If you’re working as a freelancer or a one person company in order to scale your business you need to start hiring others to help and support your goals. But the thought of hiring someone can incredibly daunting. In this weeks interview Ian discusses this topic with Tom Ross, founder and CEO of Design Cuts and host of the popular podcast, The Honest Designers show.
In this interview we also discuss how to prevent burnout, and how to market your business too.
Tom Ross Interview Transcription
Ian Paget: Here today, you are CEO of Design Cuts, which has been incredibly successful. Can you share with us the journey that led you to creating that business?
Tom Ross: Yeah, absolutely. I think it makes a lot of sense, actually in the hindsight as things often do. But from about the age of 12 I’ve been simultaneously immersing myself and learning design, but also marketing and entrepreneurship. I’ve got such a passion for both.
From that young age, I started a freelance career. I’ve done blogging in the design space. I’ve built communities in the design space. Alongside that, I was just learning loads about marketing, loads about being an online entrepreneur. By doing both in tandem for a lot of years and trying all these different ventures. It eventually led to Design Cuts, which I guess is like the perfect marriage of the two. Because we help the best product creators in the world who make these amazing fonts and brushes and graphics. We help them to sell their products because a lot of these people, they love creating, but they don’t really like distribution to marketing and that kind of thing.
For me, it scratches all itches. We can help these people. We’ve helped some of them put their kids through college, or save their house and that kind of thing, which I get such a kick out of. Then we also foster this really, really warm amazing community. I love the design community in general. I always have. I think our community’s one of the best examples of that, because the people are just awesome.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I agree with that. I think the design community in general is absolutely amazing. But everyone is always so supportive. I think you as a business do a fantastic job of really encouraging that.
Anyway, I’m keen to ask you about your transition from freelance to eventually building a really big business because I’m aware from listening to the honest designers podcast that you prefer working in a team rather than on your own. I’m very much the same in that sense, and it’s one of the reasons why I still have a part-time job at an agency and only freelance part-time.
What’s the reason why you prefer working in a team rather than freelance, which I tend to see most designers wanting to take?
Tom Ross: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think part of it is just my aspirations because I’m quite ambitious and I always want to build something really, really big. After a certain point, I recognised that you do become a bottleneck when you’re a solo freelancer, or solo entrepreneur. You can only scale up to a certain point. I think after that point you do after to delegate. You have to hire out in order to build something bigger.
My aim is to literally change the world. I know that sounds crazy, but I think to an extent we have disrupted the industry in hopefully a very positive way. We’ve impacted millions of people. That’s the stuff that really excites me.
That goes for creativity and business. I always give the example of Da Vinci basically turned a blank canvas into the Mona Lisa and changed the world in the process. I love that, that literally you and I could be having this chat and then you could just get a light bulb moment and have an idea. With the right work and execution and creativity put into that, you could literally change the world from nothing.
Ian Paget: I love that example. I think you’re right that Design Cuts has already made an impact in the industry. You’re so right, there’s no way that you could’ve done that on your own, certainly not as fast anyway. You really got me thinking that I personally limit the growth of Logo Geek. I’d imagine that listeners will probably be able to relate with this too, but basically, when you work on your own there’s only so much time that you can allocate to anything. I know I’m the only one that’s limiting growth as I’ve got the leads coming and I’ve got an audience too that I could potentially money ties. But because I’m just one person, there’s no way to scale my business beyond what it is now without involving others.
The question I have for you is how were you able to grow your business from the point of being a one man band, just a freelancer? Because my concern is that I’d need to go from earning enough money for me to suddenly needing to double in that income so that I can pay both myself and this extra person too. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Tom Ross: Yeah, quite a few really. Let me just say this is not a natural thing for me, historically, because I worked alone for so many years. I was the kid who was learning this stuff and freelancing from my bedroom. When I started Design Cuts, we’re kind of connected to a bigger corporate in that we got to use their office space and some of their infrastructure. I started in the corner desk on the sales floor, just a kid on a laptop.
I found that really hard to transition from total freedom, like working at home in my pyjamas to being in quite a corporate office. I think at first I was behaving like a bit of an idiot because I would come up and be reading a book and have my feet up on the desk and not look very respectful. That wasn’t out of trying to be disrespectful, it’s just because I was so ingrained and so used to doing my own thing.
