If I were starting from scratch, this is how I’d grow my design business

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This is a really relevant topic for me. My creative agency just opened a new branch called Reliable: our PSD to HTML & WordPress company. So we had to start from scratch, hit the drawing board, and figure out how to grow.

It’s a different market with different customers, needs, and problems than those of our agency.

There’s no overlap. We created a different brand, website, etc.

Clean slate, as they say.

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But the steps we’re taking are the SAME ones we used back in the day — and continue to use — to grow our agency.

And it’s working.

Reliable is off to the races with a bang, changing lives and helping designers worldwide. Though we just “officially” opened our doors a few months back – we’re already generating repeat business, referrals, and new leads on a regular basis.

If I were starting from scratch, this is how I’d grow my design business.

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Step 1: Figure Out Your “Positioning”

Our positioning for Reliable was simple. We had experience with PSD to Code companies really suck. They didn’t write us back for days, they butchered our design, the code was messy and broke on different browsers, etc., etc., etc.

We just decided to not suck.

Our “position” is completely relative to our competition. Our brand is focused on doing everything they don’t – things which are common sense, if you ask me.

So as a freelancer – you have to figure out your “position”. What’s your role in the marketplace? What do you do differently that your market is looking for… but can’t find anywhere else?

There’s a new company called FlightCar that took this same approach.

Lots of rental car companies suck. They have so many added fees for every little thing, they’re stiff and immovable, they never “go out of their way” for the customer.

These guys simply did the opposite. They’re really flexible, most things you ask for don’t add on weird fees, and they’re actually friendly and not super salesy.

So take a good hard look at your talents, your personality, your strengths, and figure out what you do differently.

Here’s a cool trick that’ll show you that you probably know the answer to this already:

When you look at websites or logos or print pieces created by other designers – what do you feel they’re lacking?

When you deal with another company’s customer service – what do you feel it’s lacking?

The reason you see something “lacking” is because you’d do it differently, with your own strengths. Whatever you see lacking is probably a big part of what makes your skills unique and special.

For example, if you’re continually seeing websites and branding and thinking, “Oy! Way too cluttered! Why does everyone clutter things so much?” 

Or, “This design is nice… but there’s no heart. How come no one designs with heart?”

Then being clean and minimal might be part of your unique position. Or being able to inject designs with lots of passion. Etc.

Pay attention the next time you find yourself critiquing others’ work. It’s very revealing. But these examples are really just scratching the surface of your unique position. They’re only the beginning.

Your true strength is the intangible feelings you give to your customers that no one else can. For Apple, that’s the feeling that you’re in a special, “cool” class. For Millo it’s the feeling that you really can do it. Hope. For us it’s the one thing we never got from a PSD to Code service: a sigh of relief and peace of mind.

This takes time to uncover.

But if you spend some quality time with yourself and your thoughts, and quality time with people you’ve worked with asking them for their input, you’ll figure it out. The cool thing is the more you grow and evolve, the more you uncover your strengths and experience them differently.

To me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of running my own business.

Step 2: Establish Credibility

When I say “credibility” – I don’t mean being renowned and generating a reputation. That comes later.

Credibility comes in these forms:

Social Proof (aka testimonials, reviews, references, etc.)

Demonstrating that you UNDERSTAND and can SOLVE your market’s problems (through your website copy)

Having a kick-butt portfolio that shows you’re the real deal.

For just starting out – all 3 of these are key.

To get started, I would highly recommend doing free or very low-cost projects in exchange for testimonials. (Non-profits are great for this).

Since you’re just starting out – this is a great way to find problems in your business before they get too big. It’ll help you smooth out kinks and make things better.

We did a soft launch for Reliable just for this purpose – to generate reviews and to find holes in our process so we could patch them up and make things better.

Now, for Reliable, we are the market. So understanding and solving the market’s problems was easy.

But as a freelancer, you have to zero in on a niche that really speaks to you. And you have to learn as much as you can about the problems that niche experiences. Forums and blogs that target your niche are a great place to do this.

Look for business / marketing blogs related to who you want to go after. I.e. Fitness Marketing Blogs (if you want to work with the fitness crowd), Non-Profit Marketing Blogs (for non-profits), etc.

Look for patterns in the content, and read the comments! The comments are full of the market themselves talking about their problems.

Step 3: Team Up With Businesses That Are Compatible, but Not Competitive.

Your market has certain “hangouts”. It can be restaurants, websites, activities, etc.

You can team up with these “hangouts” and exchange your expertise for access to their customers – with the hopes that some will become your customers.

For example, a business insurance agency obviously deals with local businesses, right? What if you figured out a plan to team up with them where they promoted you to their customers – and they got something in return.

You could even barter for this. If they need website work or branding work, it’s a good trade if they serve people who could easily become your clients.

This also works for business coaches, banks who give out loans to businesses (local, small banks can hand out your biz card to start-ups), etc.

Get creative. And make sure you DON’T approach a potential partner until you have a plan for how THEY WILL BENEFIT, TOO!

You want to start the convo off with a giving hand. The more you give to your partners, the more they’ll want to do for you in return.

And be generous with what you offer. It goes a long way.

Step 4: Put Yourself Out There.

Now it’s time to create marketing materials that express your unique position and address your market’s problems – and start spreading the word.

