One of the things that we struggled with in the early days of starting our business was learning how to establish healthy boundaries around the amount of creative work and energy we would put in for a potential lead before the checks and contracts were signed.
Over the years, thanks to some great advice from a number of mentors, obsessively reading countless personal development and business books, a lot of frustrating experiences, and more late-nights worrying about just-the-right-way to handle a request for more spec or free work…we had to make the decision to learn how to say no and establish better client expectations in a variety of ways.
If you’ve been doing any kind of “creative work” for any significant amount of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It can feel “mean” at first - especially when people want to basically just get information out of you so they can take it to their second cousin Charlie and have him execute on your ideas (badly) for free.
Over the years and with experience you eventually figure out that you can’t run a profitable creative business that way, so you have to figure out how to protect yourself and your creative energy from those who would seek to just take advantage of you and your willingness to give away your skillset for free or cheap.
With that all said, let’s get down to it.
You've got to learn to value yourself, your time, and your energy enough to say no to people and projects that will just leave you drained.
This is how we work:
1. We have all of our leads fill out our contact form.
In it we ask a number of the questions that we need to know from just about everyone before we’ll say yes to a project. That is usually things like their budget, their deadlines, what kinds of past experiences they’ve had with designers, and any reasons why the project they’re inquiring about hasn’t come to fruition yet.
(That could be anything from budget constraints to having that one board member who still thinks the best use of advertising budgets is paying for ads in the Yellow Pages.)
We use something called “conditional logic” in our forms that allows us to ask additional questions based on certain answers. So for example, if someone says they want to “pick our brain”, we immediately direct them to a section in our form that informs them that we are available for hire on an hourly consulting basis. We use a premium contact form software that allows us to charge clients right then and there.
Again, if you’ve been in the creative field for any length of time, you know that it is your knowledge of how to bring ideas to life that people come to you for…whether that is photography, video production, graphic design, web design, logo design and branding, app development…you name it, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do this stuff on your own at any level, you’re going to have to figure out ways that work for you to charge what you’re worth and get good at asking for the sale.
The key here is setting up boundaries that keep out the people who are just looking to waste your time or get something for nothing. We have been at this long enough that we have to be much more selective about the things we say yes to or we would never get anything done for our paying clients. Those are the people who help us keep the lights on and food on the table.
You always are free to do pro-bono work - but you will find quickly if you don’t start putting your foot down about that kind of thing, everyone will happily take your advice and your creative energy for free…which eventually will lead to you feeling resentful and frustrated at yourself and them - when really, it’s just an issue of your own.
Asking good questions with your initial contact form or intake process and being much more selective how you handle that first point of contact with potential clients is a life saver - especially when you learn to automate it so that it just runs in the background.
(For the advanced user, you can even set these things up to plug into your CRM [customer relationship management] software or build your own with things like IFTTT.com and Zapier.com. If you’re interested in getting help with setting up your own automation systems, feel free to reach out to us.)
2. We set up a free initial 15-20 minute consultation to see if we would be a good fit and to get a better understanding of the project scope.
This is another way that we have automated our systems and built a funnel that helps us stay focused on the creative aspects of our work so that we don’t have to deal with so much of the minutiae of running the business side of things.
We use an appointment booking software that is plugged into our calendars so that after a lead has filled out our contact form, they are directed to set up an appointment with us to chat about their project. We have that software integrated into our site so that our potential clients have a unique and consistent experience when they are on our page.
This eliminates insane amounts of time going back and forth asking the same questions over and over - like, “When works for you? Where should we meet? What are we going to talk about? Etc.” If you don’t think this is a big deal, I’d challenge you to start a timer every time you go to book an appointment with someone and then consider how often you end up having to do that over the course of a year.
After that, just imagine what else you could do with all the time you’d save by not having to go through that hassle. I can’t recommend enough looking into something like this if you are regularly booking appointments or selling services or products.
(If you click this link you’ll get a discount on the software that we use. Full disclosure, it is my own affiliate link but I wouldn’t recommend it if it wasn’t a huge time saver)
Anyway, during the free consultation, we ask for any clarification on specifics that are unclear in their responses to our initial contact form and feel out whether or not it would be a project that we’d be able and willing to take on.