That was a real learning curve. The same way it was learning curve to build a team out. I hadn’t really done it before aside from working with guest logo authors on my blog and that kind of thing. But I never managed people full time. I’d never done any of that. It was an unbelievably steep learning curve. I really had to learn on the job and just try to give it my all and make the best job of it.
But sorry, was your question how to scale?
Ian Paget: Yeah, because you obviously went from that point where you was working on your own. You obviously got to a point where you thought, “Okay. I need to employ someone.”
Tom Ross: Yeah, and you were saying about the money, right?
Ian Paget: Yeah. I’ve thought about doing this in the sense that I basically just employ a freelancer on a job to job basis. But you’ve obviously been able to employ a vast number of people. It’s just more of a case … especially with the mindset that you had at that time. What was it that you did to take on your first employee to scale, because I can imagine that there will be people that will be in that same position?
Tom Ross: Yeah. It wasn’t easy. I don’t know how much you’ve seen of my story growing Design Cuts, but I basically worked 18 hours a day for a year and a half, which resulted in me putting myself in a hospital and having major surgery. Part of that was because I thought I could do it all. Despite seeing growth from day one, we didn’t hire for our first ten months into the business, which is ludicrous looking back. Even then, it was only a part time hire.
It wasn’t like it was the comfort zone for me. I was like, “Yeah, let’s chuck a load of people at this.” It took a long, long time for me to let go and think, “Yeah, someone else can either do a better job, or even if they can’t, I need to let go of this to scale.”
In terms of hiring people and losing out financially, I think it’s that cliché of speculate to accumulate. It’s an investment. You’re realising that maybe you need to scale back expenses and try to create some savings to do that. Maybe just earn less for a short-term because you know this time next year you’re actually going to be twice as well off because you’ve scaled out.
As much as that can feel like big risk, like the worst case scenario is you hire with the intention of scaling, it doesn’t work, and then unfortunately you have to let that person go, but then they can comfortably go and get another job, you hope. It’s not like you’re in it for life. If it really doesn’t play out how you hope, you can always go back to the way things were.
I really think … Do you mind if I share what you were telling me about how many requests you’re getting before we start?
Ian Paget: Sure, yeah.
Tom Ross: You were saying you’re getting tons of requests every day for work. Really, you could be saying yes to so many more of those opportunities and then simply delegating out whatever parts of the work you wanted, building it into more of an agency model, and then you can just run the numbers. How much is that person going to cost you? How much are you going to charge? And you obviously make a bit of money on top of that because you’re the one bringing in the business, you set up the platform, you built your brand, you’re probably dealing with the clients, you’re managing that person.
I think a lot of people get funny about that and think, “Am I being unfair by keeping some of that money for myself?” It’s like, no. Absolutely not because you’ve worked so hard to build up what you’ve got. And you’re providing this person with a great job, which they should love. It should really be like everyone wins in that scenario.
Ian Paget: Yeah, absolutely. I think you made employing people sound very realistic and achievable. I like that you’ve mentioned that your first hire was a part-time person. Taking that approach, there’s not that much risk really, is there?
Tom Ross: There’s not. You’re giving it a try. If you never try then you’ll probably never get to that next point if you indeed do want to get there. You know I’m sure how I do The Honest Designers Show with Lisa Glanz and Ian Barnard and Dustin Lee. Dustin is probably the best in the group at delegating. Even he’s been pretty slow with it, as well.
Lisa, I had to nag into submission. I don’t mind saying this because we’ve talked about it openly on the show. Like repeatedly, she kept saying she was too busy, she had to keep saying no to thing. She was doing work that was stressing her out and detracting from the work that she should be doing. She knew she had to hire, but she felt so uncomfortable doing it. It took, I think, literally months of me nagging her and hand holding and trying to guide her to do it.
Now, she’s hired this woman Julie and she loves her. She really gets on with her. She does an amazing job and she could never go back. That’s the funny thing, when you hire successfully and it works out, and suddenly that chuck of work, which you might not particularly have enjoyed doing gets done by someone else and then you can go and focus on the stuff you love, you never want to go back. You think, “Oh, man. If I had to go back now, I feel like I couldn’t because I wouldn’t want to take that work back on. I’m so used to doing it this new way.”
