Where and how do you start a design business?

The cut to the chase answer to the question of where and how do you start a design business depends on your goals.

But first, this needs to be tied into last week’s entry What kind of designer are you? because the intention of this series is to make suggestions for self learning to help you get to wherever it is you want to be. To do that, you need to articulate where you want to be because as the old proverb says, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.

About goals -this being an entrepreneurship blog- let’s assume you intend to generate a profit. Within that spectrum, there is a wide range of possibilities. Obviously there is overlap but I break this down into four main categories:

  1. The dilettante: one who aspires to a bit of pin money,
  2. the income replacer: one who needs income equivalent to a job -or maybe even a bit extra,
  3. the merchant: those who need to support their family and their employees families with the business,
  4. corporate: one who aspires to scale; growing their business to whatever limits there are.

There are more traditional size classifications such as local, regional, national and international but those largely don’t apply in this business anymore. For example, I’m a 2 (income replacer) aspiring to be a 3 (merchant) but my reach is international and has been since I was a 1 (the latter due more to circumstances than intent).

Now, within each category, there are greater competencies and responsibilities if one intends to ascend to whichever strata. At the same time, one has less freedom to do what they want artistically but rather than seeing that as a limitation, it is actually liberating because it creates boundaries that will help you define the focus of your efforts. More simply stated, if you know what you want, you can create a plan. Yay plans! People often perceive limitations to be negative -in fact limiting- but being more pragmatic by limiting the gamut of options will make you more profitable. Do you want the freedom to design whatever dress meets your fancy or do you want to pay off your house? Or pay off a second home? Or whatever. Only you know the answer to that question. A friend’s email signature reads “Money doesn’t buy happiness but it sure make misery a lot nicer”.

Being more focused on profitability doesn’t mean you sell out and make crap. There are few comparisons that annoy me more.

But I digress. You need to know what your goals are. Pick 1-4 and pair that with your selection from What kind of designer are  you? to gain insight as to what you need to know. Here are a sampling of scenarios I’ll throw out there:

For example, if you’re a #1, how you classify yourself (artist, tradesman etc) doesn’t matter because you can suit yourself as you don’t really need the money. You can earn whatever you want because it interests you. You needn’t be constrained with continuity from one season to the next, worrying about color trends or hiring pattern makers or sewing contractors so you can have quite a bit of fun with your artistic vision.

If you’re a #2, you need to be a bit more disciplined and business minded so you can exact revenue over expenses to maintain your contribution to the family budget (your income may be the family budget wholly). Your planning and execution will have to follow accepted norms if only in sourcing (continuity) so you have materials on schedule. Depending on your skill set (TBD), if you’re using contractors for small production, you’ll have to have better patterns and commensurate competencies.  For example, you may not need pattern services often but you should develop a relationship with providers who have more resources than you do and can help guide in your development. Our forum is a great resource if this describes you.

If you’re a #3, being a designer and manager can only be your full time job if you have help; hopefully another family member or formal business partner. If a family member, you can tell them that it’s only until you get your legs under you (ha ha). But seriously, developing industrial competencies should be a major priority -which will mean occasionally having to hire it out. It is not easy to say what you should learn because the focus of most businesses (remember, not quite scaling at this stage) may be mostly outsourced and you’re doing well enough to manage that. Other 3’s will want to do their own production (also 2’s) so they will need to make learning an ongoing priority. If this describes you, in addition to the forum, I suggest creating an educational budget for yourself and every member of your team even if that only means buying a new book every month or bringing in a trainer over a long weekend once a year.

If you’re a #4, you need a lot of money, awesome connections and a lot of experience (TBD). You’ll also need access to solid industry competencies albeit at another level. In a perfect world (okay, my perfect world) you would grow from a 2 to a 4 and build relationships and skills along the way. However, being that some people are generally quarrelsome and fail to adhere to my every whim,  I know that some people prefer to start at this stage and leave the groundwork to people they bring in. However it is that you do it, buy it or roll your own, you need skills.

For next time, we can sort out what self taught designers need to learn dependent upon their category (artist, craftsman etc) as commensurate to their goals (1-4) in greater detail.

By all means, don’t be shy about suggesting amendments. Thanks in advance for kicking the tires on this.

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18 comments

  1. ginevra says:

    Hmm, so I’m likely a project manager type. I’ve done production assisting in another industry & I actually loved working with suppliers & figuring out how to get a (reasonable) product within budget & time constraints.

    Mainly, I want to income replace, but could be tempted to be a merchant, if I felt confident the business was stable/growing.

    Should I conclude I’d be better off working for someone else?

  2. Susan says:

    Hah, this is fun. Type wise, I’m an engineer/accountant/project manager (yes, seriously all 3 – i have been since I was a teenager, it always made choosing a job/career hard) and aspiration wise I’m striving for 4, but realistically I haven’t truly become a 2 yet. So I know I have a LOOOONG way to go, and lots to learn. Slowly slowly….

  3. Interesting blog post, just like the previous one :)
    I would say I’m currently a combination of categories 1, 2 and 3. My goal is for #2 (income equivalent to a job) to become a permanent situation in the future, and over time hopefully progress to #3 (the part of hiring help/employees). As for #4, the way I see things now and the way my priorities are set, becoming a designer-corporation (something like Michael Kors for instance) isn’t something I see myself actively pursuing, not to mention coming up with the funds for it. If our firm could gradually develop from #1 to #2 to #3 to #4 – and that in itself could take years, even decades(??) – and acquire the funds to become #4 along the way, then that’s something I would see as the natural progression of things, but the jump to #4 from where we are right ow seems awfully long :) I can’t see how any DE could do it from the start unless they already had a VERY significant capital to invest to the project and they used it wisely to hire the best help they could find in the industry, from designers and pattern makers to sales reps, PR and marketing people etc. to help them make the big break.

