June 12, 2012

The Designer as Entrepreneur

By Bindu Nair Maitra

Challenges as a design entrepreneur:

The challenges faced by entrepreneurs in setting up a business in India could make for a voluminous book.To understand how designers make that leap of faith deserves even more respect in a country that, as one very senior designer put it, not even recognize graphic design as a profession in the tax form one needs to submit to the income tax department,while filing returns. The common refrain you are likely to hear from entrepreneurs is that if someone can run a business in India, they can run a business pretty much any place in the world. There are different kinds of challenges in a designer’s journey as an independent entity, through the various phases of a business life cycle.

Ashwini Deshpande

Co-founded Elephant Strategy + Design along with Ashish Dehspande, Partho Guha and Sudhir Sharma.

“We were quite clear about a few things when we graduated from NID. That design is a team game. That we would work
as a team and that we would be a “multi-disciplinary design” enterprise. Some of us had done projects & internships with larger agencies (Lintas, Ulka, Mudra) and corporates (Tata, Blue Star, BASF) but we were inspired by the likes of Pentagram & Frog Design. Since there was no such design company around in India in 1989, we decided to form that company.”

Talking about the challenges faced by them during the early days of setting up Elephant Strategy + Design, Ashwini Deshpande recalls, “The challenges faced then sound rather trivial now.We bring up those memories when we really want to laugh out loud. The first task was to explain to our chartered accountant what our business was going to be. The next and even tougher part was to explain the same thing to a bank manager who was not convinced we needed a current account since any income seemed a remote possibility to him considering design as a business. The third one that hounded us for a long time was to get a telephone connection. But none of these could match up to the challenge that we faced in explaining to some of our early clients why we needed to charge “design fees” since no agency had ever charged it as a separate component. Surprisingly (though), we never faced any job-less days since we started out.”

Rajat Sharma, director, Chaos Design says that the financial aspect of starting a design business in India was frustrating in the early years. “There are issues at many levels — Are you funded? Are you putting in your own money? Do you have the wherewithal to sustain yourself through the trying times? In the early days, the task had been to go out and explain what design is, in some cases and getting clients to come around to the idea of project development. For the first three
to four years, we weren’t sure we were going to last till the end of the year, because one needed to have a robust pipeline. I was lucky to meet someone from Deloitte, who was into business planning and he looked through our financials and advised us to stay the course. He explained that what was critical was to build up a robust pipeline over a period of time that would help us stay the course.”

Rajat Sharma
Co-founded Chaos Design
During my stint in advertising, some of the clients I was working with, were specifically looking for multi-skilled design teams
to take on very large projects but the advertising business just didn’t have the capabilities or thought process to take them on. At another stage, I was the client and was looking for a design firm to support a very large project and the ones we came across either didn’t have those skills or were too specific in their area of competency, and hence were not able to work across different design domains. I felt that with India being such a large country and with no one really offering this breadth of services, it was an opportunity.

Sarita Sundar, one of the co-founders of Trapeze says, “We started Trapeze, with the vision of being able to do projects that would be much more multi- disciplinary. While each of us had worked in these roles as part of teams in other organisations, when it came to making a team for ourselves, it was a challenge to try and decide what kind of people were needed to create our team, besides people who could work as part of an external team. Those were the challenges in the early days. We had decided that we would not stick to one style of communication design and that we would work on multi- disciplinary fields. It was critical, at that point, for us to understand how we were going to achieve that,with a five-member team.
It took us a good two years to achieve that goal. Each of us also had individual clients who we continued to work with, when we formed Trapeze. We had a larger vision and a stronger idea of what we wanted to do, so we went back to these clients and shared our vision of what we wanted to achieve. So the next challenge was in convincing these clients on how we were going to expand further. For instance, one of the projects that we did early on,
was an exhibition called Such Treasure and Rich Merchandize. I had been working with this client for five years previous to that. While they came to us to create simple panels, we rearticulated the brief to create an experiential space for them. It took us about a year to convince the client to go ahead with this but the end result was worth it. With every project that’s happened,we built on the confidence that we had built up from previous projects.The challenge that we face today is to not allow ourselves to get into a rut and keep the freshness alive on our work. That’s a challenge at every step of the way because that means continuously evolving, and knowing what is happening around you and taking inspiration from varied sources.”