Ian Paget: Yeah, very true. Can I just ask, and I know this is going into Lisa’s story, but what was it that you advised as her first hire? Was it a graphic designer or an assistant of some kind to help with the admin side of things?
Tom Ross: I think it’s a bit of both actually. Dustin has a similar set up. There are people, if they like your brand … she actually hired someone within her own audience. If you’re saying I need a bit of help organising my files and prepping them for the client, and helping with some of the junior design work, and helping me with some of my incoming emails and X, Y, Z, other stuff they are literally thrilled because they’re like, “What a dream opportunity to work with a bit of an idol of mine.” They get a huge kick out of it.
I think Lisa is still not full-time. She’s part-time with it as well. There’s so little risk. It’s less of a drain financially because it’s not a full-time employee. You don’t get all the headache of the logistics of hiring someone full-time and payroll. They’re effectively more like a contractor.
Ian Paget: That’s a really good way to look at this. It’s nice to hear that both you and Lisa have approached it as a gradual thing. You’re basically testing the water to see what happens. It doesn’t happen all in one go.
Tom Ross: It makes it a lot less scary. I know it’s scary. I don’t want to sit here and be like, “If you want to scale, you have to hire a go, go, go.” I’m completely empathetic, because I’ve been in those shoes where it’s scary and intimidating and you don’t know what you’re doing. But just a toe in the water. Find someone that you really like working with. Just get a little bit of help.
I literally, with my personal brand, I don’t know if you’ve seen the new show I’m doing there. But I’m getting help with that too. So I’ve got someone who’s literally time stamping videos to help cut them up for Instagram. And someone who’s applying captions and someone who’s cutting the videos together. Soon, one of these people I’m going to get to actually upload the videos to my YouTube.
Each time on of these job gets off my plate, it saves me 10 minutes there, 15 minutes there. Because I’m really busy. I don’t have that much time. When it starts to work a seamless machine is a really, really amazing thing because then you can focus on the stuff that you’re most passionate about and that’s going to have the most impact.
Ian Paget: Yeah, very much so. I also wanted to ask you about something that you briefly mentioned. That’s burnout. It’s one of those topics that very few people in the graphic design industry have actually spoken about, but I know you are one person that’s been quite open about that. I do think burnout is probably a lot more common than what people like to admit, because it is one of industries where you can just keep working, working, working, working, working.
What have you done to avoid that? Because obviously you made yourself ill and you’ve change that. What was it that you did to avoid that and what would you do ongoing to make sure that that’s not going to happen again?
Tom Ross: Yeah, I think there’s a few things you can do. One would be finding that sweet spot. Because you’re right, especially as graphic designers if we’re there and we’re in it every single day, when do you stop? If you’re anything like me, I can’t stop until something is completed when it comes to design work, if I walk away and leave it half finished it drives me nuts. You can end up working into the night and that kind of thing.
I think to avoid it you need to get a level of self awareness, because I would go through the same pattern over and over again. I’d get really caught up, I’d be so passionate, I’d just chuck everything I could at it. Then I’d dip and feel quite depressed and lethargic and burnt out and all that horrible stuff. Then before I knew it, I’d pull myself out of that and then I’d go back through exactly the same cycle of getting really excited by a project and it got exhausting. It was like every two weeks, it’s like an up and down roller coaster.
I think the answer is finding that happy middle ground, that sweet spot. I know if I start working 13, 14, 15 plus hours a day then I start to become no good to anyone, and I start to burnout. If I work generally 10, 11, 12 hour days then I can maintain that but still get a lot done.
I think everyone is different as well. What a lot of people do is they look up to someone online. Like a big designer for example and think they’re doing all that stuff. They’re working this hard, they’re doing these hours. So that’s going to be the right fit for me, but you need to recognise that we’re all different. Some people might only need five hours of sleep a night. I know people like that. Other people like me need eight or nine, or they feel wrecked. Other people might need 12. We’re all completely different. We’re capable of completely different things.
