How to Create Longevity Within Your Design Firm

Design and marketing firms tend to have ups and downs. Freelance and contract work tends to ebb and flow since you serve small businesses that might struggle in a down economy or during major catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding the right balance to stay afloat even during lean times isn’t always easy.

Creating a design firm that sticks around for the long haul gives you the brand name recognition you need to land contracts with big players. You want your employees and customers to feel confident your doors will be open for decades.

How Do You Ensure Business Longevity?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shares that about 20% of small businesses fail during the first 24 months of operation. Another 45% fail by year five, and 65% by year 10. If you want to be in the 35% of companies still thriving after a decade, there are some things you can do to ensure longevity.

Design firms may be a little more complex since they rely on the health of the businesses they serve. One thing you can do is to seek out businesses that are essential and more likely to survive poor economic times.

1. Take a Customer-First Approach

Spend ten minutes on social media and you’ll see how many people complain about customer service. You’ll find notes on company pages, on personal walls and under ads about the terrible experiences people have at various establishments.

Watch TikTok for a beat and you’ll see videos of fast food managers throwing food at customers, cursing them out and showing poor service skills. While it’s understandable people get frustrated after being treated poorly, if you don’t put your customers first, you can’t expect to grow your brand or your reputation.

Set a policy that the customer comes first. Train employees to do everything in their power to keep the patron happy. If someone isn’t happy with a design, communicate better and rework it. While you can’t please everyone all the time, you can strive to.

2. Retain Top Employees

It costs a lot of money to recruit, interview and train new employees. Keeping the highly skilled designers and crew you have is always the best approach. However, recent statistics show between three and four million people quit their jobs every month in the United States.

Called the Great Rethink or the Great Resignation, people are no longer willing to work for lower pay or in situations they don’t like. Figure out what your employees want most and strive to offer it. Is a remote position something that would keep your highly trained marketing manager on board? Let them work from home most days.

Pay attention to the packages and benefits your competitors offer, give raises as you can afford them and never miss an opportunity to let your workers know you see their effort and are thankful.

3. Set a Five-Year Plan

Small business owners sometimes get so caught up in the here and now that they fail to look ahead a few years and plan for growth. Let’s say your business does well and suddenly a big box store wants you to design their website. Can you meet their request and take advantage of the growth opportunity?

If you have a five-year plan, you may have already brainstormed the logistics of fulfilling a large order requiring more people than you have on staff. A plan gives you goals to strive toward and makes it more likely you’ll find success.

4. Avoid Bad Losses

Running a business always involves some level of risk, but you shouldn’t get so bold that you lose everything. Be careful where you invest your money. Don’t buy equipment you don’t need yet and that your operation can’t financially support. Be careful hiring too many new people at once and letting your payroll get out of control.

Everyone makes mistakes running a company. Get a mentor who has gone before you so you can bounce ideas off them and find out what might not pan out.

5. Create an Emergency Fund

Every business goes through lean times or sees shifts in the economy. If you want to survive tough moments, you have to plan ahead. Keep an emergency fund to cover three to six months of business expenses in an emergency. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many small businesses couldn’t survive the shutdowns. Those with enough funds and creativity weathered the storm and came out on the other side.

Make your emergency fund work for you. If you have $2,500 or so, you can sock the cash into a money market account and earn some interest while still having easy access to your savings.

6. Set Up Checks and Balances

You might be the final say in almost everything about your business. However, you aren’t infallible, so it’s good sense to have other people to turn to for advice. Big purchases should require an okay by at least a mentor.

Hire third-parties to conduct regular financial audits of your company. Let employees review management to make sure leaders are helping with growth and not hindering it. Look for ways to ensure a single person never works in a vacuum. Without someone to give feedback and check them when they come up with a crazy idea, your business could fail miserably.

Focus on Branding

Think about some of the brands you’ve known your entire life, such as Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company and General Electric. When you create an image for your brand and make it come to life, people remember it and will turn to you when they need an expert in your industry.

Your marketing should push your brand recognition over product as frequently as possible. Think about the needs of your target audience and how you can best meet them and you’ll create a design firm that sticks around for the long haul.

Eleanor Hecks is editor-in-chief at Designerly Magazine. Eleanor was the creative director and occasional blog writer at a prominent digital marketing agency before becoming her own boss in 2018. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and dog, Bear.

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