The Keys to Design Business Success: Belief, Opportunity, Capacity

What leads to design business success? The first path is a deeply held belief or confidence about your value to your clients. In spite of the fact that nearly everyone espouses this to be true, the evidence tells a different story.

The path to design business successBut some, indeed, have an uncanny, even unwavering belief that their work is worth a certain amount and they escape the normal equivocation that comes when discussing fees. Their body of work, often over more than a decade, commands significant fees (regardless of its effectiveness). These people are rare, but they don’t depend on external validation for their business value, and that confidence becomes self-fulfilling in the marketplace (clients are drawn to confidence and can sense a lack of confidence on the flip-side).

The second path is benefiting from many opportunities that come your way, either accidentally (being in the right place at the right time), or intentionally (you’re really good at marketing your services). This is the more typical path for business “success” in the marketplace. It’s a lot more work, trying to be in the right place at the right time, but it can pay off.

Evidence for Your Lack of Confidence

Before developing this idea of the two paths (innate confidence or bumping into opportunity), I want to pause and explain more fully what I mean by “not believing in the value of your work.” Some of you probably read that but don’t see yourself on that path when in fact you are. I’ve learned to see certain business practices as clear evidence of that lack of belief:

  • Discounting your fees.
  • Modifying your terms.
  • Allowing unusual invoicing procedures.
  • Providing advice before an engagement is crafted.
  • Letting clients instead of you determine the problem.
  • Presenting multiple, equally viable solutions to the client.
  • Changing positioning to fit what prospects want to hear.

Bringing More Success

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceSo the typical graphic/web design firm wanders one of those two paths in achieving success, and I’ve worked with hundreds of examples on either path. Regardless, I’ll have more success in trying to fix the opportunity issue by helping them bring more of those opportunities to the table than trying to fix the belief issue by telling them they are really better than they think. It’s not that unusual for me to marvel at how much better a client is than they believe about themselves, but I’ve never been all that successful at propping up someone’s belief.

Reacting to Additional Success

Fast forward, then, and assume you’re successful in bringing more opportunity to the table. What should your reaction be as opportunities increase? What we should do is measure the opportunities against each other, choosing the opportunities that allow us to compromise less and be more of an expert. While it’s really hard to turn down work that isn’t a good match for you, it’s a lot easier to do that same thing if you can replace the opportunity with a better one.

But the minute you up-size your capacity to handle the additional opportunity, you lose the ability to say “no” to clients who aren’t a good fit because you feel pressure to feed that new capacity. This temptation to match capacity to opportunity is made worse because of our cultural love of growth and the sheer lip pain associated with mouthing the “no” word in an entrepreneurial culture. We even call it “The Land of Opportunity,” and it seems unpatriotic to not take advantage of it.

But the goal, folks, is not how big your firm can get but how profitable and impactful you can be. And size is not that relevant to either goal. Having more capacity (i.e., a bigger firm) brings additional management pressure, additional financial risk, and additional pressure to keep the sales machine humming. The right size is always this: slightly smaller than the amount of opportunity within reach. That ability to say no — and really be okay with it — is one of the most precious things about running a design firm. It’ll keep you sane, more in control, and most importantly it’ll help you exercise that power that comes from withholding your expertise, which is really the only power you have.

Eventually the marketplace acceptance of your work will boost your confidence and you will spiral upwards, on the right foundation.

Resources for Increasing Revenue at Your Design Business