I think just tuning into what the right balance is for you and then being self aware enough to look at it and be like, “Oh, I pushed it a bit hard this week. I need to scale back and get some more rest time in, otherwise I know what’s lurking for me around the corner.”
Ian Paget: Yeah. I’ve not actually got to a point where I’ve made myself ill, but I’ve felt really drained by just working too much, working all the time. In my schedule, originally I try to do two or three projects a week, which is unsustainable. Now I just do one project a week, and I’ll give myself a buffer. Every three to four weeks I just leave my diary completely free and don’t book anything in there.
Tom Ross: I love that.
Ian Paget: Yeah. In those instances where client takes ages to come back or you just go too much on one of those weeks, you got that buffer to move things and it just makes everything so much more manageable.
Tom Ross: Yes. It completely does. I think as well, we can become our own worst boss with it. Because when you’re so into what you’re doing, no one’s really holding you … it’s not normally the client that’s actually breathing down your neck, it’s yourself. I think a powerful thing can be occasionally just snapping yourself out of that and realising how much freedom you have. And doing stuff that people in a traditional 9 to 5 can’t do.
If you literally want to keep your pyjamas on and go and walk around the park and listen to happy tunes in the middle of the day, you can go and do that. If you want to go get waffles at 3 in the afternoon, random example, but you can. If you want to just take a day out and go to a theme park, if that’s your kind of thing, you can do that too.
We get stuck in such a habit of just design, design, design, work all the time that you’re so blinkered you don’t actually occasionally look up and think, “Oh, yeah. I can actually do pretty much whatever I want as long as I get the work done.” Giving yourself those occasional days of freedom is a pretty awesome thing I think. As a reminder, I try and give myself … I think especially when it gets really busy, and you feel like you don’t have the scope for that. That’s the time where it’s most important to do that. Where you go, “You know what? I’m just going to take half the day and I’m just going to force it in the same way I would if an important client or meeting came up.”
Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those things … because I’ve gone from working for companies for over ten years to suddenly working for myself. In my head, I’m like, “I have to work between 9 and 5:30, and that’s what I need to focus on.” That just didn’t work for me in reality.
Tom Ross: Are you a night owl, or a morning bird?
Ian Paget: I definitely prefer to sleep as long as I can in the morning. I do not like waking up, so there are times when I have my freelance days. I might wake up at 7, which is relatively early. But then like earlier, I wake up at 9 because I just felt really tired and I thought I’d benefit from having this extra rest and I’ll start work at 10 rather than working at 9.
Tom Ross: Isn’t it great that we can do that, though?
Ian Paget: Yeah, exactly. I do not mind sitting down and just working later in the day. Sometimes I do take long lunch breaks because I can. As long as the work still gets done, that’s the main thing that matters. In terms of planning, I’ve got the next four days to focus on my work. I just wrote down what I have to get done each day. As long as I do those three, four things in each list I can pretty much do what I want.
Tom Ross: I love that. We don’t stop often enough, right? And think actually how special is it that we can do that.
Ian Paget: Exactly. I find it really strange sometimes because there are days when I just feel like I haven’t done any work. Then I check my business bank account. It’s like, “Oh, that month. Okay. I made a few grand. I don’t know how I did that because it felt like I didn’t work.” Just because I’ve been able to create this way of working so that I work when I feel like it, and I rest and doing everything when I really don’t feel like working. I think it is a case of finding that balance and that’s really worked for me.
Tom Ross: It sounds like you’ve got it down pretty well.
Ian Paget: It’s a constant juggle, but yeah, pretty much.
Tom Ross: It’s funny, actually you ask about burnout. Because I was listening to a podcast this morning about this. It was saying how it’s such a fallacy that the stereotype is millennials and the younger generations are lazy. It’s so wrong, because actually we are the generation of burnout. We’re the most efficient generation because we’re getting so good at cramming everything into less and less time. Then we free up time to make time for more busy stuff.
It was talking about everything from Uber to Deliveroo and Tinder and all these time saving apps. What they’re doing is they’re saving us hours, which we then immediately pack with more work, which then gets more efficient and then we pack it with more work.
I think that’s so true of designers. We all have these little ways that we get more efficient in what we’re doing. Instead of just chilling out when we do that, we immediately fill the time, the open time.
Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. I think in my case one of the biggest struggles has been when I think about money. If I do have some spare time, I think if I take that project on, this month I can earn an extra thousand pound, or two thousand pound. It’s very easy to grab those carrots and keep earning as much money as you can. But in reality, if you do work out how much you actually need you then think, “Okay, I’ve made enough money this month. I don’t need to take on those projects and I think that’s been my biggest struggle from a burnout perspective is when there is a carrot, like a nice shiny carrot that’s a nice sum of money, it’s very easy to take that on. That’s the situation when I personally just being overwhelmed with work, just because I’ve taken too much on.
Tom Ross: Learning to say no, isn’t it?
Ian Paget: Yeah, exactly.
Tom Ross: I’ve got an analogy, which I use sometimes for this. Imagine next to you there is a giant mountain of pound coins, or for the Americans out there, dollar bills. You take one and you put it in your pocket. You’re a pound, or a dollar richer. Then you take another one and you put it in your pocket.
The temptation will be you’re just going to keep doing that, filling your pockets more and more and more. And not only that, but you’re going to start doing it faster and faster. Before you know it, you’re just going to be frantically grabbing these coins and putting them in your pocket. You could easily be there day and night, just going and going and going and going and you forget to shave and wash and you wouldn’t see your family. You’d just be there getting into this greedy frenzy.
I think that in many ways is a metaphor for a lot of us end up working. Whether the pound coins represent actual wealth, or success, or whatever it is you’re grabbing at in life, I think when we become one dimensional and we’re just chasing that, and that’s all we’ve got about us. That’s pretty unhealthy thing.
Ian Paget: Yeah, it really is. I do think it’s really important as a graphic designer, or anyone that’s working for themselves to know how much they actually need to earn each month and to be realistic with what you take on and not to grab all those shiny coins just because they’re there.
The most valuable thing that you actually have is time and I think you need to give yourself some of that time. Otherwise, you just get to the point like you did and you made yourself very ill. I think that’s a catastrophic situation, you just want to avoid that.
Tom Ross: Yeah, desperately. I don’t know. I think balance. It sounds so cliché. I think we all need balance. The thing we should be chasing is probably contentment. Again, I don’t want to sound cliché in that, but I know some people that are just super content. Yeah, they’re successful as well, but they’re just really, really happy day to day in what they’re doing and what they’re building and creating.
Ian Paget: One area that I want to talk to you about is marketing because I feel like that is your biggest strength, and the reason why you’re as successful as you are just because you know what you’re doing when it comes to marketing. I’m always seeing what you’re doing, so you’re obviously doing something right. So I’d love to dive into this topic in more detail.
I know there’s so many different areas that people can focus on from a marketing perspective. If you was a graphic designer and you’re just starting out for example, what would you do to go about marketing your business?
Tom Ross: Yes, great question. I get some variant of this question quite a lot, actually, from my followers.
Ian Paget: Okay.
Tom Ross: I think there’s a lot you can do, and that is part of the problem is that people get overwhelmed. I think first of all, people need to realise what a fantastic tool marketing can be, equally the same way that design can be. I think they really are the perfect marriage. That’s why I love to always having a foot in both camps because the way I see it, marketers generally suck at design.
The majority of them are out there and they’re putting out hideous looking graphics on social media, or their YouTube videos look rubbish, or their graphics look really bad, or what they have to do is they outsource it because they really can’t design to save their lives, which means they’re incredibly slow.
They might just want to put out a social media post today, but then they have to contact an agency and wait two and half days to come back and then want revisions and so it’s three and a half days before they can just share something on Instagram.
I think as designers, we need to realise what a huge asset it is that we can just whip this stuff up ourselves for free. The number of times that I’ve just whipped up a website, or created a brand around something I’m doing, and I’ve done it incredibly quickly. The thought of that dragging out over weeks and months and having to pay thousands for someone to go and do it would be painful for me, because it would be so slow.
But the same way that works, it works for designers because if we’re really bad at marketing then we start to fall into that starving artist cliché. I think thankfully, that’s starting to fade a little bit. I think more and more designers are waking up to the power of marketing themselves and actually building something and turning it into a successful business. It’s fantastic that that stereotype is starting to die out and I’m seeing more and more people rise up and either earn massive income, or have multiple income channels, or just be doing a better job of getting their name out there.
