How to Start a Design Agency in 10 Simple Steps

Even if you’re a designer, project manager, or writer, the trick is to think beyond your role and absorb as much information as possible from everyone around you. Take an interest in how business works, how work is earned, build relationships, and try to understand every part of the process. It takes years to master, so the sooner you start, the stronger you’ll be when the time comes.

This is certainly true of my background and many of the founders I talk to. So dive in, be curious, ask questions and soak it all up. This way you will have everything you need to be the captain of your own pirate ship. Here are ten things I learned during my 23-year journey. I hope they will be useful to you.

1. Start on day one

It’s never too early to start, so start from day one. Be curious. Study people. Steal what is good and ignore what is bad. Understand how the whole project process works, not just your part of it. You can even be honest and say that you want to have your own studio one day and ask to be mentored from a young age.

2. Get out of your hallway

Whatever your role, don’t stop there. Do it to the best of your ability and study all other aspects of the business. Learn how to write specifications and understand how work is priced and financed. Get stuck into workshops, strategy, writing, and thinking. Embrace the burden and make yourself invaluable to the whole process beyond your role.

3. Take away all fear

We are taught from an early age to fear authority, whether it is your teacher, your parents or your boss. This cycle must be broken. Customers aren’t scary, so don’t be afraid of them. The bosses want the best for you and will support you. Fear doesn’t help – it gets in the way, so throw yourself into client meetings and uncomfortable situations, that way you take the fear away from an early age and see things for what they are. We are just people.

Nomad HQ in early 2017

4. Be the best time in your clients’ calendar

This is Nomad’s mantra. Whatever the meeting, wherever you are in the process, we should be the highlight of a client’s day. Remember, their day revolves around bar charts, powerpoints, metrics, and costumes. Our job is to bring theatre, joy and creativity. So bring your A-Game to every meeting, so they remember you. It will be invaluable later.

5. Build relationships

Having strong customer relationships built over many years is key to starting a business. You will look to these people for work when you start. So make a good impression today. Listen, understand their challenges, and create work that helps them grow in their careers. They won’t forget it. Most customers are incredibly loyal, so if you do it now, it will pay off later.

You don’t need a master plan or a business strategy. Start small, dream big. I started in my living room designing restaurant menus. Everything else comes later.

6. Go beyond

The way we remember is to go beyond. Overdeliver. Bring new ideas to the table and make the job the best it can be. The extra keys make all the difference. And in doing so, you shift the relationship from a supplier, of which there are many, to a partner, who has backs, of which there are few.

7. Jump without looking

When it’s time, or when you feel like doing something, do it. To set up a business, all you need is a laptop, a bank account and a registered company. All of this can be set up in a matter of hours. You don’t need a master plan or a business strategy. Start small, dream big. I started in my living room designing restaurant menus. Everything else comes later. Coworking spaces are great as a first studio, and hiring young people helps cut costs. Make decisions quickly based on what you know. Don’t sign up for anything that adds unnecessary stress. Keep it lean, keep costs down, and watch your cash flow. Our financing was an Amex card. We took calculated risks that thankfully paid off, but nothing we couldn’t handle if they didn’t work out.

Nomadic workshop

Nomadic workshop

Lunch together at Nomad

Lunch together at Nomad

8. Partner up

You are gone and running. So remember, the journey is the thing, not the destination. The goal is of course to get there, but getting there is the thrill, so you’ll want to share it with someone. Find the person who compliments you, who you trust and deeply respect, and then work hard to never break that trust. Communication is essential. Things can get stressful and you can make decisions that your partner wouldn’t. We have a rule that if we ever disagree or argue, it must be resolved the same day. No brooding at home. Own. Fix it. Pass.

9. Connect your network

This is where all your hard work pays off. Years of building relationships and moving beyond means you have a black book of contacts. Customers who respect you. Why wouldn’t they want to work with you? You’re cheaper than at that big agency, and they know you’ll be hungry to impress. Your agency will grow beyond your contacts, but they are essential to get you off the ground.

10. Enjoy the Ride

It’s a roller coaster, so hold on tight. There will be lots of ups and lots of downs. Learn from your failures and don’t get carried away with the big wins. The key to knowing you have a sustainable business is when it grows beyond your contacts. Your first new business inquiry will be a buzz. People know you. Your contacts now act as advocates, recommending you to their network. Now you are onto something.

And it goes fast, so enjoy every moment. Doing so comes with its own set of unique challenges, so don’t race to the finish line. Live in the moment, enjoy it, celebrate your accomplishments, be kind to your people, and create work the world will notice.

That’s it. And believe me, if I can do it, you can. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could do this. But with the right team around you, anything is possible.

Wherever you are, whatever stage you are at in your career, it starts today. So go ahead.

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Rozella J. Cook