Step 8: Managing your Design Business
posted on: July 1st, 2019
If you’ve gotten a single idea from concept through to publication, congratulations, you are a designer! That’s a great achievement. Now, if you want to do this regularly, there are some things to consider. How do you manage multiple projects, keeping track of deadlines etc? How do you fit in the needed marketing and other work? What about accounting and customer support? And what’s your long-term game plan? Lots to think about.
The whole series:
The preamble: So you wanna be a designer…
Step 1: From idea to pitch
Step 2: Charting and Ravelry
Step 3: Planning, grading and starting the sample
Step 4: Style sheet and layout
Step 5: Tech editing and testing
Step 6: Photography and Editing
Step 7: Pattern release and Marketing
Step 8: Managing your Design Business
Get Yourself Organised
Having worked through the previous 7 steps, you already know how much is involved in creating and publishing a single design. Especially at release time, I find it necessary to have a detailed task list to reassure me that I’m not forgetting anything. And if I have more than one project in the works, I definitely need a system to help me keep track of where everything is at.
But of course what works for me might not work for you. In fact, the two PiF partners work very differently. Robynn is a big fan of Trello (so many ticky boxes!) and the occasional spreadsheet calendar. Emily likes to keep it simple with paper lists. We’re not going to tell you how to handle this part, just that it’s worth spending some time thinking about what you want to manage, and maybe checking out what other designers recommend.
Designing clearly involves a lot more than just designing. Besides planning, grading, knitting, pattern writing etc you need to spend time on building relationships (with yarn suppliers, pattern retailers and/or magazines), promoting your work, customer support… how are you handling all of this?
Again, this isn’t something we can answer for you. All we can do is prompt you to consider some key questions as you figure things out.
– How does design fit into your life? Is it just a hobby or do you plan for it to form part of your income stream? If the latter, you need to treat it as a serious business and budget time for admin, customer support, marketing and so on. Maybe allocate 20% of your design hours to this kind of supplementary work. What that looks like exactly (what work you prioritise and how you pursue it) will depend on your answers to further questions.
– What’s your strategy? Go back to the preamble, thinking about what you want to get out of designing, and see the “game plan” section below. Are you excited to put the work in to build your brand and establish yourself as an indie designer? Would focusing on third-party submissions fit better alongside your other responsibilities?
– What can you streamline? Answering customer queries can become a major burden on your time, but it can’t be neglected. Think about how you want people to contact you (eg. by email rather than on social media), and how you can communicate that to them (eg. by a note on your patterns, your Instagram profile etc). If the same questions come up repeatedly, look for ways to answer them efficiently: maybe a form email can help, or a FAQ page on your website.
– Is outsourcing an option? Some designers hire virtual assistants to help with managing their Ravelry listings, customer service, accounting and so on. What can you simplify?
However you see your design work – hobby or business – it’s worth putting some thought into what your goals are. Since it demands a lot of work (and often expense), you need to have a sense of what makes it worthwhile for you. That might be a specific cash figure, or (if you’re more hobby oriented) it could be seeing finished projects pop up on Ravelry and social media. It might even be a sideline that supports other work for you; for instance, if you’re a dyer who writes patterns to promote yarn sales. In each of these cases, even if you think “I just want the satisfaction of it!”, there’s likely to be a specific, measurable outcome that you’re hoping for. If you’re not getting that outcome, designing will stop being fun, so pay attention to what your goals are, whether you’re on track to reach them, and if not, what you can do about it.
There’s one other aspect beyond numbers. Creative people often have a strong emotional connection to their work, and the way it is received can feel very personal. This is maybe even more true with social media (which is such a key part of promoting your work). It feels great when people love what you’ve made! But if you’re not getting social traction, that can really hurt. All the known psychological risks of social media are intensified when it’s also your work on show. So pay attention to how you feel while using social, set boundaries, and protect yourself. (Too vague to be helpful? Sorry! This is a huge topic, and while it’s important to mention, we can’t possibly cover it properly in this post.)
