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Advice and insight on setting up an agency after six years in business

This May marks our sixth year in business. In 2010, myself and fellow co-founder Jason Smith embarked on a journey to start our own design agency with no client base and a total of zero combined years’ experience either working in or running an agency.

With no experience of running a business and no business plan, we decided to take the plunge and give it a go.

After leaving Plymouth and Bristol UWE respectively in summer 2008 we found ourself in what we now know to be the worst global recession in modern times – the job market was deflated, unemployment was at a 20 year high and prospects for two fresh-faced design graduates were worse than bleak. After spending our first year out of university working in pub kitchens and call centres, we met through doing pro-bono design and editorial work for a glossy monthly Bristol lifestyle magazine.

In early 2010, while working at the magazine, we began discussing the idea of putting together an agency. With no experience of running a business and no business plan, we decided to take the plunge and give it a go.

After starting out working from a office come kitchen at the back of a chiropractors – handy if you need some impromptu back therapy after a long day, we were fortunate to be offered subsidised rent in an incubator space run by UWE in the centre of Bristol, where we spent the first 18 months building the agency and working with start-ups and small businesses.

Fiasco Design office space

Our first office space, working from a kitchen out the back of a chiropractic practice

The rest as they say is history, but as we blow out the six candles on our creatively designed cake I wanted to share with you some of the valuable lessons and insight I’ve learnt from starting and building an agency with no business acumen or previous experience, no client base and with just a couple of laptops.

We don’t have time or space to go over everything but below are some choice words of advice I would like to share with anyone thinking of taking the same journey we started out six years ago…

Keep it simple, stupid

Looking back on it now this is ridiculous but when starting out, you’re more concerned with getting the work in, rather than what the work entails

At the start we rather naively billed ourselves as a ‘full service agency’. We thought that with the right network of people around us we could do/offer anything. Looking back on it now this is ridiculous but when starting out, you’re more concerned with getting the work in, rather than what the work entails – you think “Well, we can worry about the how later.” However tempting, keep your message and offering simple.

Soak it up

Speak to and surround yourself with seasoned professionals and people who have been in the industry far longer than you have. Since day one we’ve sought advice and guidance from creatives and business owners who’ve succeeded in business and built their own successful businesses – creative driven or otherwise. They can impart pearls of wisdom and advice to you, so ask plenty of questions and listen to the answers.

Create a culture around you

We’ve always placed emphasis on creating the right culture and tried our best to create a happy, healthy and inspiring place to work. After all, happiness fuels creativity.

When you’re starting out you don’t really think about things like company culture, but as you grow and begin to bring in new faces, this becomes more and more important. Over the past few years we’ve steadily grown the team from three to six full-time staff. We’ve always placed emphasis on creating the right culture and tried our best to create a happy, healthy and inspiring place to work. After all, happiness fuels creativity.

It’s important that you fully embody the brand you’ve created and the values it stands for – you set the tone and construct the vision which in turn you’ll ask your team to share and your clients to buy into.

Hire people first, skills second

Following on from the last point, hiring is undoubtedly the biggest challenge you’ll face when running and growing a business.

Fiasco Design team


Team away day mountain biking in Wales, 2015

You need to enjoy who you work with. Finding the right person who not only has the right skill-set but is also a good cultural fit and doesn’t upset the apple cart can be a difficult task. We always look for people who share the same beliefs, values and vision as we do. Pairing that with the right skill-set is important but that’s stuff you can learn over time. You can’t easily change someone’s beliefs or values.

Whether you’re hiring yourself or through a recruitment agency, don’t rush the process, it’ll only come back to bite you further down the line. We made this mistake before as we were desperate to fill a role and it didn’t end well. Never settle for second best. You’ll know when you’ve found the right person.

Get your name out there any way you can

Traditional advertising is typically unaffordable for a small business and we’re no different

Never underestimate the importance of self-promotion. It can take up a lot of your time but unless you’re really lucky, the work won’t just fall into your lap. You need to invest time marketing the business whether that’s through studio projects, blogging, guest blogging, social media or just getting out there and chatting to people.

Traditional advertising is typically unaffordable for a small business and we’re no different. We’ve always invested time promoting the business mostly through social media – and some of our biggest jobs, including jobs for Channel 4 (creating a full suite of illustrations for an interactive game) and Penguin Books (an author website), have come through simply replying to a tweet.

NH_Portoflio_7

Characters and assets created for the BAFTA award-winning web game Nightmare High by Channel 4

Process, process, process

We’ve invested a lot of time and effort over the past couple of years building, refining and evolving our processes and workflow. It’s an ongoing process in itself and should evolve as the business does.

It’s also a real benefit to share this with your clients. Speak to them in language that they’ll understand and educate them in how you work. Do this well and it’ll not only add huge value to what you do, but will also help to establish a working relationship based on trust. Our best creative work has come from projects where we’ve involved our clients from the get go.

Always have a Plan B

The nature of agency life means that things can change quite dramatically from one day to the next. Never rest on your laurels and always be prepared for a delay in client feedback or a quiet spell.

The nature of agency life means that things can change quite dramatically from one day to the next. Never rest on your laurels and always be prepared for a delay in client feedback or a quiet spell.

We keep a list of tasks to carry out when we have downtime between projects. This generally consists of internal odds and sods which might take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, tasks such as redesigning our proposal documents and email templates to ideas for larger scale studio projects. Build the list over time and store for a rainy day.

Go with your gut

There will be times where you have to make decisions, big important decisions that could affect the direction of the business or mean the difference between winning or losing that big client gig. In those situations, seek advice if you can get it but never under-estimate the power of the gut. Trust your intuition and go with what feels right.

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Original article published on It’s Nice That.

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