Structures

How To Start A One-Person Creative Agency: The Complete Guide For 2022

Gerrard Lipscombe
12
Minute Read
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Running your own creative business is a dream for some—or at least, running a profitable creative business. Increasingly, we’re seeing individuals pulling together the many pieces of business building to launch, grow and sustain their own way of working. Enter: the one-person creative agency.

What is a creative agency?

Before diving into the specifics of this new solo breed, let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a creative agency? What do they do? What defines them?

To give a rough overview, we can start with some of the things that a creative agency does for its clients:

  • Create brand identities, from logo design to colour palette, graphic patterns and perhaps even the brand voice and tone;
  • Deliver on specific design projects, from ad campaigns to social media templates;
  • Design and deliver custom websites;
  • Set the marketing or advertising strategy;
  • Run an advertising campaign from A to Z; and
  • Deliver on brand materials like whitepapers, ebooks, and business cards.

While these are only a few examples, it’s clear that the scope of a creative agency can be quite... broad. So how did we get here? And where did it get its name?

Let’s start with creative.

In marketing lingo, ‘creative’ is the common term used to refer to assets that have been created for marketing or advertising purposes. An instagram post is a piece of ‘creative’. An ad; a whitepaper; a blog post, even.

Creative agencies therefore are expected to take charge on the ‘creative’ side of a client’s business. Suppose a small financial consulting business walks in the (digital) doors of your creative agency. No doubt, they have expertise in financial modelling, spreadsheets, powerpoint even... but they may need some help presenting themselves to potential clients in the digital (and physical) world through design, copywriting, and ‘creative’ assets.

So, creative: check.

Agency?

Agencies have been around since the Madmen days (and likely well before). As a business model, it describes an organization that agrees to represent or collaborate with a client, typically on a limited contract basis. That is—when you hire an agency, they don’t become ‘employees’, they are engaged to complete a project, campaign or solve a specific problem, then move on.

The creative agency, as an entity, has thrived in the digital economy. With the growing importance of a business’ ‘online presence’, through social media, SEO, PPC advertising and more, the role of the creative has been elevated to new status.

Goodie for us.

How to start your own one-person creative agency

This is a big topic. Realistically, we’re not going to be able to cover everything in this one post.

But to keep us on track, let’s make a list of steps that will need to be completed (and followed-up on in your own time, dear reader) to get you from ‘here’ to ‘fully-functioning one-person creative agency’:

  1. Identify your skillset;
  2. Identify the problems you are able to solve with that skillset;
  3. Consider customer use cases or personas that have this problem, and would be willing to spend on fixing it;
  4. Collect a portfolio of examples where you have successfully solved that problem for similar clients;
  5. If you have no portfolio, now would be a good time to start a few solo freelance projects—begin by asking your personal network for introductions, and get a few early (and quick) wins on the board, even if they don’t pay as well;
  6. Build a website;
  7. Setup a CRM or way to keep track of your client ‘lead’s;
  8. Start researching and reaching out to clients that match your user personas identified above;
  9. You can use our proposal template when the time comes to send your offer and bid
  10. Run the project effectively and delight your clients;
  11. Collect feedback, assess results, add to portfolio and revisit your strategy;
  12. Ask again: what skills do I offer? Who should I offer them to? Then refine your ‘brand’ or website’s messaging and positioning;
  13. As more clients come in the door, you may want to consider outsourcing some projects to other talented freelancers looking for work (here, we risk losing the true ‘one-person’ agency moniker, but if you still own the business 100%, I’m happy to let it slide);
  14. Rinse and repeat.

Sounds easy, right?

The theory is always easy. In practice, this is typically... messy.

1. Identifying your creative skillset

Are you an artist wrapped up in designer tools? A writer extraordinaire that brings stories to life? A marketer that has a knack for finding growth in all corners of the web?

