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How I'd Build a Successful design business in 2024

So, it’s coming up to the 5th anniversary of when I started my design business, and recently, I’ve been thinking about how I would approach it differently with the knowledge and experience I have now.

On one hand, I wouldn't change anything because this path has brought me to where I am today. However, when thinking about it, there are certain things I could have done to expedite the process.









So, here's how I would build my design business if I had to start from scratch... Step One: Technical skills

A mistake I often see from designers is that they try to start a business or go freelance before they have a proficient skill set. Even with the best marketing, if the service you deliver is subpar, the business is destined to fail.

Therefore, before making any business plan or Instagram account, it’s important to ensure that your technical ability is at a level where you can produce work of a professional standard. Random designer: But Abi, how do I know if my work is good enough? Abi: You will just know when it is (watch this video here for reference), but you can also look at some of the top designers in the industry and compare your level of work to theirs.

(Obviously comparing yourself to others is something to avoid, but I mean more so the standard of work. It doesn't have to be on par, but if your work is significantly below that of an established designer, then maybe that's a sign you need to focus on improving your skills.) Step Two: Gathering Experience

The next thing I would look to do is gain experience working on projects, which complements the previous step nicely because you can do both simultaneously.

If you try to go freelance straight out of formal education, there are too many unanswered questions that can lead to overwhelm and confusion. Random designer 1: What do I include in a contract?

Random designer 2: What do I say on discovery calls?

Random designer 3: How do I present my work? (P.S. If you need the answers to these questions and more, check out my new course 'The Client Process'.) While it is possible to build a design business without prior experience, I highly recommend going out into the real world and gaining first-hand experience, (ideally in a design agency.)


Step Three: Planning the Business


Once I had experience and technical skills, the next step I would take to build my design business is writing a business plan.


People often fall into two extremes when it comes to this. Some are unaware of what a business plan entails (like younger Abi), while others get so caught up in creating the perfect business plan that they never complete it, which becomes a roadblock to starting their business.


So, this time around, I will find a middle ground and ask myself the following questions to ensure my business has a clear direction:


  • What design services will I offer?

  • Which clients/industries do I want to work with?

  • What is my process when working with a client?

  • How will I manage project information?

  • How do I plan on attracting prospects?


By answering these questions, I would gain clarity and have one less thing to worry about.


Step Four: Creating a Portfolio

Once I had a clear direction for my business and a well-defined process, my next focus would be on acquiring clients, starting with creating a portfolio. For this, I wouldn’t build a website, as there are initially more important aspects to concentrate on. Instead, I would put together a simple portfolio using something like Notion. There’s a bunch of free portfolio templates you can find here.

A quick note on the above: one common mistake made by new freelancers is spending too much time on non-essential tasks. Don't worry about creating a website or social media content at the beginning of your journey. These can be done later. Instead, it's best to focus on what truly matters, such as honing your skills, refining your process, and building experience, as these factors will ensure client satisfaction. A quick note on the above: one common mistake made by new freelancers is spending too much time on non-essential tasks. Don't worry about creating a website or social media content at the beginning of your journey. These can be done later. Instead, it's best to focus on what truly matters, such as honing your skills, refining your process, and building experience, as these factors will ensure client satisfaction. Step Five: Getting My First Client

Once I had a portfolio, my next focus would be landing my first client.

And my preferred marketing tool would be email. Despite being overlooked nowadays due to new social media platforms like TikTok, when it comes to getting your first few clients, nothing beats email if you approach it correctly. Here are my best practices for reaching out via email:

  • Keep it short and to the point (business owners are busy).

  • Include a portfolio

  • Clearly state what you're offering and how you can help them.

  • Minimise the work the recipient needs to do to proceed to the next stage. For example, insert a “reply with yes if you're interested” statement at the bottom of your email. (this creates a low-effort buy-in)

  • (Bonus) This last step is optional because I understand that some people refuse to work for free. However, before sending an email, you could take the time to redesign something for them to showcase your services in action. Let me give you an example: To date, I have received over 200 emails from "thumbnail designers" and have only hired one. This designer had taken the initiative to download one of my previous thumbnails, redesign it, and present it to me while explaining the changes made and the strategic reasoning behind them. Although they created that thumbnail for free, it ultimately led to them securing 12 months' worth of work from me.

With these best practices in mind, I would approach local businesses in your area. Location plays a role in building familiarity and increasing trust, so when starting out it’s beneficial to focus on businesses nearby. But don’t expect instant success, instead, it is a game of averages. As the saying goes, if you knock on a door a hundred times, eventually one door will open.

You only need ONE business to say yes, and then you can direct all your attention and efforts towards providing them with the best service possible. This can lead to receiving a testimonial or, even better, a referral (as business owners often have connections with other business owners). This is where the gears start turning and your business begins to grow. Step Six: Building the Business

After establishing a steady stream of clients, I would start working ON the business and address aspects that I initially overlooked.

These include:


  • Marketing Efforts: Social media, website, etc.

  • Refining my process and creating automations.

  • Planning how I can increase my prices: Improving skills, packages, etc.

All of this involves learning, which is something I now greatly understand the importance of. If you want to grow, whether in your career, business, or personal life, continual education is the answer!


Focusing on these areas would allow me to increase my number of clients, my earnings, and the amount of time I spend on projects. Step Seven: The Unwritten Path

Here's where I leave you all! See, for many designers, the next step would involve continuing to build the business and expand the client base to turn it into an agency and hire employees.

I considered that path at one point but decided it wasn't the right fit for me. Instead, I now work in a small team of three and we focus on fewer but larger projects. This allows me the time to create content like this and hopefully help you guys 💛


Understanding what success means to YOU is crucial because it varies for each person, and you don't want to be trapped pursuing someone else's dream.

No matter what stage you’re at in your design business, hopefully, you can take some of these insights and apply them. Check out this week's podcast here where me and Jack discuss the mistakes we made when starting!

Until next time,

Abi :)

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