work will retain customers over time. Every person who wishes to start a design business will not be successful just for having the idea. Take the time to work through these ten tips to make a good decision prior to starting a design business of your own.

1. Evaluate your personality

Some people are not cut out to work from a home office. The discipline to start work every weekday morning takes a special profile. If your source of ideas comes from other people, the ideas will run out early when working alone. Be honest with yourself and ask at least three other trusted advisors for their input.

2. Inventory your skills

Look closely at existing technology and determine the level of education that will be required to learn how to use the newest tools. To run a design business independently, you must possess more than eighty percent of all the skills necessary to be productive in each phase of development. Also, getting a masters of business administration is a good option if you would like to improve your skills.

3. Consider multiple funding sources

Your personal savings account may have enough for part of the funding, but serious consideration must be given to acquiring bank funding, angel investors and a start-up loan from the Small Business Administration. The application processes for each of these entities will better prepare you for the first year of business.

4. Assess competition

Starting your own design business is not as important with the availability of social networking. Location is not limiting for the creative designer who can communicate well in writing and on the phone. Certain types of design such as interior design require a local customer base with fewer competitors, but other design businesses can have a far reach. If your immediate area is saturated and your clientele must be local, consider a smaller community within comfortable driving distance.

5. Define the market

Previous professional experience will determine which markets are open to your services. Some knowledge of certain industries can be the springboard for your next venture. Start with what you know and gain a foothold in that area before moving into less familiar territory.

6. Write a business plan

A basic formula for developing a business plan is to write down your vision of the business in five years, which becomes your end point. Then write down how to get there in six month increments. Include income levels, location, employees, and number of clients in a plan that will guide you through the start-up stages of the business. More detail is better because the plan will provide more indicators of success.

7. Find professional advisers

Every business owner must have colleagues in similar businesses that can provide support and advice. A financial advisor can offer invaluable guidance to protect income from unnecessary taxes. An accountant is necessary to keep the business in line with tax laws. Supplier relationships are critical for the delivery of goods and services. All of these professionals can become clients when relationships are valued and maintained over time.

8. Create a portfolio

Potential clients will request a sample of your work. Develop the portfolio from former projects, but protect proprietary information by blanking out logos and trademarks. Your care with the property of former clients will convey volumes to potential customers who have innovative solutions that have not yet been introduced to the market.

9. Develop a brand

Professionally developed logos and slogans are valuable to the business that lasts over time. Brand consultants are valuable advisors because they can match your personality with the business image you wish to project. Include this initial expense in the start-up plan for the business.

10. Ask for referrals

Every time you complete a project, remind the client to refer other clients to you. Referral customers are almost as valuable as repeat customers. Meet with any referred customer within one week of receiving their name. Starting your own design business is challenging, but with proper planning and honest personal evaluation, your design business can grow into a viable business. Remember that economic activity is required for business growth so position your business where clients have needs. Endurance is important when starting your own design business so make sure the funding sources are open for at least a year to support your lifestyle in conjunction with the business venture.

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About John Brook


  1. Ah, #10! Can’t say enough about it….

    I’m a believer in preframing for referrals. Each time I land a new account, I say to the Client, “I’m going to make you very happy. Your business will shine, you’ll feel like a rock star, and you will thrilled with the result. And when that happens, would you mind if I asked you to refer your colleagues/associates to me?” Of course, the response is always “I’d be happy to refer you – IF you impress me first!” Once the project is complete, I say to the Client “Remember when I asked you if you wouldn’t mind referring your colleagues/associates to me? What do you think, are you confident enough in my ability to send your friends or family my way?”

    It’s a lot easier to ask for a referral when you’ve preframed your Client for it from the start. 95% of my work now is by referral/word of mouth, and I believe this is the reason. I rarely get a new client any other way anymore.

  2. Great post, John! I would add that, along with the business plan, one should write a marketing plan. This plan should outline how the business owner will make the business plan a reality, from strategizing what to sell and when, to networking and proper utilization of social media. Without this supporting document, even the best business plan is just words.

  3. From my own experience, for a business the most important thing is Clients and Cash. Enough Cash at hand to keep rolling till Clients start filling in Cash and repeat. While most of your points address the Client angle, none of the points actual talk about Cash, for a new startup business keep the Cash register ringing is equally important :)

  4. Hmmm…
    Great info!

    On a side note, as I have learned from several business owners, clients are important, and so is marketing, but if you are good at what you do you really don’t have to spend as much time and cash on advertising as you think. Referrals help, but can and does give your client the impression you are looking to expand or take the focus away from them. It just needs to be tastefully done.

    I’m thinking an infographic on the best ways to ask for a referral??

    Otherwise this content is good. It seems a little heavy, as far as getting exposure etc, and simply to make money, but in my experience I’d rather focus on the work then what I’m trying to achieve financially (at least this is how it comes across) because if you’re good at what you do money will come :)

  5. I fully agree with Mel on the emphasis upon work and letting it speak for itself. Also, as Kristine puts it, referrals are an essential customer-base but winning them requires a happy client network that will spread your word. Alongside putting up a team of incentive-driven, passionate & like-minded people, is something that greatly helps in the long run. They bring ideas, networks, energy and add a lot of support. Five year vision, six monthly targets, professional advisers, masters of business administration, etc. are sure-shot recipe, I feel, to bog down budding entrepreneurs, but become necessary when external opinions (investors, shareholders etc.) are unavoidable.

  6. Excellent article. Starting any business can be difficult, but if your passionate about what you want to achieve, it’s possible. It’s also advisable to participate in forums , you can learn and network with other professionals within the industry.

  7. I started http://2cooldesign.co.za in 2005 and have never looked back, I’m always looking for more work. Want to be inspired, come see my awesome portfolio, Recommend me to your friends, please & thank you for taking a look ! All the best Guy Tasker creator of 2cooldesign.co.za Awesome Graphic design company based in South Africa. Online based Business, I work from home :)

  8. Wendy Foster says:

    I want to start my own business doing design


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