How My Design Business Made $50,000 in 90 Days (without an email list, advertisements, or large social media following)

Before I jump into how I created this massive success, I think it’s important that you know how I actually got started in graphic and web design. So here’s my story…

I’ve always been the creative-type in my family. I’m a musician and play the keyboard, saxophone and bass guitar. In high school and college I was very heavy into art, painting, and computer technology. I can remember in high school I took a web design class in the H Building, which was the Technology building for freshmen.

I loved going in H building; it was made of glass and looked really cool. (Side note: I also had a knack for drafting and creating blueprints, from middle school all the way to college. I actually majored in architecture in college.) This photo is me in high school with Mrs. Davis, my Entrepreneurship teacher. This was my favorite class and favorite teacher.

Cortney and Mrs. Davis

In my web design class we learned about fonts, HTML, CSS, and learned how to create a webpage from scratch. I was somewhat interested in it but I never thought I’d do anything with what I learned. Fast forward 5 years, I found myself returning to web design. Believe it or not, but I got my start in graphic design and web design in church, of all places.

After I got married, I started going to a new church and they needed some help with a logo and a website. I had no knowledge of graphic design, and of course the only knowledge with web design was the class I took in high school. But, the type of person I am, I just wanted to help out. So I did.

The “tech guy” at church gave me a trial to Adobe Photoshop and Dreamweaver, and showed me the ropes. From that moment on I was hooked! While I was at that church I also started a business teaching music lessons; it was called Artistic Minds Institute [logo].

Since I didn’t know anyone else that could create my logo, brochure and website, I decided to do it myself. Soon, I got pretty good at graphic and web design and other people started asking me to do it for them. That’s when I made my first dollar using my creative design skills.

Dominion Artistry logoI officially started my design business in 2010, and it was called Dominion Artistry. For a while, I worked a traditional day job at Sears, then eventually quit and went full-time in my music school and design business. It was the first of 3 times I was a full-time entrepreneur/freelancer.

After several years of trial and error, I learned how to run a successful design agency and eventually built it up to 6 figures, which I’ll teach you how to do in my upcoming course “The 6-Figure Design Business”. From the knowledge I gained in the process of growing my business, I created a system called “The 6-Figure Cycle” which lays out the exact steps for building a 6-figure design business.

The following steps I’m about to give you are inspired from The 6-Figure Cycle, again download the guide to get all 6 steps. If you follow these steps diligently and in this order, you will earn more money and if you follow my guidelines in my course, and do the work, in 9-12 months you could have yourself a 6-figure design business.

So let’s jump in.

Step 1 – Pick a Design Service Niche (D.S.N.)

First of all, what is a niche? [pronounced (niCH)] A niche is a highly specific segment of a market in which you focus your business on. For example, some freelancers only do anime fantasy graphic design, which is their niche. Some web designers only create sites on the Squarespace platform, therefore “Squarespace websites” is their service niche. Some agencies only offer Facebook marketing, which would be their niche. So, what’s your DSN (Design Service Niche)? Have you thought about it? Considered it?

Many design freelancers and agencies struggle to succeed and eventually fail because they offer too many different services, which in turn decreases the quality of their entire service offering.

 

I’ve been there myself. For a long time I always heard people say pick a niche, but I wasn’t sure that was the best route for me; I had what I call F.O.M.O.O.R. (Fear Of Missing Out On Revenue). I thought that by niching down my business I would miss out on money that I could’ve made by offering more services. But, boy was I wrong. Offering a lot of services doesn’t mean you’ll make a lot of money.

The key to making a lot of money in the design business is to choose an DSN that is profitable. It has to be tailor made for you, you must love it and be awesome at it.

The other thing you must realize is that when you stop offering design services that you’re not very good at and don’t make much money from in the first place, you’ll never miss that money because it’s now being replaced with other money from services you are good at.

If you make great revenue with logo design, I’m not suggesting you to stop offering logo design; I’m suggesting you do more of that and less of what you don’t earn much revenue from. Spend your time offering design services that earn you the most money.

Picking an DSN is kind of like this: image you have an old car that keeps breaking down on you, but you keep it because you love it. The reality is though, you can’t get your dream car because you’re holding on the the old broken down one. When you finally get rid of the old car, you make more room for the new car.

