The best part of starting your own design business? Having to learn all the new business lingo, of course! (We’re kidding). Scalability is one of those terms, something you may (or may not) have heard being thrown around when people talk about small businesses and start-ups. But what makes a business scalable, exactly? And does your design business fit the bill?
Is scalability the same as growth? Not exactly. In the business world, a scalable business is one that can majorly grow its profits with only minimal increases to cost.
Think about a start-up company creating new software. A lot of time, money, and effort go into creating that software, but once that work is done, each new download is easy and inexpensive. The business can grow from selling ten downloads a week to selling two hundred downloads a week without much increase in business costs.
Scalability is built on the idea of a low-cost, high-profit business where profits can just keep growing without a major investment in new employees and resources.
So what does a scalable design business look like?
It’s probably obvious that scalability tends to work best with businesses that produce products, not businesses that sell services. Software is an awesome example of scalability, but your clients can’t just “download” your services. That’s what makes your business so special, but it also makes it tricky to create a scalable business, at least in the traditional sense.
In the design industry, scalability works a little differently. As the founder of the business you’ve created a unique client experience: you’ve got your own style, design process, and client interactions. What makes your business scalable is your ability to replicate all of that when you take on employees. Now that you’re not handling 100% of the client work, can your business hang onto the exact artistry that makes it so special?
And we’re not just talking about hiring employees. What about creating a sister company? Maybe you’re looking to open a new branch of your business in another city. Maybe you’re an interior decorator looking to branch out into professional organizing, or maybe you handle big-budget design clients but want to start a sister company that caters to clients working with a more modest budget.
I like the sound of that! How can I make my business scalable?
This stuff isn’t easy. A sister business or expansion will have its branding to a new target clientele, new location, and new services, while still hanging onto whatever made your original business so successful in the first place.
A big part of this is building your brand. What makes your business special? How does that come across in your branding? Whether you’re expanding your current business or starting a sister company, you’ll need a clear idea of how you can take your own personal style beyond you.
Another big part? Your design process. Maybe you managed without a hard-and-fast system for approaching your design work when you started out, but if you want to create a scalable business, you’re going to have to lock your process down. Scaling your business means training employees who can replicate the artistry and quality you bring to your own personal work. The easiest way to do that training is to create a consistent system for your design process and style that your employees can learn to pick up as well.
It’s also worth investing in your business’s infrastructure before you start growing. Maybe you don’t need fancy accounting or payroll software when you’re working on your own, but getting it set up before you start hiring new employees will make it easy to add in each new hire.
That seems so far off…
Scaling your business definitely can seem like it’s far in the future, especially if you’re just starting out. Some successful design professionals choose not to make their businesses scalable—they’re happy offering exclusive services to a limited group of clients. Some design professionals start small but think big, ending up at the head of a team of employees and one or two sister businesses.
Either approach is totally fine, as long as you decide it’s the right one for you. Many design professionals end up somewhere in the middle—but that’s only after tons of hard work, good business, and lots of planning!
You don’t need to start out your business with scalability in mind, but as your design career starts to take off, it’s worth taking some time to think about!