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Advice and insights on setting up your own design agency

Fiasco Design celebrates its sixth birthday this year, and its co-founders Ben Steers and Jason Smith started the agency in “what we now know to be the worst global recession in modern times.” Ben says: “The job market was deflated, unemployment was at a 20 year high and prospects for two fresh-faced design graduates were worse than bleak.”

Here, he shares some of the valuable lessons and insight he’s learnt from “starting an agency with no business acumen or experience, zero client base and with just a couple of laptops.”

Keep it simple, stupid

At the start we rather naively billed ourselves as a “full service agency.” We thought that with the right network of people around us we could do/offer anything. Looking back on it now this is ridiculous but when starting out, you’re more concerned with getting the work in, rather than what the work entails – you think “Well, we can worry about the how later.” However tempting, keep your message and the offering simple.

Soak it up

Speak to and surround yourself with seasoned professionals and people who have been in the industry far longer than you have. Since day one we’ve sought advice and guidance from creatives and business owners who’ve succeeded in business and built their own successful businesses – creative driven or otherwise. They can impart pearls of wisdom and advice to you, so ask plenty of questions and listen to the answers.

Create a culture around you

When you’re starting out you don’t really think about things like company culture, but as you grow and begin to bring in new faces, this becomes more and more important. In this modern age of marketing, it’s important that you fully embody the brand and the values it stands for – you set the tone and construct the vision which in turn you’ll ask your team to share and your clients to buy into.

Hire people first, skills second

Hiring is undoubtedly the biggest challenge you’ll face when running and growing a business. Over the past few years we’ve steadily grown the team from three to seven full-time staff. We’ve always placed emphasis on culture and tried our best to create a relaxed and comfortable working environment for our team.

Finding the right person who not only has the right skillset but is also a good cultural fit and doesn’t upset the apple cart can be a difficult task. We always look for people who share the same beliefs, values and vision as we do. Pairing that with the right skillset is important but people can learn. You can’t learn beliefs or values.

Put simply: take time to recruit. Whether you’re doing this yourself or through a recruitment agency, don’t rush the process, it’ll only come back to bite you further down the line. We made this mistake before as we were desperate to fill a role and it didn’t end well. Never settle for second best. You’ll know when you’ve found the right person.

Get your name out there any way you can

Never underestimate the importance of self-promotion. It can take up a lot of your time but unless you’re really lucky the work won’t fall into your lap. You need to invest time marketing the business whether that’s through studio projects, blogging, guest blogging, social media or just getting out there and chatting to people.

Traditional advertising is typically unaffordable for a small business and we’re no different. We’ve always invested time promoting the business mostly through social media – and some of our biggest jobs, including jobs for Channel 4 (creating a full suite of illustrations for an interactive game) and Penguin Books (an author website) have come through replying to a tweet.

Process, process, process

We’ve invested a lot of time and effort over the past couple of years building, refining and evolving our processes and workflow. It’s an ongoing process in itself and should evolve as the business does.

It’s also a real benefit to share and involve your clients. Speak to them in language that they’ll understand and educate them in how you work. Do this well and it’ll not only add huge value to what you do, but also helps to establish a working relationship based on trust. Our best work has come from projects where we’ve done this and had the client has put their faith in us.

Always have a Plan B

The nature of agency life means that things can change quite dramatically from one day to the next. Never rest on your laurels and always be prepared for a delay in client feedback or a quiet period.

We keep a list of tasks to carry out when we have downtime between projects. This generally consists of internal odds and sods which might take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, tasks such as redesigning our proposal documents and email templates to ideas for larger scale studio projects. Build the list over time and store for a rainy day.

Go with your gut

There will be times where you have to make decisions, big important decisions that could affect the direction of the business or mean the difference between winning or losing that big client. In those situations, seek advice if you can get it but never under-estimate the power of the gut. Trust your intuition and go with what feels right.

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Fiasco Design