How I started from zero with my design business (twice!) |

How I started from zero with my design business (twice!)

Starting a business from nothing is hard work. A lot of it felt like I was making it up as I went (and I was) and it can be difficult to build momentum when you’re not moving yet. During the 5 years of running my design business, I have had to do this twice. Once when I was first starting out and again after I took a break to work at an agency and have a baby. While both of those times were different in their own right, I did the same thing to get things moving and it worked both times- which brings me to this post. I wanted to share what I did to put myself in a good position to take on the clients I wanted to attract, book the first few paying clients and gain the momentum I needed to eventually book out and raise my prices (all within 6 months).


  1. Get processes in place so you’re prepared to take on your first few clients- This is important and should be the very first thing that you do- even before building your portfolio! This is true for a few reasons. Obviously, you want every client to feel well taken care of and you want to come across as professional but in addition to that, well thought out processes make for smoother projects, less revisions and a stronger portfolio. They make your clients feel at ease and they put you in a position to guide the project along effectively. Putting them in place from the beginning will set your business off to a strong start and will allow you to make refinements as you learn and grow. Here are the processes I recommend having to start out: 1. Client Inquiry. The #1 frustration I hear from inquiring clients was actually shocking to me. It is that designers simply won’t get back to them at all or will take days to respond. Both are not okay. Make getting back to potential clients quick and easy- Draft a friendly canned email response with a Calendly link included so people can easily set up a meeting with you. Respond with that email within 24 hours and follow up if they don’t respond within 3 days. Will take you 5 minutes to set up, easy peasy! 2. Client Onboarding. This is the place where you can really set up your project for success. What does it look like for your clients after they say “yes!”? Get your contract in place, how they pay you and what they pay you. Draft your client questionnaire to get the info you need from them right away. I use Dubsado to automate my client onboarding and it has saved me a lot of time! 3. Design Process. This is the obvious one but make sure you know what the steps are to get to the end result and how you are going to guide your clients through those steps. Think about all the details from a timeline to revisions to packaging up final files and how those will be delivered. I promise having these processes in place before you start taking on work will save you so much time and headache!

  2. Get your portfolio online with at least 3 strong projects that align with your target market– some people advise doing this by designing personal projects that are aligned with the dream clients you want to attract which is definitely a great way of doing it! I personally have a hard time with personal projects and never seem to be able to get them to a place I am happy with. Instead, I love reaching out to friends and family who either have a business or are starting one and offer to design their brand for them. For me, I have found that this works best because a. I get to help someone I love b. I get to actually go through the full design process with a test client and iron out the hiccups that arise and c. I can post to social media, tag them, they tag me and this gets the process of referrals and inquiries in motion. A couple of notes about choosing the right friends/family to do free projects for- Make sure you choose people you know won’t take advantage of you. They should be flexible, kind and genuinely love your work- this will allow you to have more creative control over the project. I always preface the agreement with a gentle reminder that they are a test client and I would love to help them at no cost in exchange for them going through the process with me and trusting me to make design decisions and recommendations that will benefit their business and my portfolio. Also, make sure their business aligns with the type of clients and aesthetic you want to attract. Know that if you design for a photographer, your first few paying clients are likely to be other photographers too and if you design them a minimalistic brand, people looking for a similar style are bound to be attracted to you! Basically, make sure the finished product will be a portfolio piece you are proud to show off and attract more similar work!

  3. Get the word out. Start posting your new work to social media as soon as you can. Tell your network of friends, family, old coworkers, church groups, classmates etc. that you have started a business and are taking on new work. Tell them where they can find you online so they can start following along. Stay consistent with posting. Post every day. Continue posting new work. I promise you that eventually, it will start catching on. Not overnight, but as people see that you are committed and are here for the long run, they will start to feel comfortable enough to refer their friends to you. But you need to gain their trust first, right? You do that through unwavering consistency for as long as it takes. As you start to run out of new work to post, consider writing valuable blog posts that position you as an expert in your field or designing inspiring quotes with your favorite font. When it comes to social media, people are looking for variety, consistency, and value. Provide all of that and more!

  4. Take on your first few projects for less $ if you have to. I never came out of the gates charging what I wanted to eventually charge. Even the second time I went through this, I charged less than what I had previously just to get the first few clients under my belt. I am not sure what it is but people are attracted to momentum. They want to be apart of exciting things that are happening. They want to hire the person who is moving and I always noticed a dip in inquiries when work was slow- I am not sure how, but they can tell! My strategy is to build momentum by taking on new projects that were well aligned with where I was wanting to go for a price I knew they would book at THEN raise my prices as my inquiries and bookings increased. I feel like this is against what I have heard advised by other people (they argue to charge what you think you are worth out of the gates) but it worked really well for me and that is why I am sharing! Because I did this, I never had to struggle along with no clients in my arsenal and I was able to raise my prices with ease (and get to where I wanted to be within 6 months).