Michael Huggins is an educator, Registered Graphic Designer, and the owner of a successful design firm, Mindwalk Brand Marketing in Ontario, Canada. Michael also coaches designers to help them build and run more profitable design businesses.
1. You were working as Creative Director at a company before deciding to start your own business. Was this something you were thinking about for a long time and why did you decide to go out ‘on your own’?
I had always thought about starting my own business. In fact I felt so strong about it when I first entered into this career, that I told this to my first employer before he actually hired me. I was just fresh out of college and it was my first job. In hindsight I’m surprised he still hired me. And I’m not so sure that was the best thing to say to my first employer. But as it turned out – it didn’t hurt my chances of working with him. And I did work for him for over 9 years before I finally left him to work on my own. The experience was invaluable. During my employment with him I never lost the dream of going into business for myself. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the business as I could. I worked my way up from designer to Creative Director before I finally made the leap. The deciding factor for me finally starting my business was that I had learned all I could working for someone else. It was time to grow and learn through new experiences.
2. After starting your design company how did you go about getting your first clients? Did you find one method of marketing more effective than others?
The best way I found for getting clients when I first started my business was networking. I focused on ‘getting seen’ and making connections with as many people as I possibly could. Usually over a cup of coffee or lunch (always my buy).
It’s important to note however that my emphasis was on building relationships, not on selling. I knew you had to focus on others first before you could expect anything in return. Eventually the conversations turned back to me and I could share what I was doing. I would ask everyone I met with if they knew anybody who could use and benefit from my services. I had a specific targeted individual in my mind who I wanted to attract. So I just described this “ideal person” to those I met with. This approach always gave me great feedback and results.
Another important component to my networking was having marketing material and samples on hand when I met people. Talking about business was always good – but showing people exactly what I did was always better. It had more impact when I brought out portfolio samples and case studies.
I put a lot of effort into creating marketing material that made me appear “bigger” than I was. I wanted to be a design agency – so I created marketing material that looked and sounded like a design agency right off the start. Both my networking and marketing material helped me land some pretty big clients when I first started.
As I became more established I started creating direct mail programs for my company. They were also extremely successful at attracting and getting new clients. And it allowed me to spend less time out on the road meeting people.
3. You run your business from a town of less than 40,000 people. Is it hard to land big clients? Do you see your location as an advantage in any way?
My location has no real advantage to attracting clients. But it’s also not a deterrent either. Most clients don’t care about my locations as long as it doesn’t impact the service standards I provide. The biggest factor I find when getting new clients is being able to meet them in person. Face to face. At least for the first few meetings. Especially when it comes to converting a prospect to a client – direct contact is needed. Clients want relationships they can trust. So building relationships in person is important. Most of my clients tend to be within a 1 – 1.5 hour driving distance from my head office because that’s the distance I’m willing to travel to meet with them.
4. Pricing is a pretty hot topic for freelancers and consultants, what’s a big mistake you see people making when it comes to setting their fees, and how should they be going about it?
One big problem I see is that many designers don’t realize that there are three levels (or categories) of pricing within any marketplace. The “Bargain Basement” level, the “Professional” level and the “Elite” level. And as a result – they treat all the buyers in their marketplace the same. Think about your marketplace as a big pyramid, with the “bargain” category on the bottom, the “professional” category in the middle of the pyramid, and the “elite” category right at the top of the pyramid.
Each of these categories have a specific type of buyer. And each of these buyers are predisposed to certain service standards and are used to paying fees within a certain price range. And there is a certain price amount they are not willing to go above. Most freelancers and consultants don’t do enough research on their prospects first so they can determine which category their prospect fits into before they start pricing their work.
The largest group of buyers within the 3 categories is the “bargain basement” category. These buyers are often the most uneducated when it comes to buying creative or consulting services. And as a result they often are focused mostly on price versus the value of the services they are receiving. What is interesting is that many designers provide services at a “professional” level – but are forced to price their services at the “bargain basement” level because that’s who they are selling to. Which means that it is often hard for them to make money at the completion of the project.
The problem with bargain basement pricing is that is not often a sustainable business model unless the volumes are there for the freelancer or consultant. Which for most – it isn’t. So I see many freelancers and consultants selling to the wrong category and charging too little for their services. Eventually they go out of business.
It is better for most freelancers to target buyers in the professional and elite categories when it comes to pricing their services. Yes, there are less buyers in these categories (especially in the “elite” category). And it often takes more research and time to land these clients than it does the “bargain basement” category. But the pay-off in the end is more profitable and it is a more sustainable business model.
5. What’s your view on the role of branding and design for consultants and freelancers? How critical is it that they have a professional looking brand from day one?
In my opinion it’s crucial to have a professional looking brand. Especially if you are marketing to the “professional” category within the marketplace. It could be slightly less important if you are marketing to the “bargain basement” category (ie: one-man businesses or mom and pop shops), but not by much. People need to feel confident and secure with who they are dealing with before they spend a dime with that person or firm.
The more professional you look, sound and act – the easier the sale will be for you to get. When a person looks unprofessional and their material looks unprofessional – they often have to do a lot of talking in order to gain the confidence of the buyer. When you look professional from the start, you let your material do most of the talking for you and sales come easier.
6. What does “work-life balance” mean to you and in your eyes do you have one?
Work life balance is about reaching a level of lifestyle-success in your life and business. It’s something that you are always working to achieve. It’s not so much a destination as it is a process. To achieve success in it you need to have a set of goals that you deem as successful. And you need to keep them under constant review to test if you are achieving the success you want in both life and work.
One of the things on my “list” that determines the success of my work-life balance is having 100% work-free days and holidays. Which is not an easy thing to do within an age where we are always connected to work through many different forms of communication (smart phones internet etc…). But it’s important to my mental and physical health to be able to completely disconnect.
Owning your own business can become consuming – as if there is nothing more important than your business. But the reality is – if you don’t have a balance in BOTH you won’t be able to last. You need to treat your personal time as important as your work. If you don’t – you’ll eventually resent your work and avoid it. Having a balance between the two creates a win-win situation. You feel fulfilled in your general living and life style and have you have the stamina and desire to continue in your work – even when pressures mount.
7. Do you usually work in a fixed location or do you work on the road a lot (cafes, other cities, etc?) and why do you do so?
I spend about 40% of my time fixed at our head office building. 30% of my time is spent at my home office (for design, consulting, writing projects, marketing, prospecting, new business development etc..) 10% for client and prospect meetings, and 20% at the coffee shop – which I often schedule after client meetings (to follow up with meeting notes, address email and continue prospect follow up).
8. What are your favourite gadgets or apps that help you stay productive and organized?
My iPad is one of my favourite tools. And one of my most advantageous. It’s light weight and compact and travels easily wherever I go. It gives me an advantage in my business because it has just about everything I need – all in one easy to access location.
It is a great presentation tool for portfolio photos, video and website design. It’s compact and is immediately accessible for conversation without waiting for a computer to boot up. I also can access my email and calendars all from the same source. It’s also a great tool for note taking and creating tangible next steps after meetings. Which I can then easily email to my staff and continue on my day with meeting clients and prospects. It is essentially my “business in a book”.