Fig. 5 A Guide to The Scenery

What We Learned In 2015: Part 1

15 simple tips for getting your new design agency off the ground

Written by Ryan Clark January 12, 2016

We’re not a huge fan of yearly retrospectives here at The Scenery. At best they catch people up and at worst they come off as a fluffy self-serving pat on the back. This is not one of those.

In 2015 we started a business from scratch. We could list off the clients we’ve worked with and goals we achieved, but I’d rather talk about the interesting stuff—what we learned. If you’re looking to strike off on your own (or recently have) we have some handy tips that we learned the hard way over the last year. Hopefully they can help as you embark on your own business adventure.

1. Lawyers and accountants are worth every single penny.

Our biggest expenses this year were legal and accounting services. Too often new businesses ignore legal issues and try to keep accounting and bookkeeping in-house. Don’t. Before starting a company find a good lawyer and review your last two employment contracts for things you didn’t notice (like non-solicits!) and see what your liabilities are. Find an accountant that understands service agencies (and better yet digital products) and do everything possible to make them your best friend. These two people will become your most trusted and helpful business allies—they’re worth the expense.

2. Don’t start alone.

When I told our lawyer I wanted an equal partnership he thought I was crazy. He still might, but after eight months I wouldn’t have it any other way. The burden and stress of starting a business is too much for one person. You can go through it alone, sure, but is it healthy? Having done it recently I would say no. Not a chance. Now, you may choose to structure your business partnership differently based on your situation and goals. But the value of having people you can count on to help build and mold your business can’t be understated. I can’t imagine going through 2015 without the help and support of my business partners—we are truly more than the sum of our parts.

3. Managing clients and new business is a real (full-time) job.

A lot of designers go wrong by taking on too much of the client and/or management roles. This is how you become an accidental businessman. If you ever see a designer-owner post about “not feeling connected to the work anymore” it’s because they didn’t realize this single, simple lesson along the way. Do the work or get the work, and choose early-on which you want to do.

4. It’s okay to say no… when you can.

One of my amazing friends (and mentors), Rob Harr, told me at the beginning of this adventure that you have to pay for your freedom to say no. He was 100% right. At the beginning you need to maintain your cash flow. You need to make payroll. You need to lay the foundation for a successful business, and that runs counter to being picky in your clients or work. Once you have a solid base of contracts and money in the bank you can start to say no to things that don’t fit your strategic goals or company vision. It may take weeks, months, or years—for us it took, well, until a week ago. And it feels great.

5. The best employees are the ones you know how to manage.

This is my favorite lesson so far, because it’s about people—and I was lucky enough to learn it before we grew too large. If you think an employee isn’t working out, ask yourself honestly if you’re managing them in the right way. Every person on your team is different and will bring different experiences, personalities, and interaction styles to the group. Embrace that. Find the best way to manage and structure work for each individual person to maximize their happiness and efficiency, realizing that it might be very different from your own preferences.

Hey…wait…I thought there were 15.

There are, but I wanted to keep things nice and digestible. We’re all busy people. Tips 6-10 will be up next Tuesday, so in the meantime check out some of our other guides and follow along on Twitter. Here’s to a great 2016!