How to break free from owning a job to owning a service-based business
Here’s what I’ve done from starting with half a million dollars in debt to growing a profitable graphic design business in 4 years and counting.
After working as a full-time freelance graphic designer since 2005, I realised to start a business is actually the easy part. There are many ways to start one. The tough part is to be focused enough to see it through even when you don’t seem to receive any reward along the way.
I gave up in 2014. Well, sort of. For six months, I told myself I was turning away from my passion in design and started to dabble in other industries like food, sports and more, trying to think up of more unique startup ideas, hoping to find quick success in these areas.
At that time, I kept blaming myself for wasting my time in an industry where the space is already so-called crowded or competitive, thinking there’s nothing left in the design space to occupy or that every piece of the pie has been taken.
This screwed up mindset left me high and dry at the end of 2014. I failed miserably trying to start something that’s new to me. Then I remembered what my former tutor Bernard Leong told me:
Do something you know so well that others don’t know.
This is essentially what most people termed as your “secret sauce”. I never knew what secret sauce meant until thinking what Bernard told me finally clicked!
With more than 10 years of design experience under my belt, I would have learned what problems most customers would be dying to solve and deliver the right solutions to them in the shortest time possible.
With these lessons in mind, my husband and I co-founded an ongoing graphic design business in 2015 and never looked back since.
Why start a business
Whether you are fresh out of school, starting a side hustle, quitting full-time employment or transiting from freelancing, you first have to be clear with your reasons for starting a service-based business.
If I were you, I’d ask myself this question first:
“Why do you want to start a business?”
Why ask why?
As Bill Marriott of Marriott International says:
Recently our team brought in a recommendation to make a sizable investment. When I asked why — they had a hard time answering the question as to why we should do this. So we didn’t do it. The next time you are asked to make a decision you will be far more informed if you ask “why?”
Here are our reasons:
- We are advocates of helping brands put themselves out there through storytelling. Instead of using words, we use visuals. Many people who are struggling with this still do it themselves (DIY) in the hopes of saving money. Instead, they lose time, ironically losing the opportunity to make more money. We are here to resolve this pain point for as many people as possible.
- After our first kid was born, reality hit us that we can’t be at two places at one time. That told me I’ve created a job for myself for the past 10+ years. Working full-time for someone else is not an option because I want to have the freedom and flexible control of my time and life — starting a business is the way for us.
- We love designing and creating. When we were freelancers, we were the ones working on the designs. As time went by, we started to love the business of design even more. In 2015, we decided to do less of the craft itself and dive into more of the business side of things. Such as working with customers we want, building a team and immersing in the works of marketing, sales and community. To do anything beyond graphic design.
- Growing a team used to be for ego reasons. I used to think I had something to prove as if with a big team I’m considered a great leader. As I grew with our business, our mission became clear. That is to improve the lives of graphic designers everywhere by hiring them into our virtual team and providing them with regular work.
- Eventually, we don’t grow for the sake of it. Our growth will help customers build their own design team they can rely on every day. With the help of automated tools online for us to collaborate better, this will bring down their overheads, less need to hire in-house designers and that leads to more growth for them too.
We are here to serve others beyond graphic design. It’s clear we are a value and mission-based business, growing to support our own lifestyle, our customers and designers all over the world.
Once you are clear with your reasons, these are the 7 steps you need to know that worked for us:
1. Figure out what’s the problem
When I graduated from university, I wanted to earn an income for myself and not rely on my parents. That pressure led me to only think about what I could do rather than what’s in demand.
That mindset led me to focus only on what I want to help people with the skills I have rather than the problems they are facing.
It’s great to have a bit of talent and skills in something, but those are just tools to leverage in times of need. Instead of simply deciding to start a business in graphic design because I thought I was good at it, I should have researched the web for clues to what people are looking for in the realm of graphic design.
Note that I used the word “clues” because not many people are able to articulate what they really want. As Henry Ford famously said:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
I started to go places like Quora, Reddit and join Facebook Groups that include a community who are not designers but carry out marketing activities that require graphics services. People in these communities value designs and post their challenges, asking for help there.
Thanks to their questions, I responded as if they were asking me only. Then I gave them as much information as I could without withholding anything. I did that not because I was kind, but because I wanted to do business with them and obviously to make money.
