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How to build a rockstar design business without going broke

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Starting a business is no easy task. It takes time, effort, and (a lot of times) a whole heap of money. But there are lots of designers who have built a rockstar design business without spending their life savings away.

And you can too.

This article will offer a few money-saving techniques that will help you build your design business without going broke. If you have more to add to this short list, take a second and leave a comment.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

Don’t upgrade…yet

I’m a passionate (and, I like to think, successful) designer. And guess what, I work on an Apple laptop that’s over 3 years old and don’t use the latest version of the Adobe Creative Suite.

But it doesn’t bother me. I’m still successful.

Would I like to have a brand new Apple desktop? Sure. Would I like to take an iPad to my client meetings to show them proofs? Absolutely! But, right now, my design business won’t support such an upgrade.

One day it will. And I look forward to that day, but that day is not today. I know you want to upgrade, but if you want to build a successful design business without going broke, don’t upgrade…yet.

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Be a Scrooge

You don’t have to go around yelling “Bah Humbug” or ruining people’s Christmas, but there are some admirable traits that ol’ Ebenezer brought along with him.

Take for example, his grasp on finances. He knew where each schilling was, how many he had at any given time, and only spent one when absolutely necessary.

You can still give to the poor if you feel so inclined, but I have a feeling that’s not where most of your finances are getting lost. Perhaps you spend business money to buy lunch, go to the movies. Only use business money for business expenses and only spend when absolutely necessary.

Pay yourself

You might be wondering how you ever make money running your own business if you’re only allowed to spend business money on building your business. The answer is simple:

Pay yourself for the work you do.

If you worked for Acme Design Company, they would pay you a certain rate per hour or per project. So it’s time to manage two personalities: the business owner and the designer.

The business owner inside of you needs to pay the designer inside of you on a regular basis. Be strict and stingy about how much to pay yourself and keep in mind:

You can always give yourself a raise later.

Find a good pricing strategy

One of the biggest pitfalls (and admittedly most difficult parts of running a design business) is adopting the perfect pricing strategy. If you charge too much, you lose clients; if you charge to little, you go broke.

It will take some serious thought, but make it a goal to establish a solid pricing strategy as soon as possible.

It will be worth the time and effort in the end.

Ok, rockstars, go…

All of you out there who are reading this post and thinking, “He’s leaving out the most important part about building a rockstar design business”, take a moment and share your awesomeness with the rest of us by leaving a comment.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. Real great articles. Sometimes it is hard as the owner and the designer to balance how to run a successful business. It does require different skill sets indeed.

    • I run a web design, graphic design and photography business (specialising in horse photography) and learning to pay yourself in the early days is one of the most vital bits. It does sound odd and until you’re in that position it’s hard to understand why you wouldn’t. Imagine you’re an employee to yourself.

  2. Some very good advice here, would be good if you had an article that went into more detail about the legal aspects, as you’ve said, its no easy task.

    feel free to follow me on twitter and ask away, id be happy to answer any further questions if people have them, my username is ‘mgpwr’.

    Keep up the good posts: bookmarked! 🙂

  3. Nice post, I’ve never thought of “paying myself” so I think I will put that tip into practice!

  4. ‘Don’t upgrade yet’ brilliant advice!

    Designers always want the newest and the best. I remember when the upgrade cycle was 3 years! Now it seems to be every 12 months.

    Resist it! Invest your $ into something else. Your productivity will not increase that markedly because you upgrade to the newest version of CS Suite.

    Invest it in:
    – Getting your folio up to date
    – Networking for new business
    – Taking prospective clients out for muffins 😉 Seriously! worked for us, we grew a $100 client to $50,000 in one year of the back of a muffin. (I just blogged about how we did it)

    When business starts to hum a bit $ wise then and only then spend a bit of money. When we started to kick goals from a $ point of view I treated my self and my crew to an espresso machine. Best $500 I spent. No one ever wanted to go out to buy one (better billing rates for me!) They get a good latte, I get more work done from them.


  5. Thank you guys, as a beginning freelancer this information is really helpful.

  6. A few more pointers for the webdesigners who are working alone.

    Hire a building with a few other creatives, this can really help out. Don’t buy a company car… think if it will get you the business result that you want.

    And take insurance! into account as well. Someday somehow you will need it.

  7. My business partner and I bootstrapped our web design business. We have had no money to reinvest in hardware or software. Overloaded old laptops and ancient versions of popular software. We are just ‘turning the corner’ now in our business I will soon be able to reinvest. so I really enjoyed your article. It is nice to know others have been in the same situation and are becoming successful.

  8. Great advice for newbies in the freelance world. I started my business while working at another position so I could buy necessary equipment as I made extra money. It helped me save in the long run.


  1. […] talked about all this recently in “How to build a rockstar design business without going broke“. Just wait a while and make sure your business is standing on it’s own two feet. Then […]


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