The same goes with your design business–when you stop offering services that aren’t moving the financial needle for you, you’ll have more time and energy to focus on the ones that do; the ones you can do the absolute best. This is the first major key in how I earned 5 figures in 90 days. I only focused on what I and my was great at and made us the most money.

In case you’re wondering how I landed on my niche services, I decided to do a 6 month experiment where I dedicated all my time and resources to one service: web design. And, boy oh boy did it pay off handsomely. During the course of that experiment I decided that web design and brand identity would be the 2 services my agency offers, because that’s what we’re best at (and make the most money from).

Hopefully by this point, I’ve convinced you to niche down your design business and start thinking about what your DSN should be. But now there’s the question of how? How do I know what service to offer? How do I know what will earn me the most money? How do I know choosing a niche will work for me?

Action Item #1a:

Ask yourself the following questions to help you identify your service niche.

  1. What are you the absolute best at?
  2. Look back through the years of your business. What service has earned you the most money?
  3. What service do people keep asking you to do?
  4. Which of your services does your happy clients tell their friends and colleagues about?
  5. What design services do you enjoy doing the best?

Whatever answer you gave those most, more than likely this is your DSN. Put some real thought into this and make a decision on what you want your service niche to be. Making a decision is VERY important.

Action Item #1b:

Make a list of all the services you offer today. Cross out any service doesn’t you absolutely dislike doing. Then cross out any service you haven’t done in the last 3 months. Then cross out any service that doesn’t contribute at least 30% to your business income. You should now be down to 2-3 services (if you’re not, keep crossing out). These are your niche service offerings.

Step 2 – Perfect Your Design Craft

Once you’ve picked your design service niche, you must offer it with the absolute best quality and excellence possible.

There’s no need to offer a service that you suck at because you won’t actually have the leverage to charge more and make more money. I’m a huge advocate of perfecting your craft and being the absolute best you can be at it.

One thing I’ve learned is that trying to be better than other people hinders you from being better than yourself because it causes you to lose focus. Don’t try to be “the best”. A client and colleague of mine Delatorro McNeal always says: better your best. And, that’s great advice because at the end of the day, you have to be your own motivation to become better in all aspects of life. And, perfecting your craft and business requires certain mental and financial investments.

I won’t get on my soapbox here, but I’ll just say you have to spend money to make money. And, the software platforms I recommend will definitely help you make money. I was hesitant at first, but then I decided that if I wanted to make more money, I needed to invest cold hard cash into business.

Investing in yourself is the best investment you’ll ever make.

 

Due to the fact that I didn’t go to college for graphic design and web design, I had to learn this principle very early on. I didn’t have formal education so I had to substitute it with YouTube videos, tutorials, books, free resources, trial and error, attending educational conferences and learning for others. Those are great ways for you to invest in yourself to become a better designer and businessperson.

Another big one is to buy the best and latest software. Yes I know it sucks to pay a monthly fee for Adobe CC, but it’s necessary. You also need monthly subscriptions to software like Proposify, Active Campaign, GSuite, Dropbox, pcloud, InVision, Basecamp and Sketch. These are the tools my team use on a daily basis, and they empower us to work efficiently, earn more money and offer our clients the best designs we can. Because let’s be frank: clients won’t hire you if you don’t have quality work. It’s as simple as that. The work is the meat and potatoes.

Quality design work is a key to success in the design business.

 

And, let me tell you: you don’t have to be better than every other designer or agency. At Sargent Branding we don’t focus on what other folks are doing unless they’re doing something right. We focus on understanding our client’s vision, and creating the most beautiful, effective designs we possibly can. And, it works.

Action Item #2:

Action Item: Commit and Invest In Software

First, make a mental commitment to continue improving your skills as a graphic designer and/or web designer. Meditate on that commitment every morning, noon and night. Even visit Meetup groups, networking events, conferences and masterminds to continuously improve yourself. Remember, you are your greatest asset.

The second thing to do is sign up for the following software subscriptions because that will help you run your business more effectively and improve your design workflow, which ultimately leads to more financial prosperity.

If you’re a web designer, InVision and Sketch are absolutely must-haves. They changed my life as a designer.