Sarita Sundar
Co-founded Trapeze with Ram Sinam
We started Trapeze, with the vision of being able
to do projects that would be much more multi- disciplinary. When Ram and I started, we already had 16 odd years of experience. Previous to starting out on our own, I had been working with Ray + Kesavan and Ram had been working in an advertising agency.

Itu Chaudhuri set up his own design firm Itu Chaudhuri Design in the 1980s, at a time when there was no option but to work for oneself, because design was such a small subset of the communication offerings. He says, “I believe the most challenging part of running a design business today is to ensure that you are non-substitutable, in the eyes of the client.That is important. Historically, designers have been known to have a world view that’s uniquely their own, and while this world view is
what distinguishes them in their work, it can also be a hindrance when they are operating as a business, because its important to consider what others, namely clients, think of them. That’s also the answer to building a ‘brand’ for your agency because the basic problem is of differentiation in the client’s eyes. As the industry matures, that is the problem that designers will have to grapple with. Design buyers are becoming more sophisticated in what they want from designers and while this is a good thing, designers have to understand the language of business, and learn how to be of value to their clients. If this means, understanding one’s client’s business in in-depth detail, then that’s precisely what they should be doing — getting a grip on the non-design problems that their client’s business faces to come up with a concrete problem that they can attack.”

For Gopika Chowfla, founder at Gopika Chowfla Design, it
 was talent issues that posed the biggest challenge. She elaborates, “For me, the biggest challenge was in being able to keep myself working with very talented people. When you are working with a large firm, you are typically surrounded by talented creative people but when you start out on your own, its not possible to be able to afford that caliber of talent immediately. I got around this challenge by collaborating with people who were equal in terms of their caliber. After all, you may be leading the show, but it’s always a team effort.”

Gopika Chowfla
Founded Gopika Chowfla Design

I worked at a couple of advertising agencies for about 12 years before I started on my own. The advertising agency business was changing rapidly at that time and design was playing a smaller and smaller role in it. It was just not satisfying to work in that space anymore. In 1997, when I made the move of starting on my own, graphic design studios were quite a novel concept.

Sumit Patel, co-founding director of Leaf Design, echoes that view. “In start-up mode, a key issue is ‘Who will join you?’ In the beginning, you collaborate with your colleagues who are your equals, and work on building a team that you can depend on. You are learning so many new things on the business front, which design school may not have prepared you for. Its important for designers to update their business skills, as in the first few years, design entrepreneurs spend most of their time learning those skills. At NID, we did have a four-week module that dealt with design management, but it dwells on
the subject on the surface level. For most designers who look at starting their own firm, they don’t look at it as a business. Its very passion led, very skill-led. This is a liability. After five years, the problem of sustainability emerges. That’s not about survival but more about the ability to grow because if you don’t grow, then you are just a boutique. The continuous challenge is to understand how do you grow from here, how do you stay more focused?”

Sumit Patel
Co-founded Leaf Design

Most designers want to eventually work on their own and I was no different. I co-founded Leaf Design ten years ago. It was just the two of us, Satvinder Channy and I, along with one assistant and an office help. Before starting Leaf Design, I used to work in the digital sphere and while the job certainly required the implementation of my design skills, I had studied communication design in school and wanted to explore that further.

He feels it would make a lot of sense for designers to update those skills by going through such a course at management schools like IIM. “The design council in the UK has written in their report about multi-disciplinary learning environments, where designers interact with technologists, engineers etc. Designers need to be innovation leaders,” he explains.

