A majority of creative agencies fail within the first two years, even when owned by highly talented designers. This raises the question, why do some fail while others succeed?
Our design director Olha Uzhykova will share her insights on how creative people can thrive in competition.
As a Design Director and co-founder at Netrix, a Small Design Agency, I have witnessed our growth journey, which not always was easy. We have grown from a team of 2 to 20 individuals, from freelancing projects in Ukraine to establishing a company in Los Angeles and having notable clients like the Seattle Space Needle and Cadence. Despite facing challenges and failures, we have also achieved numerous big wins, including international awards such as Red Dot, Webby, Awwwards, and recognition at San Francisco Design Week.
From the very beginning, we did not start with creating a website or logo. Instead, we focused on defining our values and what sets us apart. Our core value is people — we place the well-being of our team, clients, and the users who will interact with our products at the forefront.
Being at Netrix since day one, I’ve been right in the thick of things, managing the team, figuring out growth strategies, and building solid relationships with our clients. Along the way, I’ve seen some roadblocks that could have tripped us up, but we’ve made it through and kept growing.
I figure my experience might come in handy for other creative companies just starting out. Maybe it’ll help you avoid a few mistakes, or at least give you the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone. There are plenty of others out there dealing with the same challenges and working hard to overcome them.
The key factors that may help your agency succeed.
1. You can’t survive without clients.
Clients should be your top priority. While you can survive and be successful without a name, logo, website, fancy office, or big team, it is impossible to exist without clients. Therefore, finding your clients should be your first step, and everything else will follow.
How can you find them? If you’re currently working as a designer.
- Start with some freelance projects and as you gain more clients, look for other designers to help you. These relationships can be based on projects. If everything goes smoothly, you can consider establishing a business and strengthening your connections with your clients.
- Create a strong portfolio. This is crucial for showcasing your expertise to potential clients. You can start by publishing it on platforms such as Behance or Dribbble. It’s also a good idea to build your own website, starting with a simple one using site builders like Webflow or Builder.io, and then upgrading to a more advanced version as your needs grow.
- There are many ways to find new clients and your portfolio can play a big role in bringing in new business. Try freelance platforms like 99designs, Upwork, and Toptal, or simply reach out directly to companies you want to work with, no need to be shy!
One of the biggest challenges for creative people is selling themselves. Some may view sales as dirty or beneath them, but it’s important to either change this mindset or find someone who can help with sales.
2. Team is the key.
Building a strong team is essential for the success of your design agency. Don’t make the mistake of hiring junior designers just because you think you can’t afford more experienced ones. The quality and speed of work are crucial for retaining clients and attracting new ones. The cost of making a mistake is high, and there may not be enough time to properly train junior designers, resulting in subpar work and unhappy clients. So start with experienced people you trust and consider hiring juniors only when your team has become strong enough.
Team growth and development are other crucial aspects. It’s important to ensure that your team members work together as one and understand the company’s goals. Encourage open communication and make sure everyone is on the same page. When hiring, it’s key to find individuals who share your values and have professional goals that align with your company’s goals.
3. Communication, communication, and communication.
Effective communication is crucial, no matter how good your design is. If you can’t present and defend your design solutions, listen well, and be open to feedback, you will ultimately fail. To prevent this:
- Always present your design solutions with confidence and explain the reasoning behind your choices.
- Communication is more about listening than talking. Listen to your clients, be open to feedback, and communicate with them like they’re part of your team — after all, you both have the same goal of creating a great product.
- Always make sure you understand the “why” behind the project. Understanding the goal will allow you to suggest solutions that align with the client’s expectations.
- Always set clear expectations, keep your promises and meet deadlines. If there are any unexpected changes, make sure to keep your client informed.
4. Build relationships — don’t sell your services.
When a project comes to an end, your relationship with the client shouldn’t. They may refer you to others or come back with another project later. Prioritize the relationship and put in the effort to maintain it. Remember that you’re working with another person, so be friendly, start with some small talk, and always be polite. Building strong relationships can open up more opportunities in the future.
5. Get comfortable with finances.
Don’t let finances scare you. As a creative person, you may think finances and planning stifle your creativity, but the truth is, without money, there is no company. Make sure to accurately calculate your overhead and operational expenses, and create a plan for generating revenue. Don’t forget to budget for your own salary, too!
6. Flexibility is a superpower.
Each project is unique, with its own goals and requirements, so don’t limit yourself to just one design style or approach. Be flexible and find the best approach that fits the specific project.
7. Learn from mistakes.
It’s okay to make mistakes, they can actually be a great opportunity to learn and grow stronger. The same goes for your company. Don’t get discouraged by mistakes. Instead, reflect on them and determine how to improve in the future.
8. Choose quality under quantity.
Growing your business can be done by expanding your team or improving the quality of your work. Ideally, you want to do both, but never compromise on quality to take on more projects. Doing so will likely result in losses in the long run.
9. Set aside time for creativity.
Some design agencies fail not because of financial or client issues, but because the creative owners become exhausted from the constant demands of planning, finances, and sales. To avoid burnout, it is important to regularly engage in creative activities, whether for clients or for personal projects. Participating in design awards and competitions can also help to keep your creative side satisfied.
10. Don’t try to get everything right.
There is no right or wrong, only what works and what doesn’t. If it works, great! If not, that’s okay. What can you do to make it work? This approach is how you grow.
But what is most important — never stop!