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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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Nov 28, 2022

One of the perks of running your own design business is the freedom it provides. You have nobody to answer to but yourself. Ok, sure, there are the clients. You do have to answer to them, to a degree. But it’s your business, so you can dictate how you respond to them.

If you don’t want to work Friday afternoons, you can take them off. Nobody is stopping you if you want to try a new design technique or different software. And you get to decide how much you charge for your services and can change your rate any time you like.

The freedom of working for yourself is one of, if not the main reason people choose the life of, and I’m going to say it, even though I disagree with the term, the life of a freelancer. It felt dirty just writing that. Want to know why? Listen to episode 17 of the podcast titled “Being a Freelance Graphic Designer Could Hurt Your Business.” It will make you rethink calling yourself a freelancer.

But where was I? Ah, yes, the freedom of running your own design business. For many of us, it’s the ultimate dream. I will never work for an employer again. And I know many who feel the same. But, just because you’re working for yourself, running your own business, doesn’t mean you’ve made it.

I hate to burst your bubble, but the purpose of every business is to grow. A business that doesn’t grow will eventually fail. Many business studies have proven this. And your business will never grow to its full potential because of one thing holding it back. And that one thing is you.

Yes, without you, there wouldn’t be a business. However, you are also one of your business’s most significant liabilities. How can that be? It’s because of your limitations.

Your limitations may include skills you lack. It may be a lack of time, the time to do things or learn things. Your knowledge may be limiting you. You can’t expect to know everything. Or it could be any number of things.

Don’t feel bad. I’m not singling you out. Everyone has limitations.

What will help your business grow is knowing your limitations and finding a way to overcome them. And one of the best ways for business owners to overcome their limitations is by working with people who offset those limitations.

In other words. Your business will grow when you learn to outsource and hire subcontractors to do what you can’t or shouldn’t do.

I know this may seem like a foreign concept. The whole point of going at it alone is just that, to be alone. But being alone will only get you so far. You need a team if you want to grow beyond your limited capabilities.

I speak from experience. I ran my design business for several years, all by myself. In my mind, it was my business. Therefore I had to do everything myself. My clients were hiring me, after all.

I didn’t take on the project if a client asked for something I couldn’t do. I was limiting my growth. I once turned down a $50,000 website project because I wasn’t confident in my skills with PHP and MySQL. I kick myself to this day for that one. But I couldn’t do it, so I said no.

And I kept at it, Trudging away, taking on only the projects I could do and passing on the ones I couldn’t.

At the time, I was making decent money and thought I was doing well. But my business wasn’t growing. Year after year, my income was pretty much the same. It wasn’t going up as needed for growth. I had reached what I like to call now, my solo limit. I could only take my business so far on my own.

I didn’t know it then, but I was holding my business back. It wasn’t until I started reading more business books and listening to business-related podcasts that I realized that most successful entrepreneurs don’t work alone. They have a team that works with them to accomplish their business goals and help them grow. If I wanted my business to grow, I would have to build a team.

Now I didn’t jump in with both feet and hire a bunch of people. I took it slow.

The first job I outsourced was when I ran into an issue with a client’s e-commerce website. I wasn’t sure how to handle the problem. Given enough time, I could probably fix it, but I had no idea where to start or how long it would take.

Instead of spending hours researching and troubleshooting it myself. I hired a sub-contractor online who was an expert in that e-commerce platform and paid them to fix it for me. It cost me $100 for what I’m sure would have taken me an entire day’s work to accomplish, if not more. Plus, I could charge my client a premium fee for the fix and profit from it.

That’s the case with most contractors. Sure, you have to pay them, but you mark up that expense and make a profit when you charge your client. So there’s no downside to paying a contractor.

That was my first experience in hiring a sub-contractor. And it was such a good experience that I started looking for other ways outsourcing to subcontractors could help me.

Fast forward several years, and now I have an expanded team of contractors I can turn to for all sorts of situations. And through them, I’ve almost tripled my income compared to my pre-outsourcing days.

I removed myself as a liability to my business by hiring people to help me.

Building your outsourcing team.

To clarify, I’m not referring to employees when I say hire. I’ve never had an employee, so I can’t help you with that. I’m talking about hiring subcontractors. These are people you outsource work to on an as-needed basis. When a situation arises where you require help, you hire someone for the task.

You’ll work with some contractors regularly, and some you’ll only work with once or twice.

You should constantly look for people to add to your team. When you meet or hear of someone with a particular skill, file away that information for when you need it.

This team you’re forming is just for you. You don’t even have to tell the people on your team that they’re part of it. They’ll find out when you hire them.

All you’re doing is building a personal database of people whose skills may be helpful someday. That’s your outsourcing team.

What subcontractors can you hire?

So what kind of subcontractors can you hire for your business? The possibilities are endless, but here’s a short list of the more common people designers outsource to.

Photographers

Hiring a photographer, instead of relying on the client to provide photos, allows you to control and get the exact images you need for your design.

To learn more about dealing with photographers, listen to episode 3 of the podcast, where I talk with Brett Gillmore, an award-winning commercial photographer in Calgary, Alberta, here in Canada.

Illustrators

For those of us lacking in this particular talent, hiring someone is the only way to include custom illustration work in your designs.

Even if you’re an accomplished illustrator, you may need someone with an illustration style or technique outside your comfort zone.

I have several illustrators on my outsourcing team for this very reason. One specializes in caricatures, another in technical drawings, another is good at watercolours, and another is good with markers.

