Do you have any business tips you wish you knew when you started out?

over 6 years ago from , Co-Founder @ Bien / bien.studio

I've recently entered the exciting world of owning a business and was wondering if there's something you wish you knew about running and owning a design business when you started out. And obviously if there are some useful tools that you can't live without.

Appreciate ya!


  • Samuel ZellerSamuel Zeller, over 6 years ago

    Never work for an agency that prevent you from showing the work you do for them I worked 3 years as a designer (retail design, 3D rendering, graphic design) for top tier brands (Bvlgari, Rolex, L'Oreal) I've designed shop windows for the 5th avenue... But my contract stated that everything I did was owned by the agency and with a strict policy of not showing anything. 3 years of work and you can't even display a single image on your portfolio/website/instagram anything... This sucks to find another job. Now I work as a freelance photographer, people remember my name. I'm not just a guy owned by an agency.

    24 points
    • Jonathan ShariatJonathan Shariat, over 6 years ago

      Agreed. Also the same advice applies for companies that have bad design processes like the CEO micro managing you, or insane deadlines where you can't possibly do a decent job at designing a product in a thoughtful way.

      After youre done you wont have anything to show for it because all your work will be sub par.

      1 point
    • Ryan Hicks, over 6 years ago

      Why would that even be in the contract? Makes no sense.

      0 points
      • Samuel ZellerSamuel Zeller, over 6 years ago

        Reason 1, the agency doesn't have a proper website just a minimal landing page. If I display work on my website with credits and the agency name, my website is gonna appear higher in search results when you google the agency name. I guess they don't want this to happen.

        1 point
  • Johnny BridgesJohnny Bridges, over 6 years ago

    Assuming that you're good at what you do, the most important thing to remember is the age old adage –

    Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.

    You only run out of cash once, so manage your cashflow properly! Ensure that you have at least a simple one-pager contract for all work; which sets out payment terms etc. Take a deposit before you start work. Potentially offer a small discount for early payment and/or fines/interest for late payment.

    17 points
  • Aaron SagrayAaron Sagray, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )
    • Don't have one client that is more than 30% of your gross revenue.
    • Any agency, no matter the size, is one quarter from going out of business
    • Scaling an agency past 30-40 people usually requires outside capital
    • Collect 30-50% up front, depending on the size of the project
    • To stay in business, you need to make at least 50% on the project. Try to make more. You are selling value, not time.
    • Have a contract. Fuck You Pay Me
    • Be aggressive about collections. If it isn't paid in the first 45 days, it is highly likely you won't get paid.
    • Never have a contentious conversation over email
    • Treat employees and contractors better than you would treat your children.
    • To that end, pay your bills faster than expected
    • You can scale sort of scale a small design business if you corner a niche – be the web/brand guy for single-physician practices that do LASIK, for instance.
    • Big (or well-monied) clients pay more than small clients and take the same amount of your time, or less.
    14 points
    • Jonas GothJonas Goth, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

      Regarding the last bit, i'd add that it's easier to build close relationships with smaller clients that can last for years. Theres a ton of benefits working with small companies/start-ups, whereas the some biggest benefits for big clients is the higher pay and the reference for later.

      A good mix of both small and big is the way to go. I have always offered a separate rate for both.

      0 points
  • Adrian HowardAdrian Howard, over 6 years ago

    Hire an accountant. If they don't end up saving you money, hire a better accountant.

    8 points
  • Matthew StrömMatthew Ström, over 6 years ago

    Spend a little time/money with a lawyer to write up a work-for-hire contract that is right for you. In 7 years of running my own design business (4 as a freelancer, and 3 as a bona fide company), I've never actually had to take a dispute into the legal system, but I've benefitted GREATLY from having good contracts. Two reasons:

    1. Contracts lets you talk about your values with a potential client in a very transparent way.
    2. If a potential client responds negatively to an important part of you contract (ie — asking you to change or remove it) it can be a great sign that maybe you shouldn't work with them.

    It's definitely not glamorous or fun, but it's one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal.

    8 points
  • Jan SemlerJan Semler, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )
    1. When you create an offer never think you have to go cheap. Make you pricetag real, communicate what you do and for most of all why. Explain your client why your prices tag is higher than others, explain what benefits the client will get. Communicate also that you rely on the success of your clients project, because if the project goes wrong the client will not come back – tell him that.

    2. When you start as freelancer without employees than set your daily/hourly rate and stick to that no matter what. Ask other freelancers they will help you. And if you don't now how much you want for a day/hour just calculated what you need for a month. Double that and divide it by 20 workdays.

    3. Get an tax guy. (Especially when you living in germany like me)

    4. Take some student in if your workload goes up like crazy, don't try to tackle everything by yourself.

    5. Set one day in a month to take care of your offers, Invoices and other paper related stuff nobody wants to do. Stick to that day never say tomorrow.

    6. Don't take a job you didn't like.

    7. Be always in the search for business partners, they have jobs for you and you for them. Go out and get on business events and talk to people in your business.

    8. Get stuff done, no matter what.

    9. If you can't do something, because you have zero knowledge don't do it. But if you think you could learn something new than do it 120% and with passion.

    10. Never stop using new tools, never stop reading articles about your business, be young and foolish all your live.

    A good read for that is: https://abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job This book changed my perspective on my job.

