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In the early days of my marketing communications firm, there was nothing I wanted more than a blueprint for what I should be doing as a business owner. I was doing well, but I had no idea how to manage my business, and didn’t know if I’d be around next year—or even next month. I wanted to know what made a business work so that mine wouldn’t fall apart around me, and I needed it dished out in language I could understand. I had a BFA in graphic design, not an MBA—and traditional business plans and spreadsheets made me want to run for the hills with my hair on fire.
There wasn’t a resource specifically written for creative professionals available to me back then, so I had to learn on my own. Soon, people started asking me how I got my business to run so well, so solidly, for so long (more than 25 years). They asked how I got such great people to work for me and kept them so long (for 6, 14, 22 years), and how I kept my clients for so long (6, 10, 14 years).
What follows is a brief overview of the plan I created for myself—the guide I wished I’d had handed to me all those years ago.
1. Build a rock-solid vision
When I ask entrepreneurs, “What’s your vision for your business?” I’m surprised by how often they answer, “Well, that’s a good question.”
Vision is pivotal to your success. Your car won’t take you where you want to go if you just drive aimlessly around. If you don’t know where you’re starting from, where you’re headed and why you want to go there, and have an idea of how to get from here to there, it isn’t going to happen. You need to steer it, and you need to think of your business in the same way. How?
Document where you are now. The first step in plotting your route involves taking a look at your business and having a good feel for where you are now. How many clients do you have? Which ones are most profitable? (That question usually yields some surprises.) How’s the traffic to your firm’s website? How well do you convert prospects to clients? What projects get your team in a real groove? What problems are making you crazy? Are you happy with your workload and your personal income? Simply paying attention to this brings breakthroughs for many business owners.
Then figure out where you want to go, and why. Running a business for the wrong reasons—i.e., because someone else thinks that’s what you should do—can make your work much more difficult. Focus on the Big What and the Big Why: Consider the kind of work you want to do and be sure it’s something you really love.
A good way to get your head around the Big What is to imagine your perfect day, step by step. Where do you go to work? (At home? To a building? What kind of atmosphere does the office have?) Who’s there? (No one? A few people? Many people? Who are they?) What are they doing? How do you interact with them? What do you do first when you start your day?
For the Big Why, think about what drives you to do this kind of work. A childhood dream? A desire to save the planet or to make the world a better place? To spend more time with your kids? The stronger your Big Why, the more likely you’ll get your Big What.
My Big Why was simple: I was a single mom with the wolf at my door. I had a passion and a purpose. Without that kid needing cereal in the morning, I doubt I would have had the necessary drive to get to the Big What.
2. Project steady confidence
Nothing makes you feel better about your business and look better to clients than having the right kind of confidence. It’s the underpinning of everything you do.
Cultivate confidence in yourself as well as in your work. Are you as confident in your ability to communicate your contribution to the work as you are in the value of the work itself? This is where many creative people have a disconnect.
Because you hold the design work you produce in such high regard, you may downplay your own contribution to it. You might have no problem talking about the work, but a great big problem talking about yourself or taking due credit. It sounds harmless, but it shows up to clients as a lack of competence—and that can raise enough doubt in their minds to scuttle the deal. The challenge is in showing confidence without turning clients off with arrogance.
Take control of overwhelm. Ever notice how quickly you lose confidence when you’re overwhelmed? At times like this, thinking more won’t help. Knowing how to prioritize, focusing on your purpose and getting rid of limiting beliefs will lead to more consistent confidence in yourself as a business owner, making your business naturally stronger.
3. Communicate your difference
You need to know how to talk about what makes you different, and why yours is the perfect company for your clients to hire. Every design firm positions itself as client-oriented, results-driven, creative and fun to work with. Beyond that, what makes your studio different—really different?
Know your driving forces. The things that drive you can be very strong differentiators. No one has exactly the same reasons you have for being in business, exactly the same passion you have to serve clients, or exactly the same insights you have about how to make the world a better place. Communicate these, and they’ll help shape your difference.
Talk to clients. Ask your clients what they struggle with, what they want and how you’ve helped them. They’ll tell you what it’s like to work with your firm and shed light on your capabilities from an outside point of view, giving you insight you’d never gain on your own. Throw these perspectives into the brew.
