With these 5 steps, I took my design firm from zero to profitability in 3 years

Chang Jun Ho

You can also succeed in your startup or business venture with the right mindset, attitude, and organised system in place

You may have heard the myth that nine in ten start-ups fail. Or that half of us would not make it past the fourth year. Huffington Post said it, Inc quoted it, Forbes emphasised it (not just once, but twice), but I am here to tell you that is not true. At least for the creative industry.

In my years of experience in this industry, the people I knew whose businesses failed, meaning that they closed down, are far and few between. And it’s not just me, these articles here and here support that claim (and they even debunk Forbes too, *ooooo*).

So it’s not a sure fail really — some people just want you to think it is. Why? I don’t know. But what I do know is that you can do it. Like me.

Right now I am running a profitable creative company and developing a second company which is tech-related. We have had around 100 clients in these three years, with names like SingTel, DBS Bank and Bain & Company.

If you’re like the countless others who are looking for advice, dragging your feet about starting your own design business because you are afraid, here is my story about how I built my business — along with the 5 steps that I took:

  1. Get good
  2. Build your network
  3. Learn how to sell
  4. Hire
  5. Learn continuously

I hope that after this reading, it gives you more confidence in taking your first step.

Step 1: Get good

You have to be good at what you do. This is a must, otherwise why would people want your services? You don’t have to be good at all the aspects, just one of your choice. Preferably a skill you are passionate about and that is important to your business. For me, that skill is animating. I have no talent in drawing or illustrating. If I drew a horse, it would probably look like this.

You can leave the other hard or soft skills to your great team or co-founders (see step 4). This is so that you at least know what you are talking about when selling your business to potential customers or investors (see step 3). You have to know what you are saying, and believe me, the clients can see through your fluff.

Also read: 5 sane words of advice you should ignore as an entrepreneur

A lot of you would have some sort of educational background in design or animation or whatever creative you specialise in. That is great. However, it is not a must — just a bonus.

For example, I actually graduated from business studies in Ngee Ann Poly. I knew nothing about the creative industry, much less possessed the skills. Back then in 2012, I was inspired by my now mentor, Eugene Cheng. He shared with me about how businesses can use design to communicate more effectively. That ignited the spark for design within me. I started self-learning since then.

One year later, I was interning at a company called Ngee Ann Co-op. They run a convenience store inside my Polytechnic amongst other things. My friends kept asking me if I was working there as a cashier cause they don’t know what else NP Co-op does.

Annoyed at the constant explaining of what NP Co-op is, and fuelled by my new passion for design, I suggested creating an animated explainer video for my internship company. My boss thought it was a great idea and approved it. So I taught myself how to animate and create motion graphics through YouTube and Google. Then I continued to learn and master my craft.

Here some practical tips for you:

  1. Master the tool: Learn the shortcuts to your software, get bloody efficient at it
  2. Design fundamentals: Research the rules, terminology, and methodology that the experts use. This is the fastest way to become an expert.
  3. Practice: But no amount of reading will make you an expert unless you practice. It takes constant learning from experts, and 10,000 hours of practice to become a master.

By the way if you are interested to see the explainer video I did for my intern company, you can view it here:

It was just that simple! I am not saying it would be easy, on the contrary, the road ahead would be tough. But if you have resilience and perseverance, you can be good at what you do.

The takeaway

Before you enter the industry, think about which skill you want to become an expert at, and then spend countless days learning and practicing the skill.

Step 2: Build your network, a lot of it

Now that you have gotten your skill, but people will not automatically come to you for your service. The truth is, no one will know you, except for your family and friends (this might be a good starting point though), but certainly not your future clients if you don’t put yourself out there.

I acquired my first client through a networking session. Back then I was still fresh out of school and only had that one explainer video I did as my work experience. But I confidently told people that I was an animator. I got a call after that networking session, and the rest is history.

Several good networking groups to join are Business Network International (BNI) and Meetup.sg. These are good platforms for expanding and building your network, which is essential to your business. For the first two years, a good bulk of my clients were from these functions or were word of mouth referrals from the clients I met at these events.

