How to set up a design agency in 10 simple steps

Very few people set out with the dream of founding their own agency. Mostly, we fall into it. It happens almost by accident with no grand plan. It just kind of happens. But growing a business does actually start on day one.

Nomad's studio space in London

Nomad's studio space in London

Whilst you may be a designer, project manager or writer, the trick is to think beyond your role and absorb as much information as possible from everyone around you. Be interested in how business works, how work is won, build relationships and try to understand every part of the process. It takes years to master, so the sooner you start, the stronger position you'll be in when the time comes.

That's certainly true of my journey and many of the founders I speak to. So jump in, be curious, ask questions, and soak it all up. That way, you'll have everything you need to be the captain of your own pirate ship. Here are ten things I've learned over my 23-year journey. I hope they're helpful for you.

1. Start on Day One

It's never too soon to start, so start on day one. Be inquisitive. Study people. Steal what's good and ignore what's bad. Understand how the whole project process works, not just your part of it. You can even be honest and say that you want to one day have your own studio and ask to be mentored at an early age.

2. Go outside your swimlane

Whatever your role, don't stick to it. Do it to the best of your ability and study every other aspect of the business. Learn how to write a scope of work and understand how jobs are priced and resourced. Get stuck into workshops, strategy, writing, and thinking. Embrace the burden, and make yourself invaluable to the entire process beyond your role.

3. Remove all fear

We're taught from an early age to fear authority, whether that's your teacher, parents or boss. This cycle needs to be broken. Clients are not scary, so do not fear them. Bosses want the best for you and will support you. Fear does not help – it hinders, so throw yourself into client meetings and uncomfortable situations, this way, you remove the fear from an early age and see things for what they are. We are all just people.

Nomad HQ in the early days of 2017

Nomad HQ in the early days of 2017

4. Be the best hour in your clients' calendar

It's Nomad's mantra. Whatever the meeting, wherever you are in the process, we should be the highlight of a client's day. Remember, their day revolves around bar charts, powerpoints, metrics and suits. Our job is to bring theatre, joy and creativity. So bring your A-Game to every meeting, so they remember you. It will be invaluable later.

5. Build relationships

Having strong relationships with clients built over many years is the key to starting a business. You'll turn to these people for work when you start out. So make a good impression today. Listen, understand their challenges, and create work that helps them progress in their career. They won't forget this. Most clients are incredibly loyal, so if you do this now, it will pay back later.

You don't need a master plan or a business strategy. Start small, dream big. I started in my living room designing restaurant menus. Everything else comes later.

6. Go beyond

The way to be remembered is to go above and beyond. Over-deliver. Bring new ideas to the table and make the work the best it can be. The extra touches make all the difference. And by doing this, you shift the relationship from being a supplier, of which there are many, to a partner, who has their back, of which there are few.

7. Leap without looking

When it is time, or it feels like something you want to do, just do it. To build a company, you only need a laptop, a bank account and a registered company. All of which can be set up in a few hours. You don't need a master plan or a business strategy. Start small, dream big. I started in my living room designing restaurant menus. Everything else comes later. Co-working spaces are perfect as a first studio, and hiring young keeps the costs down. Make decisions quickly based on what you know. Don't sign up for anything that adds unnecessary stress. Keep it lean, keep costs to a minimum and watch your cash flow. Our funding was an Amex card. We took calculated risks that thankfully paid off, but nothing we couldn't manage if they didn't work out.

Nomad studio

Nomad studio

Enjoying lunch together at Nomad

Enjoying lunch together at Nomad

8. Partner up

You're off and running. So remember, the journey is the thing, not the destination. Making it is the goal for sure, but getting there is the thrill, so you'll want to share it with someone. Find the person that compliments you, that you trust and respect deeply, and then work hard to never break that trust. Communication is key. Things can get stressful, and you may make decisions that your partner wouldn't. We have a rule that if we ever disagree or fall out, it must be resolved on the same day. No going home brooding. Own it. Fix it. Move on.

9. Hit up your network

Here's where all of your hard work pays off. The years of building relationships and going beyond means you have a black book of contacts. Clients who respect you. Why wouldn't they want to work with you? You're cheaper than you were at that big agency, and they know you'll be hungry to impress. Your agency will grow beyond your contacts, but they are essential to getting you off the ground.

10. Enjoy the ride

It's a rollercoaster, so hold on tight. There will be many highs and a fair share of lows. Learn from your failures, and don't get carried away with big wins. The key to knowing you have a sustainable business is when it grows beyond your contacts. Your first new biz enquiry will be a buzz. People know about you. Your contacts now act as advocates, recommending you to their network. Now you're onto something.

And it goes quick, so enjoy every moment. Making it comes with its own set of unique challenges, so don't race to the finish line. Live in the moment, take it all in, celebrate your achievements, be good to your people and create work that the world notices.

That's it. And trust me, if I can do it, you can. I never in my wildest dreams thought I could do this. But with the right team around you, anything is possible.

Wherever you are, whatever stage you're at in your career, it starts today. So get going.


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