Sitting here a year on it’s a bit scary to think that a whole year has passed. It’s passed by scarily quickly. Starting with a blank canvas this year has been the beginning of an exciting adventure full of unknowns.
In many ways the year has exceeded our expectations, in others, greatly fallen short of the kind of design studio we aspire to be, but being one year old feels like an achievement. It’s not entirely different from the first year of life. It’s definitely a milestone to celebrate. Put in the long-term context however, and we’re just taking our first steps!
It might feel like a silly thing to reflect on as it’s currently just the two of us, but we place huge value in cultivating the right environment. The creative output we produce together is our biggest asset so we’ve stuck to a few key things that we believe are important to success. Sometimes it’s cost us more, but we’re ok with that because it’s the long game we’re interested in.
Every piece of work requires we bring our best. That’s only made possible if we talk, share, critique and contribute our ideas to one another. By intentionally working in the same physical space we’re giving space for creativity and ideas to happen at any moment and more often than not they come in the ‘gaps’.
That’s only made possible if we talk, share, critique and contribute our ideas to one another
We’re also been very protective of how much our work life encroaches on family life, so we’ve held ourselves back from working anti-social hours. It would be very different if we were ten years younger however, but we’re not, so we have to work harder and smarter in the focussed time we have in the day. Starting a studio is only supposed to enable us to be more flexible and present so we’re building a culture where family time is always a priority regardless of how that affects us financially. There will always be and urge to do just a ‘little bit more’, especially in these early days, so we’re keeping disciplined hours with the understanding that anything else is a bonus, not a requirement. It can be hard to stick to, but the alternative is not sustainable.
It might be a funny thing to reflect on, but self promotion just doesn’t come naturally to us. We constantly live in the tension of knowing we need to do it, and not wanting to just do it for the sake of it! The last thing we want to do is create more noise, however having a public dialogue is so important in the lifecycle of becoming known, reaching new audiences and then winning new work.
I’d love to be able to sit here and say we’ve got it all figured out and we know exactly how and what we charge for our services but I can’t.
So how have we charged? We’ve basically been using a flat studio rate that felt more than a standard freelance rate, and less than a more established studio would charge. Anymore felt a little uncomfortable and any less just didn’t make any sense.
It’s been ok. Sometimes it’s felt too much, others too little. I think that will always be the case and it’s always a little subjective according to what and who it relates to. It’s done the job we needed and we’ve learnt that pricing isn’t as binary as just having one flat rate. As we’re selling ideas, knowledge and expertise which are inherently subjective, there doesn’t seem to be a simple, one size fits all pricing strategy.
We’ve broadly tried to steer clear of linking price to time on invoices and in conversation but no matter how hard we try it’s a language that people understand. Money for time spent. In many ways it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to sell design on a time based rate. Where we’re trying to bill for more time and the client is trying to pay for less time, it creates immediate conflict. There is on the other hand a direct correlation between time spent and quality but it’s a losing battle to fall into the pick’n’mix trap when design is itemised into time based chunks. It’s counter productive to doing good work.
It’s time to re-evaluate and start tinkering. There’s definitely a better and more compelling pricing strategy that will be a better fit for how we design.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of design, this year has been a lot of fun. We’ve intentionally accepted a broad range of work (within reason) and resisted the temptation to hone in on any particular niche or ‘vertical’ as they say. We don’t yet know what our niche is, so there’s little point just picking one at random. It can make conversations about what we do a bit clunky but that’s also been part of the learning curve. We wouldn’t want to become too slick and miss out on all of the awkwardness that’s to be enjoyed when talking about ourselves and what we do!
The beauty of a blank canvas is that you get to experiment with many different things and find a good fit. It’s all slowly starting to become much clearer.
As a rule of thumb we’ve been honest and upfront – where we’ve been able to help, we have, and in doing so learnt what we’re good at and what we need to be better at. Not to mention the stuff we’d rather avoid. We’ve experimented with various theories and processes for design, development, project management, billing, proposals, and the lists goes on. The beauty of a blank canvas is that you get to experiment with many different things and find a good fit. It’s all slowly starting to become much clearer. It’s mentally draining to always be experimenting and evaluating, but right now it’s worth it.
We’ve been very lucky that we have been able to make it through the year off the back of friends being excited about helping us in any way they can and throwing work our way. A few clients have followed us across to Daughter, and many friends, old colleagues and acquaintances have pushed work our way. I think it’s fair to say that our network has been pretty small but it’s been all we’ve needed to get our feet planted.
Some of the ‘other’ stuff
Like true rookies, we’ve had a wide awakening to all the ‘other’ stuff that goes with running a design studio. We now not only have to think about design, but VAT, Corporation tax, payroll, book-keeping, cashflow, marketing, rent, ROI, infrastructure, recruitment, business strategy, networking. There’s more I’m sure.
Intentionality is fundamental to our approach, so it can be a little paralysing to think about all these things on top of the actual hands on day to day design, but we’re muddling through and finding our feet, using each new experience to mould and shape the next.
It’s an incredibly privileged position to be invited in, and trusted to sit with our clients and help then achieve something and we’re really grateful to those who have invested in us.
We’ve made all the classic mistakes you hear about and swear you’ll never make. We’ve over promised and under delivered. We’ve worked without proper agreements and scope. We’ve left clients in the dark, delivered late, under quoted and undervalued ourselves. Of course you’d never choose to do those things in theory, but when you’re in the thick of it, mistakes are easy to make. Despite all that, when I look back at the body of work we’ve created I smile. Is it ground breaking? No, but it’s hand on heart good.
There will be plenty more mistakes made in this next year but I’m confident that as long as our primary focus is on creating the best work we possibly can, we’ll have made progress.