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Starting out and working in a design business - Q&A from Brunch by the Beach Christchurch

From building a client base to understanding the importance of networking and keeping up with technology, to the value of 'passion projects' and the intricacies of agency work—this interview is a goldmine of insights.

Whether you're a student, a freelancer looking to scale, or someone considering diving into business as a self-employed designer, you’ll enjoy this Q&A session with Abby, Serena and Nicole.

How did you build up enough clients / work to be completely full time?

Abby: “Slowly and steadily! The honest truth is that people talk and word of mouth is the key in this game. Doing good work and showing a good work ethic gets you noticed and the ball should roll from there. I reached out to my network (anyone I knew across friends, family and business) and told them what I was doing and that I was looking to take on more clients. Empower people to ask their networks for you - everyone knows SOMEONE!”

Nicole: “I did it on the side of my regular full-time job (that I actually did like/didn’t have a problem with) until I was able to confidently match my salary. I started really small like everyone does with a few friends at work, and actually began my website career in trade websites (car sales, construction sites, fencing businesses haha). I never started for free though, even if I was ‘new’ to freelancing and I think that’s important - your time/skill is always worth something, even if you are just starting out. Word of mouth (in my small town) got me my start so I was very lucky in that regard, also making sure to post about each project once completed helped to get eyes on to bring in more clients, so I feel like I’ve been on Instagram forever doing this.”

Serena: “I was lucky enough to be offered a contract that was for around 10 hours a week. I had previous clients from freelancing on the side of a full time job and I joined BNI hopeful that a networking group would do the trick.”

What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your journey?

Abby: “Stick to your processes (have processes in place!) Track your database from day one - even if you don’t do anything with it for a few years.”

Nicole: “Put away money for GST/taxes and don’t spend it haha, half your money is always going to go to some kind of tax payment.”

Serena: “That you will spend roughly 50% of your time networking and building up a presence, as well as keeping on top of new technology.”

What advice would you give to a student trying to break through into the design world?

Abby: “You don’t have to be the BEST designer to make it - this job is about SO much more than your creative output. Work on all of your other skills just as much (articulating your ideas, connecting with people, presenting, social media etc)”

Nicole: “Work on ‘passion projects’ with your unique style/the design you like to do and post this on social/Pinterest/your website etc. Only put up your best work, the type that is aligned with attracting your dream audience (not the old stuff you did at uni or college). You can actually join ‘brief clubs’ which will give you a bit of a brief to work with, such as audience, deliverables etc and you can add your own flair to it. I almost think these are better to do initially, rather than take on a few unpaid/cheap jobs which aren’t the best style fit, that you can’t really post anyway. Better to take the time to build up your portfolio with these ‘passion projects’ and make a name for yourself and you’ll find the right clients (and the right paying jobs) will come to you. Oh, and if you love these designs enough (i.e. a brand or a website), sell them on Etsy or Creative Market as a premade brand or a website theme. Digital product income yay!”

Serena: “Create a portfolio of passion projects to show your style. Learn business management skills and sales skills.”

How to get hired by agencies? Because once you apply "online" they just see what you've done rather than what you can do or are willing to do.

Nicole: “Firstly, decide if working for an agency is really what you want, or just the done thing. If it's a community you crave, the interaction more so than you could consider freelancing on your own but working from a co-working space, or even just going into business with a business partner so you can have that back and forth engagement without working under an agency. But, if it’s something you REALLY want to do, then definitely making sure your portfolio is filled with things you can and are willing to do, with those passion projects you've created.”

Is it worth it to start with in-house designing/full time agency work before freelancing?

Nicole: “I don't think it's necessary if you want to get into the world of design. You can pick the same experience up as an in-house designer at any other business and you may pick up more skills that way as you often have to be the project manager, subject expert, the printer, the researcher and the client manager 😅 Highly recommend the government too, like a local council. Great way to dip your toes into design while having proper management and breaks, salary, no burnt out etc.”

Thanking the incredible Designers that answered these questions for you, our Creative Community.

Abby Marriott - Kōwhai Creative
Serena Mayen - Modern Design
Nicole Macdonald - January Made Design

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