In fact, the biggest project that I got in my first year of doing business was from recommendations. The size of that project gave me the confidence of pursuing this as my full-time career. Never underestimate the magic of networking. It opened doors for me that I could never get myself and I am eternally thankful for all those that referred me.

Also read: Women in engineering: Inspiring stories and sage advice from 3 female Grab engineers

Get out there, and make your brand known. The people you meet may not be your clients, but they can refer clients to you, or be your investor and maybe even a business partner in the long run.

The takeaway

Relentlessly` build your network and market your service, be it offline or online. It is not just what you know, but who you know, or rather, who knows you.

Step 3: Learn how to sell

Now that you have been building your network, you are getting more and more projects. But you are not closing as many as you want to.

Even if you put yourself out there, if you have no selling capabilities, you will find yourself falling flat on your face, wondering why they are saying no to you.

The best way to sell, I have realised, is going to the meeting with the mindset that you genuinely want to help your client. Hard selling while shoving your service in their face is not going to cut it, they will be turned off and may even affect your reputation.

By teaching your prospects the best way to go about the project, they will think you as the industry expert and trust you. Trust leads to credibility, and from there you will form a good working relationship. Be objective in your meeting. Don’t make this about you and your service, the focus should be on the client and their problem. And chances are, they will pick you to do the project for them!

Also, a method I have learnt through the years is to come up with your own framework of doing things. An example: Early this year, I had a business meeting with a client discussing their corporate anniversary video. I went in with a few pages of methodology framework titled CAM-V, short for Corporate Anniversary Milestones Video, and they were floored. They ate it up and we got the deal.

The reason is that having a framework of your own makes you stand out from your competitors and establishes yourself as an industry expert. The clients will see you as someone who knows what they are talking about and are more likely to engage you.

After each project, don’t forget to ask for testimonials, referrals, and feedback as well.

The takeaway

Genuinely want to help your clients, and establish yourself as an expert by coming up with frameworks. Sales is one of the most important aspect in any business. You should spend a couple of hours a week researching and learning how to improve your sales.

Step 4: Hire

No one is Superman. At some point of time in the business, you have to learn to hire and delegate. Trying to handle it all may cause yourself more problems than saving some cash on the side, or even result in burnout. I learned this the hard way.

When I was schooling, I had bad experiences working with group mates and this led to trust issues. Having just started out, I also wanted to earn more money, believing that I could do it alone, that no work was too much for me to handle. However, I found myself sitting in front of the computer after getting out of bed, then to the computer and to the bed again and again. There was a whole month where I didn’t go out of my house other than to get food. I felt that my life was really terrible and was even depressed at one point.

Also read: How hiring a diverse team will strengthen your company culture

After getting burnt out over and over again, I realised that this is no way to live. I had to hire someone to help me out. And luckily I did. The person I hired helped to handle a certain portion of the production work, and allowed me to focus more on the business side of things.

So put aside your trust issues, monetary concerns, micromanaging tendencies and just hire. When you look back, you will be grateful to yourself. You are not just making your life easier, you are giving someone else an opportunity to work as well. Many entrepreneurs made this mistake and I am here to tell you, don’t do it all alone.

If you are like me and come from a business school and hence don’t know anyone that you can work with, you can always post on social media, or look at freelancing websites.

The takeaway

No man is an island, learn how to hire great talents to work with. Life and work will be much more enjoyable this way. Charge higher for projects that you know you have to hire externally.

Step 5: Continuous learning

After you have become an expert, built your network, learnt how to sell, hired people, you are thinking about what’s the next step to growing your business. Well, there’s no one right way of doing it, but it always involves continuously learning.

There are always new things out there for us to learn, new concepts to understand, new skills to master. Even the best of the best, they still learn. The key to success is always seeking improvements. I think. I don’t consider myself successful yet, because I haven’t learnt enough.

So just keep improving, keep learning, have perseverance and you will be able to do it. Jiayou!

A final word

I’ve made countless mistakes as a freelancer and business owner, and there are many more areas that I am still improving in. But if you study the above areas that I mentioned, and do your own research and analysis, I believe that you too, will be able to run your own design firm.

If you have any questions about the above points, leave us a comment below and I would love to share more about it with you.

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