Use sneaky brain tricks. Sometimes just trying to think of what makes you different and valuable to your clients is difficult, and you have to trick your brain to get to the information. Try going on a rant about a subject you’re passionate about, or imagining that you have to write a book on the topic you know the best—by next week.
4. Commit to being visible
Being visible is all about letting the right people know what you offer so they’ll find you and be attracted to you. Both the methods and the message have to be a good fit for you.
Choose methods that work for your unique situation. You know you should have a consistent plan for marketing your business. There are many methods to get the word out. You don’t need to do all of them, but you do need to figure out which ones work for you, and you do need to do them authentically and consistently.
Craft a clear message. You’re great at this for clients, but maybe not so good at it for yourself. If you understand what makes your business different, then tap into that to express a message that’s compelling, genuine, and communicated in a way that your ideal audience can hear.
5. Be effectively productive
As a creative business owner, you have lots of interests and you’re easily distracted. You’re free to spend your time doing what you want, and you’ve got so many ideas. But often, you just don’t do the things you should be doing to make your business successful.
Track all of your time. If you’re like most business owners, you only track time for client projects. Try tracking your internal time, as well—the hours you spend on tasks like managing your team, reaching out to prospects, answering e-mail, standing in line at the post office. Chart the personal time you take during the workday, like going to doctor’s appointments. Prepare to be amazed at how much time you waste. One of my clients was so appalled after tracking her internal time that she called me to say, “Who the hell do I think I am? Mrs. Astor?” She was spending lots of time at lunch and on personal appointments.
Schedule your activities. You might also try scheduling your time. Put everything on your calendar, including time for planning, writing, calls and internal projects, as if they’re appointments. What gets scheduled gets done.
Create systems. Notice repeatable activities that you can build into processes, like research calls to prospective clients. Document and schedule the tasks so they become almost automatic. Using information to design systems is an efficient way to generate more time to be creative.
6. Get the right support
In order to be excellent at the things you and only you can do, you need the right support from people both inside and outside your company.
Look for supportiveness and shared values. When looking for people to add to your team, there are two things more important than skills or experience. Many people are capable, but if you don’t choose those who 1) share your values and 2) are willing and able to truly support you, they won’t be a good fit for the long run.
Get direction and accountability for yourself. As the leader of your business with no one to report to, it’s easy to doubt yourself and to get off track. To get an objective look at your business, you need a different kind of support, in the form of direction and accountability for yourself. Find a coach, consultant, peer group or mastermind group just for you. One of my own coaches put it this way: “Even the sharpest knife can’t carve its own handle.”
7. Understand your money
There’s a lot of crazy thinking around money that hampers our ability to make more of it. It has to do with feelings of worth and the deep-seated fear of rejection.
Think about getting paid as an energy exchange. Let’s talk about why you feel such angst about money. Think about what you put out there (your work) and what you get back in exchange (the client’s money) as energy. We know from science class that every energy exchange in the universe has to be equal—for every force in nature there is an equal and opposite force. That’s why you feel uneasy when the exchange isn’t equal.
Balance the scorecard. It’s your job to make sure the energy is balanced and your compensation is equal to the work you do. For example, don’t discount your rates in order to get a project; instead, revise your proposal with fewer services to fit the client’s budget. Offer bundled packages of your services where the client gets a slightly better deal when engaging you for larger programs, and you both benefit from economies of scale. Alert the client when a project is going over budget, and get documented approval to cover additional costs.
Balance also includes keeping track of where your money is: what you have, what you owe and what’s owed to you, as well as the relationship between your marketing activities and income.
That pretty much covers my business success plan. Sure, there are details to fill in, but every aspect of running your firm more or less falls under one of these seven headings.
It’s the same plan I use with my clients today, and if a business isn’t working, it’s because one of the seven areas is out of kilter. It’s an easy plan to understand, and it’s creative-friendly.
And not one of my clients has ever run for the hills with her hair on fire.
Marcia Hoeck makes business easy and less scary for values-driven entrepreneurs with her coaching programs and products. Get her free Business Confidence Grader worksheet and tutorial. www.marciahoeck.com/confidence-grader
Excerpted from the July 2011 issue of HOW magazine. Used with the kind permission of HOW magazine, a publication of F+W Media, Inc. Visit www.howdesign.com to subscribe.