For a long time, I mistakenly thought that to be taken seriously as a business, scaling up was somewhat of a necessary evil. More work means more employees, big fancy office space, and the majority of my time going towards managing the business instead of doing what I love (designing.) After all, a bigger company with more available resources equals better quality work right?
Nope, not necessarily.
In fact, in many instances it is quite the opposite. Maybe years ago, the large-scale, Mad Men-esque agencies had lots of advantages over smaller operations (and I’m not saying that there aren’t still some pros to a traditional large-agency structure.) But in today’s day and age, small, nimble studios can achieve a lot of things that the big guys can’t.
Since committing to our two-person business model for Macaroni we’ve begun to notice more and more of these small studios popping up and making huge waves in the design community, further validating our instincts telling us that bigger isn’t always better.
When it comes to very small creative studios, they are almost always run by the creatives themselves and for that reason, there is a tremendous amount of pride and passion that goes into each and every project. If you take someone with a business background and put them at the top, they might be excellent at bringing in clients and managing finances, but they aren’t going to understand or care about the final design nearly as much as the people who are in the trenches, working day and night to bring the client’s creative vision to life.
When you own a small studio and are personally tending to every single project that comes in and goes out, you are going to do everything in your power to make sure the final outcome is the best it can be. Sure, you are making money from that job. But more importantly, that job is a representation of your company and a representation of you, as a creative professional. For those reasons, you have so much more incentive to innovate, push boundaries and go above and beyond to achieve top results.
Because you understand and respect the creative process, you are going to prioritize putting in the time and energy required to deliver effective work (versus trying to get things in and out the door as quickly as possible to make payroll.) Having a thorough understanding of the design process also means you can communicate that process to the client, to help them better understand what to expect and when to expect it. This means no middlemen making false promises or setting unrealistic expectations that can derail a project or lead to rushed, sloppy work.
“That job is a representation of your company and a representation of you, as a creative professional. For those reasons, you have so much more incentive to innovate, push boundaries and go above and beyond to achieve top results.”
In addition, without employees and overhead, small studios can be selective when it comes to the jobs they take on. Small studios genuinely value each and every client (big or small), and take the time and energy to get to know the businesses and the people they are working with.
Fewer jobs mean that more time and attention can be given to each project and as the client, you always know exactly who is executing the work. You never have to worry that your project is being dumped off on lower-level employees due to lack of bandwidth, which is often the case in larger agencies who take on large volumes of work without considering the realistic availability of their design team. Working with a smaller studio, you can count on total transparency and direct, honest communication with all parties involved in your project (not some long, convoluted chain of command.)
When it comes to design, the old saying often stands: you get what you pay for.
However, when you are dealing with larger agencies, you are often paying for a lot of things you don't need or want. In most agencies there are a relatively small number of employees actually working on each project, but as the client you aren’t just paying for the time and experience level of those few people. Larger agencies have to charge highly inflated rates to cover the costs of the office space, equipment and the salaries/benefits of every employee in the entire company, regardless of how much or little value they add to your specific project. In the case of a two-person studio there is little-to-no overhead and are no extraneous employees to pay for. This means you are only paying for what you need, guaranteeing the most value for your buck.
I am in no way devaluing the design industry or advising that clients should seek out the cheapest available solutions, but working with a small agency is often the best of both worlds, giving you top quality work without the bloated price tag of a larger operation.
Without question, being a business owner is extremely stressful (especially in a small studio where you are wearing so many different hats.) You are not only doing all of the design work, but keeping up with sales, project management, accounting, contracts; it’s exhausting and forces you to constantly learn new skills on the fly.
That being said, it is rewarding beyond belief and comes with so many advantages when you are working on your own or with a trusted business partner. We rarely work less than 70 hours a week, but without employees we have the freedom to work wherever and whenever we want. We are able to exercise, eat well, travel, spend time with family and friends, have hobbies. It’s just a matter of revolving our heavy workload around those other important aspects of our life. As a creative, it is important to step away from the computer and take care of yourself in order to produce better quality work and maintain your sense of sanity.
Running our own small studio also allows us to easily adapt to unforseen circumstances, and rearrange our schedule to best accommodate the needs of our clients. It is difficult to ask or expect employees to put their own lives on hold to work nights and weekends to meet rushed deadlines or put out fires. With fewer people involved, and all parties being heavily invested in the business, it is much easier to coordinate last minute changes in scheduling in order to get the job done. Our business is our passion and our top priority, which means that we will do whatever it takes to ensure the best outcome for our clients (even if that means working beyond regular business hours or shuffling aspects of our personal lives.)
“Running our own small studio also allows us to easily adapt to unforseen circumstances, and rearrange our schedule to best accommodate the needs of our clients.”
While there are obviously a lot of advantages to working in a small studio, one of the biggest disadvantages would seemingly be the lack of opportunities for collaboration and feedback. It can be difficult to work in a vacuum, and by working alone or with only one other individual, you run the risk of missing out on the type of valuable constructive criticism that could drastically elevate your work. That being said, thanks to modern technology you don’t have to be in a traditional office setting to receive the benefits that come from working with a team.
Over the course of our design careers, we have surrounded ourselves with a reliable network of talented people that we can rely on to not only provide input on our work, but contribute their own unique skills on a project-by-project basis. Whether you are a designer, illustrator, photographer, developer, copywriter, food stylist, no one is perfect and no one can do it all. If a client is looking for something specific that is outside the realm of our expertise, we will happily outsource that aspect of the project. This saves us from being stressed and overworked, passes work and income along to our friends, and provides the client with the best possible solution. Win, win, win. We can essentially assemble the perfect team for each unique project, without having to keep a bunch of people on the payroll.
With today’s technology making communication and resources so accessible, we seem to be entering a new frontier. There is no denying that the design industry is taking a turn, as evident by the drastic rise in the number of small studios and freelancers that have emerged in the past several years. At the end of the day every client has their own unique set of needs, and there are going to be pros and cons with any agency structure. It is the responsibility of the business owner to determine which model allows them to produce the best quality design work, and it is the responsibility of the client to determine whether the studio/individual they are hiring is the best fit for their project.