Harsh Purohit, founder at sustainability firm Cognito Solutions, quit a lucrative career in advertising with Ogilvy & Mather in Mumbai, due to personal circumstances which required him to return to his home town of Vadodara.The challenges that he faced, therefore, had more to do with the reduced scale of work and geography.“When I quit O&M, I was working on accounts like Bournvita, ANZ Grindlays, Pidilite, Walt Disney. Each of these accounts was as if on steroids. Bournvita — we were mounting the Bournvita Quiz Contest with Derek and Rila O’Brien, ANZ Grindlays — Harshad Mehta was the very recent past, Pidilite — we had just completed the Kundan Shah directed Pidilite Fevikwik film starring Satish Shah and Renuka Shahane and Walt Disney was just launched in India and it was one big fat event. These were heady times and I was used to the big canvas offered by a big agency. Then one fine day I was back in Vadodara — the back of beyond, from Mumbai — the mecca of advertising. The canvas of operation had shrunk from a full-blown 70mm to a folded paper tissue and was faced with clients who could barely see beyond their nose. Their advertising quotient was conspicuous by its absence. From discussing Chitrahaar and Sunday film media plans, I was staring at 3cc (yes, those were the days of column centimeter) ads. From handling billing in tens of crores, I was whittled down to raising invoices of mere tens. I was explaining what an artwork was and more importantly why one needed to pay for it. I was fighting battles I didn’t even know existed.”

He adds, “The challenge for me was to not get depressed, adjust to the micro-mini canvas, the micro-mini remuneration and the micro-mini airing of all the great work you would do.But the most challenging of challenges was the gargantuan effort required to collect these micro-mini payments.”

The issue of payments, says Harsh, still plagues the design and advertising business and adds,“We have built robust systems and don’t commence work without advances, but you still have to keep a hawk’s eye and even after all that, have to still suffer the occasional bad debt.”

Geography posed a similar challenge for Smita Rajgopalan, founder of Smitten,who launched her agency in Chennai. She recalls, “I started my agency in Chennai, at a time when the industy was very nascent. I had to spend a lot of time educating the clients because many a time, people tended to slot us as an advertising agency, which we clearly were not. So the initial challenge was about explaining the fact that we were a strategic brand communication firm and explain to our clients that we were not just about graphic design, there was a lot of strategy that went into our communication. However,we covered ground very fast in the first year and managed to create a good niche for ourselves.”

Shanoo Bhatia founded Eureka Moment along with two other partners Ratan Batliboi and HS Grewal. At that point, the three of them had already been working together for 13 years before that. The challenges they faced in
 the early starting something new. Shanoo elaborates, “The three of us had been working together for 13 years before we set up Eureka Moment. We already had a number of clients, whom we had to seamlessly integrate into our new brand, Eureka Moment. Managing that continuity with our clients was a key challenge. We had formidable clients like the Tata Group and Reliance for whom we were working on projects at the time. Within the continuity that we provided as professionals, we wanted to convey that we have a new positioning, a new brand and that the brand really stood for something much larger than the three of us. The vision behind the brand name stemmed from the essential, creative thought of a ‘moment of discovery’. We were very clear in naming our Company, (in) that it would not be an expression of our personal names because we didn’t want to create a signature style. The vision was to create a company that could really nurture the idea of innovation and create an eco-system that would allow each individual’s ideas to flourish.”

She says among the early challenges was also the issue of positioning themselves distinctly and creating an identity that represented the vision of the company, adding, “I have always been very clear that there is rigor to design and there would be no compromises in the processes that drive design success. This was new for many designers, almost like a re-education or continued education. So it was also about finding the right people for EuMo, because design may be as much about kite flying as it is about constraints.”

Anthony Lopez, CEO and principal designer at Lopez Design says, “On the people front — lack of professionalism and good old humble, hard working talent is a key challenge. On the client front, I would say awareness of design as a value added service and the willingness to pay the price for it, are key challenges.”

Ruchita Madhok, principal designer at Kahani Designworks recently returned to India, after studying and working in the UK. She feels the most time consuming part of starting up her own agency was in the paperwork and bureaucratic procedures that needed to be ironed out and feels that’s an area which needs improvement.

