How to build a thriving studio

Running a small creative business can be a joy and a privilege, but it's certainly not a walk in the park. Right from the start you're beset by challenges and big decisions, and as your business grows they'll level up alongside you.

Forewarned is forearmed, though, so we spoke to a collection of studio heads to get their insider knowledge on the various obstacles you'll come up against when running your own business, and their tips on how to overcome them. Here's what they had to say.

Illustration by Guillame Kurkdjian.

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01. Focus on juniors

As a small creative business, it's often easier to recruit juniors with potential and then develop them than to find fully formed talent. The Plant London is one agency that likes to nurture from below, according to founder Matt Utber. "One student who came straight to us from university ended up becoming our design director," he recalls. "And we've had a few others over the years who've done similar things. It's really lovely to nurture designers and see them grow like this."

02. Draw on existing friendship groups

Friendship groups and existing contacts are another great way to find new talent. At SteadyGo, the Leeds agency he co-founded, Tom Wade tried running a recommendation policy for recruitment: "If an existing employee introduced a friend we'd pay them £250, or donate it to a charity. Quite a lot of people did the latter, which was nice." 

And the benefits of using friendship networks aren't just about getting in good people, he adds. "Recruiting this way has led to a very friendly atmosphere. Everyone has these connections that transcend day-to-day agency life." 

03. Avoid using recruitment agencies

The sentiment of our panel was that recruitment agencies are best left as a last resort. Not only are they expensive, but they're not always reliable. "Once we hired someone the agent had vetted and who interviewed okay, but had a CV that turned out to be complete fiction," remembers Alec East, founder of Bedford agency Narrative Industries. "Recruitment fees are pretty big when you're on the salaries we pay, and yet the work this guy did was so bad that in the end it wasn't actually billable."

04. Get out there and meet people

Updating LinkedIn is not enough to find the right talent. You have to physically venture out into the community, believes Joe Cecere of Minneapolis agency Little

"Our philosophy is that we're always connecting and getting out there, talking to people," he explains. "We're speaking at events, we're going to student portfolio shows. This keeps our name known. We use our network of employees and their past experience to keep in contact with people all around the country. So when opportunities come up, we're able to bring people in."

05. Join organisations

Joining professional organisations can seriously widen your recruiting net, says Utber. "Being part of YCN, a small collection of agencies and clients, has been very good in helping us find talent." Check out local associations too, adds East. "Here in Bedfordshire, recruitment is more difficult than in London, so I got involved in Bedford Creative Arts. Part of their remit is to provide creative networking events, and they've proved very useful with freelancers or special commissions." 

06. Create the right studio culture

Create the right studio culture, and recruiting and retaining your staff becomes far easier. That's certainly been the case at Chicago design agency 50,000feet, says Jim Misener. "Being a small business means we've been able to develop an incredibly collaborative – almost collectivist – culture," he explains. 

"We keep the hierarchy as flat as possible, and this has contributed to our ability to attract and retain talent, with many citing the environment, culture and an ability to make a difference within their teams, practices, and the agency overall as reasons for joining and staying."

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.