    6 points
  • Jon MyersJon Myers, over 6 years ago

    Yes, you need to have a level of business acumen, package yourself, niche yourself, promote yourself, get the contracts, have the project management tools in place and so on.

    However, the number one thing I wish I had a better grasp on when I was starting out:


    Demand, clarity.

    Be clear in your communications as well, it's a two way street.

    The more time you spend trying to read collaborators tea leaves of vagary and ambiguity, the more time and money it costs you.

    The more vagary you tolerate, the more room you have for your projects to hit a break down point.

    When a customer says, "make this button more powerful" - you need to have a process, a case and set of questions to guide them in the right direction, if there is anything useful to even extract at all.

    Describe what you mean?

    What purpose does this serve?


    3 points
  • Andu PotoracAndu Potorac, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    Don't get too attached to your employees. People won't feel the same about your business as you do and they will jump the board whenever another opportunity arises.

    This also means be mindful about how you invest in people so that you can get your return in 6 months tops.

    3 points
    • Mike Wilson, over 6 years ago

      I would say this is more indicative of the fact that you probably aren't paying your employees enough. If you don't want your talent poached, you need to be paying above market salaries. If another company comes along offering your talent a higher salary every 6 months, that is due to your failure to generate enough revenue to pay them their market value.

      Sure you might save 25k/yr paying them less than what they're worth, but how much does it cost the business to recruit, train, and onboard a new employee every 6 months? Depending on the size of the company, usually more than 25k/yr.

      1 point
  • Mason LawlorMason Lawlor, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    I've been running a design/dev agency for 4-5 years. I'll take a whack at your Q:

    1. Don't take outside funding
    2. Don't give anyone more power/equity as yourself unless you know them extremely well
    3. Set a minimum amount, (i.e. $2500 or $5000) tell clients you only take 100% upfront for those budgets.
    4. Don't underestimate the power of spec work
    5. Specialize in a system that you have a competitive understanding of
    6. If you're going to take payments online, use WePay
    7. Read: The E-Myth Revisited (might recommend "Rework" as well).
    8. Build great documentation, and you'll be able to scale faster
    9. Don't confuse scale with success
    10. Do exceptional work, and if you find yourself becoming jaded, re-evaluate your business

    Those are just some valuable lessons I've had. Good luck!

    Couple extras I thought of:

    • If you give clients 10% off for the first 7-10 days after you send your invoice, I've found the close rate is much higher.

    • When doing the "discover process" with a client, really dig in and question everything about their last project. I've found they will usually tell you how much they payed even, which can result in charging a lot more and not feeling bad about it.

    1 point
  • Gavin JonesGavin Jones, over 6 years ago

    Sign-off is irrelevant if it isn't meaningful.

    Link product requirements contracts to a payment schedule in order to receive meaningful sign-off.

    The higher level of contract sign-off required (CTO/CEO), the more diligently the project staff will work with you to run the project on time and on budget.

    Work to frequent milestones, with each milestone requiring payment.

    Take how long you think the project will run and add on 30%.

    Work with freelancers/contractors before you hire for a position. A job requirement is fine, but you'll quickly learn through the freelancers what's actually essential in the job...professionally and personally for the other team members.

    If you don't consistently recognise and reward your teams achievements, they wont stick around for long. Small gestures and simple words go a long way when people work hard to make your company a success.

    1 point
  • Hugo Caron, over 6 years ago

    Getting clients is the name of the game. I can't stress enough how important networking is. Connect with people, make lots friends and you will end up working with people you consider as friends, which is the best.

    I know some people say that you shouldn't work with friends, because it may create friction and brake the relationship. But I say, if a friend tries to screw you... It might be time to raise those friendship standards ;)

    This articles is worth the read: http://alistapart.com/article/getting-clients

    Cheers Ivan and best of luck.

    0 points
  • Sam Bible, over 6 years ago

    Wish I'd asked this starting out; would have made my life easier.

    Contracts have been mentioned. I didn't think I needed them because I didn't want to deal with legal stuff. But they are important because they convey a sense of professionalism that puts your clients at ease, not just for legal protection. Let's face it, if you're small you probably couldn't afford to go to court anyway, but having a common sense foundation for a relationship still makes good business sense.

    Not sure where you're coming from, but as a freelancer I eventually ended up modifying this contract to the shortest version I could that made both me and my clients feel comfortable. One thing I did was specify that copyright ownership transferred to my clients only upon receipt of the final payment. This made me happy because I almost always got payed promptly after that, and made my clients happy because it removed ambiguity and allowed them to feel in control.

    Probably the biggest mistake I made starting out was thinking of myself as a designer, not a business owner. When you are self-employed, you are also marketing, sales, accounting, and support, so you have to learn to enjoy developing the business. If you can't, it's going to be tough to find the motivation to keep it going over the long haul. Being a great designer alone is not enough. You have to:

    1. Do great work.
    2. Tell the story of what makes your work good. (Don't take it for granted that people will automatically get it. This is not about a slick sales pitch; it's about explaining what quality work means to you and how you get there, in terms somebody who's not a designer can appreciate.)
    3. Make sure the right audience hears that story.
    0 points
  • Alexander ObenauerAlexander Obenauer, over 6 years ago

    Ivan - exciting, congrats! What kind of business? Agency / Consultancy, producing in-house products, a mix or something else?

    0 points
    • Ivan Bjelajac, over 6 years ago

      I've started a design studio focused on digital products design, but would like to expand into branding as well. :)

      0 points