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Starting a Digital Design Business

There are a lot of magazine articles (not to mention books and websites) that are dedicated to the theme of getting started as a digital design agency, either as a freelance going it alone, or as a group of designers forming their own business. Mostly, these are concerned with things like building your company website and ensuring your logo translates well from the screen to a printed business card or letterhead.

Now, I'm not knocking such articles and, to be honest, some of them even inspired me when I was getting started in the wonderful world of work. However, most of the focus is given to the "design" part and, for the most part, little is given to the "agency" part. They talk boldly about sticking to your creative roots and espouse the idea that good creative will always win the pitch. Obviously, when you are selling to aspiring digital designers, such articles offer hope and encouragement to your readership.

It has been in the back of my mind that, as someone who has run his own digital business, before moving into the folds of the big Ad Agencies and working client-side in the digital marketing world, that I might be able to offer a slightly different viewpoint and that, potentially, I could help those people who are looking to start out on their own (or even those who are starting out in the industry full-stop) by writing a book. A sort of learn-from-my-mistakes effort. I doubt I'll make millions, but if it helps some future icon of the industry get started on the right course, it'll have served its purpose.

Fundamentally, there are a few lessons that can be quite hard to stomach but which are undeniably true. Of course, I'll expound on these in my magnum opus, but I'll give you the benefit of my insight here and you can let me know what you think.

Lesson 1: You don't need to be creative, you need to be organised
We've all been to those great agency offices, where they have segways to get around, or organised Fussball tournaments and where you can create your own office cubicle out of over-sized Lego bricks, etc. The fact is, you'd love to work there, but if you run your own small business like that it'll be out of business within months. If you want an office where more effort is placed on fun than work, get a job working for one of those places, as they will inevitably be part of a huge multi-million pound company.

If you want to work for yourself, or start a business, you'll be looking at VAT returns more often that you organise inter-office ping pong tournaments. The sad truth is that a lot of creative people think that they are being stifled by the company they work for, so they go off to set up their own company that works how they want it to. The problem with that is that your local Tax Office and your bank don't care if you had to work late on a deadline, or that you felt your profit-and-loss would look better as a Flash animation - all they care about is that the paperwork is correct and things are paid on time.

Also, the next time you visit one of these big, funky, agencies, you'll notice that the finance staff and the teams that negotiate the contracts are generally wearing smart business wear and are surrounded by binders and filing cabinets. Much like an office, really. The sad truth is that the creative and technical teams in such businesses are given a lot of freedom and that when you take the plunge to work for yourself, you're more likely to end up more involved with paperwork and internal organisation just because you won't have a team of people doing it for you.

Lesson 2: The best creative doesn't always win the pitch

Here's a secret - you don't always have to have an award-winning piece of creative to get paid. In fact, some companies would be scared off by things they see as too left-field or outside of their comfort zone. Also, more pitches nowadays are being won on the strength of delivery methodologies and Project Management in the agency, as larger businesses especially are wary of giving business to "wacky" creatives who then go over budget or push back on deadlines. They would rather have less outlandish and more derititave creative if it's guaranteed to be under budget and delivered on time, flawlessly.

Be realistic in your estimates and provide exacting details of what you are proposing and what is going to end up costing extra. Outline deliverables clearly and limit the creative work to fit the budget unless the client agrees to extend the budget before you do the extra work. It's all simple stuff, I know, but it does make the difference between turning a profit and going broke. The hard part is reining in your creative urges to suit a budget - you'll be tempted to think "well, I'll just do this for them and make it look nice", but that's billable time not being paid for, or a potential argument over the value of the estimate compared to the final bill.

A lot of agencies are now pitching their Project Management skills as hard as they are pitching their creative abilities. So, the secret of success might be to ensure you think about contingency plans and always have the budget foremost in your mind, as opposed to going crazy with the Sharpies and creating a million Mood Boards.

Lesson 3: Newest isn't always best

You don't need that Eight-Core Mac Pro with 30" display. You don't always need to work in CS3 and, you can make calls on something other than an iPhone. Given that a lot of clients will have restrictive IT policies that means they won't have up to date browsers or Flash players. So, given that and the fact that a lot of adservers only allow Flash 8, why spend thousands on the latest and greatest gear and software just to do the job of making a few Flash banners for a client? Unless you're the size of Saatchi and Saatchi, you only need the minimum tools to do the job in hand. Of course, it means you're not going to win the bragging contest down the pub, but you'll be turning a profit.

The fact is that, whilst I'd love a 17" MacBook Pro to take to client sites, an iPhone 3G for use as a PDA and the mother of all MacPros on my desk, I can run a multimillion pound project using nothing more sophisiticated than Mac Project II on a Macintosh Classic. I could do my company accounts on it, too. If you want a "funky" office, equip your reception area with Tangerine G3 iMacs running Airport cards, so that the secretary can check their email and use Word and visitors can surf the company website. Your designers might want £4000 of MacPro, but they can work on £1000 of quad CPU G5, or even a brand new iMac. And the machines will look just as nice on the desk, for those people who worry about such aesthetic niceties.

There are plenty more ideas I can share and, because I'm a nice guy, I'm happy to, but I'll be getting on with the book soon enough, as I've finally finished writing a custom project delivery framework for a multinational company to work with their rostered agencies and have some evenings to myself again!

Sorry there weren't too many jokes, but I thought it'd be useful to some of you to give a different angle on setting up in business for yourself. I hope it doesn't put any of you off, as the truth is it's a great adventure, but you just need to focus on the important things that aren't necessarily why you'd thought of going into business for yourself.

Good luck!

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