I like to start with Google Adwords (check out this Millo article for help with that). I might set a budget of less than $100 / month to start with. This has nothing to do with what I can / cannot afford – I just want to make sure my website / ads are converting before I go full monty and up the budget like crazy.

If I can make my money back and profit on $100 / month – then I know I’m doing something right, and I’ll increase the budget incrementally.

If I DON’T get a return, then there’s something in my marketing that isn’t resonating with my market. Time to re-evaluate and make changes.

If you have absolutely NO budget to start with though, then you’ll have to get creative. That’s where partnerships (like in Step 3) really come into play. (And I’m working on another blog post to talk about zero-cost marketing plans for freelance designers too.. Stay tuned.)

But even cutting out one Starbucks a day can free up $100.

Otherwise, reach out to local advertising mediums and try to barter for advertising. I know people who have gotten free radio ads, newspaper ads, magazine ads, etc.

Instead of paying with cash, you’ll have to pay with your time for a while until you build up your revenue.

Or – you might decide to barter for life 😉 Who knows.

One final thought…

At the end of the day, the one thing that’s going to make or break your freelance biz is taking action. Just getting out there and doing stuff has this magical effect:

Things don’t always turn out how you expected – but something always happens.

So spend time going through each of these steps, and then get out there! Try things out. Make a splash. The world will not beat a path to your door on its own. You have to show people you exist, and give them a good reason to come knockin’.

Have thoughts? I’d love to hear ’em in the comments.


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About David Tendrich

David Tendrich is the co-head of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: the first-ever PSD to HTML & PSD to Wordpress service run by designers, for designers. He co-runs his companies from Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife and biz partner, Lou Levit.


More about David’s business: David is co-founder of Reliable PSD – what happened when a group of designers got fed up with PSD to Code companies… and created their own. Check them out, and see why freelancers & agencies are head over heels for this amazing new service.

Leave a Comment



  1. hello, i really enjoy these posts and look forward to seeing them in my inbox.
    i am only an amateur and to read what the pros have to say is great. regarding this post, i think i might know a company who may need a web site and i thought of offering my services, the only thing is hosting. i have a really good contact for this who’s price is excellent but how do i offer my services and say by the way, it will cost you £x up front?
    thank you,
    best wishes,

    • Hey Graeme,

      I wouldn’t worry about price at first. First, I’d reach out, see if they actually are interested in a new website, and try to set up a time for a friendly discussion on the subject.

      Then, I’d listen a lot and ask them questions so that I fully understand their needs. In this call I’d also ask about budget to get a ballpark of what they can spend. And after they were done telling me their goals, I’d inform them of how I can help them accomplish them.

      And finally, after the call, I’d put together a proposal that reflects their needs and lists a price.

      Sales happens in stages. You don’t have to do it all in one email 😉

      Hope this helps 🙂

      • thank you very much david, i really appreciate your advice. what if i was to offer my services pro bono, just for the experience and a reccomendation, how would i best explain the cost of hosting?
        many thanks

        • Hey Graeme,

          I’d just explain that they have to purchase hosting, but it’s super cheap (especially compared to how much they’re saving from getting your services pro-bono).

          Just send them a link to the host you want to use with instructions on exactly which package to purchase.

          When they see that it’s only like $60 / year I’m sure they won’t mind at all 😉

          Best of luck!

  2. Great article, solid advice that only comes from experience! Thank you for explaining so well and keeping it simple. Really enjoyed reading and plan to apply your advice to my own business.

  3. I enjoyed your article on growing a business as if we were just starting out. I think any business of any size can learn from the things you mentioned, like “positioning” and “partnering” with others. I am a freelance graphic designer and an artist and am still finding my way. I’ve felt the two disciplines are very different and should be kept separate but feel there are ways they can be combined. I am now using my graphic design skills to market my fine arts.

    I am also collaborating with a writer on a small scale, and it has been very helpful.

    Thanks again for your tips.

    Becky Chapman

  4. Hi David – great article. I really liked your distinction here: “Team Up With Businesses That Are Compatible, but Not Competitive.”

    Of course this takes some brainstorming and effort but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I need to work on this for my business, Greenlight Email Marketing.

    For your compatible companies – what were the most impactful to getting the the ball rolling with Reliable?


    Gavin Baker
    Greenlight Email Marketing

  5. Hi!
    Great article. I’m thinking about “getting an agency out there” for a while now and even already half-jokingly talked to a few guys I know and like about teaming up – which everyone seemed genuenly interested in (We are in the lucky position to really make each other complete by being good in specific fields of the same general area – that being design. This way we might even be able to pull up a full service agency).

    The only problem I have is that while all my friends already freelance part-time, I wasn’t able to do so, next to my jobs (at least not paid) – contract forbids it. So if I was to do that leap, I would have NO clients (the once from unpaid projects would probably not want to pay me now), NO job and NO money.

    So I’m a little scared, or better put; I’m not willing to live off a 400 Bucks part time job, while hoping to get some paid work. We all would need our OWN customer base before launching an agency together or a Job that allowes freelancing. Because one or two jobs a month can’t pay for so many people.

    Of course I could always go “behind my bosses back” but if he would ever find out, I’d be gone, so it’s risky. The jobs in this area also don’t pay enough to build a massive financial airbag to get me through the first year or so. – I’m really stuck here… Do you have a tip for this particular situation?



  6. Great article David, a lot of what you have written really resonates with me. Thanks for sharing your insights and tips!


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