But as I went on, I didn’t really enjoy that process. While I was expecting people to work with me after I revealed my “secrets”, most of them don’t and didn’t even leave a note of appreciation.
Since then, I realised I shouldn’t give information so that they buy from me. I should do that to make their lives easier. That change in mindset and setting expectations aside also started to make my lives a whole lot easier.
This is the act of building trust.
Once I’ve earned their trust they started to reach out to me. As we got to know one another better through our regular conversations, the consistency of my actions led to more people asking me:
“Do you design this thing and how much do you charge?”.
2. Start with freelancing
You may wish to start as a freelancer first by tailoring your services based on clients’ requests. This means each request may be very different and you have to customise it to the specific client.
When I first started freelancing, bringing home an income was the first thing in mind. Hence I did everything from logo design to packaging to illustration. So long I was able to use a software that I’m an expert in (ie. Adobe), I would charge someone in exchange for work.
If you wish to start off the same way, know that it’s similar to being in the first year of art school. That’s when you will be exposed to many things in the artsy world like sketching to photography.
While freelancing, you have to cover everything from your finances to work on the designs and final delivery. It’s a great starting point to find a firm footing for yourself to make a decent living.
At some point, I did some work without money in return for selected people. I was strategic about this since it’s an investment of a lot of my time. This was not done through cold email or cold call. These are people I’ve already connected with as mentioned in step #1. This was also when I know my bank has enough to allow me to do some free work.
Next, I go to their website to have a look at what they have, such as lead magnets, workbooks, ebooks, cheatsheets or anything that I can provide in the field of graphics. Most likely they can be improved upon and I get to work.
Then I sent them a message with the work done and let them use it in any way they want. That’s all. However, be prepared that not all of them are willing to buy. Sometimes timing plays a part. I have received responses that they are happy to do it themselves or they don’t need better designs. But they are appreciative and we keep in touch till this day.
People work with people they know and trust. When I first started, prospects did not know me, giving away my time for free allowed us to know each other better. After I got my foot in the door, that was my chance to know what works for these people. Then, I learned as much as I can on what makes me different from other designers. We don’t always have to make a sale.
This is one good way to build up your professional portfolio.
3. Decide on one solution
As I figure out how marketing works, doing everything for everyone makes it harder for anyone to remember me. Sticking to one small area of design allows me to go deeper into the subject and getting micro-famous in that area.
It’s like searching for gold in a huge field. You stand a higher chance of hitting a gold mine if you find one spot and drill as deep as you can rather than scrape the surface far and wide to drill a thousand spots.
How to decide on where’s a good spot?
In step #2, you’ve learned your unique capabilities that solve a problem in your client’s world.
Next, ask yourself if most of your clients face the same problem. This may not be the best spot. But it’s a good sign for you to focus on at least for a while. Here’s where you may wish to specialise or so-called unleash your superpower to solve this problem.
You may face a situation where you don’t enjoy digging this spot as much as another one. Keep in mind your reasons for starting a business in the first place. Then ask yourself these questions:
Can I project this business to be profitable in the long term if I carry on?
Can I still lead the lifestyle I wish to have?
In my case, many of my customers need to keep changing content to suit different collaterals on a regular basis. This rang a bell for me to focus on the ongoing consistency of design elements to keep a brand coherent.
4. Structure your offering
Once you’ve decided which problem to solve, the next thing is to package your skills and know-how into a set of deliverables. This will be a format where you handover your service to your clients in the form of a product.
Another mistake I made was getting stuck in my ‘freelance job’ waiting to take orders, not knowing what’s to come. I have been an order-taker, doing anything to fulfil clients’ requirements.
With different requests, almost every process that leads up to each deliverable is customised and tailor-made. For every request, I had to start from scratch and create something from the ground up. It’s like opening a restaurant without a menu.
This resulted in extreme burnout.
Conversely, when you structure your offering, your services will look similar to a pre-mix chocolate cake. Instead of allowing any client to tell you what they want in the chocolate cake, you are the one to decide the fixed set of ingredients added to this pre-mix.
You would have known what to put in your box of pre-mix based on your lessons learned from steps #1 to #3.
The fun part is, you get to mix and match and test out which set of ingredients works best to the clients you know will need the most.
