Survive, Revive and Thrive

Business tips for designers in the time of COVID-19

Illustration: Janaki Syam
Illustration: Janaki Syam

The reflections here were spurred by a DesignUp webinar I participated in with the founders of Elephant Design, Lopez Design and Studio Sky: Ashwini Deshpande, Anthony Lopez and Seema Seth respectively, along with Madanmohan Rao from YourStory. Thank you to Shiva Viswanathan who moderated, and Jay Dutta, the man with a seemingly inexhaustible store of energy.

Uncertainty is in the air – and anyone who makes a living from design is far from immune to it. 30 days ago, the most pressing questions were perhaps around the sudden popularity of Neomorphism, or on whether one preferred Sketch vs Figma. Today, designers everywhere are hastily throwing together spreadsheets.

Whether you’re running a large agency, working as a solo freelancer or somewhere in-between, the questions on your mind are likely to be around: Can I make ‘X’ next month, where ‘X’ is either salaries, rent or the price of a software subscription.

Before We Begin

Take a minute to breathe. It’s critical to calm down, break things down into smaller pieces and score small, consistent wins over the next few weeks and months, and build more resilience in your business.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Peter Drucker

Step 1: Survive

Look carefully at your business. Designers’ eyes (mine included) typically glaze over when we try to put together projections, numbers, or understand the difference between profits and cash flow. Let’s focus on the three most important metrics:

Runway: How long could you survive if you had no new work coming in? As an example, if you have Rs. 100,000 in the bank, and all your expenses come to about Rs. 20,000 per month, you have a runway of five months. Do you measure this in days, weeks, months or years? If that number is less than 90 days, one of the first things that you need to do after reading this is to change that situation.

Expenses: What’s the first way in which you could increase your runway? Look at all the expenses that you’re incurring, and find places where you can make cuts. If you can (building on the previous example), cut your expenses down by Rs. 5,000 a month, you’ve now got 45 days more runway. And yes, this means, cancelling the Aeron purchase and squeezing another year of life out of your MacBook. Talk to your landlord and see if they are willing to reduce your rent, or at least, push the payment to later in the year.

Salaries: The hardest part of a slowdown will always be if you have to cut down either salaries or your co-workers. If you do have to make either pay cuts, or let some people go, help them out by making new connections and recommending them forward. It’s very important to do this with thought, compassion and grace.

Cashflow: You’ve done some fantastic work, and delivered it. However, your client has been giving you the run-around, and hasn’t paid yet. Your staff, utilities, food costs, etc aren’t going anywhere. This is the classic cash-flow problem. You’ve got revenue – it’s just not yet with you, but your expenses are. Plan for the fact that all payments are going to be delayed or deferred, and look at what impact that has on your business over the next 180 days. Offer an early payment discount (or throw in an extra piece of work) if your clients agree to pay you within 15 days of you sending them an invoice. 

Step Two: Revive

Relationships: All strong businesses are built on relationships, of trust and genuine empathy. Make a list of all your clients over the last two years, and pick up the phone. Ask them how they are doing. Remember, they’re probably equally stressed out, both from the economic realities as well as from the bleak external environment. Find out what their biggest pain points are right now, what their worries are, and slowly tease out where they see themselves needing assistance.

Pattern match: After having worked about halfway through your list, patterns will emerge. Are venture-capital funded companies suddenly discovering that profits are more prized than growth? Has everyone in the marketing department at the large company suddenly started talking about ROI rather than changing the world?

Sell outcomes, not craft: Now that you’ve identified these new patterns, examine how you’re selling. Have you adjusted your sales pitch to talk about what outcomes you’ve driven, rather than “the dynamic of perimeter oscillations”? Can you talk about how your work increased sales for an online delivery company, or how your book cover illustration led to an increase in sales? Get comfy with talking about and measuring metrics, and figure out how to align your work towards achieving business outcomes rather than getting hundreds of likes on Dribbble.

Step Three: Thrive

It’s one week from today, and you’re here. Well done. Pour yourself a glass of your favourite something.

Scenario planning: Start by thinking through all the possible ways in which things could go wrong, and what it would mean from a runway and revenue perspective. How might COVID-19 accelerate social and business changes, and what does that mean for you? What does the new normal look like? This presentation is a good example of scenario planning, anchored around two key variables – how bad the pandemic gets, and how coordinated the global response to it is.

Identify new opportunities: One of the trends that has been massively accelerated has been remote working. While this might mean that there’s a short-term lack of trust, in the medium-term, this might also mean that work opportunities from all over the world open up to you. How can you change your business to be better set up for this? Start by investing in a strong public presence: make it easy for anyone on the planet to work with you. Businesses which deal with online-only products and services which are likely to see an immediate uptick – online education platforms, all streaming services (music, games, video, podcasts), remote health – do you have an entry there? Can you apply previous learnings to the scaling challenges that they might face? Those businesses which are substitutes for physical businesses (online shopping, food and grocery delivery) are also likely to see accelerated growth.

Add More Value: Are there deals which are really close to closing? Push them across the line – money today is better than money tomorrow. Offer them more flexible payment terms, or throw in something extra that doesn’t take you too much effort, but gives your client a lot of value. If you’ve created a brand identity – can you quickly throw together a website using Squarespace? It may need to be redone in a year, but your client will never forget how you saved them time and money.

We’re all in this together. Start a group chat with local small business owners and exchange best practices. Figure out what’s going on in your local communities – some countries have suspended mortgage and rent payments for instance. Look for financial support programs for small businesses.

Be transparent with your employees and coworkers that this isn’t a business-as-usual situation. Clear communication will triumph over false confidence here – that will be seen as at best naivety and at worst, dishonesty. Prepare for the future to be different from the past. The only silver lining in this situation is that if you can survive this historic storm, you’re going to come out on the other side and thrive.

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