Step 3 – Hone in Your Systems and Processes

At this point, you know what a niche is and you’ve identified your DSN. As designers, our mind is always on design, naturally. Along with designers, we’re also business people. Now, I’m fully aware that the business aspects aren’t as fun and exciting as creating awesome designs. I get it. BUT, having good business processes is just as important as having great work because if your designs are awesome but you suck at creating a good experience for clients, it won’t be long before you start to lose clients. You must make them feel valued, appreciated, wanted and special. They should be the center of your world. They should feel like your only client. Maybe you’re thinking that sounds great, but how do you actually do that?

During my 6 month challenge (which I’ll tell you about later), client experience was an area I was dedicated to improve and perfect. Each time a client hires you, sends you an email, calls your phone, or interact with your business in any way, it’s what I call a “branding experience”.

The interaction people have with your business is the experience they will walk away with, thereby creating an expectation of that same experience in the future. This is branding. Another way to look at client experiences is through your systems and processes.

Before I was able to scale my business to where it is today, I realized that there was a gap between the experience I wanted people to have with my company and the experience I was actually delivering. I had to hone in my sales process, onboarding process, delivery process and everything that happens after the project is done.

I won’t spend much time on this one because it’s a super deep rabbit hole, but please understand that you must have a strategic plan to take a prospect from a lead, to client, then to raving fan and referral. You must have a process written down that details each step of the way. If your company is web design, you need a step-by-step process for creating and delivering websites. You need an questionnaire that clients complete to give you the pertinent details about their project.

How do you onboard clients? Do you jump right into the project or do you massage the relationship some? After the first payment/deposit has been paid, we send our clients a handwritten thank you note in the mail. After the project is complete, we send another thank you note with a Starbucks gift card. Small things like this make a huge difference in creating a positive client experience.

What small acts of kindness or systems and processes can you think of that will improve the quality of your relationship with your clients? Get creative.

Action Item #3:

Identify and improve your systems and processes for sales, onboarding and delivery (whether it be web design or graphic design). And be specific. Find the gaps and broken links in the chain. Meaning, where do projects get stalled? If you’re losing clients, I guarantee you that it’s likely due to a broken process somewhere.

Think about what part of your processes can be automated with software. Think about which software platforms will allow your business to run more smoothly. Like email automation, Hubspot deal creation, contract signing, etc. Remember, sometimes you have to invest a little money to make a lot of money, so don’t be afraid to sign up for software subscriptions to help you run your business better.

To make this step a little simpler for you, I’m giving you exclusive access to my processes. You can download them here. Just duplicate them and change them up to fit your particular business.

Processes you need for your design business:

  • Client Acquisition / Sales Process
  • Client Onboarding
  • Project Onboarding
  • Team Onboarding for New Clients (only if you have a team)
  • Workflow for Graphic Design Projects
  • Workflow for Web Design Projects
  • Post-Project Process

Step 4 – Identify An Ideal Buyer

In step 1 we talked about why it’s important to pick a Design Service Niche. In this step we’ll discuss why it’s vitally important to choosing an ideal buyer for that DSN and walk you through the process of doing so.

In the process of choosing my DSN, I began to think about who my services would best appeal to and what target audience I knew the best, could relate to and needed my services. Initially, that list was pretty long, so I knew I had to dramatically reduce it. The question I asked myself is the same question I’ll ask you:

Who needs your service the most, to the point that it’s a requirement for them?

The journey to answering that question led me to my answer of “marketing directors”. And I’ll show you how I got there.

Before you choose/create an ideal buyer, there are a couple other niches you need to identify. Thus far we’ve only discussed a service niche. There’s also an industry niche, company-type niche and ideal buyer niche.

3 Types of Niches:

  1. Industry niche
  2. Company niche
  3. Ideal buyer niche

Let’s look at each.

Industry Niche – Your industry niche is a specific industry as a whole that you’ll offer your services to. For example, your company could specialize in website design for restaurants, in which case Restaurant is your industry niche. As another example, you could offer brand development for public speakers, in which case your industry niche is Public Speaking.

Although industry niching is very broad, it can also be very lucrative. We’re going to take it a step further and choose a company-type niche.

Company Niche – This niche is specific types of companies. For example, you could offer web design for law firms, or graphic design for advertising agencies. This niche strategy is very specific and smart. The more you work with specific types of companies, the more you learn about them, become uniquely qualified to solve their problems, and the more built-in trust and credibility you have with them. You carve out a reputation for yourself and become known for offering a specific service to this specific type of company. You become a big fish, which allows you to earn more money and have a corner market.

After you’ve identified your industry and the type of company you want to work in that industry, you need to identify your ideal buyer.

