From Product Designer to Agency Director

A few tips and tricks for designers hoping to kickstart their own studio or agency, from our own experience.

In late 2017, I quit full-time work to start freelancing. Designers tend to do this for a number of reasons. Sometimes it's about freedom - to break free from office politics, set working hours or having to sit in an office all day. Some designers go freelance with an ideology, interested only in working with certain clients on particular projects that they see fit… like only tech startups or companies that work towards social good. Some designers are just tired of their dismal salary and want to find clients that will pay good money for their work.

While all of these are good reasons to leave the confines of traditional full-time employment, I chose to leave to discover a world outside of the industries I'm familiar with. I wanted put my skills to good use and design innovative products in emerging industries around the world and hopefully, figure out what I was truly passionate about in the process.

I was quite fortunate - in the first month of freelancing I started picking up projects that required a lot more than just a single product designer… complete rebrands and product redesigns for companies that required a small team of designers and developers to execute. After about three months, it became pretty clear that my clients needed more help than I could provide on my own. So, I incorporated a design agency called Jellypepper, contracted the creatives I'd previously been working with and moved towards handling creative direction and operations.

Moving from being a hands-on product designer to more of an agency director has been a massive change, both in the type of work and mentality. I learned most of what I know now through making mistakes, so I decided to put together a list of things you'll want to consider if you're hoping to transition from product designer to agency director.

Limit your offerings

When Jellypepper started, the idea was to help our clients from start to finish with whatever they needed. This means that we took on any form of creative work as it meant being able to provide more value to our clients. But here's the thing: just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. You should only offer what you're exceedingly good at. Don't worry - you're not expected to know this upfront. It took us 9 months and a few project mishaps before we realised that taking on every problem at once is not a sustainable way to solve any of them.

Nowadays, we offer a whole range of things because we've created teams that are able to effectively fulfill those needs. We've written playbooks for our product design methodology that walk you through our process of using UX, UI, interaction and motion design principles to create the best solution for any given problem. If we need ad-hoc work done like videos or photography, we team up with some of the best freelancers in the world.

Things to do:

  • Figure out what services you're best at offering, cut everything else
  • Find partner agencies that match your values that you can refer work to
  • Grow your personal network of freelance creatives

Isolate deep work

The hardest thing about managing multiple projects at once is context switching. It's a popular term in agile team management that basically means jumping between various, unrelated tasks. It haemorrhages your productivity through constantly switching mindsets or, more commonly, the contexts of tasks.

I'm not a big fan of multitasking at all and much prefer the concepts of deep work - the ability to focus on a piece of cognitively-demanding piece of work without distraction. I think it's a skill based on two important factors: your ability to work on a certain task for hours on end without being distracted; and your time-given opportunity to do so.

One of the biggest time-sucks is unnecessary meetings, so we don't run them. If we do need to meet, we talk about everything we need to with 5 minutes maximum each topic. It's like Twitter - constraints enforce brevity, encourage creativity and promote getting to the damn point.

The reason I crave deep work is because it's not always readily available - I can have between 10 and 15 client meetings a week and they really disrupt your workflow if you let them. I try to organise all my meetings back-to-back on certain days so that for 3 days a week, I can be in deep work mode.

Things to do:

  • Keep your calendar clear, but your life busy
  • Clear your inbox with the Inbox Zero methodology
  • Reduce meetings wherever possible

Turn your tasks into processes

Design agencies operate a service-based business model. Practically, this just means you can grow… but not really “scale”. Every new client you bring on means more people needed to complete the work. In the first few months, I would wake up every morning to a slew of Slack messages with urgent reminders, overdue tasks, people needing things. It was not fun at all.

Being good just isn't enough. If you allow your agency to take over your life, it will… very easily. You need a framework around how you operate and learn to compartmentalise. While project work should never be rinse and repeat, you will have to implement a methodology for time's sake. Create templates for your questionnaires, request for briefs and moodboards. Write a sales pitch and automate sending your proposals and agreements, adding a personal touch where possible.

This doesn't just apply to design work either. Running a design agency means that sales is going to be part of your job. For traditionally-employed designers, being responsible for your own work, time, contacts and income can be a pretty big change of pace. The only way to manage this at scale is by creating a sales funnel with CRM and Sales software so you can track a client all the way from visiting your website to having a meeting, sending a proposal, paying you and receiving their work, then following up afterwards.

It took me months to implement processes and it was just in time too. Another week of manually typing up proposals for leads that didn't pan out would have sent me over the edge. After turning all my tasks into processes, what I assumed was me finally losing my mind from falling behind on everything was just the overwhelming silence of being on top of everything.

