The life of a creative freelancer is built upon the concept of "DIY". As a one-person operation working from home, you have no choice but to do it all yourself, sometimes to the detriment of your business. You are responsible for design, development, client wrangling, and administrative processes. Wearing all the hats can weigh you down, and limit your potential for growth. But it doesn't have to be this way.
You've probably had daydreams about starting your own creative agency. If you have a large workload, and you've seen even one season of Mad Men, the prospect is alluring. And in many ways, it's the obvious next step in the evolution of a freelancer. If your current project scope is limited to what you, yourself can dream up and execute, it might be time to think a little bigger than just yourself. You could become an agency.
While not for the faint of heart, starting a creative business can be wildly fulfilling. You can concentrate on what you do best, (or like to do the most,) and fill in the gaps with other people who can do what they excel at. This type of approach is what makes production possible on a larger scale. You can work with bigger brands, because your offering will be broader.
For most freelancers who have been at it for a while, there is a sense of comfort in being small. It's easy to control your own projects, and work with the same types of clients you're used to. But it's limiting.
An agency model offers many advantages over life as a freelance creative:
- You can concentrate on what you love to do, and do well. Love to design homepages, but hate the tedium of designing every internal page? Hire (or contract) another designer to do it. Are you terrible at selling? Enlist a dedicated salesperson. No matter where your strength lies, you can focus on that, and fill in the gaps around you.
- It offers the potential for growth. Operating on design island, you are likely too bogged down with the day-to-day of your current workload to even think about branching out. But hiring other people will free up some hands and minds to come up with a growth strategy.
- Increased billable hours. As a freelancer, you are limited to how many hours you can personally bill per week. When you start hiring other designers, developers, and administrative assistants, you can bill for all the hours they work as well.
- The resulting increase in productivity allows room for more projects, which leads to even more billable time.
- You can learn new skills. Even if you choose to focus purely on what you are already good at, being in close proximity to other professionals contributing with their skillsets will open your eyes to all elements of a project. Over time, you will probably start to pick up some of these skills yourself.
To niche, or generalize?
In the overcrowded current creative world, it is generally advised for you to find your niche. Maybe you already have one as a freelancer, maybe not. If so, it usually makes the most sense to continue it into your agency. After all, you already have the work samples to prove your expertise.
If not, that's okay. You don't even have to narrow your focus yet. But, ideally, you will want to work your way toward a niche over time.
There are generally two ways this can happen:
- You can research, and seek a niche out.
- Your body of work will naturally gravitate toward a niche, which will attract more of that type of work.
There are several types of niches:
- Industry-specific (i.e. specializing in food service businesses)
- Type of project (i.e. specializing in only web design, or even more specifically, landing page design)
No matter what your niche, or how you arrive at it, you'l want to start to market to that niche sooner, rather than later.
Even if you don't have a plethora of work samples to show, you can still pursue it with detailed case studies of the few examples you do have, and a solid marketing plan.
When starting your own agency, the first thing you want to consider is the branding. What is the overall personality and voice of the new business? Since it's coming from you, these elements should be congruent with who you are and your key values. Here are a few things to think about:
- Brainstorm a name. You can certainly go with your name if you like, many firms do. Or you can think of something more creative that fits the voice of your agency.
- Think of three positive adjectives you want to represent your brand. Ideally, these should accurately represent you as well, since you are the face of your agency. Any incongruencies might read as inauthentic to your clients.
- Keep it timeless, and allow for growth. The last thing you want is to have to rebrand a few years into your agency because you went with something too trendy or unambitious.
- Nod to your niche, but don't overdo it. Let's say you plan on going after the pet industry as a niche. You might call your agency Red Dog Creative. This works, because it plays to the niche, but it would also work if you ever decided to pivot to a new niche for any reason. Just be careful your name or branding isn't locking you into anything that may not work out.
- Design your logo, website and company collateral. For any designer this is the fun part, but it can also be draining. Designing for ourselves can spiral out of control based on the sheer number of options. I recommend putting a deadline on each phase, and treating it like a project for any client. Remember, 'perfect' is often the enemy of 'great'.
Creative team, assemble!
This is the part that most creatives stress over, but if you're going to grow, you need a killer team on your side. But choose them carefully, as they can propel your agency to the top, or sink it like a stone.
You have a choice here. You can either hire employees outright, or start by simply hiring contractors as needed, per project. For those just starting out, with no real capital, I recommend going the contractor route. This allows you to grow slowly, and try different people out until you have assembled your dream team.
There are many types of contractors you may want to bring on, including:
- Other designers
- Web developers
- Project manager
- Sales/marketing person
You may choose to work with people in your local area, but these days it's really not a requirement, because, you know, the internet.
Once you start putting your team together, you need to get a process in place for managing everybody and their workflow. You may not have a brick and mortar workplace where everybody can collaborate under one roof, (or even one time zone,) but you can simulate the experience using the right software.
There are many online apps that will allow you to delegate work to your team, make lists, share files and keep track of what remains to be done. Most are not free, but when you consider they are freeing you from the overhead associated with a brick and mortar workplace, the cost is negligible, and well worth it.
'Mo Money, 'Mo Problems?
Once you have made up your mind to ditch the freelancer title in favor of "owner," you'll want to alert your current clients of the switch, as well as any pricing changes that have taken effect. Most agencies do charge more per hour than freelancers, so you are well within your rights to do so.
You will probably need the extra money to pay your contractors (or employees,) since multiple team members will now be working on a single project. You may lose some of your current business due to the price hike, but now you can start going after bigger clients with bigger projects, and the budgets to match.
Switching from freelance to an agency model may sound frightening, but if you want to grow, and start working on bigger projects, (while keeping control of the process,) there's no better way. You will be amazed by what you can accomplish with a bit of organization, and by joining forces up with the right creative team.
Words: Wes McDowell
Wes McDowell works as creative director/lead web designer for The Deep End Design in Chicago.
Liked this? Try these...