The ultimate guide to (finally) starting your own design business

tweet share share pin email

Maybe you’re still only dreaming about starting your own design business.

Or perhaps you’re doing a few side-jobs in your free time hoping to start a design business full-time.

Maybe you’ve just started your design business but need a bit of a boost to take it to the next level.

Wherever you are in the process of starting your own design business, this post is for you.

(And if you want more than just these 10 tips, check out our favorite and most helpful articles on starting and running your own business. You should also subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll send you tons of stuff to help you build a design business.)

1) Understand your situation

No one is ever 100% ready to start their own design business with absolutely no risk, all reward.

Business just isn’t like that.

(After all, I started my design business almost by accident when I got laid off and had to start hunting for work.)

Some life situations, however, reduce the risk. For example, it’s less risky to start your own business if:

  • Your household or family isn’t completely dependent on your current income for stability.
  • You’ve got savings or other income you can use while building your client base.
  • You’re already working a full- or part-time job and can continue to do so until you don’t have time for it.
  • You’ve already got clients you’re working for in your free time–and even better if they’d like you to take on more projects.

More on freelancing part-time: Don’t hate freelancers with full-time jobs
To find more long-term clients, read: 3 Easy ways to turn one-off projects into long-term clients

How risky is your situation?

Remember: many businesses don’t really get rolling until years 2 to 3, so be prepared to need another source of money in the early days of starting your design business to ensure you can pay your bills.

2) Identify your motivation for starting a design business

Are you starting your own design business for the right reasons?

  • Why are you interested in starting your own design business?
  • What’s motivating you to strike out on your own?
  • Are you passionate about your design business idea?

By understanding what you want to get out of starting your business (i.e. more time with your family or the ability to simultaneously work and travel around the world), you can determine what type of design business is right for you and take steps to ensure you start a design business you love.

Read more on loving your business and staying motivated:

Most entrepreneurs will tell you:

Starting and operating any business (successful or otherwise) is stressful, time-consuming, and a lot of hard work. A lot of hard work…and persistence, and dedication, and long days and nights, and weighty decisions you can’t pass off to anyone else.

But it also means a flexible schedule, a measure of control over your own financial security, additional vacation time, no commute, limitless growth possibilities, the ability to say no to a client or project, and a thousand other wonderful freedoms.

(While I get to take far more vacation days than I ever used to at my 9-5, I also put in my fair share of 50+ hour work weeks in order to keep my clients happy and afford the extra time off.)

Simply put: work hard…play hard.

And if you don’t have the discipline to apply yourself to your work when the comforts of home beg you to procrastinate each day, being an entrepreneur may not be for you.

More on working from home:

3) Inventory your skill set

This is one of the toughest questions to answer honestly, and it’s one many successful veteran creative entrepreneurs still evaluate themselves with:

“Do I have the skills to compete with other professionals in my industry?”

If you’re unsure, check out Dribbble, Behance, Etsy, SmugMug, or wherever professionals in your industry post or sell portfolio pieces. How do your best pieces stack up?

If you’ve still got improving to do (and really, who among us doesn’t?), don’t fret.

Both Ferrari and Kia are profitable car companies, and while your current skill set may only allow you to charge Ford prices or retain Mercedes-level clients, you can always take classes, study tutorials, and hone your skills to move up to that next level.

Pro tip! Ask three trusted sources to give your their honest opinions on industry professionals’ work versus yours.

More on finding the right skills to build your design business:

4) Define your design business

What does your business specialize in? Who are your dream clients and projects? What aura does your business project? (PS: Here’s how to dominate any niche or industry.)

I think most of us initially secretly responded with, “I just need clients who want to pay me to do stuff. The details really don’t matter.”

At the outset, any job is exciting and any client is a chance to prove to yourself and your doubting Thomas that you ARE good enough to be a professional designer.

(And that’s okay. Food isn’t free.)

Soon enough, though, you’re going to get tired of working long hours for peanuts, dealing with a demanding client you can’t afford to ditch, and working on projects you really don’t enjoy.

PS–if you have clients you can’t ditch because you need the money, you need to read this: How to handle a tough client you just can’t afford to ditch right now

If you’re not happy as an entrepreneur, your business isn’t going to last very long because it’s not going to feel worth it enough to continue.

So set your design business up for success!

First, select three adjectives (not four or five…three only!) that you want someone to use if asked to describe your business.

  • Are you ultra-modern?
  • Cheerful?
  • Always available?
  • Affordable?
  • Grunge or underground design?
  • Strictly professional?
  • Passionate?
  • Lightning-quick turnaround?

Then define your ideal projects and your ideal clients, and research how and where to find them. (More on that below.)

The truth is, you can get better freelance work by defining your dream client.

5) Create a portfolio before starting your design business

In order to get those ideal clients and projects you’ll need to start a successful design business, you need a portfolio of your best work. Remember: quality, not quantity!

