Although I only officially started my business a few months ago, I have actually worked within the design industry for 10 years, initially as an inhouse designer for my family’s Interiors business in the UK, before studying Graphic Design at university in Nottingham for 3 years and later moving to London to work for agencies there and in the surrounding area. However, despite this past experience, I can truthfully say that nothing quite prepares you for starting your own business – It is wonderfully exciting and inspiring being able to do pretty much whatever you like and for clients that you’re genuinely passionate about, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t also incredibly stressful at times.
Part of this comes down to the fact that many of the university courses do not teach their students business skills, or how to market themselves as a business and handle the day-to-day admin that goes alongside that. Even when you’re working in a professional design studio or as an in-house designer, you are unlikely to see the business side of operations, unless you go out of your way to ask advice from the people who do know. And so it ends up that everyone starting out as a freelancer / business owner has to guess and blindly guide themselves as to how much to charge, how to market themselves, what the essential things are in order to start your business in the first place and so many other pieces of frankly CRUCIAL information.
In light of Covid-19, I’ve ended up chatting with various friends at length about this topic, and somehow being one of the only ones who is currently self-employed, I have ended up giving out the few tiny little nuggets of wisdom that I have already gained in my short time as a business owner. I have also joined various design / business owner groups on facebook, (which in themselves are an excellent resource for tips & comradery) and have seen others asking the exact same questions, or being in a situation that they don’t feel fully prepared to handle. So with that in mind, the sections below will hopefully provide a useful resource for anyone who is wondering about starting out.
Registering your business
This is a major one. With the internet being what it is, and some people being who they are, you absolutely want to start by registering your business – In the UK this is with Companies House, In Australia it is via the ATO (Australian Tax Office) – Elsewhere I’m afraid I don’t know but it’s basically via your government or your local governing body. A local google search for ‘business registration + your country’ should answer your question, but bare in mind there are a lot of companies set up to do it for you, for which they will charge you potentially a lot of money. It is generally very easy to do yourself for a fraction of the cost.
Business Bank Account
Not essential but would 100% recommend it. Whether you choose to hire an accountant to do your tax returns or not (more on that in a minute) having a separate bank account just for your business will make your life SO. MUCH. EASIER. Rather than having to go through your months entire bank statement (or worse, an entire year of bank statements if you’re disorganised – no judgement!) having a business bank account means that you know every expense coming from that account is business related, and every amount of money brought in is from your business, making your annual tax return and expenses infinitely easier.
Hiring an accountant
Again, not essential but personally I would recommend. For me, I am moving to a new country and am not fully up with what their important tax deadlines are or the process for submitting them, and to be sure that it is all done correctly, and that I don’t end up with any scary and unexpected bills, I am definitely going to be hiring an accountant. The costs and benefits of hiring one far outweigh the cost and stress of unexpected bills when I (inevitably) do it wrong. Accountants can also offer invaluable information as to what business model you should adopt for your own circumstances, and will often give you guidance on the best accounting / billing software to use (more on that too in a minute).
I cannot STRESS ENOUGH how important this is – honestly it belongs at the top of the list. I have heard so many stories of people who have ended up in a sticky situation with a client, whether it being scope-creep and they don’t know how to talk to their client about more money, or heaven forbid a client who is so unhappy they want to sue you. Contracts protect both you and the client from serious drama, and you should absolutely get every client to sign one, just in case. You can download templates from google very easily, and the one that I found that is SUPER comprehensive is from AIGA and covers every situation that you can think of (and probably a few that you can’t). I have made a few amendments to it for my own use and would suggest you do the same as everyone’s experiences are different. There are also certain situations that you might have experienced that warrant an addition to it, for example revisions. I have recently added a clause to mine in relation to rounds of revisions to avoid scope-creep. The clause states that I reserve the right to bill at an additional day rate once the scope of the project extends past what was originally quoted. This is super helpful for clients who want to sneak a few little bits in under the radar and suddenly you’re out of pocket. If they are unhappy about the additional cost, you can point to your contract and show them that they agreed to this when they agreed to work with you – It makes the situation A LOT easier.
This is also an important one, as it just helps you to look more professional. Gmail addresses are fine for personal use but when trying to persuade potential clients to work with you, appearances matter and it helps if you have a @yourdomain.co/com/other email address to go alongside your website. Yes, they’re a bit of a pain to set up, particularly with Gsuite, from my experience, but I’d also say that GSuite is one of the best services to use as you know they’ll provide a pretty seamless experience wherever you happen to be in the world – The last thing you need to be worrying about is whether your emails are actually getting through to you in the first place!
Now this is absolutely down to personal preference, and not 100% necessary, unless you’re hiring an accountant who will probably ask for access to it in order to do your filing. I personally choose to use Xero, just because it organises all my invoices, contacts and allows people to pay online (if you connect paypal, stripe or square). I just think it’s very useful to have all your financial information in one place, i.e you can connect your bank account to see incomings and outgoings, and see the status of all your invoices in one go. I also like that I can fully customise my invoices so they look consistent with the rest of my brand – FYI it’s totally worth it, but setting up custom invoices is A FAFF, prepare yourself.
There are also a few other programs that I would highly suggest using to keep everything organised, which I’ll do a separate post on, but the items on this post are the essential things I think you need to think about when starting out 🙂