Tips for setting up your own branding agency
The caveat to everything typed beyond this sentence is that everything you are about to read is from the fingertips of someone who is hardly a global success. On the contrary, if the last couple years are anything to go by, it’s been a case of pure survival, rather than progression.
But that may just be why this article matters. You can look around at your peers and aspirational contemporaries, staring in wonderment about how they got there, and how you might do the same. How, if you were to leave your full time job to pursue your own practice, will it even be possible to get to the same level of success as the people you currently work for?
Does it even matter? Who knows. It may to some. Neither my Nueker co-founder Josh or myself have made more money with our own agency than by working on the London agency circuit. But to us it just doesn’t matter.
If you’re anything like me, your hunger for wanting to do this will come from a place of wanting to have some autonomy in your life: The ability to not be forced to stay late and work, to not be relegated to a desk for ‘x’ amount of hours and be penalized for wanting to take a walk, to not have to work for a client you don’t want to –– the list is endless.
Broadly, you will grant yourself the power to say ‘No’. Negative as this might sound, I can assure you, it’s positively one of greatest powers you can earn in life.
It’s not an easy transition to do, but enduring the time we have is one of the things that we’re both most proud of in our lives. We wouldn’t change it.
Below are some pragmatic tips into making the leap, and the key signals to look out for.
If you’re in it just for the money, you will likely fail
It’s not to say there isn’t money in this industry. In fact, there's a lot of money in this industry. However, this isn’t like selling commodities. There's not really a tangible thing to trade, other than the perceived ability of being able to create something from nothing for someone else's business.
It’s saccharine to say, but you have to do it because of the love of your craft. This love will carry you through the pitfalls of trying to do this, of which there are many.
To be clear though, even the looming horizon of bankruptcy has never stressed me out as much as being chained to a desk 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. So for me, even the worst pitfall of owning your business isn’t as much of a plight as a full-time job.
Filter your full-time job out gradually
This can be quite tough to do, but I realized there's no way to make a blunt transition safely. If you want to be able to, y’know, pay rent, keep yourself fed and watered and have some change left over for some pints, starting your own agency needs to be a gradual transition.
To start, I joined the London freelance circuit. This was helpful for a number of reasons. The first was that freelancing paid twice as much as my full-time job, which makes it easier to invest your time into extracurricular projects for your individual portfolio. The second is that you will likely have to set up a limited company, which you would need to do eventually anyway to even do business with a client.
As an example, I had managed to filter out agency freelancing to three to four days a week, teaching Third Year Graphic Design on the BA (Hons) course at the Art’s University Bournemouth once a week, and then getting a couple of small clients that I could do one day a week. By doing something like this, you begin to embed yourself into your own clients’ world and creative opportunities arise from it.
No job is too small
Our biggest work has always been birthed out of doing tiny, one-off jobs i.e. Facebook banners, email templates, et cetra. Sure, there are some agencies that won’t get out of bed for less than £40,000, but that’s unlikely how it started for them.
These little golden eggs are almost like interviews. Each one a test of your character, ingenuity and skill simultaneously. It won’t be long until the team on the receiving end realizes you’re the person they can turn to for things.
The ‘golden egg’ for us was securing a website redesign job out of a small social media campaign. After noticing that the website's booking process was broken, I mentioned it to the project manager and implied they could be losing a fortune (which they were). It seems crass to mention financial figures, but I think that it’s good to be clear so you can see what kind of fiscal benchmark we’re talking about here.
The website redesign I quoted was £20,000. This was enough for that 2-3 month padding for us to begin a small studio, which meant I could give my business partner Josh a bell, ask if he wanted to quit his job, and do it with me. Which thankfully, he did.
Get an Accountant. And then, get a bookkeeper.
As someone who is hopeless with numbers, accountants to me are like the mafia. Like the mafia, you pay accountants money to protect your business. Instead of protecting it against a suspicious brick through your window, you’re protecting your business against the arcane minefield of the government tax system. You know they protect you. But you don’t know what they actually do for this money.
Because of this, it’s wise to get a separate bookkeeper you can trust. This way, your bookkeeper can keep tabs on your accountant, and determine if they’re giving you good value for money. We have been burned twice by rogue accountants who were overcharging us for years and all we needed to avoid this was to pay extra for an unbiased third party.
Protect yourself. If you’re terrible with financial admin, find yourself a separate entity to your accountant.
Find someone who knows this more than you
They’re everywhere. Previous bosses, friends of friends, or even slip into someone's DMs on LinkedIn. The people who know more than you are important because along the road of business, you’re going to be pretty much blind to the hazards of the day-to-day.
We have naturally procured numerous mentors (even if they don’t know it) over the years that have owned their own agencies and toiled over the shortcomings that can happen. From client relationships to amends that just won’t quit, learning how to budget the studio by setting targets, and even practical approaches to finding the right workspace, having someone on your side that has done it all before will invariably aid your quest.
Parting tip: Tread carefully with people who charge for Mentorship. They are essentially consultants, a trade of which we are wary of. Beyond usually being frighteningly expensive (i.e. £250-plus an hour), they get paid regardless of your success, success that can often be very long-winded to get to.
Overall, it’s hard to deny that setting up your own agency, studio, or practice is scary. The fear comes from the same place as most things in life. Thinking about too much too soon makes it hard to see the achievable goal.
If you’ll forgive the analogy, I find changing the fundamental way in which your life works is similar to how it takes two miles to turn an oil tanker. It’s not instant, but as long as you set the trajectory, you’ll get there (provided you don’t run out of money or give up).
And personally speaking, while I make mistakes weekly in the treacherous world of business, it’s not enough for me to take any of it back. More importantly, I couldn’t imagine a life I want to live being any other way. Chase the dream my friends.