Ideal Buyer Niche – The ideal buyer is the actual real-life person who will be purchasing your design services. It could be the CEO, Marketing Director, HR Director, VP of Sales, Creative Director or anyone in the company with the power to write you a check. If your service is geared towards individuals, it could the sole entrepreneur, author, speaker, coach, consultant or end-consumer.

An ideal buyer is someone whose needs fit your service offering because it solves a specific problem for them. Think supply and demand.

In order to attract your ideal customers, you must understand their pain points, likes, needs, wants, and understand what moves the needle for them. You should even learn how much they are willing to pay for your services. An easy way to do that is ask them what they’ve paid in the past. You can ask them during a sales call, discovery call or a simple online survey.

Once you’ve identified your ideal buyer and gathered data about them, it’s time to pull it all together and put it to use.

The best thing I’ve ever done to grow my business is create relationships with my ideal buyers.

Remember, these are actual people. Sometimes we get so caught up on the Internet that we forget we’re doing business with PEOPLE. I’m not suggesting you become best friends with your clients because that has its own set of unique challenges, but what I am saying is to create value for them.

The more value you create, the more valuable you become. And, people pay big money for what they find valuable.

 

Figure out what moves the need for your clients and help them do it. For example, does having professional social media graphics help your ideal buyer increase their credibility? If so, you are uniquely qualified to help them with that. Maybe you have to start off with a small, or even pro bono, project just to get your foot in the door. Let me tell you: a foot in the door works wonders for building long-term, high dollar relationships. Get creative. Think outside of the box.

Find your ideal buyer on LinkedIn and connect with them. Introduce yourself and your services in a non-salesy way. Show them that you can be a valuable resource for them–because that’s what they need. They don’t have your expertise so they HAVE to hire people like you. Your job is to show them why they should hire YOU.

And, I’ve figured out how to do that in my company, so much so that the mass majority of our new business comes from referrals from our happy clients. I know some “experts” say that this isn’t good business strategy, but even with our other marketing efforts, it has worked for us without even trying.

Action Item #4:

Identify your industry niche, company niche and ideal buyer.

To make all of the action items easier for you, I’ve created an ebook version of this blog post that has a built-in worksheet where you can write down everything in once place as you go along. Download it here.

 

Conclusion

These are the exact steps I took to generate 5 figures in 90 days. And, I did this without using an email list, advertisements, or large social media following.

Disclaimer: I can’t guarantee any results because your results will depend entirely on your work effort and how much you commit and dedicate yourself to this.

I’m giving you the step-by-step of what I did. You can get the same results, or even greater results if you buckle down, focus and put in the hard work.

  1. Identity a Design Service Niche (DSN), industry niche, company niche and ideal buyer niche.
  2. Take 6 months to only offer one service (your DSN).
  3. Foster new and existing relationships with ideal buyers.
  4. Improve existing and create new standard operating processes

Note: be sure to track your revenue along the way. Write down how much money you’re earning from your DSN before, during and after your 6 month challenge.

Although you can take massive action and get massive results with the 6 steps above, this is only a small piece of the pie. This is what I did to get 5 figures, not 6 figures. These steps are included in that process, but it’s certainly not everything. There’s not enough time and space to cover it all in this article. Like, how and where to find clients, how to create winning proposals, how to rebrand yourself, and how to systemize your business.

I cover all this and many more topics in great detail in my online course “The 6-Figure Design Business”, which is coming soon.

For now, download my free ebook 4 Steps to 5 Figures and take the 6 month challenge to build up to 5 figures; and if you want to go deeper, enroll in my course and I’ll show you how to get to 6 figures. Let’s go!

Here’s a recap of the principles I mentioned in this article:

 

#MajorKeyAlert:

 
  1. Only offer the 1-2 design services. Stop offering services that aren’t moving the financial needle for your business, you’ll have more time and energy to focus on the ones that do.
  2. Quality design work is the key to success in the design business. Make sure the quality of your DSN (Design Service Niche) is worth the price tag you’re asking to be paid.
  3. Invest in yourself to be become better than you were yesterday.
  4. Hone in your systems and processes to create a better client experience, thereby increasing your referral rate.
  5. Define your industry and company niche so you can become well known for helping specific types of companies, making you a big fish in that market.
  6. Define your ideal buyer so you can speak and market directly to them.