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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business

Offering resources to help streamline your home based graphic design and web design business so you can get back to what you do best… Designing!
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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business
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Now displaying: January, 2022
Jan 31, 2022

I want to start with a story. A business coach client hired me for a design project about a dozen years ago. He had just finished writing his second book and wanted me to design and format it for him for publication. The project also included an accompanying bookmark and a small website related to the book.

I had given him a quote for the project, which he readily accepted, and we got underway.

Once the project was completed and paid for, this business coach told me how impressed he was working with me. He said everything went so smoothly that he would have paid three times the amount for the great work I provided him.

Now I brushed this statement off as hyperbole from a grateful client. I mean, how many times have you received excellent service somewhere and thought, "I got more than I paid for?"

But then he said he wasn't exaggerating and proceeded to explain why he thought that way. And what he said next changed the way I looked at pricing my projects from that day forward.

How do you determine your pricing?

I'll get to what that business coach told me in a moment.

One of the most challenging tasks freelance designers or design business owners have is determining what to charge for their services. I mean, how much does a website or a logo cost? It's as arbitrary as asking how long is a piece of string?

It never fails. Whatever number you come up with for a design project, you will always wonder if it's too little or too much. Let me put your mind at ease on one of those fronts. "Too much." is never the correct answer to that question. And I'll explain why in a bit.

Coming up with applicable fees is difficult because many factors are to consider.

  • Your level of experience will influence what you charge.
  • The quality of the work you do is also a factor.
  • The type of clients you work with can significantly affect your pricing.
  • Where you live, city, state or province, country all play a part in your pricing structure.
  • Even culture may play into it.

With everything to consider, no wonder pricing is such a debated topic among designers. One designer may think $2000 is a lot for a website, while another won't consider a web project for less than $10,000. I'm saying that there are no right or wrong answers regarding how much you should charge for your design services. You charge what you think you're worth.

But that's what I want to talk about, what you're worth. Because there's a good chance, you're undervaluing that number.

Let me ask you a question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay someone else to do your job?

If you think it would cost more than what you charge, then there's your answer. You're not charging enough. However, you might think that it would cost a very similar or maybe even a lower amount to what you charge your clients. And that may be true. It's hard to tell.

But let me rephrase my question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay individual people to do everything you do for your clients? Now it gets more complicated.

Let's take a website project, for example. We tend to group all our services into one easy-to-explain package called a "website design" and slap a price on it. But what exactly goes into a website design? Let's break it down. Of course, everyone will have their way of working on a website, so this is just a simplified example.

For a website project,

  • You'll probably start things off with some form of discovery meeting to determine what the client needs and the problem the website will solve.
  • With what's entailed determined, you and the client need to settle on a proposal and sign a contract.
  • Once that's out of the way, you'll do some research. You'll look into what others in the industry are doing, especially your client's competition. You may research adjacent sectors as well. You may search for new and innovative ways to meet your client's needs.
  • Next, you may start wire-framing or thought mapping out the website with all this info in hand, figuring out the best structure and hierarchy to use.
  • Then you'll start with the design: Colour palette, font choices, styles, image aesthetics and all the other visual elements that go into a website.
  • Maybe you'll need animations or videos. After all, the client wants the website to POP, don't they?
  • Next, there's development. The nitty-gritty of connecting all the pieces together, so you have a functioning website. This may involve more research as you look into plugins and third-party solutions to help with your build. Sales funnels, eCommerce platforms, email lists, calendar scheduling tools are just a few things you may have to incorporate into the build.
  • Then, the client wants the website to be found, so you'll do your best at implementing SEO strategies to help with find-ability.
  • Finally, you'll send your last invoice and get paid for the project once the website is complete.

Whoa, good job. You worked your butt off, and everything worked out great. The client got the site they wanted and paid the fee you quoted for this website project.

But back to my question. How much do you think it would cost if you had to pay individual people to do everything you just did?

Let's see; you would have had to hire a salesperson for the initial contact, proposal and contract signing.

Next, you'd need a researcher for the discovery and other investigating you did.

Then there are the UX and UI Designers you would have to hire. One to design the feel of the website, how it flows and how easy it is to navigate. The other to develop the aesthetics of the site. How natural and attractive it is.

