FT 113: From Failure to $500,000 in Client Work with Pia Silva
The story begins with Pia Silva and her husband opening their own graphic design agency, complete with employees and office space, and selling massive $30,000 projects to their clients. Then finding themselves going out of business with $40,000 in credit card debt and no savings after a year and a half.
But rather than giving up, they took a deep look at what was and wasn’t working in their business, scaled down the business and what they offered, and started again. Within the first year, they had half a million in sales and had completely turned things around into a successful business, Worstofall Design, where she and her husband, Steve, create Badass Brands for their clients over an intensive 1-3 days.
It’s a brilliantly simple business, which is why it works so well. Pia shares how her business model works, why it is so successful, how she finds clients, and so much more.
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Pia shares with us:
We have to go back 6 years to hear the founding story of Pia and her then fiance's (now husband) business. They were quite the team! Pia, the entrepreneur, was the one who went out and found the clients on Craig's List and Steve, the graphic designer, did the client work.
At first, they were so excited just to get clients, even the cheap ones on Craig's List. Then, Pia discovered BNI through one of her clients and started focusing on that. BNI, Business Network International, is a business networking group that let her connect with higher quality clients as well as the competition, other graphic design agencies.
As Pia studied what the competition was doing, she decided to try copying them. That meant, a year and a half in, they hired their first employees and rented an office space.
“It did not work out very well!”
She thought that having an office and employees made the business seem more legitimate to clients. But as she learned about branding and managing a business, she realized that the “agency” path was not working. By year 3, she had raised the rates to $30,000 per project, but was still not making enough to cover all of the overhead! And when she pushed it to $40,00-$50,000, the business hit the famine stage and they didn't land a project for months.
They were in $40,000 credit card debt, and had wiped out their savings to pay employees.
“That was our low point. Almost exactly three years into our business, we were totally broke and we didn't know what to do.”
With payroll looming 2 weeks away, which meant another $8,000 that they didn't have, Steve turned to Pia and said: “I think we have to let the employees go. I think that's it.”
Pia's response: “I failed. This is us closing up shop. Our business is a failure.”
Then, Steve gave the much needed pep talk:
“No, we didn't fail. We have lots of happy clients. The work is good. It's not like we aren't good at what we do. We just aren't doing it the right way, clearly. So we need to reevaluate. And just because we let our employees go doesn't mean our business is closing up. We can still do this ourselves.”
Over the next couple of months, after letting the employees go, they performed a deep analysis of their own business and completely repositioned the clients they were targeting, their price point, and their business processes.
So Pia put herself through the process that she goes through with her own clients, starting with: What is your favourite thing to do? And what do you hate about what you do?
They hated designing by committee, where there were dozens of opinions flying around in the room, watering the design down. They hated projects that dragged on because client's don't get back to them with what they need and the ongoing management required.
They really liked a product that they had designed a year earlier called “Brandup” for $3,000. It was a one day intensive branding redesign inspired by Pia's business coach telling her to come up with something small to sell to people who might be able to afford $30,000 branding. She and Steve found that this was really fun!
And the final question to ask while redefining: What is the most profitable thing that you have to offer?
It turned out that the Brandups were really profitable because it was only one day of their time and it was relatively easy to sell.
Hence the shift! They loved doing Brandups, they were profitable, and they eliminated all the stuff that they hated about the design work of other types of projects.
Over the next couple of days, they changed the copy on their site and contacted their network to tell them about their new focus. A year later, they had sold $500,000 worth of these 1-3 day branding intensives. The cost of the intensive has increased over time as they have become more efficient and have figured out how to get more out of it by putting in more research up front, and other process changes. Currently, the cost is $15,000.
Current Positioning: Worst of All Design builds badass brands without the bullshit for 1-3 person service businesses in 1-3 day intensives.
What does an intensive look like?
It started as a 1-day intensive during which the client would get a logo, a fully functional 1 page website, business cards, and get taught basics on how to manage their own website. But, if the client was well organized and can make decisions quickly, they could design anything within a day. Wherever the project was at the end of the day, that was the end of it.
