Are you running a business from the sticks?

One of the best parts of CFC 2012, according to attendees, was the Morning Roundtables, in which anyone could grab a table and lead a discussion on a topic of their choice.

One of those discussions was led by Julia Reich of, who lives and works from the Finger Lakes Region of New York.

Her topic: Out in the Sticks: the Joys & Challenges of Running a Design Biz in a Small Community.

Thanks to Julia for these highlights of the discussion, posted also on her blog:

Designers from PA, MI, TX, Cape Cod, NY, CAN, and even AK discussed our location-based issues while acknowledging that living in the sticks can lead to a higher quality of life (low cost of living! access to nature! it’s quiet & peaceful, there’s no traffic, pollution levels are low!) helping balance work life with personal life. Here’s some highlights from our conversation:

  • We’re always encouraged to narrow our market and focus our services. But can we still do this when we have a limited pool of prospects to choose from? If we did that, we might never have any local clients – there aren’t enough appropriate prospects in any one market. Is a design business only appropriate in more urban areas?
  • The readily available industry may have no money to spend on marketing services (ex: mushers in Alaska, or wineries in the Finger Lakes region of Central NY, where I live)
  • Prospects do not understand the value of design. Is it our job to educate them? A useful tip that came out of the conversation in response to this challenge is try networking with a young professionals group (in my area, this group is called IGNITE, where they are more likely to “get” what designers do, value our services, and make qualified referrals.
  • Participant Amy Caracappa-Qubeck‘s unique challenge with her locale on Cape Cod, MA is that it is a vacation destination – so the population, at least during the summer, isn’t interested in business relationships.
  • How do we network with others in our industry and nurture our design community?
  • Perception obstacles abound: clients may think you don’t have the same design chops as those in a metropolitan area (Laurel Black describes this phenomenon in her blog article, “Urban Refugee Syndrome” ); while prospects from your small community  – if you’re from “away” like I am, having started my business in New York City – may assume you’ll be too expensive.

If you were you there, what else did we talk about? What did you take away from our talk?

Finally – designer or no, do you live or work in the sticks? What are your unique joys & challenges?

12 thoughts on “Are you running a business from the sticks?

  1. julia reich

    Hi Chris, you’re right, regrettably. We did not have much time to focus on answers. It was more of a venue for our roundtable to connect around shared challenges. How can we continue the dialogue?

  2. Bridget

    I mostly missed this roundtable (though I did pop in for the last 6 mins of it!), but we can definitely extend the conversation to this blog! I think it’s sort of a requirement for smaller areas to “educate” prospects/clients on the value of our services. That said, sometimes a budget cannot be budged. I think connecting with the local Chamber of Commerce (and even Chambers a few towns over) is a fantastic idea, especially if you’re not a native local, and making sure you use language that is clear and informative when describing your process. A distinction that I value is saying “design costs” versus “design fees/charges”, which is something you mention in one of your books, Ilise. Little things make a big difference in perception!

  3. Amy CQ

    Julia is right, I think we could have talked for most of the morning on the topic! I also took away the needed push to be proactive in my community when looking for prospects. Most work is through word of mouth in a small community, and, especially when you are not native to the area, your prospects just might not know you are there! This is where I see the Chambers, Young Professionals Associations, Rotary Clubs and the like being a big help in making new connections.

    Another point that was brought up was that smaller communities might not have the larger budgets as more metro areas do. But, a point that I clearly got from all angles at the CFC was not to undervalue our services. If we continue to buckle and undercut our costs and continue to over deliver, we find ourselves going down a slippery slope that may be very hard to get back up. And, not to mention, we will be making it harder for all the other freelancers in our area as well to price appropriately.

    As for me, as Julia mentioned, I live in a vacation destination where the summer population don’t live there year round. But, instead of seeing this as a negative I’m trying to find ways in which I can tap into that population and have them think of me when they do go back home. People that need graphic designers go on vacation too, right!? Has anyone been in this situation too? I’d love to hear how others have dealt with it. Now if I could only find business card elves to slip my card into vacationers’ luggage…

    1. David D

      I also live in a small, resort area. The economic bubble community does not have a Rotary or it’s own Chamber, and few professional groups. I like the idea of reaching out to vacationers. I make sure that every poster I do for the major resort towns have my name with the copyright – it’s small, but it’s there. I’ve gotten a few calls based on this. I would also like to hear if anyone has any creative solutions.
      Although online social networking is important, it seems to me that in small towns real life social networking is key. I can usually get a new project or two just by taking a couple hours to walk around town and bumping into the right people on the sidewalk or in the local grocery. It’s always something like, “I was just thinking about you last week for this idea I have. I’m glad I ran into you, I wasn’t sure where I put your number. Let’s meet later this week.”
      On another note, I will agree that although I maintain my pricing standards, locals who don’t know “city” prices or understand the value of good design often find my prices “expensive.” It is hard, but I stick to my guns. I never want to be the client’s cheapest creative source – just their best creative source. They often learn the hard way when they try to do something with a low-baller or by themselves and they are not happy with the results. They will find that spending a little more and getting great results is worth their effort.

  4. julia reich

    Thanks Bridget & Amy for your thoughts on the topic. I agree with Amy that we should not undervalue our services, but one has to make a choice: do you lower your fees so they are in line with budgets of the local community? Or do you maintain fees that are more in keeping with the design profession as a whole?

    I’ve been practicing a combo approach. I love my local community and have worked with some wonderful clients on great projects – admittedly at a lower cost. Then I have clients from further away (in the NYC metro area, and out of state) that have larger budgets.

    I’m currently in the process of re-branding my company and re-doing my website in order to appeal to the latter client base. Should I be concerned that the local community will perceive me as too expensive and aloof? They probably do already. Should I be worried about this?

    This same post also lives on my blog, with a great comment from designer Laurel Black who also lives in the sticks.

    Follow along at:

    1. Laurel Black

      I just signed on to the Small Town Design Firms group and read the Biznik article – thanks for both. And now I’ll mosey over to your blog and comment some more. I’m so glad you’re spearheading this topic!

  5. Tiffany Estes

    When I learned about this roundtable I was sorry to have missed it. I’ve been based in or very near large cities for most of my freelance career, but have spent the last 5 years in a town of 10,000. The next bigger town is an hour away, and the nearest major metro is two hours away.

    When I arrived here in 2007, I had a full roster of larger clients from bigger places, but wanted to cultivate a few “local” clients so I didn’t appear to be “only for the big city folk.” My business is now about 50% local and 50% out of town. The key is identifying and realizing that there may be only a handful of businesses in your local area that can afford you, and your options are to take on other local business that may not be a great fit, or cultivate business outside your local area to balance the load.

    I’ve recently rented co-work space in the metro area that is two hours away, and I spend two days a week there. The other days I work from my local office. The change of scenery is refreshing and gives me the opportunity to meet other creatives, participate in industry events at night, and expose myself to another market without being perceived as an “out of towner.” This solution may not work for everyone, but if you’re close enough to a major metro, it might be something to consider. It makes me feel less isolated and alone, and is working out well so far (app. six months into it).

  6. julia reich

    Sounds like a great solution, Tiffany. Even though it’s 5 hours away, I try to get to New York City at least once every couple of months, to meet with clients, attend networking events, and absorb the visual culture.