Conquer Competition

tool theme for publishingpioneer

Business doubled for graphic designers when the Internet mushroomed in the late 90s. Gradually, over the next ten years, competition doubled. Within a bad economy, business has fallen for almost everyone. As an entrepreneur, I am used to the economic rollercoaster. Equipped with both coping and promotional techniques, I feel lucky not to be starting a career today! To keep a momentum is easier than to start one!

An entrepreneur is always looking for new work. It is a way of life. Now I am concerned not only about my business, but for industry health. Those of us with work are not operating at capacity. And many are out of work, forced to take related jobs. Kids out of college are having a very hard time breaking in.

Most of us put on public faces of prosperity because we want to appear successful. Success attracts success. Actually, I don’t like anyone to know the specifics of my business; I keep economics and client projects confidential.* My ears are open to trends and challenges—and today I observe many struggling professionals because we cluster and share experiences.

Some of us are better at stepping up to competition than others. It is a skill that can often mean business survival or inspire career-shifting. Not born thick-skinned, the brutality of direct competition doesn’t attract me. So I compensate and have found more effective techniques:

Handle Competition
tools of the trade 1. Ignore. There is a time and place where denial is useful. I avoid direct confrontation with competition. I have participated in and observed bidding wars, contests, and the results of speculative work. It is not a good use of time. No one is ever happy with the outcome. When I find these opportunities, I criticize the process. Clients generally hire the firm or employee that has rapport—they usually know who they want. A designer has a political standing in every engagement. An early red flag for a time-wasting situation is to be compared with unknown competitors, which is now often the case. Blind proposals achieve little. To write a good project plan takes knowing more about the client and must be preceded by a face-to-face meeting. Rapport and portfolio matter more than budget, which can be negotiated. Judge prospects by how they judge you. Get response about your portfolio. Discover their reasons for asking you and meet about parameters.

tools of the trade  2. Know what competition is doing. Although I avoid competition, I keep my ear to the ground to industry trends. With a wide social circle of creative professionals from writers to photographers to designers to entrepreneurs to executives, I gather information from everyone. Reading articles and blogs that reflect challenges could alone be a full time job! Convergences include technological advances, slow economy, and a flood of hungry professionals.

tools of the trade  3. Differentiate. This is the most important thing I’ve learned to do. Clients who hire me need a brevity of content and a creative presentation. Of the promotional campaigns that I’ve done for my business, these have been my most successful:
a. 8 Concerns of Design. Resonating with readers and viewers, I have used this as the theme for my design practice. Written by the clients themselves, I have eight case studies that explore these fundamental principles. Prospects can compare with their own concerns.
b. Digital Design Business Practices, three editions, planted me as an expert in the industry. A ten year project, the book collected contributions from 700 sources and was ratified by a dozen industry associations. Speaking at design and printing conferences around the country adds spice to my otherwise rather solitary work.
c. Fortune 501. This was a direct mail brochure that was composed of a fortune cookie recipe and 501 quotations for inside sayings. Recipients loved the quotations and kept the illustrated piece on their desks for years.

tools of the trade  4. Play to strengths. Differentiation that uses your strengths support initiatives that will be successful. When I evaluate my list of successes, they always:
a. lead with a striking visual
b. encompass a philosophic and/or symbolic viewpoint
c. are useful beyond initial viewing
d. blend conceptual, editing, and visual skills
e. provide an original approach

tools of the trade  5. Write about industry best practices. Writing is good for any professional. I don’t advise writing a book unless it comes from deep within your DNA. (Writing a book is more about promoting the book than it is about writing it.) But writing articles, interviewing those you respect, investigating issues, keeping a blog, all increase professionalism as they raise visibility.

tools of the trade  6. Stay in selling-mode. Designers tend to promote in spurts—when they need work. Generally too busy to self-promote, prospecting for new business is best done when busy! Spurt-promotion contributes to the feast or famine cycle. So the best way is to save money when busy and prepare materials. When business slows, be ready to jump with a new campaign.

tools of the trade  7. Believe in self and abilities. Whatever the business challenge, mistakes don’t shake my overall confidence though they are humbling. Perhaps this is easiest when you have some awards and accolades under your belt, but I know that I have a unique perspective and uncanny ability to anticipate trends. A curious generalist, I have a wealth of horizontal business knowledge to cross-fertilize concepts. Working for clients in sixteen business sectors inspires me to walk into new offices.

tools of the trade  8. Stay connected. Most general networking is a waste of time. It is better to approach those you want to talk to, generally found through strategic participation. I like to approach organizations that look like they need my help. Unfortunately, most of them present the way they do for a reason; evangelistic selling is very risky. So most of my best work comes from organizations with okay design and need to grow it to the next level of effectiveness.

Focus and being known for strength forms the strategy for building visibility. Yet at the same time, diversification of income sources can help even out the roller coaster of competition. Within publishing, I feel the more skills I have, the more valuable my contribution. The mix gives the best differentiation to withstand the pressures and stresses of facing the marketplace. Hopefully these ideas will help you withstand your own challenges for turning prospects into customers.

* Most of the work that I do must not be public until the client makes it so. My bank account goes up and down quickly. Projects generally take from three to twelve months and overlap.

See the developing series of Idea Incubators.

Liane Sebastian, illustrator, designer, writer, and publishing pioneer


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