Pia and Steve found themselve doing a lot of prep work before the intensive so they finally decided to make the prep stage part of the product.
Pretty quickly, the offering evolved to have a two step process, with step 1 sold on its own and step 2 sold with step 1.
Step 1 (Day 1): Brandshrink: An hour and a half interview with Pia and Steve all about the business and goals. After the meeting, the client gets a strategy brief outlining a strategy plan for the client on how to package services, how to prices services, where to focus branding efforts, what to stop doing, etc. It is a very thoughtful, strategic proposal. The proposal is the Brandup which outlines all the things that they will do for the intensive day of brand designing.
Step 2 (Day 2): Brandup: This is the implementation stage: making decisions and desiging the logo, brochure website, etc.
As the price has increased, and Pia and Steve have gained confidence, the client completely trusts them with their brand.
In the first few years of the business, Pia had “networked my face off.” So when they decided to focus on the Brandup, she went back to everyone and let them know that they were focusing on Brandups now. Referrals started pouring in. And as demand increased, Pia increased the price.
Pia also called up all the potential clients who were still reviewing proposals and said that the proposal was no longer valid and that she had this new product that they might be interested in. She got 4 clients from those quick pitches because it was a no-brainer for them.
Pia also works on her blog and makes sure to keep it up to date with good articles. It's not that the articles themselves drive clients to them, but they are show authenticity and expertise that the potential client is looking for after hearing about them from someone else. By the time the client calls her, they know how she thinks and are so far down the pipeline that it is easy to get them to sign on. She doesn't have to sell to them, they want to work with her.
Writing her blog for four years has also gotten her a spot as a Forbes contributor, which gets her name out there even more.
Pia also does speaking gigs, after getting over her stage fright. She speaks at networking groups such as women entrepreneurial groups, infusion soft events, chamber of commerce, square-space, million dollar woman summit, etc. The calibre has gotten higher, but it has been through a lot of work. After seeing her speak, they end up on her mailing list and contact her years later. Make sure you are giving value through the emails though, not spamming. It really works and grows exponentially over time.
“Consistency is so important. I think consistency is also the hardest part about it. When people don't see immediate results, they stop doing things. But keep at it and keep putting your name out there.”
Part of the branding success goes back to “walking the walk.” The people who want to work with Pia and Steve are the ones who relate to the messaging. Of course, there will be people who don't connect with Pia's business, but they aren't the people that she wants to work with anyways, they aren't a good fit. The clients are badass, just like Pia and Steve are badass.
“You get what you see. It is very transparent.”
Pia's business strategy:
“Cast a wide net and then only work with your ideal clients.”
Of a thousand of people who are exposed to your brand and read your articles, only one of them will be your perfect client. And that's enough.
Selectivity is key:
“Get your point of view out there and then narrow in. Then charge your ideal, perfect clients a premium price. Then deliver crazy value for them. Be awesome at what you do! That's a critical part.”
But price also helps the right clients find you:
“Price is also a way to attract the right kind of clients. You don't invest heavily in your brand when you aren't really confident in your abilities. And those are the kind of people that I want to work with.”
The 50-25-25 Rule:
Pia only accepts 2 clients a month.
Why? Because she wants to always be making the money she needs and wants in only 50% of her time, maximum.
A client project takes 3-4 days in total. So that leaves a little over 2 weeks to work on everything else.
Pia suggests spending the other 50% of your time building your brand and your skills. That's how you continue to increase the value and the price of your offering. Pia has spent that time writing a book and Forbes columns and Steve illustrates them with comics. This has allowed them to charge $15,000 for a Brandup rather than $10,000.
Don't spend 90% of your time on client work. Instead, bootstrap for a couple of months and figure things out. Take a temporary pay cut and figure out how to get into the cycle of spending only 50% of your time on client work while building your authority and skills the rest of the time so you can raise your rates.
Look at what you've already done and pick out the projects that were most fun for you, had the best results for the client and made the client happy, and were most profitable. Then build some sort of process around that so you can consistently get the types of clients and projects that are best for you.
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