I have people with different illustration styles, such as Japanese manga, vintage looks, and modern cubism. I even have one who makes people look like the Simpsons characters.

The idea is to know as many illustrators as possible should I need their skills.

Copywriters

Unless you have a degree in journalism or another writing discipline,  you should consider working with copywriters whenever possible.

Copywriters do with words what we designers do with pixels. They turn simple sentences into compelling messages. When designers and copywriters work together, it creates magic. And that magic allows you to charge much more for your services.

Including a copywriter on a website design project can increase its value from $5,000 to $10,000. Clients who understand the importance of a good copywriter are more than willing to pay a premium price for them.

Web Developers/Coders

Websites are versatile, and the ecosystem is ever-expanding, so it’s understandable that one web designer can’t do everything. Outsourcing parts or even entire projects to web developers allows you to offer much more to your clients.

In most cases, you hire a developer to do things you don’t know how to do. But there are also times when you may want to hire a developer to help speed things up if you believe they can complete a task more efficiently than you can.

In most cases, it’s more beneficial to pay a sub-contractor for three hours of work than it is for you to spend six hours doing the same task. And while the sub-contractor tackles whatever task you give him, your time is freed up to work on other things.

So even though you’re paying for the subcontractor’s services, you’re making more money than if I didn’t hire them since you can charge the client for their time while you’re making money doing something else during that same time. It’s almost like double charging.

Outsourcing possibilities are endless.

I can go on and on with people you can hire. Some people specialize in SEO, Social Media, Online Advertising, Sales Funnels, Building Email Lists, Translators, etc.

Sometimes you outsource to someone for something you don’t want to do. Such as removing the background on over 300 product photos for a catalogue. I’d rather pay someone to do this than sludge through it myself.

Every one of these people can help grow your design business.

What to look for in a subcontractor.

When looking for someone to outsource work to, you want to find someone with the skills you seek that are reliable, trustworthy and easy to deal with.

In my limited experience, you are better off finding multiple subcontractors who each excel in a particular skill than finding one person with a general knowledge of various skills.

Someone with a specialized skillset may charge more, but their expertise is worth it. You are better off paying a bit more for someone specializing in a specific area.

Where to find subcontractors.

There are many places where you can find subcontractors to outsource your projects. However, the best place, in my opinion, is through your existing network. It’s much easier to work with someone you already have a relationship with or with a subcontractor vouched for by someone you know.

The subcontractor that helps me with website projects is someone I met through the Resourceful Designer Community. One of the illustrators I’ve used over the years is someone I went to school with. Another developer I’ve used was recommended by a designer I know. When my first copywriter took a job that prevented her from doing side work, she recommended a fellow copywriter I could hire. These types of hires are always the most lucrative in my experience.

But if your network doesn’t have the people you need, there are plenty of places online you can turn to for outsourcing help.

My favourite places to find subcontractors are Upwork.com, toptal.com, freelancer.com and fiverr.com.

These platforms often offer you two options when hiring subcontractors. You can either post a job posting that lists the position or skill you’re looking for, along with how much you’re willing to pay and let those interested apply.

Or you can search these platforms for people with the talent you’re looking for and reach out to them individually to see if they’re interested in taking on your project.

I’ve had success with both methods. However, I prefer to approach them myself.

Considerations when outsourcing to a subcontractor.

Some things to consider when hiring a subcontractor are where they’re located, their familiarity with the language you speak and, of course, price.

Time Zones.

These online outsourcing portals connect people from around the world. It’s not unheard of if the perfect person for your project lives on the other side of the globe.

You must consider if time zones are an issue. Are you ok working with someone who is going to bed as you start your day? In most cases, it probably won’t be a problem. However, if deadlines are pressing, knowing your contractor won’t see your instructions for 10-12 hours may be a problem. If that’s the case, you may want to refine your search to people geographically closer to where you are located. Most platforms allow you to do this.

Language Barriers.

Be wary of language barriers when hiring someone to outsource to. Understanding a language and being fluent in it are two different things. You don’t want issues because of a misunderstanding in communication.

Some online platforms will indicate what languages a subcontractor is fluent in. Keep that in mind when hiring.

Rates and Price.

Rates and prices on these platforms vary significantly. Due to the various living costs worldwide, contractors charge different fees for their services.

Typically, you’ll pay higher for a subcontractor in North America than someone in an Asian country. Is it worth paying more to work with someone in a closer time zone who speaks your native language? Only you can decide.

You must consider all these things when hiring someone. Where they are located, their comfort level with your language, and the rate they charge for their services. Weigh each of these and choose the perfect subcontractor for you.

Build your outsourcing team.

There is so much more when it comes to hiring a subcontractor. Entire books are dedicated to the subject. But I hope my little scratch of the surface gives you an idea of how and what to look for when outsourcing and expanding your team.

I know it’s in our nature to do everything ourselves. It’s tough to relinquish control. But I want you to remember something. Clients don’t hire you to do a job. They hire you to get a job done. And sometimes, the most efficient, practical and cost-saving way to get a job done is to outsource it to someone who can help you.

Your clients will appreciate your ingenuity.

So the next time you are unsure how to handle a task or find yourself with too much to do and too little time to do it. Or maybe you don’t feel like doing a particular job yourself. Remember that you are not alone. There’s a world of people ready to join your team and help you grow your design business.

Don’t be the liability that holds you back from growth. Learn how to outsource.

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