“There’s no guidance, no agencies or associations to go to, for help with the intricacies of starting a business. In the UK, my university provided us with a lot of free advice and seminars about how to be an entrepreneur, but there’s nothing of the sort in India. I owe a lot to my parents and my accountant for helping me out although creatively, I feel that I could really do with some mentorship,” she explains.

Anthony Lopez – Founded Lopez Design

Bhavika Shah of Beyonddesign says there were a number of challenges that she had to grapple with, during her early start-up days. She explains, “Starting out had its challenges, as I didn’t know what to charge, whom to approach or how to begin! So everything was practically ending in question marks. Being young once again allowed for mistakes and compared to today, I had much fewer fears and inhibitions. Printers, paper suppliers, translators, photographers and all the data you need was practically impossible to find. I tried to start-up young designer clubs, meets etc, where resources could be shared but found much rebellion with the exception of a few which helped me get started.”

Pushkar Thakur
Founded Grafiosi Studio of Art + Design
I had always wanted to start my own firm but since I hadn’t studied design and in order to explore related industries before locking in on this, I worked with the Rock Street Journal as the art director for about a year and a half handling the entire magazine along with my software engineering course. In 2004, I passed out of college, left RSJ, freelanced for a bit and decided to give advertising a shot before really starting out by myself. Joined Lowe Lintas & Partners as a junior art director and couldn’t deal with that world for more than 5 months. I always had this need to be in control of the entire situation. Client / research / design / production and the only way to do that was to start by myself. I couldn’t understand how designers worked on briefs without ever meeting the client for example.

Pushkar Thakur, founder at Delhi-based design studio Grafiosi Studio of Art + Design says the biggest challenge he faced as an entrepreneur were related to legal and accounting. He elaborates, “There is no clarity from the government side. It’s very recently that graphic design has been recognized for the purpose of service tax.Yet, there are no benefits such as those enjoyed by, say, the textile industry. Starting something is easy enough, anyone can do it, and as you can see, everyone is doing it. It’s maintaining something and more importantly growing it, which is key. I’ve managed to maintain a 50% profit while doubling revenue every year, that’s essential for growth. More importantly, the scope of projects is ever increasing. From the start itself, I maintained
that we would never do projects simply to get the name of a big company on the client list. We’ve never done just an invite for say a hotel or something in order to have bragging rights. That’s what has really served well down the line. We not only have a super list of clients but also a super strong portfolio to back that.”

Thakur works on his own and says building a network of professionals that he could work with, served him well. He explains, “A tie-up with a print studio in Bombay and one in delhi. Another with a web development firm 
in Delhi. A production company again in Delhi. Copywriters and photographers on a project basis. Interns and assistants come and go. An accounts team in Gurgaon and a legal team in Delhi. The whole idea was to grow organically instead of taking loans to begin with or partner with other people and rely on their skills. I’ve managed to stick by that goal and have been able to create a seamless network of professionals from writers to production and on the other hand close to 500 hard-core design projects, several international design awards and recognition from all parts of the world on television, in print and other mediums. I am at the moment however looking at hiring some specific personnel to assist in my work.”

Ishan Khosla

Ishan Khosla, founder, Ishan Khosla design studied design abroad and spent five years in a New York design firm after graduation, before deciding to return to India and start something. He admits he was in two minds about whether to work on his own or work under someone else.

He recalls, “My friends recommended that I work on my own. I had an offer from a design studio in Delhi and Mumbai but I decided to go solo. The main motivation was the freedom to do the kind of projects that I wanted to do. I had my own vision and ideas, which, perhaps, didn’t match that of the studios I was wondering whether to join, at the time.”

“In those early days, the primary challenge was to get good talent to work with me. Also, in Delhi, with laws undergoing changes as far as real estate was concerned, that was something else, on the operational side that was a challenge. Today, I have to spend time trying to understand how we can be more profitable in the years to come.” he adds.