After that, you'll need a developer to put everything together. Someone who knows how to take what came out of the UX and UI Designers' minds and put it into action.

Along the way, you'll need an SEO person to make sure all the "T" s are crossed and "I" s dotted to give the website the best chance to be discovered by those searching the web.

And then, you would need a bookkeeper or accounts person to handle the invoicing and payment processing.

And on top of all of these people, you would also need a project manager to oversee them all and keep things on track.

Wow, that's a good group of people. Eight if my math is correct.

So how much do you think it would cost if you had to hire eight individual people to work on this job instead of you doing it yourself?

Chances are it would cost way more than what you charged your client for their website project. And hold on, I haven't even considered the profit for your design business. After all, you took on this project to make money, didn't you? So after paying all these people, there needs to be some leftover for you to make a profit.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

When your client hired you to design a website, they, in effect, hired all these people. You acted as a project manager, a researcher, a UX and a UI designer, a developer, and an SEO person. Plus, you took on the roles of sales and account person. So why should your client get such a good deal just because all of these people encompass one body, yours?

The answer is they shouldn't.

And that's the big mistake so many freelancers and design business owners make. When determining their prices, they fail to consider every specialty they are bringing to the table.

Think of yourself as a team of individuals, each with their unique skills, and you can see why you should be charging much more for your services.

And that's what that business coach client told me all those years ago.

For his first book, he had hired a page layout person to format the pages of his book. He also hired a graphic designer to design the cover for the book and the bookmark. And he hired a web designer to create the website.

Each of these people did their part and got paid separately. And the total for the three of them came up to almost three times what I charged him to do everything myself. So when he saw my quote, he knew he was getting a steal of a deal.

He told me that by lumping everything I do under one umbrella of "it's all part of designing." I was doing myself a disservice. I was undervaluing all the individual skills I brought to the table. Only when I started thinking about what, or perhaps who is required for each part of a design project, will I start realizing how much value I bring and start charging accordingly. Because every small part of a project you do, there's an individual out there that specializes in doing that one thing. And they're billing for it.

From that day forward, I started charging more for what I do.

Before I go, I'd like to ask you to do something for me. Think of the last design project you did for a client and how much you charged them. Now take out a pad and pencil and break down that price into the individual roles you performed to complete their project. How much did each "person" get paid? And don't forget to leave enough for your profit.

I have a feeling that if you do this small exercise, you'll realize that you are not charging enough for what you bring to the table. And I'm hoping this is incentive enough for you to stop undervaluing yourself and start charging what you're worth.

Jan 24, 2022
Networking is all about getting your name out there. It's not about selling or pitching. It's about gaining recognition, building a reputation, if you will. Networking is the building block to every successful design business.

Networking can take place anywhere and everywhere. You don't need to be at a conference, trade show or special networking event. Nor does it have to be with a particular sort of person or even a potential client. Every person you talk to, including family, friends and strangers alike, is a form of networking. And the more you do it, the better at it you'll become and the more successful you'll be.

It's no secret that the number one way a graphic design business grows is through word-of-mouth referrals. And for word-of-mouth referrals to happen, people have to know four things about you.

1. Who you are.
2. What you do.
3. Your reliability.
4. Your likeability.

When someone knows these four things about you, there's an excellent chance they will share your name with others.

Now you'll notice how I didn't mention how good a designer you are. Believe it or not, your skills as a designer have little impact on the referrals you get. Some fantastic designers rarely get referred. Like some questionable designers are referred all the time.

Why? It all boils down to those four elements. So let's break them down.

1. Do they know who you are?

This one is self-explanatory. If someone doesn't know you, There's zero chance they'll share your name with others.

Now luckily, you have two avenues to remedy this: yourself and your business. As long as one of these two is known, there's a possibility someone shares it. A person may not know who you are, but they may know your business. Or vice versa, they don't know your business, but they know you. In either of these situations, they have the opportunity to spread the word based on what they know.

If they don't know you or your business, the chances of referring you are zero.

2 Do they know what you do?

Someone may know who you are, but they won't recommend you to others if they don't know what you do.

