5 tips on how to succeed with your design business
Recently we gave a short talk at the Tallinn Design Night Festival on the subject of our 5 biggest lessons as designers. As we are both designing and manufacturing our series of interactive maps and posters, we are typical creative entrepreneurs and face daily the struggles (and joys) of bringing together the mindset of a designer and an entrepreneur.
Here are the 5 points that we consider our biggest lessons or turning points in Bold Tuesday's development:
1. FIND YOUR FOCUS
One year ago our daily routine and action was incredibly fragmented - we said yes to all kinds of design projects and tried to do everything. We saw Bold Tuesday as a fun side project, something like a hobby. Without actually noticing, Bold Tuesday’s importance was steadily rising but somehow we managed to convince ourselves that everything else was way more important.
Doing everything kept us going in circles and eventually drained our energy. We needed a decision what we were going to do, what we wanted to do and what had the most potential. We said YES to Bold Tuesday and started saying NO to other projects. At first it was really difficult because of the fear of missing out a great oppurtunity.
The results came fast, to say the least. It’s amazing what happens when you can focus on one project. For full days. With the whole team. You suddenly have time and energy to make things happen! Your way of thinking changes completely! And on the other hand - focusing on one project means letting go of your safety net (in the sense of making a living). If your living depends on it, there is simply no option to fail - you will find a way to make the project succeed.
"Finding and keeping your focus is the first prerequisite for anything to even start happening."
2. BE AMBITIOUS
If you don’t have clear goals then often your ambitions might end up a bit too low. Looking back, our ambition was way too low. We didn’t want to or couldn’t see Bold Tuesday making it really BIG. For example - for 2015 we set ourselves goals that seemed tangible and realistic. We were being modest. You can guess what happened. We fulfilled all the numbers before even six months had passed. Our goals were too easy to achieve. We demanded less from ourselves because we knew we would deliver.
"You have to set goals which seem almost impossible at first. You have to get out of the comfort zone. That’s when the real game begins. If you set out to do the impossible then the achievment will also be a lot more valuable."
3. DON'T CUT COSTS IN WRONG PLACES
On day 1 it is natural and completely right to cut costs. For instance to take your products to the stores or post office yourself or print labels at home etc. The only thing we lost doing so was our own time - and let’s face it, at first your time has almost zero value. But it is critical to figure out the moment when your own time becomes really valuable and cutting costs at the wrong place will hinder the growth of your project.
If we are designers and entrepreneurs at the same time (or creative entrepreneurs, if you will), then taking care of our companies is one of the most important tasks. This is something you can’t delegate to anyone else (if you don’t have an extra person for that in your team).
Here is one small exercise which helps to put things into perspective at the moment you have to decide over spending money or cutting costs:
- How much does one hour of a designer’s, consultant’s or marketer’s service cost?
- But one hour of assembly line work? Or courier service?
- What really acquires your input and decisions?
- What brings new sales?
Call that courier! Pay a bit more for ready-to-use labels! Find the people who can do some of the work for you! At the same time you can do stuff that is necessary for your company’s growth.
"Well spent money, that helps you save time, is not not an expense but an investment."
4. DON'T GET CARRIED AWAY WITH Product development
Being both a designer and entrepreneur at the same time, there is always a temptation to get carried away with product development, to design new stuff, fix the packages or labels or make other minor changes. It is always good to do something that we have experience in, where we feel at home. But often product development leads time and money out of the business. As designers we are quick to forget it.
We know the complete story of our products, we have an overview of all the stages of a product. At first we develop version I, then version II, then a further revised version III, then new side products, then make a change to the packages, then maybe a small fix in the paper type or print hue and so on. It is an obsession to make a finished product even better or a way of procrastination, a way to postpone the less comfortable tasks like strategy creation, setting goals, marketing, sales etc.
Often these incremental improvemnts don’t have any real value in the eyes of the users. They see the product in this moment of time, just this one stage in the bigger development process. It is important not to overemphasise details. If the product is great, works perfectly, gets only positive feedback and the users love it, then you have to let the product be just as it is.
"Product development is only a very small part of the whole system and can’t put all your energy into it. You have to remind it to yourself every now and then."
5. Marketing? MARKETING!
It’s a total cliche to talk about the importance of marketing. But it really is important! For us it still very much of an ongoing lesson but the important thing is that we are doing it, learning and testing step by step.
When we started out we had two illusions and one predjudice about marketing.
- Illusion nr 1 - an outstandingly great product doesn’t need marketing.
Yes it does! Why?
Because there are simply soooooo many other products and designers, so much information and noise that is competing for the attention of people. Your product may be the best in the world but it will be impossible to see or hear you if you don’t put any effort into it. You might get lucky if a very important publication discovers you and makes you suddenly known across the world. But if you plan to make a living with your business, it is not a good plan to rely on chances.
- Illusion nr 2 - if you have talked about yourself a little, that will be enough. No need to get annoying.
No, that will not be enough.
If you are certain you have bored everyone to death, then really you have just reached the first fraction of your audience and if lucky, half of that fraction will remember your name. And then 5% of those people will actually go and buy your product.
Marketing is not harrassing. The people who are not interested in your product, are not likely become interested because of marketing. The point is to make yourself visible to the people who are (would be) dying to get your product, but simply don’t know that you exist.
- Our prejudice was that if you really needed to market yourself, you were certainly going to need a special “marketing person” for that.
Not neccessarily. Great if you have such a person in the team (we know we will need one when we grow a bit more), but at the very beginning you can do a lot on your own. Not having a marketer in the team is no excuse to avoid dealing with the subject. You just have to get out of your comfort zone, start learning and testing. A thought which made us see this from a completely new angle goes like this: “Nobody knows your product better than you yourself.”
"A really great product needs marketing as well and with a lot more consistency than you think. People who are interested in you, simply don’t find you in all the surrounding noise. Just make yourself visible."
So this is the essence of what we have learned during the creation and development of Bold Tuesday, if we had to put it into 5 tips. Of course there is a lot more to it - first of all you need to have a great product, a good understanding of your customer, a great team, the willingness to constantly learn etc. But from our experience we can say designers generally have a good understanding of all that. This is the stuff we feel comfortable with, what we have learned. So these 5 points, mentioned above, are (for us) what makes the difference. The ability to connect the design and business thinking.
What would your 5 most important lessons be?