There’s nothing worse … I think Dustin, from my podcast, talks about this quite a lot where he’s met people who deems as way more talented than some people at a conference that are uber successful, but they’re really struggling. It’s painful to him, because he’s like this person deserves so much success, but they’re living on the breadline practically.
First of all, I think as a aspiring young designer I would realise how powerful it can be to have both skill sets. The same way you learn design the same way you learn how to drive or do anything else in life, you can learn it. I think the second realisation is realise marketing is not a dirty word.
I talk incredibly open about this because having learnt this from a young age, I was literally Googling how to do internet marketing, how to do marketing, that kind of stuff. What came up was absolute sleaze. All the horrible sleazy marketing trash that you see everywhere. I’ve been exposed to the worst of that. That’s now why I try and preach the good stuff, and why I call people out.
Am I allowed to say bad words on this show?
Ian Paget: Yeah, sure. Yeah. Go for it.
Tom Ross: I don’t know if you saw on my new show The Honest Entrepreneur, I did an episode called “how to not be a dick online”. Because I was just so sick of seeing these sleazy marketers taking advantage of people. But I think for creatives, that’s a lot of their perception. They see these sleazy marketers, and they think, “Oh, no. That makes me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t want to be like that. Therefore, I’m not going to learn marketing.”
But what they don’t realise is there’s amazing people out there in the industry. People like Chris Do, who I saw at the weekend at his meet-up, people like Lauren Hom, who I’m working with. People like Aaron Draplin. These people, they’re fantastic creators, but also really, really great marketers. They’re doing it in a way where they show it can be done in a way that isn’t sleazy. They’re doing it in a way that could be creative and fun and engaging and bring people value.
That bringing people value is the key part, which I try and focus on. I think if you can enrich someone’s life and entertain them and make it engaging and bring them some kind of value, that’s the best type of marketing. That’s a bit of a long winded overview with just a bit of a mindset shift, which I think most people need to have initially.
But to answer your question, Ian, if I was that designer starting out what I would do it two things. I would split marketing into sales and brand. The way I think about brand is you build a brand very slowly and very gradually over a long period of time. The same way that you build a reputation. In my mind, brand is essentially how people think of you. If they hear your name, it’s what thoughts and emotions it conjures and by that token, it’s how they talk about you to other people.
That can be a really powerful thing, because I know if I’m talking … and I have done, I’ve talked about you to other people in the industry. I have certain things that I associate with you, all of which are very positive, you’ll be glad to hear. But that really is how I see your brand. You’re no longer just Ian, you have become Logo Geek. You’ve built a real brand.
Ian Paget: Yeah, that’s even to friends and family as well. It’s really weird. Because even though I was actually a graphic designer prior to working on logo design … because obviously as a graphic designer there’s so much that I can do because I just keep putting out logo design related content. Even my friends think I just do logo design. It’s a funny thing.
Tom Ross: But I love it. It’s a great brand. It’s more memorable. We actually … this is good timing. We did an episode on this for The Honest Designer show that we recorded last night. We talked at length about brand, and I think people shouldn’t be scared to commit to what areas of design they really care about.
You are super passionate about logos. We were giving a hypothetical example if someone could brand themself up as the design doctor who basically took existing brands that were struggling and hurt and brought them back to life by rebranding them. That’s one hypothetical example.
In a sea of noise, and a sea of everyone trying to offer design services you’re going to be a lot more memorable if it’s like, “Oh, yeah. That’s the design doctor guy. That’s what he does.” There’s endless angles that you can come at it from. I think really taking ownership and committing to something. But the point is brand, like reputation does take years to build. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. You need to plant a lot of seed. You need to put out content. You need to help people in a certain way. You need to make those connections and just put out good stuff for a decent period of time before people start thinking of you in that way.
I think that’s completely worthwhile, but recognise that’s a long-term play. What’s more short-term is more of a sales side. Again, sales doesn’t have to be sleazy and like cold calling or anything like that. But often when I say to people like fledgling designers, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m really unhappy because my goal is to get more clients.”
