March, 1 2011

Work | Things I've said...

How to Run a Successful Design Business

by Shan Preddy

Here is an article I have written for Shan Preddy's book on building a great network in design.

"You only get to keep what you give away"

The ultimate paradox

In order to make the most of networking opportunities, it helps to know what your own natural strengths are. People come in all shapes and sizes, and a good way to find out how you can play to your strengths is to fully understand what they are. Using a tool like Gallup's Strengthsfinder is a great place to start, and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised when you discover those strengths that make you who you are.

These days, too much emphasis is put on short-term payback for the individual who decides to network. Many people assume that merely being seen at industry events, and offering the odd hand-shake and cheek brush with the right people before slipping out the door on the way back from the toilets, is all that's required to 'network'. Minimum time and effort expended, job done.

In reality, to get the most value out of a network it's important to leave more behind than a handshake and a business card. The people you speak to need to feel valued, whether it's the driver who takes you to an appointment, or the receptionist who greets you. Time spent in the car speaking to the driver will help you grow your network far better than playing with your iPhone. The driver will get to know more about YOU and talk about you to his next client and so on and so on. His next client could end up being your next client. Word of mouth is still the best PR tool there is. In order to create a great network, being interested is more important than being interesting.

The election of Barrack Obama was a triumph of great networking. Camp Obama's took place all over the USA. Instead of conventional focus groups or Microsoft style indoctrination events, priority was instead given to listening to the stories of individuals. People were motivated by others taking a genuine interest in them. It captured the imagination of ordinary people on the election trail, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A great network includes your family, your own team and your suppliers. Loyalty from them will be rewarded by loyalty from your paying clients. Success in business is all about making connections with interesting people. In an ideal world, your network needs a good sprinkling of people who fit into categories 4 and 5 that I have outlined below. But realistically to find those precious 4's and 5's, you'll also have to waste a little of your time with categories 1-3.

  1. Those who just don't know what's going on!
  2. Those who simply watch what's going on.
  3. Those who always criticize what's going on.
  4. Those who get involved.
  5. Those who make things happen.

Building a network with the right sprinkling of talents and personalities doesn't happen overnight and you'll have to be prepared to invest time in order to get the best results. Some of the design organisations offer great networking opportunities, particularly if you're also prepared to give up some time and help the organisers, rather than just attending the events. The Typographic Circle was kick-started in the nineties by pulling together a committee full of 4's and 5's who knew how to have fun and make things happen.

There are some interesting and original networking events that are put on by individuals in our industry. Sweden has Digital Crayfish, Madrid and London have Bladdered Again (a quarterly social drinks event that came out of the old Bladdered by Fax), a European initiative Creative Social (where International Creative Directors can compare notes) and in the UK She Says (that aims to attract more females into the digital sector); and regional events like Manchester Digital, Bristol Media, Wired Sussex and Long Lunch in Scotland. The Design Council, DBA and D&AD run some great events, and also share information on excellent talks and events that give the opportunity to meet like-minded people and network.

Rather than relying on existing ones, some individuals choose to create their own networking events. Taking the initiative (and time) to create an event that works for you, and is something you feel especially passionate about, is a great way to meet like-minded people - as long as you create a reason for them to attend. New technology and a boom in online social networking sites makes this much easier to achieve.

An example of an event born out of a need for something different was the Podge Council Lunch, created in 1994 and brought about after the last major recession had ripped through the design industry in the early nineties. The aim of Podge was to allow owners of design businesses to chat informally about how they had faired the recession, and to offer help to each other. 30 top designers attended the first lunch, and Podge is still going strong now with over 160 in regular attendance. The success of this particular annual networking lunch is arguably because it has never been called a networking lunch. It was about creating an environment that allowed people with similar interests and challenges to get together, meet their peers and chat informally with absolutely no agenda (and a lot of booze;)

Very few of the companies who attended that first lunch came out of the recession unscathed, but those that did were happy to share their experiences and thus a genuine camaraderie was established. Digital Podge was created shortly after the .com bubble burst and has been doing the same for the digital world since then.

Social events like those discussed attract a great cross-section of creatives and therefore naturally provide an excellent opportunity. However, the people that make the most from such opportunities are those who go with the flow, and turn up regardless of whether there will be any tangible payback in it for them – these are the people that make themselves available to others.

Giving your time and offering your ear to listen are the greatest gifts you can give. Whether it's to a student looking for advice, or a prospective client, it shouldn't make a difference. Give your time to people and they'll help you to build your network. Networking is essentially about paying it forward. You help someone asking nothing in return, and one day they will remember your kindness and help you. It is the simplest, purest form of networking.

Whether it be via Linked-in, Twitter, Facebook, or real world face-to-face connections, I believe the magic ingredient for creating a great network is remembering "you only get to keep what you give away".

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