The Pros and Cons of Working with Startup Clients


By Erin Sanchez

source: Innorobo

source: Innorobo

When it comes to taking on new clients, graphic designers and agencies generally consider several factors, including timeline and budget, whether the work request fits their areas of expertise, and if the organization is reputable. But what if a startup company approaches you for design work and they have yet to establish a strong reputation and history of operation? Should you take on this client or run the other way?

I’ve put together a list of pros and cons to consider the next time a startup inquiry finds its way to your inbox.

Let’s start with the pros:

Fun projects. Startup companies are today’s innovators. They’re working on the products and services of tomorrow that many of us could never even begin to dream up. If you work with startups, especially those in tech, you’ll get a sneak preview of some really cool and crazy new gadgets—sometimes even before they hit the market.

Fewer middlemen. Startups teams tend to be small, and as a result, some of their business processes move much more quickly than those of large corporations. It’s not uncommon for outsourced professionals such as graphic designers to work directly with a startup founder or CEO. Less middlemen can mean faster project feedback, turnaround, and approval.

Potential growth. Just because the company is small now doesn’t mean it won’t get bigger. Having startups in your portfolio today that become wildly successful down the road is a good position to be in. Consider companies like Uber and Airbnb that started small and now have multi-billion dollar valuations. Wouldn’t you like their logos in your portfolio? Talk about bragging rights!



Ongoing work. Getting your foot in the door early with a startup could position you for lots of future work. Once you understand a startup’s mission, culture, and vision—and deliver on it—they are unlikely to look elsewhere for design work. I won’t say startups are more loyal, but early involvement with a small company can mean building strong business relationships that can’t necessarily be found the same way in corporate environments.

Project variety. Early on, startup teams are usually focused on building their products or services, acquiring users, and raising money. For graphic designers, this means tons of work and a variety of projects. Startups need everything from a logo to a website to marketing materials. And even if they already have some of these things, they frequently go through a rebranding once they’ve made or raised enough money to put a bigger budget behind design.

Now that we’ve covered the upside of working with startups, let’s look at some of the cons:

More risks. Startups are…well, startups. They aren’t firmly established in the market yet and oftentimes don’t have a solid revenue stream. In fact, statistically speaking, nine out of ten startups fail. If you’re deciding whether to take on a startup client, be prepared for these and other risks. Know that a startup client may not provide long-term, ongoing work as there’s always a chance the startup could fold—maybe even before you get paid.

Small budgets. While many startups are certainly willing to pay good rates for design work, others are bootstrapped or operating on a shoestring and may not be able to meet your rates. Tight budgets can also make for a shortage of work or unpredictable work flow. What’s more, small companies have a tendency to undervalue services like graphic design, so even if a startup agrees to your rates, there’s a chance your services will be milked for all their worth.

Lack of experience outsourcing. Many startups are new to outsourcing work and don’t have established processes in place. This can lead to inefficiencies, delayed payments, and a general misunderstanding of common practices and expectations. For example, startups might request several rounds of revisions, despite the number defined in your contract, and designers could find themselves on the receiving end of excessive demands.

Communication challenges. Remember the second point in the list of “pros” above about less middlemen? Well it goes both ways. Startups run with small teams consisting of very busy people. It can be difficult to pin down the person you need to talk to and to get your questions answered. Expect slow responses to calls and emails, and be prepared to do a lot of following up. Unfortunately, inconsistent communication can result in last-minute client requests and design work being done at the eleventh hour.

Unclear vision. Startups sometimes lack a clear vision of where their company is going. It’s not uncommon for a startup to pivot—at times, more than once—and as such, they’re still working through brand imaging and messaging. For designers, such ambiguity and frequent changes are likely to bring about unwanted stress and undue burdens.

In the end, every startup is different. Some may have more of the pros than cons, and for others, the cons may outweigh the pros. Designers will have to consider each engagement on a case-by-case basis, and hopefully this list covering the ups and downs of working with startups will come in handy when making that decision.

What has been your experience working with startups? What would you add to the list?

Erin Sanchez is a freelance writer living in the Seattle area. She enjoys helping SMBs and startups grow their businesses through insightful, creative copywriting. You can learn more about Erin on her website, Dynamic Copy Works, or follow @Dynamic_Writer for small business and marketing tips.

T6894If you’re a graphic designer looking for real-life advice and long-term success, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients by acclaimed designer Ellen Shapiro is the book for you. Not only does she reveal the secrets behind getting the clients you want to recognize your name and brand, but she also discusses how to land those clients and create a positive and productive working relationship with them.