From starting out and recruiting staff, through to client relations and building a brand, these 20 tips from design experts are unmissable.
1: Start out with a reputation
The key to a successful studio start-up is a solid client base right from the beginning. To fill out that portfolio, think about seeking work as a freelancer before putting down roots. "It's better to build up a healthy supply of clients and then include a few longer-term ones when you feel you have enough, than it is to think about starting a studio," says Jeff Knowles, Senior Designer at Research Studios.
2: Don't go it alone
The notion of strength in numbers is especially applicable when forming a new studio, helping to ease the burden both financially and creatively. "Setting up as a team helped us, as we were able to spread the load and each concentrate on what we were good at, while splitting up the less popular responsibilities," says Dan Moore of Studio Output.
3: Do it on the cheap
Starting up a studio doesn't have to be expensive if you draw up a sensible business plan and then stick to it. "If you're willing to build the business step by step then you can do it without wasting money on needless investments or taking out loans," says Mauro Gatti at Mutado Studio. You might even consider whether you need a real office at the outset. "Working out of a bedroom might be less professional, but keeping investments down gives you more freedom when choosing projects," says Mauro.
4: Seek professional help
When choosing partners in your new venture, it's worth looking beyond the world of design. "If I was to start again, I'd bring a business person on board from the beginning," says Florian Schmitt, Co-Founder of Hi-ReS!. "You need to get paid and creatives are usually the worst people to negotiate financial matters."
5: Attract talent
"When it comes to taking on staff I never bother with agencies," admits David Eccles at Fudge. "Build up a strong reputation and you'll find that the real talent send in their CVs directly. If you like the look of somebody's work it's worth getting them in, even if you don't currently have a post for them. Who knows when you might?"
6: Build with care
"It's not enough to employ people because they're great at design," warns David Eccles at Fudge. "This is an industry that involves long hours, so you need to know that people will fit in, too. To be sure that new employees are going to be able to work as part of a team, a probationary period is a must."
7: Recruit by the book
"Remember that job interviews are a two-way process: ask the questions you need to, but also tell the applicants enough about your working environment to get them enthusiastic about working for you," says Rob Coke at Studio Output. "And make sure you do everything properly. No matter how small your organisation, you need contracts in place in order to protect both parties."
8: Boost team power
Once you've got the right team it's important to allow them to develop. "As well as attending appropriate short courses, we operate a monthly creative workshop where we look at new ways to find inspiration and tackle problems," says Rob Coke. "This encourages a collaborative approach and allows individual designers to grow as a team."
9: Do it with style
"You need to develop your own style if you're going to attract attention in this business," says Mauro Gatti. "That's not to say that all your work needs to be done in one way. You still need to be flexible enough to work on a range of projects. But you can still express and strengthen your own creative identity by working on non-commercial projects and then adding these to your portfolio."
10: Look beyond the fee!
Recognise the importance of low-paying or even non-fee work. "Often this sort of work forces a designer to explore more creative solutions, and enables them to experiment with visual styles and forms," says Rob Coke at Studio Output. Fudge's David Eccles agrees: "We recently did a website design for a fashion company for free for that very reason. It helped us win another fashion-based job, giving us an inroad into a totally different market."
11: Don't undersell
"It's tempting to offer your services for less money, particularly when still getting established," says David Eccles. "But by doing so you position yourself in a lower costing bracket, and clients will expect to pay the same sort of money every time. And offering the best value is not just about being the cheapest. Clients will often choose a more expensive bid, if the pitch is better."
12: Prepare for pitching
Get as much information as possible from a potential client before making your pitch, including details about exactly who you'll be pitching to and which other studios are also pitching. "Make sure you have a clear idea of the brief and what is expected at pitch stage," says Rob Coke of Studio Output. "And most importantly, make sure the job is going to be worth your while if you get it - some clients are putting increasingly smaller projects out to pitch."
13: Think big
"When we make a pitch we not only try to answer the brief, we also come up with ideas to expand it further," says David Eccles. "It demonstrates understanding and creativity, and also opens up the possibility of getting even more work. Similarly, we make the best possible pitch, and if the costing is higher, explain that we that we can, up to a point, adjust the job to suit their budget."
14: Keep clients happy
No studio survives on business from 'one hit' clients. "We go after those that will be with us for as long as possible," says David Eccles. "Keeping them coming back requires more than good design. You need to service and look after their account. Get key people in place, so that a client has an account director, and a project manager to oversee each project. And as you get larger you'll also need to submit the credentials of other employees working on a job."
15: Market yourself
"Getting your company's name in the minds of the people you want to work with is very important," says Rob Coke. He suggests that regular press releases and emails that announce news and showcase recent projects prove effective. "This works well alongside printed mailers targeted more specifically to chosen clients. Do remember is that all this marketing is cumulative, though. Don't expect to see results overnight."
16: Self-promote on the cheap
"Word of mouth from satisfied clients is the best and cheapest way to bring in new business," says Mauro Gatti. "And if, like us, most your work is done for the web, then there's no better form of promotion than to send prospective clients links to recent projects."
It's all too easy to do the same old work for the same types of client. Bad move. "It's always necessary to keep yourself and your staff interested and challenged," says David Eccles. "And the more diverse your portfolio, the more work you'll be offered and be able to take on."
18: Build it so they will come
As the first port of call for many prospective clients, your website can be the most important part of your brand identity. "As a designer you need to look at yourself as a product," stresses Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners. Strong presentation and an up-to-date portfolio are crucial. Also consider the value of extras. Coudal's homepage is famous for its news and hosting of popular online events such as Photoshop Tennis. "That got us noticed," says Jim.
19: Extend the brand
Merchandising provides another route to successful studio branding. Airside is just one design studio that has raised its profile in this way. "Fred Deakin, one of Airside's directors, has always been involved in running clubs and events for which he screenprinted his own flyers and posters," explains Anne Brassier at the studio. "T-shirts were a natural progression from this and people liked them, so in the end we created our online shop."
20: Explore to earn
Merchandising also provides an opportunity for your team to experiment while still bringing in extra revenue. "For us it's a creative outlet and an excuse to explore creative avenues that we don't necessarily get the opportunity to try with our client work," says Anne Brassier at Airside. "It's also a good way to have a direct relationship with our audience and learn what they do and don't like. We can then use that knowledge when we come to client work."