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How to Start the Next IDEO

Launching a creative company comes with its own unique challenges. Here are eight pieces of advice from founders who have been through it.

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The idea comes to you in the middle of the night. Using your background in design, marketing, video... [fill in the blank] skills, you could start a killer creative services company. Visions of IDEO and Frog Design dance in your head.

Filled with excitement, you're already on the road to a business plan, a name and logo, and a list of people with whom you need to start networking. Then what?

To find out what it takes to get a creative company off the ground, I tapped several entrepreneurs with insider knowledge.

Pick Your Customers

Most successful start-ups will attest to this: Before a customer picks you, you have to pick your customers. Melissa Wildstein, the managing director of the advertising company The Matchstick Group says you have to figure out what you do better, faster, and cheaper than everyone else, then pick customers who will respond to that message. She adds that for a creative company especially, it's important to articulate your core competencies to clients clearly. Stay on message so that you don't get pulled into performing a service--just for the sake of landing a client--that's outside your area of expertise.

Make Your Portfolio Easy to Share

You do have a portfolio, right? That's one critical step: building up a cadre of impressive visuals to show clients. Jay Melone started Web development and consulting firm DigitalXBridge in 2010. In the early days, he looked for any way to show off his work, using sites like Sortfolio, Behance, Dribble, and others. Once you have the resources, you should also create a presence online with your own site and on social networks like Yammer. you might also try Smore, a site for creating simple, one-page announcements.

Hire for Talent

When you get to the point where you'll need to hire a workforce, you'll be tempted to look for people with experience. Don't. You want to look for raw talent. You likely won't be able to afford experience people. More importantly, someone with agency experience may not be the best culture fit for your new company, says Dexter Hutchison, the CEO of Excela Creative. "Don't hire people who want to work for a creative agency, hire people who want to help build one," he says.

Focus on Customer Satisfaction

One mistake that many creative firms make is focusing too much on the company itself. Hutchinson says this is a problem because it's too easy to want the company to appear bigger than it is with, say, an extensive website. But your small size can be an advantage: Your company can flex to the needs of the client. "When Excela Creative was first acquiring clients, we put all of our efforts into developing work flows and systems into place that would keep the client in the center of everything we needed to do," he says.

Establish a Production Flow

Even more so than other companies, creative agencies need a tight workflow. This is partly because creative pros tend to think outside of the box--most of the time in a good way... but sometimes in a way that is detrimental to a young company. Maria Rapetskaya, the creative director at Undefined Creative, says young companies need to establish their production flow early on. This is the set method that defines how the company operates, including who is responsible for client contacts.

Get Your Tone Right

Wildstein says, when you begin giving client presentations, keep this in mind: People will only remember a portion of what you say but they will recall your tone and image. This is much more than just a few good PowerPoint slides. Practice honing your image for new customer meetings. At the same time, Hutchison says, let the work speak for itself and don't get too hung up on looking like a hip creative company--or what others think the company should be.

Choose the Right Hardware and Software

Creative companies live or die according to their toolsets. While many experts advise young companies to look closely at Apple products like the Mac Pro desktop, some are not so sure. Rapetskaya says she attended a recent Adobe conference where they showcased new apps entirely on HP computers. The experts all said hardware and software can eat up your budget, so it's important to network with other creative pros to get the latest tips for the best gear. Rapetskaya says a workstation like the Boxx is a good bet.

Stick With the Program

Well-established companies pushed through hard times. Jesse Thomas, the founder of data visualization company JESS3, says to take thing slow and get your processes right. You're going to have failures and rejections. But keeping an eye on the prize is critical--even if that prize is doing the next ad for Nike.

Last updated: Jun 22, 2012

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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