Harsh Purohit
Founded Cognito Solutions in Vadodara

I did time at O&M, Mumbai in client servicing and was thoroughly enjoying myself. What got me to quit was my grandmother’s deteriorating health. She was bed-ridden and it was just not fair to have Mom nurse her single-handedly, thus I returned to Vadodara. The decision to quit was about priorities, not much analysis went into it.

Chaiti Mehta, founder at Chaiti Mehta Design, worked at design firm Awchat & Olsen for a few years, before deciding to go solo. She says the primary challenge, when she started out, was in getting clients to view one-person design start-up firms as more than just freelancers. “It was tough in those early days, after having worked in a structured environment, to work as a one-person design firm where I had to do everything from design, to client servicing, to project management to running the business.” she says.

Chaiti Mehta
Founded Chaiti Mehta Design

On the challenges that he faced when he launched his agency, Vivek Sahni, founder, Vivek Sahni Design says, “I started my own agency in 1993. I had just returned from America and there were very few graphic design studios around. The advertising agencies dominated the scene and at that time, the biggest challenge was in making the industry realise the difference between graphic design and advertising. Equally, another challenge was in getting clients to understand why they had to pay for design. When I returned from the US, I was clear that I was not interested in advertising. When I returned to India from the US, I mostly did publication design and book design. So even within book publication, the challenge was to make one’s clients understand the value of coming to a designer for the job as opposed to their regular book guys that they had worked with, till then. That was one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Compensation is still a huge challenge for designers because there is so much competition in the industry. While younger, fresher talent joining the fray is always a good thing, it has also resulted in a lot of undercutting.”

Smita Rajgopal
Founded Chennai-based design firm Smitten

The idea behind launching Smitten was to create a work environment where creative energy could thrive and grow. From the start, we were clear that there would be no creative and servicing divide. Every single member in Smitten has a creative input and we ensure that whoever is speaking to the client has a specific creative input.

Building a sustainable business

Building a sustainable business is a key aspect of starting a design agency. That would seem like a no-brainer. After all, who risks their savings and their safety net to start a business if not to build it for the long haul? But as Leaf Design’s Sumit Patel put it earlier, for many designers, the urge to start their own agency is based on the quest to do projects that are personally challenging for them, and the aspect of sustaining the business in the long haul is 
a question that usually stares them in the face, five years down the line, if not sooner. As he says, unless a designer is happy to remain a creative boutique, a design business has to constantly evolve and grow in size and scale to be able to sustain itself.

Sarita Sundar, founder of Bangalore based design firm Trapeze says that’s a question that they are in the process of trying to answer. She elaborates, “You come to a point in an agency, where you reach a plateau. You have to decide whether to move ahead by grow larger or change structurally because varied interests have come into place.

If you want a talented team, you have to accept that each member will have individual interests and those should be allowed to grow. How do you allow that to happen? That’s a question we are still in the process of answering.”

Rajat Sharma of Chaos Design says what is important is to build a robust project pipeline to ensure a sustainable revenue model. He explains, “At start-up stage, what is critical is to manage to stay aligned on the business. What happens is, larger businesses require a lot of hand-holding. Sometimes designers are able to do one or two jobs, then they fall out and the rest goes to somebody else. Operationally, if they can stay aligned around the core thought, then they have the opportunity to be aligned for a longer period of time, allowing a firm to create a fairly robust revenue line around that. Internally, we talk about a robust revenue pipeline and that’s when an organization starts falling into place. The faster an agency can work towards that, the better.”

He adds further, “One of the key themes I keep hearing in conversations with designers is that they are not able to co-relate the design work that they do with the business return on investment. If you can show the client that value, from a business perspective, it allows you to stay with the client for the longer term.We talk to a lot of designers who have a lot of potential but when the question comes down to talking about the value that their work adds, at a core level, you draw a blank. Of course, that’s not the case with seasoned designers who understand the strategic benefit that their work adds to their client’s business.”