This part is extremely important: we do not give away many specifics of how we would solve their specific problems during this free consultation.
You cannot run a creative or design business like a charity.
This is what they are coming to us for in the first place. We spend most of the time during the free consultation asking questions and informing the potential client whether or not we could solve their creative problems.
We also will share some of our price ranges for our services right up front in order to be clear from the start what their investment would look like if we choose to work together. Oftentimes leads will want specifics of pricing - and if you’ve been at this game long enough you know it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to give a number right off the bat without more information of what you’d be working with, the scope of the project, etc.
We address this issue by sharing a wide range of price options that they can expect and let them know it depends on what features, benefits, etc. that they will want and the scope of the work, deadlines, and all of that fun stuff.
If it turns out that we aren’t a good fit for whatever reason, we always recommend books that they should read or other resources that could help them solve their creative problems.
This creates good will between us even if we don’t end up working together - you never know when that could come back around. We have had plenty of people come back and hire us over the years who initially didn’t for whatever reason.
If it’s a project that doesn’t require a lot of initial meetings or custom R&D like branding / logo design, we get their verbal agreement on our prices, get the ball rolling and we’re off to the races. We’ve built different automated systems for simplifying this process - like our Brand Builder survey that helps them think big picture and long term about their style and what they want their brand to look like.
If it is something we want to move forward on that requires additional planning, research and development like book publishing/book cover design, video production, web design, long term consulting contracts, etc. we move on to step #3.
3. We set up a paid consultation for 1 - 2 hours
Oftentimes leads will come to us who have already developed a good bit of their brand or business but aren’t sure where to go next and we also aren’t quite sure if we will be a good fit to help bring their projects to completion. In order to nail down some of those specifics, as well as to make sure that we are paid for our time and expertise, we set up a paid consultation to go over the raw materials that we’d be working with.
Think of it like the potential client has a box full of puzzle pieces and they aren’t quite sure how to put them together yet. In our initial paid consultations, we spread all those puzzle pieces out and figure out the best course of action to move things forward.
This would be things like their logo, their existing content, their general ideas of what they want to do, any notes they’ve jotted down, their business plan, etc.
Oftentimes leads will come to us who think they just need a website when in reality they need to start at the beginning and get a logo first. We believe that your logo is the visual foundation of your brand since it ideally should appear on everything you’re doing and it helps create a sense of consistency and professionalism in the work that you do.
Other times a potential client thinks they need a whole new website when in reality they just need some coaching or consulting.
Whatever it is, we help them come up with a game plan for moving forward and it is in these consultations that we share more details and specifics about how we would go about taking action, how we’d envision helping their company, software that we would recommend checking out, and what our next steps for working together would look like.
We only started implementing this paid consultation into our work flow in the last year or so and it dramatically changes the dynamic of the working relationship.
First, it eliminates the time wasters, the takers and the people who just want to shop around almost immediately.
Second, it forces you to remind yourself that you are valuable and that your work is worth it - as is the blood, sweat, years and tears it took to get you to where you are.
Third, it establishes you as a professional and communicates very clearly that you do not work for free.
We need to get our industry back from the people who have spent so much money and time devaluing what we do and distilling creativity down to a commodity.
Sure, you can get a logo for $5 from some intern somewhere who hasn’t figured this stuff out yet or who is using the same 10 or 15 template logos for every client - but is that really the kind of foundation you want to build your brand on?
Of course not.
Either way - I hope this has been useful for you to get a bit of an overview of how we work and why we do things the way we do in our business.
Obviously, this is written in the context of running a “creative” business…however, the principles remain the same regardless of what industry you’re in.
If you’re even remotely considering going into business for yourself at some point, try to keep these things in mind from the get-go and you’ll save yourself a myriad of headaches, excessive swearing, and frustrating, sleepless nights.
(And as always, if there is anything we can do to help you bring your creative or business ideas to life, just reach out and let us know!)