You’re finally ready to start your own design business.
You’ve paid your dues, you know design like the back of your hand, and now you’re ready to take the next step. Congratulations, it won’t be long until you’re a business owner.
And luckily, we’ve got just the guide to set you on the right path.
In this article, you’ll learn how to open your very own design business from scratch in seven easy steps.
Let’s get to it.
Step 1: Set up your new design business
Great businesses thrive when they have a strong foundation, so that’s where we’ll start.
Here’s how to build a strong foundation for your new design business.
Register your business
The first step to opening any kind of business is to make it legal on paper. To stay out of Uncle Sam’s radar, you’ll need to set up your business as an LLC, incorporation, or another business entity.
To start the process, Google ‘registered agent near me’ or use an incorporation service. You can also call your county clerk’s office to see what business registration services they offer.
Feeling stuck about which business entity to choose? Consider meeting with a certified public accountant (CPA) or a business consultant for clarity.
Draft a core business plan
A core business plan describes everything your business is at its core. In other words, it explains who you are, what you do, and how you plan on doing it.
Drafting a core business plan is essential to feeling like you have a grasp on your business from the start. Think of it as the initial guide you’ll be using to get through those first few months of business.
Here’s what to include in your core business plan:
- A detailed description of your target audience (more on this in a bit)
- A description of your role as a business owner (who you are and what you do)
- A simple breakdown of what your business does and your execution plan
- A financial plan including potential start-up costs, cost to produce work products, website fees, hiring fees, your budget, etc.
- Your business entity type and why you chose it
- Your accounting plan
- Marketing ideas
- Mission statement, goals, and ultimate business dreams
If you’re still unsure of what to include in your core business plan, consider meeting with a business consultant to iron out the details.
Set up the backend of your business
The backend of your business is everything that happens behind the scenes. Take a moment to visualize how you plan to operate daily.
For instance, you’ll likely need:
- High-end design software, such as Adobe InDesign and Adobe Illustrator
- Calendar software to manage meetings, calls, and project deadlines (look up Calendly)
- A work operating system (Work OS) to manage work orders, assign tasks, verify marketing statistics, and submit projects — we like ClickUp
- Proper equipment, such as Mac computers, desktops, iPads, and ergonomic workspaces
- Systems for onboarding and offboarding employees securely
Set up the front end of your business
The front end of your business is the customer-facing part. It’s everything your customers will see about you and your new brand.
Here’s what you’ll need to prepare the frontend of your business:
1. Your customer offers
What kinds of products and services will you offer and why? For instance, will you be catering to mostly wedding venues and brides? In that case, you’ll likely focus on invitation design, wedding programs, and save-the-date cards.
Will you be catering to other new business owners? If so, you’ll likely focus on logo design, website design, and printing services.
2. Your prices
What kinds of packages, plans, and a la carte options will your customers have to choose from? And how much will they cost?
Are you going to offer set monthly subscriptions for a handful of design elements? Do you want to sell pre-designed templates and design elements in an online store? Planning on offering six month packages in exchange for a retainer fee? Or all of the above?
3. Your visibility
How will your customers see you and know you?
What tools will you use to build a strong brand reputation?
Are you planning on recording Reels on Instagram and posting graphics on Pinterest every week? Are you going to start a weekly podcast and a webinar series? More on visibility and marketing in a bit.
4. Your brand style
What design elements will you create to represent your brand? What brand colors will you use? What fonts will you use? Do you have any logo options or graphics in mind?
Step 2: Create your website and social media pages
You’ve laid the foundation for a thriving business, but how will your target audience find you once you’re live?
The answer is simple. You need to create access points for them. Usually, this means setting up a website and social media profiles.
Here’s our best advice for both:
Creating your website
Think of your website as your brand’s home base. It’ll direct visitors to and from important pages, encourage visitors to follow your social channels, and showcase your brand’s offers.
