My work history briefly, Part IV: Starting a Small Graphic Design Business

During my last season as an office zombie, I worked in my spare time with a graphic designer (former uni mate) to start a small graphic design business. The plan was to be a graphic designer-copy writer team, and the business idea looked like an exciting potential ticket out of the never ending cycle of bad days in the office.

However, because the office job bored every sparkle of energy out of me (I slept most of the time when I was not at work), the planning and establishment phase progressed slowly. Then I quit.

I suppose it was also a good excuse to forget about workplaces for a little while. I was not eager to enter a new work depression.

So we spent the autumn brainstorming, planning and formally establishing the business, and then we tried to market ourselves.

The market for creative services in Australia

Graphic design/copy writing/creative services is a wildly fragmented industry because anyone with a graphic design degree can provide creative services as an independent business, and many do. There are no prohibitive start-up costs and difficult requirements, all that’s needed is a a good computer and relevant software.

So small independent graphic designers fill up the horizon, all tail wagging to get small projects. Some of them don’t seem talented, but they seem to survive on a cheapskate market of small businesses with low visual standards. Others have stunning websites and portfolios. For the big clients, there are the established cool design studios that can charge a premium price.

We tried to gauge the competition and their offers by using business registers to find their websites and then research them, but there were just to many of them to get an overview. Prices were all over the place. All the good ones are capable of looking busier and bigger than they really are because this is the visual illusion industry, and it is very hard to assess how active they really are.

We wanted to market ourselves to clients who care about quality and are willing to pay. We were of course not in the league of design studios that serve the big clients and charge premium prices, so we were looking to serve small businesses in the kind of professional services industries with many small independent players and a need to convey an image of control and professionalism. However, reality shock: small business are cheapskates. Besides, people prefer to use their friends.

The mysterious Unique Point of Differentiation

It all boils down to the fact that a business without a true Unique Point of Differentiation (or a lot of good friends) is like a factory that produces something everybody already have… not likely to succeed.

We thought we had it when we started. We thought our education set us apart from the crowds. We can analyse a business situation and write marketing plans. As it turns out, many art directors have similar qualifications, and then 13 years experience on top. Many small graphic design firms offer to do marketing plans. And frankly, how much does a business degree matter to customers who want stylish business cards?

We thought being a designer-copywriter team could be our UPD, combined with being small and flexible. Good luck. Many small graphic design firms are designer-copywriter teams, and most agencies have copy writers or art directors to do the text. Besides, I am not Australian and not native writer of English; a disadvantage which pure bred Australian competitors could swiftly point out if they wanted to.

The competitors, no matter how small, can all design ads that make them look professional (or cheap); after all, that is what graphic designers do. That left networking as the sales channel that mattered. When everything else is equal, then it is all about who you know.

None of us are ‘sales person types’, and for me, business networking turned out to be quite a challenge because of the overwhelming noise levels at business networking events. And I don’t mingle well; I rarely like meeting new people

I felt like punching people in the face when they invaded my personal space and pitched relentlessly about their fantastic services while they starred into my eyes. After 3 – 4 torturous business networking events followed by shaken recovery time, I found it hard to overcome my reluctance and go again. Offline networking just doesn’t work for me.

Learnings from trying and watching business upstarts

Overall I have learned incredible much more in the year I have been out of job, compared to my office-zombie years where I wasted 8 hours every day on brainless paper processing, and then slept the rest of the time. My mind has cleared up.

The process of planning and starting a small business has been very developing. I had the pleasure of brainstorming, planning and establishing a business with a person who is both competent and unusually pleasant company, and was reminded how great teamwork can be. Although the business doesn’t fly (yet?), we both learned a lot and it was a great journey.

I also learned from watching my husband establish his business and deal with projects and negotiations. He runs his business from home and serves an overseas market (only), and I get to hear about projects and discuss client strategies on a daily basis. I also hear how he deals with his clients on the phone. He has excellent consultant skills and is a key role model I try to learn from to get better phone manners.

During this same year, several friends and acquaintances started their own small service businesses; in SEO, photography and export consultancy, for example. The entrepreneurial spirit and the small-business friendly environment are some of the great aspects of living in Australia.



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