I’m like, “What are you doing to get more clients?”
And they’re like, “Basically nothing.”
I’m like, “Okay. Well, that’s why you’re not getting more clients.” What I often advise is work out the kinds of clients that you want. Come up with a pretty short list of them and then just go and pitch them in a really, really amazing way. The way I see it is it’s like when we get job applications at Design Cuts, you can tell the people that have just spammed the same CV template out to 5,000 companies. I never look at it twice.
But equally, we had a guy who sent us this personalised box where it had sweet treats in it. It had really beautifully written cover letter that was so personal and talked about how he listened to every episode of The Honest Designer Show. It had this amazing book he’d put together personally for us with examples of his work, but also stuff that was really meaningful to us.
It was so impressive that I got the whole team round my desk looking at it, and they were all like, “Wow. Literally there was oo’s and ah’s coming from people. The team were like, “Oh, damn. We need to up our game if this is the standard of effort that people are coming in.”
As a result, we didn’t even have a job opening for this guy. He was just that keen to work with us. So we had to say we don’t have a job open right now, but myself and our creative director took him out for lunch and just shared as much information as we could to help him find his way. We’re still in touch with him, and we’re finding ways to give him remote freelance work until we have something more stable for him because we want to keep in touch.
We gave him even more advice on how to refine that pitch and how to really wow people and have that shock and aw effect. On the back of it, he went and did it with another local company and got the job.
Ian Paget: Oh, brilliant.
Tom Ross: That made me incredibly happy. Quite a long answer there. But essentially, if I was that new designer the three steps would be realise that it’s so worthwhile to learn marketing and it will set you apart from the crowd. Think about building a brand starting today, but recognise that’s going to take a long time. And start getting into that mode if you want clients go and get after them. Stop just posting on Instagram every day and hoping they’re going to hit you up and want to work with you. That’s very reactive. You need to be proactive. You need to find your dream clients and then go after them in an amazing, thoughtful way.
Ian Paget: I really love this advice. I just want to add to this that if I started my business from scratch, I’d go down the route of creating a business that offers design services to any audience. Because when you do that, you can really focus every aspect of your business because it’s easy to work at exactly hear your targeting, where they hang out and you can hyper target … you can really focus your marketing efforts too.
For example, if say you wanted to target wine companies, you can create content around that such as creating an Instagram feed where you’re creating wine label designs, you can have a blog where you study trends on wine labels. You can have a podcast where you’re discussing wine label design. If you’re content is hyper focused in that way, it should be relatively easy to start ranking on Google for search terms around that need.
As a quick example, you could come up on Google for things like wine branding, or logo design for wine. Something like that.
Tom Ross: Yeah. If you’re running ads, you could get super targeted there. If you’re thinking about the language that’s going to resinate with that audience, it’s going to be a lot easier to get to know all these wine label people and workout what they care about and how they talk. Maybe you’re a wine guy yourself and that’s why you’re going after them, so you can speak their kind of language very confidently.
What’s overwhelming is I’m going to try and reach anyone who’s going to pay me. Because that’s super vague and I don’t really know how to talk to everyone. No one can talk to everyone. Going more focused, like you say there is such a powerful thing. I think some people get scared by that, designers. They’re like, “Is that not going to limit me?” But I know you had Blair Enns on your show, and we did on ours. He gave a beautiful metaphor where he said, “Imagine there’s a hallway with 12 doors.” Did he mention this when he was on with you?
Ian Paget: No. Tell the story if you can.
Tom Ross: Yeah, so it’s basically a metaphor for niching down. But he said, “Imagine there’s a doorway with 12 doors. People get completely paralysed and frozen because they think if they pick a door, they’re going to miss out on what’s behind the other 11. But the truth is, when you open one of those doors and go down it, it leads to a corridor within an infinite number of new doors. Worst case scenario, you can always go back out the door and into the original hallway and pick another door.”
People get so frozen, but when you actually start committing and going down a path, you’d be amazed at how many opportunities arise that you never dreamed over. I know you’re being very humble in saying you didn’t niche down at all, but in my mind you’re the Logo Geek.