To create a website that sells, focus on the following tips:
- Choose a functional, intuitive website design that never goes out of style
- Create navigation tabs that are easy to spot and use, such as a ‘Home’ tab, an ‘About us’ tab, and an “Our products and services” tab
- Add a blog that features an optimized article each week
- Hire a copywriter to write website copy with your target audience in mind
- Make sure your website proudly displays your brand colors, fonts, logo, and design elements
You’ll also need to make sure your portfolio, products, and services look enticing. An effective way to do that is to hire a website video production company to shoot a custom video for you.
If you’re interested in shooting the video yourself, here are some tips:
Creating your social media pages
Research the social channels your target audience frequents most and create profiles on those channels first.
Keep a consistent brand image across your social profiles, but don’t forget to customize your profile for each channel. The simplest way to do that is by paying attention to each channel’s unique sizing requirements and native design elements.
Step 3: Hire a remote team
Unless you have the funds for an office — plus a backup plan in case the world shuts down again — we recommend hiring a remote team to bring your design business to life.
You may feel tempted to start the business on your own or with minimal help, but that’s where many new business owners go wrong.
Having a team you can depend on frees you up from performing repetitive tasks that drain your time. In other words, having a team means you can focus on growing your business while your team focuses on running it.
When you’re ready to conduct interviews, consider hiring for the following roles:
- Graphic designers that are well-versed in the design programs you use
- Web designers (if your brand offers web design)
- Customer service reps that can chat online, use customer service tools, answer emails, and solve customer issues
- Content writers that specialize in writing blog posts and email newsletters. You can also outsource this to a professional content marketing agency.
- Copywriters that specialize in writing marketing and website copy
- A virtual assistant at your side for everyday tasks
- A marketing director for ongoing marketing advice and promotion design
- A content manager to manage blog content and search engine optimization (SEO) planning
Please note that all of the roles listed above are optional — some of them you may need to hire for. And some of them may not be relevant to your brand now or in the future.
To make sure you’re only hiring roles you truly need, map out your design business’s daily, monthly, and quarterly operations. Then, decide which tasks you’ll handle yourself and which ones you need help with.
When determining between the two, be careful. It’s normal for new business owners to bite off more than they can chew. But it’s also just as easy to hire too many people you don’t actually need. The key to striking the right balance is to be as honest and realistic as possible.
For instance, if you know your role will be mostly cold-emailing, networking, and quality control, do you really have time for web design? You get the idea.
If conducting interviews and onboarding new employees sounds too overwhelming, consider hiring a professional employer organization (a PEO company) to do it for you.
If you’re hiring employees worldwide, consider offering your employees courses to brush up on their English skills.
Step 4: Create a marketing plan
Your business is almost in full swing — but you still need a marketing plan.
If you have no marketing experience, ask your marketing director to sit in on this section with you.
Here’s what you need to ask when creating your marketing plan:
Who are you going to serve, and why do they need you?
You know who your target audience is, but do you really know who they are? Answer the following questions to discover more about your target audience and how you can best serve them.
Who’s your target audience?
Spend some additional time getting to know your target audience. What are their hopes, dreams, and fears? What do their buying habits look like? What are their preferences? What do they need? What do they care most about? What are their pain points? Would they be interested in general knowledge (e.g. trends), how-to guides and detailed instructions, or maybe practical content (such as Starbucks recipes, for example)?
What’s your unique value proposition?
What value are you giving your target audience, and why should they care? What problem does your audience have, and how will you solve it? What benefits will your audience receive if they choose you?
Why should your target audience choose you instead of the competition?
What can you offer your target audience that no other designer can?
For instance, are you the only graphic designer in town that specializes in wine label design? Do you have a 100% satisfaction guarantee? Do you use eco-friendly paper and textures for all of your printing projects?
What’s your social media marketing plan?
Based on your target audience’s social media habits, how are you planning to show up on social media?
Are you planning on:
- Posting a brand new graphic on Instagram and Facebook every three days?
- Sharing inspirational design stories every Friday?
- Recording educational Reels, videos, and webinars each week?
- Engaging with your followers for an hour every day?
- Taking advantage of Instagram giveaways, contests, and polls?
- Screen grabbing content from your blog posts to create pins on Pinterest?
