116. How To Start A Startup: 10 Proclamations To Win New Clients Without Pitching

22 important lessons from this talk:

00:01:29 Design is a profession on crossed roads, where on the one hand design is seen as one of the ultimate differentiators of businesses and what sets brands apart from it’s competitors, but on the other hand design outputs and softwares have never been more commoditized than they are now with sites such as 99 Designs and CrowdSpring offering electronically enabled free pitching.

Sometimes you just need some stuff designed, and so you want it designed cheaply, and these platforms allow clients to do that. But if as a professonal designer you’re in direct competition with these sites, your future as a designer is pretty bleak.

With the polarization of design, as a professional, you’re going to eventually have to be either in one camp or the other: you are either a value-added purveyor of quality design offering strategic guidance rooted in design thinking and you’re commanding a healthy premium for it, or you’ll find yourself as a design commodity, fighting competition by figuring out how to produce at a lower cost.

00:05:00 Putting in hard work, time, and working for free on a pitch to win new clients isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Free pitching is never going to go away; it’s always going to be a tool of last resort for the outsider, the student, those trying to build experience, and somebody that wants to take a flyer on a long shot where their likelihood of winning the client otherwise is pretty small.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In our interview, Account Manager Olivier Hubinois speaks on up-selling, going niche & selling an experience, and explains that there are two models when it comes to agencies pitching to clients: Some agencies pitch for free, while others refuse to pitch for free, and bill the client for the amount of hours spent on the project ‘thus far.’]

00:06:47 When it comes to winning new business, you want to:

  1. Win without pitching (if possible)
  2. If you can’t win without pitching, try to derail the pitch
  3. If you can’t derail the pitch, try to gain the inside track
  4. If you can’t gain the inside track and be seen as meaningfully different, then it’s probably time to walk away with your integrity, positioning already established as an expert in your space, and preserve your future business opportunities

00:08:17 You don’t have to win every business opportunity that presents itself to you, you do need to be a little bit selective in the type of work that you do and the type of clients that you do it for

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his talk  Integrated Product Design: Building a Generalist/Specialist Business, Dror Benshetrit takes a slightly different, yet complimentary approach that  there are very talented specialists in every field, and unless you devote your entire life to this craftmanship, you’ll never be able to call yourself a master. You can still do things that are meaningful and iconic by approaching your subject through a generalist’s eye, and instead working with specialists.]

Proclamation 1) Specialize in what you do

00:09:12 It is “the availability of substitutes – the legitimate alternatives to the offerings of your firm – that allows the client to ask for, and compels us to give our thinking away for free. If we are not seen as more expert than our competition, then we will be viewed as one in a sea of many and we will have little power in our relations with our clients and prospects.”

In a typical designer-client relationship, it’s the client who has the power, and this power is not only because the client is the one holding the money, but more importantly is because they have the choice.

If I’m the richest person in the world, and I cannot find anybody to help me solve my problem, then my riches are useless to me. But the average company with an average budget wanting to rebrand his or her organization sees hundreds, if not thousands of design firms who offer branding services, then that company is going to use that position of power to push you around during the process. If the potential client doesn’t see you as meaningfully different, then your refusal to pitch, or your not pitching, will make absolutely no difference to him.

Your branding reputation  and expertise is your only meaningful differentiator; it is how you battle for control with your client concerning your competition and the client’s other alternatives. When you brand yourself as an expert in a narrow focus, then your personality is irrelevant because it’s the depth of your expertise that the client is after. Thing is, once you narrow your focus, this requires changing how you offer the services you offer, because the clients who hire you on your expertise will have very specific marketing and communication challenges that won’t be solved using a generalist offer.

The problem is that designers (and high-autonomy individuals such as entrepreneurs and creatives) have broad interests, and your strength is solving the problem that other people haven’t solved. Therefore you’re drawn to new problems.

The idea of solving the same problems over and over again and benefiting from repeated observation and repeated application and building expertise terrifies you.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his charming talk F*ck You, Pay Me: Client-Services Contract Tips For Respectable Businesses, Mike Montiero points out that all, or at least almost all, clients start the business relationship with you with the best of intentions. They worked their butts off to get a large enough budget to hire a company do to their work for them, and of all the choices that they could have gone with to meet their needs, they chose you. …but things do go wrong; things that you weren’t expecting – the market changes, the person who hired you leaves, somebody has a bad mood day, etc.]

00:18:31 The gift of a designer isn’t the ability to draw; the  gift of a designer is the ability to see.

Proclamation 2) Replace Presentations with Conversations

00:25:58 “Break free of your addiction to ‘the big reveal’ and the adrenaline rush that comes with the win or lose situation of the presentation. When you pitch you are in part satisfying your craving for this adrenaline rush, and you must understand that until you break yourself of this addiction you will never be free of the pitch…Seek instead conversation and collaboration.”

00:31:00 The mere existance of a powerpoint presenting mode creates a barrier between you and the prospective client where you save all your research and findings for a ‘big reveal,’ and you start reciting rehearsed words, which simultaneously diminishes the likelihood of having a meaningful conversation.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his book Brand Jam: Humanizing Brands Through Emotional Design, Marc Gobé tells the story of how his company initially won a pitch with Coca-Cola by, rather than having a presentation-based pitch, he had his entire creative staff of account planners and creatives take turns sharing in a conversation how Coca-Cola affected their lives for the better when they were children growing up.]

00:31:16 Ideally in a sales situation, you want to say to the prospect “Here’s what we do. We’re experts at helping companies like this solve problems like that, feel free to say no but allow me to ask ‘can we be of assistance to you?’ I’m going to show you some of our work, and if you don’t feel there’s a fit, just do me a favor and tell me.” 