However, if you’re just starting out, stellar portfolio pieces can be hard to come by.

This is where you have to get creative:

  • Offer your services to a local non-profit, government, or homeowner’s association
  • Take continuing education classes that promise portfolio pieces
  • Create portfolio pieces based on self-inspired projects (things you’ve always wanted to create)

For more on creating winning digital and physical portfolios, try these:

6) Set your pricing

This is easily one of the most challenging aspects of starting your own design business: determining what you’re going to charge.

And the catch is, it’s never resolved. 10-year veterans still fret over whether or not they’re charging enough, how to charge more, and if they’re selling themselves short.

When you’re just starting out, it’s even more of a mystery, but the basics of pricing are as follows:

  • Determine how much profit you need to survive (personally and professionally)
  • Determine what your knowledge, experience, and quality can command
  • Determine what the market will bear

Bonus: Snag a copy of our ebook, How Much Should I Charge? to help you establish profitable pricing for your business.

7) Find the right clients (and projects)

As I mentioned before, when you’re just starting your design business, sometimes the “right” clients are anyone who’s willing to pay you.

But as time wears on, you get more selective.

You start to recognize which clients you work best with, and which are the headaches whose phone calls you deliberately ignore.

You figure out which projects have the highest profit margin, and which ones you really enjoy working on. If you’re lucky, they’re one and the same, but if not, you might have to get creative on how to pair your favorite projects with your most profitable ones.

So where do you find your favorites?

Well, if you have favorite clients, keep track of how you found them and try to repeat the process. And don’t forget to ask those favorites to refer you to like-minded friends.

You can use our awesome referral-generating email template to bring in all sorts of leads.

Or pre-qualify local clients by getting to know them first before offering your services. Entrepreneur groups, chambers of commerce, and women’s/men’s groups all help you get to know other businesspeople in your area so when they need a designer, they think of you first.

Also, foster relationships with complementary businesses like copywriters, web developers, print shops, marketing specialists, and small business advisers – when their clients need your services, you’ll be on the short list of who to call.

If you struggle with “networking,” you’re not alone. Try one of these posts:

Finally, sign up on freelancing job sites. Sure, there are some businesses looking for the cheapest design possible, but there are others looking for a long-term solution for their occasional design needs. Work one project through a site like 99Designs, Thumbtack, Elance, or oDesk and you just might earn a great client for years.

8) Establish your social media presence

At the very least for B2B businesses like ours, social media helps validate your business. When potential clients Google your business, they want to find something (and you want it to be positive).

Even an occasionally updated Twitter feed, Facebook page, and/or Instagram account shows that:

  • You’re relevant and savvy with today’s technology
  • Your business is established enough for you to have created these accounts
  • You’re actively still in business

With a digital marketing strategy (and maybe a bit of luck), you may even find a social media outlet(s) bringing you business. We happen to know of one small but vital change that will bring in more clients.

And if nothing else, dear Aunt Betsy and that ex-coworker from your first job out of college will see your latest work…and may know a friend of a friend who turns into your next client.

(True stuff: my very first client was a friend of an ex-coworker who needed a go-to designer.)

More on getting your design business set up on social media:

9) Learn the basics of design contract

Before the phone starts ringing and you start negotiating your first projects, create a simple contract. You’ll have plenty of time to add to it as experience identifies what you’re missing, but the basic must-haves are:

  • Contact information for both you and your client
  • Objective/scope of project
  • Investment
  • Payment terms
  • Timeline
  • Deliverables
  • Signatures and dates for both you and your client

You can also read Contracts for Creatives, for tons more information as well as pre-made design contract templates.

10) Get to work!

The last hurdle is what we often call ‘freelancing fear.’ (Here’s what causes it and how to overcome it.)

As crazy as it sounds, once you’ve started your design business, it’s not uncommon to be afraid – or terrified – of those first projects or client calls.

But you’ve got to pick up the phone, and you’ve got to accept those projects despite the butterflies making a jumble of your stomach.

Remember: When a new client calls you, don’t freak out. Do this.

Set yourself up for success like this:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Start a fake phone conversation with your best friend, dog, or just your bedroom mirror. Know how you’ll answer the phone and what you’re going to start with.
  • Keep a cheat sheet of what you’re going to say and questions you need to ask.
  • Remember that as much as you’re auditioning for the role of designer, they’re auditioning for the role of client.
  • Don’t forget to smile when you answer the phone.

Thoughts? Questions?

Have any of these tips been a difference-maker in your business? Do you have questions or need clarifications on any of the above? We’re here to help. Leave a note in the comments with your thoughts!

tweet share share pin email

Like what you've read? Enter your email and we'll send you great content like this a few times each week.

About April Greer

April is the content manager here at She’s also a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. April is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.