Are you a designer dreaming of the freedom and money that could be yours if you took the leap and started your own design business?
There are many benefits to being your own boss — having the option to work anywhere, setting your own schedule, and ultimately being in charge of your own destiny.
If you’ve pushed that idea to the backburner because the steps to make it happen seemed too daunting, let me introduce you to my proven, step-by-step guide to starting your own design business.
I’m Sarah — self-taught designer from Berkshire, England. During the last decade, I’ve honed my craft and style, expanded my business knowledge and experience, and have created a thriving brand and profitable business. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the process I used four years ago to begin my own design company that has transformed my business from selling $15 Etsy logos, to selling £20K premium web design packages and working with some of the biggest streaming services in the world.
Coming up with a simple and creative name for your business can be challenging. Every business owner wants their name to clearly define who they are and what services they offer, but they also hope to infuse a little bit of their personality in the mix.
In addition, many entrepreneurs become frustrated when they finally settle on a name, only to discover it’s already taken.
To create a business name that is uniquely YOUR OWN, start by writing down words that mean something to you, that describe your brand, and that you want associated with your biz. Don’t overthink this step! Many new business owners get stuck here and can’t move on. Just be creative. Play around with how the words sound, what fits, if anything jumps out at you.
PRO TIP: Before you fall in love with a name, check to see if it’s already taken on namecheckr.com. This tool will see if the name you like is being used as a .com or on a social platform (except Instagram — you’ll have to check that one yourself).
Once you’ve settled on a business name, it’s time to make it official by purchasing the domain for your website. As a business owner in the UK, I like to buy both the .com and .co.uk address, but I use the .com. Purchasing the co.uk address assures that another business doesn’t set up a website in the UK using my name.
Buying a domain name isn’t usually a big expense — it can come as cheaply as 99p. Here are some of my favourite places to purchase a domain:
I know, I know… this step is boring, but it is essential. Each country has their own system and procedures to make a business legal, so you’ll have to investigate what you need to do to register your business appropriately and in the correct capacity (ie. sole trader/proprietor or LTD company/LLC).
Save yourself the frustration of having your personal and business finances combined by setting up a separate business bank account right from the start.
Making business payments from your personal account can easily get messy and complicated. My first year in business, separating my finances saved me a ton of hassle, especially when it came time to do my taxes! If you have an accountant, they will love you for it, and it will save them a lot of headaches, too.
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Discovering who you want to work with is one of the most important steps you’ll take as a business owner. This decision will affect your content, your marketing, and HOW you go about your business in general.
If you don’t become laser-focused on a specific type of clientele, you’ll end up with content that’s vague and lacking direction which wastes your time and leads to feeling frustrated.
To narrow in on who your ideal client is, ask yourself :
I know you have high hopes of turning your side business into a full-time business or recreating your corporate salary with , but before you start booking those sales calls, make sure to set realistic expectations about the time you’re able to spend on your business.
Is this a full-time venture or a side gig that you’ll be working alongside your day job?
What other responsibilities and commitments do you have that will take time away from your work?
It’s important to assess the amount of time you have to devote to your business because it will give you an idea of how much work you can take on. If you don’t set realistic parameters, you could be headed straight for excessive stress or even burnout. We don’t do burnout here!
To estimate your availability, consider creating a time journal and tracking the amount of time and commitments you have during a typical day. Review your time journal after a few days to see where you may have moments to carve out for clients.
Now we’re getting to the fun part! Here’s where you get to decide what services to offer to your clients. To narrow down your list, ask yourself:
First, decide on the overall services you want to offer, then break them down to include how you want to work (e.g. one-off project, hourly, or retainer). Decide what details are included with each service and how much you are going to charge. Don’t underestimate the value you’ll bring to the table, and make sure to factor in how much you’ll pay in taxes and business expenses so you don’t shortchange yourself, but more importantly pay yourself.
In the world of business, people buy from people. We often find ourselves attracted to brands which have similar stories to our own or brands which share our same core values.
Your Unique Selling Points are the elements of your process, services, and skills that make you stand out from other designers in the market. They create a connection between you and your audience. When you share your USPs effectively, your ideal clients will resonate with you and want to book you.
Working to develop your brand story and your USPs will also give you confidence in your specific services and unique abilities. This helps you feel less overwhelmed by competition in the market.
Take the time to figure out what makes you different. Focus on the talents and expertise that makes you unique and commands your premium rate.
Though you still eventually need a website, a service brochure is an excellent way for new entrepreneurs to show off their skills. Simply create a pdf brochure that can be sent to potential clients while you build your site, and add a ‘coming soon’ page on your website.
Here are some things to keep in mind when creating your services brochure:
Often overlooked, terms and conditions are incredibly important when it comes to running a business. Designers often make the mistake of either copying their terms from another business owner or forgetting to include them altogether. Taking the time to set up your own terms and conditions will help you clearly define boundaries. They also put your clients at ease by letting them know what to expect when working with you.
Some things to consider include:
Terms and conditions should be agreed upon before work begins. Use a simple tool like Docusign or HelloSign to collect your client’s electronic signature and make it official.
Now that you know who you want to work with, let’s look at where you need to be on social media to connect with that ideal customer.
If you try to be everywhere online, you’ll spread yourself too thin and miss the mark of reaching your ideal client altogether. It’s better to show up CONSISTENTLY on just two platforms to start. Concentrate on building an engaged audience and creating raving fans on those platforms.
So how do you choose which platforms? Design is visual, so choosing a visual platform such as Instagram or Pinterest is a great way to showcase your work. It’s important to consider where your ideal client spends their time online. Try to identify the platforms they frequent, so you can easily find and connect with them.
*For example, if your ideal clients are wedding professionals, they’re probably using Pinterest on a daily basis. If it’s corporate companies you serve, LinkedIn might be the platform to focus on. If you’re trying to connect with coaches or VAs, Facebook groups are probably your best bet.
This may have been the biggest turning point in my business — taking me from a low-end Etsy seller to a luxury brand specialist. When I started my business, I knew no one in the online space. But as I began engaging with people, doors began to fly open!
Building relationships must be more than just a means to a sale. When you find your tribe and form connections with other business owners, you’ll gain the support of friends who truly understand what it’s like to work in the online world. The fact that it will benefit your business by giving you people to bounce ideas off of and receive referrals from is a bonus!
Now that you’ve chosen your social platforms, created your design brochure, and began engaging with other entrepreneurs on a daily basis, it’s time to share your work like crazy! Even if no one responds right away, as a designer, you must consistently share your work.
At first, your social platforms might not be showing your posts far and wide due to complicated algorithms, and that’s okay. (If this is the case, you’re not alone. This is a constant problem for many business owners!). Don’t take it personally, just remember that consistency is key.
In addition to sharing your work, be sure to introduce yourself to others, share behind-the-scenes glimpses of your processes, and find creative ways to showcase your brand story. These steps will ultimately create a deeper connection with your audience.
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