You’ve been busting your ass for years as a freelance designer, taking projects as they come, performing every role required for a successful business: producer, CEO, HR, accounting, marketing, and sales…you’re starting to wonder if there’s a next step. Can you break free of the grind of everyday tasks and get back to what you love, the design work itself? Is there a way of sinking your teeth into more complex, artistically challenging projects?
One option is to quit the solo freelance life completely, and become an agency. It’s a big change, but an exciting one. As an agency, you’re able to build a team of experts around you who take care of running the company while you concentrate on what you enjoy most. For some, that’s getting out there and networking, raising the profile of the company and landing those big clients. For others, it’s butt-in-chair, creating designs and challenging their creative muscles by taking on more exciting client work.
Why shift to an agency model?
There are several advantages to becoming an agency instead of continuing as a freelancer:
- An agency gives your company the chance to grow. As a freelancer, your income is capped to the number of hours you’re able to work.
- An agency allows you to learn new skills. Many freelancers can grow bored of doing the same types of projects over and over again.
- An agency enables you to pitch bigger projects. With a team around you, you’re able to take on larger, more expansive projects than when you’re a one-person show.
- With an agency, you can delegate other tasks (such as admin, web development, or accounting) whereas a freelancer has to take care of everything to do with the business.
If you’ve decided to have a go at the agency model, here’s how to get started: Design your agency to fit your process.
Want to turn up to client meetings wearing a superhero outfit? No one is stopping you
Since you’re starting an agency from the ground-up, you can design it to suit your needs. Want to work with clients in different countries? You can. Want to operate solely in the virtual space? Easy! Want to turn up to client meetings wearing a superhero outfit? No one is stopping you.
A good idea is to start by taking on a broad range of work, whatever lands on your desk, to keep the money flowing in. As you grow the business over two or three years, you can begin to narrow down into a more focused niche, and create packages and marketing to attract more of the work you want to specialize in.
As a designer, the first thing you’re going to need to deal with is creating the brand identity of your new agency. An agency needs a brand distinct from your name and freelance business. If you wish to sell the company one day (and it’s always an option you should leave open) you’ll need to brainstorm a name, get new business cards, design a website and produce marketing collateral to fit that brand. Start thinking about how you want your agency to be known.
Here are some tips for branding your agency:
- Have a look at how other agencies in your industry brand themselves. Choose 5 brands you like and write down three words to describe each brand. This helps you to solidify concepts for your own brand.
- What’s in a name? Your company’s name should be memorable and have a story behind it. If you’re trying to sell your creativity as an asset, you need a creative name. Choose 10 different names and ask friends and family to pick their favorites.
- Think about the mood you want your brand to invoke. Do you want people to look at your branding and think, “Innovative”, “Classic”, “Elegant”, “Quirky”, or “Zany”?
- Keep your brand simple and timeless. There’s nothing worse than having to rebrand your company or overhaul your website every couple of years because your brand is based on a fading trend. Instead, opt for a more enduring look.
- Ensure your name allows for growth. Don’t call your company “Two Designers and Their Dog”. While that’s cute and attention-grabbing, if you ever decided to add another designer, you’d need to change the name.
Graphic Designer Shauna Haider went from freelancing to opening her own agency, Branch. She wrote a fantastic article on starting a new business that details the steps she took to get her agency up-and-running.
Assemble your team
A good agency is a team effort, with you as the captain of the ship. Who do you need on your team? Some suggestions include:
- account manager;
- accountant and bookkeeper;
- production assistant;
- admin assistant;
- other designers or creative talent to flesh out your team.
Remember that just because you’re an agency, doesn’t mean you have to start employing full-time staff and searching for an office space. You can shape your agency however you want. For most freelancers starting out, this means assembling a team of fellow freelancers you trust, who you can call in on projects as you need them. With online tools for time tracking and project management, your staff and clients can be in any location and still work in sync.
Get your admin sorted
Nothing will sink a new agency faster than undercharging…because you aren’t accurately tracking time
With a team in place, you’re going to need a method for managing your jobs and ensuring that time spent on each task is properly recorded and charged for. Nothing will sink a new agency faster than undercharging for jobs because you aren’t accurately tracking time spent.
Most modern agencies are looking toward cloud-based software to solve their project management needs. An online system has several advantages for your fledgling agency:
- Pricing is based on a monthly subscription, which is much more affordable than a huge outlay for software licenses.
- You can work wherever you are in the world, enabling you to run your agency while being location independent or managing a team scattered across different locales.
- Cloud-based systems enable data to be recorded and reports generated with the click of a button, so you can instantly get a snapshot of how well your agency is doing.
Marketing your agency
So how is marketing your agency and finding new work different from working as a freelancer?
It’s not, really. It’s just that as an agency you have more clout and power to go after the bigger jobs. Send an email to your current and old clients, letting them know that you’ve opened a design agency. Explain that this means you can continue to provide the same level of service they’ve come to expect; but now you have the capacity to take on more intensive projects.
Starting an agency is a daunting prospect, but it’s also an exciting transition for any freelancer who is looking to push their business beyond their own capabilities. The agency model offers many benefits over freelancing, and it could be the key to landing the kind of design projects you’ve only dreamt about until now.