5. Price your offering
There’s no magic to the numbers. Over the years I hear things like numbers 3, 7, 8 and 9 work well. I’ve tried them all and realised that if nobody has a pain that I can help with and if my service does not solve their pain, any number does not help.
The way to pricing can be very simple if you have a simple “pre-mix”. Do not price it solely based on what other similar design businesses are pricing. I agree that we must be aware of the so-called “market-rate”. But the knowledge is only to understand what a certain group of people are willing to pay.
However, there are many design businesses out there that charge lower than they could survive on just to win clients. Hence, “market-rates” may not be a reliable gauge after all.
In my case, I work from home and I have a mini team of professional designers who will work on the designs. The price of my offering is decided based on my customer’s stage of business to ensure they are willing and able to afford it.
Next, I have to make sure it covers my operational bills, marketing budget, the internet, salary for the team and myself. It also has to include at least a 50% top up as the profit where part of it will be reinvested into the business such as automation, tools and more.
The lower my expenses are, the lower I can price my offer to help customers save more money. At the same time, the higher the volume of people signing up to our service, the more my business will profit. In this way, I’m able to keep my business sustainable and in turn help more people.
6. Level up your skills
At this point in time, the most important part of getting your business off the ground is to differentiate yourself.
People work with people, someone who’s alive, not brands or a beautiful logo or a company. People want to know if they can rely on you.
Can you be trusted to deliver what they need in tough times?
Will you take ownership when you make a mistake?
Will you react in your worst temper when customers happened to criticise you sarcastically on a bad day?
If you intend to hire, do you know what to do if your team members can’t deliver what’s been asked for?
Do you know what it takes to train your team?
Do you know how to promote your service without being salesy?
There are now at least 400,555 businesses in the world providing graphic design services, which means there’s no shortage of supply. This means the best way to thrive is to differentiate oneself and stand out in a subset of the graphic design industry.
What is working for my business is my neverending quest and perseverance to mastering as many skills as I can beyond graphic design, such as:
- Customer Service
- Personal Growth
I’m no guru, but I am willing to learn all of the above as frequently as possible.
Note that this is a non-exhaustive list. If you wish to explore more skills to learn and become unstoppable, check out how to skill up your life with Danny Forest.
7. Implement Operating Systems
This step for me is one of the most life-changing, crucial steps in building a business. It relieves me from doing the things that not only I can do. This helps remove me from the “I can’t be at two places at one time” situation.
It gives me the freedom to choose when to get creative and work on anything for anyone I choose. Rather than to do work because I have to do so, this allows me to pass on tasks to those who enjoy working on them.
With a structured offer in place (Step #4), I have a fixed list of items to deliver, I was able to filter out daily tasks that are repeatable and those that simply can’t be replicable no matter what. I reserved one day a week to list out common or standard tasks that I have to do to deliver one set of design to each customer.
Here’s a sample daily checklist:
When a customer emails a request, our designer gets to work —
- Customer’s request is scheduled, first come first served
- A folder or file is set up for the customer’s request in Google Drive
- The first request in progress — designer reads, come up with the concept
- Three options are created
- Three file formats are created — namely: source file, .PNG and .PDF
- Drafts are emailed to the customer, usually within 3 days or less
Checklists I’ve created:
- Branding questions
- Fulfilling a request
- Quality control
- Customer service
Eventually, I took one full year to get the necessary system in place to remove myself as the designer (I’m sure you can do this sooner). Then I hired my first designer. Other than creativity, my designer only has to refer to the checklist and get to work while I sleep, travel, eat, watch my kids or work on other side projects.
That said, the systems and processes I’ve created are not set in stone and require regular updates. I learn that they are constantly work in progress. Currently, I review and improve upon this every Friday. I’m creating more systems as I go.
In the near future, I will be opening this up to my team for everyone to chip into improving it weekly. Including them in the process will help to streamline the processes better since they are the ones referring to the checklists every day.
Own a business, not another job
Remember that your reason or your ‘WHY’ will be the motivating factor to help you overcome inertia, procrastination and weather most storms.
Today, I’m grateful to have evolved from these 7 steps and found more freedom in my life:
- Figure out what’s the problem
- Start with freelancing
- Decide on one solution
- Structure your offering
- Price your offering
- Level up your skills
- Implement operating systems
Are you ready?
Get started now.