Surviving the Downturn: Running Your Own Business in the Current Economic Climate
We closed out 2002 with a special meeting that was part of DV Expo West – a variation of our customary "running your own business" sessions that focused on how companies and individuals had tailored their approach during this prolonged economic downturn.
In a slight departure from our normal array of small studio owners, we had our most diverse panel yet, featuring speakers ranging from freelancers through small and large studios to a network who buys graphics from these.
(from left to right:)
Chris & Trish Meyer: founders/designers
at CyberMotion (moderators)
Beth Roy: motion graphics freelancer
Lloyd Alvarez: Design Director at Blink.fx
Sam Schoemann: Executive Producer of class-key chew-po broadcast design
Ann Epstein: Executive Producer Marketing Department/On Air Design at E! Networks
Michael Kelley: Creative Director of Idiot Box (not in picture)
We focused on how the industry and market has changed during he past 2-3 years, speculated on prospects for 2003 (2/3 of the audience thought 2003 would be better, 1/3 expected more of the same), and discussed strategies for finding work and keeping current clients happy. Some panelists had up-close-and-personal experience with companies or markets that had failed the past few years, while others were busy expanding their business. After discussion among the panel, we opened it up to an interesting interactive discussion with the audience.
There’s obviously no way to recreate the entire 2+ hour meeting on a simple web page. However, following are some bullets points of several of the issues discussed (many thanks to Ann Epstein for writing up the core for most of these):
• Most of the panelists were
opposed to working on spec. Competing for clients in this way makes sense
in some industries such as advertising where there is a large amount of follow-on
work, but not in graphics where one is often paid in full for a single job,
and the creative ideas are so easily stolen and farmed back out to a lower
cost production house. This has led some to admit they don’t work as
hard on spec jobs, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in landing
the job. In general it undervalues what you do and encourages clients to continue
the bad behavior.
If asked to submit work for free, don't be timid to request some 'pitch money'. Also, don't be afraid to get info such as how many companies will be submitting work, what the overall budget is, and when would they be awarding the project. If the odds seem overwhelming, politely pass.
If you are going to do unpaid work, consider doing it for the networking or resume possibilities (such as pro bono work for a favorite cause which in turn allows you to stretch out, and which might also open doors elsewhere). One interesting example is where a class-key chew-po designer created an internal proof of concept piece, which was later submitted when a spec call came – they landed the job based work previously done on what was just an internal creative exercise.
• If a job comes in where
either you are too busy to take it on yourself, or it calls for tasks outside
your personal skill set, hire a freelancer or subcontract another studio,
while remaining the role of project point person so as not to lose your foothold
with your client. Remember: They've come to you in the first place because
they trust you; don’t hand that hard-won currency over to someone else.
• Ann Epstein in particular is a fan of networking. Work can come from the strangest places sometimes! When you're in social gatherings, talking enthusiastically about what you do and cool stuff you're working on will more often than not evoke interest from someone who can potentially throw some work your way or can turn you on to someone who can.
The trick is not making it seem too much like a hard-core sales job; Lloyd Alvarez notes sometimes clients tell him he got the call because at gatherings he was the only one who was not doing a hard sell – he treated others as creative equals to chat with, rather than targets to attack.
• Sending unsolicited demo reels has a low success rate – they land on a tall stack and might not ever get viewed. Getting someone to make a call on your behalf as an introduction goes a long way. Being too pushy yourself can have the opposite effect, turning off a potential client before they’ve even seen your work (the “stalker syndrome” as it became known during the meeting).
Interesting packaging is another way to pique curiosity in a reel. Sam Schoemann noted his former company Fuel had great success sending their reel inside a piñata with their logo on the outside (and candy on the inside). Lloyd mentioned they once hired a designer who sent their reel in a hand-welded cases (they actually hired them to create other welded objects – think of it as a way to show the diversity of your creativity).
As Sam noted, remember that you’re selling to people who’s job it is to sell – a tough assignment. Shallow approaches probably won’t work.
• If you're not a great 'front person' or sales person, hook up with someone who is so you can focus on the creative stuff and leave 'business' to them. For example, Michael Kelly's found a perfect partner as his wife will tenaciously go after the money, keep the office running, etc. while he focuses on doing excellent creative. Some set up their studios inside larger post houses or become part of larger design groups that already have a sales staff out soliciting work (Matt Silverman’s position at Phoenix Digital that he outlined during last year’s panel).
• Remember that a client is coming to you be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Don’t be a whiner; be a pro-active problem solver. Trish and Chris Meyer both noted that a lot of their references and repeat work comes because a client says “they saved my ass” on a job, or because they figure out how to solve the client’s problem. Lloyd candidly noted “I know I’m not the best designer out there, but I know I will be the most fun person to work with” that his client will ever experience. Also, be honest – Chris noted he’s more likely to re-hire a subcontractor who admits to mistakes during jobs than one who tries to cover them up.
• Related to this, don’t freak out when the job’s scope changes; embrace it – it’s a chance to have the client rely on you more, and (if you’ve set up the contract or work arrangement properly) more work.
Being proactive about the scope of a job can lead to bigger and better things. Ann uses the term “sell up”: When you're working with a client and you hear them talk about other work, don't be shy. Ask them if you can help them solve their problem. Sometimes the smallest project can turn into a full blown campaign by just 'trying to help.'
• As far as billing trends go, virtually everyone stated a desire to bid on a job as a package price, with second choice being daily and the last hourly (although you will often need to fall back on these for overages). This gives you flexibility to be rewarded for solving a problem (technical or creative) quickly, or to conceal when you need to spend additional personal time learning a new skill.
Try to find out what a client’s budget is, and then work with them to figure out what can be delivered on that budget, rather than blindly bidding on a scope of work – otherwise, you don’t know if the client’s expectations are realistic until they accept or turn down your bid.
• Fall back on your other skills when motion graphics gets slow. Beth Roy has found a niche in writing, editing, and teaching; the Meyers have also done well with writing their books; Michael directs, shoots, and teaches in addition to creating graphics. Several graphics artists have branched out into selling their own plug-ins or training materials (such as Matt Silverman).
There are also a multitude of new and different platforms that we can be designing for, such as DVD menus, games and their trailers, web sites, PDAs, corporate communications, etc. There are also a number of small boutiques that could use strategic partners on their sales tapes, trailers, etc. Keep digging!