These are the types of conversations experts in their field should be having.

Again, if you are not seen as meaningfully different (proclamation 1 above), and if you refuse to do these things (emotional presentations and pitching for free, intrinsincally accepting the prospect’s upper-hand in your negotiation process), then it’s possible that the client will be angry with you. But ask yourself, are these the types of clients you want to be working with?

Proclamation 3) Diagnose before you prescribe

00:33:33 You must “take your professional obligation seriously and never prescribe solutions until you have first fully diagnosed the client’s challenges.”

00:34:02 It happens all the time that the client comes to professional creatives will come to you with ‘self-diagnosed’ problems and say “I need X,” and it isn’t until after you’ve been working on X for some time that you realize that in fact the cliented needed “Y.”

00:35:01 But it’s not the client’s responsibility to know how to solve their problems, or to even identify them. You’re the professional, that is why they are coming to you. It’s your responsibility to diagnose all the potential problems before you prescribe a solution, or to start doing any work.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In our interviews, Art Director Akim Zerouali, Art Director Julien Hérrison and Product Designer Timoni West provide a checklist of red flags to look for when qualifying freelance creatives and agencies before you pay them to do your work.]

00:36:30 A simple test to determine if your client views you as an expert or not is to ask yourself ‘Who writes the brief?’ If the client is pre-diagnosing his or her problem, writing the brief and then giving it to you to work on, then you are being viewed as a commodity. As the professional, you should have formalized methods for diagnosing the client’s problem and you should be the one writing the brief.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his talk Integrated Product Design: Building A Generalist/Specialist Business, Dror Benshetrit talks about how he approaches his clients when he need to challenge their brief.]

Proclamation 4) Rethink what it means to sell

00:37:36 “Acknowledge that your fear and misunderstanding of selling has contributed to your preference for the pitch. Embrace sales as a basic business function that cannot be avoided and so learn to do it properly, as respectful facilitators.”

00:37:55 As business development person for your company, selling isn’t about talking people into things. Having built a deep and narrow focus on an expertise which separates you from your competitors and the other alternatives available on the market, now you should focus on looking for firms that you can help.

Proclamation 5) Do with words what you did with paper

00:39:07 “Do with words what you used to do with paper – understanding that the proposal is the words that come out of your mouth, and that written documentation of these words is a contract – an item that we create only once an agreement has been reached. Examine all the reasons you ask, and are asked, to write unpaid proposals.”

It’s what you do and say during your conversations with the prospective client that have the greatest effect on the client’s choosing you, not the documentation you send.

Proclamation 6) Be Selective

00:44:24 “Instead of seeking clients, selectively and respectively pursue perfect fits – those targeted organizations that you can best help. Say ‘no’ early and often and as such weed out those that would be better served by others and those that cannot afford you. By saying ‘no’ you will give power and credibility to your ‘yes.’”

Looking at where you and your company are today, it’s almost certain that you can look back and see the series of switches behind you that lead to where you are. Those switches are things that you said “yes” to instead of sitting down, mapping out a vision of what you want your company to look like and the type of expertise you want to build and the kind of clients you want to represent, and then saying “yes” or “no” according to that vision.

Essentially, it was the market that shaped your firm, not you.

Proclamation 7) Build expertise rapidly

00:46:10 “View your claim of expertise as a beginning and a rallying cry for perpetual progress. Once focused, work to and focus on deepening the skills and capabilities and processes from which you derive your expertise. Commit to the idea that continuous learning is mandatory.”

The generalists life is an easy life because when you’re a generalist you’re willing to do all kinds of different work for all kinds of different clients and you’re essentially taking clients based on your own personal interest- your need to solve a problem that you haven’t previously solved.

00:48:07 As an expert solving the same problems over and over again, the problems jump out at you. As an expert with a deep focus, you see the patterns because you’ve done to so many times before. Clients will hire you because you see those patterns, and the client’s problems will jump out at you.

As an expert, the hard part won’t be identifying the problem, the hard part will be getting the client to do what needs to be done to fix the problem; the hard part will be behavior modification.

As an expert, this allows you to solve the problems in a shorter amount of time, and this allows you to charge more money for them.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his lecture Critical Thinking: Limits To Intelligence And If (A) then (C), Ray Hyman talks about how expertise is the development your experience and the trust of your ‘automatic system’ – the part of your brain that sees patterns and can instinctively point to problems in even the most complex of situations.]

00:50:20 You should be twice as smart today as you were a year or two ago, and I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business. And if you’re not, it’s not because you’re stupid, it’s more likely that you’re just too broadly focused.

Proclamation 8) Don’t solve problems before you’re paid

Proclamation 9) Address issues of money early

00:54:09 Those who don’t talk about money, don’t make it.

In every culture in the world it’s considered impolite to talk about money in a personal context. In every culture in the world it’s considered a sign of poor business acumen if you cannot have a money conversation.

When you take on a new client, you want that client to represent between 10-25% of your total fee income. Your ‘minimum level of engagement’ is the least amount of money you’re willing to work for to provide your product/service.

Proclamation 10) Refuse to work at a loss

00:56:01 There is a distinction between ‘for profit’ work and ‘pro-bono’ work. Your client is a ‘for profit’ business, and you’re a ‘for profit’ business, so if you’re going to work for them, then there needs to be a reasonable expectation on both parties making a profit.

14 Comments on “116. How To Start A Startup: 10 Proclamations To Win New Clients Without Pitching

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