Understanding your skillset may sound simple at first, but dive deeper than what you might have initially been ‘trained’ in. Suppose you went to university to study graphic design. Okay, chances are you have your chops pretty well set for graphic design and some branding projects—but are there others skill you bring to the table?

  • Are you well organized?
  • Are you a good public speaker?
  • Can you present information clearly through charts and visuals?
  • Do you have a feel for social media and virality?
  • Are you a website connessieur?
  • A side interest in 3D rendering?

Think about what it is that you’re good at which you enjoy most—the beauty of the freelancer’s journey is that you almost certainly don’t need a degree. You just need to prove over time that you can deliver results.

2. What do those skills let you produce?

So, you know your way around Adobe products. Big deal.

What can you actually make from it?

Which problems can you solve when you put your skillset to work?

For now, we’re going to sideline the ‘who for’ (we’ll return to that in the next step). We’re simply going to focus on some tangible results you can produce with your given skillset and go from there.

For example, with a graphic design skillset, you might feel confident:

  • Designing logos;
  • Designing packaging for products;
  • Creating custom digital illlustrations;
  • Exploring color and recommending color palettes;
  • Designing business cards, slide decks and slick visual documents;
  • And who knows what else...

Get yourself a list of key ‘outcomes’ you’re confident producing. Then take a look through that list and think about which you wouldn’t mind spending your days creating. (For example, if you know you can design business cards, but the thought of designing business cards all day bores you to death, you may want to steer clear...)

As a bonus exercise, now might be a time to start considering your personal ‘mission’ for this journey you’re about to undertake. This is of course an exercise that will be returned to many times over the years, but you can get started with our Brand Mission, Vision and Story exercise, here.

3. Figure out who it’s for

Knowing what you’d like to build is one thing.

Finding out who is going to be into it is quite another.

In fact, you might argue those two things, put together, just about describe the whole game. If you’ve ever heard the words ‘Product-Market Fit’ (PMF), that’s precisely what we’re talking about. Taking the services or products you offer and finding a ‘market’ for them... easier said than done.

Another excellent framework to work with as a solo or freelance business is Seth Godin’s Minimum Viable Audience. Not to throw too many acronyms at you at once, but the MVA helps us narrow down our focus to the smallest, recognisable group of people that we want to speak to with our business.

Why narrow?

Because narrow is focused.

Because narrow means there’s less competition.

Because narrow means we have a clear offering—we have some that people can ‘get’.

Think about it: if you sell yourself as a ‘creative agency’, you’re one tiny tiny fish in a very large sea.

Then again, if in the process of honing in on your key offerings (step 2) and your target MVA, you could say something like: ‘I offer custom digital illustrated websites for blockchain-tech startups’... suddenly you have my attention.

Choosing your ‘niche’ shouldn’t be an arbitrary process though. Some pointers to help you get started:

  • Which fields/industries genuinely interest you (e.g. do you quietly read articles and study blockchain on the side? Are you a music enthusiast? An ecommerce fan? A closet accountant?)
  • Which industries do you already have some familiarity with?
  • Which types of businesses do you enjoy working with or admire? (SaaS businesses? Big tech? Local main street shops?)
  • What size of business do you want to work with? (Enterprise, corporate clients? Small businesses?)
  • At which stage of business do you want to get involved? (Experienced, established companies looking for a design refresh? Young, early stage ventures looking to consolidate their ideas creatively? Unformed companies creating their brand identity from scratch?)

Some words of advice: don’t skimp on the ‘who’ question. Spend time thinking, researching, talking. If you have any friends or contacts in one of your target segments—reach out to them and ask a few questions. Not soliciting work, just trying to understand more about life in their shoes, and if they’d be interested in the types of services you have in mind for the agency.

Once you have a shortlist of target segment, you’re ready to start creating some User Personas. Don’t want to do it from scratch? You’re in luck: here’s a handy template to get you started.

4. Prepare your creative portfolio

When you’re just getting started, this can be one of the more daunting tasks... what if you don’t have a strong portfolio?