Ian Paget: Oh, yeah. Logo design is very much a niche and one benefit that I have, and in my case, I didn’t do this all intentionally, but because I’m hyper focused on logo design, I’m at a point now where if you search on Google, I come up on page one or two for logo design, or based on-
Tom Ross: Wow. No wonder you’re getting a load of quick client inquiries then.
Ian Paget: Yeah, based on location. Because I live in Manchester, I’ve intentionally optimised my website to come up for position one for logo design in Manchester. Logo Design in UK, stuff like that. On iTunes as well, if you search on iTunes for logo design, put spot number one … because what you find is most graphic designers, they want to do everything. So if graphic designers have a podcast, it’s generally about all topics related, whereas mine is … even though I do branch into other topics like this episode, the primary focus is logo design, or I know that the audience is logo designers.
If you do focus on one specific area, at all of the content that you craze around that, it works.
Tom Ross: It massively works. Case and point. My personal trainer is currently trying to rebrand and he needs a new logo, and he asked me the other day, do I know anyone. And guess who popped into my head, top of this list. And I know-
Ian Paget: Was it me?
Tom Ross: It was. But I know hundreds, if not thousands of designers online. But you popped into my head top of the list. And you wouldn’t have done if you were Iansgenericdesigns.com. Yeah, Logo Geek.
Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. It’s the same in so many different situations because even just the actual name Logo Geek, if you need just a logo … I mean obviously I can do branding as well, but most people when they start a business they just think I need a logo, or do search research for logo design. If you find someone called Logo Geek that’s always sharing logo design related content, has communities around it, podcasts around it. Who are you going to go to? Are you going to go to him, or are you going to go to this person that’s doing everything?
Tom Ross: Yeah, you’ll be so much more confident as as client committing to someone where you’re like, “Oh, there a specialist.” I keep seeing examples of this, so I started doing, they’re really fun actually, these weekly Instagram lives where I try and help one of my community, it’s like an hour of free consultancy type thing.
The last one I did was with this guy Chuck Chai. He’s a hand letterer, but he basically explained on the call that his true passion he thinks lies in doing food lettering. Literally, letting with food. Spelling a phrase out with coffee beans and that kind of thing. Really, really cool. I was trying to encourage him to go fully down that path, because there’s a million hand letters out there. That’s a super crowded space now, but I can’t think of that many food letters. That’s a much smaller niche.
Everything that you just talked about I think is going to play out for him, where suddenly, he’s going to be able to proactively relevant food companies. And market himself to them way better than just anyone who wants a bit of hand lettering.
Ian Paget: Yeah, absolutely. It’d be really interesting to see how that pans out. Anyway, we are near the end of our time so I want to ask you one last question. If you could offer your younger self just one piece of advice, what would that advice be?
Tom Ross: Okay, so I would say there’s two answers. The silly, but probably quite true answer would be invest in Amazon stock.
Ian Paget: Okay.
Tom Ross: Or something along those lines. But the deeper, more philosophical answer I think would be to more fully commit to what I’m doing now, which is the fun side of marketing and for a lot of years I wasn’t doing the sleazy stuff because it never sat comfortably, but I thought that’s what you had to do. I was just scared to fully commit to anything.
I wanted to do all the stuff that we do now, which is having fun and being being disruptive and helping people. I think I was being taught by Google and these other places, I was basically being taught, nah, it doesn’t work like that. Marketing isn’t about being nice. It’s not about bringing people value, it’s about this secret hack that you’re going to drop in. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
I would go back and shake myself and be like, “Just go where your heart leads you and actually start building these communities and giving value in helping people, because that’s the most rewarding and fun thing in the world.”
Ian Paget: That’s fantastic advice. I totally agree with it. Well Tom, it’s been a real pleasure to chat with you. I really appreciate the honestly, which matches out nicely with your podcast. Because of that, I know that people listening will have got a lot out of this episode. So Tom, thank you so much for your time.
Tom Ross: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m glad we could catch up, Ian. Well done on everything you’re doing. It’s incredible.
Thank you to the sponsor, FreshBooks
I’m incredibly thankful to FreshBooks for sponsoring season 4 of the Logo Geek Podcast! FreshBooks is an online accounting tool that makes it really easy to create and send invoices, track time and manage your money. You can try it out for yourself with a free 30 day trial.