On building a business pipeline, Anthony Lopez of Lopez Design says a multi-prong effort comes in handy, while reputation, good will and brand name brings in most of the business. As for planning for the future he believes the second rung of leadership should be valued. He says, “Most design studios start as one-person studios without many years of business experience. Because they start small and stay reasonably small, brand building is never on their agenda as running the firm takes most of the time. Thereby a ‘brand’ gets built around the designer over long periods of time and not by marketing. As the designer has built the business with his own hands, it difficult to let go and delegate, with the result that the second rung suffers and does not get groomed well.”

Shanoo Bhatia
Co-founded Eureka Moments with Ratan Batliboi and HS Grewal

With Eureka Moments, we wanted to convey that we have a new positioning, a new brand and that the brand really stood for something much larger than the three of us. The vision behind the brand name stemmed from the essential, creative thought of a ‘moment of discovery’. We were very clear in naming our Company, that it would not be an expression of our personal names because we didn’t want to create a signature style. The vision was to create a company that could really nurture the idea of innovation and create an eco-system that would allow each individual’s ideas to flourish.

Shanoo Bhatia of Eureka Moments says, “Historically, design has been project based. When the project is over, you shake hands and move on to the next project and a new relationship. For a design agency, maintaining continuity with clients and asking them where the next challenge is, as would any long-term partner, is critical. That is what will ensure rich relationships and a business pipeline that is always filled. The challenge for any design office is the continuous search for new clients and new projects. I understand that the difference in ad agency relationships is that they have created a system, which accepts them as creative partners for the longer term. Design as a profession needs to define a system and find a way to partner clients so that we can expand our business horizons and create business benefit. Fortunately, we have been building and maintaining successful relationships with many of our clients and they perceive the value we provide. EuMo is uniquely positioned because of our multi-disciplinary services. We are forerunners in creating experience centers, corporate identities and retail experiences.The challenge is, if we are working with a client to build their identity, how do we communicate to them that we can also work with them on designing their retail experience and, for those whom we are working on creating experience centers, how do we communicate that we also have incredible skills in brand building? Another key challenge is perception — some clients perceive us as boutique, some as medium sized and some as a large firm. How do we define ourselves? Does one measure our scale by the number of people employed or by the scale of projects that are being handled? That positioning becomes a challenge for us. When we are presenting to smaller clientele, for instance, we don’t necessarily carry our large portfolio projects.”

“From a business perspective, you need to have an even mix of retainer clients and project based clients. But it’s also important
to establish one’s own signature style. I think the ones that are doing well in India are the agencies that have a stamp to their work. It’s
a tough one. Sometimes you are working across extremely diverse categories and within those parameters to still bring in your signature style without being formulaic, is a challenge,” she says. Smita says their first year
of operations was largely spent trying to scale the business in a manner that would help them to sustain the agency for the long term.

Harsh Purohit of Cognito Solutions says in their case, his management background along with some ‘young blood fool-hardiness’ came in handy. He recalls, “I was lucky to have with me
 my to-be-wife Sangeeta. She was just back from a teaching stint 
at NID and it was she who dealt with me so that I could deal with the issues. We set ourselves lofty goals of putting Vadodara on the design and advertising map of India. Then every step we took and every issue we tackled was another brick in the edifice we planned to build. The purpose was enlarged and no task seemed too small. This change of attitude was instrumental in creating favourable winds beneath our wings. With an NID and O&M background, we were over-qualified for the Vadodara market and it took just a short time to be the preferred agency to work with. While the advertising and design quotient was meager in Vadodara at that time, the entrepreneurial quotient was always very high and there were quite a few businesses with national ambitions. We found common ground and helped each other build successful businesses — Matrix Telecom and Suzlon are a couple of well-known examples.”

Ruchita Madhok
Founded Kahani Designworks

The design industry is far less developed in India than, say, the UK. While in some ways that makes it harder to start out as an entrepreneur, I found it gives me a great sense of freedom to be able to define my own practice. Secondly, because my studio Kahani Designworks specialises in working with the arts sector – an area which is just developing in India – I’m able to tap into a field that is beginning to find value in working with professional designers. Lastly, the world is looking to India to lead the way forward in design. As an Indian with international experience, I couldn’t resist the urge to get in on the action.

