I want to start a company right out of school!

Q: I’m in my final year of studying graphic design at university. I’ve saved up money and am thinking of opening a design studio straight after I graduate. My question is how did you start off when you first opened your studio?

Did you have many clients? How did your potential clients find you? And last of all, how long did it take you to build a good client base?

A: First of all let me just say how much I admire the gumption and the confidence of wanting to start your own studio right out of the gate. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

Now here comes the hammer: this is a terrible idea. There’s only one idea that would be worse, by the way. And that would be going to work at a startup right out of school.

Let me tell you a story about my mom. My mom grew up in a small town in Portugal. When she was a teenager, my grandmother took her to the town seamstress, who was nice enough to take her on as an apprentice. She spent years learning the basic tricks of the craft. She learned to measure. She learned to cut. She learned to sew. But she also learned what kind of compliment each of the town’s grand ladies needed to hear to approve an invoice. She learned how to talk the larger ladies out of horizontal stripes and the busty ladies out of the shiny red fabric. In short, she learned her trade.

As her skills grew so did her responsibilities. In a few years, she was the seamstress’ most trusted employee. And here’s where something great happened. The seamstress pulled her aside and said, “Judite, it’s time to start your own shop.” And she handed my mother a small stack of index cards with the names, phone numbers, and measurements of good clients my mother had been working with. She said, “Take care of these clients and they will bring you their friends and you will never want for work.” And she was right.

If you are serious about a career in design, the absolute best thing you can do right now is to get yourself a job at a studio working for experienced designers who are willing to teach you the parts of the trade you didn’t get in school. A good designer understands that part of their role is to teach the next generation.

You’ll be getting lessons on finding clients, handling invoices, salesmanship, what to do when a client won’t pay, etc. This stuff is invaluable. Not to mention that you’ll be exposed to lots of different types of problems and clients at the same time. (Which, by the way, is why you don’t go to work at a startup right out of school.) And the fact that you’re asking me about how to find clients means that school hasn’t taught you those things. Design schools rarely do, and when they do, design students aren’t too keen on taking “the business class”.

Go watch how someone else handles it. Listen to their stories. You will not be in charge, but you are also not ready to be. Slowly, but surely, they will hand you the reins, along with a safety net of being there should you stumble.

As far as your questions about getting clients, it’s all connected. Your clients come from the relationships you build up over the years. Relationships with other designers, other shops, and former clients. Most of all former clients! You spend your career building those up.

If it were up to me, and someday it will be, no designer would be able to practice without a two-year residency at a design shop working under someone with twenty years’ experience.

I love that you want to start your own company, but don’t be in a hurry to do it. There’s a lot to learn and you have the time to do it right.

About Dear Design Student

A weekly series where I answer students’ questions about being a designer. Send me your questions.