How to grow your design business

Image credit: Brennan & Stevens

When designers set up a business, it's usually because they want to design, not because they want to be business people, but neglecting to get to grips with things like finances, taxes and client management can hugely affect your bottom line, and potentially your creativity. 

At a panel at today's OFFSET conference in Dublin, we heard from designers and those who run schemes to help creatives grow their businesses. They offered up tips and tricks on how to focus on your business. Here's what they had to say...

01. Treat the business like a client

Not spending time on the business side of your business is a common trap that it's all too easy to fall into. After all, you didn't start a design studio to spend all day sending invoices. But it's vital that you don't neglect this side of your work. 

"It’s an issue you have to deal with. You really have to say that you’re more of a business owner than a designer," says Freddie Stevens, co-founder of Irish studio Brennan & Stevens.  

"Treat the business like a client," says Colin Byrne of Totem. In the beginning, you’re just working constantly and you’re not thinking about the business and how you want to achieve it, he says. But that's a mistake. 

Once you do focus on the business side of things, you'll reap the rewards. "You have more time for creativity, more time to think about the clients and overall a much more successful business," says Aileen Dempsey, network manager of Design Enterprise Skillnet, a learning network which helps creatives in Ireland grow.

02. Spend time on your strategy

As many creatives will attest, it can sometimes feel that you don't have the time to actually grow your business once you're running it, you're just concentrating on staying afloat. But time may be just what you need.

"You can’t just create a brand overnight, you need to slowly put in steps and get there," says Stevens. "It is important for us to put down the design and spend time to think about what we want and where we want to go."  

"We’re all time poor, but if you don’t grasp this problem and sort it out you’re not going anywhere, you’re not going to grow," adds Byrne.

03. Ask for help

There are many schemes out there aimed at helping businesses of all shapes and sizes move forward, but many don't realise they're available.

Courses like the Design Enterprise Skillnet – which Brennan & Stevens co-founders attended and benefitted from – can provide the focus many designers need to take their studio to the next level. 

There are also local government schemes that can provide mentoring, networking and support. "You can get mentoring from your local enterprise office, or LEO," says Steven O'Gara, who works for Dublin's LEO. It's worth checking if there's a similar scheme in your area. 

"Networking shouldn’t be overlooked either," continues O'Gara. "Keep an eye on what’s happening in your local community and that will help you develop and network and grow your business."  

04. Stay on top of your finances

"If you don’t have ur cashflow sorted, you won’t have a business," says Bryne. And sorting out that side of things may mean realising you need someone else to help. "I always had a part-time bookkeeper as I’m pants at figures. I also have a good accountant," he says. "It’s the bedrock of any business – getting the finances sorted." 

Clare Brennan – the other half of Brennan & Stevens – agrees. "It’s such a creativity stopper when you’re just worrying about money, that’s the one thing we don’t let slip now. We’re invoicing on time, following up, calling people, and checking all our expenses properly so we’re not paying too much tax. These things we’re just on top of now."  

05. Find your niche – but be flexible

Another conundrum many businesses face is whether to specialise, or whether to do a little bit of everything. Ultimately, this decision will depend on your skillset and circumstances, but it is something you need to consider carefully. 

"If you can pick a sector and see that’s gonna last a while, go for it," says Stevens. But if you’re in a niche that goes out of vogue, especially if there’s a recession, that a problem, he says. "You have to always be thinking about the area that you’re working in, and think about working in different branches of that area."

Dempsey thinks that finding your niche and sticking to it can work, and be lucrative, providing you're good at it. "The people who are good at one thing, those people can own a niche and can charge considerably higher prices," she says. "If you can build your expertise and position yourself as the best as something then it only brings success."   

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