Tracking your achievements is of course essential, so that you can measure progress against your goals. I suggest tracking monthly sales figures for each pattern, as well as total sales, Instagram followers and newsletter subscribers (or followers on whatever platforms you prefer). Don’t get bogged down in detail, but do check in maybe once a quarter to see what’s working – or not.
WHAT’S YOUR GAME PLAN?
In Step 1, we touched on the respective advantages of self-publishing vs designing for third parties (magazines, yarn companies etc), and mentioned other strategies such as partnering with dyers for kits. I encourage you to occasionally try something new. Keep an eye out for submission calls in the Ravelry Designers group; look for yarn support programmes from dyers you’d love to work with. These calls might provide unexpected inspiration, or a deal that works really well for you.
In building your self-published portfolio, weigh up new ideas in terms of how they fit into your body of work. If one of your patterns catches someone’s eye, they will often visit your Ravelry store to see what else you’ve done, so ideally you’ll have something else with similar appeal. Of course you don’t have to keep doing the same thing! But successful designers often have a recognisable selling point or aesthetic. You might specialise in fair isle or lace; baby knits, or quick accessories, or yoked sweaters. I’ve heard friends say that nobody cares if they put out a shawl, but their sweaters are loved, and vice versa. Robynn seems to do best with complicated brioche or lace designs, while stranded colourwork is Emily’s signature style. Doesn’t stop us from branching out, but it’s good to know what our respective customer bases particularly like to see from us. If you want to do something quite different, that might be a good thing to pitch to a magazine.
For self-publishing, steady effort pays off. Designers often report that sales enjoy a noticeable boost when they get to around 20 patterns. This makes sense! Each one of those 20 could sell at any time; customers visiting your page have that many more options to entice them; previous customers will take an interest in your new releases; and don’t underestimate the degree to which your designs and pattern writing will improve with practice. The most reliable way to get sales is to publish patterns regularly. But even if you only publish occasionally, the bigger your portfolio, the bigger your results.
DON’T TAKE ON TOO MUCH!
Finally, a word of warning. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling you need to chase every single opportunity that comes up – and to underestimate just how much work is involved. Be careful! You don’t want to burn out and stop enjoying the process. And you really don’t want to damage relationships by failing to make good on your commitments. Most people in this business are pretty understanding about designs hitting unexpected obstacles, taking longer than expected or needing to be rethought. But it is a business. They will hesitate to work with someone they’ve already found to be unreliable. So: limit your commitments. And stay in touch with yarnies or editors if an agreed-on project is throwing up problems. Good communication makes it all manageable (and you’ll feel so much better knowing you have their support).
Getting your first design out is a huge step. Building your design business from there is even harder! Getting support from other designers, and advice on the many facets of this gig, can be super helpful. So our main recommendation for resources for the long haul is: find your people.
– Again, we strongly recommend the Designers and Budding Designers groups on Ravelry. Ask your questions and read the archives!
– Francoise Danoy (going by Aroha Knits or Frenchie) runs a comprehensive coaching programme for aspiring designers, covering the business aspect as well as design.
Tara Swiger offers guidance (through her podcast, books, courses) on marketing and building a creative business. Not design-specific but very yarn-relevant, and often recommended by designers.
– Tian Connaughton also provides designer-specific marketing and business advice.
But here’s another warning: watch out for sharks. There are a lot – a LOT – of people out there offering help to creatives, and charging for it; some are known fraudsters. Some will promise to help you turn your hobby into a six-figure business, which is very far from achievable for most designers, and that should raise some questions in your mind. Our recommendations above are not based on our own experience, but they have solid reputations. If you’re curious about an offering, ask around (again, Ravelry is good for this); don’t trust testimonials published on the seller’s own website. Sign up for their free newsletters or whatever to get a taste of their style. There is some great stuff out there that might really help you! Or you might prefer a buddy system; private chats with someone else figuring out the same challenges as you can be very helpful. Lots of options.