My studio isn’t working.

I distinctly remember that moment of dread when I realised my studio was no longer working for me. The business I birthed and nurtured had grown into a rebellious teenager I just didn’t want to spend time with.

It was no longer going to plan. I couldn’t leave because it was my business, but I didn’t want to stay.

What to do?

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have that feeling … it happens to most of us at some stage.

The ‘magic moment’ of realism sometimes happens when you’re on leave – being out of the studio delivers the space necessary to see the business anew from the outside. Sometimes the catalyst is something said. Or an action. Either way, that reality hit can be heartbreaking.

I had a few of those not so magic moments managing our studio. Each time it made me stop and question what I was doing and why.

Making it work

Perhaps it’s your business model that isn’t working. If that’s the case, the reasons usually are:

1. it’s failing the narrative test (the story doesn’t gel with clients) or
2. it’s failing the numbers test (the revenue and profit don’t add up).

Failing the narrative test

Your offer may look great on paper, but not so good in reality. One way to avoid the reality check is (as Steve Blank of Lean Start-up fame says) to ‘get out of the building’. Test your offer to gauge real customer interest early and often.

It could be that your story is good but you’re not pitching it the right way. The offer is getting lost in the communication. The more you present, the more intel you can get about what’s not working and why. Continual pivoting and reworking the story will sort out the content.

Maybe it’s the delivery? Your voice communicates authority, experience and trustworthiness. Speaking characteristics such as volume, pace and pitch all give non verbal signals and credibility in what you say. You may need to work on your visual presentation or presentation skills. Competition is tough and the ability to communicate your offer is critical.

Lastly, it could be that your offer is good, and your story great, but you’re pitching it to the wrong client. In that case, you need to widen your net to attract different clients. Time to start work on new business development.

Failing the numbers test

Maybe your studio is busy, but the numbers just aren’t adding up. Of all the issues, this is the easiest to test.

Ratio benchmarks and KPIs can be used to assess your profit and loss statements and identify weakspots.

And then there are actions you can take that will quickly turn around a business from unprofitable to profitable.

Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes it’s hard to know where the problem lies. You just know something isn’t quite right.

What I wish I had known then

Now I know the best fix-it tool is the Design Business Model Canvas. It’s based on the Business Model Canvas (google it, there’s lots of good reference out there) but better. Better because we honed it specifically to suit Australian design studios.

The Design Business Model Canvas is a planning tool that examines all the elements of your design business, not just creative and not just financial. It’s takes a holistic approach to problem solving and is perfect for designers because it visualises business thinking.

How to get your studio working.

1. The no cost way.
Google Business Model Canvas. There’s lots of good URL’s and YouTube references available.

2. The low cost way.
For those with the Business of Design, it’s all there on pages 170-190. If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour, spend the $90 (+ GST) and buy it.

3. The middle cost way.
Book an in-house workshop where all your studio can all learn how to use the Design Business Model Canvas.
Greg’s shown studios how to resell the workshop onto clients to test hypothesis for new brands, new campaigns or new products.

4. The help-me I’m drowning way.
The Design Chairman. Identifying the issues can be like going to a doctor having already done a self-diagnosis – the result is only based on the information given. Better to lay all your ails on the table and let the Chairman diagnose your problem, prescribe the solution and stay alongside you until your studio works the way you want. It’s mentoring on steriods, guaranteed to get results.

Don’t take just my word for it:

Greg has been a valuable advisor and mentor to Alto over the last couple of years – including the Designing Demand Program, helping us to sharpen up the business-of-our business and giving us more confidence to disrupt our business model at a time when we felt like we had hit a ceiling. Greg’s experience, knowledge and perspective has helped us become more strategic in our thinking, and resulted in steady growth in terms of personnel and profit.

Andrew O’Keeffe, Co-founder, Studio Alto.

Take home point

In a world of disruption, traditional design studios will struggle to remain sustainable. In other words: don’t wait for the 3am moment, be proactive. We all need to change the way we think, work and do. It’s not a failing, it’s a reality. Change can be confronting but it can also be refreshing.


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Carol Mackay

Carol’s design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information to be easily understood and digested. 2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she is moving from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.