And don't confuse "what you do" with "the career you have" someone may know you're a graphic designer, but graphic design is an extensive term, so it doesn't tell them what you do.

It's like saying someone is a mechanical engineer. That tells you their career, but it doesn't explain what they do. Two mechanical engineers can have two completely different skillsets and work in different industries. They are mechanical engineers with the same degree, but neither does the same work as the other one does.

Graphic design is the same thing. For example, some graphic designers work with video. Other graphic designers don't know anything about video. Some are illustrators; others aren't. Some designers design for the web, and some design only for print. Titles such as UX Designer, Multimedia Designer, Production Designer, etc., are great for people in the industry. But for the general client, titles like this don't explain what a designer does.

The idea here is to know what you do; people need to know more than what career you have.

3. Are you reliable?

To pass your name on to someone else, people need to know if you are reliable. Or maybe more accurately, that they know that you are not unreliable.

If someone asks you for a recommendation and you know of someone suitable for the task, you'll probably share their name even if you know very little about them.

However, if the person you're thinking of is unreliable, you probably won't share their name because it will reflect poorly on you.

A few episodes ago, I shared a story about my roof needing new shingles and my problems with the person I hired. Well, to give you an update. That was November, and he promised he would do my roof before winter. It's now the end of January, there are several feet of snow outside, and my roof still isn't done.

Now, if someone asks me if I know anyone who does roof repair, you know I won't be sharing this guy's name because he's shown himself to be unreliable. So even though I know who he is, and I know what he does. The fact that I think he's unreliable stops me from referring him.

The same applies to you. If you do something that makes people think you are unreliable, they will not refer you.

4 Are you likeable?

I've said it many times on this podcast before. Clients would prefer to work with a good designer they like than with an amazing designer they don't like.

Think about it. When was the last time you wanted to work with someone you didn't like, regardless of how good they were at what they do?

The more someone likes you, the more they'll want to work with you and the more they like you, the more they'll be willing to share your name with others.

So these four things:

1. Knowing who you are.
2. Knowing what you do.
3. Knowing that you're reliable.
4. Knowing that you're likeable.

These are the four key ingredients to getting referrals.

How do they work?

Now that we have a clear idea of the four ingredients, how do you ensure people know these four things about you?

Well... by communicating with them. And that's where networking comes in. As I said at the start, networking occurs any time you communicate with someone. Every conversation you have, be it in person, over the phone or video, or in writing, brings that person closer to knowing these four key ingredients about you.

Whenever possible, talk to everyone you meet. I know this can be hard for a lot of people. Designers tend to be introverted, and to an introvert, the thought of striking up a conversation with a total stranger is like asking them to stick their hand in a bee's nest.

But it doesn't have to be that hard.

You're not trying to relay each one of the four key ingredients with every conversation you have. This isn't a pitch for work. You're making progress if you show someone just one of the four points. Let it build up over time.

Letting people know who you are is the first and easiest of the four key ingredients. All you need to do is introduce yourself. After all, they can't refer you if they don't know you. So make sure you tell them your name. And if the conversation merits it, tell them your business name. They only need to remember one of the two to refer you.

Next, Tell them what you do. An elevator pitch is great for this. I talked about crafting your elevator pitch back in episode 116 of Resourceful Designer. But in a nutshell, your elevator pitch should briefly and concisely explain who you are, what you do, who you do it for and what results you produce.

In other words.

Hi, I'm (your name). I'm a (your title) who does (insert what you do). I help (type of people) to achieve (the outcome you provide).

For example: Hi, I'm John Smith. I'm a web designer, and I build fast and functional websites that turn visitors into paying customers. I help small businesses grow their revenue by increasing their online sales.

Do you see? Short and precise. It tells people who you are and what you do. If this interests them, they'll ask you to explain more. And if it doesn't engage them, that's ok. They've learned enough information to pass your name along should they have the chance.

In my case, my elevator pitch might go something like this.

Hi, I'm Mark Des Cotes. I'm a Brand Consultant who develops visual branding for podcasts. I help podcasters look more legitimate and gain more traction by offering them professionally designed band assets, including cover artwork, social media graphics, websites and more. All of which leads to better exposure and more downloads for their show.