If there is one thing that he believes they could have done differently, it would have to be his wish that they had scaled faster.

“I think Cognito should have scaled faster than we did. When 
I see the growth achieved by some of our clients, I think we, as Cognito, were very conservative. We gained handsomely when we followed our clients like Aptech and Sun Pharma and opened offices in Mumbai. But lost opportunities when we didn’t open offices in Pune, Amsterdam and Bangalore,” he muses.

Advice for young entrepreneurs 

So what advice would these designers give to young design talent looking to start out on their own entrepreneurial journey today?

Answers Shanoo Bhatia of Eureka Moments, “When you have to convert an idea into reality, you are faced with so many unpredictable problems. There are processes, vendors, facilities, technologies to understand, all within the design domain, but outsourced as services, to convert your ideas into reality. I feel young designers should spend some time as interns, understanding the system because there still is a disconnect between what you learn at school and your working life as a designer.There’s a gap that needs to be bridged. You have to take a lot of hits. You would gain with an experienced guide, so that the learning is more thorough, so you can understand how an idea is converted into a reality. You need to face challenges as part of a team, learn to brainstorm, create insurance options, find new solutions to new problems as they arise — and on gaining some experience and confidence, move into something of your own.”

Divya Thakur
Founded Design Temple

Divya Thakur, founder, Design Temple says, “My personal view is that young designers should not turn entrepreneurs right after graduating from design school. There is a lot to learn on the job. There is so much to learn about client management, about project management, detailing, your real education starts on the job, after you pass out of design school. It’s important in those early days to learn from someone whose work you respect. It’s also important at that point to explore and understand yourself and your skills even better. Working for someone else at that age also gives you a sense of reality and teaches you whether you have entrepreneurial skills or not. You should give yourself enough time and opportunity to answer those questions first. Having said that, 
I feel that the current generation is much more in touch with what makes them happy and I think that’s a wonderful thing. If they feel that they know what they want to do, and it feels right for them then they should go ahead and do it.”

Says Sarita Sundar of Trapeze, “I think what’s very important is if you have an individual passion, or an interest in a particular area of design, its important to keep that vision alive through whatever you do otherwise its very easy to stagnate into earning your living doing design but the key differentiator to make a mark, not necessarily for the outside world but for yourself is something that one should strive for continuously.”

Bhavika Shah

Founded Beyondesign

“I had worked in other design studios but didn’t feel very motivated about my job. I skipped close to four jobs in eight months and was called crazy by one and all. At that point, I decided that it was time to set up something small, effective and do the kind of work that would challenge me personally. I guess being 24 and not giving it much thought contributed in a successful jump, and too much thinking would have got me nowhere. From this I learnt that when you think its right listen to the heart and take the plunge because there is never a better time than now”

If you want a talented team, you have to accept that each member will have individual interests and those should be allowed to grow. How do you allow that to happen? That’s a question we are still in the process of answering.”

Ashwini Deshapnde of Elephant Strategy Design says a common misconception that she has observed among young designers today is about how clients behave. She explains, “There is some strange “us & them” in the minds of young designers. I believe I have learnt the most from our clients over the years & I respect each one of them for their patience & trust. Design is not to be done “for” the client. It is to be done “with” the client “for” the user.”

Bhavika Shah of Beyondesign says, “Be passionate. Be confident. Be bold. Be creative. Most of all
be yourself. Grow with your team and it all falls into place. It’s important that every member of your team feels like they own the company just as much as you do. Every client feels that the company is theirs and every vendor feels that its their success when you succeed.Team growth will give you everything and most of all happiness that nothing else can buy.”

Responds Harsh Purohit of Cognito, “Work for five years in varied organizations. Understand the business of design and the design of business, both which are not taught in design school and are vital for success in the real world. Work with the best you can find in the industry.The real world has superior design professionals than in any design school. Build your network, build your brand equity and then venture out independently.”