  4. Demetra says:

    I am definitely a 2, but my aspirations are to become a 4. I have had this dream for a long time. I am learning to develop the industry relationships that will be necessary at each level. Learning at each level is critical, as I continue to take classes to refine my skill set and more business related classes for the future.

    Thanks for the information, it keeps me thinking.

  5. Marcanne says:

    I am definitely a 2. Becoming a 3 would be nice. Becoming a 4 is not necessary. I have friends who have become 4s and now that they are at that level and have gone public, I think it is more trouble than it is worth some times. They have to please shareholders and others who have invested in their business. They worry a lot if you ask me. More than I care to. At the same time, I have friends who are 2s and 3s. They seem the happiest about their business and have managed them to NOT become a 4. I am older (in my 50s) and my goal is to have something to replace my income or subsidize it. But then, I am older and have been there and done all of that 4 stuff as an employee.

  6. Rocio says:

    Interesting… I started out as a 2 with the goal of becoming a 4…
    I’m now finding being a 3 so rewarding that if I die tomorrow I won’t have any regrets about not making it to 4 yet

  7. Michele Killman says:

    I’m a 2 right now. I’m learning all the key skills I need to know in order to eventually hire the right people to help me get the job done (It’s always easier to manage people and projects when you’ve done that task and you can understand and speak the lingo.). I have project management, artist, finance, marketing and business management experience in my professional background (yes, I’m much older than most of you.). My goal is to work my way to a 3, learning about the business and growing my company slowly but surely and then eventually end up as a 4…with all the fun and expanding challenges that opportunity will present. Isn’t life fun!

  8. theresa riess says:

    I’m a 1 bordering on a 2 but not in the needle trades. On the sewing side I am very definitely a 1 as I sew for no one but myself and family but everything I’ve learned here and on the forum applies to my housebuilding. Sewing things for people is very similar to building for them; it’s all about relationships, learning the craft and knowing when to bring in the experts. And again I’m a 1 since I build only for myself, keep the property and rent it out thus becoming almost a 2. I say almost a 2 as we are approaching income replacement rather than income augmentation. And we may ramp up to a 3 if the offspring and the younger brother decide to put things on turbo power. Keeping things small and deciding who you want as customers is a good thing.

  9. I’m a 1-and-a-half shooting for 2… with a husband who wants me to be a 4. (Never gonna happen, babe.) I was struck by the statement about pragmatism and limiting options in order to run a more profitable business, and have scribbled it on an index card for prominent display over my work table. *crumples up latest batch of goofy sketches* :^D

  10. Denise says:

    I am focused on being a #4-Corporate. I started my business an an LLC Company. I launched my clothing line in October 2012 and hope to be selling online in the next month or so.

  11. Sarah_H. says:

    I’m a 1. Do not aspire to be more. I have spent many many years in this industry, and earned a fair living. Now I am retired and I am an artist (aspiring) and a dilettante. I’ve earned it. I also do a little selling that has nothing to do with my artistic endeavors, but I am even a dilettante at that.

  12. Taja says:

    Currently a 2, focused on becoming a 3. At this point in my life (AARP recognized me a few birthdays ago–eek!) and with a global marketplace, I don’t believe reaching a 4 is feasible. Could be wrong–one never knows!

    Previously was a 4 in two different businesses when the world was a different place (70s through early 90s). Even with that scenario, I’m not sure I would have the energy to develop a business to that level again. But it certainly would be fun!

  13. That is a helpful follow up article. I was wondering where I fit, or how it is what I want to do fits. I am curious to think that starting as a 1 could hurt, if I decided to go into 2 up to 4. I have less connections than I can count on one hand, but I love working hard. So it is possible to grow to a 3 or 4, but my short term goal is #2 via a boutique (meaning small retail shop). I will look for something on here for retail shops moving into manufacturing. Thank for the insight!

  14. LisaB says:

    Nothing yet. Would like at least to be a 2 (which will take a while) but would love to be a 3 or 4. I’m more of a project manager / engineer / salesperson with an idea of where I’d like a company to go, but not a specific artistic vision. I think I’m more of a problem solver than anything else and that’s the focus of the company I’d like to build.

  15. Deb Gilliam says:

    If I were a 1,with my sewing skills, I wouldn’t make any money. I would be sooo frustrated with each finished product, the seam ripper outer would be my best friend. When I get my business up and rolling I aspire to be a 2, with help, luck and success I would love to be in the 3 category. Kathleen, setting a path, compartmentalizing and knowing my market has been very valuable information which at this point in my journey I needed to hear. Thank you

  16. I’m a 3, although I don’t really pay myself, just support my employees, which sometimes makes me feel like a 0. But aspiring to be a 4.
    Sophia, I have a small retail shop, where I sell my own product, which is stiched up in the back. I’m wanting to transition into manufacturing my line at contractors and selling wholesale. So I also am interested in posts on that boutique to manufacturer transition.

  17. Hello my name is Lekecia,I’m a 2 aspiring to be a 4, I have a small home based business named Love Me More Jewelry Designs. I am a Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising student , I am looking for Mentors to assist me in developing my full potential as a serious designer. Although my company is home based now, I would like to incorporate soon. Thank you for all of your helpful advice, it was very informative.

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