A simple elevator pitch can go a long way to explain what you do to someone.

As I said earlier, just saying you're a graphic designer doesn't explain what you do. It would be best if you lay it out for them.

And don't take it for granted that someone you know is familiar with all the services you offer. Never presume a client, a friend, a family member, or anyone else knows what you do.

I talked about this way back in episode 2 of the podcast, where I shared a story about my brother-in-law. Who knew me before I even became a graphic designer and someone who I've designed many things for over the years. He asked if I knew anyone who could create a rack card for him one day. I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. It had never come up, so he didn't know that I could also design rack cards on top of everything else I do.

So whenever possible, share specifics of what you do with others.

FYI, a newsletter is a great way to do this. Once per month or once per quarter, send something out to your clients and all your contacts, letting them know what sort of work you've been doing. I guarantee you that someone will reach out saying they had no idea that you did that sort of thing.

And then there are the final two ingredients.

Reliability is something that takes time. Showing up on time for a scheduled meeting or promptly returning an email or phone call shows that you are reliable. Completing a job or project on time and to a client's satisfaction shows that you are reliable. Offering helpful advice or suggestions shows that you are reliable.

Everything you do that creates a positive impression helps build that notion that you are a reliable person.

And that brings us to likability.

Once again, time is your friend here. Is it possible to instantly like someone? Sure. But if you're looking for referrals, and that's what we're talking about today, you need that impression of you to grow over time.

Getting people to like you shouldn't be that difficult. I mean, you're a great person, aren't you? What's not to like?

But seriously, simple things such as greeting everyone you meet, regardless of who they are, help solidify your likability.

For example. Whenever I have a meeting at a corporate office, not only do I try to get there 10 to 15 minutes early (which shows my reliability). I make a point to talk to as many people there as possible. The doorman, the receptionist, the assistant, everyone. Not just about why I'm there. But simply to talk.

I'll ask the receptionist how his or her day is going. I'll ask if they're looking forward to the weekend. If I know anything about their family life, possibly from a previous conversation, I'll ask about their spouse or children.

These short 1-minute conversations add up over time and help someone form a good impression of you.

When our local shopping mall was one of my clients, every time I went there to meet with the marketing manager, I made a point to stick my head in the Managing director's office to say hi. Sometimes it was a quick wave. But other times, we would have a short conversation. Not about design or why I was there, but about life. We were both fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, which gave us common ground to talk about. When he decided to run for political office, he hired me to design his campaign material. That might not have happened if I had not made a point of connecting with him.

I would also talk to the receptionist during each visit. A shopping mall receptionist is used to dealing with upset mall shoppers over everything from the lack of baby strollers to lost and found items to taking complaints about one store or another. They welcome a conversation with someone who doesn't have an agenda with them.

Over many small conversations with that receptionist, including some, where I shared what I was working on for the mall. She knew who I was. Through our discussions, she learned what I did. My punctuality showed her I was reliable. And my taking the time to talk with her led her to like me. 1, 2, 3, 4. All four key ingredients checked off.

And you know what? When that receptionist left her job at the mall to work at a financial firm and heard her new employer was looking for a designer, she recommended me. I had never worked with her directly, but she had learned the four key ingredients about me during her time working at the mall, and that was enough for her to mention my name. And for me to get a new client.

You see how it works. Referrals can come from anywhere and anyone. Some even come from the least likely people. But they all have one thing in common. The person who refers you knows who you are; they know what you do, think you are reliable, and to some extent, like you. Or, at the very least, have no reason not to like you.

The title of this episode says it all. When it comes to networking, it's not who you know; it's who knows you.

And networking happens with every interaction you have. From interactions at a business conference to talking with the cashier at the grocery store. From attending trade shows to having a conversation with the person who cuts or styles your hair. From talking with your doctor to email correspondence with your clients. Every interaction plays a part.

The more someone knows about you, the better the chances of referring you.

And when they know who you are and what you do. And they know you're reliable and like you. That's when the magic happens.

And that magic turns into new opportunities for you and your design business to grow.

Networking: It's not who you know. It's who knows you.

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