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Neil Tortorella is Creative Latitude's Chief Copywriter, as well as being responsible for the day to day wrestling of important bits that enables CL to operate.

Neil is also a veteran graphic designer with over 25 years' experience in developing identities, collateral and web solutions for both large and small companies. Based in Northeast Ohio, Tortorella Design has received numerous awards for design excellence.

If you are new to design or the business of design, don't forget to drop by Neil's newbies.

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Starting a creative practice with a degree ... but no experience by Neil Tortorella
Here's a quandary that's, unfortunately, not too unusual. You graduate from art/design school with a killer book, high grades and a load of ambition. You also have no job ... no internship ... no nothin.' The market's down and there've been mass layoffs at the design firms and ad agencies. You've mailed out hundreds of resumes and it's still no soap. What's a newbie to do?

Often, when faced with this scenario, many will decide to hang out their shingle and go it alone. That's pretty much what I did back in the dark ages. In that incarnation, I was a photographer. I was at the top of my class, but when I got out, I ended up working at a K-Mart photo department. But, that's where I met my former wife (who was also a model) so, I guess it wasn't so bad. While the soon-to-be Mrs. T and I honed our portfolios none of the studios were hiring. So, I was forced into freelancing. In retrospect, it was one of the best times in my life. Alas, youth is wasted on the young. Or so the saying goes.

In my quest to pay the rent and occasionally eat, I managed to get a few clients. One was a cosmetics company. They contracted with me to shoot their product line for everything from point-of-sale displays, to billboards, to their annual report. All this while keeping the future Mrs. T, along with many of women in my family, in cosmetics for several years. One of the perks of being in the biz. That client eventually lead me into becoming a graphic designer (my minor at school). But, that's another article.

So, how does one go about starting a practice when you've got a degree, but no formal experience? Tenacity helps. So does determination, not taking "no" for an answer, along with believing in yourself and your abilities. Print this out and stick it on your computer monitor:

"Believe in yourself,
You are your greatest asset.
There is nothing you can't do."

So much for the inspirational message. The one key ingredient to being successful is planning. When I started, I was pretty naive. I didn't have a clue, much less a plan. I did have a telephone and I'd call anybody and everybody. But there's really more to it than calling everybody you've ever met in your life and many folks you've never met.

Create a plan
There's a saying, "Plan your work and work your plan." Wise words. Grab a pencil and legal pad. Here's what you'll want to put on that nice clean piece of paper — your business plan. Okay ... several pieces of paper.

What's in a business plan? First, it's more than just marketing. It's everything about how you plan to operate your budding new creative empire. A business plan is actually several plans rolled into one master document:

  • The Administrative Plan
  • The Financial Plan
  • The Marketing Plan
  • The Sales Plan
Odds are you'll want to pull together your four best friends for some help — your attorney, accountant, banker and insurance agent. Seek out the best ones you can find and afford. Ask around. They can be worth their weight in gold over the long haul. It's a good idea to find ones that have other clients in creative world. They'll already be somewhat educated in the nuances of our industry.

The Administrative Plan
This part of the plan deals with your business's legal structure, your mission, vision, plans for growth and other administrative topics. This part of the plan provides the map of how your business will operate from a functional standpoint. Your attorney can help you set things up so you don't run into trouble down the road.

The idea here is to write down your goals and then assign action plans to each. In other words, "This is what I want to do and why and this is how I'm going to get there." You'll also include your business forms system, methodologies, contracts and what types of insurances you'll need.

The Financial Plan
Here's where you're going to pick the brains of those wild and wacky, engaging gurus of the greenbacks (or currency du jour) — your accountant and banker. What type of accounting structure will you be using? Are you planning to use cash accounting or accrual? Why? How will taxes be handled? What type of retirement planning will be done? What are your saving and investment goals? How will you achieve them? What about credit? Will you offer it? What about your business's credit? How will startup capital be handled? Out of your own pocket? Friends and family? Investors?

In this section you'll also address your rates and how you arrived at them. How will you handle rate increases down the road? This is also the place for setting up your invoicing system and methods, along with how collecting the dough will work.