Anthony Lopez of Lopez Design believes reinvention is key, and explains, “Hard work – consistency — strong principles and good work. After two years (of being) in business, write down what, why and when of your future. Reinvent every two years, as what took you to build this far is not what will take you ahead.”

Vivek Sahni

Founded Vivek Sahni Design

It was 1993 when I began my graphic design firm Vivek Sahni Design. I had just finished an associate degree from Parsons, USA and returned to India to work. The advertising industry dominated the scene in those days and I was not interested in working in advertising. There were very few graphic design agencies around, in those days. I had a very definite idea about the kind of work I wanted to do and realised it made sense to start on my own.

Lack of brands among Indian Design Agencies?

There is a sense that there is a lack of ‘brands’ in the design agency business, largely because design firms in India have historically revolved around the profile of the principal designer and his relationship with clients. Its what prompts many second rung designers at larger agencies to start their own outfit, in an effort to grow their professional prospects. Take a test. Think of how many design agencies you know and now imagine the agency without the principal designer. Does your perception of the agency change significantly without the founder in the picture?

Anthony Lopez of Lopez Design says, “That’s true to a large extent — most design studios start as one-person studios without many years of business experience. Because they start small and stay reasonably small, brand building is never on their agenda as running the firm takes most of the time. Thereby brands get built around the designer over long periods time and not by marketing. As the designer has built the business with his own hands, it is difficult to let go and delegate. The second rung suffers and does not get groomed well.”

Brand building, says Rajat Sharma of Chaos Design, takes many years for designers because in most cases — the designer is the promoter of the company
as well. He explains, “Because designers are usually working on specific projects, they have very little time for corporate company development. Building the brand is a specific task in itself and that requires a nine to five effort. If the promoter/ designer is operating himself in the business then it becomes difficult for him to take time to build up his profile. You’ll find that design firms become brands in this country after a period of 12 to 15 years in spite of being in the system for so long.”

Ruchita Madhok of Kahani Designworks says that while that may be true of most advertising agencies and some design studios that she has interacted with, it’s a generalized view. “Design studios are more flexible and I think find their own balance in terms of what works best for them,” she adds.

For most designers, it’s the freedom of being able to choose the projects that they want
to take on, that motivates them to start a business of their own. But that passion needs to be sustained with a thought-through business strategy that will see them through good days and bad. The one question that resonated the most with the designers that we spoke to, was the need to sustain the business for the long term. How do you recession proof your business, and maintain a regular design pipeline? With the project based nature of the design agency business, that’s a major challenge. Also, at a certain stage of the business, there is a need to step back and take an overarching view and decide the way forward.

Today there is a recognizable shift in the clients’ mindset about the value of strategic design thinking. “There are clients who
know how to brief designers and what value to draw from them, says Elephant’s Ashwini Deshpande, adding, “So it is that much easier to focus on your output as you don’t need to spend energies in educating the clients about what design can or cannot do. At the same time, there are many design entrepreneurs today as compared to even ten years ago. There is competition. So the new entrants need to find a gap or strongly differentiated offering to be able to establish themselves.”

Most senior designers will advise their younger counterparts to be patient with their entrepreneurial dreams because they feel it’s important to understand how the industry works first, how to service clients, understand project management, five-year plans, and the intricacies of running a business. While the motivation behind starting out independently differs for every designer, what is common is the desire to create a business that will endure the test of time.

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First published in Kyoorius Magazine 12, featuring Sky Design, Design Orb, Studio Tjeerd, JWT, Wieden Kennedy, Ideas@Work, Abhijit Kalan, Alicia Souza, Anvita Jain, Garima Gupta, Nithin Rao Kumnlekar, Rahul Gaikwad, Rebecca Chew, Saurabh Kumar, Taaneya Balaji, Ratna Ramanathan, Adobe India, Tarabooks, Latika Khosla, Ruchita Mahadok, Harsh Purohit, Michael Wolff, and Shagun Singh. Not a subscriber yet? Subscribe here.

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1 Comment

  1. Suneel Jain



    nice to see excellent designers… great entrepreneurs

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