Welcome to Designer Confidential: an advice column where we’ll share practical advice on solving your toughest challenges. We want to help you tackle your biggest obstacles as a manager, like transforming your organization, creating a better-connected workflow between designers and developers, building a great team, and much more. You can submit your questions via this form, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at us at @InVisionApp.
Our question this week goes into the tough realities of building a creative business in uncertain times.
How can a creative, or owner of a creative agency, prepare themselves to survive an impending (or current!) recession?
Creative and Always Prepared
Dear Creative and Always Prepared,
I have the dubious honor of having successfully steered my product design agency through the 2008 recession and numerous market changes. I say dubious because I’m sure we were blessed with a lot of good luck, too.
We started Fresh Tilled Soil in 2005 and navigated a rollercoaster of market changes for 15 years before selling the company this year. We didn’t always get it right, but what we did do right was to always focus on driving new business in spite of what the market was signaling.
Some lessons we learned along the way:
1. Never stop marketing and sales efforts.
Agency owners tend to run their businesses on a feast or famine structure. After a big marketing effort, agencies can generally expect a flood of business. When the flood comes in, resources move to delivery. That’s when the tide subsides and business dries up. Dedicated sales and marketing resources helped us survive the market’s ups and downs.
2. Park your ego and be flexible on pricing.
When you’ve spent years building a reputation, it can be difficult to sell your services for less than what you’ve established. However, shame and embarrassment will undermine even the most logical assessment of your value. Instead of letting pride run your pricing, be flexible and open to negotiation and smaller projects.
3. Communicate openly to your team about what’s up ahead.
When a recession hits, your team will know. Don’t pretend that your business won’t be affected. Instead, immediately communicate to your team how the recession might affect your business and what changes they might expect. Honesty and transparency are always the best options.
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4. Communicate with your clients early and often
My first manager used to say that people do business with people they like and trust, in both good times and bad. Our approach when things got tough was to reach out to our clients and discuss how we were going to work together. It’s surprising how open clients are to these kinds of conversations.
5. Expect the best, but plan for the worst
As Scott Belsky writes in his book The Messy Middle, bad times are inevitable, and the business owners who embrace this idea are better-prepared than those that live in perpetual optimism. As an optimist myself, it has served me well to keep at least one pessimistic person in my advisory team. While it’s not good to be surrounded by pessimism, it’s important to remember that life can be unpredictable.
Working in the design world often made me feel like I was doing something uniquely creative, and that creativity should be recognized as invaluable. The reality, however, was that my business was like any other, and needed to be respected as such.
My personal reminder to myself has always been, “We’re running a design business, not an art school.”
Sending you good luck as you prepare for the unpredictable winds of business ownership.
Yours in confidence,