The Marketing Plan

Marketing isn't just a logo, some stationary, a couple of postcards or brochures and maybe a web site. Marketing sets things up for the future. It's is often referred to as the 4 Ps:

  • Product (and/or services)
  • Pricing
  • Promotion
  • Place (distribution)
First, though, you'll want to do some research to find out what kind of market you're in. You need facts and the only way you're going to get them is to do your homework. There's no room for guesses with this stuff. Are there folks buying what you have to sell? How many? Where are they and who are they? What about the competition? Is there a dearth of designers around town? A plethora of photographers? This is also where you'll determine your market area. Will you work locally? Regionally? Nationally? Internationally?

How about the type of work you do? Does it make sense for you to be a specialist? Or, perhaps being a generalist would be better. Specialization can take many forms, such as industry, geography or type of work (identity design, annual reports, collateral, etc.).

Once you've got a handle on your marketing arena and the type of work you'll be doing you can begin to see how you can set yourself apart from your competition. Differentiation is a crucial element in branding your small business.

Next, you'll want to scope out your objectives, action plans and performance metrics. "Metrics." Like that one? I just had to throw a marketing buzzword in here. "Performance metrics" are the methods you use to measure your success. Pretty simple, eh?

It's also a good idea to do a SWOT analysis:
  • Strengths - what you're good at
  • Weaknesses - what you stink at
  • Opportunities - new markets for example
  • Threats - Things that may bring you down
After you've got that nailed, it's time to start working out your marketing strategies and your marketing "mix" — the tools you'll be using to get the word out and start forging those relationships. This includes your branding arsenal, web site, collateral materials, public relations, trade shows and such.

Marketing tools aren't just your promotional items, as I mentioned earlier. Promotion is just one element. There's also price to look at. Do you want to charge a high fee to position yourself? High prices are often perceived as high quality. But, maybe you like to eat at the local burger shack so you'll go for the low-ball angle.

Are there ways "place," or distribution can help? Does it make sense to have a fancy office? Should you set up shop near the local industrial park, or maybe that glass office tower downtown is better. Do you plan to go to the clients or will they sometimes come to you? What will serve your clients best?

Case in point. I mentioned earlier that I was pretty naive. I was also pretty full of my self and cocky. Shortly after I started Tortorella Design, I felt we needed to have classy office. So I rented one and filled it with custom made furniture (of my own design), parked several people in the office - designers, project managers and such - and I looked over what I had created, rested and thought, "It is good." It was not good. It was dumb. I was shelling out a bunch of dough in overhead and barely one or two clients ever came by. Our clients liked the fact that we came to them, not the other way around. The lessons learned were:

1. Understand your clients and what's important to them
2. Keep an eye on the overhead
3. Check your ego at the door every morning

The Sales Plan
The sales plan is the first cousin to the marketing plan. If marketing is about the future, sales are about now. First you'll need to establish a goal. If you don't have a sales goal, you'll never know how the heck you're doing.

The easy way to figure a goal is by determining how much moolah you want to make (and can realistically make). Read my article, "How Do You Rate? Figuring Your Real Hourly Rate," for starters. In there I show how to use your rate computation to create a sales goal.

Once you've got a goal, go for it. How? Begin with a list. You'll like want 300-400 names of qualified prospects. A qualified prospect is one that you've identified as buying what you sell and having the money to pay for it. A list of 300 qualified prospects is a boat load better than 2000 unqualified ones. Your list can be purchased/rented from a place like The List, or Creative Access at 1.800.4access, or it be built from the sweat of your brow. The latter is probably better, since you'll likely know the company better by doing the research.

These are folks with whom you want to establish a relationship. That can be accomplished through sales letters, phone calls, networking, email, a e-newsletter among other things. The idea here is that, although they may not yet be a client, they know who you are.

When they finally do call, how will you handle presentations, estimates and proposals? You'll want to have a consistent methodology for each. Sure, you'll tweak it over time, but you've got to start somewhere.

In conclusion
With your nifty 3-ring binder bound business plan in hand, you're ready to to start implementing the fruit of you labors. If you go through this exercise, you'll more than likely be ahead of the competition that haven't done the work. That doesn't just mean others like you, who are just starting out. It also means creatives who've been in the biz for years. It's the fly in the soup of creative business. We tend to be very good at designing, writing, illustrating or photographing, but lousy at being business people.

A business plan — a good one — will gain you respect from people like bankers, investors, your accountant and your lawyer. But, more importantly, you. Yo can be proud that you're controlling your business and not the other way around. You'll be proactive and not reactive. Plan your work and work your plan. Wise words.

2004, Neil Tortorella

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