What if your past projects don’t reflect this exciting new direction you want to go in?

What if your past clients look nothing at all like your newly defined, lovely user personas?

Well, hope is not lost—but you have some work ahead of you.

Any portfolio (or referred projects that tag along with a project proposal) should be relevant to your prospect. You’re about to take a leap and reach out to some prospects in your target area—but odds are your portfolio doesn’t perfectly match their needs.

Here are some key actions you can take to make your portfolio more relevant:

  • Highlight and centre past projects around your newly defined service offerings. For example, if you had a ‘logo design and packaging’ project in your final year of university, but now you want to focus on offering ‘website and brand identity design’, what can you do? Well, you could just leave out this logo design project because it isn’t 100% on-brand... or, you could get creative.

Repurposing past projects for your portfolio to better meet your new targets means reframing the work done to fit new offerings. Take our old logo design project, write a paragraph focusing on the conversations and thought that went into forming that brand identity, then extend that to the core features that then could be derived and shown across assets like a website.

Takeaway #1: Repurposing old projects to be more relevant for your new portfolio is possible, but takes work.

  • Highlight similarities between past client needs and your current client needs. Emphasis on needs. If you are pivoting into a new segment, chances are you don’t have many examples of success with that exact client industry. But, the bottom line outcomes will be similar.

Every client wants clearer messaging, better conversion rates, higher brand recognition. You may not have clear metrics from past clients to back it up, but at the very least you’ll want to emphasise in your portfolio that these were the objectives of the project, and circle back to mention that according to the client, the project was a success.

Takeaway #2: Focus on past project outcomes and make client needs as similar to new client needs as possible.

  • Take on a few low-budget, quick turnaround projects in your new niche. Do not go out and try to win big clients right away. Do not go out and offer your services free on some 3-month website build.

Instead, find a couple of short and sharp projects in your niche that can be delivered on rapidly—preferably in one week or less each.

Takeaway #3: when it comes to repositioning your portfolio, focus on speed and relevance over ‘client size or credibility’. You want relevance, and you don’t want to spend forever on achieving it.

5. Build your website

If you do happen to be a web designer, then this will be your bread and butter.

But if the one person in your 1-person happens to be more of a marketing / copywriting creative, then the website problem might feel more overwhelming than it needs to.

Some options for the non-design natives:

  • Use a website builder like WordPress, Shopify, Squarespace or Webflow. My personal pick is Webflow. While there’s a bit of a learning curve, they also have a fantastic selection of pre-built templates that you can apply right away. For the lowest friction route to getting a functional website up and running, I’d go with Squarespace. And if you want to keep the ‘digital product’ door open, you might want to look into Shopify.

I’ve listed WordPress mostly because I probably have to. Personally, not a fan and would not recommend it to anyone in real life—if you live in real life, choose one of the other options. WP defenders, find me in the comments...

  • Hire a web designer on Upwork, Fiverr or another freelance marketplace. Unless you really have $5K+ to spend upfront, don’t hire them to build a ‘bespoke website’ from scratch. Instead, just ask them to help you setup a site from a template on one of those website builder platforms mentioned above.

I was going to add a 3rd option of ‘don’t build a website’, but despite the click-bait articles saying ‘why you don’t need a website anymore’, the truth is that having your own site as an agency:

  • Sends the right signal to potential prospects;
  • Gives your business a clear ‘home’ on the internet, to host everything from services to testimonials, blog and products; and
  • Is a useful thing to have while moving around the web, setting up social profiles and generally pointing potential prospects to a page or two that will do majority of the selling for you.

6. Setup a CRM, then go out and start collecting leads

More on this to come, but in the meanwhile, you can simply get started with our free Notion CRM template here.

This article is still under construction. Stay tuned for steps 7-12. And if you just want to dive right into creating your own creative agency today, you can save yourself 50+ hours of setup with our Clarity OS: Business model. Check it out.

(Photo by Ben Eaton on Unsplash)

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