One of the most appealing aspects of becoming a graphic designer is the freedom and control we have over our own work. We can choose our schedules, accept, or decline projects, set our prices, and live anywhere in the world. However, sometimes the luxury of these freedoms can make us feel hesitant to expand into the larger operation of owning your own agency. Sometimes we don’t know how to take that next step or perhaps we’re not sure what lies ahead.
After 8 years of being a freelance designer, and recently launching my own graphic design agency, I have been flooded with many questions from like-minded students and colleagues about the challenges and requirements to move from freelancer to business owner.
I’ve decided to address the most common questions below in a Q&A format, which will hopefully shed some light on whether starting your own business is the right career move for you.
What are the benefits of owning your own agency?
I spent 8 years doing freelance work using mainly Instagram and Upwork to source clients for logo design and web design projects. I relied heavily on community engagement and at times, despite the benefits of freelance work, I found myself wishing for a steadier stream of clients and more time back in my day.
As a one-person show, I also found that my success was solely dependent on what I could produce in a 24-hour window. When clients asked for additional services such as social media management or web development, I had to refer them to an agency that could help instead of accepting the additional project for myself.
As a one-person show, I also found that my success was solely dependent on what I could produce in a 24-hour window.
I wanted to expand on the services I offered and not let my limited resources impact my ability to have multiple long-term projects occurring at the same time. I wanted to help my clients on their branding journey from start to finish. To do this, I needed a team and a brand of my own.
What was the hardest part of setting up your agency?
To put it simply – anxiety and perfectionism were my biggest challenges.
I think most graphic designers can relate to this, as our talents lie in our perfectionism. However, these negative thoughts centred around a common question most people feel before starting something new… ‘what if I fail?’.
I was worried about whether my project management skills were enough to maintain the quality and deadlines of not only my work, but the work of my team. I also found it difficult to set aside the time to work on my business plan when most of my time was taken up with freelance projects.
My advice to overcome these feelings of doubt is to create clear goal setting. Schedule time in your day as ‘me time’ to work on your business ideas and then map out those ideas into a step-by-step plan of what you need to achieve.
For example, in the first month you might purchase your domain name, set up your business email, create a budget and start designing your agency website. The second month might involve interviewing designers for the team, developing your website, identifying keyword targets, and speaking with an SEO expert.
The main point is that the saying ‘proper preparation prevents poor performance’ is well-known for a reason.
Do you have less time to work on graphic design projects yourself?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of owning your own agency is the ability to delegate the tasks you don’t want to do and focus on the tasks that you are passionate about.
Social media management is not my greatest strength; however, I will always enjoy designing logos for clients and working closely with them to build the image of their brand. Having a dedicated team of professionals working together is also a great opportunity to bounce ideas off one another and work collaboratively on projects. The benefit of this is your ability to take a sick day and not worry about your income, or to go on a holiday with your family and actually turn your phone off.
My experience has taught me that you should not rush the process of building your team. It is important that you choose the right designers to work with, since this will determine how successfully your business can operate. It will help you delegate projects when you need to and relax knowing that your clients are receiving the best quality work available.
Additionally, it is important to remember that building a business means building your own personal brand. Putting your face out there with personal images on your website or being the first point of contact for client leads can make a huge difference to how many leads turn in to sales and how many sales turn in to 5-star reviews.
Is it expensive to build your own agency?
The cost of setting up your own creative agency is dependent on many factors. Initial digital marketing and website development costs will depend on the quality of work you are willing to pay for.
Whether you want to have a physical workspace or have your team work from home will also make a huge difference since commercial rent costs can be high in most capital cities. You will also need to consider the cost of your services before you send your clients a quote. As an agency, you will no longer be receiving the entire cost of a project (unlike your freelancing projects).
The positive side of this is that your team should be well resourced enough to complete more projects and comfortably upsell clients for extra services as well. Like any business, do not walk into the process financially blind.
At the start, it’s normal for the agency to spend more than it will make, however this should not continue for too long before changes must be made. Create a budget, get an accountant, and let your financial reality guide your decisions.
Did you have any previous business experience?
I had no previous business experience; but everyone needs to start somewhere. I read as much as I could online about establishing your own business, understood the financial implications of my decisions and sought the advice of friends / family members that had run their own businesses. In my spare time, and during long car trips, I would listen to podcasts about entrepreneurs and small business owners.
What I learnt is that detailed planning and confidence is all you need to get started. Time it appropriately so that you’re not putting yourself in a situation where you are without an income if you have financial obligations or debts to pay.
As graphic designers, we are privileged in that our skills can be used as either freelancers or as part of an agency or both. Compared to most industries the transition between freelancer and business owner is assisted by the fact that we can design our own website, logo, and brand identity. However, it's important not to neglect the fact that creating your own agency will take hard work, but that hard work will very likely pay off.
It's important not to neglect the fact that creating your own agency will take hard work, but that hard work will very likely pay off.