Things to do:

  • Create playbooks to document your methodology
  • Use a CRM like HubSpot or Copper to track your leads, companies and deals
  • Use a project management tool like Asana to manage all your work

Get help wherever possible

Jellypepper went from being a small to a medium size studio way quicker than we should have. While this sounds like a fantastic problem to have if you're small, the amount of work we were taking on started to affect our existing clients. I was receiving 60 new emails a day. I only had 30 minutes a day to handle them which wasn't enough, so we took up to 3 weeks to reply to a client or lead. Fortunately they were patient people, but it wasn't sustainable.

It's not just project work either - running a business means you'll need to handle accounting, taxes, BAS statements, salaries, superannuation and all sorts of fun legal stuff. Then there's project management, resourcing and scheduling and making sure everyone's got what they need to do a great job.

If you're hell-bent on being the best designer in the world and designing everything yourself, hire people to manage your clients and run your business. If you're ready to let go of your hands-on approach and run the business, you'll need to grow a team, foster a good design culture and manage your clients directly to handle the workload.

Part of managing the business side of the studio means knowing the numbers inside and out… and not just the financials. You need to know your metrics. What's your agency's NPS score? What percentage of clients do you lose… and for what reason? Did you meet your financial goals for this quarter? What's your client retention like? Once you know these metrics, you'll know when to circle back with lost leads and how to close more deals. If you choose to focus on one side of your business, the other will inevitably suffer and ruin you.

Things to do:

  • Hire a good accountant—one that understands your best interests
  • When you're a bit overwhelmed, hire a contractor to pick up the slack
  • When you're exhausted, look at expanding your full-time team

Values are everything

Determining and holding your values closely is the key to success as an agency. It's what determines the work you say “no” to and how you interact with your clients. We inherently value a lot of things… people, design, good culture. We also value knowledge. We're always reading, exploring and discovering to be the smartest we can be. There will be people who don't vibe with our message and that's okay - it means we won't waste both of our time trying to make a relationship work that clearly won't.

Your values tie in to how you operate as well. Since we value knowledge, it's important to us that we deeply understand the company that we're working with - not just their product and service offerings but their mission, goals and vision for the future of the company. Understanding the business takes time and energy, so we factor into our proposals. If we don't do it, we won't fully understand your business, we'll make mistakes and miscommunicate. There's a much higher chance the project will fail or not be what you want it to be, and we'll both end up having wasted money and time.

If you're going to handle sales as well, you need to figure out your sales strategy and how this aligns with your agency's values. There's a lot of sales tactics out there, most of them rely on figuring out what drives your customer, what they fear, and digging into it. I've found that the strategy that works for me is simply being upfront about what you do and how you do it. I've found people generally want to work with you if you share the same attitudes and values, but are talented in things that they aren't. If people vibe with you when you're honest, they'll be a fantastic client past the initial meeting.

Things to do:

  • Write down your mission, values and vision
  • Say no to projects or clients you don't vibe with
  • Figure out how you sell yourself, but aim to be authentic and honest

Design your life

When you make the shift from an office environment to an agency, co-working space or even your apartment, it's easy to forget the things you take for granted, like a healthy social life with colleagues, a well-lit office and ergonomic desks. When you take the plunge, it's easy to just lie on your bed with your banged-up 15" Macbook Pro and make do with what you have. It's part of the romanticism of bootstrapping your own company.

For a while, I did exactly that. My old workspace was my bed, away from any decent light source which, combined with a 16+ hour work day led to a solid Vitamin D deficiency. It's important to optimise your new workspace for productivity - there's plenty of research around how light affects productivity and mood.

Lastly, remember to work smarter, not harder. It's a cliche quote but it's absolutely true. Schedule some time every day for your health. Your clients won't expect you to take care of their product if you can't take care of yourself. Plus, you won't get very many sales if you're sick or dead.

Things to do:

  • Make your new workspace bright and collaborative
  • Fit social and gym time into your schedule
  • Work smarter, not harder and remember to take weekends

One last thing I wanted to mention is that there's a fantastic book that helped me when I was about to throw in the towel. It's called Run Studio Run, a book by Eli Altman that aims to help small creative studios build and grow their businesses. It helped me so I recommend you check it out if you're looking for a bit of guidance, particularly in the early days. Also, if you would like my team and I to help out on your next project, get in touch! We're always looking for brilliant and passionate people to work with.

Published on April 1, 2020 11 min read