01 / Article

Starting fresh: small businesses as clients

Dan Rollnick
Dan Rollnick
8 min read

Whenever a business owner reaches out, or is referred to us, they can be in one of many different places along their journey with their business. Some are becoming regional, and need the next edge up against bigger competitors that are now in their arena. Others are people with little more than an idea, who are starting to uncover the list of things that need to get done in order to become a viable business. Some are in what they feel is a sustain phase, where they’re trying to keep the same size business but do less day-to-day. Others are CEO’s or CMO’s for multi-national corporations who are trying to maximize every second of their available time. Each of these comes with their own unique set of problems and advantages, and because time is a limited resource, we must always choose carefully which client to work with.

One of my favorite clients has always been a new business; one that is past the idea phase and has been up and running for a year or two. Many creative agencies shy away from these clients due to their limited financial resources and the associated constraints that a limited budget puts on the ability to produce work in any meaningful volume and to a high enough standard. It’s the account management equivalent of the half-court shot: it’s difficult. Without the luxury of the man-hours allotted by a padded budget, all estimated timelines must be spot on. Overages and delays deplete the project budget rapidly and a few bad estimates or over-promises can make the project unprofitable at the drop of a hat. Communication and qualification of the client’s needs also must be perfectly executed by the account manager. Ask the wrong question or get some wires crossed in the project meeting and you’ll end up taking a loss or sending an unhappy client out into the world. Without the budget for multiple trips to the revision table, the first pass must be both exactly what the client needs and better than what they hoped for. However, the biggest problem with the half court shot is that as difficult as it is, at the end of the day it’s only worth three points and most of the time you’re better off just laying it up for the easy two. So, abandoning our tired basketball metaphor for a second, why do we do it? Why is this article titled, Starting fresh: small businesses as clients, when I’ve spent this entire paragraph explaining reasons it’s difficult to work with them. It boils down to a few things: the enjoyment, the people, and the ability to create positive change.

Often, the owners of these 1–2 year business are masters of their craft who have been building a business on referrals alone. They are wide eyed at how much they have accomplished and excited for what the future might hold. Their processes and procedure are still quite liquid. They’ve seen how much they’ve had to change in the way they do things compared to when they started, and they see change as a form of progress. In many ways, they mirror my other favorite client, large businesses. These 1st and 2nd year businesses have an innate growth mindset, an attitude that large corporations spend millions cultivating, yet it comes naturally to them. What I mean by the growth mindset is the conceptual understanding that their business has not yet reached its full potential, and that new and scary things must happen in order to get closer to that possible future. When this is coupled with an inherent desire to keep driving forward into the unknown, looking for the next frontier, or next leg-up, so much becomes possible.

Because these small business are new and excited about change, it allows the brand and design teams to really envision where the company could go and put out products that can bring them there. The work I see end up in a designer’s portfolio most often is the work from large companies, where the design has undergone 3–4 iterative passes, and the work from these 1–2 year businesses, where the design team can push their limits and put out out something they’re really excited about. It’s a tendency that the longer a business has been established, the less likely they are to make changes, especially big changes to their assets, like logo or brand. This often comes from a fear of alienating their client base, or a desire to keep something they’re comfortable with and feel isn’t broken. Now, this is fine if the assets the client launched their business with are well documented and were created by someone with an understanding of branding. However, I can count on one hand the of the number of businesses I’ve worked with that built the brand, then the business, not the other way around. So often things like branding and marketing are explored 4–5 years down the line when the company has an image, a customer base, and some extra money. However, in an ideal world we would build from the brand upwards, like a foundation. When you’ve built the business already, and finally have some money to do some work on the brand, it becomes much harder to dig back down the the brand to make changes with all the rest of the established business sitting on top of it. Rarely do these new businesses have the money for a deep dive into their brand, but even a single branding meeting in the process of designing a website and asking/answering the right questions can get someone thinking the right way from an early point in their business and make huge changes down the line.

Now, this brings me to my last point: the ability to create positive change. In the ream of creative design and development, the ability to create change comes down to a few things: one is obviously budget. If we only have enough budget to do eight hours of UI work, we will get less accomplished than if we had five days. Similarly, our ability to create change is impacted by our degree of influence, or what things we are allowed to improve or change. Lastly our work is impacted by what work has already been done and to what standard was it completed. The overlap of these three issues is where positive change happens. This equation looks very different at different sizes of business. The largest businesses, are usually quite structured, and many thousands, often hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent yearly improving websites and apps, as well as paper and print marketing. In these cases, there are rarely massive flaws in their existing assets, mostly what we’re doing is building something new, or going back through and making strategic changes to the existing infrastructure. At this level, lots of work must be done to maintain an edge over competition and improvements are hard fought and well researched. On the contrary, new businesses have very little in the way of previously created materials and are a perfect candidate for making some big changes. Often in their case, the only real limiting factor is cash and in turn design and development time. Where small business luck out is they take advantage of the ninety percent rule, satirically called the ninety-ninety rule in software development. It implies the last ten percent is as difficult as the first ninety. This is rule is mirrored in numerous modalities such as Formula One racing, or physical work outs, and explains why large companies invest great deals of money and manpower into capturing that last ten percent. What this means for the new businesses is that any of the changes they can make with their limited budget, will be have high impact, and yield exponentially more than if a larger company spent those same dollars.

Hopefully a picture has started to form but let’s put it all together. Why is working with first and second year business so rewarding? You get work with highly motivated experts in their field who are excited to take their business to the next level. They’re ready to take risks, envision their business through the lens of brand, and put out new future-oriented assets and products. The groundwork you’ll lay will inform the structure of their business for years to come and you’ll get to be a part of their growth-burst as all the hard works comes together.