- Creating a members-only space for your customers on Facebook?
What’s your email marketing plan?
Based on your target audience’s email habits, how will you reach their inboxes each week?
Are you planning on:
- Sending out a company newsletter each month?
- Creating weekly freebies and promotions only email subscribers can access?
- Sharing personalized and relatable stories twice a week?
- Featuring a new design element or offer every two weeks?
- Asking an influencer to take over your email marketing during special promotions?
PS: Here are some customizable email templates you can use to get started.
Step 5: Create a communication plan
Effective communication channels are pivotal to business success. From making sure your designers are on the same page to responding to a client email promptly, communication can make or break your business.
Here’s how to make sure communication always remains a high priority:
Team communication plan
Create a team communication plan your team can rely on by choosing one or two communication channels everyone has access to.
A good rule of thumb is choosing one messaging app and one work management tool to communicate in. Slack is great for general messages, video calls, and regular calls. And ClickUp is great for daily project updates, project questions, and task reminders.
Client communication plan
A client communication plan is crucial to building trust with your customers.
Unlike team communication, clients need multiple communication access points. While some clients may prefer communicating through email, others may want to jump on video calls. While some may want to message you, others may want to keep all communication in a Work OS.
The key is offering communication access points that won’t overlap with your personal life. The best way to do that is to only give out your business contact information.
This may include your business:
- Email address
- Landline phone number
- Cell phone number
- Messaging tool
- Work OS
Don’t have a business landline or cell phone yet? Consider using Google Voice phone numbers or hiring a small business phone services company for additional calling options.
Step 6: Streamline time management, invoicing, accounting, and contract management
You’ve made substantial progress on your design business prep, but you still have a few more tasks to check off your list.
In this section, we’ll take a look at four time-consuming offenders you should always stay on top of.
Having a business means you can finally have the kind of freedom you’ve always wanted, right?
Yes, but only if you know how to manage your time right.
Here are some quick tips to help you make the most of your time:
- Stick to a set schedule or a set amount of work hours every day
- Stay away from your business email, Work OS, messaging tool, landline, and cell phone after work hours
- Time-track every business activity you engage in so you know how long each activity takes on average
- Make it a goal to beat your time-tracking figures a little more each day — if an activity took you two hours yesterday, see if you can do it in an hour and a half today
- Create a time-tracking protocol and/or schedule for each full-time or part-time employee
- Let go of seemingly ‘busy work’ that doesn’t actually help your business grow
- Delegate any responsibility you’re not a pro at
Invoicing can be a complete nightmare and a major time-suck if it’s not organized properly.
Here are some quick tips to help you stay on top of invoicing:
- Save time on invoicing woes by tracking every financial activity as it happens
- Add a new project to your invoice list as soon as you receive the work order for it
- Pay invoices as soon as you receive them or dedicate one or two days a month to pay invoices
- Avoid multitasking anytime you need to track, pay, or create an invoice
- Use invoicing software or hire a dedicated employee to take care of invoicing for you
When it comes to accounting, you may be able to get by with an online accounting tool at first, but we always recommend hiring a CPA.
CPAs are specialists at their jobs. They’re there to help you avoid expensive or harsh legal issues. They can also help you save time and ensure your finances are in order.
CPAs may also be able to save you money on taxes and/or recommend additional tax write-offs you weren’t aware of.
Contract management is another time-consuming task if you’re not proactive about it.
Here are some quick tips to help you save time:
- Use contract management software to share and sign contracts with ease (DocuSign and PandaDoc are good options)
- Ask clients to sign work agreements and pay a deposit before starting on work assignments
- Ask a lawyer to vet out all of your contracts before sending them out to employees, vendors, and clients
Step 7: Draft your business strategy plan
Take the information you documented in steps one through six and finalize it in a new document. Name the new document “Brand Name + Business Strategy Plan.”
You now officially have a handy reference guide you and your team can easily check at any time.
And that’s it. You did it!
Now all you have to do is bring your new strategy to fruition. And how do you do that, you ask? One step at a time, friend.
Author Bio: Reid Burns.