When I started my business 15 years ago, my goal was to live a life of creative freedom and independence from the agency hierarchy. I had never taken a single business course and had no formal training on how to run a design studio. I was young and fueled entirely by blind ambition, and gut(sty) instincts.
Those early days were filled with long hours and more questions than answers. I was deep in unknown territory. If I knew how hard it would be, I might not have made the leap. But I’m so, SO glad I did.
And so as I celebrate my 15th “Entrepre-versary”, I think it’s a good time to look back on the key business lessons I’ve learned along the way. May they help you–wherever you are on your entrepre-journey to succeed as well.
15 LESSONS FROM MY FIRST 15 YEARS IN BUSINESS
LESSON 1: When deciding whether to take on a new project, ask yourself if it has the 3 F’s.
● Fame. Will the project bring you awards or press? Is it a big name, newsworthy brand?
● Fortune. Will it pay well and complement the value of your services?
● Fun. Will it be creative? Is the client a joy to work with?
You won’t be happy if the project only has only 1 of the F’s. A project rarely has all 3, but it must have 2. (Wise lesson learned from my 2nd agency position with, Tom Corey of Corey McPherson Nash.)
LESSON 2: Your network is your most valuable asset.
Nurture your relationships. Shower your top referral partners with love and gratitude. Here’s how we do it. And remember, the marketing and design world in NYC (and probably everywhere else too) gets smaller and smaller by the day. Your relationships and reputation are more valuable than gold.
LESSON 3: Work with partners, clients and employees that share your core values.
At the Ink, this means we look for integrity & honesty, attention to detail, and a strong work ethic with partners that want to go the extra mile. Always check their references before collaborating. Don’t skip this step, because you think you’re too busy. If you can, do a small test project first to be sure you are aligned.
Still not sure? Follow your gut instincts. They are always right.
LESSON 4: Set clear expectations right from the start and never deviate.
And make sure you’ve created (and signed) strong written agreements that reflect those expectations.
LESSON 5: Listen closely to your clients.
What are their pain points? What can you do to make their job easier? Be the team that makes them look good to their own superiors. Act as a strategist and problem solver versus task master and make yourself harder to replace.
LESSON 6: Processes and systems to get the work done on time, on budget, and to a high standard cannot be underestimated.
It took me TOO long to learn this and I’m still mastering, but I could not grow the business without project management tools like Basecamp and Asana or questionnaires to prequalify prospects or process templates to pass off information to project managers, designers, developers and assistants. These tools are critical for moving quickly, delegating tasks and holding others accountable to deadlines.
LESSON 7: Believe in the monetary value of your work.
Never begin a client relationship by discounting prices. If you do, you set an expectation that will continue for the duration of the partnership. By the same token, if you accept a small project hoping that larger projects will come, you’ll usually (meaning always) be disappointed.
There’s nothing wrong with small projects, but be aware of your expectations.
LESSON 8: Don’t let one client make up more than 20% of your annual revenue.
This is the key to keeping your business safe and recession-proof. Diversify your client list and earnings the same way you diversify an investment portfolio.
LESSON 9: There will be good years and low years.
A small business ebbs and flows, and you have to stay strong and positive during both.
Manage your business risk with regular market assessments. You can ride the wave by ensuring the business has sufficient savings and a habit of smart, proactive planning.
LESSON 10: Surround yourself with strong mentors and a supportive circle.
I’m so grateful for the generous mentors who have guided, advised and encouraged throughout my career. They are my north star and have helped tremendously at several crossroads. My fellow entrepreneurs from my EO Network have been invaluable throughout. Don’t try to do it alone. You don’t know what you don’t know. Learn from others who know better.
LESSON 11: Always stay on top of new technologies and trends, and be ready to pivot services.
We started with print marketing and brochure websites, but they are not our most lucrative services now. The industry changes frequently and requires new solutions. You must stay competitive. Keep building expertise to position yourself as a specialist to rise above the pack or you will be an old dinosaur.
LESSON 12: Know what you are good at and concentrate on what you enjoy doing.
Delegate all other tasks to experts that are better than you are. They will shine in their responsibilities and you’ll be able to hyper-focus on what you excel in. Your clients will benefit from this approach, and so will your team.
LESSON 13: Creativity and creative solutions take time.
They can’t be rushed or squeezed. We have had successful rush jobs on occasion, like a logo designed in just 1 week. But remember that the old adage-“Pick 2: quick, cheap or good” -is very true-and you don’t want to find your company in the “quick and cheap” category.
LESSON 14: Mentor the next generation.
Take the time to teach and guide them. This is such satisfying work, no matter how busy you are, and the rewards come back. Two of my former Jr. Designers, Gina Capozza and Carley Lee now have their own graphic design studios and I’m SO proud of them!
LESSON 15: Good work sells more good work.
So make every job better than your last!
And don’t forget to promote your work on your website, at industry gatherings, and by cultivating your network (see #2.)
These 15 simple lessons have helped me survive, thrive, and grow my business over the past 15 years. I am so very thankful. And I wonder what the next 15 years will bring…
What about you? What lessons have you learned in your business? What challenges have you overcome? As a life-long learner, I’m always eager to hear from others, so please share your thoughts, comments/experiences with me below!