Welcome to the first in a new series of features in which we delve deeper into the business side of running a design studio.
Over the course of the series we’ll be hearing from a range of our favourite studios, some with years of history to others with six months. Why were they formed in the first place and how have they saved the ship from almost sinking. How do they gain their clients, and what happens when they lose them?
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First up, Liverpool’s Well Made Studio who first caught our eye with their fantastic print and branding work for Field Magazine. With 10 years experience in the bag we got on the email to Doug Kerr and Gemma Germain to find out a little more about how they’ve got to where they are…
Let’s kick off with the essentials – Why start a studio?
By the time we opened our studio we’d been graduated for 4 years, but only had a couple of worthwhile internships between us. We were never really keen on internships anyway, and more to the point we couldn’t afford to do them and pay the rent. So we’d both ended up in regular day jobs, and to keep our creative fingers busy we were knocking out a fanzine which was drawing some attention our way.
In the end we just thought ‘why not try and establish a studio under this name we’ve established, and see what happens’. So there was an element of do-it-yourself and also of necessity: we felt like the only way we’d break into the industry was if we created the opportunity ourselves. And it was quite nice for our first proper design job to be under the label of Director!
Did you have any knowledge of running a business before hand?
Not really, although by that point the fanzine was 4 years old and we had branched out a little into events as well. It was all quite small scale but we still had to manage a modest budget and a business banking account, so there was some of that we carried over onto a bigger scale.
How do you manage the day to day of running a business against making sure you still spend the majority doing design?
It’s not something that has ever felt like a problem really. We quite enjoy most of that stuff, and I firmly believe that having a good handle on how business works has improved the way we approach design.
In the early days we obviously weren’t particularly busy so it’s quite easy to divide that time between design and starting a company. If anything it’s nowadays, 8 years in, that presents more of a challenge.
We have much bigger and more pressing design work to deal with, and running a bigger business is more time consuming also. So you have to be really disciplined about setting time aside for specific things: it’s vital that we give as much attention to designing a logo as we do to dealing with administrative stuff, or to working on longer term business strategy.
What’s your routine for gaining new business?
It evolves all the time. Our opinion is that the days of cold calling are pretty much over, and our approach now is much more stealthy.
We try to concentrate on ourselves more than the target client these days: through our online presence and our behaviour with existing clients we try to carry ourselves in a certain way, that makes people attracted to working with us. And if we do have a specific target in mind we will usually engage in a fairly protracted period of making friends before even thinking of talking to them about work.
In some cases you could be talking 12 months or more to convert an initial connection to a sale, but we find that they are more likely to become long term successful relationships.
We often see studios run something on the side, whether it be a project they can white label or a print store for instance. Is this something Well Made would entertain?
This has been a big failing of ours over the past 2 or 3 years. Going further back we were intertwined with our sister arts organisation, Mercy, which was a pretty big extra-curricular strand for us. But that is now doing its own thing under Nathan Jones’ direction, and we’ve not really replaced that activity with anything significant.
We do think side projects are a really positive thing to have going on: for experimenting, setting up new collaborations, generating press, and having something interesting to show a client. But at WM it has slipped by the wayside recently, while we focussed on other things. It’s a big one on our to-do list for next year!
Has there ever been a moment where you’ve thought you’re in too deep or could be in trouble?
Often! I think that’s the nature of running any business: it’s not all plain sailing and you often find yourself wondering if the grass is greener in the land of steady salaries and holiday allowances and sick pay. But that’s all part of the fun really: the lows can get low, but the highs are very high.
We’ve had a couple of particularly rough moments, and there was a short period where we prepared ourselves for end days. We’ve been lucky enough to survive moments like that though – through a combination of making tough decisions and bagging a nice bit of luck at just the right time.
Is there a type of brief you can, or would turn down?
I wouldn’t say we have a set policy, but we judge every brief on its merits.
There’s the obvious issue of how much budget there is compared to the scope of work being proposed, but then there are wider issues to factor in such as how realistic the timeframes are; what kind of chemistry you have with the client; if a startup what kind of funding they have in place and whether the concept appears to have a chance of succeeding. And that’s before you even consider issues relating to ethics and morals with certain kinds of clients.
I can’t say we’ve ever had to make a decision like that, but it would come into our thinking if there was something about a brief or client that we fundamentally disagreed with. If you want a business to survive a long time, having some integrity and sticking to a set of values is pretty important, so we would no doubt turn stuff down if it compromised us on that front.
How do you deal with inevitable unpaid pitch work – is there a limit to how much you do?
At the moment our policy is pretty much that we don’t do it. We don’t seek it out and if it’s offered our way we will try to engineer a modest payment or politely turn it down.
We will happily spend time on a creds doc and written proposal / presentation, but once free creative gets involved we’re out. As with most things there can be exceptions to this, but we’d have to really see a big opportunity to budge on that.
We’ve not had a good record with free pitching, and we just came to a point where we felt the time wasted would be better spent identifying our own targets and business development.
Dealing with the business details like invoicing, pricing, paying tax and what not – is that something you’ve always just dealt with internally?
We’ve got a great accountant, who really gets our business and the wider industry: they help us with the big stuff such as end of year reporting, VAT filing, etc. Aside from that though, we manage everything else in-house. There are probably some people who see that stuff as boring or uncreative, but at the end of the day we are running a business first and foremost – and if we don’t have a really tight grip and thorough understanding of how everything fits together, then there is not much point in doing it at all. So we manage everything else to do with pricing, invoicing, cash flow, filing, accounting, reporting, etc and have regular updates on it so everyone is clear on how the business is performing.
What’s next for Well Made and where do you see the studio in the future?
We’re quite light at the moment, there’s just the three of us. We would definitely like to expand the team again when the moment feels right. One thing we’ve learned over the past few years is that the industry is changing at a rapid pace these days, so we’re always on the lookout for ways to be flexible and to evolve.
We’ve really branched out into user experience and brand strategy stuff in the past year, so hopefully next year will see us go on to establish that further. Our current ten year plan is to buy our own studio in some lovely location in the wild!
What would your advice be for someone going out on their own?
Not to sound negative, but number one advice would be to really think through the long term repercussions of setting out as a new business. It’s a really rewarding and at times exciting experience, but there are plenty of sacrifices along the way, from working long hours, to being the last person the buck gets passed to if something goes awry. If you can entertain all the things that might go wrong, and that doesn’t put you off, then go for it! But it’s good to have a practical mindset and be prepared for all eventualities – that way nothing can give you a nasty surprise.
If you are already at a studio or have plenty of experience, I would strongly recommend taking a wider interest in the structure and processes of that business. Our biggest hangup over the years has been a lack of outside experience: there are always moments where we realise we are having to make up a policy on the spot, or where we would really benefit having an existing point of reference of how another studio might act in a particular situation. So if you can pick stuff like that up before setting up then pay attention to it, maybe ask the bosses to show you some behind the scenes stuff of managing a business!
Likewise, if there is anyone you might be able to call on as a mentor then don’t be afraid to ask: we put that off for a long time but I had one this past year and it really helped us to get some perspective on our company. If you don’t know anyone who could do this then sign up to the DBA Twenty/Twenty scheme: highly recommended by us.
Our ultimate advice for anyone starting out is to be confident, and to have some integrity. Set your values, your way of doing things, and stick to them no matter what.
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For more information on all things Well Made head to:
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If you’re interested in getting your studio involved in the series, get in touch with us here.