The four business-defining questions I want you to answer:
- Are you going to sell productized creative services or custom creative services?
- Are you going to build a team, or ride solo?
- Are you going to build an agency, or a studio?
- Are you going to be a generalist, or a specialist?
Productized vs. Customized Services
Productized Creative Service Providers
These companies are usually built with selling the company in mind. They’re highly efficient, and require extremely tight processes that anyone with minimum capabilities can execute. The product is good, but not excellent and there’s not a lot of room for customization (though they often sell on the ability to customize – like Squarespace). The cost is typically lower, but it’s easier to sell volume.
Customized Creative Services Providers
Though there are clearly defined processes, the details and execution can often change depending on the specific needs of individual clients. It’s extremely hard to scale this type of business (it’s not built to scale). By nature of what the end-product is, you are limited to working with fewer clients more closely. Which means you’re charging much higher rates to provide a higher level of customer service and customization.
Team vs Solo
Some people think building a team will make their life and work easier. It won’t. They reason that if they have the right people around, they won’t have to worry about fulfillment – they can focus on “working on the business, not in it”. I am a fan of the E-Myth, and the concept of working on (not just in) the business. However, building a team isn’t always necessary to do this.
Bottom line – people are expensive and people add complexity. The number one expense any business will have is personnel. Also, the more people you add, the more complex your processes become and the more you’ll have to manage. The leaner you can operate (especially in the beginning) the better.
Why would you build a team rather than roll solo? It all depends on what you want to do and what you want to build.
If you feel called to leadership development, overseeing people, drawing out their gifting, creating a culture, and building something that is duplicatable (possibly with the ultimate end to sell) building a team might be for you.
If you love the craft of what you do, interacting with clients, overseeing the creative output and taking pride in the work, riding solo might be for you. You can still work with specialists and delegate aspects of your work as a solopreneur.
Agency or Studio
Agencies are multi-disciplinary. An agency consists of several services under one roof.
A creative agency might include graphic design, strategy, messaging, brand naming, UX/web design, marketing, video, photo, etc. There are two ways to look at an agency: (1) the Swiss Army Knife (which does several things poorly), or (2) The Toolbox (which is a collective of highly-specialized tools, each one doing one thing extremely well). If you’re a solo agency, you will likely be the Swiss Army Knife. In my opinion, the only way to do great creative services as an agency is to build a team (a toolbox with several specialists).
A studio is not necessarily small. For example, Pentagram is one of the largest graphic design studios in the world (several employees, multiple offices, worldwide recognition, multi-million dollar projects). They are a studio because they focus on one discipline really well – graphic design (primarily identity design). https://www.pentagram.com/
You can always start with one or two disciplines and add them as you progress with being an agency in mind.
Generalist or Specialist
Do you want to focus on one niche, or have a wide range of experience in several industries? There are pros and cons in each. Having a niche allows you to gain deep knowledge in one industry, allowing you to more easily develop “expert” status. Many people are concerned with focusing on a niche because they think it will be limiting. This often isn’t the case. In many cases narrowing in a niche allows you to open the gates of creativity within a particular domain.
However, in many other cases, people who focus on a niche can develop cognitive entrenchment. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s common to get caught in the rut of creating the same type of thing over and over again. It also puts you in a vulnerable spot if the industry changes or is disrupted.
Generalists tend to adopt lateral thinking (the ability to apply a wide-range of solutions to a wide-range of problems). This is helpful if you’re developing a custom creative services company.